I had never heard of Phaze before I read this collection of stories, nor had I heard of any of the authors. Here are quick reviews of 3 of the 4 stories:
I purchased this for my Kindle. The formatting was terrible, almost unreadable, and there were words missing and “extra words” as well as typos (like “of” for “if” etc.).
1. And Then there Were 5, by Vivien Dean
This is an urban vampire story about two vamp hunters who fall in love.
Ten years prior to the action of the story, Ryan’s life was saved from vamps by world renowned vamp hunter Tala — at Purdue University, naturally — inspiring him to follow in her footsteps, and giving him a serious crush in the process. A big vamp meeting is about to take place in New York City … at Grand Central Station. I guess the vamps were using the old reverse psychology trick (“No one will think of looking for us there! Yeah, and let’s do it at midnight. No one expects vamps at midnight!! High five!), but it didn’t work, because Ryan and Tala and three others are there to await them, knowing all about the meeting, and also knowing full well that the vamps are climate change savvy, and ride public transportation to their big meetings. Things go awry — specifically, the vamps use the super secret vamp trick of turning out the lights!!! –and the hunters get disoriented and split up. This gives Ryan a chance to come on to Tala in the bathroom of the station, a good time and great place for their first hookup if there ever was one.
The vamp part of the story is a complete fail. I knew Ryan was no Einstein when he attempted appear “casual” by whistling and looking at a wristwatch he doesn’t wear. Yeah, that NEVER raises suspicion, does it? I lost complete confidence in his character, though, when he took a few minutes before the big showdown to visit the loo, and considered using tap water to fix his hair. He reminds his vain self sternly that “He wasn’t here to look good. He was here to stake vampires … “. This reprieve from Ryan’s narcissism is all too brief, however, for he concludes, “His hair was only going to end up looking worse by the time the night was through.”
The final stake in Ryan’s heroism (har har) was this line, “I spent half my day arming up.” Hmm. Let’s look at the results of Ryan’s half day of work, shall we? “Stakes were strapped to each calf and more tucked into his jacket. A bevy of sharpened pencils [Hello? Street cred? Can't you at least call them "mini stakes"?] were hidden in an inside pocket, and the breath spray he carried held holy water instead of minty freshness [my god, that's brilliant!].” I rest my case.
By relatively early on, I was so put off by Ryan’s character and the plot, that other things bothered me even more than they might have. Lines like “His fingers jumped across her skin, the flawless canvas broken by irregular bumps and valleys.” made me wonder whether “flawless” was really the right word choice there. I would read, “Her hard nipples scraped across his chest” and think “Uh oh. Someone needs Lansinoh!”.
I liked it that Ryan was the junior mousketeer, I liked the set up, the sex scene was fine, if very run of the mill, and the author gets points for thinking of unique ways to describe dark eyes (really!). But there was just too little time (one day) for a relationship to unfold or for the plot to start, never mind finish. Tala was not developed, even a little, which meant that when I read lines like “When she squeezed around his cock, harder than she had yet, a ragged groan came from his throat” I realized Tala’s diligence with the Kegels may be the only thing I really knew about her.
At the end, when Tala buys Ryan a plane ticket to show her love (shades of an early Bachelor season, anyone?), Ryan gushes that “Everything I am is because of you”. Tala’s tepid response, “I look forward to hunting with you.” pretty much summed up my enthusiasm for their affair.
2. Scorpion’s Orchid, by Eva Gale
This was the novella for which I purchased this collection. It’s steampunk romance, and it’s the first one I’ve read. It is set in a future New York, after the Sand Wars.
We figure out very quickly it is steampunk, because there are references to clothing and accessories like “bowler hat”, “duster”,”carpet bag”, “aerogoggles”, “timepiece”, “handlebar mustache” and to “skeleton keys”, “brass coat tree”, “Pullman”, “steam engine” etc. I have to be honest: it read to me as if there is a Master Checklist of Steampunk Elements, and the author had to find ways to work them in. I did not feel like I got the “steampunk experience” despite the presence of many steampunk nouns. Better connections forged between the Sand Wars, the new totalitarian government, and the technological and fashion elements would have helped, but in a short novella, there isn’t time.
I knew it was going to be different when I learned the hero’s name was “Dr. Martin Detweiller”. Brave. But I wasn’t sure I was ready for steampunk when I read this line, two paragraphs in: “Martin raised his fist to slam the table but pulled back just short of hitting it, unwilling to waken the boy who slept in the corner cage.”
What’s this?? Did I stumble upon the holy grail of trendy romance tropes — m/m, BDSM, and steampunk — spiced with a new, transgressive, and illegal element, pedo-rom?
Fear not, dear reader. The boy, Xavier, is an orphan afflicted with a disease, the Scorpicus — the original of which is never explained — which turns him into a spider or scorpion (I know. these are not the same thing. I never could figure that out.). Dr. Martin Detweiller is on the case, but he needs orchids to perform his experiments. Besides the boy in the cage, and the orchid extract in beakers, there is a squid, and a dog named Canine, and a housekeeper who smells of sugar cookies. I have no idea how it all fits together. I think it’s supposed to be a Sherlock Holmes vibe.
The lovely Katerina Metrenko smuggles orchids (private ownership of plants is illegal) to make money to run a safe house for 13 orphans, but the corrupt police have been bribing her and threatening her. Dr. Martin Detweiller meets her at Grand Central Station, and, in a surprise move to both the heroine and the reader, proposes to her, claiming that it would help them get the police off her back and “provide a more secure living arrangement for the orphans.”
I have no idea why a flower thief would think marrying a wealthy doctor would get the greedy police off her back, rather than supplying them with a more lucrative target, but what really stuck me was the second reason. I was alerted to what turned out to be a very “hit you over the head” kind of conservative, Christian morality which pervades this text. For example, although religions have been abolished, Kat carries a saint charm, insists on visiting a (ruined) church to sanctify the marriage, and considers this marriage of convenience to a man she doesn’t know a “covenant”. When they visit the state offices to obtain their marriage license, we hear that there is no reproductive freedom in the future, but the way the text reads, it means not that the full range of reproductive choices has been removed (including the choice not to conceive, and the choice not to bear a conceived fetus), only that abortions are forced on women.
The contrast between Good Kat and Martin on the one hand, and Sinful everyone else, was just too much. They were just too perfect for this reader. For example, Martin talks a lot about the Hippocratic Oath. But the Oath is a few hundred words long. It provides absolutely no guidance to physicians in the absence of a lot of practical judgment and experience. And Kat is so perfect just because she has these orphans. Well, people with very large families are often motivated by a complex set of desires, not all of them altruistic, some of them downright selfish or evil. I hardly need to mention Octomom. I have no problem with religious, or really principled heroines (Devout Quaker Maddie from Flowers from the Storm is one of my all time faves), but this was all too facile.
Consider the scene in which Martin is forced to masturbate in order to marry Kat. His semen must be checked by the state. Now, I am all for wide reproductive freedoms, but if there was a significant chance that my spawn could turn into a destructive giant scorpion when he hit puberty (and the connection of the “turning dangerous” to dawning sexuality was definitely not coincidental, given the moral vision that runs through the rest of the text), I would actually be in favor of a little state regulation.
Making the moment even more humiliating for Martin, the nurse (as a state employee, she is, naturally, eeeevil) insists on staying, to get a little voyeuristic satisfaction. Martin struggles mightily with his choice, thinking, “Katerina may never forgive him, but it was for those he meant to save. He had to keep his mind on WHY he was doing this.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but keeping my mind on 13 orphans is probably not the way to get me hot.
Katerina, recognizing that Martin is “sacrificing his pride to help others”, offers to “help”, and, instead of thinking, “hot DAMN, I accidentally married an exhibitionist. Yes! [leer]“, Martin thinks, “there she went again, trying to save people from the harshness of life.”
It turns out that Kat doesn’t wear any panties. Not because she’s a slutty slut slut slut, of course, but because she uses the material to make clothes for the orphans. Are you guys too young to recall the phrase “gag me with a spoon”?
In terms of plot, I had a big problem with the resolution of the Xavier storyline. The boy Xavier is Martin’s one close human connection, someone he considers a kind of son. There are about 100 instances of the name “Xavier” in the text (much of this is a repetition of the same basic statements, “Xavier doesn’t have much time. I must find the cure.” ), and only 60 of Kat’s. Yet, the book ends with Xavier turning into a spider and running away. Martin looks for him for 3 hours, and then happily returns home. But this time, Kat and the housekeeper have gotten the kids washed and bathed and dressed in their best clothes, and made a cake. If you have seen The Sound of Music, you have a good idea of the concluding scene.
Of note: This is the first romance I have read in which the word “gah” was used positively in the middle of a sex scene. And “obsidian” is used once.
3. Railroad Standard Time by Philippa Grey-Gerou
This story is about a businesswoman named Dani who sees a strange but hot man on the platform of Grand Central Station (starting to see a theme in the collection?) who leers at her. One day, unbidden, he rattles off an array of details about Dani’s workplace, home, and background.
Naturally, Dani is turned on and intrigued.
They have a few nonsensical, violent interactions like this one:
Dani: I just want you to leave me alone!”
Trevalyn (yes, Trevalyn): “Fine.”
His jaw tightened in resolution. “In that case…”Before she could react, he caught her arm, knocking her papers to the floor again as he jerked her to him, crushing her mouth with a demanding searing kiss that drove everything from her mind. She struggles briefly, but he was unrelenting, his arms banding around her…”
When Dani resists, Trev says, “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever had a man express sexual interest in you before?”
Of course, since this is erotic romance, Dani “weakens”, “relaxes”, and then “invites”.
She has sex with barebacked rapist stalker against a cement wall in a train station and she likes it, dammit.
And besides, Trev is such a gentleman. After pulling out and zipping up, he asks, “You going to be ok getting home?” So sweet.
On her way home, Dani thinks, “This must be what insanity felt like. Knowing something was completely crazy and doing it anyway.”
Uh, no Dani. This is what it feels like to be Too Stupid To Live. But enjoy those orgasms!
It turns out Trev is from the future — we can tell because he has magnets instead of a zipper for a fly — but by this point I was done with this story and done with this collection. In case you are interested, the fourth story is “Beneath the surface”, by Cat Johnson.