Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Sight Unseen Anthology

Multiple ratings


The concept of this anthology was that well-known romance authors would each write a story outside of their usual genre, but their name would not be attached to it until some time after publication, leaving the reader to guess which author wrote which story. I thought the concept was clever and was executed well - although I am pretty sure I know the author of one story, I can only make guesses at the rest. 

Even though I auto-buy three of the five authors included in this anthology (Thomas, Barry and Satie), and regularly also read and enjoy Duran's books, I found the majority of stories (3/5) just okay. I've been thinking about this: on one hand, it's very common for anthologies to be a bit of a mixed bag, while, on the other, I think the experimental nature of the anthology could also be a contributing factor. Not having the authors name attached to their work means there's a lack of confirmation bias, because the reader can't go in thinking: 'I've loved all of this author's previous work, surely I will love this as well' and is thus more critical than they might otherwise be.

Nonetheless, I think that Sight Unseen is full of quick, interesting reads, and contains something for everyone, except maybe readers who heavily lean towards historical romance. The novelty factor also adds something fun and unique to the reading experience. 

Lost that Feeling - 3 stars
Before being captured as the leader of a rebellion, Alma used her magic to wipe her memory. When her fellow rebels break her out of the prison where she has been kept, she must relearn her place in this underground movement against the King, and begins to question her motives her wiping her memory, and her relationship to Driss, the man who helped her escape. 

Objectively, the world-building in Lost that Feeling was great. I'm sure most people would have enjoyed it more than I did, but I have very been particularly interested in the kind classical fantasy setting that appears here. Given a strong romance arc - like in Grace Draven's work - I can sometimes let myself go and enjoy such settings, but there were only the slightest hints of romance between Alma and Driss. Having said that, I did like the open and hopeful ending, which reminded me of the teasing ending of a prequel novella, before the book actually dedicated to unravelling the hero and heroine's relationship.

A Clear View of You - 3 stars
Kate works as a psychic to pay off her student debts, even though she hates it and the whole thing is obviously bogus. But then North shows up, offering her an obscene amount of money if she'll use her 'skills' to help him locate an object. 

As a Fey, North knows that Kate has no psychic talent, but what she does have is a mother who is meddling with powers beyond her control. He needs Kate's help to gain entrance to the compound where her mother's so-called 'coven' live, and take back a Fey orb whose power is being misused, before it is too late.

Again, I liked the world-building and backstory of this one more than the romance. Kate has issues from growing up with a hippy mother who believes she is a witch, and just wants to lead a normal life. North is more of an enigma as a character, but the differentiation between the mundane and fey worlds were well-explained and -constructed. However, I wasn't convinced by the romance arc, and feel like the story would have benefited from being a bit longer, or having a bit more characterisation on North's part. 

Free - 3 stars
In small-town Montana, Wren's father and uncle run the local second-hand car dealership and a motorcycle club. She's sure that the club just a social thing for bored guys for like motorbikes and wearing leather jackets until the dealership's dorky part-time accountant, clues her into some suspicious stuff on the books. 

Brad has had it bad for Wren for ages, but she's the town's unofficial first daughter, not to mention the on-again/off-again relationship with one of the guys in the motorcycle club. But when he accidentally lets Wren in on what's going on behind the scenes, assuming she was already in the know, she begins to make her own investigations, and needs someone to turn to when she uncovers something unpleasant. 

Heroes in motorcycle clubs are currently all the rage, and Free used this trope in a creative way that I really appreciated. Making it MC-adjacent meant that the reader doesn't have to tackle the moral greyness or suspension of disbelief involved when the hero is actually a biker. The story was also very well written and paced. I considered giving it a higher ranking, but didn't, because Wren's portrayal of the dumb-blonde-with-smokin'-body portrayal rankled. There's nothing inherently sexist about it - in fact, it is a good example of Butler's concept of performative gender, but it was continually a point of focus in a way that centred the male gaze, and it dampened my enjoyment of the whole thing a bit. 

Chariot of Desire - 3.5 stars
The 70's were good to the legendary band Donjon, but as the 1980's roll around, the rock'n'roll lifestyle has taken its toll. Lead singer Donny has joined a Christian sect, and is thus unwilling to sing any of their backlist that contains immoral themes. So, basically, all of it. With the stress on the band reaching breaking point, Donny turns to the band's drummer, CJ, as they try to find a balance between Donny's religion and demons, CJ's standoffishness and the good of the band.

I found Chariot of Desire interesting and different, for a number of reasons. There's the mid-to-late 20th century setting (which I think is massively underused in romance), the use of religion and sectism and the fact that the main characters are past their prime and live (or lived) for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. As with other stories in the anthology, there is an open ending without a definitive HFN or HEA, but for some reason it worked slightly better for me here, perhaps because it would have been too much of an about-face for the characters to commit to a relationship together. 

The Heart is a Universe - 5 stars
Every generation, on the planet of Pax Cara, a child is chosen and raised with the knowledge that, when they grow up, they will be a sacrifice to the old gods. With less than a month left until she must sacrifice herself, Vitalis is looking for a way out. A hero in his own right, Eleian of Terra Illustrata has watched the media coverage of Vitalis for many years. When they meet at an official function, he makes her a public offer of marriage. She accepts, but both of them are hiding things from the other, and the day of the sacrifice is growing ever closer. 

The Heart is a Universe was the anthology's stand-out story for me. The world-building, characterisation and plot were all amazing, and it several times it went in directions I genuinely did not expect. It has an unconventional HEA, and if someone else had told me about it, I would have scoffed and denied that anyone could ever pull that off, but somehow, the author does. 

Also, for those of you taking part it July's #RomBkLove on Twitter or elsewhere, yesterday's theme was "favourite Virgin Hero/Heroine", and many of us talked about our love for virgin heroes, and made some suggestions. I forgot to mention Eleian, but he is an awesome virgin hero, and I love the way this is worked into the story.

Concluding Thoughts
Looking back on what I've written, it strikes me that Sight Unseen is not just experimental in form, but is also pushing the romance boundaries in other ways, particularly in the way many of the endings do not fit genre conventions surrounding the HEA/HFN. That makes me feel bad about critiquing them, or - more accurately - critiquing some and accepting others. But I'm all about the HEA. 
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