Author ~ Michael Jensen
Publisher ~ Simon & Schuster/Buddha Kitty Books
Published ~ 29 November 2016
Genre ~ Gay Historical Romance, Thriller
What is the line that separates man from beast?
The year is 1797, and 24-year-old John Chapman is lost on the American frontier with winter falling fast. Near death, he stumbles upon a lone cabin, and the owner, a rugged but sexy frontiersman named Daniel McQuay, agrees to let John winter over.
John and Daniel quickly find themselves drawn to each other, the sex between them unlike anything John has ever known. But as the weeks turn into snowbound months, Daniel begins to change into someone brutish, and the line between man and beast disappears.
With the arrival of spring, John flees, eventually finding refuge in the company of a group of frontier outcasts, including a brash young settler named Palmer. But in the wilds of this savage land, love is not so easily tamed, and John soon finds himself calling upon the raging animal within him to save the man he loves.
Man & Beast, which The Advocate calls “equal parts romance novel and history lesson, heaped with sex and violence,” is the first book in the Savage Lands, a series that celebrates the untold gay history of the American frontier. Man & Beast is for fans of Harper Fox, Jerry Cole, K.J. Charles, and Mary Renault, as well as anyone who enjoys pulse-pounding suspense and romance.
(Man & Beast was previously published under the title Frontiers.)
It’s the late eighteenth century and John Chapman is on the run after his relationship with a British Major is discovered and their cover dramatically blown.
Lured by the promise of land and supplies, John chases his dream of a cabin in the wilderness, all the way to the West.
On arriving in Warren (not that he knows he’s there given it comprises of one stone cabin), half dead of exposure, he meets Daniel, a wild frontiersman with the body of a god – a short god, but a damn sexy one – and the temperament of a thoroughly whiskey-soaked Irishman.
Somehow, John has to manoeuvre around Daniel’s terrible temper and his hot/cold attentions, to not only stay alive through the winter, but to keep alive in the uncompromising territory of the American West.
Learning to survive isn’t as easy as he thinks, as he’s no survivalist, as Daniel keeps reminding him, but he’s eager to learn. Nothing’s easy, but when he’s literally up to his neck (from the top down) in moose guts he thinks it couldn’t get harder. He’s wrong.
Come spring, he discovers a terrible secret that has him running for his life from an evil monster in the form of mass murderer and arch deceiver, Zach.
Escaping Zach’s evil clutches, John finally finds his Idyll only to discover it’s not as idyllic as it seems. However, after having found good friends in the enigmatic Indian, Gwennie and the equally enigmatic Palmer, he begins to think he can actually do this. That is until trouble catches up and an explosive climax very nearly sees them all dead.
I don’t usually read historicals, although there have been more and more slipping in of late, but this one really hooked me. Capturing the grandeur and brutality of the early settlers in the American West, it provided me with a host of characters and situations I could really get my teeth into. Not for the faint-hearted, Man and Beast is not a romance, and not really a love story as relationships are just as brutal and fraught with danger as the land itself.
The first half of the book sees John and Daniel holed up in a cabin for the winter. Gradually John learns that Daniel is the front man for the company he’s been seeking and he must keep on his good side in order to get the supplies he needs come spring. He hovers between attraction and revulsion as Daniel blows hot and cold, sometimes drawing him in, inviting him into his bed and treating him to some beautiful erotic scenes and some hard loving. At other times he’s whiskey sodden and brutal. In between he reluctantly teaches John how to survive.
Daniel is a complex character I struggled hard to like. He’s rude, crude and brutal, with a softer side that’s rarely glimpsed but redeems him from being entirely unpalatable. Multi-faceted, he storms onto the page, grabs you by the throat, sticks a musket in your ear and dares you to make one wrong step so he can blow out your brains.
John Chapman is quite different. Struggling to escape a brutal past, cope with a brutal present and prepare for a brutal future, he’s buoyed by his dreams of living in a remote cabin and working the land in peace. For a long time, it seems he’s never going to achieve them. He’s a complex man who is entirely unprepared and ill equipped for life in the wilds. He learns a lot from Daniel, but it’s only the beginning.
After escaping the cabin in spring, he stumbles forward, seeking the town of Franklin where he believes he might at last achieve his goal of a simple, undisturbed life.
After falling in a river he’s saved by an enigmatic Indian woman who leads him to an abandoned cabin that seems to tick all his boxes.
After meeting the formidable George Chase, he discovers he’s found Franklin and is welcomed into town with open arms – as long as he makes an effort to fit in. George lets him know in no uncertain terms that it’s fit in or get out, which isn’t exactly what John had in mind, especially when he meets the people he’s expected to fit in with. Without the Indian woman, Gwennie, and the alluring brother of the preacher, Palmer, he would likely have failed.
From this point, we meet a host of strong supporting characters - the inimitable Gwennie who saves John’s ass on numerous occasions, Palmer whose ass is important for much different reasons, Thomas the runaway slave, and George the blustering bossman with delusions of grandeur and an uncompromising determination to make Franklin succeed no matter how many balls he has to break to get there. Then there are William and Sylvie, a rough couple with too many children and a twenty-year-old daughter they desperately want to marry off to John. What a mixing pot.
The book gives us a window into a different time, when in the great melting pot of the Wild West, people are thrown together in a tough, uncompromising environment and left to get on with it. The good, the bad and the ugly, struggling to tame a wild land and its wilder inhabitants. It throws a harsh light on the early settlers and their relationships with each other and the natives they view as no better than animals. This is no “Little House on the Prairie” and dips its toes into horror on more than one occasions.
At the end of the book, when things are finally settling down and everyone has a fairly workable plan for moving ahead, the horror bursts out in no uncertain terms and there was a point when I thought no one was going to survive and the entire cast would be taken out by a monstrous and seemingly indestructible mad man.
Fortunately, not everyone dies and there is a pretty strong cast ready to take us forward into book two.
Given that I’ve broken out of my usual mould to dig into the story and rehash far more than I usually do, it should be obvious how much there is to get your teeth into and how much I love this book. Don’t read it if you’re looking for sweet romance, or if you have an image of the heroic settler with nice manners and noble intentions. You’ll be disappointed. This book is not a sanitized version of what went on but a realistic depiction of how hard it was back then and the kind of person you had to be, or become, to survive.
There’s plenty of horror, gore, evil, shocking tales and actions, but there’s also a certain kind of beauty and an understanding of how love can grow in the most inhospitable landscape and, like an apple seed, if tended with care can blossom into something that can overcome all obstacles and make even the harshest life worth living.
Meet Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen is an author and editor. His books of gay historical fiction include two series, The Drowning World, which is set in 5500 B.C., and The Savage Land, which takes place on the American frontier. Man & Monster, the second book in The Savage Land series, was a Lambda Award Finalist (under the title Firelands).
Michael is also the co-founder of AfterElton.com, which covered pop culture for gay and bisexual men, and eventually become one of the largest and most influential LGBT websites on the internet. In 2006, AfterElton.com was sold to MTV/Viacom in a multimillion dollar deal. As editor, Michael interviewed hundreds of writers, directors, and actors, breaking numerous stories and advancing the issue of LGBT visibility in Hollywood.
Michael lives in Seattle, WA with his husband, writer Brent Hartinger.