If you'd asked me a few months ago, I'd have said I had no interest in anthropomorphic novels. They're the ones where animals live as humans. Silly of me really, because I've always really liked Brian Jacques' Redwall series (and actually I have signed copies of several of them). Anthropomorphic novels have always, in my mind, belonged in the realm of fantasy, usually aimed at children. I used to love Brer Rabbit when I was younger, although Beatrix Potter irritated me. Sickly sweet even when I was five years old.
Well in Kyell Gold's novels those stories reach maturity. He writes anthropomorphic novels for adults - with sex and everything. It should be weird, it should be gross, but somehow it's...not.
If you don't want to know how some of Gold's stories - specifically Waterways and his Dev & Lee series -end, look away now. Go read them for yourself, I highly recommend them!
My first introduction to Gold's work was his Gold Standard short story collection - available free from Amazon. It went free about the same time as my short story Fenton: the Loneliest Vampire did, and as we're in the same genre (gay) our books were battling it out for the top spot at the same time (and usually both losing to The Picture of Dorian Grey - damn you Oscar!)
I didn't download his book for aaaaages. Partly because of the cover, which I know is shallow of me but I just didn't get what I'd be getting from a collection of stories with a picture of a fox on the front. What a fool I was, and how glad I am that curiosity finally got the better of me.
A lot of Gold's novels began life as the shorts within Gold Standard, the first of which is Waterways. This is a touching coming-out / coming-of-age tale about an otter called Kory and a fox called Samaki. They bump into each other by accident (or is it...?) at the local pool and strike up a friendship, and then something more. Gold deftly weaves a compelling narrative of self-discovery, and the cross-species relationship between Kory and Samaki allows him to play with more familiar stereotypes of race and class. Kory's mother's over-zealous Christianity is at odds with the more accepting beliefs of the family vicar, allowing Gold to address the age-old dilemma of how one reconciles homosexuality and faith. Kory's story isn't an easy one, but it is a powerful one, and as a reader I was genuinely rooting for him to make it with Samaki. Whether their relationship could ever really last for ever and ever is a moot point: this is a young love / first love narrative and we cynical real-worlders know that such romances rarely make it long-term, but the ending is hopeful.
Plus, Gold is a master of the witty one-liner. Early on, a moment of sexual tension is diffused by Kory announcing - with great alarm - to Samaki that he "likes boobs." Later on he decides to go with his feelings and make a move on the fox, pretty sure that his advances won't be spurned. Samaki responds with surprise, "I thought you liked boobs?" Kory then gets the best line in the book: "I do - you boob."
At one point in Waterways, when Kory and Samaki are discussing colleges, one college in particular is mentioned, where a gay kid got beaten up by a group of jocks from the football team. That incident is the catalyst for the events of his Out of Position series, about an activist fox - Lee - and a jock tiger - Dev. (Out of Position and Isolation Play). Dev's pretty much your average football player, not as dumb as the usual stereotype but otherwise not so far removed. On a regular night out he picks up an attractive vixen at a bar, takes her home, gets her into bed, and discovers that underneath her skirt she ain't a vixen after all.
Lee's best friend, a skunk called Brian, was the kid who got beaten up after getting a bit too mouthy around some of the football team. Lee's idea of revenge was to seduce and then out one of the team (although Dev had nothing to do with the attack on Brian) but something changes. Lee fully expected Dev to run for the hills once he'd come down and realised what the hell he'd done. But he didn't. Instead, he stayed the night.
Dev and Lee's is a great gay-for-you (or out-for-you, if you prefer) storyline. Dev never thought of himself as gay, he never considered men attractive. At one point he tells Lee "I'm only gay for you, fox." Dev's not one for introspection and angst, he just knows what he feels and he goes with it. They have a genuinely tender and moving rapport, complete with cute nicknames ('Stud' when Dev's being a dumb jock; 'Doc' when Lee's trying to psychoanalyse everything), their relationship builds slowly and realistically - love sneaks up on them - and despite the power-dynamic inherent in both their size/strength difference and their sexual roles (and yes, Gold does narrate the sex, warts and all - get used to reading about sheaths...) theirs is a relationship between equals.
Just as in Waterways, Gold doesn't shy away from the big issues. Queer identity is paramount, of course, not least because Lee cross-dresses when he goes to watch Dev play football. When Dev's career takes off (something he credits to Lee's own passion for football and the coaching he gives Dev) Gold brilliantly narrates their long-distance relationship, the stresses of living in the closet, and Brian's spiteful attempts to out Dev after he turns pro. Lee also finds himself working for a football team, as a scout, and when Dev comes out publicly at the end of the first novel suddenly the roles are reversed and it's Lee who's living in the closet.
The switch is interesting because it turns the whole dynamic of their relationship on its head. Lee can't afford to come out, because he was scouting at the draft for the team that signed Dev initially (although they traded him in the first season). That's a pretty big conflict of interest, and one that comes out in the second novel, with dire consequences for Lee. Lee often struggles with his identity - when he met Dev he considered himself an 'activist' (although that basically meant he went to the LGBT meetings and was out on campus) but he realises, as he defends his choices to an increasingly bitter Brian, that the reason for all of that campaigning was to fight for the freedom to love who he wants, how he wants.
Religion plays a part in Dev and Lee's story too, in the form of Lee's mother, who falls in with a church group who fight against "the homosexual agenda". Although this is a very peripheral part of the narrative, the way Gold narrates the slow breakdown of Lee's family is depressingly honest. There's no big bust-up, no great falling out, they just fade from Lee's life until the ties between them have all but faded away. His father is a sympathetic character, torn between an increasingly radicalised wife who refuses to accept their son for who he is, and his son, who he clearly loves and wishes he was closer to. At the end of the second novel we get the impression that his marriage is at the point of collapse, and he comes through for Lee the moment he needs him.
Coming out isn't an easy experience for Dev. Being a pro football player, he has to face hostility both in the changing room and on the pitch. Several of his teammates refuse to shower with him, the players on opposing teams taunt him during games and the crowds are vicious. But it isn't all doom and gloom. Charm, the stallion kicker for Dev's team, lives up to his name admirably. He's the guy your mother warned you about, a total hound, but he's got a heart of gold and his brash humour goes a long way towards putting the other players in their place. Some of the older members of the team, still haunted by the memory of a player whose career was ruined when people discovered that he was gay, are determined not to let Dev go the same way, and still others care only for the game, not who shares Dev's bed. There's also tantalising hints that Dev ain't the only one on his team playing for the other side, if you know what I mean... I have high hopes for a couple of bears. And, of course, there are players on other teams who make it clear that Dev isn't alone in the world of pro football.
There is another family drama, in the form of Dev's parents. His mother initially appears to be on side, until she finds their lube in the bedroom... Oops. His father is another matter entirely. His first meeting with Lee starts with Lee calling Dev a cocksucker in Siberian and ends with a trip to the hospital and a broken thumb, and it descends from there into a childish tit-for-tat battle between them, played out across the tabloids, that tears Dev apart. His father plays a dangerous psychological game, telling Lee that if he doesn't end the relationship he'll disown Dev, knowing that eventually Dev will come to blame Lee for the estrangement. Would it have happened? Possibly. As much as Dev tries not to blame Lee, there is definitely an undercurrent of resentment there.
Just like with Waterways, however, it's not all doom and gloom. There's more great one-liners ("nasty people suck; nice people swallow" -- howling laughing) and some great bits of comic relief. On the last night of the draft Lee sneaks into Dev's room, and Dev leaves him sleeping there when he has to go in the morning. Poor Lee gets a rude awakening from one of the housekeeping staff, who sees far more than she bargained for. One of the stories to hit the tabloids after Dev comes out is of a naked fox discovered in a football player's bed. Dev thinks nothing of it until Lee starts squirming. Dev's response is the wonderfully dry, "you owe me a story, fox."
The narrative of the first two novels spans roughly the first three years of their relationship, and Dev and Lee both grow, as individuals and as a couple. The odds stacked against them are so high, the attacks on them so relentless, that it seems impossible that they can make it work. And yet they do. Time and again they come close to the edge, but they always draw back from the precipice, because ultimately not being together is far worse. In Gold's spin-off short, included in the end of the second novel, the author neatly dissects for us what makes this such a great story: its heart. The conclusion of that piece is melancholy -- Dev's career is really taking off, he's on the cusp of a bidding war that will see him earning millions -- and the last thing he needs is some outspoken, argumentative and demanding boyfriend distracting him. He's got enough going on in his life already, without adding the trouble that Lee always seems to bring. But the heart isn't logical, it wants what it wants, and Dev's heart wants Lee. The narrator, and indeed the readers, hope that this will work, that they can make it.
The anthropomorphic angle is an interesting one. In some ways it's redundant, as these are real-world stories and the characters could just as easily be human without losing anything from the storyline. However, I do believe that it does add something to the narrative, some magical element that lifts these novels from very good to great. Gold's attention to detail is staggering: who knew that a flick of a tail, or an ear, could be so expressive? His world is carefully planned and constructed, and everywhere the text is filled with little touches that demonstrate just how well he's thought it out - even celebrities aren't immune: Dev's a sucker for Lee's Lauren Bacollie voice. Love, love, love it.
Plus making the characters animals allows for some great word plays. Otters, foxes, tigers, bears, stallions... all of those animals have metaphoric meanings when applied to humans, and more often than not the characters conform to those stereotypes. With the rate Charm goes through women, he had to be a stallion. Otters and bears are particularly significant for queer characters, of course, and you just know that when a fox and a tiger get together it's going to be hot.
Which brings me on to sex. Gold ain't shy. Neither, for that matter, is his illustrator. Not only do we get to imagine it, we get to see it. I admit to being a little bit shocked pressed 'next page' on my Kindle and being confronted with one or two of the images in Dev and Lee's story. Waterways is much tamer, there's some mention of sheaths and getting each other "delightfully sticky" but that being a high school story I think it was more appropriate that less was made of the physical side of Kory and Samaki's relationship. Dev and Lee, by contrast, are adults: college and beyond. Plus, in any gay-for-you story sex is important.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Dev is the top. Strictly. He'll jerk Lee off while he's fucking him, but for a long time that's it. As the narrative progresses he'll give the occasional blowjob, but it really is occasional. After his father disowns him he staggers - very, very drunk - to Lee's hotel and what follows is a pretty brutal sex scene ("You're all I've got, so I'll be queer") which is also graphically illustrated for those who are imaginatively-impaired. After taking out some of his frustration on Lee's poor backside he flips him over to suck him off - the ultimate "queer" act. Except he can't bring himself to do it. Cue alarm bells.
However, not too many chapters earlier Gold lovingly narrated a mutual suck-off session between the two (leading the reader to wonder about his level of research where animal genitals are concerned...I know far more about the appendages of both tigers and foxes than I ever thought I would - or ever wanted to, for that matter - and with careful consideration of what will fit where given the respective size and shape of each character's muzzle...). So why the sudden reluctance? Why Dev's insistence to his team that he's still "the man" in their relationship?
There's two ways to play a gay-for-you storyline: either the 'straight' character loves their partner despite their body; or they love their body because it's theirs. The latter is usually the more popular, but there are clearly traces of the former in this story. Is that the more realistic storyline? Perhaps. It irritates Lee no end that he's constantly portrayed as the 'woman' in their relationship - to the team; to Dev's father. It does seem like the time is coming when Dev is going to be topped. After all, as Dev's dad sneers, "it doesn't matter where a boy sticks his dick." Fucking isn't gay, being fucked is.
As Lee so rightly points out, who does what isn't anyone's business but their own. It's just how they fit together (no pun intended). Except, of course, this is a public story. By inviting us into their bedroom, Gold makes it our business what happens behind closed doors. Dev's sexuality is something of a conundrum. Before Lee he'd only ever been interested in girls, but that interest was at best vague. As he puts it himself, he used to say that playing a great game was better than sex. After Lee, "I don't say that anymore." Their initial connection is founded on sex: for several months they're fuck buddies who meet once a week. This isn't your standard friend-to-lovers GFY narrative that I've seen done a thousand times, where love comes first and sex develops from that.
Temptation is put in Dev's way - in the form of males and females - and although he almost caves with a campy fox that reminds him a little of Lee he doesn't because, as he tells Lee, it would only be meaningless physical stimulation, and "I've got my paw for that". So his emotional connection to Lee is what keeps him interested, and keeps him coming back for more. But that wasn't why they started sleeping together to begin with.
Dev is a character who continually surprises. He's the one who ends up out-and-proud, he's the one who doesn't stray. When their relationship crosses the boundary into love it's through Dev's eyes that we see that happen (and it's exquisitely done). Dev is honest and moral and in many ways heartbreakingly innocent and naive. He's brave enough to trust his instincts and follow his heart, and to speak the truth, even when his voice shakes. That he accepts himself so easily makes it harder for him to understand why others can't - or won't - accept him. Gold puts him through the mill but he comes out the other side the same quiet, calming presence that he was at the beginning. Admittedly, he has a tendency towards losing his temper and smashing his phones up, but there is a stillness about Dev, a tranquillity: he can calm Lee's most outrageous tantrums with an arched eyebrow and a single word.
That's not to say that Lee isn't a lovable character too. His enthusiasm is infectious, the sheer joy he feels when he's around Dev, or football, or both, flows off the page and when they're together they're a captivating couple. As a reader I'm emotionally invested in them, I never want their story to end. The third book isn't out until Jan 2013, and I don't know how I'm going to cope!! Gold writes other anthropomorphic series, but Dev and Lee's story is far and away my favourite. You'll run the gauntlet with these characters, read greedily and mourn when you reach the end. And then, if you're anything like me, you'll go back to the beginning and start all over again.