Gregorio “Ori” Reyes has just arrived home in Hawaii after doing time in Leavenworth and having been given a dishonorable discharge from the Army for his crime. In disgrace with his military-oriented family and with dwindling funds in his pocket, Ori has come home for only one reason — Kalani, his boyhood friend, the reason he joined the Army and the only man he has ever loved. Thoughts of Kalani were his constant companions in Iraq and his images haunted Ori’s nights in Leavenworth. Everywhere Ori looks Kalani appears, which is crazy. Because Kalani is lying comatose in a hospital bed on Honolulu. Kalani had been attacked by a gang of men and left for dead while Ori was in prison. And now feeling guilty and grief stricken, Ori has returned to Kalani too late to tell him how much he loves him. Or so Ori thinks.
After one of his visits to Kalani’s bedside, Ori’s visit to a gay bar ends with him taking a guy home. As things heat up, a loud noise stops the proceedings and Kalani appears. Or actually Kalani’s spirit appears, although he feels so very real to Ori. While his broken body remains in the hospital, Kalani visits Ori, the man Kalani has loved even if he wasn’t ready to accept that it was romantic love. Unsure why Kalani is able to physically appear to Ori, neither man wants to question the miracle until Kalani starts getting attacked in the spirit world. Together Ori and Kalani must explore the secrets of Kalani’s past and venture forward into Hawaii’s ghost world to set Kalani free, either to return to his body or join his ancestors in the clouds. Something must be done quickly or Kalani will be condemned to everlasting pain in between.
Hawaiian Gothic is an remarkable story. From the start, authors Belleau and Vane submerge us in the Hawaiian culture beginning with the language of the islands flowing throughout the dialog. It mingles effortlessly as one would expect from a local speaker. Belleau and Vane actually created a Hawaiian Gothic glossary of Native Hawaiian and Hawaiian pidgin terms used in the story (you can find it here). And there are the locations. The Hawaiian settings are so authentically rendered that I would think that the authors are natives themselves, right down to hidden beaches and non-touristy sites. I almost felt like I had to wipe the sand off my feet at times so complete was my immersion in the islands.
The next outstanding elements in the book are the Hawaiian creationist myths and beliefs that swirled and rolled like the waves of the ocean around all the characters of the story, especially the main ones of Ori and Kalani. Here the Hawaiian myths rise up and become real, able to rip one apart like the flashing teeth of a shark or the mandibles of a caterpillar or sooth like the lomilomi. Before I started this book I was only familiar with one of the Hawaiian creation myths. By the end, I was seeking out more resources so fantastic, so addictive did the Hawaiian gods and stories become. Great job by the authors in seamlessly fusing mythic and contemporary worlds so that both stood on equal footing with the reader as far as realism and tone. The authors almost did too good a job with their descriptions, so frightening were the keuwas, Hawaiian dead hungry souls, that the very thought of them lingered on into my nightmares that night.
Belleau and Vane give us great characters to inhabit a great story. Ori is especially believable. He is a former Army Ranger and MMA fighter (that’s mixed martial arts for those of you unfamiliar) who has completed two tours of duty in Iraq. He is a victim of PTSD, ashamed of his discharge, isolated from his family. He feels helpless and like he has little future, especially with Kalani comotose. He hid his love for Kalani and ran from him rather than force Kalani to face it for what it was — romantic love. It was so easy to empathize with Ori and I became invested in his character early on. Kalani is a little more of a mystery as the book starts and then the reader becomes more familiar with him as Ori’s memories of their shared past surface and you come to love him as much as Ori does. All the secondary characters are as fully realized as Ori and Kalani, giving the story the depth it needs with all its complicated layers of flashbacks, memories and spirit worlds.
So why not give this story 5 stars? Well, it certainly came close and I am still debating the rating even now. But I am still quibbling over two things. One concern is an m/m/f element here that was required for the exposition of a plot point. But for me its extended narrative went on too long and removed us from the main storyline unnecessarily. Plus I know that for some readers any m/m/f or combination thereof is not something they want to see in their m/m fiction. And usually I would agree with them. But I absolutely understood its inclusion by the authors here so it didn’t bother me other than it ran on too long. My second quibble involves the numerous flashbacks used by the authors to highlight certain elements of their story. Did it work well in most instances? Yes. Most of the time it was a satisfactory method to better understand the main characters’ POVs and history. But then its continued use and varied time frames (1988, 2004, 2010, 2009, etc) started to become a little irritating and less effective, distracting rather than contributing to a captivating and addictive storyline. And trust me, this is such a great story that nothing should ever divert the reader away from the saga at hand.
So pick up Hawaiian Gothic and visit the islands. Whether you be Malahini or Kama’aina, this story will have you ohana in no time. Make no mistake Hawaiian Gothic is da kine or the best in every way. Aloha!
Cover. I love this cover by artist April Martinez. Its beautiful from its model to Hawaiian cloth. Perfect for the story.