Review: Hemovore

This week, I come to you with a lesson in expectation.

Hemovore is a book that’s been showing up on my suggested reads for some time.  I decided to give it a shot because, as I have mentioned before, I have a weakness for gay vampires.  And ultimately, Hemovore disappointed me.

It’s not that this is a bad book.  Far from it, in fact.  Hemovore contains a well constructed world, where vamprism is the result of a virus contagious via any infected fluid.  The writing is clean and easy to follow. It’s got great pacing divided between action and tender moments of character growth.  It features a relationship both very sweet and fascinating in the issues it addresses.  There’s actually a lot to recommend this book.

But it just doesn’t feel much like a vampire book to me.  In spite of the sexy pale men with aversion to sunlight.  In spite of all the blood drinking.  For me, something was missing from Hemovore.  And when I realized that, I had a good think on just what it is I expect out of vampires.

The first thing is a sense of seduction.  I like vampires who are alluring and hypnotic.  If I’m craving vampires, I’m craving some seduction.  There wasn’t really an seduction in this book.  The characters both care about each other deeply from the start, so the relationship that develops over the course of the book is much more of a discussion than a seduction for anyone.  Which I really, really like, but wasn’t what I was expecting.

Also, this novel has no sexy biting.  No biting at all really.  If you can’t have seduction in a vampire novel, you ought to at least have sexy biting.  There’s blood sharing, but all via syringes and a little clinical.

In general, Hemovore doesn’t read like a supernatural or urban fantasy.  Yes, there are vampires and they have super strength.  Towards the end, we get some nifty vampiric powers showing up.  But there’s minimal magic in this world, just a fair amount of “This world works like x, we’re not going to bring in science to explain it, either you’re buying the world works like x or you’re not.”  The first two thirds of the book reads much more like a social science fiction or a spy thriller.  Not that these are bad things, but again.  Expectations.  The book did not meet my expectations.  These were not the vampires I was looking for.

That said, let’s talk about the book that I did actually read!

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of things going on Hemovore that I really liked and found fascinating.  The relationship resonated with me, as the two characters have worked together for years, the kind of close work where it basically feels like they live together, even if they each keep their own apartment.  Both are attracted to each other, but neither speaks of this fact or does anything about it.  The reason being, Jonathan Varga is V positive (a vampire) and Mark Jensen is not infected.  Catching the virus that causes vamprism ends in a painful, unsexy death without a second try for 85% of the people who catch it.  Therefore, as attractive as they find each other, neither is going to do anything about it, because the risks are too high.  They keep things distant, boss and employee, both pretending that’s all they are toe ach other.

And then, things change.  A series of events are set off that make them both re-evaluate their relationship and what they want out.

Ultimately, this is a novel about intimacy.  Physical intimacy is difficult, nearly impossible without spreading the disease.  The virus dies quickly when exposed to open air, but can survive several hours in fluid outside the body.  Sexual contact spreads the disease.  Kissing spreads the disease.  Sharing a glass can spread the disease.  Your partner drooling in their sleep could even spread the disease.  Basically, vamprism is like mono, only deadly.  The parallels with HIV are obvious, especially since the book features gay protagonists.

Unable to have normal physical intimacy weighs heavily on both characters’ minds, especially as they open up to admit the very real affection and desire between them.  They fight with whether they can make this work or if they’re just setting themselves up for disappointment.  How much of themselves can they share with each other, when so many things stand between them.

My favorite part of the novel is when our protagonists spend a few days with some mixed positive/negative couples and we get to see what kind of a lifestyle they have to live.  Separate bathrooms. A latex curtain between them when they sleep. I wish that our protagonists had spent a little longer here, discussing and negotiating if the two of them could handle it.  Instead, the story moves on to a different, and inevitable, phase of the relationship.  Still, I am a freak and really like complicated and awkward negotiations.

Honestly, I wonder how necessary some of these precautions are, just how infections the virus is.  It isn’t so contagious that it spreads via a positive sneezing, or else they’d all have to wear face masks. Fun fact, mono CAN spread via sneezing, though it isn’t common.  Mono is less contagious than the common cold and I get the feeling that the hemovore virus is less contagious than mono, but more contagious than HIV.  Which means that while unprotected sex is definitely out unless you’re willing to die, some of the other precautions taken might be extreme.  Considering the climate of suspicion and paranoia around the virus (it’s only been rampant in the USA for ten years), the extreme measures make sense.

And hey, better safe than sorry, when sorry means the person who loves you enough to live in this ridiculous lifestyle ends up dying horrible in a matter of months if you’re not safe.

Anyway, digression aside, it’s a fun book.  Hemovore contains little explicit sex (one scene), but has the careful unfolding of a meaningful relationship with lots of action and suspense to drive the story forward.  Worth a read, just check your vampiric expectations at the door and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

Find Hemovore here!

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Review: Sappho’s Fables Volume I

You know what I haven’t done in a while?  Book reviews!

You know what there isn’t a lot of in the world?  Really good fantasy lesbian writing that has excellent and sexually charged chemistry between female characters.

Hell, it’s hard just to find any writing that pairs up two women.  And what I can find is mostly written with an emphasis on character interaction.  Maybe because the majority of writing focusing on female pairings that I’ve read is teen.

Except, no, that’s not an excuse.  There are plenty of teen novels that have entire sections dedicated to how steamy hot the male protagonist’s body is and how the female protagonist really just wants to jump his bones or at least have an extended makeout session.  There is plenty of sexual chemistry there, even if there isn’t any explicit sex.  Yet, every time the pairing is two women, everything is practically chaste.  I could be reading stories about forbidden friendship that just happens to occasionally involves kissing.

Meanwhile, het writing and male/male writing is bursting with sex and sexy times.  You can’t turn around without running into some description of handsome men and the beautiful men (or ukes) who love them.  But put two ladies, with two sets of boobs in the same room?  Shit, that’s too many boobs for chemistry to exist!

When I realized this problem, I set out to see what lesbian writing I could find, especially some with real sexual tension and chemistry between women.  I… came up with very little, but haven’t yet given up the chase.

One thing I did discover was Sappho’s Fables Volume I.  This is a collection of three novellas written by Elora Bishop and Jennifer Diemer based on fairy tales with lesbian protagonists.  I wouldn’t call them re-tellings, exactly, more like riffs.  The heart of each fairy tale is present and obvious, but at the same time, the stories take off in their own directions.  Entire worlds are created, developed, and unfolded within the novellas.  And they are fun.

Also, yes, there’s actual chemistry and attraction between female protagonists.  Hallelujah.  Since there’s only three, I’ll give a few thoughts on each novella.  Each novella can also be bought separately, if you only find yourself interested in one of them.

Seven
Hands down, this novella has the best chemistry of the three.  Sparks fly between a revised step mother and the titular Snow White.  Also, don’t worry, incest is not actually a thing in this story.  It quite nicely ducks even the “we’re not really related by blood but still” awkwardness you can find in step parent/step child pairings.

Braided
I’ve never liked Rapunzel much as a story, it’s just never had much flare to it.  This novella, though, takes the whole thing into an epic quest across bizarre and fantastic landscapes in pursuit of escaping the binds of fate. I loved the world sculpted and I loved the main protagonist, bad attitude and all.

Crumbs
Of all three of the stories, this one by far leaves the entire fairy tale model in the dust.  It’s Hansel and Gretel.  With zombies.  Yeah.  Chew on that. That said, with such a fantastic premise, the ending wasn’t quite what I wanted. All three of these stories, being fairy tales at heart, end with a Happily Ever After. This one… this one I wanted to see go outright dark. Still, it’s a fascinating setup that’s well worth the read and a very conflicted narrator who keeps the tension up through the whole story.

Review: So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction

I am tackling a great mystery today: How the hell do you review a collection of short stories?

The inevitable truth of short story anthologies is that there are going to be some stories you really like and some you really hate. Personal taste can be so selective and even when a story is good, that doesn’t mean the reader is going to enjoy it. So do you judge by your favorite story or by how much you hated or do you do it by averages? I hated three stories, but really liked four, and the other six were fine, so does that make it a good collection?

The mark of a good editor is not just in finding quality stories in the piles of slush, but finding stories that work together. Space is a premium in every anthology, every story has to count. A really good editor might pick a slightly lower quality story over a slight higher quality one, if the lower quality one fits the theme better and resonates well with other stories already slated for the collection. I don’t envy editors their task, but some people return to the task, again and again, putting forth collection after wonderful collection.

So Fey is a collection of stories centered around crossing queer characters with literal fairies. Obviously inspired by the usage of ‘fairy’ as a pejorative term for homosexuals, this anthology embraces and explores the connection between homosexuality and the fey. Gay and lesbian protagonists in a variety of places in their life (from confused teens uncertain of where they fall on the spectrum to aging gay men trying to cope with that issue) come head to head with fey.

What I like best about this anthology is that there are very few good fairies in the collection. There are some, (Mr. Grimm’s Faery Tale and Charming, a Tale of True Love come to mind) and these are good stories. But most of the fairies we see are ambiguous in their morals to outright dangerous. The anthology features stories with the Wild Hunt, fairies trapping and tricking mortals, and the difficulties of mortals and fey trying to love one another.

I couldn’t be happier. I get so sick of sugar coated fairies, wish granting sweet tempered beings who represent nature or some lost human innocence or whatever. I like my fairies with teeth, with dark sides and inhuman perspectives on matters. I like them unearthly and other and above all else, dangerous. And that’s what makes many of these stories so thrilling. They’re about people coming to terms with their sexuality or other aspects of themselves while in real danger, physical, spiritual, or otherwise. It’s exciting, it’s interesting, and I recommend the anthology for anyone with a fondness for fantasy, queerness, and/or fairies.

A few of my personal favorites are as follows:
Dark Collection by Luisa Prieto
Year of the Fox by Eugie Foster (which I’ve read elsewhere, but I still adore it)
Ever So Much More Than Twenty by Joshua Lewis

If you like gay stories, but aren’t a fan of fairy tales (the puns, please send help), then check out other works by Steve Berman. He’s edited a number of collections out, including annual collections of some of the best gay speculative fiction printed each year (Wilde Stories) and another yearly for lesbian speculative fiction (The Heiress of Russ). On top of those, he has various themed collections which he edits. I picked up Suffered From the Night, which centers on the idea of queering Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the hopes that it will contain dark, dangerous, and gay vampires.

I have a weakness, okay?

Review: Lord of the White Hell (OR I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie)

Oh dear internet, why do I always pick the expensive hobbies?

Good, well written gay characters in original settings are hard to find.  If you want to find them, you have to start looking outside the box.  By which I mean small press publishers.

Now, I love small press publishers, because they’re more willing to take a chance and publish in niche material than big publishers.  The downside of small press is, well, it’s small and less likely to have many copies running around, which means less likely for books to be found at your local library.  Which, due to finances, is currently my primary source of books.

Luckily, we love in the fantastic era of digital press and ebooks can be delivered anywhere and without shipping and handling. Yay!  But small press ebooks are not that cheap.  They aren’t over priced, but small press can’t offer their books at $.99 a pop because they know other book sales will cover any loss made.  Small press has to sell the books at market price, just to make back their expenses.  Thus, my lament.  Why the pricy hobbies?  Why?

Ginn Hale is a name that I’ve seen bopping around for a bit.  It wasn’t until recently that I actually picked up some of her stuff to read, due to discovering that one book of hers, Wicked Gentlemen, won a Gaylactic Spectrum award.  And with good reason, this pair of novellas paints a fascinating world of half demons, prejudice, priests, and the balancing act between what we desire and what we can obtain.

But I didn’t get to Wicked Gentlemen until after I picked up the first of Lord of the White Hell, which I lucked into finding at my local library (yay!).  I had to send the library on a hunt to find the book, because while it was in their catalogue, it had somehow vanished off of their shelves.  But I got it, I read it, I was enthralled, and, ultimately frustrated.

Lord of the White Hell is really one book published in two volumes.  Both are thick, respectable books, but the first cuts off at something of a cliff hanger without resolving any of the central plot elements.

And the library did not have the second book.

Thus ensued my lament.  My conflict. 

I gave in.  I bought the ebook.

I have no regrets.

Lord of the White Hell has many of the ear marks of a yaoi.  The plot focuses on Kiram, the first of his ethnic group to attend the elite school of the ethnic majority.  At the school, Kiram meets his very hot sempai upperclassman, Javier, a duke who is cursed with the White Hell.  Kiram initially assumes all this hell talk is a joke being played at the foreign kid’s expense, but as the book unfolds, he discovers that the White Hell is very real and that Javier and his family are suffering for a horrible curse.  A curse that Kiram swears to break, any way he can.

Yeah, I think I watched that yaoi back during my love affair with anime in the late nineties.  And yet, Hale has no fear of leaving not only playing with the stereotypes, but leaving yaoi territory far behind her. 

  • Kiram is drawn into the struggle of Javier and his curse, not because he finds Javier really hot, but mostly through other people at the school whom Kiram comes to care about.  Javier is not the only person whom Kiram cares about in the book and Kiram is not motivated only by how hot is he for Javier’s ass.  In fact, Kiram’s motives are rich and developed.  You’d think he’s an actual character and not just a sex symbol. …Wait.
  • There is a plot.  The romance is not the extent of the plot.  And, as stated, romance is NOT the only character motivator. And, when the relationship hits hard spots, it’s because of real and genuine problems between two people of different cultures and social class.  Not dumb miscommunications, over the top drama, or any other number of contrived coitus interruptus that clutter mainstream romance, gay or straight.
  • Sometimes, Kiram tops.  Look, I’m just going to come out and state it, but this is one of my favorite facets of this book.  It’s not that Javier isn’t the seducer and isn’t often the instigator of sex.  But when it comes to sleeping with men, Kiram is WAY more experienced in the subject and is perfectly willing to show that expertise.

I enjoyed the first part, but I think the book really shines in the second half.  The first part stays closer to a common model.  It’s a fantasy land academy, complete with bullies and allies and hot upperclassmen.  It’s the story of two people coming to know each other, steadily over time, becoming friends, and then more, with school yard style plot points to keep the story moving and a bigger plot looming that never quite materializes.

Book two is a lot more daring.  It jumps straight into the big plot mentioned.  We spend a significant portion of the book outside of the magic academy, exploring cultures we haven’t seen before.  Javier and Kiram know each other at this point, or think they do, so instead the book becomes about self discovery, about the ways each of them must change to actually grow into people capable of an adult relationship.  Where book one was an enjoyable yaoi-esque romp with enough thought put into the tropes to keep me happy, book two is a fascinating exploration of culture, boundaries, and some kick ass fantasy.

I am still, however, kind of annoyed that it has to be two books.  Oh well.  Not that there isn’t enough territory covered between the two of them, but readers, be aware that if you buy one, you’ll probably want to buy the other, if only to get the actual resolve.

Anyway, you can find these books, and others by Ginn Hale, on her website.  Wicked Gentlemen is also a lot of fun, though an entirely different tone with more grit and drugs.  Less explicit sex, though, amusingly enough.  She’s also continuing to explore the world of White Hell in a new release this fall.

Yeah, I’ll be squeezing the book budget to get my hands on that too.  I’m such a sucker for good gay characters.

Review: The Bone Key

Dear internet, I have fallen in love.

I have fallen in love with one Kyle Murchison Booth.

Er.  Not a romantic love, because that would be awkward, since that I’m pretty sure he’s gay and uninterested even if not and I’m definitely gay and we probably wouldn’t actually get along if we met and he’s more than a little bit cursed besides.

But beyond all of that, internet, it is definitely love.

Kyle Murchison Booth is the main character of a series of interconnected short stories written by Sarah Monette.  One collection of short stories starring him has already been published, The Bone Key, with more stories floating around in various publications and more still yet unwritten.  (Actually, technically it’s two collections, but one collection was a limited run for a fundraiser, so pretty much impossible to find and thus not counting it.)

I’ve read Monette before, specifically her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, which devoured a month’s worth of weekends, and A Companion To Wolves, written with Elizabeth Bear.  All of which I loved and highly recommend and will probably chatter about at some point later.  But this was the first time I plunged into her short stories, probably because I never realized she had more work out.

I don’t buy many books these days.  I don’t have a lot of money and I own a sizable stack of books as it is.  Plus, any new book that I buy is one more book I have to pack up and move sometime in the next couple of years.  Thus, I practice restraint as much as I can and spend a lot of time at the local library.  When I do buy a book, it’s either one I’ve been wanting to read, but couldn’t get my hands on, or a book that I know I love enough to actually spend money on and haul it everywhere.

This past week, I bought a copy of the Bone Key.  It is one of the few that ranked joining my permanent shelves, and it achieved this ranking within a week of being read.  This doesn’t happen often.

The Bone Key is a collection of horror stories.  But it’s an understated horror, built on atmosphere and complex psychology.  This isn’t Hollywood horror, where things lunge out of closets with chainsaws and blood sputtering out of orifices as they wave chainsaws in your face.  There is, in fact, minimal gore, though many and varied horrible things happen to the characters contained in the pages.  And always, Kyle Booth is on the sidelines, horrified, terrified, and sucked in quite against his will.

The thing about Monette’s work that always strikes me is her ability to write wonderfully flawed characters which readers are either going to utterly love or utterly HATE.  She can also write characters who are quite impossible to dislike, as seen by Mildmay the Fox from the Doctrine of Labyrinths.  I am fairly sure that no one can outright hate Mildmay (and if I am wrong, do not inform me for it shall shatter my world).  But the characters she writes that truly resonate with me are the ones that can so easily be hated.  Yes, I liked Mildmay, but I was really reading for Felix, even when he was being an utter and impossible bag of dicks (which was often, see all of book three and most of two for that matter).

Booth is not detestable the way Felix is.  But not everyone is going to like Booth.  He is a weak willed, wishy-washy, and painfully passive character.  He rarely acts, he’s so dreadfully socially awkward that the reader is left wincing as he stutters his way through one agonizing social encounter after another.  He is no dashing hero who sweeps in to save the day.  In fact, in the fine tradition of horror, the day is rarely saved.  Bad things happen to, well, not always good people, but people who arguably didn’t deserve their fate.  A fate that Booth either can’t or won’t turn aside.  He is, by his own words, not really a good person.

But he tries not to be a bad one.

I think that’s a lot of why I like Kyle Booth.  He tries.  He has a deck stacked against him when it comes to interpersonal interactions and he has an unfortunate allure for the supernatural, which keeps dumping him in one situation over his head after another.  But he does try.  And he usually fails and is thus left with a mess to clean up or walk away from and a life to get back to living when it is all done.  But he continues to live, which is a testament in itself to either an impossible luck or an ability to survive that defies bravery.  And, if you read the stories in, more or less, chronological order, Booth does grow as a character.  He’ll never be the Dashing Hero, but he is slowly facing who he is. And sometimes he runs from that self knowledge, but you can’t undo the act of looking in the mirror. Slowly, subtly, and in spite of himself, I’d say he’s growing as a character.

Kyle Murchison Booth is also attracted to men and asexual.  As he is asexual, the attracted to men bit comes up rarely.  His sexuality is explicit in only two stories in The Bone Key, but it colors him subtly throughout the rest of the stories.  The theme of marriage keeps reoccurring around Booth, a theme that is complicated by a curse on his bloodline, but also by the fact that he isn’t all that interested in the first place.

I love the handling of Booth’s sexuality.  It’s not something that we are told every story.  It isn’t italicized or hoisted on a flag pole so that we definitely notice that yes, this is definitely a defining aspect of Kyle Murchison Booth.   Because Kyle Booth isn’t a Gay Character.  He’s a character who seems to only be attracted to men, if he’s attracted at all, but mostly is not interested in marrying or getting involved with someone else.  This is not always convenient for him, but it’s also not usually a central issue, not in the face of ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural.

The fact that he’s asexual also delights me.  In our romance obsessed society, asexuals are few and far between.  It’s not a positive reflection of sexuality, by any means, as Booth is not a healthy character capable of having a relationship, with a man or a woman.  But his stories have an honesty to them and the fact is, being gay/asexual is not all happy times.

The result is a character that feels real, complex, damaged, and utterly fascinating.  Not everyone is going to like him, but reading his stories becomes an experience of wandering down painful, twisted roads that some of us know too well and finding that the real monster isn’t always the supernatural.  Sometimes it is the human things, the psychological things, that are the true things to fear.

Perhaps someday Monette will write one of her complex and multi-pronged characters and I shall hate them.  Or maybe I just have a terrible tendency to like the people everyone else hates out of sheer pig headedness.  Either of these things may be true.

Until such a time, I’ll wait until she publishes more Booth and pine.  And look for other excellent gay characters to read.  When I find them, I’ll let you know, blog.

Since it is just past Christmas time, here are the links to all of the Kyle Murchison Booth stories that can currently be found online for your reading (and listening) pleasure.  They are, as far as I can tell, in chronological order.

Wait For Me

Elegy For a Demon Lover (podcast)

The Replacement

To Die For Moonlight

White Charles

The Yellow Dressing Gown