Review of Making Contact Anthology

Standard

Rating:  4.25 – 4.5 stars

Space, the final frontier, as a certain well known Federation Captain would say on his 5-year mission into space, has always consumed our thoughts and dreams.  We have always wanted to know what is out there, its vastness and mystery ever present.  All we need to do is look up to be faced with the unknown. How will we get there and what or whom will we meet once we do are questions innumerable authors have tried to answer in poems, movies, stories and graphic novels. Making Contact is a new science fiction anthology from Dreamspinner Press that examines some of those questions along with what type of love will be found among the stars?

Making Contact gives us ten stories by eight authors.  The stories range from aliens attempting to “fit it=n” among the human inhabitants when they arrive on Earth, humans trying to live in isolation on a lonely outpost, intergalactic conflicts among the races, an alien drunk tank and pirates in space.  There is humor, mystery, heartbreak, and a swashbuckling yarn of space pirates and derring do.

I found this to be a really strong anthology and the variety of stories and themes keep me glued to the Kindle one after another.  Don’t expect cohesion other than the fact that they fall under the science fiction m/m banner.  Just a look at the authors represented should tell you that their visions of space are as unique as they are.  Their narratives explore space from so many different perspectives.  The first story, Better Than Cola by JL Merrow is the only one to feature an alien so far removed from the humanoid mold that the author had to come up with an equally alien method of sexual exchange.  I loved this story as it left me with more questions running around my head than was answered.  Some of the aliens are recognizable in form that the authors have put their own twist to, aliens with fur, aliens with different skins tones and facial markings, and even a new take on vampires in space that will break your heart as it did mine.

Normally when I review anthologies, I only mention the stories I loved.  In Making Contact, that includes them all in varying degrees.  Here they are in the order they appear in the book.

Better Than Cola By JL Merrow

Newly arrived on Earth to work in the Melliti embassy, Summer Storms meets Nathan Chambers, who is tasked with teaching the alien visitor how to deal with human social interaction. The thrill of casual touch exposes an immediate attraction between them, but how far can intimacy go between two totally different life forms?

JL Merrow has done a fantastic job of giving us an alien so far removed from us but still one whose thoughts and emotions can stir attraction in another.  Summer Storms is a plurality of beings contained inside a “human shaped envelope”.  They have to adjust themselves to casual human touch and the way in which their “envelope” reacts to the human sent to help them deal with interspecies interaction.  This story has so much charm while still being sexy and alien.  Merrow left me wanting to know more about their physiology and culture while giving me a satisfactory glimpse into the unknown.

Revolving Realities By Cari Z.

Dr. Eliot Hollister is desperate to locate the Ulysses and her crew before tragedy strikes… again. The lone survivor of a hostile attack compounded by human error, Eliot is using an alien artifact to search through alternate realities, trying to change the outcome in a parallel dimension. Eliot’s challenge once he finds the ship? Convince Captain Paul Alvarez he’s for real before the Ulysses falls prey to the same trap.

Cari Z brings alternate universes into play with her story of a lone survivor grabbing as a last chance to save his lover from death, even if it is not his actual lover, but the man he is in another universe.  Wonderful characterizations play off against time as Eliot tries to stop the scenario from playing out again in the new universe but runs up against the same scientist hell bent on exploring the world  beneath them.  His frustrations become ours because we know what will happen if he can’t stop the mission.  My only quibble is that it ended too soon.

The Sacrifice By Sue Brown

After twelve years, the leaders of the Free Worlds have finally found a man willing to sacrifice his life to the gods of Segelian to ensure an alliance with the mineral-rich planet. But when Stane raises the dagger to perform the rite, he looks into the human Steven’s eyes and is horrified to discover he is destined to kill his life partner. If Stane doesn’t complete the ritual, it will destroy any chance for a treaty… and it might also change the world of Segelian forever.

Sue Brown uses two worlds, one homophobic (human), one a male/male warrior culture and the extended war between them that will end with a human sacrifice.  She does a nice job of world building including a world divided by religious caste and the warrior caste and makes us believe it. I loved Stane and Steven however implausible the final intervention.

Alone By Andrea Speed

Scientist Logan Murakami doesn’t have much to keep him company during his lonely vigil at Outpost Proserpina. But he knew that going in, and it’s the perfect place to focus solely on his work: a neuro-optical interface that would be the perfect engine for artificial intelligence… an intelligence that Logan hopes is taking on a life of its own.

What I loved most about this story is that it plays out internally in the mind of Logan Murakami.  Solitude and remoteness are definitely two of the factors to be considered when talking about space travel.  How to achieve it, do we need a base of operations to extend our exploration? And what type of person will be able to handle those conditions?  All compelling questions that need viable answers and Speed attempts to provide some of them in the person of Logan Murakami.  Raised in isolation in Alaska and solitary by nature, he unexpectedly ends up alone at the outpost and uses this time to perfect his neuro-optical interface with the goal of  having it attain intelligence.  What happens exceeds his expectations and gives him something so much more. Just outstanding.

Losing Sight of the Shore By Emily Moreton

Secondary communications officer Jay is assigned to a boarding crew when the Hydra discovers a seemingly abandoned, powerless ship floating in space. While exploring the derelict ship, Jay finds a barely conscious man with purple skin and silver eyes. After surviving a raider attack, Felix is understandably afraid to let Jay go—even when cultural differences threaten to stop any contact between them.

Moreton gives us romance in space that emerges from survivors of an attack upon their ship.  I liked the romance even if I wanted a little more of the alien culture and history of the purple skinned people living in ships among the stars.  I got some lovely bits of characterization from Jay and the other members of the crew, I just wish I felt I got the same result from the aliens.  A really sweet story that could have been fleshed out a little more to make it absolutely terrific.

Gifted in Tongues By JL Merrow

After inadvertently outraging local sensibilities, space pilot Torvald “Spitz” Spitzbergen faces a five-year stretch in a Lacertilian jail. His only consolation is trading insults with his cellmate, Tao, a six-foot libidinous Felid. But Tao seems to have a distinctly fuzzy understanding of the difference between fighting and foreplay…

Merrow gives us an alien drunk tank!  How could you not love this?  Spitz seems like the very type to get his drunk on, outrage the locals, and be very surprised to find himself with the remains of a hangover, two very different cell mates and the worst morning after he has had in a while.  I chuckled throughout this story, Merrow’s  descriptions painting the scene so perfectly that I had no problems picturing it all as it happens.  Cracked me up, made me blush, and left me wanting more.   Now if only I can talk the author into bringing Spitz and Tao  back for further adventures.  Pretty please?

Analytic Geometry By Andi Deacon

Kevin Ikoro has an incredible opportunity: his boss at Helix Multicorp wants an analyst’s view of how the corporation’s Exploration division works, and Kevin is now a member of explorer team Alpha 3IG. His teammates, a set of brilliant twins named Cameron and Theo Banark, are fascinating, and Kevin finds himself harboring a serious case of lust for Cameron. But exploration is unpredictable, and his teammates may not be what they seem. The shortest distance between two bodies isn’t always a straight line.

Another neat story full of twists that added dimension and depth to this little space gem.  I don’t want to go into this except that I loved the characters where the attraction of the mind trumps attraction of the body.  Sexy, humorous and with a little bit of mystery thrown in. Again the characters that Deacon creates here are so terrific, so unique that as the end I wanted so much more.  The surprise alone is worth the story but it is the family that is forming that captures my interest, imagination and heart. Just a great job.

The Monsters Below By Lyn Gala

Brai’s never dreamed of fighting the monstrous sub-humans who infest Kestia, but when his lover joins the service, Brai does what he always does… he follows. Then Rick is lost on his first mission, and Brai is left alone in a murderous rage. Now on his own first mission gone terribly wrong, Brai has his chance to get back at the monsters for killing Rick—only the government hasn’t been honest about the nature of the enemy, and Brai might find that the caves hide a secret that could change his life.

I was not prepared for the heartbreak that is this story.  Lyn Gala gives us an intense, knuckle biter of an update of vampires in space and makes it hurt even as the characters bleed out and die.  Again for me to go into detail would ruin it but Gala’s characters are beautifully realized and the situation they find themselves in so dire that our hearts and minds are caught up in their plight immediately.  This story kept me up and thinking into the wee hours of the morning.

Feral By K.R. Foster

Desperate to end a war, the king of the Lunar Pryde agrees to submit one of his offspring to mate with a member of the Sol Pryde royal line. Cynfael, prince of the Lunar Pryde, fled the planet six months ago searching for freedom, and nothing could convince him to return… except his father’s threat to marry off Cynfael’s twelve-year-old sister Adara. After fighting for freedom his entire life, Cynfael must return to Starion to face his unknown mate and an equally unknown future.

What is it about felids or specifically felids that walk upright with many of the same emotions and thoughts of humans that captures our imagination so?  I kept running across so many of them from author after author and genre after genre. Still, I end of loving them all. Feral is Foster’s newest addition to felids in space. Cynfael is another prince being forced to wed the son of warring royal line and bring peace to the planet they inhabit.  There are so many nice touches here from Cynfael’s ability to communicate with the planet to a comb made of filed down teeth that I wanted an extended version to fill in the gaps left by the story.  We are left in the dark about the loss of Cynfael’s mother, the war ongoing, the purity of his genes (does it relate to his color?) and so much more. A little more volume was needed to add layers to an intriguing tale.

Ganymede’s Honor By Cornelia Grey

Colonel Ardeth Connor has been rescued from death, but he’s not sure his new life is any better: he’s effectively trapped aboard a rebel ship that defies the Federation to collect ice meteors, stealing life-sustaining water for the poorest of planets and asteroids. As an anonymous part of Captain Gabriel’s crew, Ardeth is biding his time until he can escape… and learning there’s more to space than just the Federation.

This story reminded me so much of an interview I just saw with an astrophysicist.  She was talking about space travel, space ships and the Tardis. Ok, yes, I am a geek.  I make no bones about it.  She was talking about the fact that our modes of transportation in space didn’t need to be those sleek versions that populate the page and  movie screen, that we could travel about in something as funky as a phone booth or a Rubic’s Cube.  On in this case, a space galleon similar to those that rode the waves way back when.  I loved this story.  It left me smiling for hours just picturing the Ganymede under her solar sails in search of meteorites to capture.  Cornelia Grey’s story gives us pirates in space or should that be rebels in space and turns it into a swashbuckling story of love, sexy rebel captains who shouts to his crew ‘Unwind those cables, bunch of useless yobs!” as they prepare to harpoon a ice meteoroid out of a swarm, and his crew man the sails and chains as the ship rockets under them.  What a scene, what a crew!  It got the blood boiling, the eyes wild, the heart pounding…..oh how I wanted to be on the ship with them and maybe snuggled up against Ardeth and Gabriel, just saying.  I do have a thing for his tats.

And just the idea of a galleon sailing through space, the stars all around her…that’s magic right there.  Grey’s story hit a lot of my buttons and left me cheering the crew on to great glory and many more stories.  I feel much the same about every author here with their diverse take on space and making contact.  I loved their stories, I wanted more of their aliens and human interaction.  I hope this spawns even more novels featuring the being that made me laugh, made me cry and made me exult that space means no boundaries of any sort.  No boundaries to the imagination and no boundaries as to who we can love and be loved by in return.  More please. Much, much more.  Engage.

Cover art by Analise Dubner, cover design by Mara McKennen.  Love the cover, great colors and a catchy design.

Review of The Ronin and The Fox by Cornelia Grey

Standard

Reviewed for JoyfullyJay on 3/10/12

Rating: 3.75 stars

The Ronin And The Fox

Following a dispute with his lord, Samurai Hajime left his master’s realm to become ronin, a masterless samurai.  As he journeys through one village, the innkeeper begs him to stay and help drive away a kitsune or fox spirit that is bedeviling the village.  Lacking destination or purpose to his life, Hajime agrees to help.  A seductive encounter with Katsura, a gorgeous young man in his room at the inn leaves Hajime reeling and drained. Imagine Hajime’s surprise when upon capturing the kitsune, it turns out that the fox spirit is the same young man who seduced him that first night at the inn.

Being captured is the least of Katsura’s troubles.  The pearl containing his soul has been stolen by an unscrupulous healer who has forced him to do his bidding.  It is the yamabushi or religious healer, not Katsura, who is the real cause of the village’s problems.

Hajime feels sorry for the kitsune and is honorbound to help Katsura retrieve his soul and save the village from further harm.  But their partnership is not without obstacles, including former samarai, spells, encounters with water spirits, and issues of trust.  Will they obtain the pearl and save the village and Katsura?  Or will the kitsune’s own nature bring disaster upon them both.

I will state right from the start that I liked the characters of Hajime and Katsura.  Hajime is a person who, having achieved his goal of being a samurai, finds himself a round peg trying to fit into a square hole.  He’s kind, a man of honor who doesn’t do well with authority and just wants to help people.  Definitely not samurai material.  Katsura is a long-lived kitsune but still retains his impulsiveness and folly of youth.  It is due to his own stupidity and gluttony that his pearl was stolen.  How can you not love a spirit who is his own worst enemy?  They are the best part of this story.

I wish the author had taken her story and placed it in modern Japan.  I would have loved to see how Katsura dealt with today’s Japan.  Instead she set it in Shogun era Japan and all the problems with this novel tumble forth.

First the dialog and the phrasing.  Cornelia Grey tries for dialog as it might have been spoken in feudal Japan, using the titles of  “samurai dono” when the innkeeper is speaking to Hajime.  This is an old form of “sir” not used today.  But then phrases such as “he was in his early twenties”, “I could have timed that better”, or Katsura saying being a fox spirit “has got to have it’s perks” brings the story to a jarring halt and dispels any idea that these are men/beings of antiquity.  Further references to Katsura’s “alien gold eyes”, “stroke of genius”, “where on Earth” and “throw his life away” left me reading in disbelief.

The author also tells us repeatedly that Katsura is wearing an orange yukata but never informs the reader that it is a summer kimono.  Most people are aware of what a kimono looks like and had she used that term instead, it would have clarified what he was wearing. Yet, later on, Cornelia Grey tells us that the healer is wearing “his tokin—a small black hat tied just above his forehead”.  Better editing leads to better continuity.

The Samurai era started about 646 ce and ends in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration.  Japan was an isolationist society with layer upon layer of rules and rituals that governed society and its castes.  Such phrases and words such as timing, aliens and perks are modern and mostly Western in origin let alone “where on Earth”.  Also samurai followed a code of conduct called “bushido” which  translates to the way of the warrior.  It is honor, courage, and freedom from the fear of death.  Yet, Hajime says he was “trying to be honorable and kind, as the bushido instructed”and that he “didn’t want to throw his life away”.   *Shakes head*  Well, no, bushido doesn’t instruct that, in fact, bushido even demanded that sepukko or ritual death be committed in certain situations.  So actually, yes, do throw that life away, bushido demands it.

I got the impression that much of this story has been drawn from Manga and not history.  Hajime is actually a boxing manga and anime series. Also the kitsune has some attributes  that come from yuri/yaoi manga fandoms and not Japanese folk tales.  The fox spirit is Japan’s answer to our own Coyote trickster.  It can change shape, possess people in some instances and loves to play tricks, especially on the arrogant and unworthy. Here the land is drained of its energy by the fox spirit and the kitsune drinks Hajime’s blood. The vampiric nature of Katsura seems to have its basis in Shouji Ai or lesbian manga as the Japanese folktales do not mention this.

Writing historical fiction, even one that has fantasy overtones, can be tricky, as mistakes with dialog, dates and culture are easily pinpointed and distract from the story.  Cornelia Grey had a wonderful novel here and she buried it under poor word choices, unintentionally funny dialog, and uneven editing.  And that is such a shame.  Hajime and Katsura deserve much better.

Cover.  The cover is lush and portrays a scene in the book beautifully.  I wish the book was as well done.