Sleight of Hand by Katrina Strauss – review

Rating: 4.5/10 ★★★★½☆☆☆☆☆ 

Title: Sleight of Hand
Author: Katrina Strauss
Genre: Paranormal erotic
URL: Samhain Publishing
Price: US$2.50
Other Information/warnings:
Explicit sex, very mild violence, questionable consent
Summary (from the publisher):
What if the man of your dreams is also the one of your nightmares? Edwin Matthews just wants to get some sleep. Traveling by steam train with his family, the melancholic nineteen year old is plagued by restless nights and recurring dreams of a fiery disaster. When a mysterious magician comes aboard, the troubled insomniac’s trip takes an interesting turn.

Tall, dark, and incredibly handsome, the flamboyant Sir Marco Satori offers to cure what ails Edwin. Spurred by equal parts curiosity, desperation, and attraction, Edwin agrees to the experiment. Suddenly he finds his quiet journey turned into a wild ride of life, love, sex, death..and a few strange things in between.

He also finds himself claimed—in more ways than one—while a promise of “eternity” may be more than Edwin bargains for.

My review: The beautiful cover art by Anne Cain hints that this story has a Yaoi-inspired genesis and, after reading it, I have no doubt that the author Katrina Strauss was at the very least intrigued by that genre.  For once, I feel that the publisher’s blurb accurately represents the plot, with only one addtion needed for the purposes of this review:   It is important to note that our hero, Edwin, is traveling along with his mother and sister, the latter having  agreed to marry a significantly older man — a bit of a lecher, honestly — to better the station of their family.  Intriguing, yes.  It is.  But does it work?  Well, yes.  And no.

Author Katrina Strauss’ prose is competently written, the period setting made clear by the heightened manner of speech of the characters, and she clearly knows the time period in which she is writing.  It all moves at a decent pace, and yet I found myself becoming a bit annoyed early on in the story.  What derailed (pardon the pun) the piece for me  initially is that while Strauss has a very good eye for detail, she sometimes didn’t know when to stop with the observations.  We get incredibly detailed descriptions of the train and its compartments, but in the end it does little to create an atmosphere.  Yes, I know how each of the characters are dressed — down to excruciating detail — and I even know where there privy is in relation to each of the passenger compartments.  But it all felt rather like a recessitation of historical facts rather than a tool to create atmosphere or tension.  There are times when I actually found myself mumbling “enough” with the details.  It was beginning to feel a bit Ann Rice in verbosity and “info dump,” though woven into the story better than most info dumps.

We are also, during the early parts of the story, so completely engulfed in Edwin’s malaise and internal homophobia that–after a while–he becomes a bit unlikable.  It’s nearly unbearable as a reader, his  moroseness and becomes the totality of his character traits.  Yes, he is there with his sister and mother, but neither becomes more than a prop until later in the story when the sister becomes the plot device.  We are — despite the story being told in third person — stuck in his head and, frankly, his thoughts are rather self-involved, especially when we learn more about his sister’s plight, and the resutl is he turns whiny and unappealing for my tastes.

When Edwin finally meets the mysterious Satori, we get to see a little passion as he becomes intrigued and then bedded by the magician.  Now Satori is a shady character, rather slimly drawn and never really rising to the title of irresistible and charming.  He wears a waistcoat and a cravat and speaks in a particularly affected way, but he never evolves into a full character.  Now part of that is the appeal…mysterious stranger on a train, so in that respect Satori serves exactly the function he needs to in the story.

The sex between Edwin and Satori is fairly well drawn, a cut above many depictions in the genre, but both characters are so terribly feminine that it it didn’t really feel hot or erotic to me.  The characters, both before and during the sex scenes, play much more on the female side of androgyny and miles away from the male. And there was one moment when Edwin is being penetrated by Satori (in a manner of speaking) where, unfortunately, Strauss fell into one of the biggest cliches ever:  as Edwin is penetrated the train is going through a tunnel.  Have we never seen the incredible spoofs of such imagery? It is, unfortunately, a laugh inducing moment for me and completely shattered any eroticism I was finding.

After the initial encounter, Edwin is hypnotized into forgetting the encounter (but scheduled to return), except that Edwin hasn’t forgotten.  Strauss was clearly trying to depict Edwin being haunted by slivers of memory, but it was almost as if he remembered the whole thing.  So, the light D/s the author teases us with ends up not quite working for me.

Where the story does start to take off is in the twist in the end with Edwin’s sister. Now this fascinated me and it was a good idea, but right when we get to it, the story ends, rather abruptly.  And that is where I got extremely frustrated.  This twist was a wonderful, wonderful idea.  Where it failed is lack of foreshadowing during the early part of the story, and the fact that Edwin’s sister had been a near non-character until she was needed to bring the story to an end.  Had Strauss concentrated a bit more on the sister and mother early on (and thereby got us out of Edwin’s annoying melancholy), the twist would have worked instead of feeling like an afterthought, a way to simply wrap up the story.  And Strauss could have ended up with a bit of a treatise of gender roles, both in that time period and now, as a bonus. But the great idea came too late and was over too soon.  Or was it simply that there was nothing built into the beginning of the story to make us go “WOW!  What a great solution.”

In the end, this short story didn’t really work for me  as a romance, a character study, or a piece of dark erotica.  But what did work is that hint of where Strauss could go as a writer with a bit more polish and focus. The turns she took with the story I found intriguing, albeit never fully committed to, but in that one brief glimmer I saw enough to make me wonder where this writer could go.  It could be exciting places.