Enchanted Soles is a collection of five stories build around the common theme of magical shoes. On the whole, I liked the stories well enough. I knew going in it would be a bit of a challenge to me because the bulk of my fiction reading is gay romance and this collection had one of each pairing: m/m, f/f, f/f/m, m/m/f, trans woman/m.
Apart from the material challenging my reading comfort zone (or, rather, lazy zone), I found the collection sort of hit-or-miss content wise. Given that each story is so different, I will describe each one briefly below and highlight what worked and what didn’t for me.
Three Nights by A.D. Traux 4 stars
Synder is a poor farmer boy in the countryside of India. He finds an absolute steal on a pair of ridiculously well-made shoes. The catch? They have been enchanted with magic, but there’s no telling if it’s simply a charm to keep them clean, prevent wear and tear, or something far more nefarious. Synder gives the shoes a chance and, despite nothing happening at first, he suddenly finds himself whisked off to the mahal where the royal family is holding a three-day celebration.
Att the palace, Synder meets Mohan and the two quickly strike up a friendship. Together, they partake of the festivities dancing and eating and talking. Soon, they find themselves ensconced on their own private balcony where their connection grows deeper despite the brevity of the event. Things couldn’t be better…except on the third and final day of the celebrations, Synder overhears Mohan making some troubling comments.
Synder knows he’s no prize for a handsome prince like Mohan. With dread, he starts to realize that perhaps the sumptuous party at the mahal was actually intended as a chance for Mohan to find a princess for himself. Upset at feeling like nothing more than a trifling dalliance for a prince about to commit his life to some princess, Synder swears off the party. Although Synder may choose to sacrifice his happiness for the sake of Mohan’s future, Synder doesn’t count on Mohan’s determination to stay by Synder’s side.
This was probably my favorite of the stories simply because it runs closest to my normal fare, straight up gay romance. The story is a reimagining of Cinderella, but it gets big bonus points for developing their relationship meaningfully, albeit over just three days. Even though this is a short story, I definitely felt like our main characters were well defined and even the bit players (like Synder’s mom and Mohan’s brother) don’t come across as strictly cardboard.
Traux does a commendable job with the setting, also. The works woven into the piece paint just enough of a picture to bring to mind India (my best guess based on the inclusion of a “mahal” as in Taj Mahal, I suppose) without overwhelming me with foreign words. The world building is also well done for such a short piece. I never got hung up on the whyfors for the characters circumstances—part of this is probably driven by the tried and true Cinderella trope, but it definitely works to the author’s advantage here, I’d wager.
Dame Fortune by C. Finley 3 stars
Saidah a down-on-her-luck barmaid. When a witch who regularly patronizes Saidah’s workplace gifts her with a certificate to a shoe shop called Dame Fortune, the timing couldn’t have been better—Saida’s only pair of shoes is just about to give up the ghost.
The shoes Saidah takes are perhaps fancier than she normally dares, but they fit and they are free thanks to the coupon. They’re also magical, able to transport the wearer to her heart’s desire in a single bound. No stranger to heartache and heartbreak, Saidah challenges the magical shoes to take her to the one she loves. The last thing she expected was for that leap of faith to land her in the arms of not one, but two people—one a half-man, half-machine named Gavriel and the other a lonely witch with a big heart named Betry.
All is not well, however, for the major of their city has plans to usurp power from the queen using an army of the same half-human, half-machine beings. It falls to Saidah and her two companions to thwart his efforts…but at what cost?
The best thing about this story is watching the development between Saidah, Gavriel, and Betry. To be perfectly honest, though, I found even this aspect of the story a bit wishy-washy. What put me on the fence was how each of these three characters all takes the same approach to their potential partners: shy, shy, shy. Everyone’s so busy sighing over how no one makes a move on them, all the actual romantic momentum happens at a near glacial pace. Plus, it wasn’t until quite late in the game that it finally became reasonably clear that we were headed for polyamory territory. Initially, I was pretty convinced Saidah and Gavriel would pair off and Betry would just wind up alone. As we thump along, though, we end up getting around to Betry getting included. And the aforementioned “not gonna try so I can’t possibly fail” does provide and endless wealth of angsty moment.
For me, though, all the back and forth about who’s attracted to whom and fears/suspicions of unrequited love detracted from the plot. Squeezed between frequent bouts of mooning and languishing with feelings presumably unrequited is the actual plot (by “actual” I mean “plot that is not related to moonfaced languishing would be lovers if they just screwed up the courage to take a fucking chance”). There are hints throughout about what’s going on, but it felt pretty far stuff into the background. Also, the thrills-and-chills climax kind of cheapened the vanila-esque love story because I thought it brought our threesome together the way tragic accidents sometimes bring people together. Not that it’s bad per se, but the story overall felt a bit unfocused…or maybe focused on two very distinct elements that weren’t quite woven together as cleaning as I would have liked.
Heart, Lace, and Soul by Archer Kay Leah 3.75 stars
Empath Elly Satuura has dedicated her life to her profession as an Emotional Health Worker. With her microchip-enhanced brain and powerful magical boots, she can literally read people like an open book. Until Vadrick “Vade” Wallis—a kind, attractive, sensitive man at her local cafe. A man who, incidentally, is the only person Elly and her multiple enhancements cannot get a read on whatsoever.
Elly’s attraction for Vade is fierce, though. So much so that she willing takes a leap of faith: allowing herself to get to know him despite her inability to use any of her empath abilities to peel back his protective emotional coverings. The more she uncovers, the more she falls for the man. That is, until she finds a disturbing collection of deranged art secreted away in Vade’s in-house studio. For all that he appears to be the attentive, caring man Elly knows him as, he has a dark side.
Questions start to rise when Vade’s best friend lets her know the man she’s fallen for is a pale shell of the man he once was years before Elly met him. When a catastrophic accident nearly kills Vade while he is at work, all the emotional barriers get thrown back up and Vade starts to break down. Elly is faced with the biggest challenge of her life and one that no Emotional Health Worker training could ever have prepared her for…but she knows Vade is worth fighting for—if only she can convince him of that, too.
To be honest, I found the actual story elements in this piece a bit too far-flung. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the story through the eyes of the Elly, a trans woman. Her backstory and her thoughts in the on-page action really made the story for me. There wasn’t an overt focus on her transition and I liked that the story unfolds more with little day-to-day comments she makes about living her life as trans. In fact, I don’t even think the word “trans” appears on-page and despite the positive affirmation she is male to female trans, there are not belaboring monologues, but natural asides that anyone would make about their own self (like, I wish my butt weren’t so dam flat) that just happen to reflect her transition (like, I’m self conscious of how large my hands appear). This lets the reader get a feel for Elly the person first and foremost.
Unfortunately, I found the some big plot elements pretty contrived. What started out as a simple falling-in-love, get-together, feel-good story took a turn for the dramatic when Vade’s inner demons start to make an appearance. In general, I liked Vade. He’s the kind of character who seems too good to be true and you know he’s got issues…we get tantalizing views of what those could possibly be. Or, more accurately, we see the grotesque coping mechanism he uses to deal with his issues. But when said issues finally get revealed, the plastic-feeling of those second-hand experiences let me down a little bit. Not to mention the resolution, which was cookie cutter boring. And, in retrospect, kind of pisses me off because I feel kind of like it’s the woman who has to make sacrifices for her man. Except that her sacrifice is the boots (those boots! see the next paragraph for more on that) and if there’s one point that’s belabored besides Vade’s emotional aloofness, it’s how Elly pretty much lives, dies, and defines herself by those boots.
And the whole magic boots things! The whole point of this collection of stories is magic shoes, but in this story, these boots definitely felt like someone wrote a story and realized they forgot the secret ingredient and went back and copy-pasted it in. I mean, she has microchips implanted in her brain that allows her to read the emotions of others…I never really knew what the boots did.
Aelfwear by Katey Hawthorne 3 stars
A family of elves has a legacy of crafting the most perfect footwear for their shop, Aelfwear. When Angelique comes looking for shoes hideous enough to force her soon-to-be fiancé and unfathomably shallow pretty-boy, Morgan Van Regering, to break off their relationship, Frida is initially wary. Yet the more she learns from Angelique—a fashionista in her own right—the more excited Frida becomes at the prospect of helping. At first, Frida explains it away as a business opportunity to work on a new fashion line between herself and Angelique. Over business lunches and meetings over tea, however, Frida grows a soft spot for Angelique, and Angelique for Frida.
Can their relationship survive the near-atomic level fallout Van Regering is capable of? Only time will tell.
Whew. I found this story totally mediocre. I mean, the shallowness of this fiancé is laughably pathetic, but the “brilliant” strategy to use his own shallowness to get Angelique off the marriage hook is equally laughable to me. Hawthorne spends a lot of time developing the relationship between Frida and her two siblings also, but that thread feels nearly independent from the main story line: Frida moving in on Angelique after Van Regering is out of the picture. The big connection is that Frida is wary of outsiders, like Angelique et al, worming their way into Frida’s inner circle as a way to steal their trade secrets.
This story had one assignment: write a story about magic shoes. And it probably wins the gold medal in that regard because cobbler-elves is about as “on point” as you can get with that theme. The rest of it, I could take or leave. If there was one aspect of the story telling that captured my attention at first, it was the way the first-person narration seemed to be teasing me with who the first-person narrator was. By this point in the collection, I was starting to realize each story centered on a particular pairing in addition to the shoe thing. Given how the writing lays things out and the use of the prefix “aelf” on things, I wasn’t sure if “Aelfryda” meant any particular anything. I was excited to find out if this narrator was a man, woman, or something non binary. Eventually, though, the obfuscation came to an end…if it was ever intentional in the first place. *sigh*
Into the Hollowed Veil by A.M. Valencia 4.25 stars
Velasco was newly homeless, nearly penniless, and about to be shoeless. What little money he had, he gives to a fellow homeless man in exchange for a pair of shoes. They are bright red and comfortable, even without socks. They also lead him on a fantastic journey where he meets the beautiful and cajoling Aurelia.
Aurelia takes him through the woods, a lake, and a wall carved with cubbies containing offerings to the dead. She needs his help finding her lover Dare. The journey, however, is a difficult one. Once they finally find Dare, Velasco realizes just how hard it will be—the connection between Aurelia and Dare is clear and Velasco fears there is no room for him to share in their closeness. Feeling alone and confused, filled with want but too scared to reach out for it, Velasco starts to realize there is more going on that just his inner turmoil. His friends have been cursed; he and his sacrifice might be the key to saving them…but is he strong enough to let them go? Is he strong enough to hold on to them?
Wow. This is the show-stopper of the collection. I’ll say this up front: it’s a dense read. There is a shiton of symbolism here, a smattering of Spanish (that might make the symbolism a little more clear, but never having studied a romance language, I didn’t get much out of it. Some phrases were reiterated on-page, which helped, but not all of them), and cultural nods to Latin America. I don’t want to give anything more away than the title already does, but the big reveal in the story quite nearly took me by surprise. Part of that is the complexity of the characters and their predicament. Valesco has been summoned by Aurelia to break the curse she and Dare suffer under. Two big question marks (but not necessary detractors, amazingly enough) are that I was never sure WHY these two got cursed and WHO cursed them (Okay, we learn who cursed them, but I never knew what this person was supposed to symbolize…and even then, that character doesn’t seem to be a straight up allegory for God).
Although the plot was hard to follow at times—and if this was a function of the “dense” writing or a reflection of those nods to a culture I am not privy to, I can’t say—what struck me the most was how beautifully vivid the writing is. If you liked Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, you will probably enjoy the prose of this story. Valencia can write a mean descriptive paragraph that tickles my inner writer (descriptive writing being my favorite kind when I’m the one having to write). It had a supernatural twist with flowy prose and a sweet, shy main character who dares to dream he might find a place among a pair of mysterious, rough-yet-kind couple. I liked it.
To sum up the entire collection, this book has a collection of five short stories focused on the theme of magical shoes. Most incorporate that theme smoothly, but a couple felt like it was last-minute addition. This would be a great book if, like me, you aren’t one to read a lot of stories about non-male pairings (and based on one of Jay’s recent posts from a convention, this might more common than just me being a theme-queen or whatever), a collection like this is a great way to test the waters in addition to the typical “I don’t know if I like Writer X enough to buy a whole book written by them.”