A MelanieM Release Day Review: Once Upon a Time in the Weird West Anthology

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Rating:  4.75 stars out of 5

 

once-upon-a-time-in-the-weird-westThis isn’t the same old Wild West. The usual suspects are all present: cowboys, outlaws, and sheriffs. There’s plenty of dust, tumbleweeds, horses, and cattle on the range, but there are also magical gems, automatons, elementals, airships… even dinosaurs and genetically modified insects. Roaming among the buffalo and coyotes, you’ll encounter skinwalkers, mad engineers, mythical beings cloaked in darkness, and lovers who stay true to their oaths… even beyond the grave. On this frontier are those at the mercy of their own elaborate devices as well as men whose control of time and space provides a present-day vision of the West. There might even be a dragon hidden amongst the ghost towns and wagon trains.

If you like your Westerns with a splash of magic, a touch of steampunk, and plenty of passionate romance between men, these genre-bending tales will exceed expectations.

Hold on to your hats, cowboys and cowgirls. The West is about to get weird, and you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Its been quite a while since I’ve  read such a strong and outstanding anthology.  I can recommend almost every story and most are 4 to 5 stars.  Its remarkable.  The American West has always been wild but never this weird and extraordinary.  In the hands of these authors, they transport the readers and romance into other dimensions  and worlds entirely.  From steampunk to mages to things supernatural, all the roads to love, however strange and mysterious, can be found here.

I’ve listed them in the order they can be found in the anthology with my comments and ratings.

Reaper’s Ride by Astrid Amara  – 5 Stars

Johnny Jenkins  loves  most aspects of riding  for the Pony Express, but  the  loneliness  can  be  hard  to  abide.  When  a  raid  injures  the  station keeper  at  remote  Jacob’s  Well,  Johnny  is  left  alone  to  tend  the  incoming riders until a replacement can be found. Isolated and without even a horse to keep him company, Johnny thinks he might go mad from solitude. 

That is, until he meets Sye Fairchild, a rider for a different kind of express.  This  one  operates  in  the  shadows,  and  the  deliveries  are  of  a much  darker  nature.  Sye  is  dashing  and  kind,  but  he’s  also  under  a deadline—he’s  got  to  finish  his  deliveries  by  Friday,  or  he  breaks  a  very old and very serious bargain. 

And  as  Johnny  finds  a  kindred  soul  in  Sye,  he  realizes  that  soul needs saving—even if it means ruining his own.

 Astrid Amara does her normal outstanding job of melding accurate historical fiction with the supernatural in the Reaper’s Ride, one of my favorites.  It launches this anthology with a bang and I still have this couple hanging about in my head.

Wild, Wild Heart by Shira Anthony – 5 stars

Al Pennington and Cyrus Reese are both damaged men. Apprenticed as a child to a master who created clockwork wonders, Al now prefers to spend his days on his secluded homestead, toiling over his own fantastical inventions. But when he takes the wounded Cyrus into his home and nurses him back to health, Al realizes he wants Cyrus to stay. Al’s tired of being alone, Cyrus is tired of running, and maybe their time together can be a balm to wounds left by their difficult pasts. 

When an outlaw bent on dragging Cyrus back into a life of crime comes knocking, Al is seriously injured. Cyrus must quite literally take Al’s broken heart in his hands to save his life.

 Wild, Wild Heart by Shira Anthony makes steampunk inventions believable as she does the men who  toil over them.  Here a simple sound become ominous, and then  joyous.  I loved it.

Dr. Ezekiel Crumb’s Heavenly Soul Purifying Elixir by Lex Chase – 3.75 stars

Dr. Ezekiel Crumb’s Medicine Show runs a booming business conning homesteaders with his Heavenly Soul Purifying Elixir. He takes advantage of the gullible, who believe the only way to be purged of their sins is with his moonshine—strong enough to strip paint at forty paces. 

When a sandstorm buries his caravan, Ezekiel is hauled to safety and trapped in his wagon. His savior is none other than Levi Everett, his lost love. But Ezekiel put him in the ground years ago, and he fears Levi is the Devil, come to demand atonement for his sins. The tale Levi spins leaves Ezekiel wondering if he’s lost his own soul—or maybe his mind. All he knows is that not even his elixir can heal his broken heart.

 I thought this story got stronger the further in I got and loved the ending.

Corpse Powder by Jana Denardo –    4.75 stars

Doctor Isaac Adler came to Virginia City, Nevada, to escape the horrors he witnessed during the War between the States. Despite a living in a thriving Jewish community, Isaac’s having trouble finding his faith… and finding work. Just when he’s contemplating leaving the desert, life takes an unexpected turn when the airship Aurora is attacked by pirates and Isaac is called upon to help the wounded.

The ship’s first mate, Tsela “Alexander” Zhani, is also trying to outrun a nightmare, his in the form of the powerful skinwalker who drove him from his Navajo village. Tsela’s friendship with the handsome doctor responsible for saving the lives of his friends gives both men a fragile hope for a better future. But their demons aren’t as far behind them as they thought.

 Corpse Powder  blends two religions and two disparate men and comes up with a remarkable romance.  One is Dr. Isaac Adler, Jewish and afraid of heights.  The other, a flying ship’s first mate, Tsela Zhani, a Navajo being chased by a skinwalker.    The imagination shown by the author in not only Denardo’s world building but the battle scenes and the characters is amazing.  Another world I could happily have stayed in.

The Sheriff of Para Siempre by Jamie Fessenden  – 3 stars

In 1875, Billy Slade is one of the fastest gunmen in the territory of New Mexico, despite his youth. With his lover, Joe Brady, he travels from town to town, hiring out his skill wherever he can—provided the cause is noble. Billy fancies himself a hero defending the common man against bandits and ruffians. But a night of passion gets Billy and Joe run off the ranch they helped defend from rustlers.

In the failing mining town of Para Siempre, Billy’s skill as a marksman lands him the job of sheriff. But the town is run by the corrupt Cassidy brothers, who take a liking to Billy and Joe, and they’re used to getting what they want. When Billy rejects Jed Cassidy’s proposition, Jed challenges him to a gunfight. It’s a fight Billy could easily win—but the Cassidys don’t play fair.

For me, this was the only story I disliked.  The writing is good but the story is one that I actually ending up rushing through.  From a rape and murder, its sad, bittersweet and left a awful taste in my mouth.  Its 3 stars only because the writing is so good.  Disliked everything else. 

The Tale of August Hayling by Kim Fielding – 4 stars

August Hayling went west following the discovery of gold in California. While most prospectors were hoping to strike it rich, August was more interested in a place big enough to let him get lost. Sitting alone in a saloon, he is approached by a peculiar man named Georgios Cappadocia, who offers August a fortune in gold if August will come along and help him fetch it. August soon learns that his strange new employer is engaged in some kind of ancient dispute. And when they arrive at their destination, both men will realize that not all treasures are golden—and sometimes destinies can be changed.

Ah a Kim Fielding story!  I never know which way its going to go.  This time its whimsical.  I sort of guessed at the identities of the characters but that didn’t take away my enjoyment of the story.  Extra bonus?  Features one of my favorite fantasy creatures!

 Time Zone by Andrew Q. Gordon –   4.5 stars

Some people possess gifts that allow them to change the world. For Wesley Blake, it’s all a matter of time. He can stretch a handful of seconds into a whole day. But his ability hasn’t saved Wesley from being hurt by others. As a field agent for the Department of Gifted Americans, Wesley throws himself into his work to forget that he is alone. The only person Wesley trusts is his handler, Lothar.

Then a vital mission brings a new partner, Eric, who refuses to let Wesley shut him out. As they train for their assignment, a friendship builds between them. Wesley cautiously lets Eric into his life, until he learns Eric and Lothar lied to him. Betrayed and angry, Wesley struggles to control his powers, and when things take a dangerous turn, even Wesley might not have enough time to get out with his life.

 Another strong story. Time Zone and Andrew Q. Gordon delivers great characters and a fascinating world.  Wesley Blake in particular, a vulnerable gifted man with a dependancy on his handler Lothar, who he’s never met.  How the story unfolds, its revelations, including the spectacular one at the end?  It kept me involved and connected to Wesley and his path to love.  Outstanding story.

Get Lucky by Ginn Hale – 5 Stars  

Pinkerton detectives, saltwater crocodiles, the Borax Brothers, and the sinister Swaims: seems everyone is out to get water mage, Lucky Spivey.

Lucky Spivey just wants to pay off his dead father’s debts and forget about the gunslinger who left him waiting at the stagecoach station three years before. But when he stumbles across a handsome Pinkerton detective in mortal peril, he can’t abandon the man to his fate, and all too soon Lucky finds himself in a wild chase filled with magic, murder, and a triceratops or two. Surviving the marshlands might mean working together with a disturbingly familiar gunslinger…. 

 Ginn Hale had me at Lucky Spivey.   What a wild ride!  Mages, crocodiles, swamps and a lost love returned.  I really wanted so much more at the end.  If you’re listening Ginn Hale, bring Lucky back and his beau too. 

From Ancient Grudge to New Mutiny by Langley Hyde – 4 stars

In the small town of Wilson Creek, two handsome lovers, destined for death at each other’s hands, attempt to end their families’ Shakespearean feud over precious magical minerals.

When James Caplin, inventor of a new magic-detecting device, returns home after graduating from Hinton’s Academy for Boys, he’s looking to have one last hurrah with a handsome cowboy. But he discovers not only that his handsome cowboy is Frank Montgomery, the son of the Caplins’ hated enemies, but also that the Montgomerys are accused of stealing the Caplins’ precious illudine, a rare magical stone. When the argument between the Montgomerys and Caplins becomes heated, James and Frank are expected to settle the matter with a duel. If James doesn’t want to put a bullet in Frank, he’ll have to recover the illudine, reveal the thief, and end a centuries-old rivalry… and he needs Frank’s help.

 Romeo and Jules with Alchemy.  Another neat twist on the  Romeo and Juliet  tale with  a M/M twist and turns.  I wish I had more background on the world but it was  fascinating in the bits and pieces the author set out.  

POMH by Venona Keyes  4 .5 stars

Lorem Farcome makes inventions that cater to the working class. He dreams of a lost chance in love and a lost apprentice. The lost love he can do nothing about, but an apprentice, he can surely build. With a rare red prism, Lorem creates and animates his assistant, dubbing him “Pomh.” The road never runs smooth, and a wealthy and powerful competitor, Markus Reighn, accuses Lorem of stealing the red prism and claims Lorem’s mechanical man for himself. But an odd-looking prospector might hold the key to clearing Lorem’s name and giving Lorem his true heart’s desire.  

Lorem has lost someone and he makes  wonderful inventions.  He finds a rare prism, and something miraculous  occurs.  Venona Keyes takes us on a steampunk journey of lost love and heartbreak and miracles.  Its one to be treasured, a standout in a collection of standouts.

 

Oh, Give Me a Home by Nicole Kimberling – 5 stars

Corporate terraformer turned social justice worker, Gordon gave up a good living to pioneer New Saturn, where the ranges are as vast as they sky—just the way Gordon likes them. Together with his partner Henry, Gordon herds the ankle-high genetically modified insects, which deposit crucial bacteria into the soil so the ground can one day be farmed. But when rustlers strike, the barren beauty of the frontier  turns deadly, and Gordon must risk everything to keep himself and Henry alive. 

Nicole Kimberling has long been a favorie of mine, especially her Bellingham Mysteries.  Here you have an established  couple Henry (born earthbound) and Gordon (born in space) and their herd of bugs each with their personalities.  Yes from Screwloose to Queen Esther, you’ll be falling in love with these terraforming bugs too.  Kimberling gives us the complete world, including Gordon’s space born physiology and what that must mean when it comes to making love or even existing within quarters with gravity.  A stunning story all around.

Gunner the Deadly by C.S. Poe – 5 stars

Special Agent Gillian Hamilton is one of the top magic casters in law enforcement. Sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona to arrest a madman engineer responsible for blowing up half of Baltimore, Gillian isn’t expecting a run-in with notorious outlaw, Gunner the Deadly.

Gillian and Gunner become temporary teammates when it turns out they’re after the same man. The Tinkerer will stop at nothing to get rid of the two so he can steal the town’s silver mines and build an army of steam machines to take down the country. If facing Gatling guns, airships, and magic wasn’t enough, Gillian must also struggle with the notion that he’s rather fond of his criminal partner. But perhaps a union between copper and outlaw isn’t so weird out in the wild and lawless West.

 Gillian and Gunner and a madman on the loose in a steampunk world.  Its wildly imaginative, its fast paced, and its romantic.  Loved it.

After the Wind by Tali Spencer     –  5 stars

Plagued by drought and raids from hostile Comanches, the West Texas frontier is a hell of a place to carve out a living. Twenty years ago, a mysterious disaster devastated the Llano Estacado and cursed the survivors with supernatural abilities over Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. The Anglo government promptly outlawed these powers—and they’re willing to pay good money to anyone who turns over an elemental, dead or alive.

When rancher Micah Dawes desperately needs water for his herd, he strikes a deal with two unsavory bounty hunters for the services of a chained, blue-haired water elemental named Rain. Micah pities Rain, but he has to play his cards close to his chest—because Micah, too, survived the Wind, and the reason he always wears a hat is to hide his glowing red hair….

We end up this extraordinary collection with a strong story.  After the Wind by Tali Spencer.   Is the Wind an environmental foreshadowing?  Whatever the cause the devastating effects on the human and animal population is swift and brutal.  Genetic changes for the remaining populations in some areas that cause them to be hunted and killed for their properties.  Its heartbreaking and Spencer brings that out in vividly described passages and the character of Rain.

The story is stark and yet, full of hope at the end.  Its a perfect way for Once Upon a Time in the Weird West to come to a close.  But these characters?  They will continue to stay with you for some time yet.  What great stories!  What marvelous world building.  More,  I want much, much more.  I highly recommend this anthology.  Its one of the best I’ve read and it will in my Best of 2016 List!

Cover Artist: Nathie Block.  I just love this cover.  Eye catching and works for the stories.

Sales Links

           

Book Details:

ebook, 400 pages
Expected publication: December 16th 2016 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1634779185 (ISBN13: 9781634779180)
Edition LanguageEnglish

Memories of Christmas Past, Footsteps Made of Ash – My Guest Blog at Andrew Q. Gordon’s

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Winter trees longs

I am guest blogging over at Andrew Q. Gordon’s website today for his Holiday Blog Event.  Each day a different writer talks about their memories of the holidays, no matter which ones they celebrate.  It has been a joyous group of offerings, from Shira Anthony to Wade Kelly.  You can find the schedule here.  Today I have singled out one (among many) of my father and the meaning of Santa.

Footsteps of Ash and the Meaning of Santa Clause

Christmas holds so many wonderful memories of family and Christmas past that when Andrew asked me to share something about Christmas especially in regard to families and children, I found myself reliving so many joyous Christmas memories, both from my childhood and my daughter’s, recent and decades ago.  It was a tough choice but in the end I chose to go way back to my own childhood and an overworked Dad and Mom who never failed to bring the magic and joy of the holiday season alive each and every year.

Although my Mom was always an important “behind the scenes” partner in our family’s Christmas, it was left to Dad to put together the bicycles or anything that required tools and mechanical skill.  And it was Dad who supplied the special touches that I remember with a sparkling clarity today.  We always lived in small houses that had fireplaces both by choice and necessity.  With parents born and raised in the South, fireplaces were a rarity and not often needed.  So Mom and Dad found them not only charming and unusual but needed in the colder climates of New York and New Jersey where our family ended up as Dad took one education job after another.  Dad loved building fires in the fireplaces and took great pride in building them “just a certain way”.  But at Christmas time, those fireplaces took on a special meaning as that is where Santa would appear to bring our gifts on Christmas morning. And it all started the night before Christmas.

Our stockings were hung by the chimney with care, just as in the poem.  They were made by my grandmother, a seamstress of note, and I still have mine, ragged and threadbare, all these decades later, our names carefully stitched along the white fake fur at the top.  Everyone in the family had a homemade stocking and each was hung over the fireplace, from Dad’s to Alison, the youngest child.

Christmas Eve was full of preparations and anticipation. My grandparents would arrive from Florida to help out and keep us kids occupied. Mamaw was in charge of the baking. A small batch of sugar cookies were made that day before Christmas with green and red sprinkles flying everywhere . Pepaw made sure a special glass that we used every year just for Santa was washed and ready. And if he filled another with something fragrant and “medicinal”, well it was the holidays. As the cookies baked in the small kitchen, Alison and I would scramble over to the tree decorated in the corner, shining with tinsel, bubble ornaments, and those large bulbs that used to  overheat the longer they stayed on.  We would carefully peak under the tree to see what boxes lay there and whose name was on the labels.  This is where Pepaw really came in, he policed that tree as though it was a castle rampart and we were the enemy.  Oh the squeals as he “captured us” and held us above his head, yelling “gotcha, you rascals”.  He had to keep it mild, otherwise there would be a “Oh, John, ….”, coming from Mamaw and the kitchen. We may not have know what those other words meant but we knew he shouldn’t have said them and we giggled.

There weren’t many presents as my parents couldn’t afford it on Dad’s first job’s salary and with Mom not working but it seemed like a mountain to us kids.  Plus with Pepaw and Mawaw, the boxes multiplied after the suitcases were emptied upon my grandparents arrival.  After dinner on Christmas Eve and everyone made sure we were tucked away in our rooms, then the magic really started.  All the gifts would be hauled out of the hiding places and the assembly would start. Mom and Mamaw brought out the milk and cookies,  Pepaw supervised and Dad?  Well, Dad became Santa. Dad would bring out his old black galoshes and remove the fire grate from the fireplace.  The ashes from the fires recently lit remained and Dad used them to tell us a story.  With great care, he made footprints with those boots, coming from directly under the chimney and with ashy bootprints, “Santa” marched across the living room (carpet and all), drank Santa’s milk, ate some of his cookies (always making sure to leave one partially bitten), then over to the tree.  There the footprints went this way and that, as toys from stuffed cats to sleds were carefully placed, along with mysterious packages that had huge bows and labels that read “from Santa”.  Finally, the footprints made an ashy path back to the fireplace, where Santa “flew up the chimney with great care” off to deliver more presents to children elsewhere.

Christmas morning and oh the joy of finding that Santa had been there.  We ran, tracing his path from fireplace to our tray of treats and finally to the tree.  The adults watched and took pictures as bows and paper flew through the air.  As things calmed down, Dad would point out that Santa had left, via the chimney and we would run and look, marveling that he could fit up anything so small.  Then Dad would hand out the rest of the presents, one to each person to open before going around again.  And finally, the proceedings would end with everyone at the table having a huge Christmas and very southern breakfast, with Dad at the head looking very satisfied and happy.

The years passed, the footsteps continued until one year they didn’t make an appearance, we young adults deemed to old for Santa (and we probably had something to do with that).

But if someone would ask  me today if there was a Santa, I would have to say yes, there is a Santa.  Mine has gotten older, hair as white as, well, snow.  His steps are not as sure and his back a little bent.  My mother, his own “Mrs Claus”. is still at his side while he still builds his fires “just a certain way” as the Christmas tree with all our old ornaments still shines as brightly next to the fireplace as I remember it all those years ago.  Those ashy boots made a reappearance with his grandchildren who now have the same memories I have of the magic of Christmas morning and the certainty that Santa was real and had been there to deliver, not just packages, but the miracle and magic of a jolly old elf and eight tiny reindeer.

Through all these years we never asked and Dad never told the story of the bootprints made of ash.  We never will. And isn’t that what Christmas is really about?  Love and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make others happy, to bring magic and joy to those we love and hold dear?

Merry Christmas, Santa!  Merry Christmas to one and all!

Review: The Last Grand Master (Champion of the Gods #1) by Andrew Q. Gordon

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Rating: 4 stars

The Last Grandmaster coverGrand Master Farrell, the Prince of Haven, is visited by an avatar of his God, Honorus, the first of the Gods. The giant white eagle  tells Farrell that a messenger in dire need of his help approaches the Kingdom .  The true entity behind this messenger’s request?  None other than Honorus’ sister god, Lenore. who is sending her messenger directly to Farrell.  Her messenger is the unicorn Nerti and it is the legendary beings, the Muchari who are engaged in a losing fight against the evil wizard Meglar and Farrell is their only hope.  But the gods also tell Farrell that his true mate is among those under siege and he must hurry or all will be lost.

Traveling on the back of the unicorn, Farrell enters the battle and meets the mighty  immortal Muchari warrior Misceral, the one the Gods have said is his mate.  Misceral too has been informed that Farrell is his one true love, something his father, the lord of the Muchari finds distasteful.  But their foretold bond must take a backseat to the battle at hand.  For the evil wizard Meglar is determined to capture all the Muchari and turn them into invinsible soldiers of evil that will help him conquer the world.

There is only one wizard left in the world powerful enough to fight back against the evil Meglar, and that is Farrell, the Last Grand Master.  But Farrell is hiding a powerful secret from all of those around him, one that will either bring him help him succeed in defeating Meglar once and for all or bring about the ruin of everyone and everything he loves.

It is the action, the wild magic wielding military combat/battles sections of this book that really garnered the 4 star rating. From the opening page, Andrew Q. Gordon propels the reader along with Farrell into battle and brings it to life with vivid descriptions and a concisely worded narrative that kept me on the edge of my seat, thrilling at each new magical encounter.    The author moves us quickly through each hard fought engagement, delighting us with inventive uses of magic by our young resolute wizard, making us gasp with each near escape from death and destruction, and marvel at the sights and sounds Farrell is encountering during his ferocious battle of the magic wands.  There are humongous raptors, unicorns of both sexes who are bonded to our heroes, aged crones and more magical explosions than in a Die Hard movie.  How I loved this part of The Last Grand Master, cue “Wild Thing”.

During this opening segment of the novel I also found I liked the manner in which we meet and watch Farrell handle a variety of situations, all stressful and fraught with danger.  But, and here is the first quibble, the reader is left wondering about half the time about Farrell’s world and what has happened to it for it to get in such a state.  I am not a fan of those books where you must slog through glossary pages of world building minutiae before the story even starts, preferring the author to frame it out during the narrative.  But here some of the most basic of exposition seems to be missing and it hurts the reader’s connection to the story.  I had to read Dreamspinner Press’ blurb to figure out about the “war that shook the earth,”  and the Six gods of Nendor, otherwise I would have been clueless as to some of the most basic facts of this story.

My second quibble would be the characterizations.  I loved the Farrell we first meet,  The confident, brave young wizard sure of his powers and his ability to see his mission through to the end.  But that persona wavers like the image in a fun house mirror throughout the story.  Sometimes he is so unsure of himself he flees down hallways, or misjudge conversations and while that may make another character more vulnerable and real, here the manner in which these character fluctuations happen to Farrell just serve to bemuse the reader and make us wonder what happened to the young man we fell in love with at the beginning of the story.  Each time he turns a corridor in the castle, it seems that we see yet another Farrell and such uneven character building just drags the story and the rating down with it.  Even his soulmate, the legendary immortal Misceral just comes across as the sweet boy down the hall.  Honestly, there is not much about him to make us believe in either their bond or his mythic attributes. In fact most of the characters we meet, while not exactly one dimensional, have a certain blandness about them that just doesn’t measure up to the sensational descriptions of battles, and cities under siege, and magical enchantments gone awry.  That is where this author and this novel excels.

Gordon’s ability to make us believe in this world, even populated with less than notable characters, elevates this fantasy story up from the mundane and into the marvelous.  Even his small touches such as the endless pockets on Farrell’s clothing where Farrell can retrieve his sword or anything else for that matter.  I want those.  Redesigning your quarters with a flick of a wand instead of months of renovations?  Yep, want that too.  I loved the spells and artifacts used for conjuring, the large white  eagles and peregrine falcons.  When this story goes to battle, then it really soars along with the unicorns with all the energy and magical flare one could hope for (and then sags when the participants are at rest).  So even with all the unevenness I see within, this book still rates 4 stars because when it gets going, it is great and for now that is enough for me.

Cover art by Paul Richmond.  It really suits the book, great job.