Apr 3 2015 1:45pm

First Look: Alex Beecroft’s Blue-Eyed Stranger (April 6, 2015)

Blue-Eyed Stranger by Alex BeecroftAlex Beecroft
Blue-Eyed Stranger (Trowchester Blues #2)
Riptide Publishing / April 6, 2015 / $16.99 print, $6.99 digital

Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.

Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.

When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.

There's meet-cute and then there's meet-hard. The two heroes of Alex Beecroft's interracial romance, Blue-Eyed Stranger, get off on a very wrong foot when their societies both show up for the same time slot at a fair—Martin's group of intimidating Vikings with swords staring down Billy's bizarrely dressed Morris dancers in historically accurate but perturbing blackface. But even while seriously offended and trying to defuse a crisis, Martin can't help noticing Billy's luminous blue eyes and sinewy grace. Upbeat and brave while in his costume, Billy is happy to demonstrate that the interest is returned:

Billy began to dance: leaping, stepping, stomping, his feet beating against the ground as if sounding a kettledrum. This long legs were graceful and powerful, his arms raised and balanced against the blue sky. Martin couldn't see the expression on his face even now, but his body was clearly boasting about its own prowess. I'm faster, lighter, stronger than you. I can jump higher and endure longer. You want virile? Look at me.

And damn, it was effective. He was the most beautiful creature Martin had ever seen, with sweat dampening that white shirt and turning it translucent, his grin all challenge and his laughing gaze never varying from Martin's face.

With two great bounds forward, Billy fell to one knee in front of Martin, his arms spread wide, red handkerchiefs dangling from his hands like flags.Martin looked down, embarrassed and aroused and singled out, as though he had just been propositioned in front of the summer crowd.

But Billy can't always be the charming dancer; some days he can barely get out of bed. And the brave Viking Martin isn't yet ready to show his true self — his gay self—to the world. (It's probably just as well that he didn't realize Bill was performing a traditional courting dance!)

Blue-Eyed Stranger is one of a growing number of well done romances in which a character has a mental illness. I appreciated the realistic treatment of Billy's depression, and of the ways in which it will inevitably impact a romantic relationship. (Including the fact that there will be some caretaking by Martin.) I also liked the sort of ordinary tenderness to their relationship. Although there are certainly conflicts caused by Billy's illness and Martin's unwillingness to acknowledge their relationship, including a very dark dark moment, the progression of it is basically natural: two people meet, like each other, spend a lot of time together, fall in love, and work out their problems.

But more than anything, I liked the passion Martin and Billy have for history and craft. Geekiness is so in right now, but many authors just throw in a computer and call it good. These guys are geeks as described by Wil Wheaton:

'Someone who I would describe as a ”geek“ or ”nerd“ is a person who loves something to its greatest extent, and then looks for other people who love it the same way, so they can celebrate loving it together.'

Martin loves history, getting tremendous pleasure from helping the children of color he teaches find themselves there, “reassured of their own noble heritage and potential.” He also loves craftsmanship; his Viking kit has “a story behind every piece of clothing, every one made by himself or a friend, and precious in a way nothing of disposable modern-day life was valuable.” When he is forced to sell a beautiful hand spun, hand dyed fabric he'd planned to use for a cloak — “as close to the real thing as humanly possible” — I almost wept.

Billy shares Martin's love of getting as close to history as possible, and the music and dance that are part of his everyday village life are intensely attractive to Martin. I liked how their passions grow through knowing each other, even branching out into still more areas. In the end, Bill demonstrates his love to Martin with a surprise gesture that speaks to how well they understand each other's passions.

I always enjoy reading about people in love, but reading about two people in love, celebrating what they love together, is even more joyous.


Learn more about or order a copy of Blue-Eyed Stranger by Alex Beecroft, available April 6, 2015:

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Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

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