Do you like stories about awesome ladies? Do you like stories about queer characters? Do you like tales of action and adventure? If you don’t, why are you reading this blog, friend? That’s pretty much all we talk about here.
Anyway, if you would like to have a story that contains all of the above and is awesome besides, then you should definitely be checking out the Valentin and the Widow podcast series, written and performed by Andrew Wheeler.
Valentin and the Widow is set in a steampunk-y version of the 1920s, and stars the recently widowed Lady Eleanora Rosewood and her valet, the gruff Russian ex-soldier Sacha Valentin. When Eleanora discovers that her beloved husband was actually involved in a clandestine organization bent on oppressing and destroying anyone they considered less-than, she sets off on an adventure to undo his evil plans before they can hurt anybody. The first story in the series, The Mandrake Machine, follows Eleanora to Shanghai, where she meets and hires Valentin to help her foil her late husband’s plan to level the city with an earthquake machine. In later stories they travel to Cuba, Cairo, and Paris on the trail of the organizations’ agents and plots, facing down finishing school students hypnotized into assassins, music boxes that kill their listeners, and the ghosts of both their pasts.
Valentin and the Widow is available both as an ebook on Amazon and as a free podcast that you can listen to on the series’s website. And though I defintely think you should support the author by buying the ebook, I really have to recommend the audio version. I’ve been listening to it regularly while I run errands or clean house, and it’s a delightful distraction from the mundane. Wheeler combines his storytelling with bits of old-timey, public domain music, and the stories are divided into four or five sections per book, making it feel like what I imagine an old radio serial drama would sound like. The stories are suspenseful and have high stakes, but are also still light-hearted and fun.
It always frustrates me when queer characters in historically-based fiction don’t behave in a way appropriate with their time period. Depending on the time and place in history, LGBTQ+ people would have to face a variety of different prejudices and problems, and unlike today, the fact that same-sex attraction was even something that existed might not have been common knowledge. Most queer people in recent Western history, especially if they were not wealthy socialites, might never have realized they weren’t straight, let alone acted on those feelings, so it’s annoying to read stories or fanfiction where LGBTQ+ characters in historical settings are open about their assignations.
Wheeler is clearly aware of this problem, and although his story is set in a sort of alternate 1920s (we didn’t have any earthquake machines in real life, as far as I know), he is careful to walk a fine line between showing what the ideals of the time were without allowing the narrative to agree with those ideals. When we start our story in The Mandrake Machine, Sacha is a depressed and bitter sailor who has self-exiled himself from his home of Russia for reasons that are not yet clear. As we get to know him better, we realize it must have had something to do with his more-than-platonic affections for his best friend Mikhail, with whom he served in the Russian Revolution. Sacha has internalized hatred for himself for his “unnatural” homosexual feelings, and displays fear and disgust toward other ‘inverts‘, but over the course of the story, and possibly as a side effect of spending so much time with the very kind and progressive-minded Eleanora, he begins to open up very slowly.
I love Sacha, well, for a lot of reasons, but especially because he’s not the stereotype of a gay male in any way. He’s poor, uneducated, and physically very strong and tough—a far cry from the usual portrayal of gay men in the late 19th/early 20th century, which tends to be dominated by more Oscar Wilde-esque intellectuals who lay about in manors and flirt with each other. One thing that amused me greatly while listening was that, as the story progresses, the male characters who flirt with Sacha become more and more flamboyant and forward, but the more openly flirtatious they are, the more poor Sacha is confused by their advances.
Lady Eleanora is also a delight to read about—or, well, hear about—as Wheeler clearly understands that the admonishment “write strong women” does not always mean “write women who are brawling street fighters”. Eleanora is strong of heart, and although she is not a skilled fighter or a talented manipulator, and although she constantly struggles with the revelation of her late husband’s true nature, she is dedicated to helping those in need. In the first book she travels to Shanghai by herself, with no help or knowledge about what or where the earthquake machine is, only knowing that if she doesn’t try to stop it, it will mean the death of millions. She’s driven by a powerful and selfless moral imperative to help others as well as a desire to undo the many evil schemes her husband had laid out. She is also not a Smurfette in an otherwise all-male cast—Valentin and the Widow is filled with ladies: queer ladies, ladies of color, good ladies, evil ladies, and even Irish ninja ladies.
I highly recommend this series, so if you’re looking for something different to read or listen to, you should definitely check it out. Valentin and the Widow is currently made up of four completed books (The Mandrake Machine, The Flowers of Mrs. Moore, Thrones and Principalities, and Paris Pas de Deux), and while he’s currently working on other projects, Wheeler has promised to continue Sacha and Eleanora’s story in the future. If you’re interested, you can tune in or buy the ebook for the first book here.