Y’all know I love a good gay fantasy novel. It’s even something of a resolution to read more of them this year, or rather more queer genre fiction in general, because there are plenty of niche classics I’ve been meaning to read for years. Wicked Gentlemen was recommended to me absolute ages ago as one of those “all queer fantasy nerds should read this” books, although it was published as recently as 2007 and hardly anyone knows about it. It took a while for me to find, and longer to read, but I’m happy to say it (mostly) lived up to my expectations.
Belimai Sykes is many things: a Prodigal, the descendant of ancient demons, a creature of dark temptations and rare powers. He is also a man with a brutal past and a dangerous addiction. And Belimai Sykes is the only man Captain William Harper can turn to when faced with a series of grisly murders. But Mr. Sykes does not work for free and the price of Belimai’s company will cost Captain Harper far more than his reputation. From the ornate mansions of noblemen, where vivisection and sorcery are hidden beneath a veneer of gold, to the steaming slums of Hells Below, Captain Harper must fight for justice and for his life. His enemies are many and his only ally is a devil he knows too well. Such are the dangers of dealing with the wicked.
The most enjoyable and memorable part of the book is its dark, rich worldbuilding. The story takes place in an alternate England built up on twisted Christian imagery, a city incorporating the descendants of Hell’s demons, now called Prodigals, and Inquisitors, policemen mostly associated with torture. The two lead characters are, appropriately, a Prodigal and a (non-torturey) Inquisitor. Through them we get a deep glimpse into this world. Because it’s familiar to them, it seems all the more unfamiliar to the reader, creating a sense of shadow and uncertainty that’s entirely appropriate for the setting.
There are some romantic elements and some themes recognizable in modern m/m romance, but if Wicked Gentlemen is in the romance genre, it’s on the very fringe. I don’t think it fits entirely into any one genre, but I would call it “dark fantasy” before anything else. Remarkably, while it is very sexually charged, it’s not very explicit. I wouldn’t have minded if it was, but Hale’s skill in creating that tension, the atmosphere without the action, is a rarer thing. It’s sort of like a mixture of Swordspoint and The God Engines, with the queer gentility of the former and profane intensity of the latter.
I haven’t mentioned much about the plot, partially because it’s just less important to the experience, and also because it’s a little hard to pin down. The genre-slipping means we spend a lot of time on worldbuilding, and a lot on character development. The plots as such are mysteries the Inquisitor is investigating, with various kinds of involvement from the Prodigal. There are two plots, though, because this book is actually two 100-page novellas bound as one. The first is from the Prodigal’s perspective, the second from the Inquisitor’s some time later, and while I liked being able to spend equal time with each person, it knocked the wind out of the plots a little bit. The first one in particular got tied up too quickly, the resolution almost glossed over, and left me kind of stumbling when I was waiting for something more dramatic.
Still, I enjoyed it, and felt like it was a complete story by the end. I’m glad I finally managed to read it. It’s not a vampire book, but if you liked vampire books in the Nineties with their homoeroticism and twisted symbolism — or if you like gay fantasy and want to read a classic no one’s ever heard of — this is your kind of thing.