Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review of 'Medusa's Touch' by Emily L. Byrne and 'Hard Drive' by M. Christian

Medusa’sTouch  by Emily L. Byrne

What is at heart a fairly conventional f/f erotic romance is here gussied up as space opera with an interesting transhumanist element. TiCara X273 is a medusa pilot, having received a set of neuro-synaptic implants that allow her to interface with the space freighter she captains. TiCara’s implants also enhance and help to moderate her emotions; these “medusas” sometimes seem to have a will of their own, which makes for some of the story’s most entertaining moments. When TiCara is commissioned to ferry an aging corporate bigwig to a remote system in search of a technological fountain of youth, she jumps at the prospect of a rich payoff, along with the opportunity to make time with said bigwig’s beautiful assistant, Sherin. Pursued by space pirates and corporate secret police, aware of a spy in her midst and unsure of whom to trust, TiCara has plenty to occupy her when she isn’t lost in romantic self-doubt, obsessing about or actively pursuing Sherin.

Drawing heavily on the conventions of cinematic space opera, space travel here is portrayed as relatively easy and routine, imaginary tech helps to gloss over problems of distance and time, and space battles in zero gravity are played out like conventional earthbound shoot-‘em-ups. While, in real life, there may be ten thousand potentially fatal hazards in space at any given second, Byrne generally keeps things sufficiently engaging to encourage a relatively hefty suspension of disbelief.   

I found Byrne’s style a tad dry in spots, a little too bogged down with superfluous stage business that doesn’t seem to put the story forward in any meaningful way. At times the generic erotic romance elements—endless daydreaming and adolescent self-doubt—detract from the sci-fi/adventure narrative, dulling the sharper edges of the plot.  Like too many stories of this kind, imaginary futuristic jargon and slang can do more to impede a clear narrative flow than enhance a sense of authenticity. When tech overwhelms the humanity of the story, neither science nor fiction are well served. I would have liked to read more about the villain of the piece, who is by far the most interesting character in the tale, and could have used more of a build-up to raise the stakes of the ultimate set-piece, well done as it is.

In the end,  I think Byrne has succeeded in creating an entertaining, essentially human story with Medusa’s Touch and that is an achievement not to be dismissed. Recommended.

As the subtitle suggests, all of the stories in this collection have appeared in print before. I have reviewed several of the earlier anthologies from which this material is drawn, and much of it holds up quite well.

At his best, M. Christian is a master of speculative fiction, highly imaginative, ironic, wickedly funny, fast-paced, endearingly snarky, and one hell of a fine writer with a Promethean gift for evocative settings and memorable set-ups. Pieces like Honky Tonk Lagoon, Prêt-à-porter, The Bachelor Machine, Hot Definition, Everything But the Smell of Lilies, The Hope of Cinnamon  and Subsequent State are little masterpieces, as fine as anything in contemporary sci-fi.

Christian’s writing can also be pretentious, self-indulgent, plodding, bloated, obsessive, continually flogging the same not-particularly interesting transhumanist concepts, unwilling to put his shopworn darlings out of their (and the reader’s) misery. Yes, the notion that humanity may become so dependent on technology, on being “connected” that we forget how to sense or feel anything genuine is a profound idea, a cautionary tale for our age, but the novelty wears off pretty fast, especially when the storytelling is unfocused, taking too long to reach its destination, ironic twists, clever as they may be, coming too little and far too long after the reader’s interest is lost.

In short, what we have is a mixed bag, though I think what’s good—even great—here outweighs what isn’t. Recommended on balance.   

Sunday, October 21, 2018

'La Sonnambula'--a story by TAS

La Sonnambula

And when had this jejune infatuation metastasized into madness? When had casual admiration turned to worship, and worship to obsession? Christian could not pinpoint that moment in memory when his feelings had changed. In fact, his feelings had not changed by any qualitative measure, but only in the grandeur of their intensity. And was that not wholly apropos, considering the passion She inspired in millions?
But no passion was like his!
He had all Her albums, of course: mass-produced sonic souvenirs of every production She had ever taken part in, from Her early scene-stealing triumphs as a twentysomething Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and Zerlina in Don Giovanni to Her mature, quasi-notorious transpositions of the great bel canto roles. Somewhat rarer were the printed programs, mementos from opera houses and recital halls around the world, each one autographed in the same flamboyantly elegant hand “with love to Christian, my biggest fan!”
With love! Could it be true? No one had ever loved Christian before. No one had ever desired him—he with his twisted body, withered legs, and freakish face. No one had ever been drawn by the sound of his voice or the cleverness of his conversation. No one would ever be attracted by the beauty of his mind or the worthiness of his character. And yet, She never failed to write “with love”!
No matter that it was his handsome ‘abled’ proxy who procured the autographs, a hired agent who brought flowers to Her dressing rooms with Christian’s effusively scribbled notes in scented envelopes. “She bowed her head and smiled a little to herself” the surrogate might report, or: “She read the note and caught her breath, laid her hand upon her bosom, blushed, and sighed...”
“But was there no reply?” Christian would complain after demanding to hear the minutest details of the encounter a double-score of times. “Had She nothing personal to say?” Like some histrionically jealous tenor in a superheated operatic love triangle, Christian was insanely, epically, grandiosely enthralled.
And so had it been, ever since the day he first heard Her music and was mystically made whole, that dream-glimmered evening when, venturing out in disguise, he saw Her in person for the first and only time. She had moved with such imperious grace, virtually gliding onto the stage, Her gown scandalously low-cut, Her voluptuous form resplendent amidst a spangled galaxy of sequins, blazing out like super novas whenever She turned this way or that. And when She sang Ah! Non credea mirarti, inflecting every sigh and coo, her very breath an erotic miracle of melody, Christian had become unbearably erect, even as he wept for beauty. Oh Goddess! What was ‘reality’ compared to this? Could any passion be more true?
He pleasured himself to the accompaniment of the memory, though it had taken years to overcome the shame. He masturbated with feral abandon to the sight of Her image, portraits on the cover of Classical Music and The Gramophone, or photos on album jackets. His particular favorite—most reliably arousing—was the jacket cover of Bellini’s La SonnambulaThe Sleepwalker—where She appeared in the guise of the lovely, angelically unselfconscious Amina, photographed from above the bosom, eyes closed, head demurely bowed, admiring the fragrance of a lily, her long black hair drawn up off naked shoulders, high and away from the neck, coyly hinting at complete nudity below. Christian had the photograph, digitally blown up larger than life, ensconced behind a velvet curtain in his listening room like a holy relic, a miraculous icon only to be revealed on High Feast Days.
He had recruited a small army of talented underground artists, painters, sculptors, pornographers, occultist pimps and free-lance paparazzi, all to feed his insatiable need for novelty. Christian was a man of perverse and singular taste with the means to indulge his paraphilic fancies. The rooms he now occupied had once comprised the suite of his father’s law offices; the oak half-paneling bespoke a clientele of taste and discretion, the sumptuous wainscotings the discreet comings and goings of storied wealth and power. The son had inherited the father’s riches without his responsibilities or reputation, yet the money was more than enough with which to lay the foundations of a dazzling paracosm. The apartment was nothing now so much as a museum—a sacred shrine consecrated to the mysteries of the great Casta Diva, Her music and Her matchless beauty. Within those six richly-appointed rooms Christian was docent, curator and patron, high priest, celebrant and supplicant.
Her recordings played constantly, piped through the entire suite so that the sound of Her singing filled the air like incense. His motorized wheelchair whined across the shimmering terrazzo floors with their ouroborus-patterned mosaics, carrying him from room to room as he made his morning rounds, the daily ritual of adulation. The narrow halls were lined with autographed headshots and posters, the library with diverse memorabilia, clippings, and varicolored stage bills, all in matching gilt frames. For the sitting room, Christian had commissioned a rendering of Her as Amina, based on the same album cover that never failed to inflame him, but now in three dimensions, a bare-shouldered bust in white marble set within a mirrored alcove.
And, so that he might adore Her perpetually in the intimate sanctity of the boudoir, Christian had ordered a trio of pornographic parodies, a lascivious triptych in oils conjured, alas, not from life, but from his artist’s prurient conjecture. Above the headboard, She lounged in insouciant splendor, shamelessly thrusting her pelvis up at the painter like the cheeky peasant girl in Goya’s La maja desnuda. Opposite this, where Christian could admire it as he waited for sleep, a sensuous nude after Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the Goddess couchant in languorous dishabille, a knowing smile upon her sultry lips. To his left, the most daring of all, a re-imagining of Bronzino’s Venus and Cupid, Folly and Time with Christian himself idealized as Cupid, drawing near to kiss his lover, his perfect, healed hand incestuously cupping the Goddess-mother’s naked milk-white breast.
Oh! To be an object of desire rather than of pity, not some hideous monstrosity hiding in the shadowy wings of life. Every night before Christian fell into the malefic abyss of fitful slumber, he would mouth a prayer to the uncaring cosmos, the simple hope that he might dream of being more than worthy—indeed, of being whole. Surely then, when the Diva stepped on stage and looked out upon Her adoring congregation, She would recognize Her biggest fan in the flesh at last, no longer just another face among the throng of guileless postulants—those eager, wide-eyed matinée mystagogues—but, in truth, Her most devoted disciple, acolyte, suitor, consort and thrall.
And yet, in his most lucid dreams, Christian always stood before a mirror, forced to look at himself as if through Her eyes, feeling nothing but repulsion and disgust. Soon, with a chilling ecstasy that simultaneously terrified and aroused him, Christian began to see himself as the lecherous Count Rodolfo, contemplating the rape of Amina as she sleeps, groping her thighs and breasts through the maiden-white muslin of her nightdress, feeding on her beauty like a vampiric wraith.
What could it mean? Increasingly, Christian sought refuge in the occult, consulted psychics and seers, read Crowley and Naglowska’s works on sexual magic and ritual—going so far as to set up an altar in what had been his father’s panic room. Christian began to save his own ejaculate, believing that it possessed the power to draw the Goddess to him. He kept his spendings in a crystal vial, the pale fluid that burst from his loins whenever he focused his intentions solely upon Her, preserving it for use in potions, aphrodisiacs, love philters, and his long-dreamed-of elixir of youth and beauty, smearing it around the illuminated margins of the personal stationery on which he penned his letters to Her, asperging it like holy water on the flowers he sent, anointing whatever of Hers came into his possession.
He became fanatical in his quest to obtain personal objects—anything She might have used or touched. He acquired props and costume jewelry, rhinestones and sequins; a faux-pearled filigree from the headdress She had worn as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Desdemona’s lace handkerchief from Rossini’s Otello, and one of the all-important bracelets from La Cenerentola. Yet far more precious were those intimate everyday articles that are seldom noticed and hardly ever missed: a pair of underarm liners used once in Sydney, lipsticks and make-up compacts left behind at Glyndebourne, Zagreb, and San Francisco, a laddered stocking cast off in Brussels, even a pair of petite culotte lifted from Her dressing room in Zurich, a vulgar act of larceny facilitated by a generous bribe to someone on the cleaning staff.
Most treasurable and venerated of all was a lock of the Diva’s soft raven hair, adoringly bound in a cloth-of-gold ribbon and stored in a luxuriously lacquered pyx. Each year on Her name day, Christian would bathe and purify himself before ceremoniously removing this most sacred fetish from its hermetic resting place, and stroking his cock to within an inch of ultimate bliss, gently flagellating his presumptuous parts, once for each year of Her life.
Gradually, his body began to undergo a change. Or perhaps it was that Christian could feel a second body being born from the seething putrescence of the first. He no longer required his wheelchair, but could, when he slept, leave his old body and move about unaided, albeit with no small exercise of will, scuttling clumsily across the floors or slithering up the paneled walls, leaving a trail of ichorous corruption in his wake. Ghostly tentacles sprang from his heart and burst forth into the world, reaching out in all directions, seeking Her, wrapping themselves around Her soul like the rapacious tendrils of a carnivorous plant, probing Her private vulnerabilities, drawing Her inexorably to his ravenous maw.
The tabloid presses began to hum. ‘Real-Life Phantom of the Opera!’ the yellow headlines howled, ‘The Prima Dona and the Pervert!’ ‘Crazed Fan Threatens Diva! Performances Canceled.’ Unflattering photographs were splashed across the covers with promises of more inside—rumor, speculation, and lurid innuendo in seven major languages—She looking tired and frightened, hair and makeup in unbecoming disarray as bodyguards hustled Her past the paparazzi, an inadvertent flash of leg as She was bundled into a waiting limousine.
Evidence was turned over to Interpol and the FBI for psychological profiling and DNA analysis. The mainstream media took notice. A police artist’s sketch of the suspect was circulated alongside excerpts of the letters he had sent Her. “The deviant rantings of a sexually dysfunctional ghoul,” the chief investigator was quoted as saying, “an erotomaniacal philistine utterly dissociated from the concerns of decent human society.” Disturbed, unbalanced, depraved, the papers called him, a sociopath, a mad man. Yet not even the most mercenary among them dared reveal the bloody final detail, more horrifying for being real than the most unspeakably depraved flight of salacious fancy.
‘I shall be with You soon forever, my Adored One!’ the fiend had written before sealing the parcel containing his ultimate oblation, a knot of the singer’s own hair braided tightly around a severed human penis, trussed up with a cloth-of-gold ribbon. ‘Accept this humble token of undying devotion from one who is and shall ever remain your biggest fan! Addio, mia musa splendida! Mia casta! Mia bellisima! Mia divina per sempre!’
Nothing out of the ordinary was found in Christian’s apartment, no trace of the obsession that had for so long defined his pitiable existence. Until, citing tenuous probable cause, the authorities had broken down the door of the former panic room and discovered a body lying on an improvised altar in a macabre parody of saintly dormition. It was by then no more than a desiccated husk, the mummified remnant of some hideously tortured abomination, forlorn in its sinister brokenness. The creature’s lips were drawn back from crooked, yellowing teeth, its mouth, from which the last scream of existential panic had long since departed, frozen in a hideous oblate rigor. The hollow crater of its chest suggested a violent outward eruption, as if whatever once had pulsed and flourished there had outgrown its imprisonment, breaking free to wreak its ghastly vengeance on the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review of 'Viking Wolf' by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Another ultra-steamy winner from Emmanuelle de Maupassant, rapidly establishing herself as the undisputed queen of erotic romance, Viking Wolf takes up where the first book in the series Viking Thunder (among EftBB’s Best of 2017) left off.

In my review of the first book I said: “Viking Thunder is an exquisite piece of writing by any standard, imaginative historical fiction at its finest, and one of the sexiest tales I’ve had the pleasure to read in—ever.” In this exciting, and gorgeously-written sequel, the Middle Ages’ hottest couple, Anglo-Saxon Elswyth and her Viking lover Eiric return to the norseman’s home in Svolvaen. But it’s not all hearts and flowers in spite of the erotic heat generated by these two, darker conflicts loom, and, this being erotic romance, a virtual long-boat-load of heroinic self-doubt pads a goodly percentage of the narrative. Eirik’s elder brother, Gunnolf, jarl of Svolvaen turns his lustful eye on the Northumbrian beauty, and one can almost smell the testosterone in the air. When Eirik and his sister Hekla are conveniently sent off to a neighboring community in order to establish an alliance, Elswyth is without allies, a virtual stranger in a strange land, very much at Gunnolf’s mercy. With lots of political and romantic intrigue to go along with fascinating discussions of Viking lore and legend, the story is compelling, vividly related, and seldom dull.

One criticism: the climactic set-piece is “muffled” and too abrupt where it ought to have been vivid and expansive. It is over so quickly that some readers may be left scratching their heads, wondering what actually happened—not to mention how or why. The language in this sort of passage needs to be acute and highly descriptive, showing readers everything that goes on, even as it is paced in such a way as to keep them on the edge of their seats. Here it feels rather perfunctory, as if someone were in a terrible hurry to wind up the story with its de rigueur happy ending, and used the set-piece as a convenient way to get there without putting anyone we care about in serious peril. While this is not a fatal flaw, I do hope that the planned sequel to Viking Wolf will feature a climax as powerful and memorably worthy as the story that goes before it.

This minor point aside, Viking Wolf is eminently entertaining and enthusiastically recommended!