Review by Colin Leighton
In 2017, FurPlanet chose to deviate from their usual custom of designating differing themes for FANG and ROAR by instead assigning their two annual anthologies the same theme: Paradise. In FANG 8, edited by Ashe Valisca, 14 authors of gay erotica explore the concept of paradise in a variety of contexts; real or imaginary, natural or created, lasting or transitory. This review aims to examine each of these stories.
We begin with Al Song’s “Serenity in Blue.” Holt, a fennec fox, has suffered a painful breakup with his boyfriend and now, post-college, works a job he despises. The story follows his efforts to find a path to new love and a more inspiring career. The ‘paradise’ element wasn’t particularly obvious, but Song’s themes of a search for love and purpose in a competitive modern world will likely be relatable to many young people.
“For Metal Do I Bleed” by NightEyes DaySpring follows Evie, a wolf struggling with a crush on a close friend, which may or may not be returned. Along with friends, he attends a heavy metal concert. The evening’s subsequent events, which include him meeting a band member he idolises, have lasting effects on Evie’s conception of his idol, his crush, and himself. I myself did not find Evie a particularly sympathetic protagonist, but as an initial degree of immaturity is hardly unusual in the heroes of ‘loss of innocence’ tales, this does not detract from the quality of the story.
“Reflections” by TJ Minde features a couple, Jared (raccoon), and Derrick (rabbit), as they address Jared’s sexual inexperience by having a threesome with Derrick’s friend Charlie (fox). Again the ‘paradise’ element was fairly loosely interpreted, but given most of the other stories in the anthology feature monogamous couples, Minde’s portrayal of a couple opening their relationship up for the first time was a welcome nod to the diversity of modern relationship types. My one quibble was that Derrick comes across as a rather overdone caricature of the ‘flamboyant gay’ stereotype but this may be personal taste.
In "A Night Out" by Jaden Drackus, another example of a ‘paradise found’ tale, we follow Captain Kerry Cooper, a US Army pilot fox stationed in Paris during WWI. While exploring Montmartre, Cooper visits a cabaret designed for gay males, where he meets Claude, a French lion. Drackus’s skill at bringing the sights, sounds, and scents of Edwardian Montmartre alive for the reader made this one of my favourite stories in the anthology.
“Antisocial Paradise” by Miriam “Camio” Curzon tells the tale of Landon, a British African Wild Dog, as he tries to balance his affection for Mina (genet), an Egyptian student studying in London, with his zeal for anarchist activism and rebellion. This was by far the most divisive story for me in the anthology. Curzon’s rich and descriptive narrative style makes “Antisocial Paradise” without doubt one of the best-written stories in the collection, if not the best, but the outstanding narrative quality is equally balanced by it having the least-likeable cast (Mina being the exception; I felt sorry for him). Often Landon’s dialogue, or that of supporting characters, was so far-out I half-wondered if I was reading a social satire. I’m very curious to see if other readers’ reactions to this story match or differ, but for writing quality and characterisation (a character doesn’t need be likable to be well-conceived, after all) it was my favourite story in the anthology.
"Cause No Trouble" also by NightEyes DaySpring is set in Soviet Russia, where Ivan, a snow leopard, finds himself in trouble with the authorities. To his surprise, the official placed in charge of his case, Nikolai (husky), offers to look the other way on Ivan’s transgressions if Ivan takes him to a gay club. More trouble follows for both of them. This was another of my favourite stories in FANG 8; a fine tale of two individuals finding companionship amid deplorable circumstances.
"IRL" by Billy Leigh comes next, the story of Peter, a coyote testing out a new X-rated visual reality program. I will not be reviewing it here however for conflict of interest reasons given Billy is my husband.
What would it be like if we could switch to a different body any time we wished? This is the question posed in "Heavenly Flesh" by Slip Wolf. In a colony far in distant space, Janus (bear) tries to be supportive of his boyfriend Puca, who, having lost his memory during transit from Earth, tries to ‘refind’ himself through frequent changes to different bodies. There is an excellent twist at the end few readers will see coming. Through various elements of an entirely-fabricated world, Slip Wolf does a fine job of exploring the concept of ‘paradise created.’ The predominant erotic scene involves tentacles which some readers may find not to their tastes.
“Waking Neil” by Skunkbomb follows beaver Archie as he attempts to draw his ferret boyfriend Neil out of a car-accident induced coma. Neil has found that within his mind he can create his own paradise; what if he doesn’t want to return to reality? While the erotic scenes in this story did not stand out to me, I did appreciate the subplot concerning Archie’s and Neil’s plans to become parents, a topic less-often touched on in gay furry fiction.
Like several of the other stories in this anthology, “Too Good” by MythicFox also explores the concept of a fabricated paradise. Paul, a coyote, is staying at an exotic resort staffed by fennec foxes who cater to his every whim, but as his memory of his life outside the resort begins to fade, he increasingly wonders if all is as it seems. As with the previous story, this tale makes the suggestion that given the choice reality may be better than paradise.
“Making Contact” by Tym Greene handles the theme of an escape from Earth a little differently than “Heavenly Flesh”: in this story, the spaceship Osiris has been in transit for hundreds of years, but as it approaches the distant planet which is to be its destination, other spaceships appear. Have aliens been discovered at last? This is the question Orville, a wildebeest, must answer as, having become acting-captain, he attempts to resolve the conflict. I’ve very little experience reading sci-fi but this story was very well-written, the sci-fi elements come across as very believable, and the twist ending was both surprising and satisfactory.
Another sci-fi tale, “The Centre of my Universe” by T.D. Coltraine features Frank, the bear ‘scavenger’ whose spaceship scrounges scrap materials. While investigating a crashed government spaceship with his fennec lover Zeke, Frank discovers a seeming-paradise on an uncharted planet, but the crashed spaceship harbours secrets that endanger the happiness he and Zeke have found there. While the twist at this story’s climax was pleasingly surprising, overall ‘The Centre of my Universe’ did not resonate as well with me as some of the other stories in this anthology did. It began with an extended sex scene that I felt did not give the reader adequate time to connect with the characters, the dialogue often felt forced and unbelievable, and there were numerous typos which sometimes made me question what a sentence was saying – this stood out as otherwise the anthology is largely well edited.
The penultimate story, “Little Death” by James Hudson follows Frederick, a fox who in a near-death experience finds himself transplanted into his own conception of paradise: a tropical beach on which his crush, snow leopard Toby, is his lover. This story’s interpretation of the ‘paradise’ theme suggests that the boundaries between reality and a conceived paradise may not be so distinct as one might think.
“Empty” by Faora Meridian is the shortest story in the anthology, and one of my favourites. The tale of a fox visited in bed by his wolf lover, I can’t reveal much else without spoiling the ending – it has one of the best surprise endings in the anthology, perhaps my favourite take on ‘paradise’ as a theme.
Overall, FANG 8 does a great job of exploring the concept of ‘paradise’ through various incarnations and interpretations. While some stories are better in quality than others, all were enjoyable on some level, and the variety of genres included, from sci-fi to historical fiction to contemporary settings in various contexts, makes it likely that most readers will find at least a few stories to their tastes, if not also introduction to other genres. The erotic element is much more evident in some stories than others, ranging from obvious, lengthy sex scenes to shorter sexual incidences nestled within the greater narrative, but in this respect as well I expect the diversity of approaches will help make the anthology appealing to a wider audience. Generally speaking the editing quality was high, as I noticed typos in only two or three stories out of fourteen. My compliments to Ashe Valisca and the authors of FANG 8 for putting together a fine anthology.