Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

For those who read Lord John and the Private Matter and shrugged their shoulders a bit, happy enough to enjoy the world of Gabaldon but not terribly impressed with the mystery itself, then I think you'll be quite pleased with Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade. It has enough to delight Gabaldon fans who also happen to like mysteries as well as the fans who are really just looking for a fix while they wait for the next big Jamie and Claire book. In Private Matter, things started off with Lord John was working for the interests of his family (aka making sure his cousin didn't marry a poxed fellow), but overall, it wasn't quite compelling. Here, that's all changed and the story is very personal indeed. Not only does the main storyline have to do with avenging the death of a father and reclaiming the family honor, but we introduce a love interest for John in the form of Percy Wainwright and delve into deeper discussion of homosexuality in the eighteenth century. The book also also gets right into the thick of the workings of the British army and a bit of action from the Seven Years War.

We've caught a glance of Percy before now in the Lord John series, as a handsome young man briefly seen at Lavender House, so we know where his orientation lies. (And those who have read An Echo in the Bone will immediately recognize him. I found myself rather wishing that I had read Gabaldon's books in order of publication so I could have known more about Percy and John's relationship before reading Echo. It wasn't required, certainly, but it would have been nice background information. Alternately, reading Echo first doesn't ruin the outcome of this book, but the reader does get a hint as to how things turn out.) In Brotherhood of the Blade, Percy is not simply a casual acquaintance, but rather, he is about to become John's step-brother, pending the nuptials of John's mother Benedicta. There's an immediate spark between Percy and John, starting with the surprise of recognition as they're introduced and continuing through their every encounter. While they keep attempting to find some private time alone, poor timing means that repeatedly, their attempts at an evening alone are thwarted. Of course, this also means that they get to know each other quite well before any physical intimacy; it all has the warm and exciting air of courtship, which exactly what it is, even if the time period wouldn't quite carry the same view. Percy might be a handsome young man, but as with many handsome young men, he has limited means... which means that his step-father is buying him a commission in a regiment and if he hadn't been inclined to join John's (overseen by John's older brother Hal) previous to their meeting, well he's certainly inclined to do so now. The air is spiced with the thrill of battle as the regiment readies itself for any number of locations, though ultimately they're sent to chase the French army around for a while before they see real action... but if you think this might be a fluffy book, never fear -- there is some pretty intense military action to witness.

One of the fun parts of this installment is the greater acquaintance it provides with Lord John's family. Hal, John's older brother, is an interesting character, also seen in Echo as a much older man, so it's nice to see him a bit younger. While Hal technically has inherited his father's title, Duke of Pardloe, he stubbornly refuses to use what is viewed as a tainted title, following a scandal that indicted their father as a Jacobite sympathizer. Hal and the rest of the family is adamant that such an accusation was false (despite their mother's Scottish background) and before any official claims were laid to the Duke, he died. The death was ruled as a suicide, but John reveals that he knows such a ruling to be false -- it was murder. Seeing as everyone's English, there's a great deal of non-discussion about emotions surrounding this, particularly between the two brothers and extending to their mother. Granted, there's the fact that everyone seemed to be trying to protect everyone else from certain knowledge but ultimately, had they all come clean with what they knew, they would have saved themselves some trouble in trying to figure out who actually murdered the Duke. This is more a criticism of the English mindset in general... as far as the book is concerned, it's a good detail and quite in keeping with everyone's character.

There's a lot of time devoted to Percy & John's relationship... and a lot of time spent with John pining for Jamie Fraser. As far as Percy is concerned, Gabaldon gives Percy and John a short period of bliss before a huge bit of drama is tossed in... which results in Percy and another German fellow being arrested for sodomy and then John winds up as the sole alive/available witness. John needs to figure out what to do as the military investigation draws near -- for perjuring himself would result in the end of his own career but testifying would most likely result in Percy's death (or life imprisonment on the lenient side). Even before this complication which effectively ends their relationship, John was struggling with his own emotions -- for he cannot shake the feeling that while he does like Percy a great deal, he's still hopelessly in love with Jamie Fraser. So I turn my attention to Jamie. Normally, I'm always in favor of more Jamie Fraser, but what Gabaldon gives us is a situation even more complicated and interesting than I could have hoped for. What we have here is a very guilt-ridden, angry, and intolerant Jamie Fraser -- not at all the romantic, brave, kind and in-control Jamie that we're all rather used to. These are dark days for Jamie Fraser and Gabaldon doesn't shy away from this. At this time, Jamie is a convicted Jacobite traitor and John has made allowances for Jamie to serve as a groom at Helwater rather than be shipped off to the Americas. To refresh your memory, the result of Jamie's time in Helwater was this: Geneva blackmailed Jamie into taking her maidenhead before her wedding to Ellesmere, she got pregnant as a result, Ellesmere freaked out out because he never slept with Geneva, Geneva died in childbirth, and Jamie shot Ellesmere after Ellesmere threatened to kill the baby. We know this from Voyager but Lord John doesn't have all these details and consequently, all we see is John being confused as to why everything is even more tense than it should be following the death of Geneva and Ellesmere. We, the readers, know the torment that's going on in Jamie's mind, but John does not, even if he has a sneaking suspicion that Jamie might have fathered Geneva's child. In addition to all this, while those who have finished Voyager know that Jamie and John ultimately do come to have a close friendship, at the time, they are certainly not chummy. Jamie's wracked with guilt about Geneva's death and John is distraught about Percy's situation, so they're both stretched emotionally when John starts asking Jamie for information about Jacobites (in his search to clear his father's name). There's a pretty impressive scene towards the end of this novel where Jamie and John have a massive argument, showcasing Jamie's complete abhorrence for homosexuality. We all know that this mostly stems from his own experience being raped by Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall (and rescuing young Fergus from a similar experience by the same man)... or at least certainly it was strengthened by it. For readers who clearly don't have the same distaste for homosexuality that Jamie professes (otherwise they probably wouldn't have made it so far in this particular novel, given that John is most definitely gay), it's fascinating to still like Jamie even if we don't agree with his feelings on the matter. There are a few things that probably help us maintain our love for Jamie at this point: (1) we know Jamie and John do become friends later, (2) Jamie is pretty insistent that what he finds horrible is the idea of using someone else for one's pleasure, particularly young boys, and (3) at least Jamie is not up for persecution of any kind of person, no matter their deviation from what is accepted as the mainstream. I still find it a to be a testament to Gabaldon's skill at creating complicated and compelling characters that we can continue to like Jamie Fraser. Meanwhile, John acquits himself quite well on his side of the argument, insisting that he be heard in defense of his own sexuality... and then has a rather base reaction to the stimulation of such passionate debate with Jamie. Those who don't want to bother with any kind of plotline around homosexuality will quickly realize this book is not for them -- but it certainly makes me wonder how many people in Gabaldon's fan base are turned off by her acceptance and promotion of Lord John as a strong and incredibly likable protagonist who happens to be gay. (Indeed, in this book more than any other, his sexual orientation is a big issue, but I like to think that Lord John is not solely defined by this one trait.) I certainly hope that her readership is entirely comprised of intelligent and tolerant people, but I would be willing to bet that there are a few homophobic bad apples in any bunch.

While Lord John and the Private Matter showed that Gabaldon isn't a mystery writer deep down, I do think that her second attempt at a mystery novel drastically exceeds the first on all fronts. Private Matter was still pleasant but Brotherhood of the Blade was a much better work on the whole. Perhaps it's just because Lord John was personally invested with the mystery at hand, perhaps not. Either way, I was delighted with this installment of Lord John's adventures and hope you feel the same.

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