The Highwayman by Ali Katz

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ 

Title: The Highwayman
Author: Ali Katz
Genre: Historical
URL: Amber Quill
Price: US$5.00
Other Information/warnings: Implied under age sex, implied rape/non-con, limited violence
Summary [from the publisher]: Hungary, 1750.  Janos Vesh is a man on the edge. He’s spent all of his adult life fighting his past. Now he roams the highways of the southern Carpathian Mountains chasing what little vengeance fate has to offer for the wrongs done to him and to his family. But satisfaction eludes him, and his only comfort comes in the arms of his lover, Stefan. The soldier’s constant love is no longer enough to rein in the highwayman’s growing recklessness. Stefan doesn’t know what drives Janos along the path to self-destruction. He knows only that trying to save the man he loves from himself is fast becoming a losing battle. He’s not ready to give up, but ideas are running short.  A robbery gone bad, a descent into darkness, and Janos’s fragile hold on sanity begins to crumble. Stefan has one last hope. Will it succeed where all else failed?

My Review: I’m always wary when a novel or novella’s first chapter is a sex scene.  Generally, I find this to be a very bad idea because the reader doesn’t know who these characters are; therefore has no emotional investment in their lovemaking.  For me as a reader, I need to learn about the characters — who they are, together and apart — before I care about their passion. Without knowing the characters, I generally just don’t care about the sex.  Another reason I find it a less than wise choice is that it runs the risk of alienating some readers by implying “porn.”  Now, for those who really looking for something more on the porny side, this is fine.  But for those looking for more romance and character arcs, starting off with a sex scene can discourage them for purchasing the piece in question.  And with this piece, if readers bypass it because of the porny introduction, they’d be missing a novella that is so much more than porn, an engaging and entertaining journey with believable and interesting characters.

Now, this is not to say that I didn’t have some issues with this novella.  I actually had numerous problems with it, but it is a testament to Katz’ mature and fluid prose and her dynamic characters that the piece overcomes most of these flaws.  So, what were the problems I had with the piece?  Well, if it weren’t for the publisher’s summary, I, for one, would not have known that this piece was set in Hungary of the 1700s.  Perhaps those more familiar with the historical setting would have picked it up, but nothing jumped out at me to place it in that fascinating country.  But, the setting isn’t really relevant to the enjoyment of the story.  Katz sets the historical tone believably and well, with a style that evokes the period without resorting to a recitation of the politic of the place and time, stilted language or corny dialog.  The result is an atmospheric piece that at times feels a little bit like of Robin Hood and a little bit like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and while that doesn’t tell me Hungary, 1740, it was enough to lull me into the historical setting.

The plot also provided some significant issues for me.  Katz references multiple characters in the work that are never introduced into the story at all.  In fact, at times I began to think that this work was a sequel in that character names and events are referenced in passing–the details remaining muddled–with such regularity that it felt as if we should already know who these people were.  I kept expecting to meet some of these characters, but I never did and I found that to be initially confusing.  I kept wondering who these characters were and what they had to do with the story. This frustration wasn’t helped by the constant referencing of these unseen characters by their first names. Katz clearly created an in-depth background for her primary characters and alludes to that background often. This generally serves the piece well by creating rich characters, but for me, if the characters are never seen and the specific of events not important, then I don’t need to know names.

The characters in this story are fascinating as well, both lead males engaging and refreshingly masculine without being relegated to top and bottom stereotypes.  The angst of Janos Vesh is utterly believable and kept in realistic control by Katz.  It never goes over the top as angst sometimes can, and the events of Vesh’s past lends a gravitas to his situation and character that resonates well.  Likewise, while the specifics of the romantic relationship between Vesh and Stefan are also quite muddled and rather obtuse at times (another problem I had with the piece), the charm and attraction plays well, their dynamic believable and well-rounded. For those wondering about the sexual play in the piece, it is all handled rather well and while it does take up a significant amount of the story’s 22,000 word count, it never feels overwhelming.  Could I have done with one sex scene less?  Sure.  Did it bother me?  Not really as Katz avoids many of the cliches and bad dialog that permeates sex scenes in much of erotica today.

One misstep that particularly bothered me in the novella, however, was the revelation of what it was in Vesh’s past that motivates his character today.  The details are never fully revealed to the reader — which, in actuallity, is a nice thing as we’re given enough to understand — but the details are imparted to his lover Stefan “off-screen” by a third character, and his and Vesh’s reactions are really swept over much too quickly.  Stefan’s reaction tends toward the trivilization and eroticism of Stockholm Syndrome, a disturbing reaction which could have been handled much better simply by a slight adjustment to Stefan’s reaction.  In the end, Stefan suffered in my eyes for his reaction.

This was the first work I’ve read by Katz and I was impressed with her very mature style and the quaity of her prose, which reads wonderfully. It is Katz’ skill with the words, the flow of sentences, evocation of tone  and her characters that made me want to follow along on this journey. Despite the flaws, The Highwayman works well, not only as a romance piece, but also as a believable action-adventure.  It is charming and believable and I was very entertained as I read it.  And that is always a nice thing to feel when you put down a book.