A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past—and his forbidden love—nearly brought down the curtain for good.
A compelling Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance—and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice.
I need to say upfront that I loved this book. Were there a few issues? Yes, but I loved it enough to give it a 5-star rating even with the couple of niggles I had. Because of the way I read it (time-wise), I started early one evening but forced myself to stop at a critical point to go to bed. I dreamt about this book. I had to finish it the moment I woke up. Since then, I’ve thought about this book. I am day-dreaming about and writing the review for this book instead of doing my work. I wanted to re-read this book as soon as I finished, but I won’t be able to for a little bit. I smiled, I was pissed off, I cried, I was heartbroken for both heroes and more. The book is so well-written, I am amazed that this is the author’s first work. While I can’t speak to the authenticity of the period, I can say that nothing seemed terribly out of place — era-wrong terms or obvious dialog or characterization gaffes — to my inexpert eyes.
Originally published in 2004 by The Writers’ Collective and re-released this year via Lethe Press with major re-writes, The Phoenix is an epic love story that is so much more. The complex tale opens in 1884 London to fourteen-year-old uber-poor pickpocket Jack Rourke and his twin Michael fretting about their abusive father returning from sea and the repercussions of having him home with them and their neglectful prostitute mother. Luckily, Jack has a way to escape the hell that his homelife by going to the local playhouse where theater owner Lizbet has taken him under her wing, teaching him to read and hone his natural acting skills. In order to do this, he unfortunately must leave weaker Michael behind to suffer the wrath of their father to multi-disastrous results, culminating in him knifing his father to death. Running to the only person who he can trust, Lizbet turns to her wealthy brother for assistance. With a new name and guardian, Jack is transformed into Christopher, then “Kit” St. Denys, molded into a cultured, educated young gentleman of means and a very talented actor. It is not long before he discovers that he is attracted to men, a trait he shares with his foster father, and learns how to be discreet. But even with this wonderful second chance and amazing life, he is plagued by nightmares of his prior life and that horrendous act.
In a different part of England, young Nicholas Stuart is being raised in a small country village to replace his doctor father, a domineering Baptist zealot and the only physician treating both the local people and animals. As a mid-teen, he realizes to his horror that he is attracted to other boys, something that is against everything he has been taught in his religion, and is determined to not allow that part of himself come to fruition. With sights beyond being stuck as the county doctor/vet, he decides to leave home at eighteen without his father’s blessing to attend university and become a human-only physician and surgeon. It is after his education is over and he is in practice that, via an extra ticket from friends to a play starring Kit, his life changes. Despite his vow against his nature, he immediately becomes infatuated with the actor and a chance opportunity to meet begins a years-long journey fraught by challenges and obstacles — including, most importantly, themselves — that takes them halfway around the world and back.
This is no light, fun romance; it’s a fabulously rich, lush, emotional, dramatic, angsty tale with many twists and turns that totally fits the time period. There are two things that I found that make very Victorian novel-y: it is completely non-explicit when it comes to the smexxin (if you’re looking for a smokin’ hot sexfest, this isn’t for you) and the third-person narration is mostly telling us, not showing us what is happening/has happened. This is a good and bad thing, and I’ll explain that more below. There is a lot of back-and-forth here: they love each other, they hate each other, they love and hate each other; they are together, they break up, they get back together again. Again, very Victorian with the melodrama. Lather, rinse, repeat. It just about all worked for me.
The theme of the phoenix, of reinventing one’s self either voluntarily or not, is as strong as the title implies. Other topics she tackles are child abuse, poverty, disparity between the socioeconomic classes on both sides of the Atlantic, the theatre world in London and New York, betrayal, religion, homosexuality in the late 19th Century, loss and grieving, insanity and “modern” medicine.
I thought the author penned wonderfully sympathetic, believable, flawed, tortured protags, and I really liked that Kit and Nick stay true to their characterizations throughout the book, even when those character traits — Kit’s need to be secretive about his past and Nick’s staunch religious beliefs conflicting with his desires, among others — make things difficult for their journey and made me want to slap each of them numerous times. But that did not make me love them less, and perhaps even more. There will be readers who will despise Kit — and probably Nick, too — for their flaws but I am not one of them.
The secondary cast is both large and colorful, with some characters playing larger roles than others, but all of them well-developed. Certainly, Kit’s saviours Lizbet and Xavier have huge roles, as does Kit’s father, Tom Rourke, the main villain of the story, and Nick’s wife, Bronwyn (there are plenty of reviews and reader comments out there that say the “M” word — “marriage” — so I will not consider it a spoiler) who I knew the minute she was introduced that one way or another she would have a hard time being with Nick. Theatre people, society people, circus people and more all left their mark on the story, some of them real, others fictional.
A few issues:
The narration type, though fitting for the era, didn’t allow me to get as close to or know the characters as I would have liked. I wanted to see them together, hear more of their dialog, witness loving gestures, even if it just in private, be privy to why they love each other so much, but instead we are told after the fact that they did this and that, that they were together a year, that Nico eased the nightmares, etc. I think that it could and will turn off some readers. Additionally, there is some head-hopping between not only the protags, but various secondary characters that had me shifting gears at times to grasp who was talking/thinking.
There were parts late in the book — mostly what Kit did after his traumatic experience — that I feel could easily been left out and made the story drag a teensy bit for me. In all honesty, I found myself skimming pages waiting for it to return to something that was pertinent to his relationship to Nick. Conversely, there are times when I would have liked to have had more detail, such as the first year Kit and Nick spent together or Kit’s metamorphosis at the hands of Xavier St. Denys.
Lastly, Kit felt a wee bit Gary-Sue-ish, especially after he was in Xavier’s care and was educated and pampered. He seemed to be good at almost everything he was handed. Luckily, he had enough issues to offset the near-perfectness.
As I said above, in spite of the issues I had, I highly recommend The Phoenix to those who love historicals, Victorian-era novels, or are looking for an epic love story. Now, in saying that, this is one of those controversial books, and other reviews I’ve read since I finalized what you see above have indicated that readers either love or have major problems with this story. Where do you fall? Bring it on, folks, and tell me what you think.