Sunday, December 3, 2017

Reviews of 'Thrones of Desire' (ed. Mitzi Szereto) and 'Sinful Pleasures' (ed. Lisa Jenkins)

Thrones of DesireErotic Tales of Swords, Mist, and Fire (edited by Mitzi Szereto with a foreword by Piers Anthony

This superb collection would appear to be the companion to another recent Cleis anthology, Witches, Princesses, and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales edited by Sacchi Green and reviewed here last month. Where that earlier collection maintained a laser-like focus on f/f narratives, the fourteen stories in Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire offer readers a a sumptuous pan-sexual fantasy smorgasbord with something to entice all tastes.

There are so many fine stories here, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I was particularly impressed by Megen Arkenberg’s Jericho, a nifty gender-switched re-imagining of the Biblical story of the besieged city, told here from the perspective of a male Rahab. Also striking is Kim Knox’ At the Sorcerer’s Command, a tale of richly-sustained atmosphere and suspense in which a taboo sex act becomes a catalyst for a near-impossible feat of magic. In Ashley Lister’s tautly-crafted Here There Be Dragons a keeper of dragons must draw on all her powers of guile and seduction to outwit invaders from a foreign land; this story is, at once, scary and sexy as hell, with a satisfying final twist. Much more than a facile quickie, Janine Ashbless’ Of High Renown offers readers a tale of realistic moral complexity and suffering that is also sensually rewarding. The opening of Zander Vyne’s ostensive damsel-in-distress narrative The Last Sacrifice seems reminiscent of Dragonslayer, with, possibly, a bit of Ladyhawke thrown in for good measure, and yet, the author’s subtle skill in bending this material through her own unique vision—to give readers something exciting and new—is truly striking. At the end we feel we’ve been given a wonderful gift.

Also excellent: Silver, Anna Meadows’ dark fairy tale in which a bride’s true appearance is disguised by a charm, her high-born groom nearly driven mad until both face the truth in themselves.  Mitzi Szereto’s Escape conjures a dystopian Handmaids-Tale-like world in which fertile young virgins are forced to marry the old powerful men in charge, yet one woman and her young lover endeavor to break free. In Sacchi Green’s marvelously-imagined Flesh and Stone, an empath is sold into slavery, but for a purpose that will redeem all her suffering.

We are tossed directly into the midst of a complex fantasy world in M.H. Crane’s ultimately moving Saints and Heroes. Key to the Queen’s Elixir by Jo Wu tells of the Snow Queen’s unexpected encounter with a stranger from her past, and the upheaval that ensues. And in the lyrical sexy prose of Nyla Nox in The Widow’s Man we are treated to the tale of a man awaiting execution after having been seduced into a conspiracy. In Madeleine Moore’s imaginative In the Kingdom of Roz, a pampered princess is kidnapped on the day of her début, only to discover truths about herself and her family’s past, and to be offered an extraordinary choice-of-a-lifetime. Moore uses deceptively simple language to tell this subtly colorful story. Eric Del Carlo’s Hot as Dragon’s Blood, in spite of its straightforward narrative form, tells a psycho-sexually complex story of sacrifice, of “letting go” and doing the right thing: a young man, bonded by blood to the dragon he would ride into battle, is outed as gay and, disgraced, forbidden to fight. His one hope is to transfer his blood-bond to another rider—in this case, a woman whose cultural tradition forbids her from riding with the dragon cavalry—but only through an act of “straight” sex. Interesting dilemma to say the least… And in Eye Keeper by Aurelia T. Evans readers encounter a bewildering world of political intrigue, theft, betrayal, and a coup in the making.

Enthusiastically recommended!

To be honest, I was, at first, going to take a pass on this anthology of eleven short erotic stories. I felt that, while the collection does feature three or four truly brilliant stories—as fine as anything I’ve read in an age—overall, this is a pretty uneven book, the remaining seven stories ranging from nice-if-not-great, to cloyingly mediocre, to please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-this. In the end, I’ve decided to recommend the book, because what’s good here is too good to ignore.

These four stories are worth the price of the book:

The Pier by Night by Janine Ashbless. What makes this story stand out is its sustained ambiance, always in the service of inner truth. The setting, strikingly described, perfectly mirrors the main character’s sense of wonder, emotional uncertainty, and awakening desire. Nobody is better at evoking that rich, vivid atmosphere in which readers may dream, and Ashbless is here at the very top of her form.  

The Black Orchid by Jo Henry Wolf. This marvelous erotic horror story is at once luminous in its language and darkly ominous in its mood. The setting is contemporary, the characters rough-edged and less-than forthcoming about their motives. This is steamy (in more ways than one), highly intelligent, and creepily Lovecraftian (or perhaps more aptly Barker-esque) in its final reveal. I found myself bursting forth in sheer delight after reading this tale, like one of the plants in Wolf’s mysterious greenhouse.

Lazy Sunday by Tony Flyer. This lyrical tale of nostalgia and enduring love is a little masterpiece. Virtually every note is pitch-perfect. Emotions are mirrored in unforgettable poetic imagery—and poetry itself plays an essential role in the main characters’ history. The structure is fairly simple, yet so admirably taut as to defy mundane analysis. Flyer is most certainly an author to be watched and anticipated.

The Dream Weaver by Ella Scandal, as the title suggests, evokes colorful dream imagery, yet not in the tired conventional way one might expect. Well-written, and imaginatively conceived to the most pleasing of ends.

I have only discussed the things I liked best here—with sincere apologies to the other authors, because I know how much it hurts to be left out and denied mention in an anthology review. Unfortunately, there have been a few too many collections that I didn’t feel I could recommend on the basis of only one or two decent stories, yet I've felt bad about not bringing those stories to my readers’ attention. And so, beginning this year, I will be adding a new Short Fiction category to EftBB’s annual Best-of list. Look for it in the next few weeks. 

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