Gathering of Souls by D.F. Holland

HOUSE
Gathering of Souls by D.F. Holland
In the Tales from the Beaumont House story collection
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Historical
Length: Short Story (17 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

An interior decorator buys an antique painting with a heartbreaking, supernatural history that will turn her world upside down – as well as anyone else who takes possession of it.

Sometimes old objects carry terrifying secrets with them.

The premise caught my attention immediately. What I appreciated the most about it is that it left a great deal of information to the imagination while still letting readers know that we’re in for something deliciously scary. This was my first encounter with D.F. Holland’s work. Based on how much I enjoyed getting a few hints about the plot still be surprised by a few twists, I will be keeping my eye out for what this author comes up with next.

There was a good deal of telling instead of showing in the plot. This was especially noticeable when it came to Holly’s reactions to the painting as it began to give her glimpses of its awful past. It wasn’t easy for me as a reader to empathize with her responses to all of the weird things happening around her because they were written in such a detached manner. Had Holly been able to show her anxiety and fear more clearly, this tale would have very easily earned a much higher rating.

A chilling ending is essential for this kind of tale. While I came up with a good idea of how this one would end before Holly figured out what was happening, I was spooked by some of the grim details that were revealed along the way. They worked well with what I’d figured out about the characters and the atmosphere of the plot. This story definitely belongs in the horror genre!

Gathering of Souls is a smart choice for anyone who likes truly creepy paranormal books.

High and Mighty by S.S. Skye

 

HIGH
High and Mighty by S.S. Skye
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (69 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet, F/F
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Lynley has been stuck in a tower for over a month, and each day is worse than the one before. She doesn’t know why she’s there, or who’s responsible for it, but the very moment her feet touch the ground there is going to be hell to pay.

This genre would be much smaller and less well known if it wasn’t so full of damsels in distress. The question is, what happens to damsels who don’t see any possible way that they’ll ever be rescued?

Lynley’s self-sufficiency impressed me. There’s only so many ways to pass the time while being trapped in a tower that offers no chance of escape, but she seemed to have figured out all of the possibilities on her own. Seeing how she reacted to such an unusual situation made me an instant fan of hers. She was by far the most interesting character in the entire plot.

The plot spent a great deal of time jumping from one character’s perspective to another. While I enjoyed listening in on their private thoughts, including so many narrators made it hard for me to get to know any of them particularly well. It would have been helpful to limit this number to only one or two speakers given that this is a short story instead of something full-length.

I read the whole thing in one sitting. The strong pacing made it impossible for me to put it away until I’d learned why Lynley had been locked in the tower and who put her there. Figuring out the answers to these questions was a lot of fun, especially since the plot didn’t give away any hints about it in the beginning. In this case, that was a smart decision.

High and Mighty gave a modern twist to one of my favorite fairy tales. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes these kinds of retellings.

The Sisters: A Mystery of Good and Evil, Horror and Suspense by Don Sloan

 

SISTERS
The Sisters: A Mystery of Good and Evil, Horror and Suspense by Don Sloan
(Book One of the Dark Forces Series)
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (266 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In this book, written in the style of Stephen King, two young people on vacation in a small New England seacoast town battle unspeakable horror and solve a hundred-year-old mystery. Fourteen Victorian mansions whisper dark secrets among themselves, and a dangerous shadow roams up and down the wide, wintry boulevard in search of new prey.

Imagine what old buildings would say if they had a way to share what’s really happened behind their closed doors over the years.

There’s something slightly eerie about owning a house that has been passed from one family to the next for generations. Stories that explore why this can be so potentially creepy are among my favorite ones in the horror genre. Having so many of these homes included in the same tale, then, was a real treat for me. I was able to explore multiple histories instead of only one.

I had some trouble warming up to the beginning of this novel. The pacing of the plot was slow and uneven due to the inclusion of multiple flashbacks to things that happened in and nearby the houses many years ago. It also took me some time to figure out what was happening when the narration temporarily switched over to the houses’ perspectives. I found the writing styles of those sections confusing even after I knew how to interpret them because of how informally they used punctuation marks.

Wow, the antagonist was seriously frightening! One of the reasons why I was so freaked out by this villain is that the plot danced around the topic for such a long time. Wondering who or what Nathan and Sarah might be facing took up a great deal of time because there were so few clues about what was really going on.

The narration regularly switched between the present and past tense. The past tense was used for the contemporary scenes, and the present tense was used for events that happened in the houses a long time ago. While it was an interesting way to differentiate between various points in history, I did find it distracting to switch between the tenses so often. Sticking with one of them would have made my reading experience more comfortable.

Sometimes dreams feel like they’re actually happening. At other times real life can be as hazy as a dream. One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was how easily it was able to capture this uncertainty. It worked well for the premise and kept me on my toes as the characters continued to try to figure out what was happening.

The Sisters: A Mystery of Good and Evil, Horror and Suspense is a good choice for anyone who likes the dark, gory side of science fiction.

The Mercenary by Annabelle Kitch

MERCENARY
The Mercenary by Annabelle Kitch
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (42 pages)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Pidge is a mercenary: uncouth, poor, far from the type of beautiful woman the royal court would deem appropriate company for Princess Trina, her childhood friend and lover. Life is easier, even kinder in many ways, on the road and in run-down towns where nobody cares about anything but how well she wields her sword and if she can pay for her drinks.

But when she learns that Trina has been trapped in an unwanted engagement, Pidge is determined to save her. According to the rules of the Church of Tamren, whoever returns the holy relics long ago stolen by the Kimbrar has the right to take the hand of any member of the royal house. Provided she can first slay the vicious beast that most say doesn’t even exist.

Every quest has to begin somewhere. Luckily Pidge knows exactly where to begin with this one.

Pidge was such a likeable main character. I was especially intrigued by her response to all of the people in her life who didn’t believe in her. She was by far the most well developed person in this story. Her flaws and strengths affected her quest in ways that I didn’t always see coming. The fact that they mattered so much over the course of the plot makes me want to read more from Ms. Kitch. This was my first introduction to her work, and I’m impressed!

There were a few minor pacing issues about halfway through this tale. Some flashbacks of Pidge’s childhood were included in order to explain how she met Trina and came to live in the castle. While I enjoyed these glimpses into the past, I would have preferred to learn about them much earlier on in the plot. They shared important information that I wished I would have known sooner.

Ms. Kitch doesn’t reveal Pidge’s mission right away. Dancing around the topic was an effective way to build my interest in the subject due to all of the tantalizing clues that appeared in conversations. Some of the most important characters were mentioned by name long before I knew who they were or how they’d affect the ending. This was a good choice given how much plot development occurred through the use of dialogue.

I’d recommend The Mercenary to fans of fantasy and romance novels alike.

Tall, Dark and Apocalyptic by Sam Cheever

TAll
Tall, Dark and Apocalyptic by Sam Cheever
Publisher: Electric Prose Publications
Genre: Futuristic, Action/Adventure, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (138 pages)
Heat Level: Hot
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Apart they are pain and death…apocalyptic. Together they are fire and magic…destiny.

He’s a warrior, a bounty hunter in a world turned upside down. She’s his latest bounty…a creature of dark power. As everything in their world implodes, they must work together to set it right, while the fire burning between them threatens to consume everything in its path.

Zombies that aren’t what they seem plus add in some strange magic. Talk about a great combination!

I’ve not read many zombie books that aren’t, well, gross. I’ll be honest. Most zombie books are gore and yucky stuff. Not so with this book. Sam Cheever manages to make zombies cool and not so…Night of the Living Dead. Cheever’s writing was great. It flowed well and kept me entertained throughout. I had to know what would happen next for Audie and Yeira.

Audie…seems like maybe an odd name for a hero, but no. It fit him perfectly. In fact, I’d like to find an Audie of my own. I could see him in my mind and he was handsome. Oh and protective. Cheever wrote him sympathetically, but oh so alpha. I’m smitten.

Then there’s Yeira. She’s a kick butt chick. I loved her from page one. Yes, she’s a zombie, but there’s more to her story than meets the eye. I can’t reveal all, but suffice it to say, she’s my favorite character and one worth checking in to.

Now, I will caution this is book 2 of the Apocalyptic series, but don’t let that stop you. This was a great standalone book and I recommend it. There’s heat, heart and lots of action.

Grab a copy today!

Hunting a Lady by Cari Z. and Caitlin Ricci

LADY
Hunting a Lady by Cari Z. and Caitlin Ricci
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (52 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet, F/F
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Shortly before completing her journeyman training in leather working, Jessa’s master dies, leaving her at the cruel, vile hands of his son Brent. When the local lord’s daughter, Marguerite, is kidnapped and a reward is offered for her rescue, finding her first is a chance at escape that Jessa can’t ignore.

But when Jessa locates Marguerite, the story isn’t quite as simple as a kidnapping. Unfortunately, Jessa’s not the only one out for the reward, and if she hopes to claim it she’s first got to keep them both alive…

Rescuing the damsel in distress isn’t always as easy as it may appear.

At first I was a little puzzled by Jessa’s acceptance of her lot in life. Her living and working conditions were incredibly poor even for a woman of her social standing. Seeing how she reacted to all of the unpleasant things she had to endure gave me a great deal of insight into her personality, though, and her unflappable response to her hard circumstances made me like her a lot. She’s the kind of person I’d want to have nearby in a crisis.

One of the characters consistently made decisions that I had a hard time understanding. Her choices simply didn’t make sense given everything else I’d learned about her personality and background. There was no logical reason for her to do the things she did based on what I knew about her. Had her reasons for acting in this manner been explained in better detail, I would have felt comfortable choosing a higher rating for this story.

The villains in this tale were deliciously dangerous. I was genuinely concerned that they might disrupt Jessa and Marguerite’s plans. The tension they added to the plot was a nice addition, especially once I realized why they did some of the things they did. It did take a little guesswork to figure out the villains’ motives, but it was rewarding to have the opportunity to piece it all together.

Give Hunting a Lady a try if you’re in the mood for an adventure.

Synchronicity by Shelby Morgen

SYNCHONISITY
Synchronicity by Shelby Morgen
Publisher: Changeling Press
Genre: Action/Adventure, Contemporary, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Short Story (37 pgs)
Other: M/F, Anal Play
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Bluet

Jody’s won the masquerade costume competition for four years running. She should be a shoo-in for first place this year, as well, except that she’s being badly upstaged by a tentacle monster costume. Tara’s got to come to the rescue or it’ll be one miserable drive home. Besides, Jody’s a fantastic costumer, and she deserves all the attention she’s not getting. When Tara springs into action to divert the audience’s attention, the last thing she expects is a chance to experience some real live tentacle play herself!
Only problem is, her Tentacle Monster’s costume doesn’t come off. He’s really a shape shifting alien on the run from some real live alien bounty hunters dressed in what look like leftover eighties costumes from the set of Flash Gordon, and now Tara’s got to help him escape, or she could end up crated off to Zenon to stand trial for aiding and abetting a fugitive.

Where are the Men in Black when you need them, anyway?

Tara is attending a costume fan convention, and has been tasked with luring away a man in a fantastic tentacle costume who is stealing the thunder of her good friend. Always up for a challenge, Tara easily entices the man to follow her. As the elevator they are riding in is stopped, Mr. Tentacles, whose name is Juxtan, takes Tara on a whole ‘nother kind of ride. This boy is an alien on the run, and those tentacles sure feel real!

Tara comes off as brass and ballsy, but she’s really putting on a good face after her self-confidence took a dive. Juxtan is in a dangerous situation, but he finds himself wanting to play the hero for Tara, who has entranced him in a very short time. They have an explosive chemistry together, but have to outwit the villains before they can have any kind of future.

This was a very hot and sexy short story. Because of its length, the reader doesn’t really have time to become invested in the characters. They meet, there’s heat, and then the chase. It was amusing, and poked fun at comic conventions, and the people who attend them. I loved the heroic and sexy alien, and this story flowed along without a dull moment. For readers who are into sizzling sci-fi, this novella left me smiling. Don’t be surprised if you go looking for an alien of your own.

The Clockwork Heart by Lilliana Rose

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The Clockwork Heart by Lilliana Rose
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (44 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet, F/F
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Haunted by a past lover and left with scars so deep Libby gave up her life as an explorer, she spends her days trying to avoid bad memories by training ruthlessly with Helen, the woman she hired to teach her self-defense. Helen is beautiful, appealing, and could be what Libby needs to climb out of her past once and for all.

Until the past returns and threatens to destroy Libby, and all that she holds dear, once and for all.

Outrunning the past isn’t easy. If only Libby knew if she could do it permanently.

I was fascinated by the automatons in this tale. One of the things I enjoy the most about steampunk fiction is how it combines the styles of several different eras to create something beautiful, useful, and occasionally even playful. The mechanical devices that the human characters encounter were all of those things and more.

It was difficult to get to know what Helen and Libby were like because the plot spent so much time telling the reader what these women were thinking. I knew what both of them wanted, but it took me a while a to figure out why they wanted those things or what they would and wouldn’t be willing to do to get them. Allowing them to explain these desires in their own words would have given them ample room for character development and made it easier for me to see what kind of personalities they had.

The descriptions of food in this story were mesmerizing. All of it sounded really delicious, especially when it came to how it was all served and what dishes were included in the same meal. What was even more interesting, though, was how the author included a dash of humor in these passages. It wasn’t something I was at all expecting, but it did flow well with the rest of the narrative.

The Clockwork Heart is a good choice for anyone who likes the style of steampunk science fiction.

Nobility by Kayla Bain-Vrba

NOBILIYT
Nobility by Kayla Bain-Vrba
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (45 pages)
Heat Level: Sensual, F/F
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Determined to escape an arranged marriage, and with very few options available, Danna brings a curse down on herself and settles into life in an enchanted tower. The very last thing she needs or wants is to be rescued, no matter how beautiful or compelling her unexpected rescuer is.

Nobelle is desperate to avoid the hangman’s noose, and as last ditch efforts go her life could be worse than rescuing a bratty princess. But an easy way to stay alive turns into a complicated tangle of lies as she and Danna grow closer and Nobelle has no easy way to admit that she’s no knight in shining armor…

The path to true love isn’t always smooth.

The dialogue was a lot of fun. It included snappy comebacks and a few retorts that made me giggle. Ms. Bain-Vrba definitely showed off her playful sense of humor in this tale. What I enjoyed about this the most was how the author used the comical dialogue to reveal her characters’ personalities. Nobelle and Danna both had incredibly unique voices. It only took me a short amount of time to immediately know who was speaking simply by how they strung words together.

There were a few issues with the conflict in this story. While I liked the fact that the characters had to overcome so many obstacles during their adventures, I would have preferred to see them spend more time struggling to find solutions to their problems. Allowing them to figure out those solutions so quickly dampened the tension that should have been rising as the plot moved toward its exciting conclusion.

Danna and Nobelle’s chemistry didn’t show up right away, but seeing it develop was well worth the wait. At first glance they appeared to have completely opposite personalities and interests. What I found compelling about their growing attraction, though, was just how much they had in common once I pushed past my first impressions of them. They appeared to be a good match for each other which made rooting for them to get together even more rewarding than it might have been otherwise.

Nobility is something I’d recommend to fans of the romance and fantasy genres alike.

Assimilation, Love, and Other Human Oddities by Lyn Gala

LOV
Assimilation, Love, and Other Human Oddities by Lyn Gala
Publisher: Loose Id
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (230 pgs)
Other: M/M, Anal Sex, Fetish
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Cactus

Ondry and Liam have settled into a good life, but their trading is still tied up with humans, and humans are always messy. When political changes at the human base lead Ondry to attempt a difficult trade, the pair find themselves entangled in human affairs. Liam wants to help the people he left and the worlds being torn apart. He also wants to serve Ondry with not only the pleasures of the nest but also by bringing human profits.

Ondry has no hope of understanding human psychology in general, he only knows that he will hold onto his palteia with the last breath in his body, and he’d like to keep his status and his wealth too. Unfortunately, new humans bring new conflicts and he is not sure how to protect Liam. He does know one thing that humans seem to constantly forget—that the peaceful Rownt are predators and when their families are threatened, Rownt become deadly killers. Liam is his family, and Ondry will protect him with his last breath… assuming that he can recognize the dangers in time to do so.

Happily ever after is not so easy when humans are involved. Liam has settled into life with Ondry and the Rownt so well he hardly considers himself human anymore. However his loyalties are tested when a human officer comes looking for information only Liam can provide. Although Liam is firmly on the Rownt side of tradings, he worries that messy human politics can and will affect his happy life with Ondry. Betrayals, miscommunication, and offense are just a few of the frustrating results that Liam must deal with as a direct result of trying to trade with humans. But ignoring them may lead to potentially catastrophic results.

In book two of the Claimings series, the story picks up where it left off with Liam and Ondry living happily in a D/s type relationship. There’s no sex as we know it but both are very happy and in love. However, being different species there are always adjustments and the inclusion of another human trade creates problems for the couple both personally and politically. I found the plot interesting and engaging but not my favorite. Liam handles the other human well but sometimes he comes across a bit slow to understand and recognize the real threat she presents. I have to give the story credit for making every character nuanced and well rounded but I definitely got frustrated with Liam. He would seemingly forget common sense or ignore his own instincts in a weird attempt to bond with another human, but I never understood why.

What shines once again, as it did in the first book, is the wonderful and utterly creative world building. I adore the author’s writing and love to dive into any world she creates. The science-fiction setting is so intricate and multi-faceted that it’s always engrossing no matter what other plot the book is pursuing. I honestly could read anything Gala writes in this world as the details that create this alternate world are so interesting. I have some trepidation that the next book will take place more in the human world, due to the plot turns, but I’m hopeful the Rownt culture and people will still be prominent.

As with the first book this is not a typical BDSM story. It has elements of D/s in that Liam is submissive to Ondry’s domination but there is no sex in the way humans see it and while there is a power exchange between the two men, Liam is a strong and essential member of the twosome. He’s not autonomous but he’s valued and treated in many ways as an equal. I think this series will continue to easily appeal to science fiction fans and maybe even those readers that like D/s without heavy sex play. The author is a great writer and the clean, descriptive prose that makes up the story is a joy to read. I easily recommend this one but would suggest starting with the first book in the series.