Rating: 5 stars out of 5
For Billy Wright and Martin Deng, life presents very different but just as challenging obstacles to overcome on a daily basis. Billy Wright’s problem? He’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask, which is fine as Billy performs at country fairs with his local morris dancing troupe. But when the dancing is over, Billy’s life is lonely and empty, made seriously worse by his crippling depression.
In any crowd Martin Deng would stand out but he is that more startling as a member of a historical reenactment troop . 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, Martin is lonely and harried. The headmaster as the school he teaches at 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. Or coming out to his family.
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.
The village of Trowchester crept into my heart with the first story in the Trowchester series, Trowchester Blues. I fell whole heartedly in love with the layered characterizations, and richly textured story set within a fictional town so memorable and believable that I never wanted to leave. I knew another story was coming but wondered if it could possibly live up to the story that preceded it. I shouldn’t have worried. Blue Eyed Stranger is just as moving and rich as the first, perhaps even more.
Blue Eyed Stranger (Trowchester Blues #2) by Alex Beecroft is not a continuation of Finn and Michael’s story. In fact, Finn, and his book club make only scant appearances here, along with Trowchester’s archaeologist James. No, this story belongs totally and gloriously with the characters of Billy and Martin, a duo so odd and compelling that I wondered how Alex Beecroft came to think of them at all, let alone as a couple.
Billy Wright has so many layers to his character. We meet him in the throes of a deep depression attack. He is unable to move, even if its to save himself from the cold and exposure. The thought that finally creeps through the blackness enveloping him is the county fair his Morris troop, Griffins, is to dance at and we begin to understand how important dancing is to Billy’s survival. The music, on my what incredible music,that exists in Billy comes later. With Billy, its at though he is enveloped in an invisibility cloak, one that oddly enough disappears once Billy dons the makeup and yes, cloak of a Morris dancer. And then he flies, and takes our hearts with him.
I didn’t really understand that much about Morris dancing, the various types (Border, Cotswold, etc) and apparel and facial makeup the dancers put on. But as Billy explains it to Martin, the knowledge and history (as well as misunderstandings about the black face makeup), flow as naturally in the dialog as it would in a conversation with someone new and interested in what you were doing. Beecroft gave me a nice foundation of knowledge that sent me off to Youtube for examples of all types of morris dancing and music. But its not just in the explanations but in the descriptions of Billy and his troop as they whirl and jump and the clash of their wooden staffs that make this element of the story come alive! I felt that not only could it see it happening, I could hear the various instruments played and the crowd react with glee and appreciation.
On the other side of this unlikely pair is Martin Deng, a phyically impressive man, whose biracial appearance sets him apart (father is from Ethiopia and an English mum). His profession is to teach history in school but his passion? To bring it to life as an active member and founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society. Martin is not only passionate about being historically correct in appearance and actions but as a black Viking he calls attention to himself just in his presence alone. Martin is also gay, a fact he hides from almost everyone, including his family. His small group, Bretwalda, is a splinter group from a larger more restrictive society and Martin is buried under the pressure of a new troop, obtaining new recruits and managing their increasing fair/event schedule while maintaining his job. It a precarious position, and becoming more so by the minute. Martin may appear to be the opposite of Billy but underneath, that simply isn’t true. Both men care deeply and passionately about history and representing it accurately. While Billy is out with his sexuality, but unless he has his true self cloaked behind his Griffins attire, then Billy is less than assured about his attractiveness and appeal.
Their romance is believably full of obstacles, including Billy’s depression which is handled realistically and authentically and Martin’s fear of being ostracized if his homosexuality were known. Both Bill and Martin need to address issues within themselves before they can move forward as a couple together and the manner in which Alex Beecroft understands this and makes the reader a part of their process elevates this narrative even higher.
Bily and Martin’s journey is fraught with misteps, fear, and ignorance but the trip they take together is gripping, emotionally rewarding, and results in what is one of my favorite books of the year to date. You don’t have to have read the first story, Trowchester Blues, to read this one. It does beautifully as a stand alone. But together? The portrait of an amazing small village full of people you would love to meet becomes richer and, quite frankly, more addictive.
Need a new passion or several? Pick up Blue Eyed Stranger by Alex Beecroft, its my of my finest reads to date this year!
Cover art by Lou Harper. I love the cover, but the inclusion of the gun (a minor element) surprises me other than to brand the series. Give me a hearpe or a true Viking helmet instead!
ebook, 230 pages
Expected publication: April 6th 2015 by Riptide Publishing
original titleBlue Eyed Stranger
Books in the Trowchester Series
- Trowchester Blues
- Blue Eyed Stranger (Trowchester #2) Expected publication April 6, preorder now
- Blue Steel Chain (Trowchester Blues, #3)Expected publication: July 27th 2015