This is the second book in the Trowchester Blues series, but can be read as a standalone.
Billy is a morris dancer in a troupe that performs at country fairs. He is remarkably sensitive, shy, lonely, gay, and struggling with severe depression. At times he is overwhelmed by the sheer cacophony of life and cannot function.
Martin is na Englishman, a history teacher, and a lover of ancient times and ways. He heads up a reenactment group of 9th century Vikings and spends his summer weekends leading historically-accurate battle scenes, living the life of a Viking marauder at fairs. He is a closeted gay man who is fiercely protective of his privacy, knowing his Sudanese father and bigoted employer will never accept his homosexuality.
Martin and Billy meet at a fair and their commitment to historical accuracy of their respective societies provides a backdrop for conversation. Billy, in his troupe gear, is a more outgoing man than his normal introverted self—and he takes the initiative to give Martin a means to contact him, never expecting that Martin will. Pleasantly enough, Billy is wrong. The main crux of this story is the balance between recognition and acknowledgement. Billy needs a lover’s support to be whole, and the only way for Martin to truly support him would be to come out publicly. This, however, may (potentially) cost Martin employment and his position in his reenactment society, and will definitely cause difficulty in Martin’s family.
Here is what I loved about this story: its absolutely fearless description of Billy’s crushing depression. Billy has struggled his entire life to overcome the negativity in his own head and has set in place several checks and balances that keep him semi-functional. Billy lives almost a half-life of invisibility, even in company. He’s the guy who sits on the fringe, unwilling to ruffle feathers because, well, why should anyone value his opinion? His mood felt traumatic and pathologic, as opposed to angsty. On his “dark” days, Billy truly believes he is worthless, and his actions and behaviors are frighteningly realistic. Martin is, at first, very in tune with this. Having a sister who also suffers depression, Martin is careful to gauge Billy’s awareness and mood when they are able to connect. That I also loved.
What I didn’t love: Martin is very selfish for most of the book. He spends ages publicly denying his sexuality, to the detriment of his relationships—most notably that with Billy. He is a constant caretaker for his society, but never takes care of his own needs, always pushing off even the thought that he could come out. This is even more ludicrous as members of both Billy’s troupe and Martin’s own society begin to openly suspect their involvement with each other.
The story unfolds over the course of several months, so there is plenty of time for a real bond to develop between Martin and Billy—one that I totally wanted Martin to celebrate. I was so glad the alternating POV reflected both Martin and Billy’s thoughts, because I think I would have hated Martin if I couldn’t feel his internal struggle. As it was, I didn’t really respect him much until the last quarter of the book. I strongly identified with Billy’s need to be important to just one person, and especially the one person who continues to come over and warm his bed. Martin’s nearly constant public brush-offs gave me as much pause as they did Billy.
All that said, the end was as spectacular as I wanted with an HEA that rivals any tender romance. The book did lack for sex, in my opinion. I am sure it happened; pity I just couldn’t find much of it on the page. A bit more heat would have balanced out the melancholy of Billy’s depression and tension of Martin’s work/coming out anxiety.