Rating: 4 stars
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Photographic artist Ethan Mars is hanging out with friends at a house in Topanga Canyon. When Doug recounts a story about a local porthole that allows people to go back in time, Ethan and his friend Randy decide to hike around on the trails to see if they can find it. For Ethan, the day is more about taking pictures than finding something out of science fiction. Then the fog appears before them. One misstep and Ethan tumbles through the fog and into 1863, albeit still Southern California.
Quinn Parker and his sister Hes own a farm in Blue River and when Ethan Mars stumbles out of the fog, neither is surprised as he is the second stranger from the future to find them in a year. But unlike the previous time traveler, Ethan is gay and represents everything Quinn wants and has been keeping hidden.
While waiting for the portal to open again, Quinn and Ethan fall into a friendship and then a love affair doomed by time. Or is it? When the fog reappears, is there a choice to be made? Who will stay and who will go?
Blue River is a terrific little romance stuffed full of elements that add texture and depth, giving it the feel of a much larger story. Ethan Mars is a renowned photographic artist who has made the sale of a lifetime and is celebrating with friends in Topanga Canyon, a place known for its artists, quirky atmosphere, and gorgeous views. When a friend wants to hike a little used trail in the canyon, they use the excuse of trying to find a time portal as the reason for their venture into the wild. The descriptions of the canyon and the oddly floating bit of fog is a great way to start Ethan’s unexpected adventure into the past.
We’d been walking for half an hour when he stopped and held up a hand. “Ethan.”
I looked in the direction he was pointing, and about twenty feet in front of us, under the spreading branches of a copper beech, I saw semitransparent wisps of white flowing together and pulling apart a few feet above the ground. “That’s called fog, Randy.”
“Why is it only in that one spot, then? There’s no water nearby, and the temperature seems fairly constant.”
“We don’t know it’s only in that one spot. Never assume, man.” I brushed past him, heading for the mist.
“Wait!” he yelped, grabbing my arm. “Together, just in case, you know….”
“In case the fog decides to swallow me whole?” Chuckling, I kept walking, dragging him along. “Didn’t they make a cheesy movie about that?” Even close up, it looked like fog. Thin, wispy, and I could see through it to the woods behind.
I stuck a hand in the stuff, waggling it around and making faces at him as I intoned, “Bwahahahahaha….”<
He rolled his eyes. “Asshole. I’m getting hungry. Let’s drop by Doug’s place, see what he has in the fridge.”
“Yeah, okay.” So much for seeking Shangri-La.
Well, as we all know, the story doesn’t stop there. Because, as Fenraven knows, where is the fun in that? But the real surprises start in 1863 and the reality of pioneer life. Fenraven does a great job in presenting the time period minus the “romantic candlelight” glow that seems to creep into some of the other historic romances I have read. No, here is 1863 authentically presented with the warts of the time period to go along with the things that have been lost with progress. So we get, or actually Ethan gets, to eat food free of chemicals and genetic manipulation. In 1863, a tomato or apple explodes on his taste buds, their flavor so sensational that Ethan mourns their loss in his time. But Fenraven is also quick to include the lack of bathing because as Hes tells Ethan, “its not healthy.” No bathing, no thoughts of hygiene, no washing hands. So yeah, a closed in cabin is not a happy place to be after a week’s time. Clothes get rank, as does unwashed hair, and soon Ethan is pining for 2013 and his shower at home.
And you don’t blame him a bit.
The author is good at vividly describing life in Blue River and 1863, both the pros and the cons. Fenraven is also quick to note the dangers of open homosexuality in a time period where it is considered a sin and often punished by death. Quinn Parker is a sexual innocent. A young man engaged to be married to a woman who helped his family when they needed it. Responsibility, obligations, and society’s expectations have forced Quinn into asking her to marry him and now, with Ethan before him, he feels trapped. The more Ethan describes his open life in the future, the more regretful and conflicted Quinn becomes. Then Ethan starts his seduction of Quinn, and his true nature surfaces, no longer to be denied. If ever there was a genie in the bottle, it’s Quinn’s sexuality. And Quinn despairs of ever being able to pass as “normal” again once Ethan shows him just how good it feels. Slowly the affection between the men turns into love, one with no apparent future to each man’s despair.
Another aspect of this story that Fenraven doesn’t gloss over is the fact that Ethan could never survive in 1863. He is ill prepared by his upbringing, his attitudes, and his personality. He has a hard time hiding who he is from Hes, a judgmental and wary 16-year old. He would never be able to pull it off in front of a more discerning audience. Ethan just can’t hide who he is. It is one of the reasons Quinn loves him and it is the reason that they will part.
There are a few things that bothered me. At one point Ethan is missing his family at home (this story takes place during the holidays), but then thinks that he has a family here in 1863 too. Uh, no he doesn’t. Hes dislikes him intensely and distrusts him as well. The only one happy to have him there is Quinn, so I am not sure what family Ethan is talking about. Hes is a believable but dislikable character, smug, sure of her universe, and disapproving of any that might prove a threat to her happiness, definitely a tad on the puritan side. So yes, she seems real. The author did a great job making her somewhat stinky flesh and blood, but don’t expect me to like her.
And yes, there is a happy ending but in my mind, I can never just leave it there (where I should). Instead I start thinking about the future, and the romance in this story dims for a second. But it’s the holidays, at least in this story. Time for a suspension in belief in all things real and to hope for all things happy and in love. I think I will leave the review right there. At the end, just where all stories about time travel and holiday miracles should.
Note: This is the second edition. This story was originally released in a shorter version by MLR Press in 2011.