It’s very, very rare that I only have praise for a book. But I just gotta say it: Wicked Gentlemen is a gem. Comprising of two shared-world novellas, this work centers on the adventures of Belimai Sykes, descendant of demons and survivor of the Inquisition’s torture chambers, and Captain William Harper, a deeply conflicted Inquisitor.
Sykes is a Prodigal. The Prodigals’ demonic ancestors were persuaded to give up ruling in Hell for a chance at redemption on Earth. Now, they’re the poorest of the poor, living in a smoky, toxic underground and working as maids, miners, and thieves. Prodigal children are often dragged into mission schools. To be seen using the legacies of their demon ancestors (like flight) is a quick way to make an appointment with a silvered prayer engine ready to engrave their skin with the fiery lines of poisonous Biblical verses. Belimai was captured by the priestly police, and lived through these tortures — for love. But, when they finally released him, he found himself both loveless and addicted to morphine.
Harper’s sister’s has got a secret, one that taints their family’s gentrified social status. When she disappears, Harper asks Belimai to find her. Part mystery, part steampunk, and all AWESOME, this partnership unveils church corruption, reveals Joan’s relationship to the Prodigal underground, and forces Harper and Belimai to confront their feelings for one another.
Here are the things I loved about this duology:
1. The world building. The whole Prodigals/demon thing was AMAZING, and Hale uses this to talk about classism, racism, institutionalized forms of both, passing, and faith.
2. The love between Belimai and Harper. Um… they are both so damaged, but love each other so much. <3 I love that it’s a canon gay romance, that even after they fall in love their characterizations remain consistent, and that Harper’s role as a representative of the state that fucked over Belimai’s life is something both wrestle with. I love that Belimai’s got relationships with and has had romantic entanglements with other Prodigals, so it’s not like he’s a tortured minority snowflake drifting about in a whites human-only world.
3. The elusive nature of the secondary characters. Joan, Harper’s sister, is only on stage for a few pages, but her presence (both the imagined good-girl of her husband’s grief, the beloved sister of Harper, and her slightly cracked reality) permeates the book. Normally, I’d be all what-the-fuck? over her symbolic utility to the other characters, but seriously, it’s as though she is profoundly DONE with all of them. She’s unknown because she wants to be, not because she’s a sphinx minx. I love the hints of the life she and her husband were leading at novel’s end, and the way that these hints pointed to Hale’s world-building, without letting that world-building overwhelm the characterization.
I’ve seen some reviewers complain about two things in regards to this novel. First, its structure. The first half is first-person, the second half is third. That’s honestly a dumb thing to complain about in a setting like this, since I think Hale is using that to decenter whiteness and privilege. Normally in a story like this, Harper would be the only narrator, since he’s the troubled white guy. And, he is, for the third-person second half. That half comes after Belimai’s first-person narrative, which is coated in bitterness, hope, and self-disgust. There’re things about Belimai and being a Prodigal that Harper cannot observe — they’re too deep and hurtful to share. Beginning with Belimai introduces those things to the reader, and it means that when Harper takes over, you’re struck by how much he’s changed and how different he remains from someone living in world consciously molded by continuous, constant, institutionalized hate. Hale’s choice to begin with Belimai’s story makes that experience central, pivotal, necessary, and real in a way that beginning with the dominant group member’s story would not have done. The other way around would have made Belimai’s life experiences a codicil to the “real” everyday lives of privilege seen in Harper’s tale.
I’ve also seen some reviewers complain about its length. Yes, it could have been longer. But, in a genre where it seems everyone’s just peeing out elaborate tomes hundreds of pages long, it’s nice to get something finely crafted, elegant, and short. After all, size isn’t every thing — there’s prosody too. Hale’s got that in spades.
Man oh man. Fun stuff. Anyways, here’s the author’s website if you want to take a peek.