Seventeen years ago, Lord John Grey's father was found dead of a gunshot wound. The death was ruled to be a suicide and his father branded a traitor for being part of a Jacobite conspiracy. John has always questioned it, but since he was only twelve at the time and was sent away to live with relatives in Scotland, there was little he could do. Now pages from his father's missing journal have been turning up, along with mysterious attacks against John himself. John believes that someone, quite possibly his father's murderer, is making threats against his family. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of his father's death, John turns to the one man he can trust, the Scottish Jacobite, Jamie Fraser. But as John waits for answers, his military service takes him abroad and a forbidden love affair with his new stepbrother leads to heartache and complications. In the end, John must choose between preserving his family's honor and following his conscience both in dealing with this new situation that has arisen as well as avenging his father's death.
Unlike the first three stories in the Lord John Grey series which are primarily mysteries, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade takes a little different turn. The book is solidly in the historical fiction genre, covering approximately a year in John's life and detailing all the things he does during that time which are widely varied. There's still a mystery threaded throughout the book, but sometimes a few chapters can go by with little development taking place on that front. Then there is John's military service which is a big part of who he is as a character. We also get a bit of romance as John strikes up a relationship with another man. Last but not least, we learn even more about historical attitudes toward LGBT persons, particularly gay men, which is always interesting to me. Perhaps most exciting of all for me, though, were a few scenes involving Jamie Fraser, when John goes to visit Helwater, where Jamie works as an indentured servant, serving out his parole. I struggled a bit with how to rate the book, because there were some things that kept it from being a perfect read for me, but overall, I did enjoy it.
The mystery that John takes part in solving this time takes on a more personal flavor, because he's investigating his own father's death, which occurred when he was only twelve and which was ruled a suicide. John's father was also disgraced as having Jacobite ties, so John is understandably eager to restore his family's honor that's been in shreds for over fifteen years. I have to admit that this part of the story lost me at times. There are a number of players involved and some of the names started to blur together. I think maybe having it play out so slowly over time with lots of other things happening in between made me forget who a lot of the characters were and how they related to the case. In the end, I understood the gist of what actually happened, but there were other aspects of the story that I enjoyed more than the mystery.
As I mentioned, we once again see John in action as a military officer. A large part of the story takes place in England during the wintertime, while the British troops are awaiting their orders to go back to Prussia where they're allied with the Prussians in the Seven Years War. During this time, we see John interacting somewhat with the troops and other officers, including his brother, Hal, and friend, Harry Quarry. He also spends some time training his new step-brother, Percy, who has just bought an officer's commission, but has no military experience whatsoever. Finally, around the last third or so of the book, John actually does return to Prussia and sees some wartime action. I think I found this part more interesting than I did in the previous novella of the series, because it's more action-oriented with John in the thick of battle. Also Ms. Gabaldon doesn't go into quite as much detail on troop movements and such.
John also gets a little romance in this book, although I hesitate to call it romance due to the relationship ending and there being no HEA. However, I did enjoy it while it lasted and felt like their interactions were on par with some romances I've read. As to the particulars, John becomes involved with Percy, who was introduced in Lord John and the Private Matter as a patron of Lavender House, the underground men's club that caters to gay men. In this book, Percy is the stepson of the man who is about to marry John's mother. Although he's referred to as John's stepbrother throughout, I didn't feel like their relationship was in any way incestuous, because they're not even close to being blood related and had barely met. I liked that, for a while, John had someone in whom he could confide and be intimate, and who made him happy on some level. For those who might be wondering, there are love scenes between the two, but while it's clear to the reader what's going on, the narrative doesn't go into a great deal of detail when compared to most of the gay romances I've read. I had hoped that maybe John had found someone with whom to share his life or at least some long-term happiness, but unfortunately, due to John still being in love with Jamie and other events which I won't go into so as to not give away too many spoilers, their love affair is not meant to be.
Having a strong interest in sociology, I was particularly interested in the social attitudes toward gay men of the era who were known as sodomites back then. I learned quite a bit from Lord John and the Private Matter, but this book expands that even further. I was especially struck by the knowledge that as difficult as it can be for LGBT persons in our modern age, it was far worse for most of them nearly three centuries ago. Ms. Gabaldon brings out the stark reality that for men to engage in gay sexual relations was not only taboo, it was also illegal and a "crime" punishable by imprisonment or worse yet, execution. Also, not unlike today, it seems that gay men, being viewed as morally bankrupt, were often blamed for other crimes as well. Any traitorous acts against the government, whether true of not, were often blamed on sodomitical conspiracies, and the burden of proof was pretty low, sometimes leading to a man being executed as a sodomite (even if he wasn't) rather than as an actual traitor. Of course, any man caught in such circumstances brought shame to his family, so other means of getting out of a public trial and hanging were often preferable. It was all rather fascinating and made me look up the books that Ms. Gabaldon recommended in her author's note at the end.
Of course, as would be the case with any true Outlander fan, my favorite parts of the story were the Jamie sightings. John speaks with him on three different visits to Helwater, the first of which was to attend Geneva Dunsany's funeral. In typical Jamie fashion, we can see that her death has affected him, not because he loved her or anything, but because he feels in some way responsible for what happened. On this visit, John, being the highly intelligent man that he is, puts the pieces together and begins to suspect that Jamie is the true father of the child Geneva died bearing. John and Jamie's conversations give insights into the unusual relationship they share. We know from the Outlander books that they developed a respect for one another and became friends while at Ardsmuir Prison where Jamie was a prisoner and John the warden. I thought it rather telling that when John is faced with the difficult dilemma of choosing between a man's life and his own honor, Jamie is the only person he can talk to about it. However, it leads to some things being said that stir up a bit of a hornet's nest between them over the topic of homosexuality. I'll be very interested to see how this is resolved in The Scottish Prisoner, because again based on the Outlander books, I know that they do continue their friendship and share another bond as well.
I strongly debated on whether to give Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade 4 or 4.5 stars and eventually settled on the latter. The story may be a little slow in places and occasionally more challenging to follow, but overall, there was enough to hold my attention, the romance, the LGBT history lesson, and Jamie being chief among them. I also enjoyed John rekindling his friendship with Stephan von Namtzen, who is finally more overtly implied to be gay as well, something I'd suspected from previous stories in the series. For various reasons, a more romantic relationship between them isn't possible at this time, but I'll be interested to see if anything more develops in future stories of the series. So despite a few misgivings, I still felt the book was worthy of keeper status. John is a strong and interesting hero who I've very much enjoyed getting to know better and who is worthy of his own books series, so I'm looking forward to continuing on with it soon.
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