Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
It’s 1942 and after a sexual indiscretion, US Navy pilot Zachary MacKenzie is sent to serve in the Royal Navy’s submarine service—a shockingly harsh punishment for a man who loves to fly. The submarine is oppressive and frustrating for him, and he’s marked out from his peers, publicly by being American, and privately by his attraction to men.
The only bright spot is the company of his steward, sonar operator Gethin Llewelyn. Despite the differences of rank and background, they’re drawn to each other. Gethin’s integrity complements Zach’s casual joie de vivre, and soon the friendship develops into something much more.
As the threats of war increase, the submarine is plagued by potentially hostile vessels, and circumstances lead them to suspect there’s a spy amongst their own crew. Being forced even closer together as they work for the greater good reveals a new awareness, and Zach doesn’t know what is in more danger, the vessel under his charge or his heart.
I am a long time lover of historical novels, historical romance included, among them several stories of Lillian Francis. So I knew I was in good hands historically speaking when it came to the era and details of naval mariner life found in Under The Radar by Lillian Francis. As always the author ended up delivering so much more than I anticipated, astonishing me with new revelatory details about gay life from that time period, secret naval oddities and historic events that Francis folds effortlessly into her novel and romance, along with characters that show great growth and redemption.
It is the latter that had me most concerned and yet won me over the most. US Navy pilot Zachary MacKenzie is passionate about flying, his need for the sky almost as fierce as his need and passion for men, but homosexuality isn’t merely a sin, it’s against the law, ending careers and sending people to jail. But Zachary has an arrogant, almost fearless streak that gets him in trouble time after time until one last scandal sees him bedding the wrong person and ending up with an enemy too powerful for his friends and family to assuage. It costs him his “sky and flying”. He’s sent to serve in a submarine in England.
You would think he’d be more contrite but no. The character of Zach barely acknowledges his part in all of it. And I had a huge time connecting with him. His attitude towards trying to seduce Gethin (a true innocent about his attraction towards men), his responsibilities on board, Zach was just too glib for me to like. Especially in contrast to the realistic portraits of submariners on board and the life everyone was living there. Luckily, the author proceeded to slowly have the character of Zachary MacKenzie undertake a much needed personal growth, his character changing as his relationship with Gethin turned from pursuit into friendship and his appreciation of the people and duties on boards shifted as well.
The life inside the small cramped “tin can” of a 40’s submarine is mind boggling. The descriptions of how the men lived must have come from journals it feels so real and authentic. That includes the fact that homosexuals serving in the navy (or later adopted outside military services) used a secret language called Polari to speak to one another, a sign of recognition and let each other safely know they knew you were one of them. Here the author uses it in a wonderful scene and it sent me scrambling to know more about a piece of history I’d never heard about. Astonishing to learn that the language has been in use worldwide from 1600 to 1970’s, until LGBT laws made the language less needed. And the use of stewards in a submarine! A place where headroom was scarce alone with personal space! And the fact that carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant threat upon diving…well the facts of life on board just continued to amaze me.
So with such a rich, solid foundation and framework established with her history and naval and gay culture, Francis proceeds to give her readers a wonderful slow burn romance with elements of suspense and drama that keeps both the characters and reader deeply connected to the men and plot right up to the end. It’s all the many interlocking relationships here, the friendships that add to the romance as well as to the structure and responsibilities needed to run the submarine. It’s such a tight knit community of men that spills from career into friendship and in this case (and others) into romance and love.
And at the end, I’d gone from not liking Zach very well to whole hearted admiration for the man he’d become. That went for Gethin too. What a journey this was, what a path both still had still ahead.
Under The Radar by Lillian Francis is such an incredible historic romance, one I absolutely recommend. You feel as though the era and these men come alive for you. It’s a romance not to be missed!
Cover art: Tiferet Designs. Love the sub emerging behind the character and the beards, which yes, many of the submariners had. Its part of the story. Wonderful cover.
Kindle Edition, 407 pages
Published April 14th 2019 by Finally Love Press
Original Title Under the Radar