Transgressions is one of the first in the Running Press line of male/male romances. While I had some issues with viewpoint switches, I was impressed, especially by the sense of history – England’s Civil War is too rarely seen in romances. However, this book is not for the squeamish as the dark side of history is shown in all its gory, I mean glory. Besides bloody details about battle, there are disturbing scenes involving a sadistic witch finder. Also, this book is not for readers who dislike long separations – the two heroes spend most of the story apart, in relationships with other people. Those other relationships really form the crux of the story.
David Caverly is blacksmith’s son in an English village in 1642, in the early days of the English Civil War. David is a dreamer who loves to avoid work. When his father hires an apprentice, the Puritan Jonathan Graie, David is angry at first. Eventually, the two young men grow as close as brothers – and then start a forbidden love affair. However, their youthful love is doomed when baseless accusations and trust issues split them apart, and David is forced to flee. Both men end up fighting on different sides of the Civil War – David with the Royalists and Jonathan with the Puritans. As the fighting wears on, David finds himself in two long-term relationships with fellow soldiers. (Not at the same time – it’s not that kind of book.) The more somber Jonathan still can’t get over David’s supposed betrayal, so he is easily swayed when he has a chance to join Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General. The sadistic witch finder Michael turns Jonathan into his special student, using his “skills” to purge Jonathan’s memories of David. (Be warned that his skills involve physical and psychological torture.) David and Jonathan are fated to come together again. But what will the result be, as Jonathan now thinks David is a devil?
David and Jonathan are different; they complement each other, and their flaws drive the story. David is happy-go-lucky and fun-loving, but also lazy, and he has a tendency to lie about little things like drinking with his friends in the village – even to Jonathan. These little lies bite him in the butt in a major way. The war and its aftermath force him to grow up fast. While Jonathan follows a more moral path, he is also more prone to jealousy and distrust. Because Jonathan is a staunch Puritan, religious conflicts form a strong part of Transgressions. Even the names David and Jonathan evoke the Bible. Jonathan’s internal conflicts are fueled by religion, and at times, religious imagery even emerges when he and David are sharing their bed. When he thinks David has betrayed him, this makes him a good target for the sadistic witch finder Michael. Jonathan’s moral absolutism often makes him less likeable than David. Some of the secondary characters carry on the theme of deception. Both of David’s other lovers (Hal and Tobias) conceal important facts from him. Also, Jonathan’s master, the witch finder Michael, has some nasty secrets of his own.
The sex is, of course, an important part of the story, but it’s not overwhelming or overdone – a complaint many readers have about erotic romance. Not every sex act is given in detail. The encounters grow out of the story and the characters. Even though they are forced to share a bed together for many months, the attraction between David and Jonathan starts off slowly, cautiously. When you could be executed for having sex with another man, you don’t want to jump into a same-sex relationship. David is first initiated into male/male sex by a visiting soldier, Tobias, and later teaches Jonathan some of what he has learned. The lovemaking varies depending on the characters and situation. For example, David and Jonathan start out naive and curious, learning to explore each other’s bodies. Both for good and for bad, the relationships David finds during the war are different in their own ways. The most disturbing relationship is the one between Jonathan and the witch finder, who uses physical violence to force confessions out of Jonathan and to make him into an obedient witch finder. But it was almost as distressing to see Jonathan start to become an obedient witch finder and thus a terrifying figure himself.
Unlike so many historical romance novels today, this book covers a span of many years. If this is typical of m/m historical romances, readers who yearn for those epic historicals of old might want to branch out. After finishing the book, I did some quick research on-line and was thrilled to recognize the name of the battle David and Jonathan witnessed early in the story and even the name of one of Matthew Hopkins’ fellow witch finders. Isn’t it cool when that happens? Here is history with all its warts – from soldiers getting blown apart to appalling witch hunts to tragedy. You know, all the neat stuff your teachers didn’t dare tell you about.
However, this epic reach also means that, like the historicals of old, the characters are often driven apart by history. For a long time after their parting, David and Jonathan encounter each other only once, briefly, on the battlefield. We know they will meet again, and much of the tension comes in wondering what their next meeting will be like. I’m no fan of the long separation, but in this story, it worked for me. It made sense that they would be apart for so long. It was only very near the end that I started to grow tired of the separation, and I wanted Jonathan to come to his senses and realize who the true demon was. While they do end up together at the end, the ending left me wondering if there will be a sequel so that we can see more of these characters together. I’m not generally one of those readers who thinks every romance needs an epilogue, but I think I would have enjoyed seeing one here – if only for reassurance that David and Jonathan continued to live happily.
Stylistically, the only real problem I had with this story was viewpoint switches in the middle of scenes. If you don’t mind viewpoint switches, you’ll have less of a problem with it than I did. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it head-hopping, because it didn’t give me a neck ache, but a few times, I had to stop to figure out whose POV I was in. The viewpoint switches became less notable later in the novel, so either I grew used to it or it happened less often. But the chance to read a historical set during the English Civil War, and one where the characters don’t act like modern people, more than made up for the viewpoint issues.