Fantastic has several meanings. In the context of Cecilia Tan's new anthology, the word refers to fiction which has elements of the supernatural or the futuristic. At the same time, “fantastic” also serves as a superlative, a synonym to “wonderful,” “exceptional” or (in today's parlance) “awesome.” I have no hesitation in using the word in its second sense to describe this collection. Cecilia Tan and Circlet have winnowed down a set of more than five hundred submissions to present eighteen of the best erotic science fiction and fantasy stories that I, at least, have read in a long time.
This anthology is noteworthy both for its originality and its diversity. The tales range from Arinn Dembo's exquisitely lyrical “Monsoon” to Thomas Roche's hilarious satire, “The Night the New Hog Croaked, Or the Lascivious Dr. Blonde: A Romance”. Kal Cobalt's “The Lift” is pure cyberpunk, set in a world in which the lines between human and machine have become tragically blurred. “The Caretaker,” by Fauna Sara, offers a deliciously traditional fantasy world inhabited by unicorns and their virgins. “The Bridge,” Connie Wilkins' contribution, gives us a war-scarred veteran who encounters the mythical Green Man, while Catherine Lundoff's “Twilight” presents a sassy, modern half-vampire who meets her match in the sexy descendant of a legendary vampire slayer.
Several of the stories contemplate the distance, or lack thereof, between man and animal. In Robert Knippenberg's “And What Rough Beasts,” a faddish treatment that allows humans to become part animal results in the gradual disappearance of homo sapiens. Jason Rubis' enigmatic and disturbing “Circe House” considers transformation from human to animal, from male to female and back, as a sort of extreme fetish.
Any contemporary volume of erotica is likely to include some BDSM, and this collection is no exception. However, in the hands of these Circlet authors, the themes of surrender as a gateway to freedom; pain as a precursor to pleasure, become newly exciting. Corbie Petulengro's “The Harrowing” concerns an evil sorceress who exacts a ransom of sexual servitude from a brave female warrior, teaching her young slave how to accept her craving for submission and suffering. “Marked,” by Cody Nelson, one of my favorite stories in a book full of candidates, presents an odd plague that confers heightened sensuality and sensitivity upon its sufferers while at the same time condemning them to horrible pain if they touch each other.
“Zach forcefully unclenched his teeth and slowed his shallow breathing. He rubbed his aching cock against the mattress and felt its steady throbbing. He moved his hips rhythically under Brendan's hand. He let the pain wash through him, felt its circuit flow from point of contact to point of contact, butt to belly to breast to arm to hand. He felt the electric pricks and tingles and bites. And he relaxed his mind and invited the pain in.
Something changed then. The pain didn't go away and didn't abate, not one bit. But it was no longer something to be feared and shunned. It was searing and gorgeous and wonderful, and Zack found his body racked with laughing sobs at the joy of it.”
In the end, Zack is cured – only to realize that he still wants the lust and the pain that he has left behind.
There are many more wonderful stories in this volume. “Music from My Bones,” by Anya Levin, explores a different kind of submission, in which a woman allows her body to be played as an instrument in a performance of sexual ecstasy. Jean Roberta's “Smoke” entertains the notion that Lucifer was a woman, with all the attendant implications. “Nocturnal Emissions,” by Joe Nobel, is a delightfully sensual chronicle of an elderly Christian priest in the sixteenth century who comes face to face with the old gods and his own suppressed carnal desires.
“The Gantlet,” by B. Lynch Black, offers a parable about the dangers of too much control, set in a classic sci-fi dystopia. Renee M. Charles' “Opening the Veins of Jade” gives us oriental magic and feminine power. Argus Marks' “Copperhead Renaissance” is a creepily erotic picture of mutual addiction. “Venus Rising,” by Diane Kepler, takes us into the familiar territory of android sex toys, but adds an ironic twist. Last, but hardly least, Carolyn and Steve Vakesh offer the clever, funny “Capture, Courting and Copulation: Contemporary Human Mating Rituals and the Etiology of Human Aggression”, part of the dissertation research of a young dragon sociobiologist. (“We are educated, politically correct dragons. We do not eat humans anymore.”)
Normally when I review anthologies, I don't mention every story. Usually there are at least one or two that are better left in the dark. Often I want to allow the readers to discover some of the tales on their own. In the case of this collection, every author deserves a mention, for all of the tales are exceptional for their craft as well as their creativity.
Best Fantastic Erotica is, indeed, fantastic. I'm hardly surprised, since every Circlet anthology that I have read or reviewed deserves the superlative. For Cecilia Tan, every Circlet Press book is a personal labor of love. It shows.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Circlet Press. Strangely enough, I don’t think I’ve ever written for them before. Every time I read one of their anthologies I’m struck with a serious case of writer’s envy and reader’s delight. Fantastic Erotica was enough to send me into green-eyed rapture.
Fantastic. We tend to use it as a superlative, and that fits this anthology, but fantastic, according to the free Dictionary, is also “Quaint or strange in form, conception, or appearance, OR unrestrainedly fanciful; extravagant.” That fits too. Each of these stories introduces you to the other, where the other is a world, a people, a person. Some are similar in many ways to our world, but the one where we took a left at Albuquerque, fell out of the rabbit hole rather than into it, and stepped through a looking glass. Science fiction and fantasy loving me was spellbound.
Normally I pick three or four stories in an anthology to talk about, but this is near to impossible as it seems that every story was in my top picks. South sea pirate adventures! A sentient sex automaton. Near future dystopia! The fae. Space and other vast reaches of nature. Vampires. Magic and technology, viruses and things that bump and grind in the night! Miss Mary Bennett from Pride and Prejudice is the heroine of her own story? Oh yes, please! A rift jumper who dies many times and lives to tell about it. The Eldritch Horror sitting at a bar! (okay, confession, I do have a favorite, and this one is it. Blame my love of the weird and things that make me cover my eyes but peer through spread fingers) Call those incongruous but it seems entirely consistent to me to love well-crafted stories. And the great thing is that you too can read and enjoy each of these and maybe love one a little more than the others and you won’t be wrong.
Table of Contents:
The Beauty of Broken Glass by Frances Selkirk
The Succubus by Elizabeth Schechter
Enslaved by Kierstin Cherry
Lawman by Angela Caperton
The Pirate from the Sky by Sacchi Green
Rescue Wounds by Kal Cobalt
A Woman of Uncommon Accomplishment by Elizabeth Reeve
Navigator by Kathleen Tudor
At The Crossroads by Monique Poirier
Catch and Release by Sunny Moraine
Mirror by Clarice Clique
A Vision In X-Ray and Visible Light by Nobilis Reed
Wood by David Sklar
Devil’s Masquerade by Michael M. Jones
Fences by David Hubbard
The Many Little Deaths of Cicilia Long by Shanna Germain
The Dancer’s War by N.K. Jemisin
Ink by Bernie Mojzes
Ota Discovers Fire by Vinnie Tesla
As the title suggests, there are queens in this anthology: imperious women who expect to be obeyed and who openly seek carnal knowledge of wenches and princesses. What damsel could refuse them, and what man would dare intervene? However, the most fascinating characters in these stories are the witches, magical women who bend reality to their will and who recognize other women like themselves. There are some witch-queens here who combine characteristics of both, but in any contest of Who Is Sexiest of Them All, the resourcefulness of the witches beats the regal panache of the queens hands down.
This mini-collection of erotic fairy tales from Circlet Press is a companion volume to Like a Prince, a gay-male counterpart. Both these e-books have almost-identical introductions by editor Rachel Kincaid, who explains the special appeal of stories in this genre:
These stories are fun and sexy and clever, but they are also important. The original Grimm's fairytales were set without exception in a world of compulsory heterosexuality; even worse than being ostracized or punished, queer people didn't even exist. These stories are our way of writing ourselves back into our cultural consciousness; of making sure that the values that we're imbibing include us and our desire in a positive light -- a practice that's necessary no matter how many times it's already been done.
These stories are all deliciously twisted versions of familiar stories, some featuring compelling characters and some with clever plots that wind their convoluted way to a happy ending. My favorite character of the bunch is the witch/stepmother in "Mirror" by Clarice Clique. In this story, the magical mirror that shows the beauty of Snow White to her jealous stepmother has become a metaphor for the similarities between the witch, self-exiled from the world of men, and the motherless girl who has always been aware of the witch in herself.
After the witch in this story has sought out Snow White's father, the king, and bewitched him into marriage, she leaves him drugged by a potion and seeks out Snow White in her bedchamber. To her surprise, the girl doesn't panic at the sight of the terrifying stranger at her bedside. Snow White explains:
"I try, every day, I try so hard to be good, to earn the praise and acceptance of those around me. But I've always known what I really am. That's how I know what you are. We are the same. I'm not scared of you. I'm scared of myself."
This Snow White, who doesn't hesitate to become the playmate of all seven dwarfs before the witch, her nemesis, catches up with her yet again, is far from a passive maiden. She can give pleasure as well as accept rough treatment. In some sense, she is wiser than the witch, who comes to realize that love is not her undoing; it is a newly-discovered source of power.
"Queen's Jewel," by A.D.R. Forte, features a similarly resourceful young woman who couldn't bear to be given to an old man in an arranged marriage. Her first-person account begins when a queen is directing her maids to help transform the narrator into a gowned and coifed seductress after she arrived, lost and bedraggled, at the castle door.
As the center of attention for a curious, sympathetic court, the narrator steals the heart of the queen's son, a wilful prince who has never found a princess to his taste. Will the strange visitor settle for marriage to a young man instead of an old man? Not exactly. But her presence in the castle gives the queen a perfect excuse to "test" her guest in ways that satisfy them both.
"Gretel's Dilemma" by Kaysee Renee Robichaud is a more playful story, written in a breezier style. In this version of "Hansel and Gretel," Hansel is a clueless twin brother who manfully tries to "rescue" Gretel from a Mistress-and-servant relationship that thrills her to the core. As annoying as he can be, Hansel is her blood kin, reminder of the only family she has ever known. Like many a modern-day woman, Gretel thinks she must choose between the love of her family and a new relationship in which Gretel discovers a new sexual identity. Needless to say, the witch's desire to "eat" the tender flesh of children in the traditional story is turned into a sexual joke in this one.
"After the Hunt" by Michael M. Jones is a romantic comedy that combines elements from several folktales. Set in the Black Forest of Germany, it involves a fractured kingdom, a tomboy princess with eleven female attendants who can all pass as huntsmen in the service of a king, an inconvenient fiancé, and a droll, talking lion who turns out to be under a curse. King Matthias finds himself engaged to two women: to Princess Sophie, who still wears the promise ring he gave her when both were children, and to Princess Tatiana, whom he promised to marry for political reasons. As everyone else in the situation can see, however, he doesn't really want to be married to a princess at all. And the apparent rivalry of the two women barely disguises other responses. What to do? The solution becomes clearer as the story winds to a climax (or several), and all the loose ends are tied up in a way that looks impressively uncontrived.
"The Stepmother's Girl, a Cinderella Story" by Quatre Grey is an intense BDSM fantasy which focuses more on the dynamics of a relationship between a Dominant older femme and a submissive younger butch than on the dysfunctional family of the original story. In this first-person version, the "Cinderella" character sees herself reflected in the eyes of her new stepmother soon after she arrives:
Lips the color of a dried rose curl at the edge as you smile, intrigued by this new toy, young, pure, boyish and eager. What servants are needed when a strong girl is willing to do the work?
The narrator wants nothing more than to please her Mistress, and stepmother is delighted as her servant passes increasingly harder tests of loyalty and endurance.
These stories vary considerably in style and tone, and each casts a different spell. Tales of strong women subverting predicted outcomes never grow stale. If woman/woman sex appeals to you at all, this collection is sure to enchant.
Steampunk. If the word conjures up nothing in your imagination, then you probably don’t read many graphic novels or follow trends in science fiction. The definition is a bit hard to pin down, although editors J Blackmore and C. Tan do a fine job in their intros to this anthology. Rather than restate what they’ve said, I can give examples: Wild Wild West, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the flashback scenes in Torchwood. Generally set in the Victorian Age, steampunk often includes anachronisitc (out of its time) scientific devices.
What’s so hot about that? We think of the Victorian Age as being a time of great sexual repression, and it was, but Queen Victoria was a randy old gal (guess who a Prince Albert cock piercing is named after?) and her subjects followed suit – using extreme public prudery to mask rather deviant private lives. In direct contrast to that, Victorian Age machinery (usually steam driven, thus the term steampunk) didn’t cover up its inner workings. All the power and thrust of the cogs and pistons were on display, the porn of raw industrial might.
Peter Tupper’s “The Innocent’s Progress” is set in the theatrical world of the Commedia, where roles are strictly defined and stories never change. A woman auditions for the part of the innocent, a role that calls for a cute young thing. Despite her acting ability, she’s too old, too tall, and too big to play the part of the innocent. Refusing to accept that, she leaves the company in search of a role that fits her. While this story is well written and interesting, the sex scenes have nothing to do with the main story. They are asides, populated by characters that only existed for those scenes. I suppose they were tacked on to fulfill the erotica prerequisite, but they detracted from the story rather than enhancing it. That’s a shame, because the rest of the story was wonderful.
“An Extempore Romance” by Jason Rubis reminded me of the Cottingley Fairies photographs. Only in this story, the fairies are real, sort of. In this alternate history line, science has produced chimeras – something we would call a highly advanced robot – that can resemble a human, or a fairy, or any other creature. During a photo shoot with chimera characters from her novels, a writer is worked up into a sexual lather by a swarm of fairies. Following the shoot, she, and her chimera maid, go to a brothel that caters to women. Did I mention that the chimeras could be in any form? How about a lovely model called a Raphael, “a dark-skinned boy of nineteen with an obscene mouth and obsidian eyes?”
“Hysterical Friction” by Thomas S. Roche may read like science fiction, but there’s more truth to his tale than not. In Hysterical Friction, a woman is diagnosed with hysteria. It was a common diagnosis for unhappy women at the time, with an odd array of symptoms. No doubt much of it was untreated depression. Rather than ask the woman about her problems, the doctor discusses her with the husband while she waits in another room. What the wife needs, really, is sex, but her husband has no interest in touching her. The doctor figures that out and explains to the husband that he has a new device that’s just the sort of thing she needs. The device turns out to be a vibrator. This is historically accurate, although in Roche’s deft hands, it’s a rather funny scene. You see, they didn’t have batteries, so they had to generate the power somehow. The doctor’s buxom assistant is more than willing to help out. I can’t explain any more than that without ruining it for you. Let’s just say that the woman is quite calm at the end of the treatment, but she’s willing to come in for appointments three times a week, as her doctor suggests.
“In the Flask” by Vanessa Vaughn is in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Aubrey and his lab assistant, Nicholas, are trying to develop a compound that will repress sexual urges. No doubt the urges they’re trying hardest to repress are the type they feel for each other. Nicholas is left in charge of the experiment late one night. He falls asleep, and when he wakes and realizes he’s missed the last addition of a chemical, quickly pours in the contents of the nearest flask. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the wrong one. The resulting mixture has an interesting effect on the lab rats that Dr. Aubrey discovers when he returns. By no accident, the doctor releases the mixture in the lab, giving the men an excuse to give in to their desires.
Kaysee Renee Robichaud’s “Steam and Iron, Musk and Flesh” is set in the American West. The story begins with a great scene in a skyship, when Trista is caught with the Dean’s daughter. That leads to Trista working as an engineer in a traveling show where she maintains one of the star attractions, a clockwork man. The other star attraction, Maggie, a trick shooter, becomes Trista’s lover. While the show is in Arizona, the local bandit holds the troupe hostage while he forces Trista to use the clockwork man to break into the local bank. That’s a plot right out of Wild, Wild West.These stories aren’t hard science fiction, where the story is about the technology. Instead, there’s a sense of wonder about science, giving it an almost magical aura. That is one of the hallmarks of steampunk, and this fine collection of well-crafted tales delivers on that promise. A very enthusiastic thumbs up.
It's tough to say anything original about vampires. I'd estimate that at least 20% of the ebooks rolling onto the 'Net each month feature blood drinkers of some sort or other. Of course, most of these beguiling monsters are not lesbians (though quite a few are gay). Cecilia Tan's collection gives lesbian vampires their day in the sun (metaphorically speaking). All in all, these tales succeed remarkably well in providing a variety of scenarios and styles, taking the classic themes of love, blood and death and ringing some exciting changes.
Possibly the most creative tale in the book, and one of my personal favorites, is Lori Selke's "At the Pageant, the Vamp". The vamp of the title is none other than Theda Bara, super-star of the silent screen, whose dark allure captivated her generation. "Men fall at her feet like cherry blossoms," Ms. Selke writes. "She consumes her lovers to the bone. The century is still an adolescent, and she is the ultimate expression of the era's New Woman: independent, predatory, sweet and deadly as a poison flower's kiss." When the diva is asked to judge an international pageant of female "vampires," however, she discovers that she is just a pale imitation of the real thing.
"Till Death," by Fran Walker, gives us a lesbian vampire couple with relationship problems that seem all too familiar. The nameless narrator gets turned on by danger. Her girl Valerie is more cautious and can't give her what she needs. The silences, the half-truths, the recriminations, are achingly realistic despite the paranormal nature of the characters. There's a happy ending, though, involving a wooden stake.
Cat Rambo's "The Queen of Goth and Sugar" begins: "Some people read palms; I read groceries." The queen of the title is an elegant vamp with a taste for candy, who obligingly helps the narrator escape from her abusive boyfriend as well as provides a sample of vampire sex.
"A Sunny Sky," M. Johnson's tightly-written contribution, revolves around two dykes, one of whom has a huge crush on the other. Against a background of nicely orchestrated BDSM, Ms. Johnson spins a satisfying tale of female power and lust.
Sacchi Green's story "Jessabel" is set post-Civil war, where a woman living as a man discovers the girl she loved and lost to death dancing in a saloon. The dialect and the emotions in this story both ring true.
Meanwhile, Jewelle Gomez' tale, "Hope on the Mississippi: 2025," paints a future in which individuals struggle against corporate dictatorship and an ex-slave turned vampire returns to meet the grand-daughter of her human lover.
The awkwardly-titled "When Not to Be Receives Reproach..." by Elizabeth Thorne, is a philosophical tale in which Moira tires of eternity and chooses to become mortal. After this decision, she encounters her long-time vampire lover Celia. Their coupling, a moment snatched from time as Moira ages, is poignant and intense.
"Strange Bedfellows" by Moondancer Drake gives us another battered woman, this one a vampire fleeing with her children. Sari, a woman of the Wolfen clan, harbors her, loves her and helps her to free herself from her abusive mate.
Not every story in the book deserves praise. Several struck me as contrived and over-written. One had an appealing start but became so confused and incoherent that I really didn't get the point. No collection is perfect, however, and this one includes some exceptional stories that balance the less successful ones.
Furthermore, even the stories that I liked less offered some creative premises: a fallen angel ravishing an innocent at the altar; a trio of lesbian vampires pulling a bank job; a vampire and a werewolf matched by a computer dating service.
Creating a vampire tale that doesn't get lost in the crowd is a challenge. I know, because I've tried. Women of the Bite offers more surprises than you'd expect from this somewhat over-exposed genre.