I thought it might be a mistake reading False Colors right after Transgressions, but despite similarities, they were quite different. While both are M/M romances with the same publisher and a strong sense of history, False Colors tells the story of both men equally, even when they are apart – sometimes separated by an ocean. While there is sex, and the language is frank (as the POV characters are British sailors), the sexual content is not as explicit, so it rates a “Hot” with the warning that this isn’t your mother’s “Hot” romance. However, as in Transgressions, history is shown with all its violence and disease, so the squeamish might want to look away. Also, the heroes spend a lot of time separated, and once they meet again, the real world intervenes in their relationship. I also preferred the way POV was handled in this book because the POV switched only between scenes.
The straight-laced John Cavendish knows that his first command, on board the Meteor, is a suicide mission. With a small ship and a crew of outcasts, he’s expected to stop the slave trade in Algiers – for the Ottoman Empire has been taking British citizens as slaves. The on board presence of Lieutenant Alfie Donwell also disturbs him, although John can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it’s because he verges on insubordination. They do become friends, and their friendship is tempered by a dangerous rescue and by fierce battles at sea. Each man, in turn, must save the other and help nurse the other back to health. Alfie grows more attracted to John with every day, knowing this is risky because the British Navy hangs men for sodomy.
Everything changes when the HMS Britannia comes on the scene, bearing its notorious captain, Charles Farrant, Lord Lisburn. Farrant, Alfie’s first captain, dares to be flamboyant – and he can get away with it because of his position. Alfie tells John about his unrequited feelings for his old captain, hoping for understanding – reading the feelings that John doesn’t understand yet. But it’s too soon, and John reacts with horror. After that, Alfie realizes he has no choice but to transfer back to the HMS Britannia. Duty separates both men for a long time. Alfie acts on his old feelings for Farrant, finding respite in his arms. Meanwhile, John finds himself betrayed by the British Navy for doing his duties too well for political expediency in Algiers. This gives him time to ponder what happened, and he starts to doubt his initial reaction, starts to ponder his beliefs.
John eventually gets another position on a ship, although not a command, and life goes on for both men. Little do they know that they are bound to meet again. Once again, one man must be rescued, and another battle at sea must be fought. However, a tragic death at sea changes everything yet again, leading to a court martial, and to another crisis between the two men. Will the two ever repair their friendship? Will they ever risk their lives to go on to become more than just friends? Or will the past doom their relationship?
John was raised by a Quaker mother and a dissolute father, so he is straight-laced, but at the same time, he senses that he is missing something of the world. His duty wars with his feelings. When Alfie makes his admission to him, John at first wants to follow duty and report this crime, believing Alfie’s persuasion could be a danger to the crew and to society, but something in him keeps him from doing this. John begins to wonder if he has become a fanatic and if, by doing so, he has wronged his beliefs. But will understanding come too late? Later, he experiments with his budding sexuality when he learns of a underground club that caters to homosexual men, but while he finds passions he never knew he could feel, that encounter frightens him away.
Unlike John, Alfie understands his desires, although even the fearless Alfie knows to be cautious because his “persuasion” could easily cost him his life. His feelings for Farrant have left his life in a turmoil more than once. His feelings for John survive the disaster of his initial revelation, as well as the repeated separations. But those feelings might not survive when Alfie thinks John abandoned him at the worst possible time. This perceived betrayal verges on a big misunderstanding, and I was a little disappointed that it took a classic intervention by a third party to reveal the truth.
Although he doesn’t appear until far into the story, Farrant is one of the most important secondary characters. Because of his position in society, he is given more leeway. Yet at the same time, he is constricted by society; at any time, his father, a powerful duke, could revoke his protection. Society sees his preferences as an illness, so he is beset with a doctor who keeps dosing him with opiates as a “cure,” and he tries to be as good a husband as possible to an understanding wife. Older than the two heroes, he is outspoken, cynical, often cruel, and a tragic yet often sympathetic character.
The other secondary characters come to life as well, even those who spend only a little time on the page. They range from loyal men, like Higgins, John’s blunt servant, to the disreputable, like Hall, the purser of the Meteor. Some well-meaning men do evil, like Bentley, Farrant’s doctor, who thinks he is doing the right thing by giving Farrant his “cures” but who only creates disaster; with a tendency to blame Farrant’s “condition” on anyone but Farrant, he isn’t above betrayal. In his own single-minded way, he is as frightening as the brutal pirates. Even characters with a small role can come to life on the page, like “Sweet Bess,” the brutish yet at times surprisingly tender man who begins to initiate John in the underground club. This is a book filled with people rather than characters.
Although the sexual encounters in False Colors use frank language, they are not as explicit as those in most other m/m romances, nor are the encounters as frequent. Everything from John’s denial to separation keeps John and Alfie apart for a long time. Much of John’s yearning is internal, desires he can’t understand, such as dreams he can’t quite understand. It takes a long time before he can come to terms with it. That makes the eventual consummation so much sweeter.
Like Transgressions, False Colors lives and breathes history. Beecroft, who dedicated the book in part to Patrick O’Brian, makes you feel like you’re on a wooden ship visiting a sweltering exotic port or surviving the perilous arctic. History isn’t pretty, and the violence isn’t “PG-13” – men are blown apart or tortured by pirates, and men die grisly deaths from yellow fever. At the same time, beyond the blood, there are lots of great little details that bring the ships to life. As a lover of classical music, I was also pleasantly surprised when John joined Alfie in song and turned out to be a counter-tenor, not something I ever expected from a romance hero.
Of course, m/m romances aren’t your typical romance novel. When two men are bound in both love and conflict, the stories can go different ways. In some stories, the men come together in violence. Rest assured that this isn’t one of them. Also, while John and Alfie do spend much of the time apart, they are often forced to work together, and their conflicts help move the story forward, being as much a part of the book as the slavers and pirates.
The last two books I have reviewed show how different two books can be even when they are in the same subgenre. While Transgressions emphasized the story of one of the heroes over the other, False Colors gave both men equal time. This makes it feel somewhat more like a historical romance, but the separations set it apart from most romances published today. It might also be a better starting point for readers who want to try m/m romance but are reluctant to read anything too explicit.