Rating: 9/10 Title: Master of None: The Eight of Pentacles
Author: Lee Benoit
URL: Torquere Press
Other Information/warnings: Mild references to animal cruelty, adult themes, slavery, mildly graphic m/m sex.
Summary (from the publisher): Adiún has terrible luck with lovers. One has died, the other has been traded away to help the village, and he has no one left. Joining a troupe of acrobats, Adiún leaves his village in search of Devi, his old lover and best friend, hoping to save him from whatever fate has befallen him since he was sold.He searches in brothels and slave pens with the help of his new friends, but when he finally finds Devi, Adiún is afraid too many bad things have happened for Devi to trust again. Can he find a way to convince his lover that they can have a life together?
My Review: Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance and m/m erotica, enough so that I’ve found that most of the offerings out there seem not to be terribly bad, but neither are they particularly good. Most seem more than happy to merely languish in that hazy middle-ground between the two poles. But every once in a while the exceptional comes along and gives the reader breath of fresh air. Lee Benoit’s Master of None: The Eight of Pentacles, I am happy to say, falls into the exceptional category.
Our story centers around Aidún who, even as he mourns the death of his child and his hearth-mate Melle, sets upon a journey to find Devi, his childhood friend and the one person who truly held his heart. Like his sister Melle, Devi was a storyteller – one of those who kept the history and legends of his people alive — and although he left the village with a caravan the previous autumn of his own accord, the death of Melle leaves a hole in the fabric of the village, not to mention Aidún’s soul. So, being neither a first-son, nor anyone’s father, Aidún packs his meager belongings, taking with him all the skills he had learned over his lifetime, and he leaves the only home he has ever known, determined to find his love and return him and his stories to their village.
Aidún’s journey takes him to Dina, a a town very unlike his own, which is surrounded by soldiers and bustling with commerce. Here, people do not survive by the generosity of their neighbors; they do not give their bodies freely for love or sex. Everything in Dinas comes at a price and from the markets to the pleasure houses, every need, want or urge is satisfied by the exchange of coin.
Having heard that in Dinas, many young men are reduced to earning their coin by working in the pleasure houses, Aidún searches several with the help of his caravan drover, but to no avail. No one has seen Devi. Lost and hopeless, Aidún stumbles upon a rag-tag troupe of performers who are working the towns in the area, hoping to make enough money so that they can return to their own homes, now so very far away Together with his new family of performers, Aidún is more determined than ever to find his one true love.
Benoit crafts her story with a fluid, easy prose that matches the protagonist’s long journey down an unknown path. It’s languorous and thoughtful, with simple but evocative language; yet Benoit never meanders or gets lost in the brambles along the way as can be the risk in a tale of the road. The story is tightly told, the pace just exactly right, and the focus never wanders very far from the task at hand: find Devi.
Benoit’s economic choice of just the right word at just the right time also serves the atmosphere and tone of the piece. It’s understated, at times evoking the Shakespearean era and other times making us wonder if this story is happening in a fantasy realm. One would think this would create confusion in the piece, but it is exactly the opposite. The result is a universality, a sense of timelessness, and a story that refuses to be boxed into any genre, yet never fights against any of them.
The characters of the piece are exceptional as well, each of them starting off as sketches that grow into wonderful emotional depth, though the author never makes us delve too far into their pasts. Our protagonist Aidún is immensely likeable from the beginning and without giving us detailed summaries of his past, we feel the fullness of the relationship he had with Melle, with the story-father and the others in his village. We sense his respect for the ways of his people, his duty to them and yet, as a character, he never loses himself in the others to whom he is devoted. As he ventures out into the world beyond his home, we see his naiveté and, wisely, Benoit let’s Aidún see it in himself. He sees the new world about him with almost a childlike wonder, but Benoit pulls it back, never allowing it to become cloying.
The supporting cast is equally well-rounded. From the performers – evoking the Commedia del Arte – to the whores of the pleasure houses, each of the characters become full, although we never really know the particulars of their history. We are given just enough about the powerful presence of Gydha, the leader of the performers, to see the mother that lies side by side with the fighter within her soul. The enigmatic Matti, a nod to the castrati, we know has a history of horrible abuse, but we are never forced to view his past, we are never made privy as to how he came to this place in his life; still we walk away mesmerized by his strength and gentleness. Jurn, a juggler who finds himself with our hero, is wonderfully likeable and a bit of a McGuffin for those looking for the erotic tumble in the hay.
While were on the subject of rolls in the hay, as a gay man I greatly appreciated Benoit’s restraint in this area. With so much homoerotic literature focusing on the sexual, I often find myself turned off by stories that seem to define the relationships of the characters by their sexual proclivities and prowess. The result is that in many stories, it seems as if the only thing that holds the men together is their desire to fuck, to rut like pigs. In some ways, homoerotic fiction walks a very tight line. The sexuality of the characters is part and parcel with who they are, but it is not the entirety of who they are. A lack of connection other than sex can lend itself to being – albeit unintentionally – a perpetuation of the stereotype that gay men are all about nothing but sex. Benoit, in her story, dodges this well, first by giving us deep, multi-layered characters and then by avoiding what could have been scenes about nothing more than sex. Benoit takes the high road here without ever losing the sensuality of the piece, and ultimately, the choices to not take an event in a sexual direction, helps to define the strength of Aidún’s character. As an example, Benoit chooses not to have Aidún and Jurn become lovers, instead developing a nice little friendship which may be tinged with unrequited love, but is never burdened by it. Another scene has Aidún bathing with two member of the group, Joh and Kino, and Aidún becomes fascinated with their circumcised cocks. Some writers would have taken this as an opportunity for some hot-steamy man-sex. Instead, Benoit gives us a wonderful male-bonding scene and we know in that instant that these men never reduce their sexual partners to mere objects. It is beautifully handled, resulting in a richness of romantic tones to the piece.
And then there is Devi, the long lost love. There is an inherent risk of having a protagonist so enamored with someone we have never met: Readers often are treated to the “missing protagonist” through only the rose-colored glasses of the hero. In these cases the love can become one note, repetitive, almost annoying, because the reader doesn’t really know this person. It can become empty pining, and when the “missing protagonist” is revealed, it is almost always a let down. Here, however, Benoit’s tightness of story works to her advantage. Again, we never know much about Devi and Aidún’s past life together. All we know is that they were important to one another, that Devi is still important to Aidún. And herein lies the soul of the piece.
Ultimately, who Devi was isn’t important to Aidún. Yes, it drives him to find his love, but deep down Aidún knows that life has continued for both of them, that we all grow and change and move on. He doesn’t know who Devi will be when he finds him. He only knows that he must find him. And when he does, Benoit takes an unexpected – though completely realistic turn – as we discover who Devi has become. The love is not taken for granted. There will be no slow motion jaunt across a flowery field into the arms of your lover (well, there is, but Benoit spins that in a wonderful – and slightly comic – way.) The lack of detail as to Devi and Aidún’s boyhood relationship plays wonderfully here, because the story isn’t about who they were; it never was. It is who they have become that matters, where they are now All we need to know is that they love one another; the excitement is in whether that love can survive the men that they have become as they have walked their independent journeys. In that respect, though we are not privy to the events that have made up their past relationship, we discover Devi right along with Aidún, and we learn the fullness of who he is in those moments; not in what has come before. Perhaps it is summed up in the words of Matti: Past and done, and cannot be repaired.
And that brings me to the end of my long review. This is a story about two men who have meant something to one another and may again. It’s a devotional, though hardly religious. It’s about love and respect; about finding your home, whether it be a person or a place or a time. It’s about growing up and growing wiser, and hopefully better. It’s a story rooted in and respectful of the past, beautifully propelled by the present, and mindful that the future cannot be lived in the past. It’s romantic and sexy and I can not recommend it strongly enough.