For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers.
Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse for war with the Ottoman
Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer-a secret punishable by death.
With the arrival of his former captain-and lover-on the scene, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John.
Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, piracy and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa, from the Arctic to the West Indies, in search of a safe harbor.
Eighty pairs of eyes watched John as he came up the side and strode stiffly to the Météore‘s small quarterdeck. Taking off his hat, he turned to face his crew, noting the slack, bruised faces of men with scurvy, the nose-less, crusted features of those whom pox was slowly consuming from within. The Master was barely being held up by his mate, his linen drabbed with wine-stains. The single midshipman picked his nose as he slouched by his division, then spat over the side. Only the new lieutenant stood straight and alert, in newly laundered dress uniform, his wig powdered, his buttons gleaming and his pale brows arched a little in amusement as he watched John struggle with hat and paper in the increasing wind.
John fumed inwardly at the slackness, the disrespect as well as the waste of lives. Opening Admiral Saunders’ letter he read it aloud in a firm, positive tone, reading himself in as captain, telling them whence his authority came and warning that he had the right to govern and punish as he saw fit. Some of his anger wound its way into his voice, making it snap like the cat, and the more alert members of the crew stood straighter by the end of it.
Hoping to find at least one other person aboard competent to do their job, John was about to quiz the volunteer, when his thoughts were instantly dashed as the huddle of warrant officers parted to reveal the modest black dress and white lace bonnet of an elderly lady. John bowed over the twigs of her fingers, reeling. ‘The Doctor’s wife, Mrs Harper’, a voice informed him, and ‘charmed’ he said, mechanically. They’d sent a woman on board! In God’s holy name-knowing what they knew-they’d allowed not merely a woman, but a lady on board! The blood drained from his face, then returned, thundering and stinging in his ears. A victim. Are we to put up a plucky resistance and then be sunk, so that the outrage may provide an excuse for war? So that the First Lord may say ‘see, we don’t scruple to spare even our women in the pursuit of this menace?’ It was despicable.
His head throbbed suddenly, pain winding up from his clenched teeth to lance through his temples into his eyes. Giving orders to set sail, to clean the decks, and paint a properly anglicized Meteor over the name on the stern, he waited until the life of the ship around him settled into its routine, then ducked into the captain’s cabin to think. But the ruin he found seemed to mock him. The French captain’s cot lay slashed on the floor, stern lockers and all the chests broken open and ransacked.
“A right fucking pig’s ear they’ve made of this, sir,” the voice of his steward grated along his spine, making him straighten up, instinctively. Turning, he found Japheth Higgins looming behind him with John’s portmanteau propped against his hip and his sea-chest dragged by one handle from the other hand. An orange brute, Higgins had a tendency to appear out of random shadows, like the Borneo wild man.
“I thought I told you to stay on the flagship, Higgins.”
“You was having a little laugh, though, right sir? ‘Cos you wouldn’t leave me behind, not was you Admiral of the White.” Higgins dropped the sea-chest by way of final punctuation and scratched his ginger sideburns with a tobacco-stained finger.
John laughed around the queasiness in his throat. An unusual fairy godmother Higgins made, to be sure, but it was true. Assigned to him as a sea-daddy on his first ship, set by the captain to teach the infant young gentleman the ropes-and to make sure he was not too homesick, too lonely, or too much picked on-Higgins had been with him ever since. Now he couldn’t even say “I was trying to keep you safe, you fool,” without spreading rumors he did not need the rest of the crew to hear.
“Not a very good joke, I’m afraid,” he said instead. “I’m sorry Higgins. I’m glad you’re here. See what you can do to sort this mess out, would you? I’m going for the tour.”
Choosing not to notice as he passed the Master retching into a bucket, John paced the length of the gun-deck. Lighting the lantern he had taken from the midshipmen’s berth, he descended to the lightless lowest deck, past the carpenter’s workroom and the gunner’s stores, and so back again to the grated area where the anchor cables were laid to dry. Trying to calm his mind, he strode out nervous and filled with a lightning of energy he had to out-walk before he could think.
On the cable tier, absolute darkness pressed inwards around the circle of his light. Water trickled, glistening, down the Meteor’s flexing sides, the sound of it sweet in the silences between waves. A stench came from the hold, seeping up through the holes of the deck. Below the latticework of planks on which he stood, the ballast of gravel below stirred with a great hiss, like the tide rolling over a beach. Not all the anxiety in the world could prevent him from making a note to order the pumps set working at once.
Around him, on either side, the anchor cables lay coiled, water dripping from them, falling as an indoor rain through the gratings to join the water in the hold beneath his feet. Footsteps knocked on the deck above him but, down here, dark, quiet and solitude calmed him. Breathing in, he sighed, the spring of his anger easing enough to allow thought. It was too early to despair. Somehow, he would complete this mission and return as the hero Saunders described. Or at the least, he would complete the mission while keeping his crew alive, from the old lady to the youngest powder monkey. Here in this waiting space, this space between worlds, as he thought of it, it was easier to believe.
Straightening his back even further, an ache like a fist between his shoulder blades, he picked his way back through the coils of hawser. They rose like cliffs on either side and, as he walked, his lantern light mingled with a growing brown gloom that spilled in from the doorway. There, in the narrow gap between John and the main companionway, stood the volunteer–Lt. Donwell, he reminded himself from the orders–with his wig off and his bold eyes glimmering gold as John raised his lantern to look at him. Walking forward, John expected the man to yield, to step back and let him out. Mere inches separated them by the time it dawned on him that Donwell was not going to move. Confusion striking through him, obliterating even the dread from moments ago, he pulled himself back from a collision only just in time. The skirts of their coats brushed, sending a jolt of invasion through him from thigh to shoulders. What the devil?
His mouth dried as a wave of prickly embarrassment swept over him, bringing guilt in its wake. Yet what had he done wrong? It was Donwell who should flinch, who should feel guilty, who should not be smiling so! John could not wrench his gaze away from Donwell’s face. Limned with gold, it was perfectly nondescript; round, pleasant, and completely lacking in self-conscious guilt. Donwell’s mouth quirked up at one side into a slow, charming smile. And his presence! It was extraordinary. It beat on John’s skin like strong sunshine. He fought the urge to close his eyes and bathe in it. His pulse picked up, waiting, waiting for something….
Returning sanity hit him in the face. He snapped, “Get out of my way! Don’t you know who I am!”
Donwell’s smile only broadened. John thought the man would at least salute, but he just passed a hand through the loose blond curls of his hair and stepped away. “I’d know you anywhere, sir.”
“I’ll have a little more respect from you in future, Mister.”
“You may have whatever you like.”
Speech deserted John once more. Aware he should act now to regain the initiative, he had no idea what to do. Instead he pushed past, feeling the man’s gaze on the back of his neck like warm breath, and tried to tell himself that he made a dignified exit. But if the truth be told it was a flight, spooked as a partridge from the covert.
From the Dear Author website:
Rarely, oh so rarely, I’ll read a book that is so sublime, so transcendent, I actually come away from it a little melancholy, because it’s over and I can never read it for the first time ever again, because I know I’ll never be able to do justice to it in my review or analysis, and because I know I won’t meet its equal for many a year. But the process of devouring the book, of eking out its layered, textured meaning, of savoring its descriptions, and the emotions–oh, the emotions!–leaves me flying for days and the melancholy only makes it all the sweeter.
This is one of those books. It ravished me. It scoured my insides. I feel like I’m stuck in it and I don’t ever want to get out.
From the Salt Lake City Weekly in Utah
The folks at Running Press have sent us another “M/M romance,” False Colors, a story populated by many strapping sailors (oh, yes, we like the sound of this!)
“There are a very few books on my list of “essential reads” for anyone interested in Gay Historical Fiction. The Charioteer, At Swim Two Boys, As Meat Loves Salt and now False Colors.
Yes, it’s that good. If you are interested in the genre at all, or are planning to write the genre in future I hold up False Colors and say “this is how it should be done.””
Reviews from readers
From Jessica at the Read React Review blog “It is sometimes said that genre fiction is about plot and character, while literary fiction is about language and Big Ideas. I have the perfect book to recommend to anyone who persists in that false belief.”
From Lisa at Michele n Jeff Reviews it is indeed everything that romantic tragedy embodies: overwhelming odds, impossible choices, demonic forces—both within and without—conflict with society, powerlessness, human limitations, forbidden love, and the loss of what might have been. All are present in this book and each is explored beautifully.
See the advert in Romantic Times here 🙂
False Colors in the Newspapers
Jezebel.com – What women want, gay male sex. <http://jezebel.com/5296884/what-women-want-gay-male-sex>
Zipper Rippers – Baltimore City Paper <http://www.citypaper.com/arts/story.asp?id=18234>
Columbus News – Male Lovers, Female Readers <http://www.theotherpaper.com/articles/2009/04/23/arts/doc49f0736039a3f331393849.txt>
SN&R > Arts&Culture > The Brokeback effect > 06.04.09 <http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/content?oid=1002345>
New Haven Advocate (also in Fairfield Weekly) All Male Review <http://www.newhavenadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=12690>
Is That a Bellows in Your Tunic? – Books – The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper <http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/is-that-a-bellows-in-your-tunic/Content?oid=1634459>
Library Journal – if it ain’t Brokeback <http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6650980.html>
If you enjoyed False Colors, you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy the other books in Running Press’s line too: Transgressions by Erastes, Tangled Web by Lee Rowan, and Lover’s Knot by Donald Hardy.