Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Won't Back Down (Anthology)

Title: Won’t Back Down
Editor: Samantha Derr
Authors:Andrea Speed, Caitlin Ricci, Mell Eight, Archer Kaye Leah, Kish Swanson, Mina MacLEod, Diana Sheridan, Annabelle Kitch, S.S. Skye, Freddie Milano, August Aimes
Purchase at Less Than Three Publishing
Purchase at All Romance eBooks
Cover Artist: Aisha Akiju
Genre: Anthology (contains fantasy, science fiction, contemporary)
Length: 189k words
Formats: epub, mobi, pdf,

Blurb: MMA. Jousting Knights. Dueling swordsman. Gladiators. They do it for the money, for the love, and the necessity. They aren't afraid of bruises, blood, and broken bones. Less Than Three Press presents a collection of stories about people who won't back down even when the whole world seems stacked against them.

****

Due to the huge number of stories in this volume and my woeful tendency to say something about each one, the individual story blurbs will get pushed down into the review section. There is something for everyone here.

Only a few of the pieces have on-screen sex, which is an interesting choice for the anthology and generally a good choice for the stories. None of them lose anything for not having the explicit, and a few are weakened by having it there. A few need every touch and thrust the author gave them.

Word counts where offered are my best estimates based on the number of Kindle locations, which very roughly give you 22-23 words per location.

*

Heart's Tournament by Mell Eight—Torn apart by the guilds vying for control of the city, twin brothers Keel and Saar must learn to fight, and win, if they hope to reunite—but winning might be exactly what tears them apart forever. Note: This story contains twincest.


This was a novella length fantasy piece (est 30k) that turned out to have a number of irrelevancies stuck in, made to look important, and then ignored. Start with the twincest: I read this anyway although twincest usually hits my squick buttons. Turns out there’s nothing there to squick me with. If you want on-screen sex, don’t look here, nor should you look for the boys’ examination of why they became lovers. We only get third party psychobabble about a two sentence issue. You wanna push this button, at least make me care one way or the other about it. The trainers Sariel and Linalee were the more interesting couple.

Another example: the battle cats’ only function was to separate Saar and Keel. Battle cats? I want to know more than that they grow to over 400 pounds and are orange with stripes. Which sounds like a tiger. I want to see what they do. Here, nothing.

Long, shallow, and ultimately tensionless, this was not a good lead-off piece for the collection. It’s a big bucket of meh. 1.5 marbles


Champion by Andrea Speed—Kell is the first Human heavyweight champion in the Ultimate Fighting League of the Unified Worlds, where Humans are considered the lowest of the low. His presence could make a difference for his race, especially with his lover contending for featherweight champion—if they survive.

After struggling through the first piece, I was rewarded with the story that should have led the collection. In this science fiction story, humans are the low species on the totem pole, and like marginalized groups gaining acceptance through boxing, look to grab acceptance via physical triumph. We have an established couple who worry for each other, support each other, and love each other. I bled in the ring with Kell and Layne, and rejoiced with them after. 5 marbles


Canis Project by Kish Swanson—There is no one Liam loves more than his twin brother Alex. In the eyes of society, they probably love each other too much, but that's never stopped them. When Alex is brutally taken, however, it does stop the police from investigating. Then a stranger offers Liam a chance for revenge against the genetically-engineered monsters who murdered his brother... Note: This story contains twincest.

If you want on-screen brotherly love, here it is. Once we’re sure how dear Alex and Liam are to each other, we follow Liam through years of revenge-hunting until he meets the opponent who can take him down. There are wheels within wheels here with motivations, and the truth might be out there somewhere. Annoying and possibly deliberate absence of understanding on what genetic engineering actually is, but go with it, the story has some interesting twists. 3.75 marbles


Experiment Number Six by Mina MacLeod—When his mission goes sideways, sniper Jason Slate wakes up in a strange hospital, drugged out of his mind, and captive of a shrewd terrorist organization. He's rescued by the military and placed in the care of Eric Archer, a warrant officer charged with helping him recover. But did the terrorists lose Jason... or let him go?

Excellent contemporary/science fiction story, with a plot worthy of more examination in a longer piece, although my tolerance for present tense might not hold out that long. The slow bloom between Eric and Jason is tense, with self-awareness on both sides that this may be a product of isolation and manipulation. Jason’s undergone prolonged medical torture and interrogation for information he doesn’t have, and Eric helps put him back together. Great team, interesting scientific twist in the plot. 4.5 marbles


Knight & Novice by Cassandra Pierce—Renulf's tedious days of copying manuscripts is interrupted by two unlikely visitors to the Sanctuary: a rampaging, troll-like thief, and the knight who slays him. In thanks for his assistance, Lord Bazel is invited to stay at the Sanctuary for a few days. But when night falls, he asks Renulf to secretly translate a strange manuscript...

Here’s a fantasy short that’s really the first act in a longer piece, it perks along and then chops off after the first mystery is resolved, but not the greater problem. Renulf is torn between loyalty to his old codger of a master and excitement from the visitor to their remote sanctuary, who has hints of the greater world and is terribly sexy. Sword and sorcery, but without the truly exciting bits. 3 marbles



Fight to the Finish by Diana Sheridan—Maltroos has always been proud to be a Pledger and fight against other swordsmen for the amusement of the king. But he clings to the promise of his secret lover, Prince Saxtry, who vows that one day he will abolish the brutal duels. Then the king announces a Grand Competition—and that all fights will be to the death.

Told like a rehashed fairy tale but without the logic that usually applies when a king offers the hand of his heir. Maltroos fights for the right to live openly with his beloved, Saxtry worries, and there you have it in a rather flat style. 2 marbles

Rule Breaker by Archer Kay Leah—Gren has a very simple list of rules: no attachments, no loyalty, he'll fight for anyone willing to pay. His only exception to the rule is Tracel, a healer who is also his casual lover. When she is taken hostage, however, Gren realizes he may have broken his rules, and he'll have to break a few more to get her back.

One of the gems of this collection, with very full and rounded characters, a plot worthy of the name, adventure, and excitement. Here’s the story that made me sad to end and want to reread. Tracel is *trans, in a world where lifestyle is possible but difficult, and physical modification too dangerous to contemplate. She’s a beautiful character and nuanced to the bone. Gren has two fights, one with himself over what’s truly important and one with the upstart Allon. There’s a lot of worldbuilding in a very small space. At about 18k words, it’s long enough to tell the story and short enough to leave me wanting more. 5 marbles


A Little Magic by Annabelle Kitch—When Thrim is taken to the south, he believes he can sink no lower. The slavers took his dignity, the guards took his book of magic and the arena will take his life. Then an unexpected friendship earns Thrim a new enemy, who uses Thrim's own magic to shrink him to the size of a rat and leave him even more helpless.

What was probably meant as humor came out as TSTL to get Thrim captured, and then to be shrunk to a pocket-pet adds to the indignity. Fortunately, the character starts thinking better when his brain is the size of a pea. One of the other gladiators befriends him, and the story becomes a partnership between the two. There’s no sex, and the story didn’t even really need to be cast as m/m to work. 4 marbles


A Good Man by Caitlin Ricci—When Emory loses his job he's afraid of what his boyfriend will think. A friend at the gym offers a solution: go one round in an upcoming fight and he'll give Emory a job training the guys. But Emory hasn't been in the ring for years, and getting back into fighting won't make his boyfriend any happier than the lost job.

The motivations are there, the backstory is there, but it’s all on the surface. I didn’t feel any of this, and Emory’s shame, his connection to his father, and his decision to get punched in the face repeatedly all ought to get more of a reaction. Nor did I feel any real understanding of the sport. 2 marbles

Gladiatrix by S.S. Skye—When Daelan is sold to the kingdom to pay off her father's debts, she knows she is bound for the Games—and not likely to last long. When she arrives, however, she unexpectedly finds she has a patron who seems determined that Daelan come out of the Games alive...

This is the one lesbian story of the group, which is mostly focused on external plot. It takes place in a medieval-feeling world with some Roman Empire tendencies toward bread and circuses. It’s well done—the other MC is crucial to the resolution, and the story wouldn’t work the same if they weren’t potential lovers. Daelan’s terror and determination come through very strongly. Little of the word count is devoted to them getting physical, but you just know that this couple will work. 4 marbles

Feint of Heart by Freddie Milano—For the past six years, Cal has been trying to gain the attention of Sir Taren Veretti outside of training sessions, but Taren refuses to see him as anything but a squire. He's forced to set aside his amorous goals, however, when he stumbles across a plot that could ruin Veretti and everything they've worked for.

Cal’s adorable: he’s a squire and thus a knight in training, but he’s still like a big puppy in some ways and very much picked on by another squire. He’s enamored of the knight to whom he gives service, and he manages to be in the right place at the right time almost as often as he manages to get into trouble. There’s lots of court intrigue and fighting which are bright on the page, and a sweet ending. 4.5 marbles

Chasing Coyote by August Aimes—Jove has been chasing his quarry for more than a year, but infamous thief and magic worker Coyote always manages to stay one step ahead—until suddenly he isn't, and Jove is way more tangled up than he ever wanted, in ways he never expected...

This is the Western in the group, with magic. Not quite the American West, but with the right feel. The magical system is well thought-out and not over-explained, which let talisman worker/thief Coyote and not-too-bright but rather humorous bounty hunter Jove chase each other around, working mostly at cross-purposes and occasionally in tandem. The goal isn’t what Jove thought it was, and the ending is perfect. 5 marbles

As with any anthology, the stories will vary, and my favorites may not be your favorites. However, the huge gap between the stories that worked well or really well and the three that felt phoned in makes me wish this anthology had worked out 50k words shorter. That would have improved the price point (which is steep for an ebook) and given the overall volume a 4.25 average rating instead of the 3.5 marbles which is unfairly penalizing some really good stories.

Copy received through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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