Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Heart of Aces (anthology)

I am annoyed. Not only is this the most shoddily edited print book I've ever come across, I've just learned that it contains at least one P2P fanfic. I did not know this when I purchased it, and I did not know this when I reviewed it. I hate P2P fanfic with a fiery passion. That said, I went to the effort of writing this very long and detailed review, so I'm keeping it up.

Here are the P2P details:

Andrea R. Blackwell's "An Asexual and a Hypersexual Walk Into a Bar" was originally round_robin's Sherlock fanfic of the same title. Here's the link:

You have got to be kidding me. You couldn't even bring yourself to write a brand-new, original short story? If I learn that any of the other stories in this anthology are P2P fanfic, I'll include the details for those, too.

My review, otherwise unchanged, is below.

The Heart of Aces is an anthology of stories that focus on asexual romantic relationships. It's published by Good Mourning Publishing.

I was super-excited when I heard this anthology was going to be coming out, because I wanted to see what asexual romance stories would be like. Then I realized that this was the same publisher that put out Accessible Love Stories, which I had heard had terrible editing and contained stories that didn't always qualify as romance. I crossed my fingers and hoped that this anthology would be better.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Typos, incorrect word usage, homophone misspellings, and formatting errors were everywhere. Several of the stories could have used a good deal of polishing prior to being published. There were a few good stories, several so-so stories, and a few really awful stories.

Still, this is one of less than a handful of published works I know of that explicitly tackle asexual relationships. The only other examples I know of are Kate Aaron's Lost Realm series and some Sherlock fanfics. I wouldn't recommend it to someone who wasn't actively seeking out asexual romance, but it has a few decent stories for those who are.

[A note on the cover: While I like that it's eye-catching, I do think it was a terrible choice for this anthology. It manages to feel both sexual and sterile at the same time.]

“Out of the Dead Land” by A.J. Hall

This story deals with two men who are the only audience members in a theater showing Gone with the Wind. After the movie, they get to talking and become close enough for both of them to consider doing more than just talking. However, one man is asexual, and one man is not.

This was one of the better stories in this anthology, but it took me a lot of work to get my bearings. I think it's because of something Hall notes at the end of the story, that Philip tends to think in quotations. There were sentences that didn't quite make sense in context, but I don't have the background to be able to say whether or not they were quotations.

Things became clearer and easier to follow once Philip and Kevin, the main characters, started talking. I felt that their relationship moved a little too quickly, no matter how well they got along (they only just met!), and Kevin was way more reasonable and understanding than I would have expected someone to be, faced with Philip's reaction. It would have been less jarring for Philip to have sought Kevin out instead.

Also, this is a personal preference of mine, but I like short stories to have a plot. This one didn't, not really. Guy meets guy, they talk, things don't work out for a moment, and then they do. That was pretty much it.

“Aphrodite Hour” by Sarah Sinnaeve

Rita, a radio talk show host, is being accosted by a guy who's trying to get her to agree to sex she doesn't want. She's saved by Maddie. She and Maddie get along well, really well, but Rita is nervous at the thought that Maddie, too, might end up expecting more than she's willing and able to give.

I raised an eyebrow at how freely Rita referred to her asexuality. Now, I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but Rita was a special case: she was the host of a radio talk show focusing on relationship advice. There was no indication that she was open about her asexuality on the air, and, considering that the vast majority of people are sexual, I would think that news of her asexuality could potentially hurt her career – would people be as willing to ask an openly asexual person for relationship advice? She didn't worry about this even once during the whole story, though.

I was uncomfortable with the way she thought about her encounter with the guy in the beginning of the story in relation to her asexuality. The way he was behaving, I wouldn't have faulted a sexual woman for saying, “Get lost, jerk.” However, there's a part where Rita's thoughts implied that her primary reason for refusing the guy was her asexuality. What would she have told a caller on her show? “You should sleep with him, because you don't mind sex and he expects to have sex with you”?

This, like the first story, is one of several that features a budding relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person, but no attempt is made to show how that might work – it's very much a HFN ending, with Maddie willing to try to make a relationship with an asexual person work but not really sure if it will.

“Stuck in Possibilities” by Flavia Napoleoni

This story covers a long period of time, from Ingrid's childhood to adulthood. When she was younger, she essentially fell in love with her best friend, who, unfortunately, didn't understand or want the kind of relationship she wanted. He broke her heart, but she eventually met and fell for another asexual person. However, events occurred that caused her feelings for her childhood friend to bubble up again.

I got the impression that asexual relationships in this story were something like very intense friendships, to the exclusion of almost everything else. It didn't feel quite healthy. My biggest problem with this story, though, was that I didn't really like any of the characters. Ingrid, in particular, grated on my nerves. In attempting to describe herself, she managed to be pretty insulting – for example, she was not a “silly romance reader, waiting for the love of her life while drooling on Harlequin books” (31). My rage, it was great. She also claimed that she didn't daydream, and yet her description of what she did do (she liked to imagine what-ifs) sounded an awful lot like daydreaming. She was a pretty interesting character, but her snobbishness made it really difficult to like her.

I felt sorry for Tom, for getting stuck with Ingrid. I think the story was meant to end in a bittersweet but uplifting way, but for me it was kind of a downer. Although it had romantic relationships, I did not consider this story a romance. It had the feel of something that was trying to be lit fic.

One thing of note: I think this may be the first time I've reviewed something with a prominent transsexual character.

“An Asexual and a Hypersexual Walk into a Bar” by Andrea R. Blackwell

Greg is hypersexual, while Jamie is asexual. Jamie doesn't seem to mind giving Greg blow jobs, but Greg thinks it's not fair that he's always on the receiving end of any of their sexual activities.

As you may have guessed from my description of this story, there is sex. On-page sex. I was actually pretty surprised, and readers who seek this collection out specifically for asexual relationships that don't go beyond kissing and cuddling will probably not enjoy this story. I appreciated it as one of the few stories that explained how a relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person might work. This is, of course, only one possibility, but it was still interesting.

Unfortunately, this felt more like an extended and somewhat graphic explanation of how such a relationship might work than an actual story. Jamie's explanations to Greg felt like they could have been culled from an AVEN forum post, and the author revealed so little of what the characters were like outside of the bedroom (literally, just their jobs) that she might as well not have bothered. At least it was clearly written, and the joke at the end made me laugh a little.

“True Emotions” by Rai Scodras

Rose, an albino model, meets Imogen, a member of a “lesbian band” (this gave me eye twitches, since Rose seemed to be equating “all-women” with “lesbian”). Although Rose keeps Imogen at a distance at first, used to people only seeing her as a famous model, she eventually thaws.

This was another story that didn't have much of a plot beyond “girl meets girl.” It was at least fairly clearly written, and I liked the detail about Imogen's rosary, which she used to keep track of the amount of time she's been sober. Rose seems to be an albino entirely on an aesthetic level, though, with no mentions of any real-life considerations. For example, she didn't seem to worry at all about sun exposure when she went back outside without her hat.

This is another story in which the main character was surprisingly open about her asexuality. The very same day Rose learns that she's probably an asexual, she's shouting it out for all the world to hear. I also thought her relationship with Imogen progressed awfully fast – she'd only known her for a few hours, and yet she had no qualms about announcing a relationship with her to the paparazzi.

“Thanksgiving Dinner” by Madeline Bridgen

This wasn't really a story. I don't even know what to say about it, and I'm not sure what its point was. Also, the bit from the POV of the bird was just bizarre.

“Shades of Gray (A)” by Chelsey Brinson

Matt is gay; David is asexual. Matt has been in love with David for a while but hasn't said anything about it. David suddenly starts telling Matt that he thinks he might not be asexual after all – he thinks he may be demisexual, a person who does not experience sexual attraction without a strong emotional connection. Matt is horrified, sure that this means he's lost David to someone else.

I have a feeling that the author's primary writing experience is fanfic, because the writing in this story felt like quite a few fanfics I've read: first person present tense, with pages and pages of writing that could have been edited down. I put up with this sort of thing in fanfic, because I read for the characters and situations. David and Matt just weren't interesting enough for me to give the writing a pass.

This entire story is a single conversation about David's asexuality. David basically gives Matt a lecture on the difference between asexuals, greysexuals, and demisexuals, and there are even mentions of the Kinsey scale. Who talks like this? Anyway, it took Matt pages longer to figure out what David was saying than it should have – he wasn't very bright.

All in all, this story felt a bit like Sexuality for Dummies.

“Paradoxical Perfection” by Mursheda Ahad

Rhydian and Felix meet and instantly connect. They understand each other on a level neither one has ever experienced before. Things are going well, until Rhydian falls ill with something that only Felix seems to be able to help with.

This was an absolute slog to get through. The writing was extremely awkward, and nothing about it seemed natural. An example: “The sudden emancipation of music, so enchanting, prevented him from actually questioning where its source of dispersion was to be found” (105). If you can believe it, this was contemporary-set – not an attempt at a historical. Even the dialogue was like this. The result was an unnecessarily long and sometimes difficult to follow story. It needed a complete clarity rewrite.

I couldn't take either of the characters seriously – Rhydian, in particular, seemed really stuck up. The best I could say is that they were definitely suited for each other. That said, their relationship took a disturbing turn that wasn't ever properly dealt with. Just, “He only did this terrible thing to me because he loved me so!” Ugh.

“Sketch” by Stephanie Charvat

Erin is sketching Heather, who is naked but for a sheet. Later, it's revealed that Erin and Heather are a couple: Erin is asexual and Heather is sexual.

Like many of the stories in this anthology, there is no plot. Erin is happy to have found Heather, who doesn't mind that Erin isn't interested in having sex. After slogging through the previous story, this story's clear writing was a relief. However, it's nothing more than a moment in time. It's a “meh” story that benefited from being placed after an awful one.

“Five Lies” by Kari Woodrow

This story is composed of five moments in Joseph's life: realizing that he's not interested in having sex with his girlfriend; learning about asexuality; telling his ex-girlfriend that he's asexual; dating his best friend and being unable to tell him that he's asexual; and lying to his brother about his feelings of regret.

This story was written in present tense, which I'm not that fond of. Also, it is definitely not a romance - the ending is a downer. I thought it was decently written, but it was a very good example of why I hesitate to call this a romance anthology.

“Good PR” by Esther Day

Ben has always been an irresponsible party animal, and his mother, Evelyn, is tired of it. She figures that, if he gets married, he'll settle down and become someone who might be able to one day take over her multi-billion dollar company. James and Ben are both shocked when she decides the two of them would be perfect for each other. James worries that Ben wouldn't want to be married to an asexual guy like him, and Ben worries that James doesn't want to be married to anyone, period.

This was one of the book's longer stories, and I worried that the longer length would just mean more suffering on my part. Happily, that was not the case. This is by far my favorite story in the whole book. It's also one of the few I feel confident referring to as a romance.

I never quite understood why Ben was the way he was, because Evelyn, his mother, seemed awesome and very astute. I also wondered how Ben and James came to share a home, well before Evelyn's “you two should get married!” idea. On the whole, though, I loved this story. Because Ben and James had been friends for a good chunk of their lives, I didn't get the feeling things were going too fast. I at first was annoyed that two men who supposedly knew each other so well suddenly couldn't seem to communicate, but I eventually realized it made sense. James was the one who usually forced Ben to communicate, and James was too twisted up over the impending marriage Evelyn had basically sprung on them to get Ben to talk to him like he normally did.

I really liked this story, which meant that the various typos and formatting errors really hurt. Even worse, there were new types of errors I hadn't seen before in this anthology: homophone misspellings, multiple instances of “James's s”, and more. This story left me with a smile on my face, but the editing issues did it a disservice.

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