This not-so-brief installment of Brief Book Reviews drops just in time for publisher and contributor John Hartness’s birthday. Thankfully, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, the anthology he convinced me to buy at JordanCon in Atlanta, deserves a glowing review as much as this man deserves a round of applause for pulling together yet another amazing collection.
The stories featured in Cinched are loosely bound together by the obvious theme, reinforced by the covers on both editions, along with an Amazon link to the Kindle edition. Unlike the recurrent theme, however, most of the tales themselves are tighter and more well-structured than any cinched corset. I attribute much of this to the fact that Hartness is known for drawing together talented teams of creative contributors, many of whom brainstormed their ideas with him at conventions and literary events across the American Southeast. These professionals delivered stories of varying quality, of course, but every single one entertains without letting the central theme get in the way of telling a compelling, even scary story.
Personally, when I was first told about this idea for an anthology, I expected a series of bodice-ripper clichés and simmering scenes of soft core erotica. While enough tropes are used to satisfy fans of bodice-ripper tales and sexuality seeps into many of the stories, these are simply two tools found among the vast kits used by these authors to craft their contributions to Cinched. While their chosen genres range from what first appears to be a simple heist story to what has become standard Steampunk fare, each tale features an element of the paranormal or supernatural, usually associated with a corset or someone wearing a corset. This lends a dark, sometimes grim tone to much of the anthology, albeit with a touch of whimsy or irony common to some of these authors’ storytelling styles.
Normally, I try to keep a Brief Book Review abbreviated, but in the case of an anthology, I felt obliged to say something about each of the thirteen stories. These comments are in the order in which each story appears in Cinched and may contain some light spoilers.
“Basque of the Red Death” by Eden Royce is a haunting Southern Gothic piece set in Charleston in the chaotic years of social readjustment following the American Civil War. Royce’s handling of the corset theme will leave the reader traumatized while still cheering for the protagonist despite what fate has in store for her.
“Cazadora” by Andrea Judy reads like a Weird West tale that could have happened in a world where magic and monsters descend on a less racist Little House on the Prairie. The corsets in this story are a central focus of the magic imbuing certain characters and play an interesting role in the main character’s ultimate fate.
“Snake Bite” by Misty Massey is another Weird West installment with a dark tone. However, it reads like a revenge tale on the order of High Plains Drifter and will leave you loving the lengths to which the main character will go to avenge her family. The corset contained within this story was my favorite thanks to its detailed description and the insidious purpose for its creation.
“Escape” by Kimberly Richardson is a brutal (if beautiful) story of torture, judgment, and perception. I enjoyed the delicious twist in this particular tale, especially since it reveals as much about the reader as the characters.
The content and setting of “The Circus” by Emily Leverett seems obvious from its title, but you would be wrong. So wrong. This wonderfully scripted story blindsided me, giving it the best twist in the entire collection. I would tell you more, but no spoilers here.
Dave Harlequin’s “Homecoming” feels like a modern Dear Reader letter at first, but settles into a touching, often funny tale about a man who has lived entirely too long and has come to terms with his impending demise. The twist here contains too many spoilers, but I will say that “Homecoming” obviously involves corsets and the supernatural.
“The Blue Lights” by M.B. Weston continues this author’s tradition of crafting tales that pull the reader along on a journey that does not slow its pace or fully satisfy the constantly rising dramatic tension until the final unforgettable scene. Set mostly among the dank, wet moors of the United Kingdom, this Victorian story incorporates elements of a whodunit with native myths of spirits wandering the moors in the form of blue lights. Weston’s use of a corset here is as haunting as the tale’s main character is haunted.
For the sake of full disclosure, I had the privilege of beta-reading “A Gift for Death” by R.D. Stevens years before its publication. Though I enjoyed the rough draft version, her polished piece of vampire fiction set among the French countryside is far superior. While this may be one of the author’s first stories to be published, it is no less skillfully crafted or well-written than those contributed by long-time veterans in the field of genre fiction.
“High Fashion Hell” is publisher and editor John Hartness’s contribution to Cinched. It features Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter, a recurrent character created by the author. Harker is irreverent, often foul-mouthed, and a joy to watch work as he tries to solves a mystery at the local Ren-Faire. John’s use of many real-life vendors and featured events roots readers in the story and provides rich world-building in this fun, raucous ride.
“Tighten the Laces” by Herika Raymer is a smart, satisfying heist story set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Between the rising suspense and the sense of urgency provided by the incoming storm, this tale is a real page-turner that does not disappoint. I love that a cautious, intelligent main character does not suddenly become dumb or reckless for the sake of dramatic tension. Without spoiling anything, Raymer finds other ways to keep the reader intrigued in the events unfolding in the story. From the first scene where our protagonist is tasked by a mysterious benefactor to locate a cursed corset to the final reveal of the closing scene, I enjoyed every moment of Raymer’s tale.
Nico Serene’s “The Shadow Fatale” is a fatalistic tale of a superhero who seeks to emulate her idol, without realizing the full consequences of her actions. I am not usually a big fan of superhero fiction, but Serene’s story quickly became my favorite part of this growing genre. Ultimately, “The Shadow Fatale” is as dark as the title character’s costume, which incorporates a sinister, possibly sentient corset to satisfy the central theme.
“Bone of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh” by Sarah Joy Adams is much like “Homecoming” in the respect that it is a refreshing surprise, like a Russian Nesting Doll containing a solid gold figure at its core. Set in a whaling village in late 19th century New England, Adams’s story is as much a classic as Moby Dick while embracing the nebulous magical realism of physical transformation seen in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Wallace’s Big Fish. Like its main character, this tale has as much heart as a whale while leaving the reader wondering if we are witnessing a grieving woman’s spiral towards madness or a magical creature returning to her people to search for her missing husband.
While Gail & Larry Martin’s “Lagniappe” is the anchor tale in Cinched, it is a featherweight compared to the narrative and dramatic weight of the story before it, which I felt would have been a much more fitting conclusion to this anthology. Labelled as a Storm and Fury Adventure, this Steampunk story is set predominantly in the American South and features two handsome, swashbuckling agents who work for the Department of Supernatural Investigation, along with the help of a female airship captain. While their target, a treasure belonging to a Confederate blockade runner, contains a corset that ties into the central theme of the anthology, the item does not feel fully integrated into the story, relegating it to the status of a McGuffin in a buddy cop plotline accentuated with Steampunk elements. It’s an enjoyable, familiar romp, but does not feel as integrated with the theme and tone of the rest of the anthology.
Overall, Cinched: Imagination Unbound does exactly what Hartness charged me to do when he signed my copy at JordanCon. Not only does this anthology free readers’ minds from their preconceptions about bodice-rippers, it challenges their imaginations to think of corsets as more than sexy torture devices that accentuate figures and costumes in a way that stimulates the observer. In fact, many of these stories torture their characters as much as any corset ever worn by man, woman, or even monster. And as a reader, you will enjoy every minute of it, so do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Cinched, another winner from Falstaff Books.
You can find it on Amazon using the following link:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOHN!!!