Tangle (Anthology) – ed. Nicole Kimberling – review

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ Title: Tangle (Anthology) – ed. Nicole Kimberling
Authors: Steven Adamson, Astrid Amara, Mark Allan Gunnells, Ginn Hale, Tenea D. Johnson, Jeremiah Job Levine, Erin MacKay, Gene Mederos, Jesse Sandoval and Lawrence Schimel.
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction
URL: Blind Eye Books
Price: USD $15.95
Other Information/warnings: violence, explicit m/m, some horror themes
Summary [from publisher]:
11 stories of magic, mystery and the fantastic future, all featuring gay heroes. Swordsmen, cyborgs, magicians, ghosts, psychic lovers and enchanted lords fill this anthology with adventure, laughter and passion.

My review: Since this anthology contains the much-awaited second novella by Ginn Hale, I was eager to read it (and, I should declare an interest since I submitted to the anthology and was rejected.) So it was with great expectations that I began to read this book, and I’m delighted to say that it more than meets those expectations. The editor dedicates the volume to her sixteen-year-old self (which smacks a little of hubris) but this is by no means aimed at a Young Adult audience, and almost all the stories are richly satisfying both as gay fiction and speculative fiction.

Negatives first. The book is not as cleanly edited as previous volumes from Blind Eye and though it doesn’t come close to Torquere levels of horridness, when typos, wrong words or missed words are noticed, it’s rather jarring. However, I am ultrapicky, and I doubt most readers will notice the handful of mistakes.

I suspect more readers will be troubled by the first story in the volume, “Moons of Blood and Amber” by Gene Mederos, which is one of three weak entries in the collection. In a tale of high fantasy, a prince and his would-be male consort have to endure trials to gain the succession. Dallan, the consort, remembers how it was he came to meet the prince, Ballantyr, in the first place.

There are parallel narratives in this story, one telling past events, one relating present ones. The past history is slightly more interesting than the present one, which is just dull. We’re not given long enough in the past to engage with the characters sufficiently or to care how they got to their present situation – it’s a novella/novel straining to fit the boundaries of a short story. It’s not badly written, but the plot wasn’t that interesting. The use of magical healers annoys me in a story, but the magical/paranormal aspects were well handled, and there was some amusing interaction in the past between the misfits. I never became caught up in the present trials for succession, however, and the palace politicking was too much tell not show for me.

What really irritated me, however, was the too pat, and very offensive ending. If I’d not committed to review this book, I’d have stopped reading at this point, which would have denied me the pleasure of the rest of the collection.

“Monument by Steven Adamson is just rather boring, with a fairly unlikeable young narrator and a teen relationship which is going nowhere. Interesting idea about a ‘brigadoon’ or ghost town but it was a one-trick pony. I read it and went “is that it?”.

The weakest story is definitely “The Lost Gentleman” by Mark Allan Gunnells. A ghost love story, it had huge potential but this was squandered in lazy characterisation and character voice, an unlikeable narrator, instant true love which never felt earned, and a sappy tone and resolution. Not the worst story I’ve ever read but when held up against the majority of stories in the collection, it seemed amateurish.

Now onto the positives, and trust me, there are many.

“Lord Ronan’s Shoes” by Astrid Amara is one of two stories by this author, both highly enjoyable. This one is a fairy tale pastiche, and has a curse, an evil witch, and true love. What more can you want? How about clever writing, humour and good pacing? Yep, all that. Great fun, and a nice ‘aaaahhh’ at the end.

“Los Conversos” by Jesse Sandoval is a bitterly beautiful story set in an alternative universe, about Christian converts from Judaism and Islam struggling for acceptance in a Catholic Church dominated society. Playing cleverly and poetically with the different meanings of ‘convert’, this one will leave stunning images in your mind, and give you much to ponder.

“Release in A Minor” by Tenea D. Johnson is a short, beautiful myth about a god of music and storms. Small and perfectly formed.

“The Coming of the Fourth Dawn” by Jeremiah Job Levine is another high fantasy story, really too short for the world building, but there’s a quest, an evil witch (yes, another one), a monster to be slain, and true love. Standard fare, but not unappealing, with an nice injection of ironic humour. Not exactly memorable but if the author were to work the idea up into a novel, I’d read it without hesitation.

“Fag Hag” by Lawrence Schimel first appeared in his anthology Two Boys In love which I reviewed here. A story about a solitary witch and the young man she binds in duty to her, I said of it then, “Unusual for having a female narrator, if not a particularly likeable one, this was one of the few stories in the book [Two Boys In love ] that drew me in somewhat. The witch’s embittered lonely thoughts, for once, felt authentic, and the distant writing style was a better fit for this kind of story and the narrator’s closed off mentality. Not exactly enjoyable, but more thoughtful than many of the other stories.”

“Remember” by Astrid Amara is the second story by her in this volume, and I am convinced she’s destined for greatness. This one is a pastiche of Victorian ghost stories, with a distinct whiff of The Illusionist about it. A man is sent to seek a magician to find a set of heirloom rings, without which he cannot wed. The only thing is – he doesn’t love his fiancée nor does he wish to be wed, but he needs to do so to gain an inheritance. His search for the magician seems fruitless – or is it? A tidy little mystery and love story, handsomely done, maybe a tad too neatly wrapped up, but good fun.

“Crossing the Distance” by Erin MacKay is the first of two novellas in the anthology and tells the story of two ‘White Children’, destined from infancy to be telepathic bond mates, and used as communication ‘relays’ in bitter warfare between rival kingdoms. I loved this to bits – I loved the concept, I loved the characters and the interactions, and the love story was beguiling, even if the idea of ‘soul mates’ tended to be overused in m/m fiction (not least by yours truly!) Beautiful and violent, it’s clever and well-written. Another author to watch out for.

“Feral Machines” by Ginn Hale reminded me very strongly of Silent Running, since it features a slightly obsessed ecological conservationist, an almost hopeless task keeping his ‘world’ alive, and the company of three anthropomorphic robots (really cyborgs or synthetic organisms). This is not a bad thing at all. “Feral Machines” is a very different piece from her stunning debut with Wicked Gentleman but like that novel, this is a strongly imagined, strongly written and vivid work, with intense interactions between the two protagonists working against apparently impossible odds. There’s love, sacrifice, humour and tenderness, and she revisits the theme of the hidden humanity inside in an apparently monstrous persona. Again the path to love is skirted over just a bit too easily, but that’s a minor quibble. Another one to leave you wondering about the world and what happened next. Worth the price of admission alone, but fortunately, this novella is in fitting and excellent company.

The anthology features a striking, yet discreet cover by the talented Dawn Kimberling and the layout and type face are very pleasant to read. Three duds in a solid collection like this are insignificant, especially compared to many other anthologies issued in this genre. There are some stunning works in this book, true classics, and it comes very highly recommended.