Queer adventures in romance

Every year, I try to challenge myself to diversify my reading. Whether it’s exploring a new genre or delving into books written by authors of color, part of what I love most about reading is seeing the world from a new perspective or gaining a greater understanding of the beautiful lives of others.

This fall, I became obsessed with LGBTQ+ romance novels, a genre I tend to avoid because I find it to be riddled with stereotypes. Imagine my surprise when I picked up “Widdershins” by Jordan L. Hawk, which proved to be so much more than the generic romances I’ve become accustomed to perusing at the grocery store check-out aisle.

To sum the book up, “Widdershins” is told from the perspective of Dr. Percival Endicott Whyborne, a comparative philologist who works at the Nathaniel R. Ladysmith Museum. Whyborne spends much of his time in isolation translating artifacts brought back on the museum’s expeditions– (imagine Milo Thatch from “Atlantis” with a sprinkle of Giles from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and you will get the gist). He is awkward, bookish, gawky, and lacks self confidence but is a romantic at heart with a passion for academia.

Whyborne’s life is forever changed when the roguish, handsome Griffin Flaherty walks into his door, charming smile ablaze. A former Pinkerton detective turned private investigator from Kansas, Griffin is brought in to investigate the mysterious death of a museum board member’s son. Griffin is everything Whyborne isn’t–forceful, confident, flirty, and borderline impertinent.

When the museum director asks Whyborne to translate a book written in an unintelligible cipher related to the case, both Whyborne and Griffin stumble headfirst into a world of secret societies, alchemical magic and phantasmagorical creatures, all while the ghosts of their past resurface.

It’s clear that one of the best features of “Widdershins” is its characters. Hawk finds a way to move beyond queer stereotypes and avoids over-the-top caricatures, resulting in realistic, fully fleshed-out individuals. Like I said, I tend to avoid the romance genre because it is so trope-oriented. It was nice to read a gay romance that instead focuses on relatable characters with complex histories instead of cookie-cutter archetypes.

I also appreciate the fact that Hawk explores social justice issues set in a time when openly identifying as gay was a death sentence and how that shapes one’s identity and sense of the world. She takes a more subtle approach, but it impacts the journey of the characters and how they evolve over the course of the book. This added a sense of depth and dimension that I find lacking in many romance titles.

Another strength of “Widdershins” lies in the development of Whyborne and Griffin’s romance. The pacing and romantic tension build steadily, convincingly, and don’t go the whole Disney Princess route of “hey I just met you ten minutes ago, so let’s get married.” As two individuals who couldn’t be any more different are forced to work together, their friendship develops and blossoms into something much greater. You’ll start wondering if Whyborne and Griffin will ever take the plunge, and it makes the reward so much sweeter when it happens.

“Widdershins” did manage to surprise me with its intense, edge of your seat pacing. Whyborne and Griffin’s case almost has a historical and X-Files-esque feel to it with plenty of angst thrown in for good measure. The characters are seemingly always in danger, and that sense of never knowing what lurks around each dark corner keeps you up late into the night. “Widdershins” turned into a one sitting read for me since it was a late night Kindle purchase. I may have been exhausted the next day, but it was so worth it.

I will admit that I’m a card carrying member of the “I Love Big Books and I Cannot Lie” Club. Some of my favorite novels might spend three pages describing the intricate details of a gentleman’s top hat, so I often find that shorter books leave me with a sense that some facet is missing. Even if I tend to live life on a bit of the verbose side, I adored that Hawk was able to craft a unique and fascinating world, develop a cast of incredible characters, create a believable romance, and deliver on a mystery with a twist ending in a mere 236 pages. It’s an impressive feat that requires a great deal of skill, and I only hope that one day I can adopt a similar “less is more approach” to my writing while still maintaining the integrity of the story and characters.

A final warning: be sure to keep a tall glass of milk nearby, as this book gets pretty dang spicy. We’re talking habanero levels here. If steamy romance isn’t your cup of tea, then “Widdershins” may not be the book for you. However, it is a great starting place if you’re new to LGBTQ+ romance, want to explore some historical fiction with elements of fantasy and mystery or just need an escape from the real world (which I’m sure we could all use right about now).

-Fisher Adwell is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.