In so many ways while reading There Will Be Phlogiston, this phrase from Howard's End 'Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted' kept echoing in my head. Alexis Hall's prose reads like it is, at least, one of his passions. Having read a couple of his books, I've decided I just really love and connect with his writer's voice - witty, genuine, and yet clearly recognizable no matter if it's contemporary, paranormal, or a steampunk Victorian sex romp. The connection between author and reader here as well as in his other books stems from a wonderful talent for creating empathetic characters and crafting a narrative that is a window into the soul of those characters and a bridge between my own experiences and those of the characters.
Arcadius, Lord Mercury, is 'the last scion of Gaslight's oldest family' and by the way also 'a catamite and a whore.' At least that's the way he sees himself through the mirror of rigid structures of Gaslight aristocracy. He's also in dire financial straits, i.e., broke.
'But Lord Mercury had a household to manage, factories to run, appearances to maintain, and debts to pay, so many debts. He had been intending to marry money—a devil’s bargain of a different kind.' (128)
Arcadius is a man who is boxed in by all the rules of society: the proper distance between himself and a young lady with whom he's dancing, where and with how much pressure to place his hand as they waltz, the weight of the history of his Gaslight nobility, the proper wine pairing for dinner, the proper way to pay addresses to all the proper people. More personally, his opinions are a reflection of societal expectations and and an awareness of the repercussions if those expectations are unmet.
'Opinions, as far as Lord Mercury was concerned, were derived from social context. They were like a well-chosen hat: framing one's elegance of taste, and proving that one both knew, and could afford, the right sort of hatter.' (145)
He's very much aware of the censure and humiliation that would be heaped upon him if the fact that he is attracted to men every becomes common knowledge. The fact that he constrains himself from acting on those feelings even if rarely and very discreetly is almost as wearying and destructive as keeping that part of himself locked away, that part that doesn't fit in with the definition of what society demands 'real' men do and don't do, in a box labelled an 'aberration of the body.' But his well-ordered, if unsatisfying, life is shaken up by Anstruther Jones, the Phlogiston Baron. Jones kind of explodes all over those rigid rules Arcadius has been forced to live with, and now he is forced to at least admit that of late he has grown weary of 'laying increasingly elaborate façades over broken things', weary of being unable to 'surrender to his inclinations' until he can bear it no more, resorting to clandestine, anonymous assignations to assuage his needs.
Anstruther Jones, the Phlogiston Baron, whose 'mothers were whores', who made his fortune by mining phlogiston (a type of elemental fire which fuels practically everything in this alternate universe including vast airships and makes things go BOOM!), and who now wants to enter society, is about as different from Arcadius as can be imagined.
He approaches Lord Mercury with a bargain: polish his rough edges enough to gain him entree into society in return for money to renovate Arcadius's estate, pay his debts, and replenish his coffers. Why? Because Jones has just one simple desire:
'I want a house,' Jones explained, 'like this house. For my children to call theirs and give to their children. And family. I want to have a family.' (105)
Of course, Lord Mercury doesn't want any part of this vulgar bargain, until Jones begins to pull paper after paper from his duster - vowels, IOUs, debts - the detritus of hundreds of years of gambling and other diversions seen as fitting for his forebears.
'Mortified, Lord Mercury turned his head away. It was one thing for a matter to be generally understood but never admitted to or spoken of. Quite another for an ill-mannered commoner with ideas above his station to scatter the undeniable truth all over Lord Mercury’s last Axminster.' (116)
And so with a handshake (minus the spit, of course), Arcadius as Pygmalion begins the transformation of his Galatea and fights his growing love for this rough, uncouth uncommon commoner. I loved the Pygmalion Galatea/My Fair Lady references as Arkady instructs Jones on everything from etiquette to fashion to smoothing the vowels in his Gaslight accent.
'He did his best to smooth the Gaslight from his voice, but the raihn in Spaihn stubbornly rehned on the plehn...' (140)
Jones is this marvelous combination of fluidity and strength that stems from knowing and accepting who he is, where he came from, and what/who he wants or likes as well as possessing a gloriously tender vulnerability. He's as comfortable in his skin as Arkady, as Jones calls him, is not. Jones bases his choices on one simple thing: happiness, his own and those he cares about. The rest is superfluous and can go hang.
'It was not, Lord Mercury had to admit, that Jones had bad taste. Merely that he made no distinction between, say, the music hall and the opera, and formed his opinions without giving consideration to what others might think of them.' (140)
'...But, for Jones, they (opinions) were a round of drinks at a common tavern: selected purely for personal gratification and shared liberally with all and sundry.' (141)
Jones is quick, intelligent, with a curious mind making Arcadius's job a little more challenging because
'(i)t was not enough for him to simply know a thing was, he had to know why it was. And Lord Mercury was increasingly conscious that his answers amounted to little more than 'Because that is the way of it.'" (135)
I really loved how Jones was so confident in his skin, knowing without a doubt what makes him happy, discarding things he sees as restricting simply forbidden '(b)ecause that is the way of it.' Jones holds close to that vital part of him that makes him the man he is whether he's mining phlogiston in the skies or being introduced to a young lady at a soirée. For instance, despite his fashionable attire Jones still retains the appalling (to Arcadius) habit of shrugging and sticking his hands in his pockets, ruining the line of his trousers. Or how, despite Arcadius's constant remonstrations not to laugh so immoderately, he 'would not be curbed. On any matter. He laughed when he felt like laughing.'
Arcadius's and Jones's mutual attraction grows steadily, and soon Arcadius isn't able to dismiss his feelings for Jones as merely a 'diversion' but he's not able to take the leap just yet. Their relationship sparked with a handshake but it burns bright and strong in the scene in which Arcadius teaches Jones to waltz. It's so filled with tension and yearning and begins with a familiar and funny exchange.
'One does not waltz with one’s hands in one’s damn pockets.'
'One offers one’s most sincere apologies.' (178)
'Jones smiled. Such a smile, his eyes all sky. “One, two, three, and . . .”
And they danced.
For about thirty seconds, Lord Mercury let another man hold him. Protect him. Whirl him round the room where his mother had once danced and dazzled.' (237)
Their affair begins with lots of passion, but Arcadius's inability to allow real intimacy between them, his rebuff of Jones' kiss (because a kiss would wreck the distance Arcadius imposes on his feelings and men do not form attachments like that to other men) is a big roadblock. Jones respects Arkady's boundaries, but the relationship suffers.
'He always had to instigate.
Every single time, he told himself it would be the last.
But he came to pleasure like an opium addict to his pipe, and Jones broke him with ecstasy. Made him sob and scream and beg, utter the most unthinkable obscenities, disport himself with unspeakable wantonness. But he never held him again. Or tried to kiss him.
And it was never quite the same as that first afternoon.' (313)
Anstruther Jones is just as boxed in as Arcadius, Lord Mercury in many ways. He's locked out of all but the lower rungs of society because of his origins. He's a man who has experienced life in its roughest most elemental form - survival. But now he's not just surviving, he's thriving. He wants roots, companionship, family, a home, love. But getting these things are not easy. Especially when the other half of the relationship keeps pushing you away. When Arcadius closes off, Jones is hurt, and he's not too proud to admit it.
'“I came to you because I needed you. I stayed because I liked you.” Soft words from a hard man.' (264)
And then there's Lady Rosamond. I first fell in love with Ros's internal dialogue. Lady Rosamond appears to be a genteel young lady, society's perfect ingenue, meek, charming, amiable and affable, one who had perfected the art of crying prettily, who 'could swoon on demand' (but who had 'never succeeded in mastering the blush',) who was determined to never appear 'grumpy' or 'inelegant' or 'inappropriate' or 'inconvenient', a lady who aspires to become engaged to a proper Marquess. But she's lonely, frustrated by the box she's locked away in, only to be taken out to perform the role that is society's idea of what is proper and what isn't, constrained to be, to do, to say, to wear, to think as every young lady is expected to do. No one *see* her, who she is really, and worse no one cares. Actions that are proscribed as 'unladylike' are ruthlessly wiped out.
But before you feel too sorry for her, you need to know she can be 'grossly unpleasant' at times, is 'spoiled,' 'proud, headstrong, stubborn, and a little unkind.' But Anstruther Jones likes these things about her. I think she likes that he sees her, as a person, warts and all, instead of some 'china doll' without personality, opinions and definitely without emotions.
She's really kind of delightfully subversive with her f-bombs, smoking cheroots with Jones, and her desire to wear trousers as women who work in the sky do. She's very much attracted to Jones, despite his unsuitability. With Jones the real Rosamond is not stifled. He challenges her without judgement or disapproval to reach out for the freedom to be who she is. That's pretty heady stuff. As she dances with The Marquess of Pembroke (whom I nicknamed Lord 'Quite' because that was his reply to most conversational gambits) her thoughts are reluctantly drawn to dancing with Anstruther Jones:
'He danced well. Unexpectedly so for such an impertinently large man. With ease rather than with grace, but there was something just a little thrilling about the way he moved.
No. Certainly there was not
But would it make one feel fragile to be held in such powerful arms? Or powerful too?
And fuck. The marquess was talking to her." (339-342)
And sometimes the truth spills out of her no matter how hard she tries to suppress it:
"Lady Mildred whispered, “there’s a word they use in the undercity, for when somebody isn’t comely but they make you . . . you know . . . fluttery on the inside.”
Rosamond rolled her eyes so hard it was a wonder they didn’t spin in their sockets.
“What’s the word?” asked one of the other girls.
Lady Mildred put a hand to her mouth, and murmured coyly from behind it, “Likerous.”
Rosamond had to concede: whatever it meant, it sounded filthy.
And it suited Jones right down to the ground.
"But," put in Lady Cynthia, "I thought that was a lozenge.”
“You stupid goose, that’s licor—”
At that moment they caught sight of Rosamond, and fell immediately silent, five faces set into blank stares.
“Personally,” she said, “I prefer fuckable.” (578-585)
Or how she painfully and privately admits to futilely seeking the approval and love of her father:
'But if she had been a boy, she would have been sent to university instead of finishing school, and then on a Grand Tour, and she would have been able to run away whenever she fucking well wanted to.
And her father would have cared. Would apparently have torn the city apart for her.' (561)
Rosamond recognizes the same powerlessness in the scream of 'pain' and 'fury' by a carnivorous mechanical horse at the Clockwork Circus, a golden horse being beaten into submission in an attempt to force her back into her box. Lady Rosamond is a lady who smokes cheroots in secret on a moonlit balcony and solicits kisses unashamedly from an uncouth man she says is 'not good enough' for her. That's Ros you hear kicking against the walls of the box. She truly is kind of awful to Jones and to Arcadius, but I saw clearly how she changed, her humanity throughout all the difficulties. It's a very powerful redemption.
The prose in There Will Be Phlogiston is refreshingly honest, funny at times and heartbreaking at others while still other parts are almost poetic. Like this:
'They followed the grey-blue brook as it wound its way past abandoned paper mills and lumber factories, these moss-covered remnants of Gaslight’s fairly recent past. The light was silver-edged as it slid through the trees, spreading its dusty glister over the water. And, finally, there was the waterfall, smaller than she remembered, skittering restlessly over a haphazard pile of algae-slick stone, rushing past her in a flurry of silky white.' (886)
This is not your garden variety steampunk historical romance if there is such a thing. I can count on one hand how many m/m/f or m/f/m books I've read, and, sadly, all were rather too easily forgotten. This is not those books. The author breathed life and passion into all three of the main characters and made me care what happens to them. He gave me characters I can understand, that I can relate to, characters who touch my heart in a deeply personal way. He gave me a narrative that pulls me in to the hearts and minds of those characters. A connection. There Will Be Phlogiston is a marvelous book, one that speaks to family, love, romance, freedom, and choice in such a positive way. Here the passion and the prose combine and connect to render a story that made me want to crawl into the pages and never leave.