Unnatural spans a period of about fifteen years, and charts the development of the relationship between Captain Iain Sinclair and James Hart. The cover announces it as “An Enlightenment Story”, meaning that it takes place within the same fictional universe as Ms Chambers’ excellent Enlightenment trilogy; and fans of those books will no doubt be pleased to learn that Murdo Balfour and David Lauriston make cameo appearances in the story owing to Murdo’s friendship with Iain.
Iain and James meet when aged thirteen and nine years respectively, at Wylde Manor, the Hart family home. James has already developed a case of hero-worship over the older boy, and is delighted when Iain shows an interest in the insects that James has been observing at the lake, and listening to him when he explains that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a naturalist when he grows up.
Having witnessed this promising beginning, we skip forward to 1824, when it becomes clear that something has gone disastrously wrong between James and Iain. Having found the army in peacetime not to his taste, Iain has just resigned his commission and accepted a post with the East India Company – one that could prove dangerous given that he will be undercover and acting as an agent for the British government. He will be leaving in a matter of weeks, and realises there is something he needs to do before he goes. He has received his annual invitation to Holmewell, the home of James’ sister and her husband, and although it has been some years since he has accepted, this year is different. He can’t leave England without at least trying to repair his friendship with James and this could be his only opportunity.
Much of the story is told in flashback, a narrative device I enjoy when done well as is the case here. We are witness to various key events in the lives of James and Iain and shown how two such firm friends have reached a point at which they are so dreadfully estranged. It’s true that perhaps the reason is somewhat clichéd – Iain doesn’t want to risk their friendship by turning it into a romantic relationship – but it is also understandable, especially given the historical setting and Iain’s background as the son of an authoritarian father who has never shown him the slightest bit of familial pride or fatherly affection. James’ friendship is, to Iain, the one pure thing in his life, and he feels guilty enough about the fact that he is living a lie and hiding his sexual preferences without (as he thinks) destroying the one relationship in his life that really means something to him.
The problem is, that by NOT taking things in a different direction, Iain has lost James anyway – and now he has one last chance to attempt to put things right between them. They haven’t set eyes on each other for two years – and it’s obvious that James isn’t going to make it easy for him.
James is a beautiful soul, a loving, open-hearted young man who, in spite of the mores of the time, refuses to see his attraction to other men as “unnatural”, and who wears his heart on his sleeve much of the time. This could, of course, have been very dangerous, and is one of the major areas of conflict between him and Iain, who is the exact opposite. A decorated soldier, a hero of Waterloo and an accomplished flirt, Iain is a real “man’s man”, one whom nobody would ever suspect of preferring his own sex. He is attracted to James, but continually denies his feelings for him; and finally, James reaches a point at which he has had enough. He loves Iain but can’t live in limbo any longer; James knows he deserves someone who loves him wholly and unconditionally, and if Iain can’t be that person, then James needs to get over him and move on.
Unnatural is a gently-paced, character-driven story in which the relationship between the protagonists evolves slowly but satisfyingly. The sex scenes are romantic and sensual rather than raunchy, and the reader is clearly shown that these are two people who care deeply for each other. I enjoyed reading the book, although there are a couple of points where Iain’s guilt over his sexuality and his continual refrain of “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” gets annoyingly repetitive. The bulk of the conflict in the story comes as a result of Iain’s hang-ups and there isn’t much dramatic tension in it apart from that. But even with those caveats, I’d recommend Unnatural to anyone looking for a well-constructed and sweetly romantic m/m historical.