Into the Mystic is an anthology, but not necessarily in the traditional sense. Rather than being a collection of short stories, each with their own plot and arc, this is instead (mostly) a collection of vignettes. A glimpse into the moments that shape a person, or a relationship. They evoke feelings, thoughts, ideas, but they aren’t full stories.
Some of them are beautiful, some are languid, and others have a sense of urgency. All of them are tied together by a single thread — one woven of so many colors — a thread made of women. Strong women standing at a precipice, women who have choices to make. To accept power or deny it, to stay safe with their family or take the path of adventure. To chase love, to accept it when it comes, to choose happiness.
There are so many women in this book, from faeries, to witches, to women born in the wrong flesh, but they’re all women worth reading about. Some of these authors were new to me and I’m glad for the introduction to their worlds and their writing. So, to begin…
Reborn by Brooklyn Ray (4 stars)
Thalia has spent her life bathed in magic, until the night her mother forced her to make a choice: her family, her coven, her magic… or her lover, a necromancer and user of dark magic. Knowing the choice she would make, Thalia decided to leave them both behind. Unfortunately, her mother’s death calls her back to take her place as head of her coven and to face the woman she had loved and left behind.
The writing in this story reminds me so much of Tanith Lee. The opening sentence drew me in immediately and the lyrical, elegant prose with which Ray created her character’s world brought every image to life. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the story behind the writing is just as captivating.
Zero Hour by J.C. Long (4 stars)
Simone was so certain her girlfriend was cheating on her. Once a month she’d vanish, off with her friends, only to come back the next day as if nothing had happened. But enough was enough. Was it too much to ask Robbin to be with her on her birthday? When Robbin bailed — again — Simone had had it. She followed her girlfriend, intending to confront her, only to discover that Robbin wasn’t entirely human. Now the bite on her arm aches and Simone isn’t certain she’s ready to face the full moon.
This was a more straightforward story with Simone and Robbin facing the truth of their relationship. Do they love each other? Yes. Do they trust each other? That one’s not so easy to answer. It’s interesting to see this take on werewolves, as Robbin walks Simone through her transformation, and I love the fact that Simone’s reaction go being furry is to be happy! There is joy in the moment rather than fear, and the happily ever after felt real, realistic, and just right.
Dove in the Window by Kara Race-Moor (4.5 stars)
Cissy’s best friend, Pearl, is dead. But that doesn’t stop her from visiting Cissy at night, restless and unable to sleep. Cissy tries everything she can think of, giving Pearl the wedding dress she never had a chance to wear, but even that does nothing to help her friend. Cissy, at her wit’s end, calls for help from the only other person she can think of who might have the answers: Death.
I love gothic ghost stories, and this one was almost perfect. Cissy, as a character, is fully three-dimensional and her love for Pearl, both as a friend and as something that might have grown into more than friendship, feel achingly real. But the star of this story, for me, was the Dumb Supper and the angry, cursed goat. Funny, charming, and beautifully written, I think it’s my favorite of the collection.
Bottom of the River by Samantha Kate (3.25 stars)
Anja is the daughter of wealthy parents. Their closets are always overflowing with clothes, their tables groan beneath the weight of more food than a village can eat, and her father has more money than he could spend in two lifetimes. The only note of uncertainty in Anja’s life is why do her parents warn her about the river? Why must she never go near it? Why does the river make them so afraid?
This story didn’t work for me. The small, fairy-tale touches were nice, but Anja’s lack of personality and the predictability of the story felt a little stale for me. The writing was clean and crisp, the pace was good… but the story preceding it did it no favors as it couldn’t keep up the tension and didn’t hold my interest.
If You Want to Walk by Nicole Field (3.75 stars)
Chess is trapped in fairy land. She doesn’t know how she got here, though she knows why — the fae had wanted someone new, and she happened to find the way in at the right time — and she doesn’t know how to get home. Even Dancer, her friend and caretaker, can’t make her happy here, so they work — Dancer and the other Fae — to free Chess.
This was an odd one with less world building or plot than atmosphere, like watching a movie with no dialogue. For some reason it worked for me, this moody, melancholy world of the Fae. Chess finding her freedom, Dancer finding Chess… I wish this one had been longer.
A Tended Garden by J.P. Jackson (4 stars)
Alyssa is a natural witch, born with power. Rachel is the head of the coven, the only coven Alyssa has, and so she puts up with all the slights, the ordering about, the bullying just to avoid being cast out. But when she learns Rachel’s secret, how she gains her power and what she’s doing with it, Alyssa is determined to show Rachel what a pissed-off true witch can do.
In this story Jackson shows us a new way to look at Dryads, and a new way to look at witches. Watching them both together — female forms of power and magic, both drawing from nature and the earth itself — feels so right, so natural. And yet, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that put them together this way, or made them both work so well. Alyssa is a great character full of personality and spunk and Elah and Lilifolia are amazingly alien.
Romancing the Healer by Caitlin Ricci (3.5 stars)
Aria, a wolf shifter, is caught out in a storm and manages to not only loose the rabbit she’d killed for dinner, but to hurt herself at the same time. Risking hypothermia, she’s pondering what to do next when she’s rescued by Zoe, a bear shifter who just happens to be a healer. A healer who touches Aria’s heart with as much tenderness as she does her ankle. One thing leads to another and soon the two of them are keeping each other warm against the chill of the storm outside.
Told in first person point of view, Aria comes across as nice enough, if a little, ah, randy, and the gentleness and understanding she shows Zoe — a woman born into a man’s body — is compassionate. I loved that they talked, discussing what they wanted, what the like,d and what made them happy. A very sex-positive and sex-healthy story with rather bland characters.
Midnight Kisses by L.J. Hamlin (2 stars)
A witch and a werewolf walk into a bar… Bella is a witch and a member of the otherworldly council as her father was and his father. Cassie is a werewolf, a strong and aggressive female in a matriarchal society of shifters. When the two meet it’s lust at first sight. If only the real world and real troubles didn’t get in the way.
To be honest, this story about two gay women flirting at a bar felt very masculine. The dialogue was forced and stiff, the writing was just as clumsy, and the story — such as it was — was given to us in infodumps and dry exposition, turning the characters into walking mouthpieces. It felt rushed, as if the story were meant for other characters and the two were slapped together at the last minute.
Like a Bell Through the Night by Kayla Bashe (3.75 stars)
Jaffa is a powerful lesbian, kick-ass shifter who rides a bike, wears skin-tight jeans and leather, and has been sent to protect Rhiannon, a young fae she was once bodyguard to. Rhiannon, who is power incarnate, is being hunted by a variety of powers who want to use her for her magic. All Jaffa has to do is get Rhiannon home, back to the land of the fae, and do it all without either getting killed, getting Rhiannon killed, or breaking her heart. Two of three seem doable.
I have mixed feelings about this story. The flashback came unannounced and the author works very hard to let us know Jaffa is amazing. I would have preferred a little more showing and a little less telling. Rhiannon is sweet, innocent, and all too ready to fall into love — or lust — with her protector. Her personality seemed entirely wrapped around that idea, that she was in love with the biker chick. It got better as it went on, but it was still a middle-of-the-road read for me.
The Imp in the Rock by Charli Coty (3.75 stars)
Wendi, a native of Oregon, likes walking the beach. It calms her, and she needs calming after being dumped by her boyfriend. She expected the chill; she did not expect the naked woman who suddenly appeared. She claimed her foot was stuck and asked Wendi for help. Of course Wendi had to help, what person wouldn’t? As soon as their hands met Wendi was falling, into the water and into love.
This was a cute story, well-written, with a charming trickster spirit with a wicked grin. While most kappa are represented as being child-like or, sometimes, having a shell or a beak, this kappa instead takes the form of a lovely young woman, albeit with a slightly blue tinge. Kappa are also said to be after blood, but Hanako isn’t out to kill Wendi, she just wants to have a little fun. Or, if Wendi’s lucky, a lot of fun.
Smile Like You Mean It by Tay LaRoi (5 stars)
There’s a legend of a slit faced woman, a ghostly spirit who — her mouth sliced open — approaches people and asks them if she’s pretty. If they say no, she kills them. If they say yes, then she gives them a smile to match her own. Ingrid, unfamiliar with the story, being an American in Japan, says that the ghost has lovely eyes. And that’s the beginning of a strange and haunting love story between two lonely people.
The writing was good, the pacing was good, the story was great. Ingrid and Ayame don’t fall madly in love from their first meeting. Instead it’s a slow, growing relationship. Ingrid is first out to get rid of Ayame’s curse, and to get rid of Ayame herself, but soon finds herself reluctant to say farewell. Ayame, for her part, has someone she can talk to after so long as a ghost, invisible to the world around her. It’s a sweet, lovely story about two very human people.
All in all, I do recommend this book. There are several stories well worth your time, with characters and writing styles, moods and characters so varied — ranging from familiar archetypes to characters with a little twist — that you’re likely to find something you haven’t read before. Again, most of these are moments, scenes, glimpses into the lives of these strange and powerful women. Plots waver back and forth, but the themes of love and acceptance never do.