L.A. Witt, Precious Metals. Riptide Publishing, 2014. Pp. 150. ISBN 978-1-62649-174-8. $4.99.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
Precious Metals is a light, steampunk, gay romance novella, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, featuring a race across frozen landscapes (and in the obligatory brass-and-cog-clad airships), graphic but rather vanilla sex and a hazard-filled crescendo. Aside from the steam and mech technologies, there’s very little that’s fantastic or ahistorical in Witt’s world; even social mores are more or less what we’d expect of the end of the Nineteenth Century. Although perhaps somewhat formulaic and a little flatly written in places, this is a well-paced read that passes the time well enough, with polished writing and professional production values, a pleasant contribution to its genre.
This is the kind of male/male gay romance that seems to be written almost exclusively by and for straight women, which inevitably flavors the erotic content in certain ways. There are references to “first times” and “turning to liquid” and the like, which could have been taken straight from a bodice-ripper (although there is no force or domination in the sex here—the characters are wonderfully sensitive and gentle with one another, despite falling in love apparently as a result of having good sex a couple of times). But it is of course an erotic romance, and as such the relationship is a fantasy for the reader to enjoy and dream about, not be bogged down in ugly details and realism. Even the nod to historically necessary homophobia is only expressed in the heroes’ need to keep their relationship secret for fear of violence or murder, never through attitudes or words on the part of even those characters who do learn of their sexual orientation.
Paul is a Canadian Mounted Policeman, a provisions inspector in a border town where gold prospectors enter the treacherous territory in search of their fortunes. He encounters Joseph, an injured young man brought in from the snow, starved and frozen half to death after being robbed; Joseph’s unusually high-tech prosthetic leg is therefore only remarked upon after he recovers from his initial jeopardy. The young man is one of three brothers who struck gold and then were robbed, the eldest murdered, the youngest kidnapped, and he is desperate to return to the icy wastes to rescue his surviving sibling. At first reluctantly, but eventually with honor, respect and growing affection, Paul accompanies Joseph on his rescue mission. The hazards of the journey of course serve primarily to bring the two men closer together, from a narrative perspective, rather than as impediments to their mission or to prolong the climax.
In some ways this book doesn’t really need to be a steampunk novella; there are a few elements of the overall story that couldn’t be achieved in a historically realist gold-rush setting, but nothing that might not have worked a couple of decades into the Twentieth century, say. Apart from some description of the prosthetic leg and airship, the steampunk aesthetic doesn’t make much of an appearance either.
The one criticism of Witt’s otherwise accomplished writing is the lack of stylistic differentiation between the voices of the two protagonists, who take turns to narrate the fourteen chapters. One easily forgets who is speaking in a long line of “I” and “he” tags, and it rarely makes much difference to the story; Paul and Joseph seem rather interchangeable intellectually. Although there are no great surprises in the plot or dénouement of this story, there’s also nothing to be served by giving away too much of the outcome or details of the mission, save to say that—as far as the romance is concerned, at least—things turn out in a rather uncomplicated, rose-tinted way.
Having said all this, and having been a little disappointed by the lack of spiciness in the eroticism, this reviewer nonetheless concedes that he is not the target audience for this kind of romance, and it would be churlish to criticize this story for not being something it never claimed to be. It is, as remarked above, largely well-written and an entertaining, brief read, easily devoured in a single sitting.