Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wicked Gentlemen: Sex, Violence & Long Teeth

Finally, I allowed myself the luxury of setting aside half a day just to read. Delicious! I opened my copy of Ginn Hale's Wicked Gentlemen and dove in. By the way, here's where you can get it:

Hella cover, too . . . ain'a?

For those of you who haven't heard of Wicked Gentlemen, this two-part novel has garnered rapturous praise from everybody who's read it. Without exception. And, as much as I despise being a copycat, I must add my rapturous praise to the field. I can only describe the book by stringing together words and phrases, because one alone won't do. It's a moody steampunk futuristic urban dystopian gay fantasy romance thriller. And, yes, an absolutely stunning work. (I'm not going to launch into a big ol' synopsis-and-review thing here, because the book has been out for almost a year and there's plenty of commentary already to be found on the 'Net.)

The world Hale constructs is simultaneously repugnant and absorbing. Demonic protagonist Belimai Sykes is one of the most layered, poignant, darkly fascinating and thoroughly unlikely "heroes" I've ever come across--an anti-hero, actually. His lover, the all-too-human Captain Harper, is Belimai's perfect complement. The book's first section, especially, is a stylistic tour de force. Packed within economical prose are images so vivid they're breathtaking. I felt my mode of perception had been altered. That effect is no small accomplishment for a writer.

I'm still in awe.

Is the work perfect? No . . . as much as I wanted it to be. But rather than pick and poke at it, I'll just focus on one aspect of Wicked Gentlemen that particularly struck me: its treatment of two subjects near and dear to our cultural hearts.

Sex and violence.

I found a jarring discrepancy in the author's approach to them.

Hale neither quails from nor wallows in bloodshed. Her touch is deft. She describes Belimai's ravaged body with a stark lyricism as elegant as it is brutal. Those paragraphs were mesmerizing. Subsequent scenes of savagery are rendered in unflinching detail that manages to steer clear of sadistic relish.

Yet, when the protagonists' first sexual encounter takes place, Hale rushes through it with an odd diffidence, as if neither she nor we have any business being there. The second engagement (and there are only two in the whole book) is a bit more prolonged but still marked by circumspection and even a dash of awkwardness. Suddenly, the prose becomes a bit creaky and teeters toward cliche.

It almost seems as if this is Hale's first time wading into these descriptive waters, and her otherwise assured authorial voice suddenly abandons her (not entirely, of course, but enough to be noticeable). In any case, I found it odd. There was so much unrealized potential for sensuality, which would have provided a lush counterbalance to all the grungy bleakness, that I wanted to scream. Moreover, Belimai and Harper deserved the author's indulgence of their physical attraction and emotional bond. Their relationship is emblematic of everything sorely lacking in their world.

Now, here's where I get picky. Or maybe not. I'm rather surprised no one else has raised this, uh . . . point.

When creating nonhuman characters who will end up having sex with human characters, it's important that the author consider the physical traits of those nonhumans. Hale's demons or "Prodigals" have yellow eyes, black fingernails, pointed ears, black hair. So far, so good. All are appropriate distinguishing features. BUT . . . it's when teeth are added to the profile that problems arise. You see, the demons' teeth are long. And pointed. And not, as far as I could tell, retractable.

I kept thinking of those damned teeth whenever Belimai got cozy with Harper. How did they manage to kiss in a passionate way? More disturbing to contemplate was oral sex. I'm sure you catch my drift. Why wasn't Harper's tongue or penis shredded into something resembling the streamers on a wind sock? I would much rather have seen the demon with a triangular navel or vestigial tail -- anything less obtrusive, in terms of physical intimacy, than long, sharp teeth. Ouch. I kept hoping the author would explain that arousal dulled them. Or something.

Anyway, Wicked Gentlemen is not a tale for squeamish readers who like stories woven from sunbeams. Although it does have an uplifting ending, getting there is an often grim ride. More important, though, the book is remarkable and gripping and infinitely more satisfying than the uninspired and derivative fiction that hogs store shelves and bestseller lists. It's more than just a good read. It's an utterly unique experience that demands the imagination's immersion. And what a thrill that immersion is.

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