Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Links: Amazon | All Romance
Crack the Darkest Sky Wide Open is a new anthology self published by a group of fabulous authors: Eric Arvin, Abigail Roux, SJD Peterson, Jason Huffman-Black, S.A. McAuley, and TJ Klune. It is a unique collection of stories, each with a darker side, most with happy endings, even if they are a bit bittersweet.
The blurb tells us that “Happy endings take a time in coming, and some never arrive. But through all the darkness there is light, a glimmer of hope and wonder…if one has the will to see it.” And for the most part, I think this anthology delivers very successfully on this message. I really enjoyed most of the stories, and the two by Roux and Klune were just outstanding. In fact, I would tell you it was worth buying this anthology for Klune’s story alone, that is how amazing it was.
I will say the collection was a little bit uneven for me though. Nothing that was poorly done or badly written, just a little uneven in tone as two of the stories seemed to skip that promised “glimmer of hope and wonder” that I feel is so important in an anthology that deals with such heavy topics. But despite that, I really loved this collection and would definitely recommend it.
P.S. If you want more details on the anthology, check out my interview with the authors
The Demon of Jericho by Eric Arvin
The town of Jericho is cursed, ruled over by the evil demon Camberfar who requires an annual blood sacrifice at the winter solstice. One day, a young hunter named Jeb finds a beautiful angel fallen to the ground. Jeb names this silent angel Goshen and brings him to the witch Solisbury, who sees that Goshen might be their salvation. But the evil Sheriff Havland isn’t interested in things changing in Jericho and will do whatever he can to stop Goshen and Jeb from bringing peace to the town.
This story reads like a fairy tale and Arvin paints lovely pictures of the town, the people, and the evil curse upon them. There are some dark parts to the story, but overall there is a sweetness to the tale, with Jeb and Goshen as young lovers who save their town. In this short format, we don’t get as much detail as I would like into the curse and its cause and the background of Camberfar and Havland. So some things felt a little vague to me in the world building. But overall I really liked this one and continue to be enthusiastic about Arvin’s writing.
A Cruel Thing by Abigail Roux
A Cruel Thing takes place in December 1941, in the days surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor and focusing on the battle of Wake Island. Wake is a small island in the Pacific, similar to Midway in its strategic location. When the men of Marine Fighting Squadron 211 arrive on Wake, they find a small island not nearly well enough equipped to be a key battleground. The airstrip is insufficient, there are hardly any planes, poor radar, no storage facilities, and more. But these men were tasked with defending the island from the Japanese and they bravely fought, many to their deaths, to protect it.
The story is told partly in flashback from one of the main characters in present day. The remainder focuses on recounting the battle, highlighting many key players, and specifically four men: Captain Harold Holden and Second Lieutenant Joe Stanley, and Major Jack Parker and Sergeant Charlie Douglas. While the story covers the desperate battle in fascinating detail, this is a story that really focuses on the bonds between men in war time, both of friendship and of love. We see clearly how friends become family and how lovers become partners amidst the horrors and challenges of war.
This story is beautifully done and one of my favorites of the anthology. Military stories can be tricky, conveying both the technical details of the battles and the equipment, as well as showing the emotion of the characters and the development of the story. Roux manages to create a perfect balance here, and I was caught up in the thrilling recounting of the fruitless battle at the same time my heart was tugged by the relationships between the men. This story was fabulous and I really loved it.
Wrong by SJD Peterson
Lee Matthews (aka Tommy Rhage) is one of the hottest hustlers around, known as a rough top with a huge dick and able to satisfy anyone willing to pay for a back alley quickie. Lee is also the super wealthy son of a prominent businessman, arrogant and only interested in the bottom line. One night Lee is picked up by a wealthy, aggressive man who taunts him into agreeing to bottom, something Lee never does. It is a rough encounter, leaving Lee bruised, sore, and thoroughly dominated.
The next day, hungover and body still weary, Lee must close a critical acquisitions deal. And as it turns out, much to Lee’s shock, the head of the company is none other than the John from the night before, Judas Mattox. Lee is caught off guard, but sure he can quickly regain the upper hand. Control and power during business deals are things Lee excels at, but Judas seems to always be one step ahead of him. He seems to know everything about Lee, especially the bad stuff, and doesn’t hesitate to use it to his advantage, manipulating Lee and forcing him to submit sexually. Lee is convinced he can turn the tables before their night is over, but he may have met his match with Judas.
So let me start off by saying, this is a tough story. Neither man is particularly likable and there is a lot of sexual aggression here. First off, we can see almost from the start that Lee is an asshole-arrogant, uncaring, and concerned only with profit. His father, the owner of their family business, is exactly the same way, and Lee has followed in his footsteps. Lee is pretty self-aware that he is a jerk, and we sort of can see why, but nonetheless, he is not a particularly nice person. Judas is an interesting character, because his malevolence is more hidden, but I actually found him the more despicable of the two. Judas uses blackmail, coercion, and at times physical strength to force Lee to submit to him in rough and painful ways. In case it isn’t clear, this story has definite dub con as well as at least one scene I’d consider clearly non-con, so be aware if this is an issue for you. It is also not a romance in any sense.
It was interesting to me to compare these guys and think about who was the more unlikable. I think while Lee is clearly an ass, at least he knows it, and at least we understand why, or at least partly so. I mean at some point even people raised by awful parents need to be responsible for their own behavior. But honestly I think Judas was even worse. Because somehow he is delusional enough to think of himself as an avenger, when really he is just a sadistic bastard.
While I found the dynamics between the two men interesting and I was curious as to how the story would develop, I had a hard time with this one because both men are so awful. After reading the first two stories in this anthology, I expected a light at the end of the tunnel. Or perhaps a realization on the part of one of these guys about their need to change, or even just for something to click in my mind to really get it. But instead I just found myself a little beaten down by these awful men and the horrific way they treat each other and others. So interesting, and it definitely made me think, but I did have a hard time with this one.
Anguish by Jason Huffman-Black
Hmmm, ok, so this story is a hard one to describe. In fact, I would say it doesn’t really read like a traditional story at all. At only a handful of pages and focused on a few minutes of time in one man’s life, it instead felt sort of like an epic poem, written in prose rather than verse. Although there is a beginning, middle, and end, there really isn’t a plot, at least not in the way most of us probably think of it.
So basically the story follows the narrator as he is driving his car. We learn that this man feels like his life is aimless and without direction. He has missed out on love and happiness and feels empty. He wishes he could change things, but doesn’t know how. As he is driving, he begins to imagine himself united with all the other people out there who feel like him, those that are unhappy or who have made mistakes. He imagines that they are all driving their cars too, and that his steering wheel is controlling all of them. He begins to feel power and control, with a strength he has always wanted. And then something happens (which I only understood on the second reading), and it ends.
So yeah, this is pretty non-traditional. It is clearly not a romance, or even a story about relationships, more a study of this particular man at this moment of his life. I will say Huffman-Black’s writing is lovely, so evocative and descriptive with wonderful imagery. I particularly loved this passage:
When his mind turned to look back at the memories of a life gone off the track, everything appeared murky, like looking through a stagnant pond, covered completely with green algae, black beneath with the overabundance of bacteria and rot that made it incapable of supporting any other life besides. Through the murk he saw love, love that wasn’t cultivated, love that was left to wither and die on the vine in his vain attempt to find happiness. Happiness that he didn’t even have the skills to identify, that he didn’t even know he might have had in his hands, had he done his part.
I could picture exactly what he described. But I just kept feeling like I was missing something, like maybe this was all going over my head a bit because I didn’t quite get it? So this one was interesting, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another story by Huffman-Black, but I am just not sure I completely got this one.
The Hotel Luz by S.A. McAuley
As our story opens, Leo Murphy finds himself having sex in a hotel room. And as he tells us, it is all because he met his old boyfriend Elia Nassir for lunch without telling Garrett, his partner of 14 years. We then flash back to a series of events in their lives, from the time Elia and Leo first meet at ages 15 and almost 14, to their high school relationship, to a couple of brief contacts after college. We also see them in present day, 12 years after they last spoke, as they prepare to reunite, and then ultimately as they see each other once more.
Both men are involved with someone else, but the love they had as teenagers remains a strong pull. Though they were in love with one another in high school, neither one ever admitted it. They never formally dated and were never exclusive, but the connection between them was always strong. And now as they are finally set to reconnect, each feels that pull toward the other again.
This was a lovely and really captivating story. I love stories of young lovers and I enjoyed hearing about their early relationship, how things developed between the men over time, and how they have grown and changed over the years. The story is told in alternating POV between Elia and Leo and it was really interesting to see their different interpretations of events, how their relationship was sort of a series of near misses, where the opportunities for something lasting were right there but circumstances or various actions somehow got in the way. I think McAuley manages to capture both that feeling of young love, but also the sense of growth and change that happens to two men over time. I really liked how things all worked out and it came together just perfectly in the end. I really liked this one quite a lot.
John & Jackie by TJ Klune
John and Jackie, age 83, sit in their home after 71 years together. They have been inseparable best friends since age 12, sharing their first kiss at age 15, and since then a lifetime together. A lifetime that is drawing to a close, as John lay dying. The men know this will be his final day. The illness is too far spread, he is in too much pain, and Jackie will give him one last gift, to help him go in peace. And as they sit together, reminiscing about their lives spent as one, we get to learn how they met, how their love grew, and get a few stolen looks into the beautiful life they had together.
Sigh. This story was just too beautiful for words. Truly, I was so moved as I read this tale of two men who have lived their lives together, grown into one over the course of a lifetime. Klune manages to make us smile as they experience the wonder of their first kiss or the glory of realizing they are meant to be together forever. And at the same we share in their pain as they accept their lives together are over, at least in this world but not in the one to come.
This is only the second book I have read of Klune’s, the first being Tell Me It’s Real, a story I loved that is filled with humor and quirkiness. So I was so impressed to see how easily he moved to a story with such poignancy, how well he captured those emotions and intense feelings so beautifully. The sense of young love, the growing wonder that you have found the person you are meant to be with, and that sense of oneness that comes from being with the same person throughout your lifetime. I have mentioned before that I met my husband at age 16. He was my first and only love and there is just such an intensity that comes from having someone who has shared virtually every major event of importance in your life. I was really blown away by how well Klune captures that feeling in this story, and tears are still welling in my eyes from this beautiful story even as I type this review.
As I said in the introduction, there are many great stories in this anthology, but I feel confident that it is worth buying for this amazing story alone. Truly fabulous.
Cover Review: I like this one. Very haunting and fits so nicely with the theme of the anthology.