Patience & Esther: An Edwardian Romance (opens in new tab) is a delight. This new offering from powerhouse publisher Iron Circus Comics collects S.W. Searle's Edwardian erotica comic (previously published as Sparks) into a complete volume, with additional backmatter and a modern short featuring the titular characters.
Written and Illustrated by S.W. Searle
Published by Iron Circus Comics
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Searle's work lives somewhere between Downton Abbey (opens in new tab) (its historical contemporary) and Bridgerton (opens in new tab), diving into the blossoming romance between new housemaids Patience and Esther, a more experienced maid to the progressive Lady Blythe.
Searle is a truly skilled artist with a unique personal style. She works with bold lines and gentle, muted colors on uncluttered pages that give her plenty of room to linger on the little details, whether it's the timely touches on the characters' wardrobes or the lingering and loving looks Patience and Esther share. Searle draws the two titular characters in particular with an openness of expression and body language that makes them irresistibly charming - the two spend time in London, at one point, and Esther's wide-eyed delight over the prospect of visiting a public library in the city is contagious. It makes the erotica all the more charged, whether it is Patience's tentative excitement with Esther in the early days of their romance or more mischievous moments of exploration between both Patience and Esther and other characters later on.
The book's strengths lie in Searle's thoughtfulness, both about the little details of the time period and all aspects of the characters. Patience & Esther features a diverse cast of characters from various racial, class, and cultural backgrounds, including a wide range of body types. Searle touches on myriad issues relevant to the characters in the ways particular to the Edwardian period, and it's particularly refreshing to see her explore them as issues that intersect in different ways for different characters across class, race, and gender.
These moments begin to feel a bit like vignettes after Patience & Esther find themselves in London partway through the book, harkening back to its serialized roots. The broad overarching narrative is the two women finding both happiness with each other and their way in a rapidly-changing world, and while overall it's a lovely and engaging read, the story progresses more as a series of gently rolling hills towards brief moments of conflict that are typically resolved in short order.
If you prefer a more dramatic overarching narrative to your fiction, this may not necessarily be the book for you. That said, it certainly isn't inherently negative, and it's actually - at least for me - a bit refreshing to read a romance that offers kindness to its characters but still remains somewhat grounded in the realities of the time and situations the characters find themselves in.
Searle addresses this herself in the backmatter included in the book (which includes some fascinating notes on the various historical details, including a number of contemporary poets referenced throughout). As she notes, she has "purposefully crafted Patience & Esther to treat its characters gently," as historical queer romances, in particular, can be particularly emotionally brutal, but also that there are times where "smoothing things over too much would simply be disingenuous." It's this awareness, along with Searle's gorgeous art, that makes Patience & Esther such an engrossing and delightful read.
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