Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Last Gasp by assorted authors

TITLE: Last Gasp
AUTHORS: Charlie Cochrane, Erastes, Chris Smith, Jordan Taylor
PUBLISHER: Noble Romance
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 82k)
GENRE: Historical gay romance
COST: $5.95

A collection of four historical novellas, each about a gay romance in an era on the cusp of change…

NOTE: In the matter of full disclosure, I was offered a copy of this book for the purpose of a review.

The common thread binding together the stories in this anthology is an intriguing one. All are written in a time and place that is about to undergo some monumental change, hence the appropriate title. It gives the authors a lot of leeway to be creative, though ultimately, some are more successful than others.

The anthology starts out with “Tributary” by Erastes (who also selected the stories for inclusion), the story of Englishman Guy Mason and his retreat to a reclusive hotel in the mountains of Italy. Guy is wandering, in life as well as in locations, flitting from one place to another in search of a nameless something he feels is missing, until he settles at the Hotel Vista, along with a number of other people trying to hide away from the world. There, he meets James, a scientist studying local crayfish who seems exactly the sort of person who might be interesting enough to get to know. His attraction to James’ secretary, Louis, however, is an even bigger draw, especially when he is forced to spend time alone with Louis after James falls ill. Like the rest of the stories in the anthology, its single greatest strength rests in its attention to detail, the careful construction of 1936 Europe and the people struggling to find a place in it. It’s also one of the most readable of the collection, paced well and flowing smoothly. That being said, I found myself distanced from it emotionally. Both Guy and Louis left me cold, Guy especially. For me, his insouciance, the lack of focus that personifies both the time period and how he’s drifting along, translated into a sense of stagnation that sucked away any kinesis he might have had as a character. It kept feeling like, “Well, if he doesn’t care about anything, why should I?” It kept me from investing in his relationships, as well as caring too much about their outcome, though from an outside perspective, it’s certainly a fair read.

Following that is “The White Empire” by Chris Smith. Missionary Edgar Vaughan escapes his life to travel to 1838 Hong Kong, where he works amongst opium addicts, though his motivations are never completely altruistic. He’s also very much a snob, never willing to consider dalliances with men of lesser station than him. While in Hong Kong, he decides it’s his specific mission to break the people from their opium addiction, only to learn that the British government has other plans for both the region and the opium. Through this, he meets Archie Runfold, a Lord who fascinates him from the start. From the very first words, I found myself sucked into this novella, far more than any of the rest in the anthology. The prologue starts out with Vaughan in a Chinese brothel, about to engage with an older boy, when another client catches his eye, one who interests him far more than the whore. It’s titillating, intriguing, and sets an almost breathless tone that holds throughout the entire story. Almost all of the characters in this, though superficially superior, are so morally ambiguous that it’s a delight to get lost in their world for the duration. It’s both dingy and decadent, and if the prose veers into the purple more often than not, I certainly didn’t mind since I enjoyed the ride so very, very much. It’s the longest and easily most complex of the anthology, providing more layers than the historical premise upon which most are based.

Coming after this is Charlie Cochrane’s “Sand.” Writer Charles Cusiter has been tasked by his benefactress to get her son out of England and away from all the women he keeps pursuing. They end up in Syria, playing archaeologists on a dig that entertains people as a fundraising effort. Charles meets the leader Andrew, Charles likes Andrew, and so on. By far the shortest and most romantic story of the bunch, I found myself very underwhelmed by it after having been engaged on so many levels by the previous story. It’s a good change of pace, but the story itself is so simplistic and short that it never really has a chance to work for me. Just as I was starting to get into the romance and characters, the humor shifted me out of it (I’m sure the line, “I’ll resist saying it’s ironic you should hate camels when you’re built like one.” is meant to be playful, but honestly, it stopped me dead in my tracks as being very unfunny and with thoughts like, Is she [the author] really calling him humpbacked?.), and then it was all over. They went from friends to sex to let’s have a future together in the space of six pages. It was way too fast for me, and highly unbelievable, even within the context of this particular setting.

Rounding out the anthology, and straying from the British heroes, is “The Ninth Language” by Jordan Taylor. Set in Canada of 1898, it tells the story of two unlikely comrades, Mitsrii, a member of the dying Hän, and Troy, a linguist who’s been sent to study the natives. Troy saved Mitsrii from execution, and Mitsrii returns the favor by saving his life when two other natives rob and leave him to save himself in the wilderness. They slowly build a friendship that leads to more. While the setting and characters were a welcome change, this was the story that slowed me down the most. I read the first three in one sitting apiece, but I kept putting this one down, time and time again, because it failed almost from the start to pull me into the story. Description is evocative, but Mitsrii never felt like an individual for the first half, instead an extension of the world surrounding him. I know this is intentional. That’s who he is. But I couldn’t connect emotionally with him, and until he started interacting with Troy, I couldn’t connect to the story, either. Because of this inability, I never understood why Mitsrii would fall for Troy. The converse was easy. But Troy couldn’t compensate enough for the other shortcomings the story had for me, and I finished this – eventually – relieved to finally be done with it.

Does this mean I wouldn’t recommend this anthology? Absolutely not. It’s consistently well-written, and there’s more than a measure of base entertainment to be taken from each. I also think that readers who are devoted to this particular genre will be more satisfied with it than I was. The greatest strength of the collection is the loving detail that is bestowed upon the settings. Historical lovers are likely to fall in love with the authors’ attention to detail, where that is not the first – nor really the second – aspect I look at. I tend to view settings in historicals as vehicles to allow the characters to flourish and shine, while it often feels in this, it’s the other way around. For the stories I didn’t fall in love with, it was usually because of a character. And just because I didn’t connect with a story, doesn’t mean other readers won’t.


8/10 – Mostly clean, heavily detailed, the first two stories were much easier for me to read than the latter two


7/10 – Not the strong point of any of the stories


8/10 – Even when I might not like the characters, most of them are well-rounded and written

Entertainment value

7/10 – On a purely engaging level, the second story surpassed the other three by a large margin

World building

9/10 – Considering the genre and authors involved, it’s unsurprising that the eras and places were so richly developed



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