Almost three years ago I posted a review of local poet and LGBT champion Collin Kelley’s first novel, Conquering Venus. Ordinarily, I’d link back to that review, but I’m not going to this time. Why? Because it’s not relevant anymore. That was three years ago, and the way I feel about that book has changed enough that the review doesn’t matter. If you want to go digging for it, feel free, but you’d be better off just reading this - I’ll clarify my repositioning on Conquering Venus in this review, in light of having read the sequel, Remain In Light.
Conquering Venus came out to mostly glowing reviews, and my reviews and attention to the book were mostly positive as well. Retrospectively, I think some of that praise might have been premature - for reasons I suppose I now have to explain. First, though, let me assure you that the impending praise I’m about to give Remain In Light is highly deserved - with this follow-up, Collin has given us a book that deserves as much if not more attention than current books of similar pacing, style, and genre.
Despite my ex post facto misgivings, two things make Conquering Venus a unique and worthwhile book. One is Collin’s acumen as a poet. The other is his position in the local gay community as an adamant and prolific messenger, diplomat, and champion.
Unfortunately, those two things also contribute to the problems Conquering Venus has as well. First, Collin had some difficulty, I think, in transforming the powerfully metaphoric and sonorous language that makes him such a talented poet into the precise and practical language often required in prose. Sometimes his artful phrasing added beautiful layers to his scenes, as with the Prologue, (you can listen to him read it here). Other times - many times - scenes got muddied, became unclear.
Second, and this is just circumstance - it reflects less on the author than it does the world in which we live - the subject matter simply proved unwieldy for people who are not in or deeply sympathetic to the LGBT community. That, BTW, does not include me - I am and for many years have been a staunch ally of my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender peers.
Still, and I am loathe to admit this, but the incontrovertible fact is: if you are not a member of the LGBT community or an ally thereof, you might not find much in Conquering Venus to identify with. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true: although the feelings and angst that protagonist Martin Paige and his lover David experience are indeed universal, and ought to transcend boundaries, we live in a society that finds it difficult to transcend with them.
Conquering Venus was a sort of coming-of-age story, the tale of two boys who need to grow past certain things and become men. It’s filled with all the pathos and emotional upheaval you’d expect from any such tale. Honestly, it’s not the kind of story I gravitate toward, and for many others who do gravitate toward that kind of tale, it’s appeal is potentially lessened by their inability to find commonality with a gay couple in Paris.
Still, Conquering Venus was and is an impressive debut novel. The characters, particularly the chief protagonist of Martin and the two female leads of Irene and Diane, are thoughtful and multi-layered portraits of complex and fascinating people. And the setting of 1990s Paris is a character unto itself - you can sense in every overly poetically-phrased description Collin’s love for the City of Light and the people who inhabit it.
The strengths of Conquering Venus are present in Remain as Light as well. Martin, Irene, and Diane are back and as splendidly portrayed as ever. The weaknesses, however, are gone.
Whereas Conquering Venus was a coming-of-age tale full of emotional circumstance, Remain In Light is a murder mystery and a thriller. The stakes aren’t astronomical here - we’re not talking government conspiracy or secret society adventures that will determine the fate of the world. But that doesn’t matter. What’s at stake is the fate of these characters, and Collin gets us so invested in what could and will become of them that we turn every page with as much interest and involvement as we would any story in a similar vein. And honestly, I care more about Martin Paige and Irene Laureux than I ever have Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, or Robert Langdon.
Finally, with this second excursion into long prose, Collin has adapted an efficient style which gives you pacing and plot in abundance, but a distinct and cohesive sense of place and time. The little ornamental trappings of poesy are still present here and there, but they add to the story now rather than distract and detract. There is also an air of mystery that drives the plot - something amorphous and enigmatic that hangs around each scene like a ghost, giving you the sensation that someone important was there before you, and that you just missed something that could change you and your perspective fundamentally.
Stronger in voice, more sublime in style, and ultimately more intriguing than its predecessor and many of its contemporaries, Remain In Light stands as a great second entry in what Collin is calling his Venus Trilogy. It’s available now from Vanilla Heart Publishing. Get a copy here from Amazon.com.