Review*: False Colors, by Alex Beecroft (*kinda)

This isn’t going to be a traditional review, because the only one of those that you need to read was written in April 2009, by Sarah/Joan, Dear Author, A. I see from my own comments at Dear Author that I downloaded False Colors to my Kindle on the basis of that review. I could kick myself for having waited over a year to actually read it. It was terrific.

The blurb (click here for an excerpt):

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.

I’ll just discuss a few of the things that I most enjoyed about False Colors:

Both John and Alfie have significant, interesting character arcs. Alfie begins as “An old country lawyer’s son with nothing more to his name than his sea-chest” who does things by “hard work and charm”. He is “confident in his natural invulnerability”.  Another important character,  Captain Farrant describes Aflie this way:

And the man was made for smiling. Farrant wouldn’t have looked twice at him, sober-faced, but with that little grin he became a point of light and warmth in an otherwise dingy universe.

Alfie has blond hair, and Beecroft uses metaphors of sun and light to both describe Alfie and to illuminate (heh) John’s attraction to him, and attitude towards him. Here’s captain John’s first impression of his new lieutenant:

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….

As a philosopher well acquainted with Plato, it’s hard for me to not see connections between the sun, light, truth, and beauty. For Plato, the move from mere belief to real knowledge, from illusion to reality, was always at the same time a move from injustice to justice, and from ugliness to beauty. I’ve rarely read a book in which all of the aspects of this journey was so movingly or realistically portrayed. Especially in lines like this:

Yet now it was as if his eyes had been opened. Blind, he hadn’t seen the beauty that surrounded him, but Alfie had given him sight. … The naval routine around him was familiar as the rhythm of his breathing. But he began to dimly discern another world within it; jealousies too sharp for friendship, smiles too radiant.

But Alfie is not just some one dimensional savior who brings John out of the closet into the light. Alfie is not a fixed point around which John’s character arcs. He is vulnerable, he is naive, he makes bad choices, he holds grudges. This is his story as much as it is John’s.

I found it remarkable that Beecroft conveyed John’s sexuality so clearly in the pages when it was utterly repressed without making me feel like the writer had taken over the narrating duties.

John’s journey may sound very familiar to readers of gay romance: self-denying, he views his attraction to men — so repressed he doesn’t even feel it at first — as alien, aberrant, an unwelcome trespasser in the terrain of his real self. Yet the way it unfolded felt very unique and fresh. I especially appreciated the way John’s deep religious faith was not abandoned, but transformed. From using prayer as a distraction useful for repressing his sexuality, he moves to using it to ask for relief from it: “You made me what I am. Help me. Give me the strength to resist this.” He questions his religion and his understanding of God, without rejecting it. Finally, “Unexpectedly, he found himself thanking God in his daily prayers for leading him out of darkness into light.”

John’s morality is at first extremely superficial and rigid. The rules are clear, and one need only follow them. But this too gives way to a more sophisticated and subtle understanding of the moral universe and his place within it. Mature moral agents recognize that moral duties can conflict, and only a person of discernment an sensitivity will know what to do when that happens.

He had to lie. A night spent sleepless, praying, and wandering about his rooms until his healing frame would bear it no longer, had lead him inexorably to the conclusion that he should lie—that Alfie deserved this sacrifice of his personal honor. More, that honesty might require execution but justice could not possibly do so. That it was therefore somehow morally right to lie.

So many things he had taken for granted now needed thought. So many assumptions were proved unsound. Though this path had led him into needful lies, he still felt as though he more nearly approached a true understanding of himself and the world.

I haven’t even touched here on the naval aspect of the story. Suffice it to say that this is a completely successful adventure at sea novel, and not a second or a separate novel for that. The thrilling battles, the fascinating journeys, the lushly rendered ports, the machinations of the admiralty, all fit seamlessly with not just the romance plot and main protagonists, but — remarkably — parallel in important ways the major themes of the book — duty, conflict of duty, self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, friendship.

I also haven’t mentioned one of the main pleasures I took in reading False Colors: the writing. I can’t count the number of times I stopped to reread a beautiful passage. My Kindle notes number in the dozens of pages. Here are just a couple of examples:

“No.” John’s conscience, never very quiescent, raised its head like a gazelle scenting a lion on the wind. “Permission denied.”

The ship, which had begun to feel like home, took on a strange unreality, and when the lookout shouted “land ho!” from the masthead there was a moment in which Alfie did not understand the words and could not make himself move. Then the needs of the sea returned to him and he checked helm and wind, and called out, “Port your helm, four points south south east.” The ship responded, the crew moving out of their shocked stillness with relief, and a smattering of voices began to stitch the silence back into a more human garment.

We share a deviancy we must pay for with lives of exemplary duty. That’s all. You will get yourself hanged if you try to think otherwise.”

Somewhere in his inner world, he was screaming. He could feel it; all his emotions held away like a fire behind a sheet of glass. It was better to concentrate on the cold, the crystals of frost in his blood with their sharp little edges, the desolate moony white of winter; deep under snow.

He felt as though Alfie’s confession in Gibraltar had set him on a long, complex calculation. All his process of self-examination this last year had been working out the sums in the margins. But Alfie…Alfie was the answer.

And finally, as a romance reader, I took pleasure in the ways this book pushed the boundaries of genre. True to the adventure at sea subgenre, John and Alfie are separated for long periods as they end up on different ships. During the separation, Alfie has another relationship. In this, Beecroft was being true to that character: Alfie can’t live without loving someone, caring for someone. It’s who he is, a trait which poses some of his greatest challenges, even greater challenges than his sexuality.  But it is not true to romance genre restrictions to write a believable triangle (Alfie has sex with his other lover after falling in love with John). As a reader, I am glad Beecroft made the choices she did, and I would hardly call this book less romantic for them.

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.

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Thrifty Reader, A

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