Treading the Boards, Book 1
Heat Factor: Roaring Bonfire
Character Chemistry: Weak due to underdeveloped characters
Plot: penis. Penis. PENIS!
Overall: Fun and sexy, as long as you like penises
So, based on my above mini-summary, you’ve probably gathered that Rite of Summer is full of penises. And you would be right! It is full of penises in the most delightful, ridiculous, fun way. I mean, look at this excellent discussion of a penis, from page 1:
Evander’s prick was the epitome of all things that were erotic and beautiful in the world.
Loving the man would be much easier if Evander didn’t think so as well.
Rite of Summer tells the story of three queer men who come to a house party to serve as entertainment for their wealthier patrons. (NO! Not like that! They are artists / musicians. Jeez guys.) Evander and Stephen are an established couple who also perform music together, but as might be apparent from the above quote, Evander sort of sucks. Evander and Stephen also open their bed up to visitors: enter Joshua, an enigmatic and lonely painter who has lusted after Stephen since hearing him play the violin at Vauxhall.
The bulk of the book consists of the men negotiating this triad. They romp around in the bedroom, singly, in pairs, and all three together. I definitely appreciated Bowery’s prose when talking about sex. She does not shy away from describing the penises accurately. There’s none of the “Oh my, it’s so big, is that normal? How about I just sort of stroke it” stuff which frequently happens in historicals. No quivering members here! We hear about foreskin, and lube and the head and the slit and also a Prince Albert. (Which, Bowery notes in her afterward, is perhaps not entirely historically accurate, but she does give a plausible explanation for it and – who cares? It’s fun!)
In addition, there is a real sense of danger hovering over the proceedings, especially starting around the mid-point of the book, when a vice raid happens in London, based on the Vere Street Raids of July 1810. In the context of the story, people that Evander, Stephen, and Joshua know are imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They are themselves in a precarious position, as performers at a house party full of bigots, at least one of whom suspects that there are shenanigans going on. Bowery handles the tension between fear and finding sexual and emotional fulfilment well.
I also appreciate that Bowery focuses on solidly working-class protagonists. Evander, Stephen, and Joshua were all invited to attend this house party, but they are not precisely guests. They are obligated to make nice with the other guests, in addition to painting portraits / playing music, which adds an additional layer of stress to the proceedings.
The weakness of this book is that the characters are underdeveloped. Evander is by far the most interesting, and he’s the villain of the story. He’s an abusive partner, who continually manipulates others in his quest to better himself. He is petty and controlling, and eventually betrays the relationship in an unbelievably stupid and out-of-character way. On the other hand, Stephen really loves him, at least in the beginning, and the two men have a long and complicated history that also includes support and caring after the two ran away from home as teenagers and made their way up in the world as musicians. Also, Stephen complains about them catering to their patron by even attending the house party, but Evander is not acting illogically. You need a patron if you’re going to be an artist, especially in 1810. Evander contains multitudes, but even so comes across as flat, with his motivations not entirely making sense.
However, our real heroes, Stephen and Joshua, are even more undeveloped. Stephen is so stuck on Evander, because their lives are entwined professionally and sexually, that he does not come across as an individual for basically the whole book. I have no idea where Joshua’s coming from at all. Like, he’s sealed himself off from society or the possibility of love, but I’m not entirely sure why. All I know about these men is that they desire each other.
Sophie, Joshua’s friend and a lady’s maid, is by far the best character, mainly because she’s the only one with any common sense. Plus, she has an intriguing past, or at least the hint of one. Luckily, the sequel is about her, so I’ll probably have to get me some more of this series the next time I’m in the mood for some super fun erotic writing.
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