On my Nook, Sleight of Hand is under 50 pages, if you don't count the excerpt from Barbara Sheridan and Anne Cain's Lost Souls that is included at the end. According to All Romance, it is 17,403 words. Considering the page/word count, the $2.50 price tag is kind of high (I wish Samhain charged less for short works). For me, it turned out to be money well spent.
Edwin, his sister Alma, and their mother are journeying by train to Alma's fiance, a man who is much older than her but makes up for it by having quite a bit of money. Since Edwin has always been fragile, Alma realizes that this is probably the best option for her and her family's future, but Edwin doesn't like it. Still, he has to admit that he's not quite well. For one thing, he has dreams of some kind of fiery disaster, dreams that keep him from ever getting a good night's sleep. For another, as much as he tries to squelch his feelings, Edwin has always found himself more attracted to other men than to women.
While on the train, Edwin meets a man who may be able to help him: Marco Satori, a handsome and mysterious magician.
I was browsing a review blog when I came across Sleight of Hand's cover art, which caused my “ooh, pretty” reaction to kick in. I read the review and was intrigued. I was a little concerned by the bit in Samhain Publishing's “warning” that mentioned “dubious consent,” but I decided to take my chances. I'm glad I did.
Strauss is an excellent author, and (disclaimer time) I liked this novella (short story?) enough that I actually contacted her and told her so. To my surprise, she emailed me back, which is how I ended up with one of her shorter stories, which later led to me buying more of her works. I wrote a post a while back about Strauss's Some Kind of Stranger, the third work of hers that I've read. She's an author who has yet to disappoint me.
So, what did I enjoy about Sleight of Hand?
The first thing I noticed and really appreciated was the setting. Little details about the train and information about Edwin's experiences with depression gave me a good feel for the world this story was set in. I suppose that those who go into this story expecting a hot sex scene right from the start may be a bit disappointed. To those people I say: just keep reading. The sex scenes in Sleight of Hand are on what I'd consider the “smokin' hot” end of the heat scale.
As far as Samhain's “dubious consent” warning goes...well, I agree with that, and usually that sort of thing would make me at least a little uncomfortable. I think one of the reasons why I was okay with the “dubious consent” aspect was because it was presented as a lowering of Edwin's inhibitions, rather than as Satori making him do something he wouldn't have otherwise done (slight spoiler: Edwin's first time with Satori happens while he is hypnotized, something Satori told him he could do to help him with his depression and inability to sleep soundly). Edwin's initial reaction to Satori made it clear that he was attracted to him to the point that he had to struggle to hide it. Had Satori and Edwin ended up in each other's company often enough, I think they could have become a couple under more normal circumstances, although Satori probably still would have been the one to initiate the relationship.
I do think this novella had a few weak points. One of them was Satori and Edwin's relationship. I could understand why Edwin fell for Satori, but I couldn't understand why Satori fell for Edwin to the point that he was willing to spend all of eternity with him. Edwin seemed overly young and immature for someone like Satori. A good example of his immaturity: Alma agreed to marry someone she didn't even remotely like because she knew Edwin couldn't be counted upon to hold himself together enough to support the family (because of his history of depression). Edwin felt guilty about that for a little bit, but then, when Satori asked him if he would be willing to leave his family so the two of them could be together, he readily agreed. Not only that, he had the gall to think "that if his sister truly wished for his happiness, then she would understand when, upon reaching their destination, he elected to stay on the train and continue his journey elsewhere" (p. 36 on my Nook). It made me wish that Alma could have punched him at some point before the end of the story. He kind of deserved it.
As far as Satori and Alma went, I was left wanting more. Both characters had huge secrets that were revealed right near the end, and I would have loved to continue to read more about the two of them. Edwin was the most fleshed-out character in the story, but I thought Satori had the potential to be more interesting, and Alma showed signs of being way more awesome than her brother.
Overall, I really enjoyed Sleight of Hand and hope that Strauss will one day publish more works featuring Edwin, Satori, and Alma. In the meantime, I still have several of Strauss's other works to read.
None of the read-alike/watch-alike suggestions below are anywhere near Sleight of Hand in terms of their heat level - actually, none of the things I listed below are even romance. Some of them contain romance, but that's about it. If you can think of any better read-alike/watch-alike suggestions, feel free to list them.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Descendants of Darkness (manga) by Yoko Matsushita; Descendants of Darkness (anime TV series) - Tsuzuki is a shinigami, someone whose job is to make sure that the dead stay dead and in their proper realms. He's teamed up with a stubborn, serious new partner, and the two eventually end up pitted against Dr. Muraki Kazutaka, a serial killer. The manga was never finished and was on hiatus for ages, but I recently read that Matsushita has begun working on it again. Those who'd like something else with paranormal aspects and a touch of m/m romance (the anime flirts with it, and I think the manga goes a bit further, but don't expect too much) might want to try this.
- Black Butler (manga) by Yana Toboso; Black Butler (anime TV series) - Twelve-year-old Ciel, the last remaining member of the noble Phantomhive family, is obsessed with finding his parents' killers. At his side is Sebastian, a supernaturally perfect butler. This is not a romantic series, but those who liked Strauss's story may enjoy the Victorian England setting and very sexy Sebastian. I have written about the first and second seasons of the TV series and the first volume of the manga.
- Baccano! (anime TV series) - If you just want something fun that's set on a train and has paranormal elements (yes, I know, I'm reaching), you might want to try this - it even has some romance (most of it of the messed up variety, but still). This series follows various characters and is set in prohibition era America. Many of the characters' stories intersect during a bloodbath of a train ride. I absolutely loved this series and wrote several posts about it.