Rating: 5 stars
General John Mitchel has recently retired after serving 25 memorable years in the Army. By his side for all those years was helicopter pilot Sgt. Gabriel Sanchez. Together across five continents John and Gabriel counted on each other to have their backs as they fought in every American engagement. Over 25 years of honorable service, putting the mission and the safety of the nation first. Renowned, even idolized by the troops who serviced with them, both men carried a secret with them all through those years in the Army and into retirement. And that was that they loved one another deeply and had almost since the first time they met.
The General and the Horse-Lord as Gabriel was called (due to the fact that he flew Apache helicopters) served in the Army at the time when even the hint of homosexuality was cause for dismissal. Both John and Gabriel knew that their special skills were necessary on the battlegrounds and so their own need for love and companionship were secondary to the mission. But now both are retired and finding said retirement and their lives lacking in almost every way. The General misses the comradeship and the sense of purpose, but most importantly, he misses Gabriel. Gabriel too finds retirement and his personal life hollow in some respects. Gabriel had made some decisions while in the Army that he now regrets, but his love for John has always been a certainty in his life. Now with both John and Gabriel retired, the men start thinking that perhaps finally they might have their chance at the happiness they have long denied themselves. Life has never been easy for the General and the Horse-Lord and their long awaited path to happiness still has obstacles they have to overcome before they can finally be together. What will it cost them before they can take that last step together?
I think The General and the Horse-Lord may be my all time favorite book of Sarah Black’s yet. As a retired Naval Officer herself, her military characters always rang true to the military code they honored and served under, but never more so than with General John Mitchel and Gabriel Sanchez, his pilot. Black’s characters are human warriors so full of life that I often expect them to stride off the page. These two have remained talking to me in my dreams a week after I put down their story. John and Gabriel, their honor and their unhappiness in retirement, got to me. Here is John reflecting on the past:
They had made their choices a long time ago, and he thought Gabriel, just like himself, was happy for the grace notes in his life, the few hours they could be themselves, with all their public masks removed, a few gentle and intimate hours between friends. Wasn’t that the best one could ask for? A life of service to others, with the occasional grace note? So why did he still feel so lonely? Why had so much of this last year been spent feeling an ache for something he couldn’t describe even to himself?
You can just feel the puzzlement of a warrior lost when his mission has moved forward without him. Sarah Black’s dialog is perfection. You can just hear the military tone and inflection in everything they say. Being a warrior is part of them, like the blood flowing in their veins. Here they are at a baseball game, talking about Juan, Gabriel’s 14 year old son:
Gabriel speaking: “She said we have to support him and let him make his own choices. Really? I don’t think so, not at fourteen. He’s like one of those soft-shell crabs in the middle of molting. Not ready to make choices about anything. Absolutely at risk from any passing predator. Dumb as a fucking stone. That’s why he’s not speaking to me. I told him he can’t be a video game tester, and then he says why don’t I know he hates seafood?”
“You shared with him the soft-shell crab analogy?”
Gabriel nodded. “That was probably a mistake.”
These men are exactly who they say they are. Straight forward, honorable and somewhat adrift in modern civilian life. Both are at home making difficult decisions but now are faced with one that they have been avoiding for years because they never thought it would be possible – that they might have a life together in a society much changed from the one they were familiar with.
I know immediately that some people will have a problem with the fact that Gabriel is and has been married for 15 years, albeit a troubled one. This is an issue that is treated seriously from every aspect. The men remind several other characters (and themselves) that the 70’s were a far cry from the open mindedness of today and that if one wanted to have a family, getting married was the only option, again not a decision or commitment that was made lightly. Both John and Gabriel take responsibility and their actions with the gravity one would expect from such men. And we see and feel what each decision cost them along the way. Perhaps it is easier to accept when you realize John and Gabriel had one focus for much of their life and that was their service in the Army, everything else, including their feelings about each other, came second.
But John and Gabriel don’t exist in a vacuum any more than we do and Sarah Black has surrounded these men with an array of characters that I not only connected with immediately but came to care for as much as John and Gabriel themselves. There is Kim, John’s adopted nephew, who know lives with him. Kim is young, artistic, gay and adores John and Gabriel. Kim is the victim of an attack and the men decide they will accompany him to a bar that night as protectors:
You bring me in, then how I deal with him is no longer your concern, Kim.” “Yes, it is my concern, and I don’t want to be responsible….” John held up a hand to stop him. “You don’t have any kids, so don’t tell me how I need to follow your Greenpeace PETA pacifist butt into a gay bar to not take care of an asshole who only understands one thing.” He held up a clenched fist. “Now how about you fetch us some more of that coffee?” Gabriel held out his empty cup without a word, and they watched Kim flounce out the door.
What Kim does with that statement later just cracked me up. One great fully realized character after another comes into the picture as the events of the book unfold, including ex bull riders and their sons. So many joys in this book, from the sparkling and tight dialog to the events that bring old pain and new hurts to the surface to be examined and dealt with by two warriors trying to find their way together as lovers in a civilian world.
This is one of the author’s longer books to my delight. At 200 pages, the story comes to a lovely conclusion without me feeling that more is due. Would I have loved to have been given a few more glimpses of John and Gabriel’s future? Certainly but I am very happy with the way I left them. Of course, it helps to know that Sarah Black is currently writing a sequel to The General and the Horse-Lord, so that certainly figured into my current state of bliss.
I will leave you all with Gabriel’s playlist as compiled by Sarah Black, a wonderful thing for dancing by yourself or with a man you have waited 25 years for:
Gabriel’s Playlist- Music for Some Quiet Dance Time in the Garage
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYHxGB… SUPER FREAK!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcATvu… ADDICTED TO LOVE!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK2HAN… LA BAMBA!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk-W_i… SHAKEDOWN! (talk about a silver fox!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv6tuz… WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN!
Now go out and grab this book. It will be on my Best of 2013 list, that you can count on. Let me know what you think, ok?
Cover art by Paul Richmond. I love this cover, perfect for John and the Horse-Lord, perfect for the story in every way.