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REVIEW: Tangle Girls (anthology edited by Nicole Kimberling)

Dear Readers,

0978986148.01.LZZZZZZZBack in July of 2008, I reviewed Tangle XY, an anthology of short speculative m/m stories. Earlier this year, Blind Eye Books, the publisher of Tangle XY, came out with Tangle Girls, an f/f anthology. As with Tangle XY, some (not all) of the stories are multicultural, and many have fairy tale or science fiction elements, but in this anthology the commonality all the stories share is the focus on girls who love other girls. Here are my reviews of the six stories:

“Raccoon Skin” by J.D. EveryHope

In “Raccoon Skin,” Sophia, a college student, arrives at her parents’ home on a pre-dawn morning. After seeing that her parents’ trash can that has been upended by a raccoon, Sophia goes outside to put it back up, and while there, she sees crows attacking a golden eagle. The eagle falls to the snowy ground, and Sophia chases the crows away. Just as she is debating whether to take the eagle inside, the bird shifts shape and turns into a human girl — and not just any girl, but Sophia’s girlfriend, Caterina.

Caterina and Sophia met in college and began dating, but Sophia never told Caterina that she hadn’t come out to her parents. Now it seems Caterina has also been keeping secrets: not only is she a shapeshifter, she is also a princess from another realm, and her younger brothers’ lives are in danger. Caterina wants to return to her land and rescue her brothers, but her injuries are serious. Sophia convinces her to ask Sophia’s parents for shelter and help and allow Sophia to save her brothers instead.

Caterina gives Sophia a ring which will open a path to Caterina’s world when dawn arrives. Just as Sophia is about to go through the portal, a raccoon speaks and warns her that Beyond, where she is about to venture, is a dangerous place. Her odds of success will be better if she and the raccoon trade skins.

Sophia agrees. Clothed as a raccoon, she enters Beyond and it is indeed a dangerous journey. Fortunately, the raccoon skin proves very helpful.

“Raccoon Skin” is a charming quest story that reminded me a bit of some of fairy tales I read as a child. I loved the way the mundane was transformed into the magical, and enjoyed the clever ways Sophia found to see past the deceptive illusions of the Beyond. It was also neat to see the traditional gender role upended, so it was a heroine who charged to the rescue. I would have liked to see more of Sophia and Caterina’s relationship, but on the whole, I really enjoyed the story. My grade for “Raccoon Skin” is a B+.

“Amazons” by Jesse Sandoval

“Amazons” was the reason I plopped down $12.95 for Tangle Girls. I loved Sandoval’s story in Tangle XY, “Los Conversos.” The setting of “Amazons” is unnamed, although the title of course alludes to the Amazon. As the story, which appears to be historical, begins, its unnamed female narrator is rowing a boat on a jungle river. She observes the crocodile beneath the water and the black snakes hanging from the trees above with respect.

Once I saw one of those snakes lift a grown man off his feet and swallow him whole. The man pissed himself as the snake wrapped herself around him as if she were falling in love. She opened her thin mouth and took him in a deep kiss. I watched her eyes the entire time. She had the mesmerized gaze of utter adoration, as if this man’s form, his meat and muscle, had entranced her and drawn her into an unthinkable action.

I remember seeing that same unflinching stare long ago, looking back at me from a silver mirror. My hands trembled as I tried to load the pistol, the slender bullets wavered and slipped between my fingers. Then I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I gazed into my own eyes, the wide pupils dilated, entranced with desire. My reflection knew that I was a murderess before I did. She passed that assurance to me in a glance. My fingers have never trembled since.

How did the narrator come to look in the mirror and see a murderess? Since this story is only six pages long, I don’t want to give it away, but the story begins in Europe, where the main character met a woman named Maria, with whom she shared slices of cake and stories about the New World.

The imagery in “Amazons” has a hallucinatory beauty that captures what it is like to be drunk on love, willing to do anything for the other person. The story is haunting and powerful, though I wish it were longer so that I could feel I really knew Maria. I can’t wait for Jesse Sandoval to write a novel or a short story collection so that I can drown in his gorgeous prose. Ms. Kimerbling, if you’re reading this, can you do anything about that? My grade for “Amazons” is a B+/A-.

“The Conclave” by Trent Roman

Tanya Drake has been dating Erin, a centuries-old fey, but the relationship is becoming frustrating for her. The two met at the private Catholic school in which Tanya was enrolled. It wasn’t long before they became lovers. But Erin has a habit of comparing Tanya’s lovemaking to that of lovers from her past, lovers as famous as Sappho and Gengis Khan’s concubines. Erin also disappears for days on end only to reappear expecting the relationship to resume as though she’d never left.

After one such disappearance, Tanya tries to question Erin and find out how serious she is about their relationship. To make it up to Tanya, Erin offers to sneak her mortal lover into “the biggest bash in two worlds,” a party for immortal beings known as the Conclave. What kind of adventures will Tanya have at the Conclave, and how will they affect her relationship with Erin?

“The Conclave” is written in a crisp, snappy style I enjoyed. I liked the way Tanya and Erin arrived at the Conclave, too. But though Tanya is said to be a high school student, the character comes across as older. Erin is jaded and doesn’t treat Tanya that well, taking their relationship very lightly, so it’s hard to care about her, but Tanya isn’t sure if she’s serious in her feelings for Erin, either, so it’s also hard to care about how the relationship will change.

I felt that essentially, nothing that is deeply important to the characters happened in the story, so nothing that happened was all that important to me as a reader, either. After “Raccoon Skin” and “Amazons,” it was hard not to be disappointed in this one. My grade for “The Conclave” is a C-.

“Under Suspicion” by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Set on the spaceship Mastodon, “Under Suspicion” begins when a shipwide alarm sounds, alerting United Star Fleet Ensign Lily Branoch and her fellow crewmembers to an accident in the main hanger. In the process of helping to rescue people trapped under “cargotainers,” Lily encounters a beautiful marine whose name she doesn’t catch. She glimpses the woman again before she learns that she is Lt. Cruz-Ortega.

Lily is powerfully attracted to the woman, so much so that she can’t get the lieutenant out of her mind. But this distraction becomes a problem when Lily begins to suspect that the beautiful Daniella may be involved in a plot to smuggle weapons off the Mastodon. Could Daniella Cruz-Ortega’s lovely face be hiding treachery? And even if not, will Lily ever get up the gumption to ask her out?

“Under Suspicion” was an enjoyable story and it probably had the most relationship focus of any of the stories in this collection. Lily was likable and the enigmatic Daniella was compelling. The worldbuilding was solid and I liked the military atmosphere. My main complaint is that due to the nature of the plot, the relationship between the two women did not develop that much. Nonetheless it was fun, though I would have liked it to be a bit more substantial. C+/B- for “Under Suspicion.”

“Cupcake” by Erin MacKay

Erin MacKay’s “Cupcake” takes place in the future, on a colonized world. The viewpoint character is Stasya, a professional assassin. As the story opens, Stasya receives an assignment from Rupi, a man who has hired her to kill in the past. This time Stasya is astonished at the target, whom she describes as “just a…a cupcake.”

Mitusko Jennings-Villega’s husband wants to collect on his wife’s life insurance policy, but Mitsuko is constantly watched by her wealthy father’s guards. To kill her, Stasya has to infiltrate “High Street,” Mitusko’s rarified world of corporate celebrities. Yet once she meets Mitusko, Stasya is in for a surprise. Mitusko realizes she is an assassin, and she is willing– no, ready — to die. Will Stasya be able to kill the woman she is beginning to admire and care for?

“Cupcake” is written in clean, straightforward prose and while the worldbuilding isn’t completely fresh, it’s well-executed. The story felt a little oppressive to me (though not nearly as much as MacKay’s story in Tangle XY, “Crossing the Distance”), but on the whole I liked it.

Stasya is a compelling character, though I wish her past, and especially her reason for becoming an assassin for hire, had made her more sympathetic. Mitsuko isn’t as morally ambiguous, but her life hasn’t been very meaningful. Though neither character is always likable, the story still kept me involved, probably because of the danger and high stakes. My grade for “Cupcake” is a B.

“Dead and the President” by Tenea D. Johnson

Set in a dystopian future, Tenea De. Johnson’s “Dead and the President” begins when the consciousness of the main character, a young black woman named Dead, is inhabiting the body of the President. Dead intends to speak to the world from within his body, but the President pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the head.

Dead then begins recounting her history to the reader. She was born in the Basin, where many people have inherited the special abilities given to blacks by a doctor who believed he was making genetic reparations. Dead’s talent is “phasing” into other people and controlling their actions.

Dead is a motherless twelve year old when she is tagged by the Internal Processing Department, which tracks those with unusual abilities, and uses her talent to escape. She ends up Topside, where life is much nicer and safer, but she can’t forget about the hungry kids she left behind in the Basin, and eventually, she hatches a plan to help them.

Dead has the potential to be a sympathetic character, and there were a number of relationships that could have been involving in this story, not just the sexual one Dead eventually has with another young woman, but also her friendships with a girl named Nina in the Basin, and with an elderly woman named Cecilia in Topside. But these pass by the reader quickly, like houses glimpsed briefly from the window of a moving car. It is hard to get invested in these people, even when they mean a lot to Dead, because we readers hardly get to spend time with them.

What gets the most attention in “Dead and the President” is the setting. Dead’s world is an interesting place, but I almost stopped reading a few pages in, when the unfamiliar terms became difficult to decipher. I still don’t understand exactly what a couple of them mean, even after reading certain paragraphs three or four times. Johnson has a nice writing style, and another thing I liked about the story was the way the futuristic setting reflected social and political injustice. This aspect of the worldbuilding was well handled and thought-provoking, but for me, it’s not enough to make up for what’s missing. C- for “Dead and the President.”

Overall, the anthology was a bit uneven, but still worth reading in my opinion, with four enjoyable stories and two weaker ones. I want to reiterate my plea for more fiction from Jesse Sandoval, who writes so beautifully. I will be keeping my eye out on future offerings from Blind Eye Books, too. My overall grade for Tangle Girls is a B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

12 Comments

  1. Janine
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 15:49:57

    This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook.

    According to the Blind Eye Books website, some of their titles will be offered in ebook format beginning this winter. I don’t know if Tangle Girls is one.

    ReplyReply

  2. Sarah L
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 15:55:53

    Is this romance focused enough that I could bring it into my romance section without getting complaints? I’ve been looking everywhere for good (non e-book) f/f romance!

    ReplyReply

  3. Janine
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 16:25:09

    @Sarah L: I’m not sure how to answer that because the answer differs from story to story, and the answer is subjective. I would say:

    “Raccoon Skin” — probably
    “Amazons” – maybe
    “The Conclave” – no (no HEA)
    “Under Suspicion” – yes
    “Cupcake” – yes
    “Dead and the President” – no (the heroine, like all the others in the story, is gay, but there’s not much relationship focus)

    Although “Under Suspicion” and “Cupcake” have the most relationship focus (the reason I answered with yes), to me the most romantic might have been “Raccoon Skin.” The heroines spend a good portion of the story apart, but Sophia’s quest to save Caterina’s brothers was romantic to me because it was motivated by love. Plus I’ve always loved fairy tales because they were the very first romantic stories I read as a child.

    Also, the stories are relatively short — the six of them together take up 163 pages of the book.

    I’m not sure if you are thinking of a romance section of a library or a bookstore, but in some ways, the SF/fantasy section would probably be the best fit.

    ReplyReply

  4. Heather Massey
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 19:48:44

    This sounds intriguing. Thanks for the review.

    ReplyReply

  5. Janine
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 19:52:09

    @Sarah L: Just thinking about this further. You may find some suggestions for f/f romances published in paper on the Lambda Literary Foundation’s list of award winners. The 2008 winner and the short-listed books can be found here. Winners from earlier years can be found in “Awards” on the left side menu.

    ReplyReply

  6. Janine
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 19:52:49

    @Heather Massey: You’re welcome!

    ReplyReply

  7. SonomaLass
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 21:23:15

    Never enough f/f out there, IMO. I will pass this review along to several people. Thanks, Janine!

    ReplyReply

  8. Janine
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 21:25:51

    @SonomaLass: You’re welcome, too. I feel badly that we don’t review more f/f.

    ReplyReply

  9. K. Z. Snow
    Nov 11, 2009 @ 23:25:42

    I fully agree about Jesse Sandoval — a natural prose stylist, effortlessly entrancing. I really, really want to see more. That writer has a gift.

    ReplyReply

  10. Janine
    Nov 12, 2009 @ 00:19:59

    @K. Z. Snow: Maybe if we start a Jesse Sandoval fan club? His language is stunning. I smile every time I read his bio at the Blind Eye Books website, which says he plays guitar better than he writes. If true, his guitar playing must be amazing.

    ReplyReply

  11. Edie
    Nov 13, 2009 @ 02:02:58

    This is definitely going on my next order, thanks for the review!

    ReplyReply

  12. Janine
    Nov 13, 2009 @ 02:06:17

    @Edie: I hope you enjoy it. Please feel welcome to come back and let me know what you thought after you have read the stories.

    ReplyReply

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