Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms

Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms
Publisher: Last-Picked Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Cryptids. At the movies and at the bar, cryptids. In china shops and running for office, cryptids. Cryptids, cryptids everywhere.

Mythical beings need to earn a living, too!

The world building was incredible. Getting glimpses of so many different residents, notable spots, and moments in time in this neighborhood gave me a well-rounded understanding of what it would be like to visit The Fairy District if it were a real place. If the author ever decides to write a sequel, I’d love to dive even more deeply into the many different species that call this area home and how they are being affected by human gentrification.

I would have loved to see more character development. Meeting the characters was a memorable experience, but there was never a lot of time to get to know most of them better due to how brief each section was and how many different folks there were to meet. Louise, a local mortician, was one such creature that I wish I could have had more time with as she seemed to have a fascinating life as an undertaker. This pattern was the only thing holding me back from choosing a full five-star review.

Some of this flash fiction was written in the style of online news articles or reviews of different businesses. What made these pieces even more unique were the comments included by various members of the community and visitors who had strong opinions about the event, business, or topic being discussed. I loved the originality of these sections, especially when it came to the many types of feedback that can be shared in such places. A kind commenter might be immediately followed by someone who had a harsher perspective, but the variety of it all made it feel incredibly realistic.

Cryptid Bits was delightfully creative. I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton
Publisher: Touch Point Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Heather Radcliffe, a successful author, is approached by Fiona, a ghost, to write Fiona’s memoir. What follows is a tale of love, betrayal, madness and the quest for atonement. It is the story of two women—one living, one dead—and the man they both love . . . and the issue of love’s ability to endure beyond death itself.

Death is the beginning, not the end.

The dialogue was smooth and believable. Often I could tell who was speaking before I finished the sentence because of how uniquely the two main characters were written. As much as they had in common, there were important differences between them that influenced how they spoke. It takes a lot of work to pull something like this off, so I must acknowledge the effort there and share my gratitude for it. This is the sort of flourish in a story that makes reading even more enjoyable than it already is.

I was surprised by how quickly Heather believed the ghosts who approached her for help. As much as I liked her innocent and trusting personality, there were times when I wondered why she didn’t make any efforts to verify what she was told and only spent a small amount of time trying to protect herself from anything in the spirit world that might try to attach itself to her. There was one scene that described a ritual she went through after talking to spirits in order to discourage them from sticking around. This reader was fascinated by that process and wished that the protagonist had spent more time describing it as well as taking additional precautions to protect herself from spirits she was still getting to know.

Some of the most memorable moments in my opinion were the ones that explored Heather’s previous lifetimes and how they helped to explain why her personality clicked so well with certain people she met in her most recent body. Reincarnation is an interesting explanation for why this happens, especially when it is explored in fiction that shows how those individuals knew each other in previous lives and why their fates have remained so tightly entwined. This is a trope I’m always happy to discover in books, and I thought Ms. Easton made good use of it here.

Beyond Mortal Bounds: Memoir of a Ghost was satisfying.

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert
Publisher: Trinkets and Tales LLC
Genre: Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Belladonna was born wrong. At least that’s what her parents, religious community, and even her beloved sister believe. Walking away from the church hasn’t helped her come to terms with her purpose in life, and when her sister is diagnosed with cancer, Belladonna has nowhere to turn…until a demon offers her a deal.

After agreeing, nothing is like she expects. There’s no fiery hell to speak of. Her soul seems to still be her own. All she’s required to do is serve. When she’s auctioned off to Rusalka, a powerful and ruthless succubus, her confusion only grows. Rusalka surprises her at every turn, even refusing to allow Belladonna to bear a child that would benefit the entirety of their territory.

Rusalka has sacrificed everything for their people. There are no lengths they won’t go to as leader…but they see something of themself in Belladonna, a familiarity that tempts beyond anything they could have dreamed. They want to keep her.

But if Belladonna can’t release her shame and step into a future where she’s living for herself instead of in service to others… Things may be over even before they begin.

I will basically read any romance books that Katee Robert writes with a fantasy element at this point, so it was a no-brainer that I picked up The Succubus’s Prize (fourth book in the A Deal with a Demon series) as soon as it was released through Kindle Unlimited. While the book maintains the author’s trademark spice and romance, she also does a great job bringing deep emotional scenes into such a short story.

If you’ve been following the series, you’ll know that bargainer demon Azazel brought five human women to the demon realm to be auctioned off to each territory’s leader in the hopes of brokering peace throughout the realm. A disclaimer for those who might not have followed the series: all of the humans made their deals of sound mind, got things out of the deal, and have protections in place such that they cannot be harmed by the respective territory leader. Some of the choices were random, however things worked a little differently for Rusalka, leader of the succubi and incubi as Azazel basically said you need to pick this specific human (Belladonna). Belladonna has been traumatized in the past, and Azazel felt that the succubi powers of sensing emotions would be the best fit to help her (compared to those of the gargoyles, kraken, or dragons). Despite that advantage, the two of them have a lot to work through before they can make true headway in the relationship (and hopefully have a child to strengthen the territory in the future).

Prior to the release of the book, the author made it clear on social media that the book deals with a lot of religious trauma. Belladonna was raised to believe she was bad because she was queer, and that she was only of value if she was of use to others. Even the deal Belladonna made that brought her to the demon realm was a sacrifice in service of someone else. Rusalka and the others in the Insomnior Court worked hard to gently get Belladonna to be more comfortable in expressing what she wants and coming out of the indoctrination her family overwhelmed her with. They also gave her the space to make sure what she was saying was what she wanted, even if they were unsure about it themselves. There were definitely some uncomfortable moments, but as a reader it was a great experience to get to see Belladonna’s journey of healing and growth. Things do feel like they end a bit abruptly given the length of the book, but I loved the epilogue and I hope we get to see more of these characters in the future.

If you’re looking for a quick monster romance book you can finish in an afternoon, this would be a great choice for you. However, if you’re looking for a longer romance tale, complete with extensive worldbuilding and more in-depth character development you might be better served looking at another title on the author’s backlist instead. We got more glimpses of Azazel and their relationship with Eve, so I’m super excited for when the final installment in the series The Demon’s Queen will come out in 2025.

Flock This by Jayce Carter

Flock This by Jayce Carter
Publisher: Totally Bound
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Moonflower

Trouble doesn’ t find me— I go looking for it.

I’ve been rejected all my life— always too loud, too messy, too much. I thought joining the spirit world— full of vampires, werewolves and magical beings living alongside humans— would change that, but as an anomaly without a clan, I’m more unwelcome than ever. Instead of power and sexy trysts with hot immortals, I end up working as a courier just to survive. I got turned into a crow shifter and all I got out of it is a sucky, dead-end job.

However, when I make a delivery and instead find the vampire leader’ s corpse, the stake that killed him in my hand, standing on the sidelines stops being an option. Without a clan to speak for me, I have no choice but to figure out who framed me and find the real killer on my own. Surrounded by people I can’ t trust, in a world that has no place for me, I’ve got to use every skill in my arsenal to stay one step ahead.

They say a little mischief is good for the soul, but too much of it can kill you.

Flock This is the first book in the Flocking It Up series and we start with a crow shifter who has a job as a courier. Things go pear-shaped when she makes a delivery to someone who’s just been murdered and is found with the bloody stake in her hands.

Grey doesn’t belong to any of the four clans but isn’t surprised as she has never felt as though she fits in anywhere. As she tries to find out who has framed her for murder, tries to stay alive, and maybe even find out who actually was the killer, we stay with her. Told in the first perspective, we see her innermost thoughts – most of which revolve around how chaos follows her and how alone she is. She isn’t actually alone though; she has friends and family she could turn to if she only trusted them enough.

Well-written and smoothly paced, this was an interesting story that just didn’t grab me as I wanted it to. As it’s the first in a series, I’m hoping to see more of the different players as the overall arc moves along. There are a couple of steamy scenes but nothing major. Most of the book is being sent down one alley or another, looking for the killer.

On the whole, it was enjoyable and recommended for anyone who likes urban fantasy.

Changeling by Shelby Morgen

Changeling by Shelby Morgen
Publisher: Changeling Press
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, Holiday, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

“I don’t believe in Magic.”

Did he actually say those words — out loud — in an Irish pub, on St. Patrick’s Day? Divorced and alone, Michael Matthews doesn’t believe in much of anything anymore. So when he downs several mugs of Irish Stout while listening to the barkeep weave a tale of magic and intrigue centuries old, Mich’s judgment might be slightly impaired.

Mich wakes up bound and naked in a Fairy’s webs. He isn’t really sure he wants to escape the gorgeous little creature… but what’s he to do with a lover who’s only five inches tall?

She’s the Changeling Fairy, and she has a bag of Fairy toys — including magical restraints and Fairy Oil — she’s just itching to try out on her captive. She’s caught Mich for just one purpose — she has every intention of spending St. Patrick’s Day having wild Fairy sex with this hot hunk of an American. Just as soon as he learns to cooperate!

Michael Matthews is a procurement agent for a microbrewery distribution group and usually he knows exactly how to handle his beer. But this is St, Patrick’s Day and he downs more than a few mugs while listening to a very talented barkeeper. Mich then finds himself waking up entangled in more than he bargained for, and Arien is gorgeous enough neither of them are sure they want to undo what might have been started here.

I found this to be a funny and very unique sort of short story. With whip quick dialogue and plenty of quirkiness I definitely feel this is the sort of story you need to enjoy with a hefty drink and a lot of light-heartedness. Disengage your brain, relax back and just enjoy where this talented author takes you.

While there is some plot, I found that I enjoyed the fact the story didn’t really take itself too seriously. While funny, the sex was steamy and very explicit. Readers who don’t enjoy insta-lust stories might find the pace of this aspect to the plot was a little fast – but with such a short page count I don’t really see how any could expect a long, detailed, slow drop into the romance.

Steamy, funny and fast-paced, I found this to be an enjoyable and quick read. Best enjoyed with a drink and a light sense of humour, I feel plenty of readers should find this equally addictive.

Oddities by Thurdy

Oddities by Thurdy
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A dystopian vampire teenager, severed finger salad topping, disgruntled Teddy bears, and an army of Percivals. What do these all have in common? They are all trapped within the pages of this collection of stories, like a genie waiting to be released from a bottle. Oh, forgot to say, there’s a genie in there too, but not one like you’re picturing. This one is actually … well, you’ll find out.

So, for those of you who spend your life in a state of perpetual distraction, who want to buy everything in the art supply shop, whose co-workers don’t know you write poetry…

no more staring into the mirror wondering how nice it would be to have horns.

It’s time to grow a pair.

If you love delightfully weird and memorable tales that break the rules, keep reading.

“Author” showed what happened when Ruby tried to wander away from the storyline her author was writing and do something else with her time. I enjoyed the surreal feeling of this short story as the author and characters debated over who was actually in charge of what was going to happen next. It kept me guessing until the last possible moment.

As much as I enjoyed Mx.Thurdy’s creative writing style, I did find myself wishing that certain portions of this collection had been given more time to develop. “Review” was included in this list. It followed a food critic visiting a bizarre new restaurant that felt like something from a bad dream. Every course was worse than the last one, and I struggled to understand why the critic stuck around when they clearly didn’t have anything good to say about this establishment. As entertaining as this was, it never quite gelled together for me. That pattern happened often enough for me to choose a three star rating, but I do hope to read more from the author in the future as they are a good storyteller.

Honestly, I couldn’t blame Teddy, a bright purple teddy bear created after a human wished him into existence, for being so grumpy in “Wish.” I would have been just as irritated if I were in his uncomfortable position. While this was a short piece, it was exactly long enough to get its point across and make me smile as I got to know the main character and the conflicts he faced in his life. In the end, I was content to imagine what happened to him next after the final sentence ended.

Oddities put a unique spin on the science fiction genre.

Midnight Ruin by Katee Robert

Midnight Ruin by Katee Robert
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Genre: Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Eurydice Dimitriou has always been the innocent sister, but she’s finally ready to step out of the long shadow cast by her powerful family…and the ex who shattered her heart. Perhaps rough hands on soft skin are exactly what she needs to forget her heartbreak once and for all?

Charon Ariti has been Hades’s right-hand man for years. He’s given everything to the lower city, but now he’s ready to take something for himself. He’s only too happy to give Eurydice a special kind of education…but is her heart really free enough to be claimed?

Orpheus Makos will do whatever it takes to make things right. Once the golden boy of the upper city, he’s now a shadow of his former self. He’ll do anything to get Eurydice back…even if it means she’s not coming into his arms alone. Three hearts. Three futures. Countless ways to get it wrong.

But with enemies slipping through Olympus’s faltering barrier to lay siege on the lower city, a trio of broken hearts will be the least of these would-be lovers’ worries…

Katee Robert’s next book in the Dark Olympus series, Midnight Ruin, was just as good as the previous installments. Focusing on Charon, Eurydice, and Orpheus in another very loose reimagining of the original Greek myths, the book takes place in the lower city (a.k.a. Hades’ domain) with the violence in Olympus coming to a fever pitch.

If you’ve been following along with the series, you’ll know that there are major forces at work trying to destabilize the city (and likely prepare it to be invaded). There is a major reveal in this book regarding who those forces are led by, and they make a major move to challenge the power players in the city (a.k.a. the Thirteen). I’m super excited to see where that goes, and how the eventual climax of the conflict plays out. The worldbuilding of each book in the series has been building off of each other; while the plots of each book are constructed such that one could theoretically read them out of order, I do recommend reading in order for the best experience (especially with the events that have been building since the third book in the series).

I really loved the growth and dynamics between our three main characters. Eurydice, unlike Helen/Ares, has been underestimated and babied her entire life. After Orpheus initially broke her heart with his actions, Charon was the one to help her put the pieces back together. However, neither Eurydice nor Orpheus were ready to give the other up as there were a lot of unresolved feelings there. It ends up becoming a polyamorous triangle where both men are in love with her (and eventually grow to love each other). As a reader, it was really enjoyable to see. And of course, as a reminder for those who may not have read a Katee Robert book before, I do want to warn you that the spiciness rating is very high and there are multiple explicit and intimate lovemaking scenes scattered throughout the book.

Overall, this was another excellent read that’s left me excited for more. After how this book ended, I can’t wait to read Ariadne and the Minotaur’s story in Dark Restraint when it comes out later this year. Audiobook narrators Alex Moorcock and Zara Hampton-Brown did an excellent job once again bringing multiple perspectives to life with the performances. If you love polyamorous love triangles (like the previous one in the series in Wicked Beauty) or any romance influenced by Greek mythology, you’ll enjoy this book.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Violence, Murder, Blood, Guns, Pregnancy (not the heroine/main character), Abortion (not the heroine/main character)

Because of You by Fiona Brands

Because of You by Fiona Brands
Publisher: FriesenPress
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Liv and her best friends Travis and April have just started their last year of high school and things have gotten complicated—Liv has feelings for Travis, April is getting into trouble already, and Travis has a new girlfriend. But then Liv’s mom reveals a long-buried secret about Liv’s father, who took his own life when Liv was only two, and her life is turned totally upside down.

Reminded of unresolved trauma, Liv’s mom starts drinking heavily and Liv is haunted by the thought that her parents could have had good lives if they had never met. When Liv visits the antique shop of Travis’s grandpa, she discovers a grandfather clock they suspect can transport people back in time. As Liv’s life becomes increasingly chaotic, she’s forced to decide: will she travel back in time to stop her parents’ complicated relationship, or will she endure an uncertain future?

Whether platonic or romantic, love makes everything in life better.

I adored the close-knit friendships between Liv, Travis, and April. All three of them were kind and generous people who looked out for each other. Their banter made me smile, and I enjoyed seeing how they navigated their final year of school together as all three tried to figure out what the future might hold for them.

The pacing felt slow at times to me, especially in the first half of this novel. Based on the reference to time travel in the blurb, I was surprised to see so many chapters go by without a single mention of anything related to speculative fiction at all even though I later came to understand why the author made this choice. Some of the subplots also soaked up a lot of time in the beginning for reasons that I did not understand until much later or, in some cases, at all. The writing itself was nice, I simply felt that it could have been tightened up in the beginning so the characters could move on to the main conflict faster.

Most of the science fiction I read is harder and more definitive than this, so it was refreshing to see how lightly it was sprinkled into this tale. There were hints of it sprinkled here and there, but the majority of the scenes only contained moments that could happen in real life. This could be a good introduction to science fiction for readers who don’t generally read it because of that.

Because of You was heartwarming.

If We Were Stars by Eule Grey

If We Were Stars by Eule Grey
Publisher: NineStar Press
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Romance
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The final countdown begins in three hours.

Blimey. The last thing Kurt wants is to wear a space helmet, and, no, they didn’t plan on saving the world either—Not before their eighteenth birthday anyway. Who’d have thought friending a lonely alien would lead to the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

Best friends since they were ten years old, Kurt O’Hara and Beast Harris tackle the typical teenage challenges together: pronouns, AWOL bodies, not to mention snogging. A long-distance relationship with an alien named Iuvenis is the least of their troubles.

Kurt loves programming, people-pleasing, and yellow dresses. Most of all, Kurt loves Beast.

Beast adores elephants, protest marches, and Kurt. Rules?—Nah. Humanity’s way down on Beast’s list of to-dos.

Beast and Kurt, Kurt and Beast. The end. Exactly how their love turns into a scene from Red Dwarf is anyone’s guess. Spaceships? NASA at the doorstep? No biggie. As long as they’re together, Kurt and Beast can survive anything.

Except, apparently, lift-off. Because nobody considered sensory issues, did they? Nope. NASA never made adjustments for neurodivergent astronauts. Unbelievable.

Will science be enough to blast Kurt and Beast—unlikely superheroes—into space to save the planet? Or will it take something much more extraordinary?

Neurodivergence is a gift.

Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that explored how autism affected Kurt and Beast’s lives in both positive and negative ways. It was interesting to read along as Kurt described their childhoods and how they struck a balance between finding ways to fit in when necessary while also remaining true to themselves. This is something everyone needs to learn how to do, of course, but it can be more challenging for people who stick out from the crowd and don’t always have an intuitive understanding of which rules to follow and which ones can be broken.

I struggled with the transition to a new narrator at the end of this book. Kurt was someone I enjoyed getting to know better, and their replacement didn’t have much time to become well-rounded due to how quickly they were introduced before the storyline began to wrap up. It was also disappointing to lose touch with Kurt just as they were about to meet the aliens and arguably have the biggest adventure of their lives, especially since earlier scenes had hinted that something tragic was about to occur.

The romantic subplot was nicely written. It fit into the themes of this tale seamlessly and made me hope that both of the characters involved in it would live happily ever after as they truly seemed like a great match for one another. This was a good example of how to include romance in a science fiction adventure in ways that enhanced both the science fiction and the adventurous elements of the plot.

If We Were Stars was a creative take on what it might be like to meet aliens.

Invisible York by Aden Simpson

Invisible York by Aden Simpson
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Invisible York is a dystopian satire set on the island of Manhattan following an unknown phenomena that renders its citizens invisible.

While the outside world grows wary of their Invisible compatriots, within Manhattan a new society emerges, with bold plans for expansion.

FBI Agent Leonard Walcott did not expect to become a modern day apostle. But he will certainly make the most of it.

Not every superpower is as fun as it might originally seem to be.

The creation and evolution of conspiracy theories were deeply woven into the storyline. This was not something I was expecting to think about as I read this, but it played nicely with how little most of the characters knew about what was going on and how desperate they were for an explanation of or, even better, a cure for their invisibility. People who don’t have access to much outside information can come up with all sorts of stories to explain things, and it made perfect sense for them to react this way as the government continued to hamper their efforts to figure things out.

I struggled with the slow pacing of this book. As important as it was to meet all of the characters and learn about the mysterious event that made them become invisible, so much attention was paid to these portions of the plot that there wasn’t much room for conflict or action for the first hundred pages or so. This meant that there weren’t many moments that made me eager to read just one more page or chapter until I was more than halfway through this tale.

Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones that explored what happens when a community needs a leader but none of the most capable and intelligent possibilities for the role are interested in taking it. Leadership can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and this is even more true when society is also struggling to adapt to changes like, for example, a large group of people suddenly becoming invisible. The author did a good job of allowing the reader to tease out the reasons why many of the leaders in this tale craved power so deeply and how those character flaws negatively affected everyone eventually. Not everything necessarily needs to be spelled out directly in order to be effective.

It was difficult for me to keep track of the large cast of characters because of how little time was spent describing them. Sometimes only their names were given which meant that I didn’t have any physical features, hobbies, or personality quirks connected to those individuals to help me recall who they were and how they were connected to Leonard. While I certainly wouldn’t expect everyone to be described in as much detail as the protagonist, it would have been really helpful to have even one interesting thing to remember about every character when I was trying to figure out who they were later on in the storyline.

The deep and totally understandable mistrust of the government by some citizens was another theme in this book that I thought was handled well. In both our world as well as the fictional one in this book, the government has not always been honest with their citizens about a wide variety of topics from why environmental tragedies really occurred to what happened to certain community leaders who suddenly died at the height of their popularity. This was not a partisan take on the topic by any means. The author was careful to choose examples that readers from any background could relate to, and I appreciated that.

Invisible York was a thought provoking read.