False Colors by Alex Beecroft

July 20, 2010

Running Press, 2009

Finished: July 19, 2010

Source: Jodie at Book Gazing

Genre: historical adventure/romance in frock coats, with swords.

On the Scales: feisty featherweight

“Get your men under control now or I will see you disrated for this!”

The storm flared in Alfie’s eyes.  A storm raged about the two of them.  Lightning cracked overhead and the prickle of it made John’s hair stand on end, stirring like a live thing.  His skin tightened with shock and static, his heart thundering.  He was a galvanic rod, fully charged and set opposite its mate.  Any moment the spark would leap, and until then the tension mounted and mounted.  He felt alight with power and perhaps this showed, for Alfie surrendered.

“Alright, lads, leave it now.  That’ll do.”

Running Press is calling this line “M/M Romance”–which I joked to Der Mann stands for “Mmmmm, mmmm.”  Though I had never heard the term until I read Jodie’s great review, I knew the genre existed.  One of the characters in Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 is a secret writer of gay romance married to a closeted gay man.  I assumed this sort of fiction must be straightforward soft porn, since the traditional will-they/won’t-they? romance stories with gay guys usually end up getting published as fantasy and sci-fi.

If you are a fan of anime or manga, you may know that gay romance written for straight girls, known as yaoi, is already a well-developed genre in Japan, with many subgenres.  Some yaoi is dumb and porny, more is cute and corny, and a small amount is sweeping, complex, and operatic.  Japan has a longstanding tradition of variations on same-sex crushes (and love) in theater and literature, intended to appeal to various audiences in, ahem, various ways.

Der Mann and I, who are the arty, snobby kinds of anime fans (and possibly also overwrought Japanese teenagers at heart), have enjoyed some of the non-porny yaoi.  We both read False Colors, and while I can’t speak for Der Mann, I came to this book expecting yaoi on the high seas, and found something quite different.  You should read Jodie’s review for the plot, which I won’t go into.  For me this heartfelt novel doesn’t seem to fit into a genre at all.  It is bumpy and earnest, and as much about the psychology of the characters as it is about their romance.  Typical yaoi is polished.  False Colors is a gem in the rough.

I wonder whether Alex Beecroft set out to write a lesser book and just couldn’t do it?  What a sweetie!  I can’t see this genre sustaining itself if every book is a story of the characters’ struggles with their particular culture’s response to their sexuality–which is what False Colors turned out to be.  I sensed Beecroft’s growing respect for her characters as the story went on, and in her respect they grew more real.  The naval action was disjointed and brief, taking place in several locations; it was exciting, but there simply wasn’t enough of it to provide the ingredients for a plot.  That fell to John, the icy Methodist virgin who had just been awarded his first ship, and Alfie the roguish lieutenant he had been awarded along with it, each coping separately with the unhappy consequences of their mutual attraction.

If you take this as a historical novel, yes, there were quite a few anachronisms.  Beecroft’s fiery descriptions of naval warfare made up for them.  As for her other descriptions…

I’ve never got through a straight bodice ripper (don’t find them interesting), so I don’t know the requisite number of sex scenes, or how well they’re supposed to blend into the story.  In most of the fiction I read the sex is either off screen or described rather modestly–leaving all but a few carefully chosen erotic details to the reader’s imagination.  When there’s graphic sex, it’s for dramatic impact, or to communicate something about the characters, so there’s usually only one big scene.   (This is the way most yaoi anime works, too, and even most pulp fantasy.)

False Colors had several graphic sex scenes, and a lot of shorter ones in the characters’ imaginations–a clever way to work around the old will-they/won’t-they romance novel taboo against actual sex (you can’t keep on with the will-they-won’t-they once they have).  Mostly it is about flirtation and lusty looks (Alfie), and aching sinful thoughts (John).

Was it sexy?

You know, before I answer that question, I will tell you something I kept wondering while I read this book: what would a gay guy think of it?  Would a gay guy even pick it up?  Would he recognize the brooding looks?  The brushed pinkies?  The fluttering hearts?  The nit-picky overanalyzing and fantasies of domestic tenderness so familiar to readers of chick lit?

If I thought there were any gay guys reading this (statistically unlikely, given the number of hits I get) I would do a survey.  Whose book would you take on vacation: Georgette Heyer’s (the only verified gay-guy-approved romance author I happen to know of) or Alex Beecroft’s?  And if Beecroft, what about the military metaphors, the swords and cannon fuses and yardarms?  The manly pitting of physical strength turning to bruising kisses?  Does this turn you on, or just make you laugh?

I know it doesn’t really matter, but based on gay novelists writing about guys in love, I think the answer would be the same as mine; some of it is silly, some of it is sexy, and some of it is kind of both.

The real question is, was it romantic?

Harder to say.  Between them, Alfie and John take turns filling all the traditional romance roles.  They get to do the sword fighting and the lace-and-cologne wearing.  One is the tender nurse and the other is the stoic patient, one is the damsel in distress and the other is the agonized rescuer.  Then it all reverses in the next scene.  They go weak-kneed with lust, or demanding with it.  Masterful or overwhelmed, needy or implacable, ravished or ravisher.

Their experiences are very much like the experiences of a reader of traditional romantic fiction, who can empathize with any character they choose, switching allegiances in the blink of an eye.  It’s disorienting to see what is usually an audience experience lifted right up onto the stage. The changes can feel a bit random and fast.

The part I thought was most romantic of all actually had to do with the characters’ consistency, not their fluidity.  Neither John nor Alfie are really my “type,” but John’s moral agonies were very convincing.  When, for love of Alfie, he immediately and efficiently gave up the part of his self-image he had clung to all through the book–his steely integrity–and did so in such a mundane way as running around talking to people, it made me weak in the knees.

11 Responses to “False Colors by Alex Beecroft”

  1. Jenny said

    Re: frequency of sex scenes, I read somewhere once that in a bodice-ripper you are meant to have some sort of sex scene every sixty pages. The one I read followed that almost perfectly.

    • trapunto said

      I wonder if they get bored writing them. Or maybe they write them all ahead of time, and then say to themselves, “Whoops! Page 150 already! Better get something from the file!”

  2. bookgazing said

    I kind of feel like those in depth sex scenes were included to make this book cross over perceived markets, to move it away from being mostly for the kind of women that are big on anticipation as a stand in for foreplay(me) and make it a big sexy book for gay men too. Whether it succeeds, we need gay men to tell us.

    And also it’s important to see the relationship consumated because I think the world has more than enough historical romance where gay true love can never be for the sake of authenticity. I kind of loved how Beecroft handled that, acknowledging the complexities of the age throughout the book, but avoiding crushing misery and thwartedness at the end.

    I think typically historical gay romance always has to be in part about the response of the world to gay sexuality. However, like historical fiction with female heroines
    which often has to be to some extent about how the world reacts to the shock of an independent woman heroining it up there are ways to, not so much get around that (because the fact of historical ugliness is not something we want to get around), more ways to vary up the trajectory of the story – realistic situations for gay and lesbian people to find happiness, to hide from society’s scorn, to just have a jolly good romance with limited angst (although I’m not sure you can ever really do away with the conflicting emotions in historical gay fiction without being anachronistic – what do you think?).

    And yay I liked that John was able to seperate out his long term ideas on morality and current angst from y’know, not letting a nice guy die.

    Oh and the silly, sexy balance was fab. Felt like the author was very affectionately aware of the genre she was writing in. I wonder if her first shipboard romance book ‘Captain’s Surrender’ is a bit more earnest (hasn’t had as good reviews at least it seems) and this one was kind of set to correct that and play around a bit more. Would have to read it to find out…Kind of excited that she has a surfing romance coming out next year, which sounds like a big ole pile of Danielle Steele nostalgia.

    • trapunto said

      “move it away from being mostly for the kind of women that are big on anticipation as a stand in for foreplay(me) and make it a big sexy book for gay men too.”

      Wow. Interesting! I haven’t done any research, so all my “what would a gay guy say” thoughts were pure speculation. They didn’t need to be there for me, but I know a lot of women want bang for their buck–or at least that’s what the publishers have decided they want. Again, haven’t done any polls!

      Regarding avoiding the thwartedness at the end, yes I found that hopeful, and a good balance. Beecroft really surprised me when Farrant came on the scene, and she acknowledged that all the guilt and inconvenience and danger was a part of the actual situation of the gay characters, not just a mental block for John to get over, so he could live happily ever after with Alfie. I found their separate fantasies about living in a little house together really poignant, once the book had gone in that direction. I *really* wanted it for them, at the same time as I didn’t want the easy solution that would give it to them.

    • trapunto said

      Mulling over your question, I think there *must* be a way to get away with it. But then I think that may be why pretty much all the unconflicted gay romance I’ve seen is in fantasy. Greece? Pre-history? Is there such a thing as pre-historical fiction? Clan of the Cave Bear just seemed fantasy with some nice geological and anthropological details and the magic explained away.

      I suspect it does get easier the farther back or more obscure the setting. I read a good book (though dark) set in Gothic germany. The lovers were noble Gothic sons hostaged to Attilla; I don’t remember there being much conflict about them being gay. All the emotional conflict came crashing down when they had to get married, as noble Gothic sons must. Attila’s Treasure by Stephen Grundy. Great sword-swinging book!

      • bookgazing said

        I WILL be getting that book now somehow(btw Walk the World – only two books stand between it and me). I am just now getting my eyes opened to how much gay romance I could be reading if I read more fantasy, yipee. I think setting the story in very early history would make it much easier to include happy gay relationships. There are a few later historical situations I can think of like early renaissance Venice, when at times it was accepted for men to form gay relationships for a while, but they’re very specific.

        Oh and my comments about crossing perceived markets were totally speculation as well. I keep seeing this trend of argument in articles that critics think mainstream GLBT romance is being written primarily for straight women’s sexual interests (which are generalised as more foreplayish, anticipatory, tender etc) rather than gay male interests(rargh, lots of hardcore sex). Which is a sweeping generalisation because we’re all different, but using that generalisation they’ve decided that this is a bad trend, because it speaks of women using gay men as fantasy sex objects (gah hate this argument).

        I was really just guessing that the author wanted to make sure she included the perceived interests of the gay male market – she didn’t want to fall into the trap of writing a book about romance between men that people would say gay men wouldn’t find sexy…But on reflection I kind of think (well at least I speculate in hope) that Beecroft is too smart to fall into listening to generalisations that because others say gay men need explicit sex in books to find them hot she needs to include lots to make it a successful book for gay men. More likely she just thought about what seemed hot and ran with it. Probably ignore what I said above, totally hasty typing action.

        ‘she acknowledged that all the guilt and inconvenience and danger was a part of the actual situation of the gay characters’ yes wasn’t that impressive! It must be so hard to square modern ideals for gay relationships with what actually happened when writing historical fiction like this. On one hand you want a happy ending, because there are too many books where terrible tragic ending befall gay characters, but at the same time you have to achieve that without ignoring the real prejudices and dangers of establishing a happy gay relationship in history.

        • trapunto said

          I just came on a version of that argument regarding yaoi anime. I hate it too, because it is a the sort of charge I really take to heart. And how do you refute it? “No, no, not *sex* objects, I’m using just them for my fantasy *emotional* whores.”?! Which sounds no better, but is actually pretty much what you do when you empathize with *any* character in fiction. Unless you are simply savoring their luxurious lifestyle and period clothes and banquets. (I’ve been told that meal descriptions stand in for sex scenes in a lot of contemporary Christian romance! Which just makes me think of all those poor ladies and their diets.)

          “…a sweeping generalisation because we’re all different.” Yeah, like the guy I knew who loved Georgette Heyer. (One of my favorite library patrons, long ago). He sure wasn’t getting any sex scenes there. But on the other hand, I do know that there are guy’s guys and girl’s girls and that it isn’t *totally* inaccurate to draw statistical generalizations about male and female preferences, regardless of sexual orientation. Advertisers wouldn’t have latched on to stereotypes if there weren’t money in them. I have noticed that my spouse, who is the kind of guy who will read Beecroft and watch girly anime with me, still has a much higher tolerance for the rargh (like your word!) stuff in feature films, or the “okay, lets drop everything and tear each other’s clothes off for no particular reason” type sex scenes.

  3. zibilee said

    I have never actually heard of yaoi before, and am really very intrigued with your description of it. Is there anything you can recommend to a beginner?

    I am also of the opinion that romance novels are very heavy of the amount of love scenes in the plot. One that I have been reading seems to have at least one every other chapter, which I feel is a bit ridiculous, but I guess people who love the genre don’t mind this kind of stuff.

  4. trapunto said

    My memory for titles is horrible, so I looked back through my netflix rental history to see. It made me realize we’ve watched fewer pure yaoi shows than shows that happened to have auxiliary yaoi storylines. What makes it confusing is that in anime there are also “Bishonen” characters–which means “pretty young men”. These characters aren’t explicitly gay, but sometimes they are, or it is implied. Usually their romantic lives aren’t the point. At times they are barely sexualized. Their purpose is to set out a particular kind of sensitive, slender, beautiful male ideal for viewer delectation. Bishonen characters tend to be artists, cold deadly warriors with hidden sorrows, tragic heros–sometimes villains. You get the picture!

    Much as anime fans long to yak about the delights of anime, I find it hard to make recommendations unless I know someone already has experience of the serial (as opposed to feature film) kind. There are a lot of strange conventions. Until you’ve watched enough anime that those conventions just start to fade into the scenery, they can be really distracting. I have certain shows I recommend as an introduction to anime in which the conventions aren’t quite so glaring. None of them are yaoi.

    All that said: Gravitation. It’s the cute and corny kind of yaoi about a teenaged pop star and a novelist. The characters become 3 dimensional almost in spite of themselves.

  5. Well, yes, gay guys do read (and write) m/m romances. Having read False Colors not once but twice, I’d slot it closer to Patrick O’Brian’s age-of-sail novels or even, at a couple of removes, to the deeply homoerotic Moby-Dick, than to yaoi (of which I freely admit I am no big fan). True, Alex’s language sometimes flowers into descriptions like the one with which you open. Fair enough, but then even Uncle Herman can run on and on and the reader just has to go with him or quit. (Did I say I’d read M-D five times?)

    What bothers me about your review, however, is what bothered me about a couple of reviews of my own recent novel, Captain Harding’s Six-Day War (Lethe 2011), classified by my publisher as a gay romance. These are works of fiction, not machines. To insist that a romance (bodice-ripper, jock-ripper, whatever) follow the strict path of conventional genre rather than vary the action here and there is to ignore the importance of texture, suprise and plot. If sex can happen only once, at the end; if Jack and Alfie cannot develop as characters, with shifting needs and moods, rather than play traditional lit’ry roles; if the language can’t surprise me — Alex’s use of the nautical term yard for phallus, for instance — then why bother reading such a work?

    Perhaps gay historical romances are developing a somewhat separate set of rules as genre. Hot stories with happy endings seem to me much preferable to the recent conventions of gay literary fiction in which a suicide, murder, deadly disease or ruined life had to befall one or more characters before the final page.

  6. Erastes said

    As one of the writers of this series of four books (the others being penned by Donald L Hardy (Lover’s Knot) and Lee Rowan (Tangled Web} – I have to say that the M/M on the cover was forced on us by Running Press – I think I can say with confidence that none of us four consider ourselves typical m/m writers. Gay Romance, yes, gay fiction, definitely but as you say, m/m veers closer to yaoi in some respects than any of us will ever write.

    As to whether gay men read it, yes they do! 99percent of my fan mail is from men – although I’m sure that the major proportion of my readers are women–women seem less likely to write because they know of the genre, the men seem to write because they are so thrilled to have discovered that the genre finally exists! I have letters from men who used to read Mills and Boons historicals because that was the only way they could get sexy men in historical dress–so to find gay historical romance is a boon (LOL) because there’s suddenly two men!

    Check out the review site: Speak Its Name http://www.speakitsname.com which only reviews that genre. Perhaps check out the four and the (rare) five star reviews for the cream of the crop. Unsurprisingly, Alex Beecroft features at the pinnacle very heavily!

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