Rating: 4.25 stars
Buy Link: Amazon | All Romance
This anthology is twelve rounds of non-stop action. It features stories full of characters willing to fight for what they believe in, the ones they love, or just for survival. No matter what the circumstances, one thing is for sure—none of them are backing down!
This was a really long anthology with a very wide variety of genres, heat levels, endings, and tones. Really it’s one of the most diverse anthologies I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I hope you’ll take out the time to check out the more detailed reviews of each story and find out why.
Heart’s Tournament by Mell Eight
Rating: 4.25 stars
The city of Lev is divided. Two guilds of highly trained fighters guard the city and constantly jockey for position and territory. The only way to keep the peace is the yearly martial arts tournament, where fighters from each guild battle to claim supremacy and prestige within the city for an entire year. Four-year-old orphaned twins Keel and Saar don’t care about that beyond the fact that the fighting between the guilds makes them far more focused on each other rather than catching thieving, homeless children. That is until the day their childish curiosity prompts them to attempt stealing battle cats—powerful creatures that form strong bonds with human warriors—unaware of the meaning of their actions.
When caught by the merchant selling the cats, Keel and Saar run, only to be caught—by opposite guilds. It is apparent that the battle cats have bonded with the twins and should be trained to join a guild, but each was apprehended by a different guild and to avoid bloodshed, Keel is taken away to Simola for training while Saar goes to Yimina. Life is good for them and they make friends, but they are unable to live with the separation. The boys make plans to sneak out and meet at their old hiding spot once a week.
Through the years they grow together and share their training together, but eventually their deception is discovered in their teens. Sariel and Linalee, Keel and Saar’s trainers, respectively, follow them one night and learn their secrets. Knowing that revealing all at this point could start a war, Sariel and Linalee agree to keep silent and train the boys together. The increase in time spent together brings long hidden feelings to the surface for both twins and their relationship becomes romantic. Life is good for years until the tournament where both brothers make it to the final and must reveal everything. Through the fear of being separated again for their deception, all the brothers can do is fight as hard as they can, in the ring and for a solution.
I liked this story quite a bit. It was very well written and the world-building was superb. To have a premise that rests entirely on the way a fictional culture works is only successful when there is enough detail and depth to the culture to make it feel real and relatable. This was so skillfully done by Eight here that toward the end of the story, things would happen and I could say to myself “Oh, yes, that’s because X, Y, and Z have happened, so A, B, and C are necessary now.” It’s not often you find such a lush, textured landscape in a novella-length story.
Plotwise, the fighting—especially the final tournament—and the passage of time following Keel and Saar’s development over the years was just as skillfully executed. The premise very naturally created a conflict that felt tense and fraught with the possibility of everything falling apart at any minute, but also didn’t feel insurmountable. Which was nice, because nothing felt contrived.
The only complaint that I had about this story—and it’s really not much of a complaint, more wishful thinking—is the romance element. While the romance between the brothers is sweet and satisfying after such a long time apart for them, most of it happens off-page and it is certainly not the focus of the story. That doesn’t really take anything away from what is on-page, but I did find myself wanting just a little more. This story was so well-crafted, and I enjoyed these characters so much that I was left with that bitter-sweet ache of being teased with greatness and only getting about ¾ of it. I loved what I got, but I still felt like something was missing.
Champions by Andrea Speed
Rating: 3.5 stars
In the UFL, fights only end by submission or death. It’s dangerous enough for heavyweight champion Kell to fight himself—a rare human fighting against bigger, stronger, alien races—but it’s even more dangerous to date another fighter and get attached to someone else who could walk into the ring and never walk back out. Doesn’t stop Kell from doing it, though. When Kell’s lover Layne has an opportunity to fight for the championship in his weight class, Kell doesn’t know whether to be nervous or excited. He settles for both and hopes that he and Layne will have the burden of managing life as the only human champions in the UFL—together.
This one was kind of a mixed bag for me. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, there was some great stuff here, but I felt like it just really didn’t go anywhere. There wasn’t really a beginning here, and not much of an ending, and so the whole thing was just one big sea of middle, very directionless.
I liked our POV character, Kell, and found him both relatable and adorable. He was macho, and tough, and stoic, but still a little vulnerable with his feelings for Layne and having to watch the love of his life enter a threatening situation. Layne, on the other hand, I never really got a feel for, and he was kind of bland.
The real star here is the setting. Speed crafts a very interesting and well-defined world for these characters to play in and it made me want to play there too. I particularly loved the descriptions of the other alien races. They were so creative and thoughtful; it was the little details (like one character smelling like boiled cabbage when he sweat) that made this story unique. It was a fun, quick little read, and the fights were interesting, but there’s not much more to it in the way of substance than that. Had there been a little more meat on the bones here in terms of plot and character development, I could have easily read another hundred pages in this universe…
Canis Project by Kish Swanson
Rating: 4.75 stars
Twins Liam and Alex don’t have much room in their lives for worry; they’re too excited. They’ve just moved in to their own apartment to start college and they’re too busy taking advantage of having their own space, free of prying eyes, to express their not-just-brotherly love to worry about all the news reports about genetic engineering and maulings. They should have paid attention.
On a routine day, Alex swings back by the apartment for some forgotten supplies for class and never returns. Liam is beside himself; he feels like part of him died as soon as he knew Alex was gone. The police search for him, and find nothing, but a mysterious man on the other end of a mysterious cell-phone tells Liam that Alex has been the victim of a Dog—a genetically engineered human-canine hybrid, developed to be an assassin. It’s too late for Liam to save Alex—his brother, his love, his life has been taken from him forever—but it’s not too late to help others. The man on the phone helps Liam become a Slayer—humans dedicated to hunting and killing Dogs and their human handlers—and Liam takes up the cause eagerly.
Liam fights for years, determined to rid the world of every last Dog; the image of Alex’s smiling face in his mind’s eye unable to let him quit. He’d like to say it’s about keeping others from experiencing the pain he has, but it’s not; it’s revenge pure and simple—and he enjoys it. But when he finds out that Alex may not be lost to him after all, Liam has to decide just how far he’s willing to go, how hard he’s willing to fight to save him.
This story was absolutely superb. It was incredibly well written; the emotions just leapt off the page. It sort of happened unexpectedly for me, because it builds slowly. At first, we’re treated to the sunshine-warm bubble Liam and Alex have enveloped themselves in, with only the barest of hints that something sinister is lurking just below the surface, waiting to pop this happy dream-world. Then, as soon as the reader starts to feel comfortable in their footing—Swanson yanks the rug from underneath us and drags us into the murky, dismal world this story resides in. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip. I feel like this story shoved me into a back alley for a messy, ill-advised tryst and roughed me up—but made me like it enough not to mind the bruises and the fact that I noticed my wallet was gone hours later. Yep, this story is the literary equivalent of a mugging disguised as semi-public wall-sex. Who knew this was what I was missing from life?
The reason this story works so well all boils down to one thing, really—Liam. Sure, the writing was wonderful; top notch execution of brilliant ideas. And the world-building was amazing; done with both subtlety and effectiveness. And poor, sweet Alex was terribly lovable and heartbreaking all at once. But it was Liam that did it for me. Liam is what drove this story, gave it structure, (a steel backbone that wouldn’t be broken) lent it a tenderness, (the raw ache of a wound never tended) and heated it with fury (an inferno of grief and torment that fed continuously on his emptiness to never burn out). There was one particular scene where his vulnerability cuts so deeply that I had tears in my eyes. Liam is the glue that bound all of these inventive, disparate concepts together in an irrevocable way and turned them into genius.
This one was weird, and a little creepy, and quite painful, but worth every gut-wrenching moment. The only reason it didn’t get a “5” is because the ending is left a little open-ended, and after having my heart ripped out and then shoved back into my chest cavity, I sort of wanted to suture the tear closed with the security of a clear happily-ever-after; but in all honesty, I don’t actually mind that this one left me a little bloody on exit.
Experiment Number Six by Mina MacLeod
Rating: 4.75 stars
“This is not how he thought he’d die for his country.”
Marine Jason Slater wakes up in enemy custody, strapped down to a hospital bed and pumped full of unknown drugs. He remembers being on a recon mission, but he doesn’t know how it all went pear-shaped. For months he knows nothing other than the emotionless doctors, the burn of the pharmaceuticals, and the same question—“who is the conduit?”—over and over. He thinks it’s torture, an interrogation, but it’s really an experiment. He thinks he’s going to die on that table—and then he’s rescued.
Warrant officer, Eric Archer, can’t imagine what was done to Jason in the two months since his capture, but he knows it left deep psychological scars. It’s not hard for him to slip into the role of nursemaid/friend/punching bag for Slater to take his aggression out on that he’s been assigned; Slater brings out all his protective urges. He brings out a lot of other urges too. Eric wants Jason, but to have him, first they’ve got to get him back in fighting shape and find out what happened to him.
If the last story was a dirty hook-up behind a bar, this one was like being dropped into the middle of a slasher movie. Like peeking through the crack in the closet door with your hand over your mouth to keep from breathing too loud in panic. Holy cow was it frightening. Jason’s sheer terror at being helpless and unaware of what was happening to him was palpable. My heartbeat was racing throughout his entire captivity and didn’t slow much after that. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. This story is one adrenaline rush after the other.
I loved our characters here. I have such an affinity for wounded, slightly broken men and the men who love them. The connection with Jason is instant; he and the reader experience the horror of what’s done to him together, and it creates a strong bond right from the start. Jason’s recovery from his trauma was painful and raw and perfect, because I felt like I needed to recover just as much as he did.The vulnerability he showed somehow made him seem stronger, and made his connection to Eric more powerful. Eric was so wonderful as a support system—caring, but tough when Jason needed it, and never coddling. They worked really well together and the tension between them was sizzling. The romance was just as much of a rush as everything going on around them was.
Again, just about the only thing that I didn’t absolutely love about this was the ending. It’s more hopeful determination than resolution of any kind and I just wanted a little more from such a delightful story.
Knight and Novice by Cassandra Pierce
Rating: 4.75 stars
Renulf’s days are boring, but he knows what to expect from them. Brought as a child to the sanctuary for Xir, Renulf has learned the art of translation from his master Ozwyn, as well as learning how to serve Xir. With only the two of them in the secluded sanctuary, Renulf’s life is an endless stream of translations and gardening and isolation; he longs for something, anything, to break up the monotony.
When a garwig—a terrible troll-like creature—arrives one afternoon to threaten Ozwyn, Renulf rushes to his aid, only to fall beneath the garwig’s superior skill and strength. Renulf fears for his life, but at the last minute a knight arrives and saves Renulf and Ozwyn from the garwig. The knight, Lord Bazel, tells him that he’s on a mission to find a way to rid his home of the garwigs and that he’d been tracking that particular garwig for some time before felling him. He complains of travel weariness and Ozwyn reluctantly invites him to stay.
Fearful of any outsiders, Ozwyn doesn’t trust Bazel’s intentions and instructs Renulf to pretend to be mute and to search through Bazel’s things. Renulf is reluctant—he doesn’t share Ozwyn’s fear and he’s drawn to the handsome knight—but he cannot disobey his master’s orders. Bazel discovers the deception, and Renulf confesses all. Bazel tells him that he’s also been hiding things; there is a scroll rumored to contain the secret for driving the garwigs away forever, and he seeks a translator for it. He asks Renulf for help.
In the dead of night, Renulf sneaks to Bazel’s quarters and helps him translate the scroll, but with every minute spent alone with the knight, his attraction grows. Renulf wants to help Bazel, but he dreads the time when he finishes his work on the scroll and Bazel will leave. However with every line Renulf translates, it seems that he and Bazel understand the scroll’s meaning less and less. Renulf is desperate for a way to both aid Bazel in his quest and not let him walk away and leave Renulf to the boring days that would cut much deeper after knowing Bazel.
Solid, solid story here. The fantasy elements were really well done and the world-building was wonderful. I loved sweet, shy little Renulf and really felt for his desire for something beyond the constant drudgery of his life. This story was one part mystery, one part Renulf finding himself, one part romance, and one part magical fantasy. I loved the combination.
The plot for this really worked well. The premise was interesting, the conflict arose naturally, and the resolution was satisfying. The romance element was also expertly woven in so that neither storyline—Renulf’s growing feelings or the mystery of the scroll—felt like it was taking away from the other; they were layered within each other beautifully.
This was a really fun one with not a lot of angst and emotional stress, but still with enough substance to feel really good about upon finishing.
Fight to the Finish by Diana Sheridan
Rating: 3 stars
Maltroos is a pledger—men who pledge their life to sword-fighting in the arena for the king’s amusement. As such, he is not allowed to ask for the hand of Price Saxtry, whom he loves desperately. They are forced to meet secretly and carry on a clandestine affair. When the king announces the beginning of a tournament—fights to the death with the prize of marriage to one of his children—Maltroos sees it as an opportunity to finally make Saxtry his for real. Saxtry is worried about Maltroos—the risk of loosing him is not worth the reward when they can simply carry on as they’ve been—and he begs Maltroos not to enter the tournament. Maltroos will hear nothing of it though; he has to win Saxtry’s hand no matter the risk.
This one just didn’t work for me. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with it, I just didn’t connect to it at all. On the whole, the text just read vey awkwardly and was very repetitive and formulaic. Most of the dialogue felt like the characters were speaking only for the benefit of the reader and not conversing among themselves. There really wasn’t much tension, and the perilous fights didn’t feel at all dangerous. I couldn’t get a feel for these characters and had little investment in their romance. Mostly this one was just bland.
Rule Breaker by Archer Kay Leah
Rating: 4 stars
Mercenary Gren lives by a set of rules: no strings, no charity, no preferences, and no attachments. After witnessing the brutal death of his mother at a young age he learned to protect himself from things like loyalty and emotion and the hurt they could cause. But when he meets Tracel, a healer who was born a man but lives as a woman, he starts rethinking all his rules.
The death of the local leader causes a power struggle to erupt in Tracel’s village and Tracel is taken by the man challenging the former leader’s successor. Gren would fear for her no matter what, but he’s especially fearful of what might happen if the power-hungry madman discovers her secret. Going after her would mean breaking all of his rules, but Gren thinks she just might be worth it.
I liked this one a lot. It was interesting and the characters were well-rounded. It felt a touch familiar—the damsel in distress trope is a trope for a reason—but still fresh (especially since the damsel in question isn’t your average damsel, nor is she suitably distressed for the villain’s taste). The pacing moved you along through this story at a good clip and the plot unfolded naturally. Everything about this worked, there just wasn’t anything that really set it over-the-top either.
A Little Magic by Annabelle Kitch
Rating: 5 stars
Thrim isn’t suited for fighting. He’s slim and scholarly and has never fought a day in his life. He was supposed to be attending the Academy and training to become a magician; he can’t imagine why a lord who runs a gladiator arena would have bought him from the slavers that kidnapped him. Surely he had to know that Thrim wouldn’t be worth whatever price he’d fetched in the arena.
Thrim assumes his new fate in captivity is to be an endless cycle of fighting and injury, but when a fellow gladiator casts a spell on him, it changes his life irrevocably. The spell shrinks Thrim down to the size of a handspan, leaving him not only unable to fight but also vulnerable and incapable of caring for himself. To his great surprise, taciturn and battle-frenzied fellow gladiator, Arn, offers his protection to Thrim. As the days wear on, Arn goes from simply a protector to a friend and Thrim’s feelings for him become that of longing. He must find a way to keep them together and return to his former size if there’s to be any hope of creating some kind of life with Arn.
Man, I loved this one to death. It was interesting and creative and beautifully written. Both of these characters have such depth: Thrim with his insecurity and his longing for a lost life and Arn with his isolation and his mad lust for battle. They’re both what you would expect from them, and yet at the same time, not. They both surprise you at times: Arn with an unexpected humor and Thrim with an unprecedented bravery and strength. Every word of this just made me want to dig deeper into the both of them and find all their hidden secrets.
It was so easy to see why they bonded with each other. Both had gaping wounds they were trying to fill, all the while trying to keep them hidden from view. It makes perfect sense that two people so desperate for connection and to rid themselves of the void within would find a way to be what the other needed. It was incredible to watch unfurl, like a delicate flower blossoming.
Everything about this story was well done—the characters, the plot, the emotion, the world-building, the descriptions. Upon approaching the end I was struck simultaneously by the desire to never have it end and the deep satisfaction of a wonderful story coming to a highly satisfying close.
A Good Man by Caitlin Ricci
Rating: 4 stars
Emory used to box professionally, until his dad died. Getting back in the ring was just too hard to do while mourning the man who’d taught him how to fight. He’d intended to give it up forever, but when he gets fired from his job and asks the owner of the gym he trains at if there’s some work he can do, the owner offers him a job—but only if Emory fights in an upcoming exhibition match to promote the gym. Emory is reluctant—because of the memories of his father and because his boyfriend, Jonah, would hate that he’s fighting again—but he doesn’t see what choice he has. Emory must come to terms with his own feelings about getting in the ring again and convince Jonah that everything will be okay so that he can move on and accept the job at the gym he wants desperately.
This one was pretty cute. There’s not a ton of substance here, but I liked it. Emory is sweet and Jonah is sassy and the conflict is barely there and then gone leaving room for a sugar-sweet ending. The most interesting thing about this one for me was Emory’s efforts to get through his aversion to fighting again. It can be really hard to go back to activities that you associate very strongly with a loved one after you lose them and this was an interesting take on that theme. I enjoyed it.
Gladiatrix by S.S. Skye
Rating: 3.5 stars
The daughter of a blacksmith, Daelan, is caught completely unaware when she’s taken into custody after her father sold her to pay his debts. That might account for the fact that all she can think about on the way to her holding cell is that she stood up her best friend, Beatrice, that evening—or maybe there’s just something wrong with her. Daelan is taken to fight in a gladiator style contest. If she survives, her debt are considered paid and she is free to go.
After her first fight, when she receives better care than some of the other prisoners, Daelan finds out that it’s because she has a patron. Patrons pay for better weapons, food and accommodations for fighters, with the understanding that the fighter will repay that debt should they survive. To Daelan’s surprise, her patron is Beatrice’s uncle, at Beatrice’s request. Daelan thinks it might be more than simple friendship driving Beatrice’s actions, but she’s got to survive the Games long enough to find out.
This one was just okay for me. Nothing really wrong with it, but there just wasn’t a whole lot to sink your teeth into either. Everything that happened was slightly predictable and there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to these characters or the plot. It was nice to see a bad-ass mace-wielding heroine though. Other than that, not much else for me.
Feint of Heart by Freddie Milano
Rating: 4.25 stars
Cal is the first squire not of noble blood to be allowed to enter knight training. Because of this, many of his fellow squires resent him and the knight sponsoring him. He’s endured frequent bullying for years, but one night, while walking outside his quarters, he overhears one of the other knights and his squire plotting to dishonor Taren, Cal’s knight, and have him stripped of his knighthood. Cal struggles to find a way to navigate both the nefarious plan and his inappropriate feelings for Taren before it’s too late.
This one was good. I liked the external conflict element of it. The plotting of the other knights felt very fraught with tension and had me quickly turning pages to see what happened next. I also really liked Cal. He was a typical young man in love—sweet and naïve and painfully awkward, but also rash and impulsive. The story really worked well being seen through his eyes, but I really wish we would have gotten more interaction between him and Taren.
This plot focused so much on the scheming of the snobby knights, that the romance element suffered somewhat in my opinion and Taren, despite ostensibly being an MC, really feels like a background character. I would have like to get to know him better. Other than that, this one was highly enjoyable.
Chasing Coyote by August Aimes
Rating: 5 stars
You’d think getting held up with his own gun—not once, but twice—would have enraged bounty hunter Jove; instead all it made him do was enjoy the chase more. He never had been too bright. After months of chasing the outlaw known only as Coyote, he’s developed a rather unhealthy attraction to him.
When he finds out where Coyote’s planning to earn his last big score, Jove chases him there—and quickly runs into trouble from his own past. He finally chases Coyote down and finds out that they’re both in way over their heads. If they can figure out how to work together, they might just make it out alive.
This story was absolutely delightful. Probably the best of the bunch. It was written with such humor that there were times I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. It was flat-out hysterical.
I adored Jove. Any man who’s comfortable enough to not only describe himself as pretty but not too bright, and be proud of it wins my heart easily. He’s funny and loyal and, yeah, not too bright, but still insightful and he’s just one big ball of happy-making feelings. Coyote produced a very similar visceral reaction in me. It’s rare that I absolutely love both MCs in a story, but this is one of those cases. He’s smart and slick and witty and always one step ahead of Jove and it’s a joy to read.
Honestly the whole thing is a joy. I can’t exactly put my finger on every single thing that made this one so special. It just had that x-factor that made it transcend mere enjoyment.