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The Gilded Scarab (Lancaster's Luck,  #1)
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Ulysses Dietz | 1560 comments I try not to grant five stars to books, but I finally gave in as I finished Anna Butler’s “The Gilded Scarab.” This was such fun, so deeply romantic, and so richly written. I can imagine that people who have no liking for Dickens or Trollope might find it tough sledding, because Butler meticulously creates a parallel world to ours in late Victorian London, and embellishes it with details that are historically accurate, even as she envelops her narrative in a savory steampunk fantasy that throws everything just a little bit off.

The aged Queen Victoria still lives, and rules a vast Imperium Britannicum without benefit of Parliament. Instead, her aristocracy is divided into corporate “houses” bound by blood and money, each of them somewhere between the family houses of the “Dune” novels and the mafia clans of “The Godfather” books. While the houses rule the empire largely through business and financial manipulation, there is rather more assassination going on than is strictly comforting. Londinium is still mostly recognizable, but for the fact that horses and other pre-technological notions have been replaced by cold fusion, phlogiston and aether as power sources. A nod to H.G. Wells reminds us of the setting and the author’s mindfulness of precisely what she is doing.

The central character, through whose damaged eyes we see Butler’s fantasy world, is Rafe Lancaster, black sheep of a cadet branch of a minor house. Bereft of the aerofighter career that had made his name in the Queen’s army, Lancaster quietly returns to Londinium (indeed the original Roman name for that city) and tries to build a new life for himself. Soon after his return, he spends one night with a beautiful man in an elegant Covent Garden molly house – a discreet place for men seeking male companionship – and then finds a haven in a run-down coffee house by the Museum Britannicum. The action of the book is surprisingly small in focus, and all of it derives from these two moments in Lancaster’s rebuilt life.

Butler is as careful with language as she is with seemingly minor details. The names of the various houses smack of pre-modern England, suggesting their antiquity and their sources in the mists of history post-1066. This is a world where everyone speaks English, but in which street signs still use Latin. Butler gets the feel of the place and the time, right down to a visit to Garrard’s, the royal jewelers. This is not grandstanding; it roots the narrative in a kind of authenticity that makes the steampunk fantasy flow logically into the historical framework. There are times when the dialogue veers into more modern idiom, but the author is careful to maintain the tone of Sherlock Holmes (who does NOT appear anywhere here, because, after all, he was fictional) so as not to break the spell of her skillful world-building.

In the end, this is a romance. It is about Rafe Lancaster’s discovery of love in a way he never anticipated, in a world he is trying to re-learn. There is a very Victorian approach to love here, very old-fashioned and genteel – even in the context of molly houses and illegal homosexuality. And yet, through it all, Anna Butler gives her readers a very modern vision: a world where love will find a way and change a man’s life.


Ulysses Dietz | 1560 comments The Jackal’s House (Lancaster's Luck, #2) by Anna Butler
The Jackal’s House (Lancaster’s Luck, #2)
By Anna Butler
Dreamspinner Press, 2017
Five stars

Steampunk is the mashup of historical and science fiction. It takes significant writing chops to pull off any steampunk setting, but to create a world rooted in real history and overlay it with a steampunk context—parallel universe style—is an even trickier feat. Anna Butler accomplishes this neatly in her second novel in the “Lancaster’s Luck” series.

You isn’t absolutely necessary to have read the first book, “The Gilded Scarab,” which speaks volumes about the quality and inherent pleasure of this story. However, the truth is that it is more fun to start this book and to have bits and pieces of the first tale resurface in your memory, as the complex setting for Rafe Lancaster’s story comes to life again. We’re in an England where the influence of the Roman Empire never died out, and the capital of the Britannic Imperium is still Londinium. British aristocracy did not evolve along the lines of the hierarchy of nobles and titles familiar to us today, but according to two tiers of Houses, major and minor, who form essentially what are large corporate families of blood alliances. It is this peculiar, blatantly commercial, aristocracy that controls the economy of the Imperium and all its colonies across the world. One is tempted to think of the Medici or the Borgias, or even the Corleones; but one could just as easily imagine them as Rockefellers or Vanderbilts, Gates or Waltons. The uniting threads are money, power, and blood.

Rafe Lancaster is the younger son of the cadet branch of a minor (but powerful) House—Straviagor—known for its global trade and ability to generate income for the imperial coffers in Londinium. An imperial pilot warrior invalided out of the service due to eye troubles, Rafe yearns for nothing more than to run his cozy little coffee shop in the heart of the capital, across from the Britannic Imperium Museum.

But who should appear in his coffee shop but a beautiful blond archaeologist from the museum named Ned Winter. Ned, as it happens, is the First Heir of the House Gallowglass, the crown prince of the most powerful House in all the Imperium. Falling in love with one of the most powerful men in the empire makes it hard to keep a low profile, especially if your family is particularly ruthless and opportunistic. This is the driving motif of “The Jackal’s House.”

The second volume carries Ned and Rafe’s relationship forward, but it is simply the shining gem in a rich and complex setting. The particular complications in this tale are a trip to Aegypt for Ned’s ongoing dig at the Temple of Seti I at Abydos (a real place, by the way, look it up); and Ned’s older son, the seven-year-old Harry. Yes, Ned was married, and faithful, only freed from those constraints by the death of his young wife. Butler takes us on a journey familiar to anyone who has read any of the Amelia Peabody novels by Elizabeth Peters, weaving in the personal and the historical, spicing it with all the delicious exoticism of steampunk technology.

Butler gets the language right. She tips, quite consciously, into contemporary speech patterns, but never quite loses touch with the elegantly stilted English of Victorian Britain. Another of the chief pleasures of her writing is her ability to combine Jane Austen levels of emotional restraint with the contextual vividness of Dickens or Trollope. The text fairly thrums with unexpressed emotion.

The only divergence from Butler’s careful world-making are the extended, well-written, but ultimately (for this reader) distracting scenes of lovemaking between Rafe and Ned. This, so patently a requirement of the market for whom Butler writes, pulls the reader out of the plot and into the world of M/M romance. Of course I would hope to have some physical intimacy between Rafe and Ned…it is a romance adventure and it is the twenty-first century. The fact is that Butler conveys the passion and the sensual attraction between Ned and Rafe beautifully and constantly throughout the story. The detailed sex scenes actually are pointless—something like describing in detail the way a phlogiston-driven weapon operates in the middle of a fight scene. As well written as they are, they feel like obligations fulfilled, rather than essential parts of the plot.

As a gay male reader, what matters to me is the emotional reality of this relationship, imprisoned in the conventions and unjust laws of Victorian Britain. I want to know how these two still-young men are going to make their relationship work in the fact of massive social and cultural hurdles. I want to see how far they will go for each other. Anna Butler does this beautifully and movingly. This is at the very core of any successful historical gay romance: how do you make a same-sex relationship plausible historically and also relatable to a modern reader? Butler succeeds completely.

The sex is mostly for an audience that doesn’t really care much about gay history and how that colors the lives of gay couples today. Those readers and readers like me have different agendas.

That said, Anna Butler is a brilliant writer and a fantastic storyteller. I can’t wait for the third book, because Rafe Lancaster and Ned Winter are all the world to me.


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