Title & buy link: The Rule of Sebastian
Author: Shelter Somerset
Cover Artist: Paul Richmond
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M contemporary
Length: Novel (254 pages)
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Average murder-mystery in an interesting locale, let down by purple prose and lacklustre characters.
Sebastian Harkin retreated to the Trappist monastery at Mt. Ouray, nestled high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, to escape a past filled with heartache and pain. The arrival of young novice Brother Casey Galvan gives Sebastian hope for the future. But when the monks discover a handsome stranger freezing on their doorstep during a snowstorm, Sebastian, Casey, and their fellow monks find themselves ensnarled in jealousies and passions that eventually lead to murder.
Desperate to conceal the crime from outsiders, Mt. Ouray’s abbot, Father Paolo Cabral, asks Sebastian to help solve the mystery. With Casey assisting, Sebastian plunges deeper into the investigation. But working with Casey threatens Sebastian’s self-control until his desires erupt, along with the dreaded past he has tried so desperately to put behind him. As Sebastian closes in on the killer, Father Paolo intervenes—not just in Sebastian’s search for the truth but in his pursuit of Casey’s heart.
Winter is harsh in Colorado’s San Juan mountains, and the twelve monks residing in the monastery on Mt Ouray know there’s little to occupy their minds throughout the long snowbound months but reflection, prayer, and the tasks assigned to them. Most are content with their lot, but the sudden, shocking arrival of a young Latino man, discovered just outside the monastery in a snowdrift, sets tongues wagging and raises old desires.
Brother Sebastian has lived in the monastery for four years. He left a position of responsibility after realising he couldn’t stem the growing tide of drug and gang-related violence in his home city of Philadelphia. He believes most of his monastic colleagues have fled the world for similar reasons, dissatisfied or afraid of what their lives had become. Despite the attentions of Brother Micah, Sebastian has kept himself to himself until young, handsome Brother Casey entered the monastery.
Casey wants nothing else than to be Sebastian’s special friend, and he’s jealous and resentful when the stranger is found in the snow. When the young man wakes up, he has amnesia. All he can remember are the initials ‘JC’ and later, the name ‘Manny’. His accent suggests he comes from Philadelphia, but his easy use of specific slang points to Puerto Rican heritage.
At first the monks buzz around JC, and the abbot hopes that JC will stay and bring more new blood into the monastery. But it soon becomes apparent that JC has no intention of staying—and nor does he remember why he came in the first place. Then a murder occurs, sending shockwaves through the small community, and Sebastian and Casey must work together to discover who amongst their number is a killer—and why.
This book had all the ingredients to make a really cracking read, but unfortunately it fell short in pretty much every aspect. I liked the unusual location and learning more about the Trappist Order, and I also liked Brother Eusebius. The rest of the story wasn’t as strong for me.
The author presents a very cynical way of looking at the cloistered life. I was glad Brother Eusebius was there to present a different slant on it, but in general there was a lot of the attitude that monks are running away from reality, and even if that’s what Sebastian did, the attitude infects the majority of the other characters as well, which I found disheartening and sad. There’s also a lot of hand-waving over the very real issues of homosexuality within the Catholic Church, and aside from the occasional reference to homosexuality as a sin, no one really questions their commitment to their faith. It’s sort of OK Homo, and while I get the sense of what the author was perhaps trying to achieve, it didn’t entirely work. It’s a huge issue and I didn’t think it was handled particularly well here.
Almost all of the monks at Mt Ouray are gay or bi or have a ‘special friend’, even if their attachment isn’t sexual. The abbot, Father Paolo, is depicted as a sinister, grasping man who desires power more than anything else and who attempts to use his position and rhetoric to seduce the young novices. This abuse of trust is tacitly condoned by everyone within the monastery, including Sebastian, and when further, non-sexual, abuses of responsibility occur, it’s deemed best for the future of the monastery that nothing is ever said or reported. I could believe it in a historical story, but in a contemporary, and especially given Sebastian’s previous career, I found it incomprehensible and actually quite shocking, and what little respect I had for Sebastian pretty much vanished.
The book is written in a detached style that has some nice turns of phrase, but also has a tendency to purple prose and to long tracts of infodump and telling rather than showing. The narrative also distances the reader from the characters, and while we got to know the various inhabitants of the monastery, I never felt a connection with any of them. I didn’t particularly like Sebastian and disliked Casey, who comes across as very needy, and so I didn’t buy into their romance at all.
Considering Sebastian’s previous career, he’s remarkably slow to notice obvious clues, and yet within the last forty pages of the book he suddenly works out the identity of the murderer and, when he confronts the suspect, tells him that it was clear he was the culprit. The process of elimination is poorly handled, given to the reader all in one go rather than dripped out slowly over the course of the book, and looking back at it, this could easily have been novella length rather than being dragged out.
Also, while I have no problem with the reason JC came to be at the monastery, the element of mistaken identity that [spoiler]led JC to try to kill Brother Augustine believing him to be Sebastian required too much suspension of disbelief. If the murderer could see JC and Augustine clearly, then JC would have known that he was about to attack the wrong man[/spoiler], so that aspect of the plot didn’t make much sense to me. To be honest, the whole how and why of the murder-mystery made little sense—I was describing the story to my partner and realised how flimsy the whole thing was.
In addition, there are several POV slips and numerous odd—and incorrect—word choices that should have been caught by an editor (a ‘hypergregarious (sic) police officer’ rather than ‘over-zealous’, for example; or the most glaring, ‘aesthetic’ instead of ‘ascetic’), which unfortunately made the prose awkward and stilted.
This is a book that had a lot of potential but which failed to hit the mark. Fans of the author may enjoy it, but sadly it didn’t work for me.