Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Andrew and Eddie did everything together, best friends bonded more deeply than brothers, until Eddie left Andrew behind to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six month later, only days before Andrew was to join him in Nashville, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. He leaves Andrew a horrible inheritance: a roommate he doesn’t know, friends he never asked for, and a gruesome phantom with bleeding wrists that mutters of revenge.

As Andrew searches for the truth of Eddie’s death, he uncovers the lies and secrets left behind by the person he trusted most, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death. Whirling between the backstabbing academic world where Eddie spent his days and the circle of hot boys, fast cars, and hard drugs that ruled Eddie’s nights, the walls Andrew has built against the world begin to crumble, letting in the phantom that hungers for him. 

*****

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.

Review:

Holy hell was this not a book I expected to read in 2021, and yet I’m so glad I did. How do I summarize my love for Summer Sons? Is it the dark academia intrigue? The author’s delightful (and at times, disturbing) way with words? The romanticization of the Appalachian Upper South with a haunting gothic aesthetic that brings me back to the best memories of my own childhood? Perhaps it’s the Hannibal-esque (TV show, not books) horror imagery put to words, in that disturbingly beautiful way an artfully arranged dead stag can be. And it’s certainly the delightful slow-burn M/M relationship depicted in a way I can only describe as the male-gaze. Essentially, there’s plenty to love.

Summer Sons, at its core, is a story of grief, of loss and denial, and of the struggle to move on. At every turn, the structure of the storytelling used to reflect that. The events of the first half happen in an almost disjointed. Andrew, upon moving in to his dead best friend’s, Edward’s, house (and room), moves from one event to another in an empty, almost sleepwalking manner. At one moment it’s class, the next it’s drag races at midnight on deserted highways with Edwards old friends, then suddenly it’s hauntings, horror imagery and possession. In between, Andrew attempts to make headways into the cause of Edward’s murder, though he mostly goes in circles. I’ve seen this book described many times as ‘a queer fever dream’ and that’s truly an apt way to describe what goes on in Andrew’s, and thus the reader’s, head.

The prose of this book is used similarly, with hauntingly beautiful horror imagery of dead stags, skeletal spectres forcing their way into a body, brushes with death so startlingly close you could taste the blood. For anyone who’s seen the NBC Hannibal TV show, think of how you’d describe one of Hannibal’s ‘artworks’. This is that prose. (To be clear, despite the horror label I wouldn’t consider this book scary. Simply disturbing in a most beautiful way). At the same time, Mandelo’s prose really breathes life into this gothic Appalachian setting, with their descriptors of the simmering heat of the late Nashville summers, the long drives over endless miles of highway. As someone who grew up in the Midwest, I was transported back to those summer days of my own childhood as I read.

Of course, one of the main reasons I picked this book up was for the queer relationships and on that front, I was absolutely not disappointed. To my surprise and bemusement, Andrew spends a good 60% of the book insisting he is straight, even if all signs point the other way. At the arrival of any male character, Andrew spends at least a paragraph describing his clothes and how well they fit his body, and even just the flashbacks with him and Eddie are, well, intimate. Something fairly unique amongst the queer fantasy I’ve read is that labels beyond ‘straight’ aren’t really used. There’s a secondary set of characters in a poly trio (two guys, 1 girl), that the characters acknowledge but never label. The queer relationships depicted here are messy, they’re sometimes hard to describe, but the people involved make it work. It’s an extremely realistic depiction of the queer community, of queer relationships, and just another reason why I love this book.

As the story progresses, there’s this simply delightful slow burn relationship that begins simmering in the background (and yes, it begins before Andrew’s ready to admit he’s maybe not as straight as he thinks he is). What I love about this relationship is that it’s really shown through gestures, through a quick squeeze on the thigh during a long drive, a strong grip at the back of the neck, rapid-fire text messages or ones that go ignored because it doesn’t feel right at the time. Like the other elements, prose plays a huge role in how beautiful, how intimate these gestures are depicted, and I have so many notes from passages that just refuse to leave in my mind. Throughout is this underlying vibe of possession that almost gives me Hannigram vibes (no serial killers though), and a sense that any interaction is equally likely to end up in a fistfight or a bed. If there’s one way to describe this romance, it’d be m/m with a masculine gaze: the cheap beers, the fast cars, the goading and fistfights.

Overall, I rate this book 5/5 stars. A simmering queer fever dream, equal parts haunting and delicious. Lyrical language that transports the reader to the sweltering summers of the Upper South, that eerie yet disturbingly beautiful Hannibal-esque horror vibe, and a delightful masculine-gaze M/M slow burn relationship that eschews simple labels.


r/Fantasy Bingo Squares:

  • Gothic Fantasy (hard mode)
  • Mystery Plot (hard mode)
  • Published in 2021
  • Forest Setting
  • Genre Mashup – (mystery, romance, horror)

Publication Date: 28 September 2021
Publisher: Tor.com
Format: eBook, ARC
Pages: 384
Word Count: ~118,000
ISBN: 125079028X 
Buy It Here: AmazonGoogle Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

One thought on “Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

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