The All Wrapped Up anthology is my first foray into the tentacle theme. I will admit to being a bit nervous as I really had no idea what to expect. But overall I found it a really enjoyable anthology. The stories give us a nice range of styles and subgenres, with two being science fiction and the others two very different styles of fantasy. Yet even with these four unique takes on the tentacle theme, the anthology ties together really well. For those who are wary, I would say that the tentacle aspect is not nearly as shocking as you might think. The first story eases the reader in slowly. The men involved are already lovers who care for one another, and while the newfound tentacles add a kinky element to their sex, the humanity of both men is still very clear. In fact, in all of the stories the tentacle aspect is seen only positively. These aren’t evil, monstrous creatures, but men (both human and otherwise) that are quite attractive to their partners. So even with such an unusal theme, I found these stories much more comfortable than I expected, and made for quite interesting reading.
Ground Mission by Laylah Hunter
Rating: 4.5 stars
Adrian and Simon are podmates, partners both in their military duties and personal life. Their latest assignment is a ground mission; their platoon is to scout out a planet to determine if it is a suitable place for habitation. When they arrive on the planet, all seems well until another team reports encountering hostile aliens with long tentacles. The creatures hunt in packs and are almost impossible to detect before they strike. When the pair is attacked and Simon gets bitten, at first it seems like a normal wound until hours later when it becomes clear that Simon has been infected with something. With Simon terrified, Adrian’s first impulse is to care for his partner, even if it means pushing his comfort zone to help Simon through the crisis until help arrives.
I really liked this story and think Hunter did a great job with the world building here in such a short story. The routine of the soldier’s lives, the military bureacracy, and the futuristic world are all well developed. It is clear how much Simon and Adrian mean to one another, the dangerous mission just reaffirmed their feelings. I liked that we really get to see how much military life is taking a toll on them, and loved the way it all came together at the end. This story was both sweet and sexy and I thought it was very well done.
Wildwood by Thea Hayworth
Rating: 4.25 stars
Koster is a ranger, newly assigned to the town of Orm, deep in the vast and ancient Oakensee forest. His job is to patrol the woods, helping to protect the town and its people from the dangers that lie within it. But Orm is at particular risk, as they appear to have been abandoned by their guardian, a spirit tied to the forest that helps protect them. No one has seen or spoken to Irsing in years and without his protection the forest will turn wild.
When Koster unexpectedly encounters Irsing, it is a total shock to realize the guardian has appeared before him. Irsing is a fascinating creature, almost treelike and appearing formed from twisted roots and branches that unfurl and reshape into a humanlike body. Koster must keep the encounter quiet, for fear of raising people’s hopes, for surely it is just a one time meeting. But Irsing continues to appear to him, and Koster slowly begins to learn why the guardian has become so withdrawn. With Koster’s patience and caring, perhaps he can bring the guardian renewed confidence to once again appear before his people, and to regain his rightful place in the woods.
This story introduces us to a host of creatures and rituals that make up this interesting world. I thought it was richly developed for such a short story, although I did have trouble at times keeping track of the many elements. The story took a little while to come together for me as I tried to figure out the world building. We also get quite a few POVs, not all from main characters, which muddied things up a bit. But as the story progressed, things tightened up for me and it really pulled together well. I especially enjoyed the interplay between Koster and Irsing and the way the relationship forms between the two of them and thought the ending in particular was quite sweet.
Dark Covenant by Gryvon
Rating: 3.25 stars
On his 18th birthday, Eli is approached by a strange man named Eramus who tells him that if ever needs help, to call his name. Although Eli is wary of the stranger, he finds himself in sudden need later that day when an earthquake threatens to cave in the mine where he works. By calling out “Eramus,” Eli is able to summon a magical power that stops the earthquake and saves him and many other miners. After recovering, Eli is approached by another man named Barnabus, who has heard word of Eli’s magical abilities and invites him to come to Upper Aurelia to a school for magic on a full scholarship. He also offers to give Eli’s family a huge stipend each month as living expenses. With an incredibly ill mother and many starving siblings, Eli doesn’t hestitate to agree, even when Barabus won’t give him details on the terms of the contract.
Upon arrival at the school, Eli learns he is expected to sexually submit to both Barnabus and the school chancellor. Refusal will mean having return the money meant for his family, as well as the huge sums Barnabus has spent on his clothes and supplies. Having no choice but to accept his fate, Eli is raped nightly. Yet he still hears the voice of Eramus in his head, offering to help him, to share his power, if only Eli will join with him. Eli must decide whether to seek Eramus’ aid once again.
I’ll be honest here, this one wasn’t an easy read for me. First off, the story has explicit, on page rape that I really had a hard time reading. So I found it quite stomach churning and after that I really had a hard time warming up to any of the rest of the story. It just seemed so unnecessary to the plot to detail this all so explictly. Barnabus does many terrible things to Eli, things that make him clearly the villian of the story. The graphic rape just seemed such a pointless addition. I have read other stories with violence, rape, and other horrific acts without this same reaction. I guess in this case it just felt like it didn’t advance the plot enough for me to be detailed so much. Just to be clear, this anthology does have a non-con tag on the Storm Moon Press website, so the failure to notice this is on me, but I did have a hard time with it.
Leaving that aside, I found the story interesting, but a bit muddled. I had a hard time understanding whether Eramus was trying to help or harm Eli throughout most of the book, although I guess that was the point. It seemed like there were two different “deal with the devil” threads happening at once, one with Eramus and one with Barnabus. And even as the relationship between Eli and Eramus develops further, I never really had a clear understanding of who or what Eramus was supposed to be. I also felt like a lot of pieces felt incomplete, like the idea was introduced with little follow through. For example, we get this scene of the Chancellor raping Eli, but then he is never heard from again. Or Eli meeting a fellow student while shopping with Barnabus, but we never learn the significance of why the young man was there. I think the biggest example was Eli going through this whole process to gain help from Eramus late in the story, when in the end the aid turns out to be basically useless.
What saved this story for me was the really interesting world building. I liked the idea of the two cities – Lower Aurelia with its mines, smog, and crushing poverty, walled off from its beautiful and pristine sister city of Upper Aurelia. The story sets up an interesting contrast between these two cities and I enjoyed the parts we got to explore. So unfortunately this wasn’t my favorite story of the group, but there were some interesting ideas and great world building developed here.
Situation Normal by Morgan Harcourt
Rating: 4 stars
Sebastian is piloting his rundown ship, ferrying some cargo between two planets, when his ship is boarded and commandeered by a hot lizard space cop who calls himself His Most Just Tenacity. Ten is in pursuit of a fugitive and his own ship is even worse than Sebastian’s so he takes over, locking Seb out of the system. The hot cop pushes all of Sebastian’s buttons, and the two immediately engage in flirting and a battle for control that Sebastian is more than willing to lose. Even better, Ten introduces Sebastian to the amazing world of lizard sex that totally blows his mind. But when the bad guy Ten is hunting comes after Sebastian, Seb finds himself in way over his head and he has to hope that help will come in time.
This was a cute, fun story with some enjoyably snarky heroes. Sebastian is a thrill seeker and pretty wild in the sex department. He is immediately drawn to Ten and eager to find out if all he has heard about sex with lizard creatures is true. The banter between the two of them was a lot of fun with some nice chemistry. The first half of the story went a little smoother for me than the second half. I found the turn of events a bit jarring and I never completely understood how the bad guy even got to Sebastian and what happened to Ten in the meantime. But I did like how the relationship develops between Ten and Seb and way the story wraps up.
So overall this was an enjoyable anthology and one with a lot of great elements. If you are a bit adventurous with your reading, I’d definitely say give this one a try.
Cover Review: Ok, I love this cover. Once again Nathie hits it out of the park. Gorgeous image!