REVIEW: Tangle XY (Anthology edited by Nicole Kimberling)
Since this review covers my responses to nine short stories and two novellas, I’ve decided that for the sake of clarity, it would be simper to address this letter to you rather than to eleven authors.
Tangle XY is an anthology featuring a variety of same-sex love stories. All the romances here have two heroes, most contain fantastical elements, and happily, I enjoyed the majority of them. Here are my impressions of each one:
“Moons of Blood and Amber” by Gene Mederos
This high fantasy novelette, the first story in the anthology, centers on Prince Ballantyr’s attempt to ascend to the throne and acquire the title of Pentarch, or high king of five realms. Ballantyr’s lover and high councilor, Dallan Haleson, is actually the POV character of the novelette, which alternates between the storyline of Ballantyr’s attempt to gain the pentarchy, and that of how Ballantyr and Dallan first met.
In the former storyline, Ballantyr’s ascension is contested by his older half-brother Taranthel, against whom Ballantyr has to prove himself in contests of fighting prowess and knowledge of the law. He and Dallan must also solve the problem of how they are to come up with an heir for Ballantyr’s throne, when Ballantyr wants Dallan, who cannot provide him with biological children, to rule at his side.
In the storyline of Dallan’s past, Dallan, then a young man, is captured along with a thief, a witch and a simpleton, and the four of them are thrown into a dark pit where menace awaits them. To say more would be to give away too much.
Although there were some nice moments in this novelette, especially in the flashback storyline when Dallan and his fellow prisoners had to cooperate and discover the extent of their abilities in order to survive, some things I wanted explained were not.
The present storyline was a lot less compelling since Dallan’s life was for the most part secure and the fate of the pentarchy should Taranthel inherit it is never detailed. Ballantyr seems to give his and Dallan’s personal lives more importance than the lives of his future subjects, so I was not entirely convinced that he was the better ruler. I felt that this storyline relied on a portrayal of Taranthel and his mother as stock villains, and that some of the explanations that were given were not necessary. I also felt that in the end, things get resolved too easily.
With both storylines, some of the writing felt a bit clichéd to me, as when Ballantyr says “Now that I’ve found you, do you think I’d ever let you go?” My grade for “Moons of Blood and Amber” is a C-.
“Monument” by Steven Adamson
This contemporary short story begins with a flashback. When Ian was ten years old and on a drive with his family, he saw a white obelisk made of concrete on the side of the road. Ian’s dad explained that the obelisk is a monument to a town that used to be there but is now gone. Ian’s imagination is powerful, and he can see the lost town when he looks at the monument.
Now Ian is nineteen years old and still in the closet. His father is the local sheriff and he’s not sure whether his sexual orientation would be accepted by his parents and by others who know him. For that reason, Ian is somewhat secretive about his relationship with Rick, a boy with “girly speech and curling hands” whom Ian thinks their acquaintances suspect of being gay.
Rick and Ian have been wanting to sleep together, but haven’t been able to find the privacy to do so. Then Ian has the idea of taking Rick to see the monument by moonlight. What will happen when they get there?
Although the narration and the dialogue in this short story were both smoothly written, I didn’t feel all that invested in the outcome of the story. The characters were believable and real, but I didn’t care that much about them. The plot was not very eventful, either. “Monument” seemed like more of a mood piece than a story where something significant happens, and since the story was neither deeply romantic nor all that spooky, it didn’t work all that well for me on the level of mood piece, either, though it wasn’t a bad way to pass the time. My grade for “Monument” is a C.
“Lord Ronan’s Shoes” by Astrid Amara
In this story (which is somewhere between a short story and a novelette in length), Evander is a relatively new servant in the home of Lord Ronan, a vassal to the king. Though very handsome, Lord Ronan is a difficult master. He constantly criticizes his servants, strikes them, and finds other ways to punish them. Evander, who is Lord Ronan’s Master of Shoes, is as miserable as Lord Ronan’s other servants.
One day, while in the city to look for replacement buckles, Evander happens on a crone selling unusual boots. The boots, she claims, will improve their wearer’s health and sweeten his disposition. On impulse, Evander purchases them for Lord Ronan. And indeed, after wearing the boots, Lord Ronan becomes kind and amiable. Not only that, he is strongly attracted to Evander and does not hesitate to seduce him.
But Evander feels guilty for his part in enchanting Lord Ronan. And he is quickly falling in love with his spellbound master. If Lord Ronan realizes what Evander did, will he forgive him? And if he removes his boots, will he still be the man Evander loves?
This story was thoroughly delightful. It had a fairy tale quality that I loved and I also enjoyed the way it mixed folktale tropes like the crone, the enchanted boots and the thicket of brambles that grew around Lord Ronan’s house with elements I don’t usually associate with fairy tales, like the lives of servants or the M/M relationship.
I thought the prose was very polished, and although there wasn’t much build up to the physical relationship between Lord Ronan and Evander, it turned quite romantic afterward. The happy ending was slightly rushed, but touching all the same. Like the boots Evander bought for Lord Ronan, the story shimmers and gleams.
Amara has a novel, The Archer’s Heart, coming out in September, which Jia plans to review, and if “Lord Ronan’s Shoes” is a good example of her writing, my hopes for The Archer’s Heart are high. My grade for “Lord Ronan’s Shoes” is a B+/A-.
“Los Conversos” by Jesse Sandoval
I suspect the setting for this short story is an alternate reality Mexico, but I’m not certain. Nor am I certain exactly when the story is set, though I would guess a century or two in the past. But I was so swept up in the bits of magical realism that are woven throughout the story like golden threads, and in the beautiful imagery Sandoval employs that I hardly cared.
The story begins when Acilino presents Cardinal Silencio with stained glass window panes for a cathedral. Acilino has spent three years making the panes, which are so beautiful that on seeing them, the cardinal weeps. His tears pass through the glass and turn into pomegranate seeds. But the seeds are bitter and Acilino’s skin dark, so the cardinal refuses to acknowledge the miracle. Instead he calls Acilino “El Egipcio,” alluding to his Egyptian heritage.
Acilino is so bitter that a black pearl forms in his mouth. This often happens when he is angry, and he believes the trait, along with his emerald-colored blood, comes from his unusual grandmother.
Rosario, who shares a house and little else with Acilino, also has an unusual heritage. It is whispered that he is a Jew who converted to Christianity, and indeed, Acilino has never seen him touch pork.
Although they are both outsiders to the other townspeople, Acilino and Rosario have never become close. But now Acilino’s anger with the cardinal is so sharp that Rosario is able to draw his secret hopes out of him, and then make a confession of his own.
This story was beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. The magical elements were as unusual as they were unexpected. “Los Conversos” is about being an outsider and the difficulties of finding acceptance, but also about how it is possible for two outsiders to find what they are looking for in one another. I liked the story so much that I wish it had been longer and that I could see Acilino and Rosario’s relationship developing further. That is the one quibble I have.
Jesse Sandoval’s bio at the end of the book states that “He plays guitar better than he writes.” If that is the case, I would love to hear him play. My grade for “Los Conversos” is an A-.
“The Lost Gentleman” by Mark Allan Gunnells
Jeremy Tesler’s rental car breaks down on a deserted road in the middle of a rainstorm in this contemporary paranormal short story. Jeremy leaves his car and tries to take shelter in a dilapidated house he believes to be deserted. But when he enters the house, he encounters a mysterious older gentleman. Jeremy has always preferred his lovers to be younger, so he is quite surprised by his attraction to Dominic Whitman.
Almost right away, there are signs that Dominic isn’t quite what he appears to be. He doesn’t have a telephone, and when lightning flashes, he disappears from view. But despite Jeremy’s attraction to Dominic, it takes him a long time to understand what’s going on, and when he does, he realizes that the obstacles he and Dominic are faced with if they are to have a relationship go beyond an age gap.
The best thing I can say about this story is that there are some nice descriptions in it, such as those of the run-down house with its chipped bricks and askew shutters. But in my opinion the weaknesses here far outnumber the strengths. Jeremy is a shallow main character, and as for Dominic, I hardly feel that I know him. I would have loved to have heard more about his background but some crucial information is left out.
There is a lot of telling and not much showing, and in fact, while the initial attraction and the final commitment were shown, I felt that the all-important process of falling in love that took place in the middle was merely summarized. I also feel that much of the language is not very fresh (expressions that seem very familiar, like “I’ll get out of your hair,” and “You look like a drowned rat” are peppered through the dialogue), that the obvious is sometimes stated, and that the set up of the plot includes a lot of the usual haunted house clichés.
Most disappointingly, I never felt the love between Jeremy and Dominic or cared about the outcome of their relationship, and I also felt that the obstacles that separated them were removed too easily. My grade for “The Lost Gentleman” is a D.
“Release in A minor” by Tenea D. Johnson
This story, which takes up only a little over four pages, is so short that I almost feel I shouldn’t describe it lest I give too much away. But since reviewing requires me to give a description, I will say that it centers on Clyde, a jazz trumpet player now living in Baton Rouge. Back in New Orleans, Clyde was known as “Le Appeleurf” (“The Summoner”) for the brilliance of his playing. Now Clyde plays by himself for the twilight bayou and in doing so he summons memories. This story concerns a memory of Clyde with his lover Tony.
The language in which “Release in A minor” is written has a lush, sweeping beauty. Take for example the first few lines of the story:
Clyde plays his trumpet cleanly into the hollow. The notes float across the lake and out into the rising shade of night. They bend around the cypress trees, dip into the water, and stretch out of Baton Rouge toward the city.
I loved the writing, so I really wanted to love “Release in A minor.” I ended up feeling, though, that the story needed to be a bit longer. Clyde seems like he could be a sympathetic and interesting character, but I felt that I wanted to know more about him. Tony is even sketchier, and remains a cipher. Because we aren’t given the context of Clyde and Tony’s relationship, the love scene between them didn’t move me, despite the gorgeous writing.
It is always tough to grade a story or book that is so strong in its language but weak in other ways. I can’t really recommend “Release in A minor” but because I might read parts of it again, and because it left me feeling that I would love to read a longer work by Tenea D. Johnson, I give it a C+.
“The Coming of the Fourth Dawn” by Jeremiah Job Levine
This action-packed fantasy tale gets off to a great start. The narrator of the story is Vikram, a sorcerer. He and his swordsman lover Chalith are mercenaries in the Northwestern lands. Up until recently the lands were held by the Amin Karana, whom Vikram refers to as “barbarous Skull Collectors.” But the Karana were defeated by an army Vikram and Chalith fought in, and now other powers in the lands want the territory the Karana once had. Chalith and Vikram are waiting for the next war to begin.
But in the meantime, they have to earn a living. When a small group of cultists called The Children of the Fourth Dawn wants to hire Vikram and Chalith to guide them through a haunted forest to a secret temple, Chalith accepts their money and agrees to the mission without consulting Vikram, who feels the job is too dangerous.
The Children of the Fourth Dawn are led by a young witch named Nahua. As the journey to the forest proceeds, it becomes clear to Vikram that Nahua is power-hungry and that her quest to find the temple is a product of her dangerous ambition. She flirts with Chalith, which upsets Vikram, who feels that his lover is perfect while he himself is very far from perfection. But soon Chalith and Vikram have bigger problems than Nahua’s advances. The group reaches the forest, and though at first it seems quiet and inviting, appearances prove to be deceiving.
I loved the beginning of “The Children of the Fourth Dawn.” The worldbuilding in this story seemed fascinating, and it is not often that I read about mercenaries. Vikram was an interesting and mysterious character and Chalith’s devotion to him was romantic and sexy. The middle portion of the story, which deals with the haunted forest, was also well-executed.
But as the story moves forward, the focus shifts from Vikram and Chalith’s relationship to the nature of Nahua’s quest. I don’t want to say too much about the ending, but it involves a climactic showdown that may appeal to lovers of epic fantasy. I, on the other hand, would have preferred a little less action and magic and a bit more relationship development. I would have loved to find out why Vikram didn’t feel worthy of Chalith, and to see more interaction between the two heroes. Still, “The Children of the Fourth Dawn” is a very entertaining story, and I give it a B-.
“Fag Hag” by Lawrence Schimel
This short story is about a lonely witch. One day her familiar, a cat named Avery, announces that a visitor is about to come and ask for a love potion. When a boy arrives at her door, the witch, who likes to frighten strangers, assumes that the boy wants the potion to make a girl fall in love with him. But it turns out he wants another boy, and is willing to pay the witch with his labor.
The story is so short that I don’t want to say much more about what happens. The witch and the boy’s relationship develops into something touching and human, but the story isn’t quite as vivid and memorable as I would have liked for it to be. I also wish it had been a bit longer, so I would have had more time to become invested in the characters. Still, there is a nice twist to what happens with the love potion, and for the most part (aside from the gimmicky title), I liked “Fag Hag.” My grade for it is a B-.
“Remember” by Astrid Amara
It is February of 1898 and Alexander Clark has recently become engaged to Miss Florence Tyler. Alexander, the narrator of “Remember,” isn’t looking forward to married life, but his uncle has threatened to cut him off if he doesn’t marry, and Alex, a writer, sees no other way to support himself. He hopes to console himself through encounters with attractive men in his London club. The memories of such meetings will have to last a lifetime after his wedding, since Alex knows he will not be able to take lovers once he crosses the threshold into married life.
Alex’s future mother-in-law, Mrs. Tyler, charges Alex with an important task. The Tyler family’s wedding rings, heirlooms said to be enchanted, have gone missing, and Mrs. Tyler wants Alex to hire a magician to locate them. Not just any magician, but a man who calls himself Obscurity, and who is said to have a talent for finding anything that has gone missing. Alex is skeptical that magicians can do anything more than perform stage tricks, but he dutifully goes to the Thaumaturgy Club to seek out Obscurity.
At the Thaumaturgy Club, the bartender suggests that Alex inquire with a Mr. Trevarian who runs the Eidolon Theatre. But before Alex can do so, he is transfixed by the sight of a beautiful, tall man with pale skin and raven hair. The man introduces himself as Stephen Radner, a magician. Alex and Stephen begin a lively conversation, and as they talk, Alex notices that Stephen moves almost too fluidly and quickly. The chemistry between the two is potent, and they end up in Alex’s flat, making passionate love. But the next day, Alex can barely remember the encounter, and cannot call to mind the face of his lover from the night before.
Alex locates Mr. Trevarian at the Eidolon Theatre, and the man explains that Obscurity is not a performing magician, but a practitioner of the black arts. Trevarian advises Alex not to seek such a man, but on seeing Alex’s disappointment, he gives him a clue that may be able to lead him to Obscurity.
At tea with his fiancée and her mother, Alex tells Mrs. Tyler that he is making progress toward locating the wedding rings. He tries to suppress his own despondency at the thought of marrying Florence, who also seems to have little enthusiasm for the match. He also notices that Florence comes alive when her mother’s solicitor enters the room.
To console himself, Alex goes to his club, hoping to find some companionship. And indeed, once there, he sees a beautiful young man with pale skin, raven hair, and fluid movements. There is something almost hypnotically attractive about this stranger, who introduces himself as Stephen Radner. Alex feels a comforting familiarity with him as well. But he is certain he has never met Radner before. Surely he could never forget meeting such a beautiful man…
“Remember” takes a little while to pick up steam, but once it does, it becomes apparent that this is a charming and clever tale. I liked Alex fairly well, and found the mysterious Stephen fascinating. I wished we could know more about Stephen, but since Alex is the narrator and his memory disappears after encountering Stephen, I understand why it wasn’t possible for readers to be given a lot more information about Stephen than what is revealed to us.
I thought there was a nice sense of suspense over whether Alex will find his missing memories, which become more and more important to him, before Obscurity finds the missing wedding rings and Alex marries Florence.
I liked that Florence was not a villainess, but simply as unsuitable for Alex as he was for her. Although I did feel that there were moments when Alex and Stephen were a little too open about the romantic nature of their relationship, given the times, I thought that otherwise late Victorian London was depicted well. I also loved the eerie feel of this historical fantasy.
At 45 pages, “Remember” feels exactly long enough for the story told in those pages, and I loved its heartwarming ending. Like “Lord Ronan’s Shoes,” Amara’s other story in this anthology, “Remember” makes me excited about Amara’s upcoming novel, The Archer’s Heart. My grade for “Remember” is an A-.
“Crossing the Distance” by Erin McKay
The narrator of this 73 page fantasy novella is Aev, an albino or “White Child” as such people are known in his world. Aev is born in a primitive prairie village where villagers believe that White Children are ill omens. Aev’s father abandons his mother when she insists on keeping baby Aev rather than leaving him to the elements.
From birth, Aev senses another presence in his mind and as he grows older he realizes it is another boy named Trest. Trest is another White Child, but he is also an Elldreni aristocrat whose life is much different than Aev’s. While Aev suffers from malnutrition that keeps him small in size, and listens to the wind howling all day long, Trest is athletic and used to having the best of everything. Since Aev can literally become Trest in his mind, he often does so for hours at a time, and in this way, he acquires Trest’s vocabulary and knowledge. He becomes almost unable to communicate with the villagers, including his own mother, when he comes out of the trances that bring him into Trest’s mind.
Then an illness sweeps through Aev’s village, and when he is sick, the mental bond between the boys temporarily breaks. When they make contact again, Aev learns that Trest was so distressed by his disappearance that his father has sent soldiers to bring Aev to him. Aev, who has never fit in his village, parts from his mother and the villagers without a backward glance.
Aev’s arrival in the Elldreni Court is a shock to his system, since, although he has experienced it through Trest’s eyes, it is something else to see that luxury in person. But he is thrilled to be united with Trest. Though Aev is officially adopted by Trest’s father, it is clear that the feelings between Aev and Trest are tender, and eventually they become lovers.
But soon after that, Aev and Trest learn that Trest’s father, the military, and the king had another purpose in uniting them. White Children (so referred to even in adulthood) who share a mental bond can serve an important strategic purpose, and Trest and Aev are expected to do so. But it is a role that will require painful sacrifices of them, and make them pawns in the military’s game…
I’m of two minds about “Crossing the Distance.” On the one hand the story had interesting world building, believable characters (except for one side character whose change of heart seemed to me to come out of nowhere), and was never less than compelling. I turned the pages easily and quickly.
But on the other hand, I also found it disturbing, because Aev was so powerless, in so many ways: since he was physically smaller than Trest and most other people around them, because of his mental bond with Trest, which could overtake him completely; in terms of his socio-economic background, which made him dependent on Trest and his family’s support; and lastly, in the sense that both he and Trest become pawns later in the story.
It doesn’t help even when they are older, albino characters are referred to as White Children, and that Aev is small because of early malnutrition. Since the story starts with Aev’s birth and his age is never given at a later point, I wasn’t sure how old he was when he and Trest became lovers. I know Trest was sixteen or older, so I finally made up my mind that Aev was close to him in age, but I wish his age had been mentioned, because it was hard for me not to picture him as underage at first, and that made some scenes (especially one that bordered on rape) extremely disturbing to read.
The novella does end with Aev on more equal footing with Trest and others, and on an upbeat note, although Aev and Trest’s future was remains somewhat uncertain. Since “Crossing the Distance” isn’t a romance genre novella, I don’t want to judge it by the standards of one. I wasn’t sorry I read the novella, but I probably won’t read it again. I would say that the storytelling is at B level, but my enjoyment level was more of a C, so I’ll split the difference and give “Crossing the Distance” a grade of C+/B-.
“Feral Machines” by Ginn Hale
Ginn Hale’s 76-page science fiction novella, “Feral Machines,” was the main reason for my initial interest in Tangle (though I hope that by now this review has made it clear that this anthology also contains other gems). I loved Hale’s novel, Wicked Gentlemen (reviewed here), so I was eager to read more by this talented author.
Andrew is one of the two remaining volunteers on Casaverde, a wildlife habitat that is less than two years from attaining self-government status. It’s a refuge for many species of animals and plants, but the sanctuary it offers these species has been threatened since the Department of Development discovered that Casaverde also contains rich mineral deposits. At the time, there were many volunteers on Casaverde, but an outbreak of malaria gave the Department of Development the excuse to try and drive out the volunteers with a rigorous quarantine that cut off most of their supplies.
Now most of the volunteers have left, and only two — the minimum required for Casaverde to become a self-governing colony — remain. But Rannon, the second of the two, has lost his mind and wanders out in the jungle laying traps that may or may not be intended for Andrew. Andrew knows Rannon needs help, but if he allows Rannon to be airlifted away, it would mean that the wildlife preserve would be lost.
Meanwhile, Andrew himself is suffering from malaria and having a difficult time maintaining the compound he lives in. The jungle he loves is slowly encroaching on it, and Andrew doesn’t know if he can last the required twenty-three months.
Andrew needs help desperately, so, since he is permitted to receive military grade shipments, he orders three “synthetics,” military-grade cyborgs, to help him tend to Casaverde and his home. Two of them are BZs, child-sized, tentacled, chirping cyborgs that do not contain any human DNA. The third is AK-0019, a large, humanoid cyborg who may or may not be part human.
Although he is hesitant to do it, Andrew takes ownership of the cyborgs through a chip that controls receptors in the BZs’ and AK’s bodies. But Andrew is lonely and in his need for companionship, he can’t help but think of the synthetics’ comfort, and soon he is offering them food and asking them to choose names for themselves. The more he gets to know the synthetics, the worse he feels about owning them — and in the case of the AK, about the sexual attraction that he feels for the cyborg.
Andrew knows it would be a travesty to act on such an attraction while owning the sentient being he is attracted to. But if he sets the AK and the BZs free, will they still help him maintain Casaverde? Or will the wildlife preserve and all its inhabitants fall victim to the military?
While “Feral Machines” isn’t as intriguing in its world-building as Wicked Gentlemen, its charms include sympathetic characters and compelling moral dilemmas.
Despite some initial reservations about Andrew, I quickly grew to like him. The BZs and the AK were even more sympathetic, and at one point in the story, the plight of their slavery moved me to tears. I did feel that the story was a bit idealized, in that when Andrew freed the synthetics, I expected a bit more backlash from them, either toward their former master, however benevolent, or toward those who had previously owned them.
The setting was so well-described that I could practically taste and smell its verdant jungles, and hear the music of the birdsongs and the BZs’ trills. The storyline was moving and its conclusion heartwarming, with an ending where every creature found its place of sanctuary. I enjoyed the compassionate spirit of “Feral Machines” very much, and I give the novella a B+.
While not every story in Tangle XY worked for me, the majority did, and I feel that the anthology was worth my time. The variety subgenres in editor Nicole Kimberling’s selections kept my interest engaged most of the time, and the stories by Amara, Hale and Sandoval were especially good. Toward the end of the anthology I felt some longing for a female POV, something that was not present in any of the stories but “Fag Hag.” Still, I’m glad I read Tangle XY. My overall grade for the entire anthology is a B-.
This book can be purchased at Blind Eye Books. No ebook as far as I know.
Your reviews of the Amara stories make me look forward to reviewing the novel even more.
Wonderful reviews, Janine; thank you! I’m so glad you tackled Tangle. I, too, have been itching with curiosity about the anthology since reading Wicked Gentlemen. It seems little Blind Eye Books has managed to attract some mightily talented writers.
That fact in and of itself would make for a fascinating discussion. Why is it certain pubs — and, usually, small ones — seem to put out such high-quality products? The answer obviously lies in each owner’s taste and vision, but why aren’t more publishers exercising the same degree of discernment?
Honestly, this issue has bugged me for years.
Jia — Thanks. I am really looking forward to your review of The Archer’s Heart.
K.Z. — I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I was especially impressed with Jesse Sandoval, Astrid Amara, and of course I already knew Ginn Hale was really good.
I think a big publisher probably has to cater to a greater variety of tastes, whereas a small one can often focus on a niche.
I’m going to sample me some Drollerie Press work next. It seems to be another little pub with class and vision.
Thank you for the review, Janine. I really appreciate your interest in our company’s line.
Since you wondered about Tenea D. Johnson, I thought I’d mention that a much longer story of hers will be featured in Blind Eye Book’s Tangle Girls, a new anthology featuring lesbian protagonists. It’s the companion volume to Tangle.
So maybe Tangle should have been titled Tangle Wood. ;-)
Great review, Janine, though I loved Johnson’s piece to bits, despite the length. I did wonder why a couple of the dud pieces were included. The Gunnells and Adamson stories fell well below what I’d expect from Blind Eye and considering what *was* featured, I couldn’t figure it out at all. I guess it comes down to pesky personal taste again.
Overall, it’s extremely good value for money, and so far above so much of the usua; gay romance dreck, that I’d urge all serious lovers of this genre to get their sticky mitts on it asap.
Thanks for the heads up. I think Johnson has a beautiful way with words, so I can completely understand how one could fall in love with her writing, even though “Release in A Minor” didn’t work for me as well as I would have liked.