Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Flowers of St. Aloysius by Hayden Thorne

A dying young mother’s desperate hope for her child leads her to a fateful meeting in the clearing of an old wood. A meeting whose otherworldly purpose quietly and gradually takes shape as the child matures. A meeting that has left the wood under a dark spell, unable to rise up in fury to undo what it sees as a violation of natural laws.

Two families from old aristocratic lines agree to end the century-long and bloody feud that has left one side fading and the other flourishing. To achieve such an end, Laurent Veilleux, the youngest of his family, and Brys Lajoie, the last of his bloodline, are forced to marry though still strangers to each other. Marriages of convenience and political marriages are common among the upper-crust, and despite their initial reluctance and disdain, Laurent and Brys slowly allow themselves to open their hearts and minds to each other in hopes that somehow, by some miracle, love would eventually bloom between them.

But their union has awakened something, a fragrant and deadly shadow that leaves a trail of bodies in its wake. Healthy people suddenly fall ill and die after suffering long, excruciating declines marked by symptoms of poison. Plants and flowers wilt, butterflies and birds tumble to the ground dead, and it appears as though this murderous shadow follows the young couple everywhere.

To make matters worse, this threat seems to gather more strength when Laurent and Brys develop the emotional connection they’ve always hoped for. And somewhere in the French countryside, the woodlands finally emerge from the dark spell, unleash their fury, and seek justice for a past wrong, the trees’ reach spanning distances in search of the unsuspecting pair.

Inspired by the poison maiden legend from India, which Nathaniel Hawthorne also adapted in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, 'The Flowers of St. Aloysius' is a gothic gay fairy tale set in an alternate universe nineteenth century France.

This interesting blend of fantasy and history makes for a very intriguing, terrifying at times, alternate universe.  I always enjoy AU historicals, they give the author such unique leeway with facts, letting them put their own brand of storytelling into the tale.  The Flowers of St. Aloysius is my first Hayden Thorne book, but it most certainly won't be my last.  I will say that if you have a deathly fear or phobia of nature then this is one you should probably approach with caution but otherwise, I highly recommend Flowers especially with October and Halloween just around the corner.  Brys and Laurent's story is what I imagine a book would be if Nathanial Hawthorne and the Grimm Brothers had collaborated, all kinds of gothic romance, magic, and mystery with a good old fashioned helping of creepy.  This is a definite must read and I can't wait to check out the author's other work and if they happen to only be half as good as Flowers I'll be a happy reader but something tells me they'll be way more than half as good.

The Veilleux-Lajoie union was specifically designed to be a quiet yet dignified affair befitting two old families with aristocratic blood in their veins. The church was no grand cathedral meant to inspire awe and perhaps even terror in the hearts of the congregation. No—a small church in a small town north of Florismart had been chosen, but the presiding holy dignitaries elevated the proceedings from a modest wedding to one truly witnessed and approved by the Church of Rome.

No less than three bishops were in attendance, and as he solemnly walked to the altar, his hand resting atop Laurent’s raised palm, Brys’s earlier confidence wavered terribly. He couldn’t keep his gaze ahead, succumbing to the temptation of letting it dart left and right to take in the immensity of the moment. The bishops standing in silent and somber watchfulness intimidated him with their grand ecclesiastical robes, and their elaborate mitres made him shrink inwardly while also wondering how in heaven’s name both families had managed to pull such important, magnificent strings where the church was involved. He could only guess old connections between the families and Rome were responsible for this remarkable display.

In attendance were families—unfortunately almost all coming from the Veilleux side, the Lajoies represented by none else but Brys’s parents. They, along with Mme Veilleux, sat in front, everyone else filling up space behind them.

As he and Laurent finally reached the apse, Brys dared a glance in his parents’ direction and noted the coldness on their features—a vastly different look from Mme Veilleux, who watched him and Laurent with a faint, indulgent smile on her face. But that meant little, really, and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The Lajoies were a doomed clan. This union meant everything to them as a dying bloodline. Whether or not Brys and Laurent decided to sire offspring down the line, there was still that uncertainty shadowing Brys’s steps, and the tension evident in his parents was testament to the desperation propelling this shocking move to unite the families.

When he met his parents’ gaze, in fact, Brys saw no affection or reassurance in either of them. Just a stony, unreadable light in their eyes, their pale faces fixed in an expression devoid of life. He had to suck in a deep, rattling breath to comfort himself instead.

When he felt his hand lightly squeezed, he turned his attention back to the altar and the priest who stood solemnly before them.

“Are you all right?” Laurent whispered, his words barely heard even in the tomb-like silence of the church.

“I am, thank you. Just nervous.”

“As am I. But we’ll pull through this.”

Laurent gently squeezed his hand again, and Brys’s earlier anxiety eased. At a cue from the priest, the two knelt rather stiffly, and if Brys weren’t still on edge, he’d have laughed at the ridiculousness of the moment, particularly the formal attire he and Laurent were obliged to wear for the occasion. Not having worn the ensemble before, Brys felt his movements hampered by the stiff fabric and the elaborate embroidery and embellishments up and down his person. It certainly didn’t help that the outfits he and Laurent wore were ornamental silk and lace costumes from a century prior—perhaps a symbolic reminder of the beginning of the two families’ deadly enmity. Shirt, cravat, waistcoat, jacket, breeches, stockings, and even buckled shoes—both young men were also, much to Brys’s dismay, forced to top things off with simple bag wigs, but at least the hair color matched their own. It was all too much, really, and Brys didn’t care a jot for it, but this wedding was proving to be a great deal more significant then he’d expected. The only thing that lightened his mood was the look of horror on Laurent’s face as he glanced at himself and then at Brys just before they traversed the nave, their hands together.

He even thought he’d heard his soon-to-be-husband mutter, “I’ll never live this one down” before the doors swung open to welcome them into the church.

The ceremony itself was quite simple despite the superficial pomp, and again, perhaps it was intentional, shedding all the unnecessary layers where it counted the most: the joining of two lives forever. The only extra touches involved the visiting bishops taking turns blessing the union with prayers and exhortations, etc. Before he knew it, Brys was pronounced Laurent’s husband and vice versa then encouraged to stand and turn around to face their families and friends as spouses.

Deferential but cheerful applause followed their presentation, and Brys took advantage of this moment to glance at his parents.

Both appeared to be pleased with the proceedings, but they still had an air of gravity about them. At the very least, they offered Brys brief little smiles before their expressions settled back to icy calm. And Brys wondered if their behavior stemmed from the fact that this move toward a reconciliation—clearly a necessity in their eyes—had also been a severe blow to their pride. Brys could never really gauge their true feelings on the matter as they’d always been guarded about their thoughts and their hearts. Yes, there might be some relief in there somewhere, knowing their one and only child and the last of the bloodline had been easily welcomed by a stronger, more fruitful family who also happened to be their antagonists for a century. There was a hint of defeat somewhere in there as well, the realization that their family couldn’t be sustained anymore, the risk of Brys succumbing to an illness only grounding home the need for a reconciliation and a clear conscience before it was too late.

So many reasons and justifications could have made up the present moment, but Brys had never been—and perhaps never would be—privy to his parents’ closely guarded thoughts and feelings on the matter. He only hoped he’d do them justice in the end, that he’d fulfill his purpose or role in a manner that would make them proud and pleased with the sacrifice of their son in this semi-political game.

“Let’s go,” Laurent whispered, leaning close. “I’m dying to change my clothes. This is madness.”

Brys blinked and turned to him, startled at first, but the grumpy scowl on his husband’s face finally broke the ice, and he laughed softly. “Yes, let’s go. I don’t understand all this, myself. And these ugly shoes are absurdly stiff. I’m sure my feet are black and blue by now.”

Laurent’s scowl melted then, and their gazes met while applause continued around them. “Welcome to my life, Brys Veilleux-Lajoie.”

Brys at first wasn’t sure if Laurent was teasing him, but the somber, earnest light in his husband’s eyes told him otherwise. He didn’t quite know what to say to that other than a stammered, “Welcome to mine, Laurent.”

And then they were walking back down the aisle toward the doors.

A carriage awaited them, and they clambered inside, settling down in the stiff, uncomfortable seats with groans of pain and fatigue.

“God, I can’t wait to walk around in normal shoes again,” Laurent blurted out, now that they were on their way to the wedding banquet. He immediately bent down and struggled with his shoes, eventually pulling them off and sighing loudly when his stockinged feet were finally free of their awful prison. He glanced at Brys, who sat across from him. “Aren’t you going to take your shoes off?”

Brys didn’t answer right away. If anything, he found that he couldn’t. The realization of his being now really, truly married had finally sunk in, and he was at a loss. From a life spent in isolation, deprived of friends his age, to being married to a stranger—and this marriage carrying far greater baggage than any other marriage ever could—Brys suddenly felt not only confused as to what was now expected of him, but also unnerved by his shifting role.

How did betrothed couples go about getting comfortable enough with each other? What were the chances of love—real, deep love—growing from a connection that had been forced on them? Would he and Laurent end up resenting each other instead for the rest of their lives? Brys had heard of mistresses and lovers on the side, apparently considered a necessary evil to those in the same situation he and Laurent now found themselves in. If a loveless marriage was all he had to look forward to from this day forward, would Brys eventually succumb to the temptation of finding a devoted lover on the side as well? Laurent was obviously a great deal more knowledgeable and worldly, having traveled and experienced growing up in a big family and also expensive boarding schools. Would he be more likely to tire of Brys and enjoy a string of bed partners to satisfy his needs and make his marriage more endurable?

“It’s been my experience,” Laurent continued, breaking up Brys’s dour thoughts, “that overthinking things can only make the situation worse.”

Brys sighed and looked up, suddenly feeling exhausted by everything. “We don’t love each other,” he simply replied. “How does something like this work?”

Laurent regarded him in thoughtful silence for a moment. “One day at a time, I suppose.”

Brys didn’t know if he’d struck a nerve because Laurent didn’t speak again for the duration of the trip, and Brys’s spirits wilted at the thought. He fought against a well of emotions and pulled himself together, turning his attention to the gorgeous day and the idyllic countryside. Perhaps he was overthinking things, as Laurent noted. But he couldn’t find it in himself to feel awful about it, seeing as how he felt awful enough like this.

A butterfly suddenly appeared, having flown inside one window, only to find itself trapped inside a moving vehicle. It fluttered past Brys’s face at first before frantically flying around for an escape, and it was really impossible to somehow show where it needed to go when the wind rushing through the open carriage windows kept the poor little creature from getting over its frantic confusion.

Seeing a butterfly so close like this was a first. Back in Cheney, the Lajoie garden didn’t seem to invite birds or even butterflies and all other manner of small wildlife of one species or another. Brys had never even seen earthworms or caterpillars. Such animals were always spotted outside, well beyond the thick stone walls surrounding his home, and whatever knowledge he’d had regarding these creatures came strictly from his books. In fact, the more Brys thought about it, the more he realized the flowers he’d been so used to seeing around him weren’t the usual varieties so plentiful in Laurent’s mother’s garden. Perhaps, he told himself with a mental shrug, the plants his parents grew were strictly only from that region. It certainly made a great deal of sense when regarded as such.

Brys sighed, taking pity on the trapped butterfly, and lifted both hands to try to somehow nudge it in the direction of a window. Wind and movement brought the butterfly close to his face, forcing Brys to blow gently at it before it touched his mouth, and it fluttered around for a bit before attempting another escape. In another moment, however, the creature seemed to have lost coordination, and it clumsily fluttered in a downward spiral to settle on the cushion, just an inch or two from Brys.

There it lay for another moment, its beating wings turning erratic and sluggish, until the butterfly went still, its little body jarred by the carriage’s movements and thrown about by the rushing winds.

Author Bio:
I've lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area though I wasn’t born there (or, indeed, the USA). I’m married with no kids and three cats, am a cycling nut (go Garmin!), and my day job involves artwork, crazy (read: incomprehensibly fun) coworkers who specialize in all kinds of media, and the occasional strange customer requests involving papier mache fish with sparkly scales.

I’m a writer of young adult fiction, specializing in contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical genres. My books range from a superhero fantasy series to reworked folktales to Victorian ghost fiction. My themes are coming-of-age, with very little focus on romance (most of the time) and more on individual growth with some adventure thrown in.



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