Review by Ottereview
The anthology Heat, edited by Dark End, is regarded by many as the premier literary magazine of the furry fandom. Although explicitly erotic, it isn't pornographic. The stories are all exceptionally literary, and each was a delight to read. Although all had flaws, I absolutely recommend this anthology for anyone interested in furry fiction, especially if interested in literary erotica.I've reviewed each story, comic and poem featured in the comic separately.
I was assisted by my friend and poetry expert Free Jam who shared her insights and criticisms which shaped my reviews of the poetry in this anthology.
Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines, by Dark End
Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines is about Alexa, a vixen pilot with the air force, getting revenge on her stuck-up boss Gillian for refusing to acknowledge her proven skill by sending her into a real combat scenario. She comes to understand her boss better, but doesn't lose her drive to be seen as an equal.
The opening of the story did an excellent job to immediately establish character, setting, and the main character's conflict in a concise and believable way. However, I felt that the dialogue suffered for it. The back-and-forth between Alexa and the wolf read almost like a caricature of how such a scene should go, rather than how it actually would go. Then again, with the whole story playing to a larger than life tone, it served to set the upbeat sort of underdog go-getter vibe for the rest of the story.
For most of the story, in fact, I felt as if the dialogue was in direct subservience to the plot rather than working as a natural progression of conversation. I understand that it's necessary to guide the dialogue towards the plot targets, however, it often ended up feeling stiff and uniform amongst all the characters, despite being well-written and very clever in many cases.
Structurally, the rapid-fire short scenes didn't work for me when set alongside longer, average-length scenes. Although the opening scene accomplished many goals in impressively few words, there were many other scenes that only served to establish setting or set up a single, specific plot point. These slowed down the story for me, when the upbeat go-getter tone demanded a faster pace.
Further slowing down the pace of the story were many points of drawn-out exposition. It's cool hearing about Alexa's friend Orchid, an otter singer at the local club, and how her father was a mob boss, but there were many more interesting ways to present that background to me than in a block paragraph history lesson. The same is true of Alexa's background with that same club, which is told over two paragraphs of pure start-of-scene exposition.
However, when we're shown action, we're shown it with interesting visuals, good pacing, and strong description. Drunk Gillian was a delight, and so was the haphazard, incognito sex-scene-turned-heist that followed from it.
In fact, that long scene progression from the bar, to the back room, to otter punches was the highlight of the story. It flowed very well and drew me deep into the story. The conflict steadily built, wonderfully intertwined with moments of physical comedy which is incredibly difficult to pull off so effectively. The climactic confrontation between Alexa, Gillian, and Orchid was funny, fun, and believably written.
I was absolutely a sucker for the emotionally warm finisher conversation in the second to last scene. It prodded all the right places to give me a big smile, and concluded the story in a manner befitting the characters and tone. However, I think that it did a good enough job finalizing the character arcs, that the very last scene fell flat for me, in a Harry Potter Book 7 Epilogue sense. Sure, we got to see a few loose ends wrapped up, such as the final scene between Alexa and the wolf from the start of the story, but much of it felt unnecessary with the character and plot points that drove the story having already resolved.
With those minor hang-ups, I thought that this story was a marvel. Eliciting tension and emotion with drama is difficult, but doing so during an upbeat story filled with humor and optimism without any of that falling flat is even more difficult. I absolutely recommend this story.
How to Ruin a Friendship, a comic written by Kyell Gold and illustrated by Donryu:
How to Ruin a Friendship is a fun, quick comic about a man who invites his friend to donate sperm for his partner's pregnancy. However, he wants both him and his partner to be involved in the process of filling that turkey baster.
The first page starts immediately with a great in media res that both lays out the plot conflict, as well as the conflicted emotions in Chip's character. The characters are vibrant, and in the short space we get to know them, they all showcase their individuality.
Each page leaves off each with near-cliffhangers, little things that just make you continue to see what's about to happen. This is even true during the sex scene when the dialogue is entirely absent.
With the combination of the title and the trepidation of the main character at the onset of the scene, the tension would have kept me interested during the sex scene even if the wonderful art hadn't drawn me forward.
This comic was all-around well executed.
Bad Connection, by Crimson Ruari:
Bad Connection is about a wolf couple who grows divided over the issue of children. Chase, the main character, has always wanted pups, but his wife Kel isn't as keen on them. The constant reminders of kids in the lives lived around them drive such a wedge between the two that Chase begins to doubt his relationship.
The strained relationship between Kel and Chase was clear from the opening, which was wonderfully evocative of both the differing stances that the couple had towards children, and the different ways they dealt with that difference existing in their relationship. It set the tone and clearly established tension for the story to build off of.
The dialogue was very well written. The characters were clearly distinguishable, the conversations flowed well, and progressed naturally. Furthermore, they were interspersed well with action that really highlighted the quirks and personality traits of both Kel and Chase.
Despite that, both in the first conversation and latter ones, emotions changed too fast for my believability. One moment everything is fine; the next, a character has stormed off to slam doors and throw a fit. These temperament changes needed more build to really work for me.
I enjoyed the character arc, but the plot felt rather jumpy to me. The narrative transitioning from the conflict over pups, to Chase's friend Becca telling him how to back off, to Chase backing off, to a time skip with Kel suddenly coming home smelling like sex, all this over the course of four pages, left me with a degree of whiplash. I was having trouble latching on to a concrete issue that Chase's character had to work through. Instead, I was presented with a problem, then a fix, then a problem, then a fix, and then another problem. These sudden changes made it difficult to latch onto an issue long enough to empathize with.
Furthermore, I didn't like much of the exposition that explained to me Chase's interpretation of the scenes. I love seeing emotional reactions because those evoke sympathy from me. However, I don't like being told how to think about a scene, which happened at many points throughout the story.
Lastly, I didn't like how the character arc was resolved through no agency of Chase himself. Both he and Kel were told exactly how to change by Kel's close coworker Darrel, and that was a very unsatisfying climax to the story. Then, they had a conversation that cleared up a few of each of their misconceptions, then they had sex. I felt like they were forced into resolving the conflict, causing it to feel cheap rather than earned.
Compounding that, after the climax of the story, the sex didn't seem to serve a purpose for Chase's character arc. To me, it just read, "We resolved our issues, now let's have sex." It could have been almost entirely left out. The only important moment was Kel's laissez faire attitude towards a condom in the ending, and that was a weirdly sudden change for her character that didn't resonate with me.
Despite that, I did enjoy the note that the story left off on, with them agreeing to therapy and preparing to continue to work on their relationship issues. The ending of the story made me wish that the meat of Chase's character arc had hung on his personal methods of communication, rather than those being resolved by Becca and then her sage advice not even working anyway. It fell entirely on an outside source to resolve the plot -- gay coworker ex machina.
That's not to say that the aforementioned sex wasn't written well, because it absolutely was. The sex scene worked great, and the dialogue scattered through it was charming and lovely. In fact, the entire story was written well enough to carry me through my qualms about plot structure and character arcs. In the end, it was a charming story that I do definitely think is worth reading. The dialogue is strong, the characters are strong, and the writing itself is fluid and evocative.
Instincts, by Tempe O'Kun:
Instincts is a sensual poem about an erotic encounter with a tiger woman. Although I enjoyed reading it, it didn't particularly stand out to me.
The poem was comprised of action-based imagery that attempted to evoke the different senses of sex. I liked the line about the heart scampering away even while clutching close. However, the only other metaphor, electricity, is a tired metaphor for sex.
Afterwards, the description lacked much flair. The language felt active and descriptive, but it wasn't particularly evocative to me, which was a problem for a poem about the sensations of sex with a hot tiger lady. It stopped showing me what it was like, and started telling me instead, which was far less exciting.
Furthermore, the inconsistent line lengths sometimes worked for me and sometimes didn't. In the middle two stanzas, the tension built up to highlight every word. However, one of the two was twice as long as others, and felt out of place. I think it would have had more impact had they both been trimmed down to approximately even lengths.
The last stanza seemed somewhat inconsistent with the rest. Until then, the poem used fairly formal language. The term “spooking” felt out of place.
However, it was a fun, quick read, despite the issues present.
West, by Slip Wolf
West is an excellent story about moving on. The lead character, Alex, is traveling westward on his bike towards the home of his prior lover, Samuel. However, in leaving his home, he's broken parole and has to lay low to avoid the cops out to round him up. As he's laying low, Alex has a run-in with a Corgi nicknamed Shortbread who, after some initial tensions, invites Alex to ride alongside him and his pack of canine bikers.
The story read well to me. The writing, plot, and characters were all solid. However, there were several points where the scenes dragged on a stretch too long, or where extraneous sections left me wondering when the next point of plot or character progression would come.
Furthermore, the climax of the story had the main character revealing a point of his past that I didn't feel was adequately foreshadowed. Because of that, this engaging story had me tilting my head near the end, as if it had swapped out character arcs on me at the last second. Whereas beforehand the arc gripped me and pulled me on even through the parts that slightly dragged, with the climax -- and throughout the rest of the story -- the character progression suddenly felt muddied and discordant.
I also did not like the twist at the very end. It didn't add anything to my understanding of the characters and story, yet felt contrived to the point where it shaved off a layer of the believability that had be so laboriously built through the excellent setting
Despite those gripes, the writing is fluid and descriptive with few grammatical mistakes, the characters live and breathe, and most of all, the story is lush with the biker setting. The bars are vivid to the imagination, and while the characters break biker tropes, the basic feel of a hardened biker is there for them all. The setting does an excellent job drawing the reader into that gritty world.
Despite my hang-ups about the character arcs and progression, I enjoyed this story a lot.
Three Foxes Walk Into a Bar, by Thurston Howl:
Three Foxes Walk Into a Bar is a lighthearted poem illustrating a dominatrix vixen picking up men from a bar. It contrasts the dark tones of BDSM with the fun, sing-song tone of the poem. This poem unfortunately doesn't work for me at all.
The language feels awkward to me. The very first line, "Once was a vixen who walked into a bar," although fitting the lighthearted tone, just reads awkwardly. The language is stretched and twisted to fit the rhyme scheme and line length throughout the entire poem, which causes many instances of uncomfortable phrasing.
Furthermore, the flow doesn't really work. For example, the first two lines in the second stanza have completely different compositions. This technique can work, but doesn't there. They just don’t feel like they are supposed to be together.
Some of the rhyming is just forced. The first stanza is fine, but the second uses “hide” when that flat-out wasn’t what the character was doing and didn't really relate in any metaphoric sense either.
Now, the use of limericks does add a sprinkle of humor and playfulness, but the writing itself doesn't hold this standard. There's a dearth of upbeat, joking, or funny moments in the writing to match it. So while the playful tone is a cool idea, it just doesn't really match the content.
The last stanza made me very uncomfortable. The increased line length and unnecessary wordiness disrupted the quick-paced flow that limericks are supposed to have, and the rape joke at the end left a sour taste in my mouth.
Flame Above the Waves, a comic written by Zeigler and drawn by Kyma:
Flame Above the Waves is about a fox castaway who washes up on the shore of an old lighthouse. The main character, the lighthouse keeper Timothy Cobb, is a sea otter hermit who rescues the fox and rehabilitates him.
This comic fell into a lot of 'castaway' tropes, with the two very different characters who at first don't really get along, but slowly grow close. The execution of this trope, however, is well done. It's a slow burn, although one that kept me engaged as I read it.
I didn't enjoy the captain's log style narration. Wherever it was used, it just seemed to exist to skimp out on showing progress through action and dialogue. Although the castaway plot arc trope is executed well, I could have done without the tropic narration.
The two characters are unique and vivid. Their interactions are what makes this story a delight to read. Furthermore, their steady growth is natural and steady, impressively so for a comic confined to such a low page-count.
However, the twist at the end didn't work for me. A lack of foreshadowing meant it came out of the blue, for seemingly no purpose. Now, that would be fine if it were a short note before the comic cut out, but instead the comic spends two full pages on this out-of-nowhere pirate captain that completely disrupted the tone of the story.
Despite the ending, I was very impressed with the buildup of the relationship between the two main characters. It's a great read, and has wonderful art to match.
Shell Game, by Kandrel
Shell Game is about a Husky named Markus living in a town entirely populated with clones of himself. These clones are entirely subservient to him, and he works to ensure that all of him works as a finely tuned machine, just like the towns of clones of other individuals, all having arrived to populate this planet on the same colonization ship. However, things start to go wrong, and Markus learns information about himself that he had never considered.
The biggest issue I had with this story was the frontloaded exposition. The world that Kandrel constructed is really cool. I think it's awesome and inventive. Yet, as cool as it is, I grew exhausted reading through the minutiae of how the world worked, much of which was not necessary for the plot itself. The opening exposition seemed to drag on for me, and by the time the plot started, I may have skipped the story were I not reviewing it.
Several cases of odd sentence construction compounded this. There was nothing explicitly ungrammatical except in the case of a clear typo. All of that served to continually disrupt my attention.
And that would have been a shame. Because the plot erupted from a mysterious black van arriving in the main character's town like a storm. It gripped me and pulled me along. The plot was engaging and skillfully executed; the problem for me was the unnecessarily long time that it took to get started.
However, around two-thirds of the way into the story, we experience an ironic role reversal that I would have loved had it been executed differently. As it was, the role reversal felt immediate and absolute, so much so that I didn't recognize the character afterwards. It was as if I were reading about a different main character for the last third, which was disorienting. It pulled me out of the story, with the character resisting this call for a while, then all of a sudden, with no in-between, fully succumbing to it and morphing into an entirely different character with no remnants of their initial personality.
When the main character entered a new environment that he was introduced to in the latter part of the story, there was none of the calculating precision we had been set up to initially expect. There was only dumb wonder at surroundings that were only slightly unusual.
For all those issues that kept me from fully engaging in the story, all the elements were right there for it to work really well. It was still an enjoyable read, and I would absolutely recommend it to science fiction fans, but it could have been much tighter.
Full Dip, a comic by Ishaway:
Full Dip is about a female cat named Kyra and Robin, her rabbit girlfriend. The couple grow too hot with their AC out at home, so they go to the ocean to cool off.
This comic is sexy. It's well-drawn, but there's not much to it. There's no tension driving the story forward other than the superficial porn tension of getting caught nude out on the beach. However, even that slight bit of tension is immediately dissipated with reassurances in the dialogue. There's not really much of a plot to speak of, only a situation that exists solely to lead the main characters to sex.
The inner monologue style narration felt fairly stiff to me, but the dialogue flowed decently well. Even so, there were many spots with strange word choices or awkward constructions.
I recommend this comic if you want some well-drawn lesbian porn, but there isn't really any literary merit to it that would warrant interest otherwise.
Top to Bottom, a poem by Mog Moogle:
Top to Bottom is an interesting poem about the dynamic between domination and submission, taking the role of top or bottom.
First of all, the short lines and concise language work excellently. They play into a fast-paced, breathtaking experience that really serves to highlight the imagery and sensuality of the language.
However, the punctuation lacks consistency. Punctuation works when it's all or nothing, but punctuating just a few lines confuses the flow. When the first line has a period, the audience will expect punctuation and will have to readjust themselves when no more comes. Then, a semicolon and comma appear in the middle, adding more confusion.
Furthermore, it was quite literally hard to read. The white on grey at the bottom blends too much into the background, which is sad, because it slows my reading down when my mind wants to keep pushing forward at the speed with which the text yanks me along.
The highlight of the poem is the ability to read it top to bottom or bottom to top. That's cool, and really hard to accomplish. It shows just how this poet knows what he's doing.
Overall, Top to Bottom is an excellent poem with vivid, descriptive language, excellent flow, and a theme that carries through the content, tone, and even structure of the poem.
Blue Collar Blues, by Whyte Yote:
Blue Collar Blues is a nostalgic piece about two men dealing with the stresses and traumas of their lives in different ways.
Right off the bat, I was struck by the fluidity of the writing and the terrific dialogue between the two main characters, Jimbo the tiger and Hank the shiba inu. I was drawn in by their pride in their vehicles and the superbly executed ounce of conflict that kept tugging the dialogue forward.
This wonderful dialogue continued through the next scene. However, I didn't feel the tension grow beyond that taste from the first scene. The characters were fleshed out very nicely with the exposition given through their conversation while drinking on the couch, but my interest waned.
Luckily, the story picked pack up right where it left off as they grow steadily drunker and drunker, evolving into relationship woes and the conflicts they were dealing with from their wives. The climax of the scene, which evolved into the climax of the story, was uncomfortable in just the right ways to leave a lasting impression and a twisted gut, but not overboard. Without spoiling the story, I can say that a less deft hand writing that scene could have left me with a far worse impression of the story.
Personally, I love having stories that wrap up emotional arcs. Even though it's formulaic, it's formulaic for the reason that certain structures give you strong emotional reactions to the resolution of a story. My biggest qualm with Blue Collar Blues, therefore, was the lack of a tidy ending. I loved the buildup and the conflict that arose between the two main characters. I was all ready for either a blow-up of these unresolved issues or a gentle deflating of the balloon as they find some greater realization about their own lives. However, the story just up and ended with all of the major plot threads hanging in the open and unresolved.
Now, I understand that this isn't unheard of. I know that plot threads are left open-aired, even when there's no emotional reconciliation. But I can't help but have a less positive look at the story when I absolutely didn't enjoy the ending.
That's a shame, because I loved almost all other parts of it. I would absolutely recommend this piece, it's a wonderful slice of life despite what I considered to be a lackluster ending.
Tied, by Televassi:
Tied is a poem relating a captured wolf of Norse mythology. It weaves a metaphor between his capture and the hold of a lover over him.
The metaphorical language in this poem shines. For example, "Wayward creatures / Can come quietly to heel," is evocative and full of imagery. However, the evocative imagery loses its dreamy quality near the end where it becomes more grounded in concrete physical action. I don't like this, as it feels somewhat blunt.
The semicolons in each stanza really don't add much. However, the stanzas at the end make great use of consonance. The repeated "S" in "Subtly / You Slipped over me / That silken snare” helps the lines flow together. The language is carefully crafted. It flows wonderfully as a result.
To the Victor the Spoils, by Ocean Tigrox
To the Victor the Spoils is about a greyhound named Coltraine who competes in his city-state's decennial grand race to earn the hand of a maiden from an allied city-state. He was born and raised with this race in mind, and competes against his childhood friend Burtley and a peasant Basalt. However, he's already confidently tied the knot with the maiden, Renee, and the politics surrounding the race aren't all that they seem.
The story opens with a sex scene that felt very weirdly paced. I understood the back and forth, and tying the imagery of the race to the imagery of sex, but it ended up not really making either set of imagery work for me.
However, while it failed in imagery, it worked excellently to build clear tension and conflict right out of the gate that never let up throughout the entire story. The plot carried this piece on its back, disguising its flaws such as moments of awkward word choice.
There were weird and uncomfortable aspects to the world that I immediately wanted to know more about. When they were explained to me in the second scene, I was let down by the exposition. I wanted to learn the mechanics of this interesting system by seeing how it worked. Being told it instead caused the world to lose much of its wonder to me.
However, the characters and plot tension filled that gap of wonder. I loved that the main character was so initially hate-able. It was a weird dynamic, since even though Basalt, Coltraine's peasant rival, was a jerk, he was the underdog whose perspective the typical sports story of this form would focus on.
Yet Coltraine's spoiledness came across with a well-written naivety that allowed me to really feel for him when I absolutely knew what was going on with Rainee when he visited her in the tower later. That's hard to pull off.
Bently, Coltraine's friend, became more important to the plot than Basalt, yet we saw far interaction with Basalt than Bently. In fact, the entire initial conversation between Coltrane and his friend Burtley felt forced. When talking about Stenworth's death, there should have been gravity with that moment, but I didn't feel it.
Because of the mixed feelings the story gave me towards the protagonist, even though I did end up hoping for him to win the race, I was uncertain. If Basalt won, it wouldn't be a villain winning, but an upstart underdog able to push it in the faces of the nobility. Having set up the story such that I didn't know for a fact that the protagonist would win made it that much tenser for me going into that final moment of action.
Despite that, the moment of greater realization about Coltraine's reason for racing didn't hit me like the budding tension did. I appreciated Coltraine's character arc, but I didn't see the gradual buildup of thoughts that led to him understanding his change in motivation. Furthermore, I didn't like the composition of the final competition in the race. It seemed to contradict the interpersonal race conflict that had been built up for the entire story beforehand.
The ending was excellent with the built-up character conflict between Rainee and Coltraine maintaining the tension that had exploded in the climactic race. The finale itself was well executed and satisfying.
I can absolutely say that I'd recommend this story. Although the shortcomings were stark with the confusion between antagonists and the few stylistic failings, the strengths -- especially the story's plot arcs -- more than made up for them. It was a delight to read.
As a cohesive unit, the stories, comics, and poems in Heat flow together very well. I don't think there's an issue with the progression of tone between the content. Furthermore, the illustrations throughout the book were absolutely stunning and showcased an excellent layout design that only faltered with Top to Bottom's text readability.
I unfortunately found that the quality of the poetry and comics varied far more than the stories themselves. I would rather see fewer of these than ones not up to the same standards as the rest of the fiction. The short stories, however, were consistently well written, many of which easily matching the quality of mainstream fiction.
In the end, I'd rate Heat 14 an excellent 8.5/10, and would absolutely recommend it to any furry that isn't squeamish about reading erotica.