Author: Rita Oakes
Publisher: Lethe Press
Genre: Gay Stories
Reviewed By: Sandra Scholes
Long before ''Don't ask don't tell,'' gays served in the military--sometimes openly--more often in secret. In this volume the author imagines what their lives might have been like. Within, you will find tales of historical fiction mixed occasionally with supernatural horror, including: a French fusilier fighting guerrillas and growing disillusionment in Napoleonic Spain; soldiers encountering unnatural horrors during the 1812 occupation and retreat from Moscow; a good-natured Wiltshire man finding companionship and courage amid the muck and misery of the Western Front; a downed American airman realizing everyone is not quite as they seem as he takes refuge with a band of Polish partisans during World War II; and more. Comrades-in-Arms offers tales of battles and the aftermath, of comradeship, loss, duty, and discovery.
A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Rita Oakes has a varied history of writing on such genres as horror, dark fantasy and historical fiction. her she writes about times in history that may not have been told in the same way, with gay characters in them that form the basis for the story. Comrades in Arms has eight stories of historical fiction set during wartime when being homosexual would have been a crime.
Starting in Aragon, Spain 1809 with By Bayonet and Brush it is the Napoleonic war where we see a brief snippet where a few men await orders for one of them to take dispatches to the battalion chief, avoiding all the guerrillas around them. They talk about their lives back home and girlfriends they might not see again, and one, Le Roc who prefers the company of men more. It is a tale that shows the fear war can give men who have spent too long a time in it, but also the bravery as they try to protect what little they have in war.
Before Chaos and the Glare, Dominique is a surgeon working in Moscow when a strange creature threatens to take the life of someone dear to him. This monster can become a man and Dominique suspects there may be more, and it is possible they can be made monsters from a single bite from one of their kind. The injection of something supernatural into the story is welcome as is the history of the period.
As the Crow Flies has Captain Etienne in Russia in late 1812 reminiscing about his lover, Martin and how he wished for him to be with him in more peaceful times. Etienne serves with his brother Gerard, keeping his eyes out for Cossacks and revenants. Gerard has spent too much time in war, raving and killing, he, Etienne thinks might have gone insane, taking grisly trophies of the men he has slain, hoping to take them home. Etienne has some suspicion of what might happen to his brother as he is notorious for being cruel since a young boy. There is no question of whether he would also kill those he cares for.
In A Fragment of Beast, Etienne's story is continued from the last story in Picardy, France of 1813 where Etienne has returned home to tell his mother it is likely his brother is dead and plans to see his mother for one day and go see his lover, Martin for the rest of the time he has left. When a husband and wife are murdered by a beast of some kind, there can be only one suspect as far as Etienne is concerned and a manhunt ensues. Oakes has taken the idea of Viking Berserkers, using the "bear shirt" as a literal meaning in this story. It is easy to feel for Etienne as he has survived the war and hoped to return to his mother and have her accept him as her son. Instead, she still favors Gerard, overlooking his past cruelty. In these stories there are musings of what life was like for the men who served in the wars, what they thought of their loved ones and how much they missed their male lovers. Etienne knows what it is like to feel animosity for his brother, and about his sexuality and that if it were known by other men he would be an outcast.
This is a Lethe Press title that has more about the history rather than the close relationships of men on the battlefield. In most of the stories, these men are thinking about what it must be like back home as dangers lurk everywhere. A Fragment of Beast is my favorite as it perfectly recreates an old werewolf-type story. Comrades in Arms mixes the subtle yearning of gay men in several historical settings with the effect of pulling the reader into these bygone days for a moment. Oakes has penned a richly detailed set of stories that deserves a second volume.