Title: Mere Mortals
Cover Artist: Ben Baldwin
Publisher: Lethe Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M historical romantic drama
Length: 80,117 words (254 pdf pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
A superb Victorian historical romantic drama telling of three young men who are brought to a house in the isolated community of the Norfolk Broads.
Orphaned Crispin Thorne has been taken as ward by Philip Smallwood, a man he’s never met, and is transplanted from his private school to Smallwood’s house on an island on the beautiful but coldly remote Horsey Mere in Norfolk. Upon his arrival, he finds that he’s not the only young man given a fresh start. Myles Graham and Jude Middleton are there before him, and as their benefactor is away, they soon form alliances and friendships, as they speculate upon the sudden transformation of their circumstances. Who is Philip Smallwood? Why has he given them such a fabulous new life? What secrets does the house hold and what is it that the Doctor seems to know?
Trust acclaimed author Erastes to tell a moving story in the field of gay historical romance.
Before I talk about the content of this historical, I just want to mention how beautifully done that cover is in my opinion. It’s also very apt. It’s not often that a cover manages to capture so well the ambiance and themes within a book, so hats off to the cover artist for doing such a good job here.
This is the third Erastes historical I’ve read so far and I have to say she just keeps getting better and better. Mere Mortals begins with our first person narrator Crispin travelling to the home of his new benefactor, Philip Smallwood. Crispin has been an orphan from birth and has never known his parents or any family, although he suspects that his father is influential because someone has been paying for his schooling. A year previously Crispin had been caught in a compromising position with another boy, but instead of being expelled to what would have been a life of poverty, Crispin gains a new guardian on the condition that he see out his final school year. Crispin’s obviously curious about the man and is even more surprised when he discovers that there are two other young men at Horsey Mere who are also orphans and now wards of Smallwood. The three men become fast friends, but Crispin is concerned that things may not be as straightforward as he first thought with his new guardian.
There was much to like about this novel. I’m a huge historical fan and I enjoyed being immersed in early Victorian country house life. There is much fun to be had with the fact that Crispin is rather overwhelmed by the opulence of the house and by the services provided by the staff, including his own valet. The servants form a backdrop to the actions within the story and I liked that they didn’t overstep that role. It annoys me sometimes in historical novels when the ‘upstairs’ people become overly familiar and chummy with the ‘downstairs’ people. It just didn’t happen, and so Crispin’s initial bewilderment at the large staff, the way he deals with his impassive valet and the imposing butler was realistic and added a lightness to the tone of the story.
The setting of the Norfolk Broads was also a plus point for me. Modern day Norfolk is rather different to its Victorian counterpart and I liked seeing how the people coped with not only the isolation but also the myriad of rivers and streams that needed to be used if any travelling were to be done. The setting also provides a great deal to the overall mood of the story. The cold November weather, the fact that the boys are essentially cut off, the hidden nooks and crannies and locked doors of the house, all gave the book a sombre and eerie quality, which when added to Crispin’s worries over the reason why Philip has taken such an interest in him and the other men, provided a chill which permeated the book. This tone doesn’t overwhelm the story, rather it’s a slight but constant presence, like a cold breeze to the back of the neck, that gives the impression that all may not be what it seems.
Another part which worked well was in the relationship between the young men. There’s a realism in their dealings with each other especially as they are only just out of school and still retain the pettiness and jealousies of children which then wars with their developing maturity into adults. Thus they get along famously one minute followed by fallings out, sniping, cold shoulders, followed by being fast friends once again. Over and above this is their curiosity in why they have been brought to the house and their relationship with their guardian and mentor, Philip. Philip is a benign but enigmatic father figure for the young men and I liked how as the plot enfolds we learn more and more of Philip. My sympathies for him as a character ebbed and waned as the story continued.
In terms of plotting this is quite a slow moving book with few action scenes. Instead the plot flows through the emotions of Crispin, through conversations between Crispin and the other characters and through a few set scenes which are meant to show Crispin’s developing abilities to move in society. Having said that, the story does not drag at all. The growing sense of unease in the tone of the book compelled me through the narrative and I read this almost in one sitting.
I have very few niggles with the book – hence the reason I gave five stars. In fact, apart from wishing I knew more about Crispin’s parentage, I can only think of one, very minor thing. Towards the end of the book Crispin is given some medication for a migraine and when he wakes up he is violently sick over the side of the bed. He gets up and goes to get some food because it is too early for the servants to be up. On the way back he bumps into Myles and they go back and have a lengthy discussion in Crispin’s room. The whole time this conversation was taking place I was worrying about the vomit and how they could stand to be in a room with a puddle of sick on the floor which must smell awful. Only minor, I know, but it spoiled what turned out to be a very emotional and dramatic scene. Still, it wasn’t enough to ruin what was a fascinating book.
Overall, if you like historicals then I would urge you to read Mere Mortals. I don’t think I’ve read a historical that manages to blend drama, romance and suspense with such skill, and I’d highly recommend this book.