The Phoenix by Ruth Sims
A masterful piece of writing, credible and enjoyable from start to finish
At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past-and his forbidden love-nearly brought down the curtain for good. This is a compelling Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance-and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice
Review by Gerry Burnie
Ruth Sims’ The Phoenix (Lethe Press, 2009) is the first of her several novels I have read, but it definitely will not my last. My first impression was of the tasteful and relevant cover, beautifully designed by Ben Baldwin. It is truly refreshing to see an M/M novel that isn’t adorned by a muscle-bound, headless torso or a bulging ‘basket.’
The above abbreviated summary will have to suffice as an overview of the story because otherwise it is so intricately constructed that to elaborate on any one part of it would be to risk giving away the plot. However, this doesn’t prevent describing certain aspects of it in a general fashion, i.e. characterization, setting and pace.
The novel opens in full flight with a running introduction to Jack Rourke, street urchin and pickpocket-thief, and his twenty-minutes-younger twin brother, Michael. The setting is the seamier side of London in 1882, effectively described as “…dingy shanties, tenements, gin shops, pubs and little shops with flyblown windows.” Nevertheless, Jack is clearly in charge as they go about putting together an ill-gotten purse to one day escape “him:” Their black-bearded, abusive and sadistic father, Tom Rourke. The mother—a secondary character—is also introduced from the wings as a battered wife who lacks the willpower to escape him; even by 19th-century standards.
Right from the get-go, therefore, the reader is transported back in time in the company of strong, juxtapositioned characters. Indeed, Jack’s character is such that he practically steps from the page as a tough, cocky and street-wise kid with a heart for his less-capable twin brother. Moreover, while we all recognize that he is an unapologetic thief, we still like him; and even more importantly we care for both of them and their collective welfare. That is the sign of a good story, masterfully conjured-up by the author with nothing more than ink on paper—and imagination, of course.
Quite a large cast of characters are introduced after them, both principal and secondary, but all of these have a definite place and purpose and are never gratuitous or cluttering as far as the story goes. Moreover, whether major of minor, they are all developed to be distinct in some way, and therefore add their various shades of colour to an overall palette.
The pacing, which includes the unfolding of events, ranks alongside characterization as one of the strong points of this novel. On the one hand it takes time to develop complex characters and settings like these, and the risk here is to slow the pace such that it becomes tedious. On the other, the introduction of various events, in an event-driven plot, poses the risk of leaping from one to another to maintain a connecting thread. Here, the author has achieved a happy compromise that remains consistent throughout.
Not to be overlooked is the amount of research required to reproduce Victorian England to a credible degree is quite considerable—especially for a gal from “…conservative, Republican, tiny-town Midwest USA” who, according to her biography has never seen a moor! Well, the test of the ‘credibility factor’ is that I as a reader certainly believed it.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy a serious literary effort with a sexy adult theme.
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Read Part One of my second novel, Journey to Big Sky.