Gerry B's Book Reviews

False Colors – Alex Beecroft

Publisher: Running Press Book Publisher

Five stars

Story outline: For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of  Algiers.

Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their  mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse for war with the Ottoman
Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer-a secret punishable by death.

With the arrival of his former captain-and lover-on the scene, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of  a future with the straight-laced John.

Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, piracy and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa, from the Arctic to the West Indies, in search of a safe harbor.


It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time

Review by Gerry Burnie

False Colors: An M/M Romance is yet another swashbuckler from the remarkable imagination of Alex Beecroft (Running Press Book Publishers, 2009). This is the latest in her high-seas-adventure series, and is, in my opinion, the best example yet.  

Set during the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France, c. 1754 to 1763, it is the tale of a young naval officer, Lieutenant John Cavendish, a Quaker by up-bringing, who is not only deeply religious but also fervently committed to duty, honour and country. As the story opens Cavendish has just received his first temporary command of a modest merchant ship, the “Météore,” by a politically motivated admiral, Admiral Lord Saunders. His Lordship’s orders, conveyed in private, are that Cavendish should attack a colony of Barbary Coast pirates that have been raiding the English coast. In truth it is a suicide mission, given the size of the renamed “Meteor”, and Cavendish is readily aware of this. Nevertheless, his commitment to duty dictates that he accept the assignment without question. 

The ragtag crew that has been assigned to him also reflects this pessimistic prospect; all except for another young lieutenant, “Alfie” Donwell. He is an infectiously sunny personality who radiates a generosity-of-spirit like morning sunshine. Nevertheless, Cavendish confides in him that they are probably both sailing toward their dooms with their first adventure together. Thus, the stage is set for some male bonding in the shadow of an emerging threat.  

They are further drawn together when Donwell is captured and cruelly tortured by the Barbary pirates, who regard the English as infidels, and Cavendish responds by first rescuing Alfie; then by ransacking the harbour of its prime ships before escaping into the open water of the Mediterranean. However, just before he reaches the sanctuary of Gibraltar he encounters an enemy corsair that easily outclasses the relatively modest “Meteor.” A bloody battle ensues—i.e. “Even Alfie … felt a little squeamish as he watched the bodies burst apart, the blood fountain out to stain the white sails red.” –and although he is victorious, John is severely wounded in the melee. 

By now Alfie Donwell has set his course on seducing the handsome but straight-laced commanding officer, and his lengthy convalescence that followed gives Alfie an opportunity to gradually work on his defences. However, he miscalculates by telling Cavendish about an adolescent crush he once had on a notoriously foppish captain—Captain Lord Lisburn—and John’s puritanical up-bringing rebels at this knowledge; so much so that he nearly names Donwell to the admiralty—meaning a veritable death sentence for Alfie. 

A reversal of roles then takes place as Alfie turns his attention away from Cavendish, returning instead to Lisburn, just as John becomes enamoured by Alfie’s honesty and erstwhile devotion. It is a juxtaposition that will repeat itself several times throughout the novel to considerable dramatic effect. Moreover, two predominant triangles are thus formed; one involving John, Alfie and Lisburn, and another to include duty and emerging—albeit forbidden—love. 

That said,  there is no disputing the fact that this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. In his Cambridge lecture on the “Aspect of the Novel ,” (1928), E.M. Forster maintained that a good novel is fundamentally comprised of two elements: life in time; and life by values, i.e. “I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.” In this regard Alex Beecroft has fulfilled both, admirably. 

Life in time: One of the definite strong points of this story is the seemingly accurate depiction of the eighteenth century. Hollywood’s romanticized portrayals notwithstanding, the 19th-century was a rugged, grotty period of time. On the one hand it was almost idyllic and somewhat puritanical in its thinking, and on the other life was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ In my opinion Beecroft has captured this dichotomy remarkably well, and has admirably withstood the temptation to ‘rose-hue’ it. 

 Life by values: Fundamental to this category is a cast of strong, well-defined characters, and once again the author has delivered the goods. The two main characters, John Cavendish and Alfie Donwell, are distinct in their makeup and believably human in their thinking. Moreover, their developing relationship is well paced and credible throughout, and they are very much a part of their chosen professions and time. 

It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time, and highly recommended.

January 26, 2010 - Posted by | Gay historical fiction

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