Grade : A-

Pansies is the newest addition by Alexis Hall to his Spires Universe. I have been aware that this novel was forthcoming for a while and devoured it as soon as I got my hands on an uncorrected proof.

Alfie Bell thinks he is fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was eighteen, and a bunch of fancy London friends. Then he goes back to his childhood home to attend his best friend’s wedding. Seeing his old friends, the town he grew up in – and looking at it now through the eyes of an openly gay man – starts a chain of emotions and emotional events that throw Alfie’s world totally out of kilter.

Alfie may be openly gay in London, but up here in South Shields where his family and childhood friends live – he is not. This is not London, this is the north of England and South Shields is a small working class town with rigid principles about the way things should be. Men are men and marry women. They sire children, provide for their families by working hard in a manly profession and keep all emotions in check until they get drunk.

After blurting out some personal details at the wedding reception, Alfie takes himself off to a neighbourhood pub and hooks up with Fen. Fen is gorgeous, slender but strong and has blond hair with pink tips, green wire wrapped around one finger and wears hipster glasses. They have a wonderfully sexy time together, but the morning doesn’t go as Alfie plans. He wakes up to learn from his bed-mate that they went to school together. He also learns from Fen that not only did they go to school together, but Alfie had bullied the openly queer Fen for years and made his life a misery. Alfie is shocked because he doesn’t remember himself as a bully in childhood, and hasn’t thought at all about the boy he had hurt so much then.

Please do not think Pansies is an ordinary enemies-to-lovers type story.  There is that element to it, but there are also twists and emotional epiphanies aplenty. Part of the novel deals with how Alfie makes amends and learns about himself and his expectations in the process. Part is pure unadulterated romance and part is dealing with pain and grief, and moving on with life

Each time I am about to read the next Alexis Hall novel, I worry I may have incorrectly remembered how much I enjoy his writing but, as with Pansies, I read the first few lines and all is well.

These are the opening lines of the prologue and I dare you not to be intrigued and comforted by the whimsy and romance –

Tuesday was Nora’s favourite day of the week.

Nobody liked Mondays, and she was no exception, but she thought it was unfair for the bad feeling to taint Tuesday too.

Tuesday offered all the possibilities of a new week with none of the disadvantages of being Monday.

It was also the day when Aidan O’Donaghue came.

Aidan O’Donaghue, who was not from around here, who wore a waistcoat and drove a Ford Thunderbird, and whose mouth tasted like the sky.

The main theme of Pansies is love and forgiveness, and about accepting yourself, regardless of what those around you expect. It is also about having the strength to admit you were wrong, and then giving back the power to forgive, or not, to the wronged party.

Not only is this a very romantic read, it is one of those novels that make you want to discuss it with others. It is a couple of weeks since I finished Pansies, and yet I am still realising things about the story of Alfie and Fen, when I have long since forgotten the MCs names in lesser books by this time.

The book is not perfect – I would have been happy with fewer sex scenes, for example –  and there were instances where it felt as though certain parts had been written/rewritten at different times because of subtle stylistic differences. However, as I had an uncorrected proof some of these things may have been altered for publication and do not affect my rating.

In a manner reminiscent of Harper Fox, this author uses the town of South Shields as a metaphoric secondary character and so Alfie’s observations regarding his home town change to something more beautiful and promising, reflecting his growing love for Fen. There are interesting and sweet characters in London and South Shields that develop during the story into a created family for Fen and Alfie – I have a special place in my heart for Gothshelley.

I love both of the main characters – Alfie is the most loveable ex-bully you will ever meet and his love for Fen develops into a truly adorable example of that emotion. Fen is very special, but all that beauty, wisdom and grief needs an Alfie – indeed I think we all need an Alfie. I wasn’t sure how the author would manage an HEA, but he did and it was just right.

All in all, Pansies is a splendid novel full of heart, romance, sadness and a dash of Alexis Hall’s brand of humour and whimsy. I loved it.

BJ Jansen

I'm an English romantic, and an author who simply adores reading and writing books. I believe that all love has equal status, and all humans need and deserve romance. So, I am thrilled to be able to review LGBTQ+ novels for AAR and introduce more readers to some gorgeous LGBTQ+ romances and fascinating stories.
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