** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS WHAT SOME MAY CONSIDER TO BE SPOILERS **
Title: The General and the Horse-Lord
Author: Sarah Black
Cover Art: Paul Richmond
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy Link: Buy Link Amazon, Publisher
Length: Novel/200 pages/63,297 words
Genre: Contemporary M/M Romance
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: A gem.
Blurb: General John Mitchel and his favorite pilot, Gabriel Sanchez, served together as comrades and brothers-in-arms for more than twenty-five years. They followed the warrior’s path: honor first, and service, and the safety of the tribe. Their own needs for love and companionship were secondary to the mission. Retirement from the army, however, proves challenging in ways neither expected.
When old warriors retire, their armor starts falling away, and the noise of the world crowds in. That changing world sets up longings in both men for the life they might have had. After years of loving on the down-low, the idea of living together in the light seems like pure sweet oxygen to men who have been underwater a little too long. But what will it cost them to turn their dreams into truth?
In a world of gay romance fiction, Sarah Black is an original. She doesn’t conform to any usual romance formulas: her men are so achingly real that they don’t easily fit in any mould. The situations she throws them in are always true to life and so not always comfortable to the romance readers. Yet, as complex and flawed as her men are, they are always decent. Combine this with her beautiful, sometime lyrical, but never flowery, writing and you get stories that pull you in from the first page and keep you enthralled to the last. And then you are sad the story has ended.
The General and the Horse-Lord is another such story. The protagonists are two mature men – in their late forties and early fifties, former brothers-in-arms and lovers for a quarter of century. Their love affair survived the battlefields, DADT policy as well as Gabriel’s continuing marriage. General John Mitchel now teaches American Political History, while Gabriel Sanchez practices law.
The story follows two interwoven threads: one concerning John’s adoptive nephew Kim and his abuse by one of his instructors. At first, John tries to deal with this through official channels. But, people who should be protecting young men from the predators fail to act and John – as a man of action and a leader – decides to take matters in his own hands with Gabriel’s help. It was amusing to see them planning to deal with Brian like it was a military operation. John’s need for action is somewhat tempered by Kim and his need to deal with the crisis in his own way. Kim was a true ray of sunshine. I think all the readers will love him. He is bright and sensitive, but not weak. When his friend Billy suffers the same abuse, Kim is his main support. The interaction between the two older and two younger gay men is poignant – for example, when John realizes that Kim is downplaying some parts of his personality in order not to discomfit him and Gabriel. Their interaction is also often laced with humor:
“I am the king. You’re the knight sitting at my round table. That’s the nature of our relationship when it comes to war or other conflict resolution in this family.”
“If you’d said I was the samurai, and you were the shogun, I was going to get up and leave this bed.”
Additionally, it is partly a catalyst for the major change in older men’s lives – their decision to take their love into the open, which is the other plot thread the story follows. This part of the story might make some of the readers uncomfortable or even angry. Namely, John and Gabriel’s relationship lasts over 25 year and during a good part of that period, Gabriel is married and has two children with his wife Martha. And, because the story is told from John’s point-of-view, we don’t see what other problems Gabriel and Martha might have had during their life together. So, who do you side with? The two lovers or rejected wife? I decided to do neither. In order to serve their country, the men had to conform and hide their love. In order to fulfill one of the most natural human desires – to have a family – Gabriel had to marry a woman. I don’t think that the potential of hurting innocent people was lost on two intelligent men. Their alternative was to, once again, deny a huge part of themselves. And they couldn’t. Once the men retired and were faced with the realities of civil life, loneliness, changed social atmosphere, the secrets and sacrifices started to wear on them. Gabriel sums it up:
“But it seems to me I’ve been missing something critical. I see that in you too. Missing the right to love. The right to make a life together. We shouldn’t have had to give that up. And I feel the loss, like there’s a hole in my chest, a wound. Sometimes it feels like my heart looks like that poor boy’s face looks—beat all to hell. It pisses me off that we’ve lost all this time. And I don’t want to wait any longer.”
On the other hand, Martha had every right to be pissed off. She is an intelligent woman, a good mother and, yes, she deserved better. Her lashing out in a way that would hurt men the most was understandable, though I believe she would eventually regret it. This is one of the things I love about Sarah Black’s stories: not everything is black and white and good people sometimes make bad decisions and mistakes, but that doesn’t diminish them. It just makes them human.
The love between John and Gabriel is palpable, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes amusing. There is true joy in their interaction and I dare you not to grin while reading about them dancing in their underwear to 80s music. There is humor too, gentled by their age and experiences. To say that I loved them would be an understatement.
All these elements combined with good secondary characters (Cody Dial, Billy’s father, Martha, Juan, Omar, etc.) and Sarah Black’s fabulous writing make The General and the Horse-Lord one of the best author’s stories so far. I am very excited that she is planning (and already writing) new stories involving Kim, Billy, Omar and even Martha. If I have any complaints about the story it’s that I wanted to know a bit more about John and Gabriel’s military life as well as a somewhat abrupt ending. Regardless, this story that touches many themes including loyalty, leadership, family, pursuit of happiness, is a true gem of our little subgenre and it should not be missed.
Highly, highly recommended.