The Phoenix - Ruth Sims

Ladymol's Review

What a rare find! I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. In fact, I did something I never, ever do, which is to peek at the last page; seriously, the tension was that bad!

In some ways this book is the Catherine Cookson of gay lit. And I don’t say that disparagingly in any way. I think she was a much-maligned writer—probably because she wrote very readable, well-researched books about women and romance. Ruth Sims has written a very readable, well-researched book about men and romance! It’s a refreshing change from many of the novels we’ve read. Not that it’s a relaxing read by any means! I thought I wrote angsty stories. I could take serious lessons from Sims. I feel like I’ve been put through the mill over the story of Kit St Denys and Nick Stuart.

There’s nothing graphic in this novel, which I do think is a pity. It would have just added an edge if the descriptions of the evident passion between the two men had played out a little more visibly. The sex is all of the “The next morning they lay in the rumpled bed….” variety. But for all that, this is a novel full of achingly beautiful passion and there are one or two descriptions of hands on skin that will make you curl up with pleasure.

Kit St Denys, a successful, rich actor meets a young country doctor Nick Stuart. Kit has been enjoying men for many years. Nick has suppressed his nature for many years. When they meet the sparks are so powerful they ignite a conflagration of passion that allows them to survive separation, a terrible fight, marriage, apparent death, madness and murder.

The plot ranges from the last few years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the early twentieth century, from London to American and back. Set in the duel worlds of the theatre and medicine, I can’t see that Ruth Sims has put a foot wrong with the research and authenticity of this novel. And she avoids the trap many more experienced authors make (this is her first novel) of stuffing the novel with historical detail just because they can. The plot drives the detail, not the other way around.

I do think the book would have been improved with a scattering (or splattering?) of sex, and I’m hoping that for her second novel Sims will have the confidence of her own unique talent to give it a go, but for all that, I’ve been out of this world and in Sim’s world for three days. What more can you want out of a book? I wish more mainstream, historical novelists were brave enough to make their romances gay!

Do give this book a go, you won’t regret it!

Cerisaye's Review

Historical romance is an undervalued genre, dismissed by those who read ‘serious’ books.  Bodice-rippers, they scoff, fit only for those who’d otherwise be sitting slack-jawed before the TV.  Bah.

Well, dear reader, this is a codpiece-ripper.  A skilfully written and cleverly plotted one, with excellent character development and enough excitement to sustain interest easily till the final page.  Still I wanted more.

All that AND it’s written by a self-confessed cookie-baking grandma’ from the Midwest, a first time novelist no less.  Go her!

A juicy, page-turner that takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride through a beautifully realised late Victorian England and America.  Packed with convincing period detail and fascinating background material that never intrudes to spoil the pace of the narrative.  In the delightful company of one of the most romantic heroes it has been my pleasure to fall head over heels in love with.

Born plain Jack Rourke, the son of a drunken lout prone to appalling acts of violence against his family.  Jack’s feckless mother is incapable of protecting him or his weaker twin, Michael.  It falls to young Jack to look after Michael, a sickly innocent who worships his brother.  Thieves by necessity, for survival, in the harsh environment of the London stews, Jack and Michael could easily walk from the pages of Dickens.

Jack is saved by a fortuitous encounter with Lizbet Porter, the earthy owner of a small theatre.  Spotting a gem under the roughtough exterior, she hires Jack as an errand boy and he discovers the magic of the stage, a place where you can be anyone you want.

Lizbet teaches Jack to read and write, and more besides, when Jack stabs his brute of a father to save his own life.  Adopted by the theatre world, Jack begins a glittering career as an actor.  But he remains haunted by his appalling father, night terrors in which the monster pursues him, and nothing can soothe his troubled soul.

Meanwhile, far removed from Jack’s stinking London, a boy grows up in the strictly religious household of a poor country doctor cum vet.  Nicholas Stuart helps his father, training to succeed him.  But he has more ambition.  A medical career, yes, but not in the rural backwater where he was born. Nicholas works hard, forswearing all pleasures, and gets to university.  A medical practice in a poor district follows, typical of an earnest, socially conscious young man.

Then one night Nicholas goes to the theatre, a rare act of indulgence in an austere existence.  Dazzled by Hamlet, he goes back again…and again…until on closing night an accident with a stage prop leads to the call, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’

Jack the guttersnipe has been transformed into the glittering Kit St Denys, toast of London, star actor.  While stitching his wound, Nicholas falls under Kit’s spell. 

Nicholas the puritan has a secret, a youthful sexual encounter, buried but never forgotten, with an older boy.  Tortured by fear of damnation he’s repressed this side of himself, but meeting Kit stirs feelings impossible to deny.

The course of true love doesn’t run smooth for Kit & Nick.  They love each other, that’s beyond question.  But Nicholas struggles with his desires and his conscience, terrified of the consequences.  Yet afraid of losing the volatile Kit.  The actor has had many men.  They help ease those nightmares of his father.  None of them ever meant anything before Nick.  He doesn’t know how to handle a guilt-stricken, jealous lover he must share with God.  Each has his very human flaws.  They’re soulmates; but circumstances force them apart.  Seriously, separate continents even.  In the hands of a less able storyteller this would’ve been frustrating and annoying, but Sims pulls it off.  Meanwhile, there is hope: love will overcome.

The story has relentless drive- twists and turns, unfortunate meetings, unlikely coincidences, a large cast of characters…in the grand tradition of the Victorian novel.  Never, until almost the last page, can we be certain how it will end.  Almost unbearable tension.  Kit must confront the past, heal his wounds, find out who he is, before he can be happy.  Nicholas must come to terms with what he is, accept it’s okay to love Kit.

When they are together, sparks fly.  Without graphic description, scenes of searing eroticism left me swooning with pleasure (rather like our gentlemen).  Underplayed sex is far more effective.  Man-to-man loving in an era when its expression was punishable by harsh prison sentences (Oscar Wilde has a walk-on part).

This book was hard to let go.  I dragged out the last 50 pages over a couple of days, until I could stand the suspense no longer.  Afterwards I was bereft.  Unwilling to leave characters I cared about passionately.  Keen to know what happened next.

It’d make a wonderful film.  I’m working on the casting now. 

A must-read *****.

Published by The Writers' Collective. ISBN: 1932133402

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