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When young Crispin Thorne is disgraced at his private school and called into the headmaster's office, he's sure his indiscretion is going to see him tossed out on his ear and onto the streets or worse. The news that has been made the ward of one Philip Smallwood and is to depart with haste to his estate is completely unexpected. Not only has he never met this man, but he's never heard of him either, and to top it all off, his estate is in the remote locale of Horsey Mere in Norfolk. Upon arrival, he finds he is but one of three young men to find themselves disgraced and brought in as Smallwood's wards. Suddenly lavished with luxuries and private lessons befitting the gentry, they don't quite know what to make of it. Adding to the mystery is a locked set of rooms they are forbidden to even try to enter, the changing demeanour of one of his fellow wards, and the strange comments made by the local doctor. Just what secrets does the house and Smallwood hold, and should they be afraid?
As you might gather from the author's name, Erastes, this novel falls in the male/male romance category. Forget your torrid romances that read like Mills and Boon gone gay, this happens to be a historical thriller that just happens to feature a homosexual set of characters. Using atmospheric language that readily evokes the chilling feelings I felt while reading Wuthering Heights, Erastes casts a spell that transports us quickly into the world of Victorian era England. The prejudices and class stratifications are not glossed over but laid bare, and indeed, the expectations of society play a large role here in the events that unfold. From the very outset, it becomes readily apparent that the lives of the young men have long been laid out for them according to societal mores, as has been the lives of everyone else they encounter. Any variation is generally proscribed, with more than personal condemnation for anyone straying from the current rules of society. Prison is a very real risk especially, given the fact that the young men are homosexual.
This palpably adds tension to the piece as only a truly forbidden love can, but it's not the end all and be all of the drama. Given that it is gothic romance, the underlying aura of foreboding with a sense of impending tragedy hovers. When it comes, it comes swiftly, raising the hackles deliciously. The conclusion is satisfactory, but bitter-sweet. We are left with a sense of might have beens and a measure of pity, but also secure in the knowledge that our protagonist has found his way in the stratified society he inhabits and yet retains his own measure of personal happiness. Recommended.