A guest review by Sirius
Summary: This historical romance mostly set up inside a travelling carnival was a captivating read for me.
Driven from his family when his sexuality is exposed, Jonah discovers drama, passion, and intrigue in a traveling carnival—and in the enigmatic owner, Rafe Grimstone. The preacher’s son and the lord who’s rejected his former life in England feel the heat of attraction from the moment they meet. Open-hearted Jonah is willing to risk hellfire and damnation for brief moments of pleasure with Rafe, but the older man is frozen in a past he can’t escape no matter how far he runs.
As Rafe struggles to choose between responsibilities of his present and his past, mysterious accidents assail the close-knit community of the carnival. Will the perpetrator be revealed before the traveling show is ruined, and will Rafe finally reveal his true self to Jonah or continue to mask his identity like the changing images in a house of mirrors?
“Step inside to see some real magic. Your face reflected a thousand times over, glass within glass. Which image is the real you? An avenue of mirrors, ladies and gentlemen. An attraction so unique, no other travelling show can boast of such a marvel”
This is the beginning of this story and it reflects the running theme of this novel—what in the image that you present to the world is the real you and what is not, and in how many defensive layers you cover your true self in order to prevent the world from seeing the real you? Is one special person indeed all that it takes for you to stop hiding your true core from the world or is it too easy of an answer? Okay, maybe the “too easy of an answer” was my extrapolation more than what I truly saw in this story.
The year is 1902, the place is Southern Ohio and we are invited to observe one of the carnival sideshows together with young Jonah who is running away from his past, battered and exhausted. We do not know all the details of why Jonah is running away, but since he is remembering his father calling him a “filthy pervert, an abomination who has brought shame on our family”, I thought it was pretty easy to venture a guess. Jonah is looking for an owner of the carnival and stumbles upon the talker for the House of Mirrors, one of the carnival’s sideshows. The man, Rafe Gristone turns out to be the owner as well. Jonah is looking for a job and while Rafe is not happy that whoever is after Jonah could come after them, he feels sorry for the young man and gives him a “temporary” job of cleaning up.
Of course Rafe and Jonah are attracted to each other from the get-go. It was a little disappointing for me, but I should have trusted these authors more. At the beginning it is all about lust between Jonah and Rafe, luckily not Insta!Love, and Jonah even manages to surprise Rafe during their first sexual encounter.
“Such a contrast to the man’s innocent face and demeanor—a mirror shifted, and a different aspect was revealed.”
I have read three other novels by these two authors and so far for me their trademark is that they are one of very few who can sell me on a lot of sex in the story. Somehow they manage to write sex scenes which move the story along all the time and do not feel like filler, and this novel is no exception. Jonah and Rafe, in my opinion, spend a *lot* of time having sex and making love to each other, but with every scene we can see how their relationship deepens and how both guys react to it, and how stubbornly they keep denying that they care for each other, especially Rafe, who is doing that for much longer than Jonah.
And Rafe is of course hiding his own secrets and does not want it to be illuminated in the mirrors either. The more his past catches up with him the more he fights the thought that he is attracted to Jonah more than physically—that is until he forced to acknowledge it.
The Carnival show and their workers are very special characters in the story. Be it gentle giant Sam or Mindi, or Dimitri, they all captured my heart in one way or another. Jonah indeed finds home in the Carnival, finds a good friend and realizes his true passion for acting. Maybe this was the magic of shifting mirrors as well?
In all previous novels by this author pair, I found the historical research to be solid (whatever part of the settings I was aware of anyway), but I was still curious about the settings in this one. I think those settings are the most internal out of all the stories by these authors, and by that I mean, while we do get to see the outside world a bit, most of the action is happening within the Carnival. I was wondering whether carnivals were touring America already in the year 1902 and Wikipedia tells us that the Chicago Fair in 1893 is believed to be the catalyst for modern carnival. Wikipedia also tells us that precisely in the year 1902, seventeen carnivals were travelling the United States. I know that it is just Wikipedia, but I am still pleased when writers do their homework and put the events in the correct chronological context. I was also impressed how correctly the carnival structure is presented in this book, or at least it appears to be from couple more articles that I skimmed and from what I have already known.
While none of fundamental importance, I had several issues with this story:
First, while I absolutely loved that sweet and innocent Jonah does not play the role of a blushing virgin, to me him being an aggressor in their sexual encounters so often and especially showing the supposedly more experienced and worldly Rafe how to do certain things in bed just did not ring true at all. I felt this way especially considering that Jonah only has one liaison in his life and is still questioning himself, unlike Rafe, who we are told has travelled the world, met other men “who are attracted to men,” and, regardless of whatever demons are tormenting him, at least seems to be quite accepting of who he is sexually. Ultimately, while I loved that the authors gave Jonah some edge—thus making his personality more interesting—and I was pleased they did not go the route of a lot of m/m historicals and make him as sweet and innocent in love making too, having him know things that Rafe not was believable for me.
Additionally, the story contains a secondary mystery element, but I think that at least one of the villains was overly-telegraphed. I knew who the villain was *the moment* this person appeared on page and interacted with the protagonists. While I was not too bothered by it—because the mystery only starts halfway through story and is clearly there to move the romance along and not vice versa—I would have preferred the villain to have been hidden better.
While The Gentleman and the Rogue by these authors will always be my favorite story from them, I liked this one as well.