The Written in Flesh anthology consists of four stories all revolving around the theme of tattoos. As usual, Storm Moon Press has pulled together an interesting collection of stories for their anthology and I was impressed that it was more than just the expected leather and tattoo stories. I am also in love with the cover and I think it makes a beautiful set along with its companion anthology, Carved in Flesh.
Bound by Ink by Kimber Vale
Rating: 3.75 stars
We first meet Key as he is getting his mating tattoo symbolizing his bond with his new bride, Kaya. Although Key and Kaya are close friends, he has no real attraction to her, preferring men. However, tradition in his tribe requires men to mate with women, so despite his doubts Key goes forward with the ritual. But when tribe witch Betta tells Key that the All-World, a place where men can be together as mates, is not just a legend, Key gathers up his nerve and flees his tribe, hoping to find this wonderful place. The tribe will not let him go easily, however, especially Kaya’s father Chief Rainblade, and they follow Key in hot pursuit. Key is injured, but rescued by Dax, who turns out to be none other than Betta’s grandson. Key plans to continue to search for the All-World as soon as he is healed, but he soon finds himself falling in love with Dax and hoping for a future between them.
There are several things I really liked about this story. I enjoyed the relationship between Key and Kaya and appreciated how he never lost his concern for her well-being in the midst of looking for his own happiness. Key even puts his safety at risk to try to make things right between them after abandoning her on their wedding night. I also think the story creates an intersesting world and manages to develop quite a detailed tale in such a short story. And I thought Vale gives us some lovely heat between Dax and Key.
I did have some problems with this one though. First, despite the interesting story, I had a really hard time getting a handle on world created here. I was never completely sure if this was a fantasy, or if the story was supposed to be take place in the real world. At first I assumed the “tribe” was Native American, as a lot is described in similar terms, such as the tents the tribe lives in with their fur blankets, or the fact that the chief is named Rainblade. But given the coloring of Dax (blond) and Kaya (reddish hair), as well as the names (Dax, Key) I realized this probably isn’t the case. Which led me to instead to the idea that this is a fantasy world the author created. It doesn’t really matter the answer, but the confusion kept pulling me out of the story as I tried to orient myself to the world created and get my bearings. Some of the wording used threw me as well. The tone of the story is very traditional, and then the characters used modern slang like “stud,” “babe,” and “hunk” that just seemed jarringly out of place. I think a bit more detail on the world development might have helped tighten things up and make them clearer.
I also wished for a bit more time to see the relationship develop between Key and Dax before true love sets in. I wasn’t particularly thrilled that immediately after rescuing Key, Dax pretty much molests his unconscious body, fondling and blowing Key as he is passed out. Then the men barely speak to one another for a week, and suddenly they are in love and committed to one another. Honestly, I could even have handled the week-long relationship turning into more if the story didn’t make a specific point about how the men hardly spoke to one another the entire time. I just needed a bit more to believe in the love between them. But despite my concerns, I did find this story interesting and enjoyable and a nice start to the anthology.
Powder by Alina Ray
Ian Grothe owns a club and is impressed by the band Shredding Angels who are auditioning to perform there. Ian bought the club in 1979 and in the 5 years he has owned it, this is the first group that has really impressed him, especially the leader Arnold. After hiring the band to perform weekly, Ian and Arnold begin a ritual of going out for donuts every Friday night after the show. Shredding Angels wants to make it big and so Ian coaches Arnold on image and other things they need to know to get attention. He suggests Arnold choose a sexier name (he goes with Apollo) and grow his hair and soon, with Ian’s help, the band catches the eye of a big producer. Finally on New Year’s Eve, the men act on their long building attraction to one another. But shortly after the band is signed and Apollo is gone from Ian’s life, on the road recording and performing while Ian’s heart is broken. Will the men ever find their way back to one another, or has Apollo moved on to a new life of fame?
This was a cute story with a nice sense of time. It takes place in 1984-85 and the author does a good job evoking the period with lots of little details, especially in reference to the music and styles of the time. I haven’t read many stories set in the 80s so I enjoyed that a lot. I also liked the setup of the story, with Ian as a small time club owner and Apollo and the band just starting out. The way the men built something together only to have it torn apart as fame and public pressures grew seemed very real.
But a few other things didn’t work as well for me. First, I had trouble believing that just 6 days after the music executive scouts them, Apollo and the band were already whizzed away recording. This just seemed impossibly fast and a bit contrived in order to show how quickly Apollo abandons Ian after he gets his break. I also felt like their reconciliation came way too easily. After totally abandoning Ian and breaking his heart, Apollo shows back up, apologizes, and all is forgiven. Ian has totally fallen apart during this intervening time. He has dropped out of his life and was totally crushed by the betrayal. Yes, by this point he has pulled himself together again, but to so easily be over the tremendous hurt and to be ready to jump back into a true love relationship that quickly seemed hard to believe. Especially since Apollo has very little excuse other than he got caught up in the quest for fame. I wanted to understand what happened better, and to see Ian take some time before all was so quickly forgiven.
So again an interesting story with a nice setup and a great sense of time. Just a few areas that didn’t quite come together for me.
P.S. The theme works into this story because Apollo has tattoos he gets to commemorate all the important events in his life.
Helotry by Suzanne Van Rooyen
Rating: 4.5 stars
Rontak is a slave on the planet Thiaki. The natives there have been enslaved by the people of the planet Kishar, and most spend their days hard at work mining. Rontak and the other Thakkans are bought and sold and treated as property. Rontak in particular is expected to sexually serve the Kisharans who come to Thiaki. One day, as a ship is leaving the planet, Rontak manages to escape to freedom.
Trey lives in the capital city of Kishar. He is a photographer and one day stumbles across a man who is dirty, starving, and clearly injured. At first Trey is drawn to the man for his visual appeal, the photographer in him itching to capture the beauty of his face and tattoos. But Trey soon realizes the man is in need of help and decides to bring him home to take care of him. Although Trey’s sister Sera warns Trey against taking in more strays in need of care (especially since men he has helped in the past have turned around and betrayed him), Trey can not bear the idea of kicking out Rontak. Even when he realizes that Rontak is an escaped slave and aiding him could be dangerous, Trey can not bear to turn him in. But the police and bounty hunters are looking for Rontak, and despite Trey’s best efforts, the men face constant danger and threats of capture. However, Trey is determined to protect Rontak, and hopefully the men can find a way to safety and a future together.
I really enjoyed this story and think Van Rooyen created just a fabulous world here. The descriptions are rich and vivid and I could picture the hot, burning sun of Thiaki, the dirty poor and homeless in Kishar, and gorgeous tattoos all over Rontak. The author paints beautiful pictures with her words and I was totally drawn in by the world building. I enjoyed Trey’s progression from a caring man who is somewhat oblivious to the injustices going on around him, to someone who is committed to defending Rontak’s rights and fighting to eliminate slavery. I really enjoyed the connection between the two men and found them sweet and sexy together. My only quibble was confusion as to how no one seemed to recognize Rontak as a slave for so long while he had been in Kishar, and then suddenly everyone seemed to be after him. Or even how Trey, with his father a key member of the company overseeing the slaves, wouldn’t recognize Rontak’s slave tattoos for what they were. But overall I really enjoyed this one and think the author creates a beautifully described and very interesting world.
Mark of the Familiar by Alex Whitehall
Rating: 4.5 stars
Ellis is a magical familiar, having recently been rescued from an abusive master. He has been kept confined after his violent outbreak against his former master until one day he is taken in by James, the director of the Sui Genesis Protection Agency, an organization that helps magical beings who need care and aid adapting in society. This world is totally different for Ellis, who is used to punishment, abuse, and constant anger. When Ellis arrives at his new home, he is immediately drawn to James’ son William. Ellis feels called to William and has a deep need to make William his master. James assures Ellis that this is normal; as a part-succubus, many creatures are called to William and Ellis is just feeling that natural connection. But Ellis is sure that it is more, and spends his days and nights following William, sleeping outside his door, and professing his need to be near the man to the concern and frustration of both James and William. But Ellis knows that he is meant to bond with William, that he is William’s familiar and that William is his master. He just needs to find a way to show William that the significance of their connection and that their bond is meant to be.
This was my favorite story of the collection and I think Whitehall creates a rich and fascinating world here. It is hard to create complex world building in a short story and I was really impressed with the depth we find here. I really felt like we got a full picture of Ellis, from his traumatic background to his magical abilities. I loved seeing him shift into his various animal forms and his total dedication to the man he knows to be his. And I really liked the home with its assortment of magical beings, all with their different skills and talents. And I got a giggle at poor William, constantly attracting attention despite his best efforts due to his succubus blood. The story was engaging and the characters were interesting and I enjoyed this one quite a lot.