Title: Moontusk: Rendezvous in a Ruined City
Author: Bruce Grether
Publisher: Lethe Press
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
In this intriguing and frankly erotic tale set in an intricately developed alternate world, the moon has rings, mammoths survive in the far north, and a patriarchal empire rules over provincial kingdoms where the Goddess is still revered. Legend tells that long ago the Gods sailed here from the East, but now this is a world of humans. Or is it?
At the heart of the Kemnoan Empire, in the imperial capital Ulan, handsome Prince Dare is the heir to the throne. But this restless young man flees from his duty on a journey of self-discovery with his chameleon cat, Maumet, as his only companion. Telling himself that he’s seeking enlightenment, Dare sets off on foot for the mountainous kingdom of Loonapoore, where sacred mammoths are revered. The Loonapoori term for enlightenment means “tusk of the moon.” As much as spiritual enlightenment, the young man really seeks the truth of the feelings and passions in his maturing body.
Meanwhile, a young Loonapoori noble named Hosis flees from his own family destiny riding on the back of a stolen mammoth cow. From separate directions, the two young men are pulled inexorably toward what will be to both a startling rendezvous and the beginning of an epic adventure together. Accompanied by the mysterious Lady Dee, they will journey to the South Seas to seek the fabled Dream Orchid, said to bestow either enlightenment or death.
Along the way Dare encounters both the threat—and the promise—of alluring erotic fulfillment.
I have never rushed to finish a book as I did with the first of the Moontusk Chronicles, “Rendezvous in a Ruined City; not because I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out, but because I wanted it to be over.
And yet, I have given it four stars. Ah, there lies the paradoxical rub. To explain, I’ll have to write a two-part review, the second part being filled with spoilers that many of you will want to avoid.
Bruce Grether is not the most elegant writer of this type of fiction I’ve encountered, but he creates lovely visual imagery on the page, allowing the reader to see the complex architectural and geographic settings that frame the adventures upon which the characters embark. For example, we read early on: “As Dare approached the western side of Ulan, the squared precinct of an Othis temple loomed near, its obelisk a sharp sword of insistence.” Nice.
There is a lot of wonderful world-building here. Grether has created a planet, long ago and far-far-away, with a moon that has rings, and whose topography is as alien as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, while remaining uncannily evocative of our own terra firma. Clearly the author is familiar with Tibet and Himalayan culture (and Indian culture and other Asian cultures). There is a savory mix of all of these, right down to parallels for the unique “sky burials” of Tibet. Indeed, Dare’s quest seems something like Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s quest that transformed him into Buddha.
Grether gives us a good many of these nice passages, his pacing is fine, and he lures the reader into the action through the well-drawn points-of-view of the three main characters—as well as, quite wonderfully, from the perspective of a female mammoth.
That’s right, a mammoth. The overarching religious culture of this world, with all of its ethnicities and sectarian friction, focuses on the sacred mammoth herds that roam the impenetrable mountains of the High Hotal and are the special privileged creatures of the noble Tang Lords who rule the kingdom of Loonapoor.
Our two heroes are both runaways, both from ruling houses, and both of them, supposedly, gay. Darrow Miznevet, known as Dare, flees the murderous byzantine politics of his family’s imperial compound (one thinks of Beijing’s Forbidden City), hoping to find his world’s version of Nirvana. Hosis Bar Sun, the presumptive heir of the Tang lords in Far Loon’s ivory palace (Tibet’s Potala Palace), is running away from his hateful father and the painful memory of his beloved older brother, who died too soon.
And then there’s the mysterious auburn-haired Lady Dee, who plays what is undoubtedly a catalytic role, half religious and half political, in this ongoing saga.
I found myself engaged in the narrative quite quickly, once I caught the rhythm of Grether’s writing and began to see the imagery with which he presents his readers. The book became a page turner until a point about midway through, and that’s when I hit my rough spot.
If you like what you read above, you’ll want to read this, and probably the entire series of four Moontusk novels.
I, on the other hand, will not read beyond this volume, and I only finished it because I owed Prism a review of it. If you want to know why, read on, but there are spoilers aplenty.
Bottom line: whatever its qualities, this is not an M/M book, as I was lead to believe. Whatever the author might think, it is an M/F/M book. And that is not what I want to read. Ever.
Prince Dare knows very well that he’s only attracted to men. But he’s inexperienced and very much in denial, consistently telling prospective male sex partners (who, all things considered, present themselves to him quite frequently) “I can’t do anything for you, I’m not that kind of man.” This I can forgive, because haven’t we all been there? (OK, no, I was never there. I was scared, but I never would have refused to reciprocate, but that’s me.)
Prince Hosis, on the other hand, in spite of his country’s obsessive modesty customs, has been having sex (and sophisticated, highly calculated professional-quality sex) with the beautiful male keepers of his family’s herd of sacred mammoths for years. He knows he’s gay.
And yet, halfway through the book, Dare encounters the beautiful and cultured Lady Dee, and commences an avid sexual relationship with her that gets more page time than any of the same-sex adventures in the book, up to the very end.
I know that lots of readers of M/M fiction (largely the female readers, I’d guess) also read M/F fiction. But as a gay male reader of M/M fiction, I must make it clear that I read gay romance specifically because I need a retreat from the omnipresent heterosexual tsunami that makes up our modern culture. I see straight couples every day, walking arm in arm, smooching on the train platform as we wait for our morning commute; cuddling up in restaurants and movie theaters and museums and every-damn-where I go.
I do NOT want het sex anywhere on-screen in my leisure reading. [Note: I just finished re-reading the wonderful and important “The World According to Garp” by John Irving for my straight guy book group—don’t ask—and this is a book that is seething with straight sex from start to finish. I was counting on “Moontusk” as an antidote from all this heterosexual lust.]
To have what I presume is a gay male author, whose book covers show only Dare and Hosis, undressed, cuddling each other, bestow all the sexual prowess in this supposedly gay romance on a woman, hit me with a sense of disorientation and betrayal that never left. It ruined the book for me.
But, even after Lady Dee and Dare begin to bonk routinely, I gamely plugged away, hoping that it would lead to Dare finding his true soulmate with Hosis. And, while that begins to happen at the very end, it is Lady Dee who has sex with Hosis (in spite of the fact that he’s gay and not attracted to women) in order to turn Dare on enough to make him accept Hosis’s physical advances. WTF?
By the time I got to the climactic sex scene between Dare and Hosis, I was so unhappy and, frankly, peeved, that I skimmed through it with no pleasure.
First, as a Kinsey 6 gay man, this is not the way it happens. This, to me, is a straight man’s fantasy of how gay men do it; or, possibly, a straight woman’s fantasy of how gay men do it. Bisexual friends of mine might love this book (in fact I might recommend it to get their response). But gay men? I don’t think so.
I’ll note here, to be candid, that the same friend recommended Fiona Patton’s “The Stone Prince” to me, and I couldn’t read that either, for the same reason.
Maybe it’s just me. But Lady Dee’s role in this completely spoiled the gay romance of it and trivialized the gay sexuality, making it into a foible, a sideline to the real deal, het sex.
So, caveat emptor and all that. Grether’s a good writer, but he lost me forever. Too bad, I was so looking forward to this series.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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