The Best Erotic Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by Cecilia Tan and Bethany Zaiatz is a cohesive, balanced collection of stories that definitely live up to Circlet Press’ goal to find new ways to break open the strictures and formulas of the science fiction and fantasy genres in tandem with breaking open the formulas of erotica. There is a little something for everyone as long as you keep an open mind and aren’t shy about the s-word. As you might imagine this book is definitely all about SEX. But it’s also about many other things, most especially love. Love in all its wild and varied forms, from first love, to unrequited love, to obsessive love, to downright strange love.
The collection kicks off in a wonderfully strange fashion in Allison Lonsdale’s “Vaster Than Empires”. Catherine is a visual artist with a penchant for evoking passionate responses from the subjects who experience her full sensory creations. She falls into a doomed romance of sorts with a wealthy, young patron who has an obsessive passion for flowers, a very fatal, obsessive passion.
Catherine is a quirky narrator who quickly makes her own obsessions known via a spate of artsy techno-babble. She lives for her art and wields it like a finely honed weapon. I have to admit that all the pseudo-technical jargon was a bit distracting and didn’t seem to add much to the story initially. At the beginning, I didn’t know what most of Catherine’s initial verbiage meant and wasn’t engaged enough to take it in. I kept reading and by the end understood how it truly impacted the story. The jargon immediately defines Catherine’s role as an “intellectual” and provides direct insight into her state of mind and level of social acuity. We’ve all met (or been) the person who babbles on incessantly about erudite and arcane things. It’s often the center of their existence, but often means little or nothing to the rest of us (think of every college lecture you ever daydreamed through). Right from the start it is very clear that Catherine has some kind of major obsession, most likely, one she would do anything for.
Ultimately I really enjoyed “Vaster Than Empires”, mostly because Catherine’s conspiratorial way of telling of her story. I also thought Lonsdale’s presentation of how an artist’s life can become their work was dead on. The other characters weren’t all that interesting and mostly served as Catherine’s foils, but that’s okay. To connect to them too deeply might prove to be a bit too disturbing.
First love makes an appearance in “Fulgurite” by Vylar Kaftan. The young female protagonist is a college student who has begun to have visions of a menacing unicorn with a cockroach body. So when you learn a few paragraphs that she is also a virgin, all the elements of the story begin to click into place. I honestly have to say the story felt somewhat clichéd for me from that point on. The way the protagonist’s internal conflict is portrayed is incredibly well done, but the basic concepts the story is constructed from—virgins and unicorns, sex as a form of violence—seemed too familiar. I also had a really hard time connecting to the narrator. Her obsessive musings border on crazy, and we aren’t provided with any reason to think they have a basis in reality. So even though I love the way she talks about the weather and her boyfriend, I don’t much like her. If you delve into this one, do it for author Caftan’s lush images and wonderfully vivid prose.
“Now I Live on the Street of Women” by Jason Rubis takes place in a dystopian alternate reality where the world, or at least the in which the story takes place, has been destroyed by war. The city has been reduced to ruins. Men are scarce, possibly even extinct. Women are eking out a meager existence scavenging what they can and trading for the rest. One lone soldier, who is paralyzed from the neck down, is able to secure his place in this harsh new society due to his ability to maintain an erection. I would love to be able to say there is a lot more to his tale, but I really can’t. There is a decent amount of world building going on and a vast amount of detail, but I can’t really say you every get to know what this world is really like or connect to Rii or Benta or the rest of the cast of characters who appear throughout the story.
“Double Check” by Pete Peters is a wonderfully kinky story that revolves around two women who communicate exclusively via their darkest sado-masochistic fantasies brought vividly to life by the men who willing serve them. As you might guess from the title, the entire story revolves around and unfurls much like a game of chess. I loved the chess lingo and the intimation that sex is all just a game, and, like any game, it has the ability to be infinitely more complex than we can imagine.
“Metamorphosis” by Deb Atwood kicks off with two men meeting in a bar. The younger man is throwing himself into the situation, acting on his attraction in the hopes of a night of great sex and potentially finding something real. The other is our protagonist Ethan, an attractive, intelligent, desirable man, who is coldly cataloging whether this young man might just be “the one”. You would never guess that sexy professor Ethan is a mad scientist, or, more accurately, a scientist who has been driven mad with grief. In fact the portrait you would probably paint in your mind, even as he makes his inner obsessions very clear, is simply caught up in his own grief. That description would be accurate enough that you might be lulled into thinking that was the whole story. But of course, it’s not.
I actually found ‘Metamorphosis” quite unsettling. Author Atwood makes Ethan’s new romantic interest, Peter, very engaging. Ethan is equally engaging. So, if you’re like me, you’ll love the characterization. Just don’t dwell too much on what lengths our charming narrator will go to reunite with his lost love, Jonathan. If you don’t dwell too much, you will be so immersed in the unraveling story that you will hope his new-found interest in Peter just might be enough. If you do dwell a bit, you might visit a very dark place. But just like real life, it’s the story’s balance of light and dark that keeps things interesting and fulfilling…
In the “The Heart of the Storm” by Connie Wilkins, munitions expert Rowan is dropped into France by the Americans. What is her mission? To help an underground cell destroy a bridge and in the process seriously hamper the Nazi efforts in that region of Breton. Rowan, the intrepid female that she is, is far from what the French allies were expecting. She has secrets, like the fact she is already very familiar with the region and its seemingly impenetrable dialect, and motivations that are all her own. Sophie, Corrie and the French freedom fighters have their secrets as well. One secret is so big it will deeply impact the future course of Rowan’s life.
“The Heart of the Storm” is easily my favorite story in the entire collection. I really loved author Wilkins’ descriptively detailed prose and the way she weaves together historical events and elements of French folklore to create a very contemporary love story. Rowan is a terrific protagonist with a clear, compelling voice. Rural Breton in the time of war (and espionage) comes vividly to life in Wilkins’ fertile imagination, and Sophie and the other characters have distinct personas that make for a richer story. The unfolding romance at the heart of the story seems to progress naturally and ultimately makes a big statement about what love really is. That romance, combined with the everyday and instances of magic work together making seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive, engaging story.
“Alienated” by Helen E. H. Madden is a futuristic version of boy meets girl. Or, more accurately it is a “boy who encounters an incredibly alluring alien named Kazen, who may or may not be a girl, and decides to try his luck after some eye contact and gentle ribbing from the guys” story. Everybody has seen at least one really hot guy in a dress and heels, so even with the added element of an alien, it might seem like Madden’s story has nothing new to offer. That assumption would be inaccurate. “Alienated” uses the oldest story in the world to explore intimacy, sexuality and how perception, ours and those of society, shapes our desires and the face we present to the world. It’s really heady stuff that has the potential to come across a preachy or too weighty a subject. In Madden’s capable hands, the subject is handled deftly and with a touch of humor. Even the minor characters, Hank and Mrs. Minniver, have very distinct personalities and motivations, which endow “Alienated” with extra oomph. I really enjoyed reading it and think you might enjoy it as well.
In “Younger Than Springtime” by Grant Carrington, an old man tries to warn himself about his impending future and the younger self really couldn’t be bothered. Each is fated to live out his life in the other’s reality. Fortunately for both the younger man and the older one, they are not alone. There is in fact a “she” for each “he.” The two older characters are both quirky and appealing, making ‘Younger Than Springtime” a short, sweet time-travel tale that strongly hints that love just might be lovelier (and a bit more realistic) the second time around.
Sexuality is a critical component of “Make Work”. by Bryn Allen. Sarah has reached a crossroads in her life and is freelancing for the church, performing exorcisms on an as needed basis. Terry Nu is her latest client. He’s an extremely attractive man with secrets and an undisguised interest in Sarah, an intense sexual attraction that Sarah seems to share. What they may or may not become to each other is what drives the story. Author Allen brings Sarah’s sexual fantasies vividly to life and imbues both her and Terry with enough complexity to keep things interesting. The Mother’s Church, which serves as the vehicle for Sarah and Terry to meet, is interesting, and LA offers the perfect backdrop for both shape-shifting demons and finding the key to unlocking your deepest desires.
There is a bit of unnecessary drama in the latter half of the story. I won’t go into details other than to say it serves as a way to bring Terry and Sarah closer together and to reveal more about how Sarah came to be in the position she is in at the start of “Make Work”. I say unnecessary, because it adds additional characters and a secondary plot to the story. The author obviously felt it was warranted, most likely because Sarah’s character may not have been able to make the necessary emotional leaps to wrap things up otherwise. Part of me really wishes there had been another way to create the necessary degree of intimacy, but it’s not my story. I’m just reading it. Whether or not you feel the same, I’m pretty sure you will enjoy spending time with Sarah and getting to know what makes her hot and ultimately what makes her tick.
When Corbin teaches Tal-bot 4012, his robot butler, how to satisfy him sexually he unleashes a can of worms. His husband Rick doesn’t know how to take this startling new development; he only figures it can’t be anything good. Especially when it seems that both Corbin and Tal are quite affectionate, so much so Rick is feeling jealous. The sex itself in “The Digital O” by Kal Cobalt is almost ancillary. It simply serves as a device to explore the deeper issues of intimacy, artificial intelligence and what makes us human. I really enjoyed the ideas explored in the story and they way they were framed. Rick’s dilemma and Corbin’s nonchalance play out like a lot of misunderstanding couples have until they are able to find a common language, so I really thought the dynamics of the relationship were very true to life. Even Tal, and his desire to please, seemed realistic and interesting.
The public library is on the verge of being closed and torn down at the onset of “Taste” by Jean Roberta. The lead character, best described as Simone’s mom, or the librarian, is meeting with her daughter, hoping to grab a bite, catch up a bit and to explore this latest development. What our protagonist really wants to do is to talk about her disturbing dreams, but there are just some things too weird and too personal to share, even with your child. “Taste” plays on the idea that it’s always the quiet ones who get up to the most devilment, in this case, quite literally. Our middle–aged librarian is being bonked silly by what can only be described as the library’s nightmares, incredibly kinky, violent, well-hung ones, sprung from the page into her dreaming life. Her story doesn’t get any more complicated than that. The author makes a tiny nod towards the end to a possible reason, but it’s really just a way for a charming character to have some wonderfully unseemly sex.
Protagonist Maura is heartbroken at the beginning of “A Feast of Cousins” by Beth Bernobich. Her lover, and cousin, has ditched without notice her in favor of another girl, who also happens to be a cousin, a sexier, more vibrant, cousin. It wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s Christmas and their large family gathers together for holiday dinners. Attendance for all involved is nothing short of mandatory. So the new relationship is unfolding right before her face. The story takes an eventful turn Maura finds a very thoughtful gift among her presents that helps her begin to get her mojo back.
I really enjoyed this story. “A Feast of Cousins” is incredibly well done and it delves into the subject of incest in a way that makes it seem more like a natural extension of familial love than the actual taboo it is. I’m glad I went into it not know exactly what it was about because I think it would be easy to get hung up on that and not realize how good the story is. Even the way the sex is handled allows the reader to really get to know Maura and her family tick without any ick factor. And the family itself is wonderful. Anyone who has ever had to endure the holidays with a gaggle of relatives will appreciate Bernobich’s dead-on descriptions down to the “assigned’ roles each family member tends to fall into from the “creepy” cousin/uncle/aunt down to the cousin who always seems to be the babysitter. This is really wonderful stuff.
In “The Boy Who Loved Clouds” by Maya Kaathryn Bonhoff, Adyahksa is a wildly successful author who lives in America but is forced to return home to his tiny village in India when his father dies. He spends most of his time back in India alone lying under a tree on hill where he goes to think and try to figure out what should happen with his mother and family home. It is under that tree that he encounters Yukta, a spirit who becomes the object of his affection and the primary character in his story from which our story gets its name.
Coming home snaps Adyahksa into a harsh new realty. He and his writing have both changed. His desire to maintain his “wonderful” new life conflicts with the traditions in which he was raised and sends him into a bit of a quandary. Yukta steps into the gap, giving Adyahksa something new to strive for. As she dangles before him like a ripe peach just out of reach, he starts to delve into what it is he truly wants and who he really is. “The Boy Who Loved Clouds” questions identity and what it means to be true to yourself and your roots, while exploring idea that love, both familial and romantic, can mean sacrifice.
I didn’t exactly enjoy “The Boy Who Loved Clouds”, I think I wished Adyahksa has displayed more depth. It’s clear that he is supposed to be a little lost, but by the time he finds himself again, I had lost interest. I did really love the lush language and the striking imagery. I also loved the themes that author Bonhoff explores, even though in this case, they didn’t resonate with me personally.
Protagonist Birk began his life as a slum kid, who through a quirk of fate was able to chronicle his poverty and channel his pain into music. Wowing and seducing audiences with his voice, Birk achieved rock star status before his good fortune lead to a large-scale tragedy. When the public turns against him, guilt and ennui eventually force Birk to take drastic measures in “Rainmusic” by Eric Del Carlo. Birk moves himself to a distant moon and takes up residence in a luxurious house where he is most probably going to commit suicide.
Nature, it seems, has other plans for Birk.
Faulty shutters and a sudden, virulent storm spurs him to action and kickoffs the events that transform “Rainmusic” an erotic story. The twist that comprises the later half of “Rainmusic” was mostly unexpected and it takes things in beautiful and strange directions. The sex scene that occurs is incredibly hot, but acts in sharp contrast to the description of the events leading up to Birk’s scorching alien encounter. Initially, it seems like readers are being setup for a violent rape. I suspect author Del Carlo uses those events to illustrate that Birk isn’t quite as ready to give up on life as he initially thought. Whatever the reason, the style is effective and makes the way the story wraps up even more moving. This one is highly recommended.
In “Passion Play” by D.L. Keith protagonist Asiana risks her life and travels to her country’s largest trading port in order to pass on information about the atrocities being perpetrated by her government. Unfortunately, her absence doesn’t go unnoticed. With soldiers, including her much older husband, hot on her heels, she is forced to do something extraordinary in order to survive, and hopefully, fulfill her mission.
“Passion Play” uses political oppression as a springboard to explore sexual repression and liberation. Throw some fairies, satyrs and other mythical creatures in for good measure and you the potential for an interesting story. Unfortunately, the play doesn’t quite hit the mark. Asiana almost seems like a stereotypical adult film actress and “Passion Play” could serve as the script for an elaborately plotted adult film. The character development happens almost too quickly and I found it really hard to believe Asiana is not only willing to delve into what is asked of her but that she is so “transformed’ her own husband doesn’t recognized her. Don’t get me wrong, there is really sexual tension that builds up between Asiana and her main romantic interest Fl’rr, and the sex scenes are hot. It’s just that the story never rises above them; instead it serves as framework to better illustrate them.
In “Caught” by Paige E. Roberts Diana has been pursuing freedom fighter Wolf relentlessly. After several near misses, including one unforgettable stolen kiss, Diana finally captures her quarry and the hunter and the hunted finally come face to face. That meeting leads to an explosive interchange that has them straddling the thin lines between love and hate and pleasure and pain, while exploring what compromises each will and won’t make in order to honor their convictions and serve their cause.
“Caught” uses political oppression as a platform to explore sex and love from a unique angle. Author Roberts amps up the sexual tension from the beginning and keeps it humming throughout. Wolf and Diana are sharply drawn characters that have clear motivations that enable the plot to move at a brisk pace. Portraying Diana as an ice queen and Wolf as the noble warrior is a cliché that might have really backfired, but it works in the context of this story. If the characters’ sexes were reversed, most of what occurs would seem unconscionable. I have to say, I really liked the way author Roberts morphed Diana into an antihero, which effectively made her almost as complex as the relationship she and Wolf share. I do have a quibble though. Wannabe rival Ralin is a stock villain at best and way too predictable. I really wish authors (not just Roberts) would start trying to make the “bad” guys a bit more complex or at least a bit more surprising.
In “Sybariote” by Diane Kepler our protagonist survive by committing not so petty crimes including industrial espionage. His latest job goes terribly wrong but still rewards him with him with entirely more than he bargained for in the way of an adorable, mute blond bombshell he names Sherri. When Sherri turns out to be a sex doll come to glorious life that is willing to cater to even the protagonist’s kinkiest desires; his obsession for her morphs from just this side of normal to downright dangerous.
The world of “Sybariote” is a fairly grim one. Crime is rampant. Women seem to be pretty scarce, and the government and big business both seem really shady. Men do what they can to survive and take advantage of what they can grab. In this kind of reality, it really seems like our protagonist might stop to wonder why this girl, this very perfect girl, will let him fuck her any which way he wants without complaint. The answer to that is at the heart of what Sherri, the sybariote of the title, really is.
I have to say I enjoyed this story the least, I think because it plays out like a textbook male fantasy, or at least what a woman might imagine one to be. Or, in other words, the actual plot of the story didn’t appeal to me. Even so, there are many good things about “Sybariote”. I thought all the other characters, especially Sherri, more for what she isn’t than for what she is, but also Carl, Davis and an unnamed woman, added interest and depth to the story. I also like the way the structure, using time stamps, allude to the fact that there might be more going on than meets the eye. I also really appreciated author Kepler’s detailed descriptions and pacing.