Erotic Fantastic: The Best of Circlet Press 1992-2002 (Kindle Edition) – review

Rating: 4/10 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ Title: Erotic Fantastic:  The Best of Circlet Press 1992-2002 (Kindle Edition)
Author: Multiple, Edited by Cecilia Tan
Genre: S/F, Fantasy Erotica
URL: Amazon Kindle Store
Price: U.S.$7.99
Other Information/warnings: Explicit m/m, m/f, m/m/f, violence, underage sex
Summary (from the publisher): In the first ten years of its existence, Circlet Press published over thirty anthologies and several single-author works, all the time pushing at the boundaries of sf/f and Erotica and fusing the two together. This is a collection of the very best and brightest of this unique publisher and unique genre, with twenty-five stories picked from the hundreds Circlet has put into print. Includes Francesca Lia Block, Catherine Asaro, M. Christian, Thomas S. Roche, Laura Antoniou, and many many more.  This is an updated edition for Kindle, fixing previous formatting failures.

N.B.: The review version of the book I received has only 23 short stories and not the 25 referenced in the publisher’s summary.  It is unknown if the Kindle version contains 25 stories or the 23 reviewed here.

My Review: Like all anthologies, Erotic Fantastic: The Best of Circlet Press 1992 – 2002 has its share of excellent stories.  Unfortunately, like many anthologies, it has more than its share of mediocre to downright awful tales, although to be fair, I should say that the mediocre far outweigh the horrible.  On the one hand, you have the shining moments of brilliance in pieces like Shayna Maidel, Anthem, Burning Bridges, Temporary Insanity,  and The Jail of His Mind and the Songs Within, countered with the laughable Wilderland, the practically unintelligible State, and the utterly frustrating Like a Reflection in a Mirror with No Glass.

The stories are varied, from straight-out porn to interesting social commentary, resulting in an uneven tone that hardly feels erotic, and the one very sour note that I can voice about this collection is the inclusion of Robert Kippenberg’s For the Mortals Among Us, which uses under age sex unnecessarily and presents a lesbian character in possibly the least positive light I have seen since fiction of the 40s and 50.  It feels exploitative from beginning to end.

At 344 pages, this anthology is a hefty read, and given that the tone and success of the stories varies so widely, it drags terribly. More often than not, I found my self counting pages, trying to determine how many more there were before I reached the end of a particular story (and, ultimately, the end of the anthology). Overall, the collection’s high points are wonderful, but what impressed me most about Erotic Fantastic is that more than half the stories could have (and should have) been edited out. In short, like some of the more mediocre and weaker stories within its pages, Erotic Fantastic, the collection, could have done with some judicious editing.  Then it might truly have been fantastic rather than simply unending.

Below are my thoughts on each story written immediately after I read each of them.

Milagro by Francesca Lia Block. Mixed Sexuality.  A story about a gay boy and the girl who is secretly in love with him who have one brief moment of passion.  A lovely tone and beautiful, fluid prose with some erotic touches.  An evocative, promising start to the collection that is a bit short-circuited by its cryptic ending. I’d be curious to see more of Ms. Block’s writing.

Wilderland by Reina Delacroix.  Het.  A turn on the “wolf-shifter” erotica, a nerdy computer geek woman escapes real life by becoming a wolf in a virtual game world.   What could have been a clever take on what is quickly becoming (has already become?) an erotica/romance cliché falls hopelessly short—despite competent prose–due to a heroine whose life is so utterly empty and pathetic, it becomes laughable, especially when we see how she brings her fantasy life into her real life.

State by M. Christian.  Het.  A whore and her John in a future world.  There’s a good idea in here somewhere.  Unfortunately it is buried in so much techno-babble, clunky phrasing and unintelligible “world building” that I found it pretentiously “cyberpunk” and virtually unreadable.

The Bride’s Story by Lynda J. Williams.  Het.  A male courtesan entertains a bride and her friends on her wedding eve, but always under the ever watchful eye of their Matron.   An interesting piece with a lovely fairytale feel that turns rather dark.  For me, there was little that was erotic, but the direction the author took intrigued me and left me slightly disturbed.  An interesting piece.

Cyberfruit Swamp by Raven Kaldera.  Trans.  A look at a trans-sexual/trans-gender Dom in search of a sub in a future world.  Extremely well written, this piece succeeds in areas which the earlier “State” failed miserably.  The author creates a world and a future-speak which, while initially confusing, is explained gracefully without ever feeling like an info dump.  There are flaws: the protagonist is not particularly likeable, prone to define himself by the prosthetic phalluses he adores, and a deus ex machina resolution, but they are overcome by the prose, the devotion to character voice and the mild arc of the protagonist who is just a little different at the end of the story than when he began.    The D/s violence may be a squick for some (as it was for me), but this is an interesting story about tolerance (or lack thereof) through the eyes of an intolerant man.

Like a Reflection in a Mirror with No Glass by Renee M. Charles.  Mixed sexualities.  A woman donates sexual responses and more to a Syntho-Mate, a futuristic love doll.  A nice premise that ultimately gets derailed by anachronisms, repetition of details, verbosity and a structure that tends to annoy.  Additionally, the author just adores long sentences, ellipses and parentheticals, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know when to stop (however, when a 14 line paragraph starts out with four lines devoted to)…ellipses (interrupted by a six-line parenthetical)…only to resume the last four lines in (annoying) ellipses, you begin to wonder if the author knew what they were trying to say (or were perhaps attempting to create a stream-of-consciousness feeling), but the end result is simply annoyance. As well, the structure–flashback, present, flashback, present, flashback within flashback, present—drains the reader of any involvement. Ultimately this just left me plain annoyed.

Temporary Insanity by Thomas S. Roche.  Indeterminate sexuality.  A porn writer degrades himself (herself?) by taking a day job answering phones…or is it something else?  I’m not sure what the author’s intention was with this piece but its lusciously over-the-top purple prose was an absolute delight to read, charming and funny.  The prose and the myriad of names for every sexual body part or toy was infectious, and I walked away feeling as if the genre and writers of erotica were gently (and with affection) being lampooned.  Who knows if that is what was intended but it is what I took away from it.  This story is the erotica equivalent of a drag queen:  bold, brash, over the top but ultimately witty and insightful.

Shayna Maidel by Laura Antoniou.  Lesbian.   A young Jewish woman takes a trip to visit family with her lesbian lover and an even bigger secret.  Funny, intelligent and wry, Shayna Maidel is a unique take on the tired old literary staple that is vampirism.  While not particularly erotic, this is an expertly written story that just excels on every other level, from the first word to the last.  Possibly one of the best short stories I’ve read all year.

For the Mortals Among Us by Robert Knippenberg.  Mixed sexuality.  Underage sex.  A young girl’s parents commit her to a “sanatorium” for sexual indiscretions.  A little bit of Nabakov’s Lolita is mixed with a style so evocative of Daphne du Maurier that you damn near expect the lead character to say “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” resulting in an intriguing start.  However, it is sabotaged by a story that lacks direction and contains undefined characters.  The heart of the story is the narrator’s interaction with Paul, a thirteen year old who believes in fairies, yet, more than 50% of the story is devoted to the narrator’s pointless (well, except it provides the “erotic” elements of the story) manipulation of a lesbian girl who really has nothing to do with the “plot.”  The lesbianism is clearly gratuitous, added simply for titillation, and while underage sex normally doesn’t squick me, I found that equally gratuitous, serving no real purpose to the story.  It feels exploitative on both counts. Adding to my annoyance is the fact that the “straight” characters are ultimately released from the institution, while the lesbian remain incarcerated. Conscious or not, the result is a story that tries your patience and subtly portrays lesbians as characters to be used (and who enjoy being used) and locked away.  This won’t win any ribbons at a gay pride event.

Someday My Prince Will Come by Evan Hollander.  Het.  A sexual fairy tale.  Although I’ve seen better takes on erotic fairy tales, this story is a pleasant, humorous little diversion.

Gone To the Spider Woman by Beverly Heinze.  Lesbian.  I haven’t a clue how to summarize this story because, while it is clear that the author has created a very detailed social and political world, the author has neglected to fill us in on what it is.  There is talk of Pribbolites and consulates and Hokkidu and nullions, but only the author can know what this all means because an explanation, some frame of reference, is completely lacking for the reader to understand the world and, frankly, what it has to do with this story.  It is almost as if the author has this wonderful world concocted in her head that amuses and intrigues her, a world she expects us to understand simply because it is all so clear to her.  Writing wise, the prose is acceptable, albeit the author does over use the “like” construction for imagery and often uses it in close proximity within the narrative.  “…like thin lava rivulets….like pearly eggs…” There is likely some social commentary lurking in here somewher.  It’s a shame we’re never privy enough to the world to understand what it is.

Anthem by Lee Crittenden.  Lesbian.  Two clones meet, though sexual contact between such beings is “perverse.” Moody without being overwhelming, a thoroughly enjoyable piece about growing beyond who you are told (or who you believe) you should be.  Fluid prose, rife with description, this little gem never becomes burdened by too many “speculative” details and, more importantly, knows not to overstay its welcome.  One of the superior pieces in the collection.

Pipe Dreams by Shariann Lewitt.  Het.  A goth rocker resurrects Mary Shelley as his muse so he can write that damn second album.  Reminiscent of some of the earlier short stories by Poppy Brite, this story lacks Brite soft touch with prose and expert pacing. The author sets up the protagonist as more market image than true goth, a choice that effectively neuters the over-the-top purple prose, making it cloying, which, in turn, ultimately dragged the pace of the story to a screeching halt.  When the author finally gets to the meat of the story it becomes more interesting, but then it’s over.  In the end, it all seemed a bit stale and flat.

The Jail of His Mind and the Songs Within
by Eric Del Carlo.  Gay/Indeterminate.  A man becomes the cell mate of a futuristic terrorist and attempts to infiltrate his mind.  Though there’s little here to classify as erotic or erotica, this story is a page turner. The author manages to create a vivid setting and sympathetic characters with a minimum of words.  There’s no purple prose here.  It’s well crafted and paced just right.  Though it never feels manipulative, it is a story about manipulation, about winning at all costs, about the toll it takes on the individual.  This is an author I’d be interested in reading again.

Day Journey, With Stories by Jason Rubis.  Het. Bondage.  A case of mistaken identity on a day trip leads to remembrances tender and erotic.  A pleasing enough read but given that the entire story is the narrator remembering stories being told to her in her past, there is very little to connect with and therefore little to make the piece memorable.

The Specialist by Lauren P. Burka. Mixed sexualities.  S/M, D/s.  In a future world where the sex trade is a sought-after position, a sub attempts to attain his degree in the Dolorous Arts. Despite a lead male character that reads more like a woman with a penis, this story is competently written.  It is clear that the author had devised a very rich world which, I am guessing, is the subject of other works.  The drawback is that this story is trying to be too many things at once:  (a) a speculative future with touches of socio-political world building, (b) an S/M story, (c) a traditional D/s story, (d) a porn piece, (e) a romance, (f) a gay story and (g) a het story.  The whole damn kitchen sink is in there and so the piece never really develops any focus or character, the author becoming the clichéd jack of all trades but master of none.  Had there been some focus, some editing, it might have proved interesting.  As it is, however, there is nothing in style or voice to make this a memorable piece.

Burning Bridges by Lawrence Schimel.  Gay.  Extremely well balanced and crafted, with a likeable protagonist who carries just enough baggage to make him interesting and enough history to make him full and real. It’s all handled with a light hand; nothing is overwrought here, though in lesser hands it could have certainly gone that way.  It is an extremely satisfying story about forgiveness of self and others, about moving on and perhaps even about letting go what has come before.

Autoerotic by William Marden.  Het.  A man and his machine joined as one, prowling the Hot Strip for a little female tail-pipe.  An interesting concept, erotica as futuristic car chase.  Unfortunately the chase is not particularly thrilling and the excruciating snail’s pace of the first half of the story drains any excitement or eroticism right out of it.

Liquid Kitten by Jamie Joy Gatto.  Lesbian.  Stylistic and well written, this piece had a distinctly noir feel to it that is very appealing and is somewhat experimental in nature, without any plot or specific focus really to summarize.   This story is more a journey of sensation and should be read as such.  Although I liked the piece, the narrator engaging the reader as a character in the story had the effect of distancing me from the piece rather than drawing me in as I believe the author intended.

Heir Apparent by Gary Bowen.  Mixed Sexuality.  A warrior learns that very often it is the woman behind the man who has the real power.  A thoroughly enjoyable jaunt into gender and power that manages, without missing a note, to be erotic on both the hetero- and homosexual levels.  The dedication to tone and style is absolute and a plot device used to excess in the Shakespearean era is given new life in a completely entertaining, excellent piece.

The Limo by Reed Manning.  Het.  An artificially intelligent limo with stories to tell.  Ten pages of practically non-stop sex that is actually justified by a very clever, well-executed concept.  A charming story with an easy prose style with het sex (not my personal thing) that actually is erotic.

Consumption by Mason Powell.  Gay.  Whereas Shayna Maidel had an interesting take on vampires, Mason’s Powell’s Consumption offers up every vampire cliché on the planet.  The story has inconsistent characters, the most inventive (not in a good way) use of punctuation I think I’ve ever seen, men who read very much like women, and a structure that is abandoned half way through the story.  I should have known that I was in trouble when a policeman shows up early in the piece for the sole purpose of presenting an info-dump monologue in order to propel the protagonist forward.  Throw in some bad dialogue, characters who suffer from consumption (for no real reason) and an immensely stereotyped presentation of D/s relationships and you’ve got all the makings for a grand mess.

Soul of Light by Catherine Asaro.  m/m/f menage.  Really fascinating world building, highly likable characters and a very polished prose style make this an excellent entry.  The only quibble I had is that I was so intrigued by the world and characters the author created, that I grew tired of the sex getting in the way of a place in which I wanted to spend more time.