Wicked Gentlemen is a dark and lush gaslamp fantasy set in the Victorianesque city of Crowncross, where the Covenant of Redemption brought Ashmedai, Sariel, and Satanel up from hell to experience baptism and the Great Conversion. Now the demonic offspring of hell’s great princes, the Prodigals, dwell in the Crowncross slum called Hells Below, where they petition for equal rights and are closely monitored by Inquisitors and Confessors intent on maintaining peace in the Holy Capitol.
The novel, which won the 2008 Gaylaxicon Spectrum Award, consists of two sequential books. In the first, “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly,” readers meet first-person narrator Belimai Sykes, an ophorium-addicted Prodigal hired by the Inquisitor Captain William Harper and his brother-in-law Dr. Edward Talbott to help investigate the disappearance of Harper’s half-sister, Talbott’s wife, Joan. Joan Talbott, who was an active advocate for women’s and Prodigals’ suffrage, vanished from a locked carriage just a few minutes from her house. The only clue Harper has is a handful of letters written to her by a fellow suffragist that warn of some impending danger.
Sykes is initially hired to talk to the letter-writer, a Prodigal who is being detained in the Brighton House of Inquisition. But when the suspect is found brutally murdered in his holding cell, it becomes clear to both Prodigal and Inquisitor that this mystery won’t be so easily resolved. And neither will be the partnership between them, as Sykes and Harper find themselves drawn to each other but separated by differences in upbringing, values, and rank that seem impossible to overcome.
As they unpeel the layers of corruption and black magic that lie behind Joan’s disappearance and the Prodigal’s death, both Sykes and Harper find that they must rethink their relationship with their own pasts in order to reach a decision about their relationship with each other.
In the second book, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” the story shifts to Inquisitor Harper’s third-person point of view. While on his way out of Crowncross to visit his family estate, Harper is drawn into a murder investigation that is quite obviously being manipulated to protect the rich and guilty and frame the poor and helpless — that is, the Prodigals. Soon realizing that Bellimai Sykes is on the short list of suspects, the captain must move quickly to hide his ailing lover, only to find himself drawn into the frame. Ethics and necessity clash as Harper pits himself against his own superiors to avenge a child’s death and save an innocent man from execution.
Wicked Gentlemen is a short but rich read, a male/male romantic thriller with a touch of polite reserve that gives it a charmingly Victorian sensibility. Both Sykes and Harper are appealing characters, each struggling with his own weaknesses but essentially good at heart. Interestingly, their two story arcs form something of an X — while Sykes’ story arc moves him from cynicism to hope, Harper’s story arc goes in the opposite direction, as he becomes increasingly dismayed by the Inquisition he serves.
The city of Crowncross is also well-described, allowing for the restrained presence of magic but otherwise maintaining an atmosphere of fantastic realism. With its urban backdrop and restrained use of magic, Wicked Gentlemen calls to mind Ellen Kushner’s male/male romance Swordspoint (it’s tempting to draw parallels between Alec and Sykes and Richard and Harper), and its use of a fantasized Christian mythos invites comparison with Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy novels. However, Wicked Gentlemen‘s Crowncross is more modern and oppressive than Kushner’s Riverside, and less erotic and magical than Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange. Indeed, despite its references to demons and the Inquisition, Wicked Gentlemen avoids any direct mention of Christianity, using its religious allusions primarily to create a framework of political and social oppression within which its cross-class romance and mysteries can be set.
If Wicked Gentlemen has any weakness, it’s that by the end of the first book, one has to wonder why Harper hired Sykes in the first place. However, that’s a minor plot quibble, not hard to rationalize away — most readers won’t even pause to think about it as they eagerly turn the page to start Harper’s story.
I bought this novel from the publisher’s booth at Yaoi-Con 2008 hoping that it would be the kind of story that would please a boys’ love fan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wicked Gentlemen is, without question, better-written than any of the boys’ love novels currently being translated from Japanese, although some BL fans may find its sex scenes overly restrained. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent example of the kind of male/male romance that’s starting to be recognized as a distinct publishing genre in the U.S., and its Victorianesque fantasy setting couldn’t help but appeal to me. I turned the last page hoping that Ginn Hale will soon revisit Sykes, Harper, and Crowncross in a sequel. In the meantime, I’ll be reading the excerpts from her latest fantasy, Lord of the White Hell, on her blog….