Sight Unseen : A Collection of Five Anonymous Novellas
When I heard about this anthology and the clever conceit behind it – five famous authors have contributed novellas, but only the publisher knows who penned each story – I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Sight Unseen is an intriguing idea, and it’s a real challenge to guess who penned each story, but overall, the quality is uneven – only two of the stories left me wanting more – and the HEAs are a bit too ambiguous for some of them to be considered romances.
Lost That Feeling
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Kisses
Shortly before being captured and jailed for leading a failed rebellion against an evil king, Alma spelled herself and erased the past seven years of her memory.
When Lost That Feeling opens, Alma is trying to sleep when she hears a strange noise and peaks out of her cell to discover two strange men, Driss and Ben, who claim they’ve come to rescue her. She isn’t convinced, but something about Driss stirs her memory, and she escapes with them, deciding to head off with Driss while Ben continues alone, in order to evade the soldiers pursuing them. The story details Alma’s two journeys – her escape from prison and the metaphorical trip in her mind as she reconciles herself to a life she doesn’t remember.
Alma was once a powerful witch, who along with Driss, led a rebellion to overthrow Ozias. She’s still powerful, but weakened by her incarceration, and the journey is difficult. Driss is a sensitive and frustrated hero – he can’t understand why Alma erased her memories, and struggles to support and help her as she rediscovers her world and purpose.
Amnesia is a tricky trope to work with, but I liked this twist on it. Alma controlled her destiny when she made the decision to erase her memories, but reconstructing the reasons behind her decision is a much trickier business. I loved the world building and the parallel narratives, wherein the dynamic of their relationship changes. Before it ends, the author teases at a romantic relationship:
… “Alma, I have loved you in so many different ways. At first you took care of me. Then you were a friend, an ally, a partner.” His hands settled at her waist, kneading, before sliding up to cup her breasts. After a brief, reverent pause he added, “But I think I like this best.”
I do too! Unfortunately, my favorite story in the anthology ends abruptly just as it peaks.
A Clear View of You
Grade: B- Sensuality: Kisses
Kate Marsh is earning money to pay for her tuition for a PhD program at by working as a psychic, even though she doesn’t believe in magic or the ability to see the future. When a stranger shows up for a reading, Kate assumes it’s just another client, but North is attractive and intense, and he makes Kate nervous. The visit starts oddly – her crystal ball is glowing, and when she touches North’s palm, she feels a current running through her arm, connecting her to him. Flustered by her physical response and North’s amused reaction to her discomfort, Kate attempts to cut short the visit by inventing a vision of his future. North interrupts and stuns her with an offer her of $50,000, to use her ‘skills’ to help him find an object he’s missing. Kate is wary but willing.
A Clear View of You tries to do too much in a too short story. It’s unclear who or what North is until late on, and once he meets Kate, his connection to her and our world slowly emerges. Faeries, magic, mother/daughter conflict, environmental issues and romance all vie for our attention, but while North’s purpose and his surprise attraction to Kate are promising, Kate’s past and the magical world building overwhelm their burgeoning relationship. Kate is intelligent, strong, and brave, but life hasn’t quite turned out as she planned. North is aloof and enigmatic, and I struggled to buy into his attraction to Kate – perhaps because I struggled to identify with such a vaguely drawn character.
In A Clear View of You, not very much is clear until the end of the story. Though the author tries to wrap up all the disparate elements – big themes and two characters with complex backstories – it’s too short, too complex, and too underdeveloped.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Brad has lusted after Wren – a fellow accountant and daughter of the local Motorcycle Club president – for most of his life, and spends his afternoons fantasizing over a relationship with her. Wren spends her days working alongside Brad, flirting and teasing.
Their lives take an abrupt turn shortly after a visit from Wren’s on/off, good for nothing, cheating ex-boyfriend, Zack. Brad can’t understand Wren’s relationship with Zack and struggles to control his temper after Zack leaves. When Wren asks Brad why he’s so upset, he shocks her by telling her the MC is running drugs and it’s only a matter of time before the authorities come knocking on their door. Wren thinks he’s kidding, but when Brad refuses to back down from the accusation, she rapidly cycles between disbelief, anger and confusion. She’d know if the club was involved with drugs… wouldn’t she?
When Wren finally concludes Brad is right, she partners up with him to investigate the club. The drug revelation frees Brad to spend time with Wren outside of work, and she finally sees Brad as more than a friend. Unfortunately, their relationship heats up just as Wren’s life implodes. I loved how the author confidently develops the backstory and tension between Wren and Brad, and then brings them together just as Wren’s life is falling apart. It’s a stark contrast between her newfound happiness with Brad and her despair over the MC, but the author deftly balances the two. Wren struggles to decide what to do about the club and about her feelings for Brad. The tidy resolution of both plot lines is believable, true to Wren’s character, and the tone of the story. With Brad’s love and support, Wren is finally free to soar – free of the burdens of the job and the motorcycle club – solo or with Brad along for the ride.
Free is the sexiest story in the anthology and the best developed. The characters are rich and compelling, the relationship is sexy and believable, and the storyline that powers the narrative – the Lone Gun motorcycle club and its drug running operation – is fascinating, creepy, and adds a nice bit of tension to the story. I’m not a huge fan of MC romances, but this one caught my attention and held it.
Chariot of Desire
Grade: C- Sensuality: Kisses
Donny Thomas is lead singer of Donjon, a once wildly popular rock band. He spent the seventies (the band’s heyday) getting high, making music, self-destructing and making bad choices. But he’s never acted on his complicated feelings for Donjon’s drummer, CJ Crespo. Wary of crossing the line from friends to lovers or ruining their creative chemistry, he’s kept her at a distance. As the story opens, Donny’s turning over a new leaf. He’s converted to a religion that doesn’t permit him to engage in sex, drugs or alcohol or to sing about them. Donny struggles with his addictions, the band struggles to support him, and CJ silently rages.
Donny is a classic rockstar cliché – though he’s loved by the masses, he’s lonely and believes his life lacks meaning – but his newfound faith is an unusual twist on the rockstar trope. His new religion screams cult, but Donny can’t or won’t see it. He’s selfish, and despite the fact that his new faith has a profound impact on the band, he won’t give it up. Unfortunately, we know he’s lying to himself and the band – because we see him falter through CJ’s close scrutiny. She’s conflicted and alternately full of rage and tenderness towards Donny but they begin to forge a new path forward as they collaborate on an original song – Chariot of Desire. Their creative partnership helps them overcome their tangled path and ends on a hopeful note? I’m still not sure.
The story ends without a resolution of their relationship, the band’s future or Donny’s faith. And frankly, I didn’t care anyway.
The Heart is a Universe
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
Set in the future, this is the story of Vitalis – also known as the Chosen One – shortly before she’s forced to sacrifice her life for the greater good of her planet, Pax Cara. When we first meet her, Vitalis is attending a ball at an aristocratic summit. Beneath a calm and serene facade, she’s in turmoil. The surprise summit invitation provides her with a chance to escape her destiny and she’s decided to abandon Pax Cara and go into hiding. Fate has other plans.
Eleian of Terra, the most eligible prince in existence, secretly arranged for Vitalis to be invited to the summit. He’s closely watched her for ages and believes they belong together. When Eleian asks her to dance, sparks fly and neither is prepared for their intense attraction to each other. Moments later, Eleian proposes marriage but Vitalis is wary. The prince can have any woman he wants – why would he want her, given she’s only got sixteen days left to live?
Although The Heart is a Universe is primarily about the relationship between Eleian and Vitalis, the world building is equally complex and fascinating (and sometimes distracting). As the story unfolds and destiny creeps ever closer, Eleian and Vitalis get to know one another and to reveal their deepest and most profound secrets, eventually finding an all too brief peace and serenity in each other. Their love is tender and heartbreaking – and I kept hoping a plot twist would change both their fates. The story doesn’t end the way I hoped, and I wish we had more time getting to know these characters, but the author crafts a brilliant – and surprisingly romantic – ending to this oddly moving sci fi love story.
Sight Unseen delivers on the mandate sent to its contributors – to write stories of a kind they aren’t known for, in time periods, sub genres, and subject matters that they haven’t had the opportunity to explore. The stories are diverse and compelling and I enjoyed some of them very much. Much as I expected, the quality of the writing overall is strong, although unfortunately, I wasn’t crazy about some of the themes and I was disappointed at the vagueness of some of the HEAs. I’m curious to discover which author penned which story and frankly, I’m amazed at how difficult it is to deduce who wrote what! I can’t wait for the big reveal in September.