WARNING: SPOILERS BE AHEAD. Also, homosexual romance between men. I don’t talk about any of the intense love parts, though, so nothing graphic or M-rated. This is a PG review. But you have been forewarned.
Great Concept, Lacking Execution
Memories and Marco by Hollis Shiloh is the first long-form, M/M fantasy romance I’ve ever read. I picked it up on April 6, 2015 because it happened to be free on Bookbub one day, and the premise sounded pretty cool: a “washed-up ex-boxer” in his forties trying to deal with chronic knee pain and the aftermath of his several abusive relationships reuniting with the healing magician that used to patch him up after every bout in his heyday. It’s set in a fantasy world where there are ice boxes, taxis, horses, and jeans along the same alternate timeline, seemingly set after a kind of post-WWII, but I didn’t pick it up because of the historical aspects. I picked it up because I like fantasy. I like magic. M/M romance? Sure, why not.
Whatever the genre of fiction, I will judge stories the same way as I always have.
Which is why I’m saddened to say that the first M/M romance of approximately 42,000 words I read was not as thrilling as I think it could have been.
What I Thought Worked Well
Character and Style
Before I get into what disappointed me about this book, I want to talk about what I liked about it and hopefully formulate my opinion in a way that doesn’t offend the LGBTQ+ community.
So, here goes.
What I thought was particularly strong about this book was it’s narrative voice. Remember the washed-up ex-boxer? His name is Jace, and the novel is written in first-person PoV from his perspective. It’s gritty. It’s clipped. It’s masculine. And it’s definitive of his character and the kind of person that he grew up to be after living life as an orphan. Here’s an example passage taken from when Jace is walking with his friend, Jeff, back to his abusive ex’s apartment to get his things:
There were no cabs in this neighborhood this time of night, so we walked, shoulder to shoulder, swaggering, looking tough. It was something you learned how to do, if you wanted to survive in certain neighborhoods. We’d both grown up in those kind of places. It was one of the things that made us friends, I guess. That, and the whole his not caring I was gay thing.
Can’t you just feel that rumble in his voice? Can’t you feel it with every successive clause he gives in his sentences? That kind of rhythm embedded in language — “we walked, shoulder to shoulder, swaggering, looking tough” — to me, is the kind of prose that elevates almost to the status of poetry. Most of the sentences either have one clause, have a bunch of fragments, or are fragments themselves, representing the sort of rough-and-tumble life that he’s had both being a boxer and a gay man.
Now, to re-iterate, I’m not saying that I applaud Jace’s portrayal as a super-masculine gay man in order to re-affirm stereotypes about gay relationships having a heterosexual male/female dichotomy. I don’t think that at all. I think all relationships have different personalities types and experiences coming into the mix, and to label someone as a “butch” or “femme” is super limiting and stereotypical. What I am saying is that Jace’s voice rings clear and true to me in how the language is structured because it’s true to his character. I appreciate it when an author crafts a character’s voice with that much dedication.
It’s good stuff, and it’s what kept me reading it throughout the entire day.
But what also keep me reading it was my constant search of tension and stakes within the plot.
What I Thought Didn’t Work Well
Now I know I just finished gushing about Jace and his voice. But on the same vein, I’m going to talk about his character in relation to the plot and the theme, because this is where I had a lot of trouble.
Jace has just gotten out of an abusive relationship, and he’s an ex-boxer. An ex-boxer. And if I know anything about boxing, it is one of the macho sports next to American football. Testosterone and adrenaline run abound. Being a boxer is one of the most “masculine” things a man can do. Yes, I know there are female boxers out there, but in this story — in a story setting that’s populated with nothing but men (apart from Jace’s friend’s girlfriend mentioned every once in awhile), masculinity is rampant.
Couple that with the fact that Jace is a gay boxer, and you’ve got one of the best set-ups for inner conflict ever. How does Jace reconcile that he was abused and physically hit with the image of himself as a masculine boxer? How does he reconcile the fact that he’s still scraping by from paycheck to paycheck when the healing magicians are rich and living it up?
And most importantly, how does he not only heal his physical injuries, but also come to terms with his vulnerability repeatedly exposed to detrimental effect?
This is deep, good, story-rich stuff, and I ate word after word looking for it.
But I couldn’t find it.
Instead, the responsibility of showing vulnerability was foisted upon Jace’s romantic interest Marco Giordano, the former healing magician.
Marco Giordano is a healing magician that volunteers at a local hospital and outside the ring as a healer for boxers. He, too, recently left a problematic relationship with a magician named Julian Farrows that can remove and cast curses (though casting them on other people is illegal). What makes Marco strikingly different from Jace is that he’s a sensitive mush-ball. He’s a bit of an empath that can sense emotions in other people, and those emotions can then overwhelm him very quickly. Case in point, here’s a small passage from when Jace visits Marco in the doctor’s office. In it, Marco is assessing Jace’s knees, and Marco urges him not to get mad after telling him how horribly his past lover treated him:
I took a deep breath, steadied myself and stared at the ceiling. “Okay.” I accepted it with a blink. “So he didn’t treat you right, and you don’t like being around anger and hate.” I could understand that. Sensitive sort, magic involved.”
Again, the romantic pairing does resemble a kind of stereotypical heteronormative dynamic, which irritates me a bit. But my irritation has no place because that’s just how Marco is as someone with healing magic in the story universe. I’m okay with that.
But what ends up happening later in the story is that Marco is the one that ends up crying the most and exposing his emotional vulnerabilities and not Jace. Initially, Jace is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Marco, as though Marco were some sort of annoying puppy that made his protective instincts kick in.
I’m not kidding. Even Jace admits it: “He needed somebody who could love him, and I was terrified I’d just break him.”
But even though Jace says he’s terrified, I didn’t see that terror as I was reading. I didn’t see the inner conflict. I didn’t see him transform or wrestle with the inner conflict that I was expecting. And if there was any change, I might have seen glimpses of it, especially in how Jace referred to him in the later pages as “my Marco.”
But I just wasn’t convinced. There was ongoing conflict between them, but right when things got heated the most, especially with Jace, the tension leveled off.
This is just the first half of the book, mind you. The second half is what really got me.
Setting/Theme and Tension
By the second half, Jace and Marco are living together and everything is hunky dory. Another former lover of Marco’s named Colin comes out of the blue at a military reunion party (Marco was a healer in the military as well) and is super angry and Marco for forgetting all about him. Marco, strangely, doesn’t remember him at all.
Jace gets worried, calls up Colin’s father (who happens to be the general that Marco served under), and they talk a few times.
And surprise, surprise? Guess whose been tampering with Marco’s memories and putting a curse on him?
Julian Farrows, the old curse magician from way back when that was once in a relationship with Marco. Turns out that Farrows has Marco has him possessed under a curse that makes him forgetful of certain memories and obedient to only him.
Now Farrows is in Marco’s apartment, and Jace finds Farrows forcing Marco to pack under his mind control. The penultimate battle has arrived. Time for the ex-boxer to put up his dukes and save his loved one from the big bad magician. The odds are stacked against Jace, being a mortal, and Farrows being a magician that can easily place a curse on him just as well as Marco.
Time for the epic final battle and for me to get my popcorn, ’cause this is a battle that’s going to last a few pages \o/ ! I can feel it.
As it was, I raised a fist. And punched him in the face. Then again, and again, and again, repeatedly, roundhouse, double-time, two-fisted blows. He went down hard, bleeding, broken-nosed, shouting something unintelligible, garbled with blood. I punched him all the way to the ground. I kicked him hard in the groin and the ribs and punched him once more, so hard my fist rang with pain, the blow reverberating the whole way through my body. I punched him when his head was hard against the floor, and he had nowhere to fall back, no room to take the blow except to absorb it.
It was over in less than a minute.
In the span of a paragraph, Julian Farrows, the main antagonist of this story, is beaten to a pulp. No ifs. No ands. No buts. Just… done. Laid waste by the protagonist, Jace. Over “in less than a minute.” All that build-up just popped like a balloon to a needle. In a world where magicians are both prized and intimidated for their abilities, Jace knocking him out so easily in the last few pages felt like a complete letdown.
And that’s what did me in.
Memories and Marco had almost everything. The voice, the characters, the environment, the stakes… But I didn’t think it had the tension necessary to weave it all together and to enhance the underlying themes that would have made it and even more powerful, engaging read.
2.5 out of 5 Stars