Secret Light by Z.A. Maxfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The last few ZAM books have been good but they haven’t hit the high notes of previous books for me. Finally Secret Light delivers the addictive and engaging prose by Maxfield I love so much. Here the story flows so easily with wonderful characters that the few flaws and obvious story manipulations are easy to forgive. There’s not such a defined happy ending but it fits with the time period and general story making it easy to see there likely will be a happy ending, even if it’s not spelled out. The tone is more subdued, as fits the story and characters, so this isn’t exactly a feel good holiday story, nor is it exactly a Hanukkah story, but it’s definitely worth reading and I quite liked it.
Rafe Colman lives an outwardly neat and successful life. He’s well respected and liked at his real estate job, not to mention wildly successful. He also appears to have incredible luck with the ladies too. What no one knows or suspects is that the Austrian born man is living in fear of being discovered for who he really is. Rafe lives a very lonely life surrounded by his memories of horrible acts. From his parents deaths to the harassment and murder of his only friends, a gay couple, Rafe doesn’t believe in happy endings. Officer Ben Morgan isn’t sure he believes things can work out but he knows Rafe is worth the effort.
The tone of the story is definitely more subdued than other stories in the genre but it’s far from depressing or sad. Instead it fits with the time frame, 1955, where openly gay couples just didn’t really exist; especially not openly gay cops. The story is very well written with complex characters to show the reality of the situation while also offering the hope of happiness for these two men. They’re well suited and while Rafe may never give up his very real fears, he at least has someone that understands him and loves him. It’s the understanding that blossoms between the two men that turns into love, rather than a lot of wild sex, and thus their love feels more complete and honest. I can believe these two fall in love and want to share some kind of life together, against the odds or with them.
The writing is top notch and a return to that lyrical, flowing form that works so well for Maxfield. There’s an ease to the story so it just moves effortlessly from scene to scene, incorporating a great deal of detail and atmosphere. It’s a little heavy in the beginning but soon evens out and stays in the background so readers never forget but don’t feel overwhelmed with historical details. Likewise the characters are very consistent throughout the story, never acting in ways contrary to their depictions. They make sense and furthermore are very complex, well developed men. They’re not cookie cutter in any way but have fears, hopes, and a very nice self-awareness. It’s rare but refreshing to see characters aware of perceived bad traits but unable to change them. It makes the characters feel more honest and genuine.
Secret Light mixes wonderful writing with conceptually great characters. The execution is nearly perfect with only a few stumbles. Some of the resolutions are too easy and too pat, something to wrap up a loose end rather than a well devised plot point. However the story itself is so engaging and interesting that these issues are easy for me to forgive. Another point is that the numerous German phrases didn’t add much to the story. Since Rafe rarely spoke German due to his fears, it seems a bit silly to think he’d all of a sudden speak so much. Perhaps to the dog sure but he spoke quite a bit to Ben early on that seemed out of place and just there to add flair to the story. It’s an easy flaw to forgive or ignore but I didn’t think it had to be there.
Overall I quite enjoyed reading Secret Light and it suited my mood well. It’s not a story I’ll re-read or particularly want to keep but I’m glad I read it. It’s also a book I’d recommend others read if they’re looking for a well written, compelling story that’s different from the masses in the genre. It’s worthwhile for that alone but the excellent writing and good characters shouldn’t be missed either.