Wicked Gentlemen, Ginn Hale’s first novel, contains two connected novellas following the same characters, although they are each told from the viewpoint of a different protagonist. It was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in the Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror category in 2007 and it won the Spectrum Award for Best Novel of 2008. According to the publisher’s website, Hale is working on a sequel, which I am now eagerly awaiting because I loved this book.
The first story is told from the first person perspective of Belimai Sykes, a Prodigal (a descendant of demons). The setting is an alternative Victorian city in which the devils left hell and repented of their sins in exchange for salvation. Three hundred years later, their ancestors are still easily marked by their long black fingernails and yellow eyes, and in spite of their submission to the Inquisition, they are still feared and repressed by humans. After being tortured by the Inquisition, Belimai lives a rather solitary life ruled by his addiction to the drug ophorium.
One night, Belimai answers a knock at his door to find Captain Harper of the Inquistion and his brother-in-law, Dr. Edward Talbott. Somehow Captain Harper came across Belimai’s old business cards and would like for him to investigate the disappearance of his sister Joan. Joan was involved with a group called Good Commons, which sought after more rights for women and Prodigals, and Harper suspects that her sudden vanishing is related to letters she had received from a Prodigal member of Good Commons. Since she is a lady of good breeding, Harper would like to keep her affiliation with Prodigals secret, which is why he enlists the help of Belimai instead of aid from the Inquisition. Intrigued, Belimai agrees to try to find out what happened to the woman. Harper has Joan’s friend from Good Commons held for questioning and believes that would be a good place to start the investigation, particularly since he may be more comfortable revealing information to another Prodigal. However, when Harper and Belimai arrive at the cell, they find the man killed in a most violent manner.
The second story takes place after this one and is told from the third person perspective of Harper, who encounters a murdered woman at the beginning of the novella. It answers some of the questions raised in the first half of the book, so I’m not going to talk about it too much. There is an epilogue at the end that returns to the perspective of Belimai (who is also present in Harper’s story – even with separate sections, the book is overall connected).
Wicked Gentlemen is one of those books that falls into the category of my type of book. It’s dark, character-driven and set in a fascinating fantasy world that sets a great backdrop for the story without overwhelming the focus on the protagonists and plot. As the story unfolds, more about the universe is revealed as well as more about the character’s histories and what motivates them. This was one of those books that I did not rush through, eager to find out what happened and then move on to the next book. Rather, I took my time reading it and often went back to reread parts of it.
In many ways, this novel reminded me somewhat of one of my favorite series, The Doctrine of Labyrinth by Sarah Monette. Due to the much shorter page count, Wicked Gentlemen is not nearly as in-depth nor is it quite as mature or well-written as Monette’s series, although it does get to the heart of the plot much faster and the minor characters have more personality. However, it does have that same atmosphere of a dangerous city and the dynamic relationship between two men who are very similar yet different. Both Belimai and Harper are rather private people, but while Belimai tends to hide his true feelings under snarky comments and sarcasm, Harper is more serious and a little more likely to open up to the right person. Even so, Harper does have some of his own personal demons that he has always lied about, including his true attitude toward Prodigals. There is some romance, but that’s not the main center of attention in this story although there is more time spent on the relationship in the second half of the book than the first.
In the first story, I enjoyed Belimai’s perspective so much that I wasn’t sure how much I’d like the second part when it switched perspectives. Harper seemed so normal and level-headed in comparison to the tormented Belimai, who had to live with being an outcast part-demon and his past encounter with the Inquisition that led to his drug addiction. With all his problems, Belimai was a fascinating personality to read about, plus he was unusual since he was not human and had some powers. I did not need to fear – although it took longer to get to it, it did become apparent that Harper had his own issues and he turned out to be far more interesting than I ever would have guessed from the first novella.
The writing was also fairly strong and provided some wonderful insights into both main protagonists. Sometimes I felt there were too many short sentences together in a row, making the prose seem choppy at times. For instance, I really liked how the second chapter described Belimai’s view of the Inquisition, but at the same time it sounded rather clipped and not quite as polished as it could have:
That was the true horror of the Inquisition’s inner chambers. It was there in every pair of those unwavering eyes. The Inquisition would expose every inch of you. They discovered every function and flaw of your naked, shaking body. They dug every fear and shame out of its safe darkness. Sweet, private secrets and half-forgotten crimes, even those petty lies of vanity – none of them could be hidden. The Confessors extracted desire and illusion like rotten teeth.
And then perhaps you would die. (pp. 25)
There were many sections such as this one where I loved the general writing style but felt it would have flowed a lot better if some of those sentences had been longer. Quite a few typos also came up, which I know really has nothing to do with the strength of the novel, but I do tend to notice those things so it jars me out of the story.
The only other complaint (if you can call it that) I have about this novel is that it was too short – I would have liked to have read more in depth about Harper and Belimai, their adventures and the world Hale has created. It was over far too quickly, but while more time spent with this book would have been nice it’s certainly better than droning on for so long that reading it becomes tiresome. Not once did I want this book to be over, and it’s definitely made me want the sequel as soon as possible.
Wicked Gentlemen is an excellent debut with an intriguing alternate history, some complex characters, and some well-written descriptions and dialogue (even if sometimes not as smoothly constructed as it could be). Ginn Hale is an author whose work I will definitely be reading again.