Aliric: Vantric Prince by Iris Moon

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

I found the most confusing book. Super for real this time. But it’s not confusing in a ending-of-2001-a-space-odyssey kind of way. This is a sipping confusion, for connoiseurs. Aliric: Vantric Prince is an urban fantasy, or possibly high fantasy with a few real world details, that may or may not be a coming of age story or a romance, written like the literary equivalent of a municipal flag designed by a committee.

Prince Aliric lives in the palace of the Vantric Kingdom with his mother. One night she is murdered by some kind of mist creature, and when Aliric goes to investigate, he is knocked out. These mist creatures are described as strange to the point of incredulity, despite the fact that Vantrics can also turn into mist. Just to get it out of the way, here is an exhaustive list of things Vantrics can do: turn into mist, materialize objects, run at approximately 440 miles per hour (by my calculation; the book alternates between Metric and Imperial), and become bats. They sleep at night, are injured by sunlight, and their eyes glow funky colors when they’re horny, which would be really fun in Vantric high school and not traumatizing at all.

When Aliric wakes up, he discovers that he’s on death row for killing the queen, because the cops in Vantricland expect to find the killer passed out on the floor next to the victim with a concussion. Absolutely stellar police work. Kind of makes you understand how they managed to pin that murder on Amanda Knox. Oh, I forgot. They’re Italian. The Vantric Kingdom is in the Apennines, near the town of Castelluccio. I know what you’re thinking; is this Volturi fanfiction? But the Volturi are from a small town in Tuscany, while this is a small town in Umbria. Don’t you feel stupid? At first I assumed that calling the Vantrics “Vantric” and not “vampire” was one of those things where zoomers are too cool for existing vocabulary, kind of like how Weight Watchers is called Noom, and trailers are called tiny houses. But no, they’re not vampires because vampires also exist in this story. I’m not really sure why the Vantrics live in Italy, since it’s not clear how Italian they are and most of the story takes place in Canadian Asgard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Aliric escapes with the help of his late father’s “right hand male” (male and female are used exclusively to refer to men and women, so I guess we’re gender atheists in this universe), and makes it all the way to America, specifically Yachats, Oregon. He’s there because that’s where the vampires are according to “local folklore.” I assume he means Vantric local folklore, and not the scuttlebutt on the streets of Portland. The vampires are supposed to be in Yachats, because that’s where they settled after a war with another race, the Fae, seventy five years ago. Since the book takes place in 1999, this means that Aliric relies on folklore to tell him about things that happened in 1924. Vantrics are immortal, right? And they have books, presumably. It would have been less jarring if I didn’t know exactly when the story takes place, but we get Jack Bauer style time stamps at the beginning of every chapter and subchapter. Usually they are completely irrelevant, and sometimes there are typos. Since I didn’t know they were just there for vibes when I started reading, the first time I ran across one of these mistakes I wracked my brain trying to reconcile the unacknowlegded time travel subplot.

The bulk of the story revolves around the budding relationship between Aliric and Genesis Amelia Rodrigues, a half-Fae woman with a mysterious past, who is also inherently awesome at everything, and their journey to live with the Fae in southwestern Canada. The realm of the Fae, known as Ashintar, is a combination of fantasy elements from Tolkienian elves to Celtic brownies, and becomes the young couple’s new home as they figure their shit out. Without spoiling too much, the long arc for both characters is about finding a new home and new family, without needing to wrap up the crisis that set the whole story in motion in the first place. It’s a little anticlimactic, but it’s possible it’s intentional. I have a hard time telling with this book what’s intentional.

The writing style is reminiscent of what I like to call By The Way Gothic, in which every sequence is painfully bloated with extraneous detail, much of which never pays off or is repeated from a previous scene. You’re familiar with this from those classic novels where your ninth grade English teacher turns their chair backwards and says that Brahm Stoker was the OG Billie Eilish or some crap, but every page of the book is “and then Lord Flappyminge dusted his antique bust of Cicero, which adequately-craniumed readers will recall he acquired during one of his many uneventful trips to the Dinaric Alps, all the while going over the list of his other possessions, which include…” and by the second chapter you’ve sworn a blood oath to never trust an English teacher again. Iris Moon compounds the problem by explaining things in reverse, such as telling us that Vantrics can turn into mist only after our protagonist is baffled by a creature made of mist. More forgivable is the fact that she probably speaks English as a second language. The systematic fragments using participles as main verbs are not ordinary L1 English mistakes. Normally you go to Hell for making fun of people for not speaking English flawlessly (I mean, Jesus wept, look at me; I’m one night of restless sleep away from writing like Tommy Wiseau after a ministroke). But in combination with everything else, the fact that so many phrases are slightly off, and so many sentences don’t quite parse just makes the book difficult to slog through.

I haven’t even gotten to the sex scenes yet. Obviously there are sex scenes. At this point I’m surprised that HVAC handbook I read a while ago didn’t have gratuitous snu-snu shoehorned into it between the duct sizing chart and the extended job interview questions. The middle part of the book is largely dedicated to Genesis and Aliric making the vampire with two backs, and it follows the trend of doing too much and too little. I had to start skimming when I go to the line “I am going to lick your sweet nectar now.” On the one hand, this is the sort of direct communication we should be normalizing in sex. On the other hand, fuck that noise. Maybe all the dark romance I’ve been reading has led my subconscious to believe that true romance comes with a police report.

There are so many questions that ran through my mind while I read this book. Why does Aliric pick the pseudonym Jensen Jorgensteen to be inconspicuous in rural Italy? Do the Fae have Canadian citizenship? One question I doubt I will ever be able to answer about Aliric: Vantric Prince is whose fantasy this is. The “Silver Skeeter” trope of making the Vantric inherently awesome at whatever the moment demands feels like an ordinary teen power fantasy. But there are too many abrupt changes in tone to say with confidence that that’s what it is. There are five chapters in a row dedicated to parental bliss, and the perspectives in the sex scenes are all over the place. I know who this book is for, ultimately: the author. I don’t mean that as a dig. Everybody has a book in them that no one else will get, and that book deserves to be on Amazon like all the others. It’s just hard to pretend I’m offering useful advice to would-be readers when I myself have no idea what I just allowed into my eye holes. I keep making books sound awful and then recommending them, but honestly I think a book that makes your brain skip like a loose CD player in an Egyptian taxi can be a very rewarding experience. If you’re looking for something different, Iris Moon’s debut novel is ten dollars on Kindle.

If I could turn into a bat, I would do it to avoid paying taxes.

Their Precious Princess by Leslie Ayla

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a pretty little princess who wanted nothing more than the overbearing, possessive kindness that only four dudes at once can provide. Their Precious Princess is a (deep breath) polyamorous daddy dom age play erotic thriller, in which the classic romcom dilemma of too many boys becomes an asset.

Clara’s abusive husband Jasper leaves her, then her abusive mother leaves her by dying of cancer. After caring for her mother and having no one and nothing left in her life, Clara runs into an old friend at the funeral. Emmett lived across the street, with his step brothers Jacques, Fitz, and Liam, but they faded from her life after her marriage to Jasper. The boys are back in town to “claim what is theirs.” Emmett is the alpha, although we don’t use that term because this book is written in a universe where Omegaverse fiction also exists. We know this about him because he is enormous, and has a beard, though personally I consider beards to be the padded bras of masculinity. Liam is the softboy, and Fitz is the short, spunky one with a chip on his shoulder. Jacques is… also there, I guess. Clara has missed her favorite boys so much that when they return to her life, she faints. I think. I can’t keep track of how many times this woman loses consciousness. It’s like every chapter opens with her waking up in a bed trying to remember how she got there.

She wakes up this time and Fitz is feeding her, hopefully some iron supplements or something, while Clara treats us to a flashback of how things went down with Jasper. At some point in their young adulthood the five protagonists proclaimed their love for one another, because Leslie Ayla does not waste any time. Now stay with me, because this next part is a little much. Jasper chose this moment to do what Tutar Sagdiyev would call a “sex attack” to her. You’ve experienced a romcom before, so you know this means two things. One, Clara feels guilt that’s never fully interrogated as far as I could tell, and two, the Brothers Fuckamazov arrived just in time to witness what they assume to be a last-minute betrayal. Yeah, not the best trope to pull out of the bargain bin. Whatever happened to rattlesnake bites? Remember when it was routine for a major subplot to revolve around a rattlesnake bite? You could do a lot with that in a MMMMF age play romance.

Once she got the preliminaries out of the way, Clara gets down to business; she falls asleep, and wakes up in the next scene, where two of her new dad-brothers boarding the beef bus in the spare bedroom. Thus begins the long process of turning this poly-cute into a bone-fest. Along the way we have a shadowy crime lord, the return of Jasper, an abduction, a pet kitten, and an extended sequence in which Clara’s boys explain the house rules and corresponding punishments (to answer your question, yes, there will obviously be spanking). Ultimately there is an armed showdown, because lately all my dark romance TBRs feature protagonists waving guns around like batons at a parade. But all that is just a scaffolding to hang loving descriptions of five people boinking each other on a pile pile of teddy bears off of.

That’s what everyone is here for; how good are the sexy bits? As I’ve pointed out before, this is what makes or breaks this sort of story. I can’t begin to communicate how unqualified I am to try and explain what makes sex writing good or bad. I have less authority on that point than Jackie Weaver. So you’re just going to have to take my word for it that they slap. I mean, literally there is slapping, but you know what I’m trying to say. It got to the point that I had to stop reading this book in public, because the paranoia-center of my brain (a.k.a the gray, wrinkly part) came up with this cool new idea that what if I’m sweating or blushing or otherwise drawing attention to myself while reading my Kindle, and people start staring at me, wondering what kind of disease I have, figuring out that it’s a smutty book, and concluding that it’s Thomas the Tank Engine slash fiction and I just got to the knotting scene. And then I have to leave the country, and change my name, and that’s a hassle. Point is, Leslie Ayla knows how to make a hot scene sizzle.

We’ve got a couple of fetishes glommed together like some sort of sex chocolate in some sort of sex peanut butter. There’s the… what do we call this, reverse harem? That seems a little condescending, like calling women in medicine “reverse doctors.” Maybe “Xsome?” Basically, we get the whole boy band, so we don’t have to pick one, and then have buyer’s remorse when we realize the one we picked is the producer plant who’s secretly 35, and it’s too late to swap because your friends are all pretending to date the rest of the band. Look, growing up in the 90s was complicated. For Clara, though, it’s simple. Need someone to give you an Abigail’s Promise, but you’re interested in giving someone a Colorado Sleeper Car at the same time? No worries! With four boys, you can get stuffed, and have dicks left over to put on a big, bouncy, bi show for your entertainment.

The other angle is maybe a little more complicated, and that’s the little fetish. This is where I surprise my audience by forgoing my usual procedure of treating the fetishes in this book like the pages are radioactive. No, I’m not into DD/lg, calm down, perverts. I’m just saying, in this book the little fetish is baked pretty deeply into every aspect, so it’s more of a literary element. Everyone, the people, the animals, the spoons, everyone, is bigger than Clara. She is surrounded by stuffed animals and people who decide whether her life is full of pain or happiness. The deference she shows her childhood friends qua sex partners transitions seamlessly from the raunchy scenes to the boring ones. She spends so much time reminding us how exhausted she is after dedicating much of her life to taking care of others, that the opportunity to abdicate responsibility over her own life is presented as a satisfying catharsis. It’s like getting the girl after slaying the dragon, except the girl is four dudes who make you sit in timeout when you don’t swallow. Remember when I mention Omegaverse? So, in this story, one character reads an Omegaverse story to another character, and everyone acts like it’s totally normal. It’s like someone in a zombie movie watching a zombie movie.

You can probably guess if this witch’s brew of kinks is your cup of… witch’s tea. The execution shows the author’s priorities: get to the part where two to six people are churning butter the hard way, and put all your energy into that scene. Don’t think too hard about it, don’t fuss and fret over plot details. Just get to the point. If you’re into this sort of thing, Their Precious Princess is probably the best you’re going to get for a while. It’s three dollars on Kindle, the standard price for newbie self-published authors. Since this one came out in March, Leslie Ayla has published another reverse harem novel, and upped the price to six dollars. You can’t see it, but I am slowly nodding my head with tremendous respect right now.

Theoretically, a “reverse harem” should be a bunch of eunuchs guarded by a slut.

Him & I by Melia A.

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What’s the difference between a sex predator and a hunky dreamboat? Depends on whether you’re asking about the length or the girth. Him & I is a dark romance about an eighteen year old American girl named Hailey, who has a long, hard, journey into adulthood.

Hailey lives a celibate life to focus on her student career, which seems to be going great but this is the last you’ll hear about it so who knows. She is best friends with Kevin Smith’s daughter from Cruel Summer, and has two siblings: a twin brother, and a younger sister who is apparently evil. We are just told this by the main character, and whenever the sister appears, Hailey is immediately screaming at her for being a horrible person and ruining everything. One day on the set of The Office, Steve Carrel decided “I’m just going to hate Toby.” And that became an unexplained recurring joke. Michael Scott says things like “I were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Toby, and I had a gun with two bullets, I would shoot Toby twice,” and it’s never explained. It’s the same kind of energy with the sister. But I’m getting bogged down in the details.

Hailey is still in love with her ex Kayden, or Jayden, or Ayden, or whatever. Mid-conversation with Kevin Smith’s daughter she gives us a flashback about how they met at a gazebo (seriously, am I being targeted by big gazebo?). She assures us she is not naive, but she was “on cloud nine” because they were “written in the stars.” That’s a recurring theme: cliché metaphors, mixed and sprinkled at random. At one point we are asked to “imagine being on the same path as someone and suddenly you’re on different pages of the same book.” Whatever. Teenagers repackage awkward groping at the movies as unprecedented romance all the time, so this is just a window into the mind of our protagonist.

One fact we establish right away about Hailey is that she is eighteen. You hear that? Eighteen point zero years old. Fully legal. This means the she can celebrate her birthday in her dad’s club, where alcohol is served (The author is not American, which will become obvious later if it isn’t already). I assumed Hailey’s age was signposted to assure the reader that all the steamy high school sex antics aren’t creepy, but it turns out this is a dark romance, so the shit that Hailey is subjected to mostly does not have an acceptable age threshold. Speaking of wacky sex horse play (I should go back and hyphenate that, but I’m not going to), Splayden is at the party, in accordance with narrative tradition. Now we get to see this beefcake in action. How does he sweep her off her feet? Mostly he just ignores whatever she tells him, coerces her into a dark room where he pulls off her clothes, and generally acts like what pickup artists tell you is supposed to work on girls. Of course, it works on Hailey because surprise! Pickup artists were right the whole time! Just treat women like something a movie theater janitor would scrape off their shoe at the end of the day, and achieve success! But before Fnayden can neg her about her back rolls, evil sister shows up, causing a ruckus. This calls for apoplectic screaming from Hailey, before 7ayden and Hunter join forces to calm the situation.

Oh yeah, Hunter. Stupid sexy Hunter. He thinks he’s so great just because he’s so great. On the way to the extremely American discotheque party for drunk babies, Hailey drives her BMW into Hunter’s Ferrari (it’s never explicitly mentioned that these people are all rich, so I’m going to assume this is just supposed to be how normal Americans get around town. Or maybe Hailey is rich because “club owner” is the highest echelon of European society, as opposed to in the States, where it is one rung above “man who owns his own shovel”). Stupid Sexy Hunter insists on repairing the damage to her car to keep it a secret from her dad, and takes the keys right out of her ignition. People are constantly taking things from Hailey in this story.

See, the thing is this is a dark romance, which is a genre for people whose fetish is red flags. I’m not trying to shame, but it’s difficult for me, because projecting is my main defense mechanism when there is something I fail utterly to understand. The sexy man-chunks in this story are constantly gaslighting Hailey, inserting things in her without consent, and delighting in treating her like an old gym sock. And she loves it, because this is your fetish, too, dear reader. Case in point, Caleb. Caleb is a pushy, violent misogynist. Jackpot, right? No! Caleb is an antagonist. What separates him from the guys who are playing dick-pong with Hailey as the ball? If shock, hate, and fear are Hailey’s aphrodisiacs, how does she distinguish the good and bad love interests? It’s the same way you know that Malfoy making fun of Molly Weasley’s weight is bad, while Ron making fun of Dudley’s weight is good fun; the value of actions is a function of which team a character has been sorted into during the drafting stage.

To get back to the plot, there’s an extended will-they-won’t-they-get-on-with-it between Hailey and Aydnayden, an obligatory love triangle with SSH, some cloak and dagger drama around Kevin Smith’s daughter that ends with people getting killed. Oh yeah, throughout the book people just whip out guns, because America I guess, and the climax is like the end of Hamlet, but all the characters have guns, and all the actors are guns, and Denmark is a gun. Hailey gets almost as many guns shoved in her face as dicks, and she’s equally blasé about it. Honestly, after a hundred pages of our leads being cute and coy to one another, it was a nice change.

Melia A. made a name for herself in the world of online long-form fiction, i.e. modern LiveJournal but we all agree not to call it that. Currently she is very active on Episode, which I gather is Wattpad for zoomers, but more polished and less collaborative. Given that your intrepid author’s attempts to understand the youth are about as successful as Praeger U’s efforts to convince me I should be grateful for landlords, it’s hard to give my usually brilliant analysis on the literary origins of this book. I get a little Cruel Intentions, with the rich, violent teenagers. There’s also an attempt at a certain kind of narration, with a casual, “Oh, I didn’t see you there” style. We’re constantly being told things “by the way.” What by the way, narrator? You’re in charge of this five cent pony show; is this detail important or isn’t it? You made us sit through a finger-banging scene between two people who hate each other, but you’re hesitant to overshare now? I haven’t talked much about the parents. The way they are always on their kids’ level when it comes to drama feels very Disney movie to me (When mom sees one of her daughters screaming at the other to point of dry heaving because so-and-so kissed such-and-such, the adult’s response is “Gasp, did you really kiss him?!?”).

As usual, I sound way more negative than I feel about Him & I. The sexy parts come out of nowhere and are probably triggering for anyone who’s not into dark romance, but if you can turn off the top and bottom of your brain (i.e. the parts that are telling you consent is important, and that there is danger), the middle part will tell you that these scenes are very well written. I can see why Melia A. has a following when it comes to good, smutty fun, and I’m well aware I’m not the target audience. If you’re… doing whatever nasty things go on over at Episode (am I even saying that right? Can someone tell me what “bet” means?), and you want to upgrade to a thick, juicy book, Him & I is probably for you.

Here in America, the drinking age is guns.

Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Normally, when one goes mad with power, a crucial prerequisite is to have actual power. Never keen on reading the manual, I have decided to skip a few steps and drag a seventeen year old author into the pathetic kangaroo court I call a review blog. That’s right, your girl is now dunking on literal children on the internet for your amusement. I cannot sink any lower without dressing up as a cat and making ASMR sourdough tutorials, so don’t give me any ideas. Into the Wind is a YA fantasy domestic drama in which Zephyr and her friends restore proper order to their village.

Zephyr, who is the daughter of the chief and who may or may not be the last airbender, is overdue to be married. Mom is dead, in keeping with local custom, and Chief Dad is tasked with finding a man sturdy enough to become chief one day. In the mean time, Zephyr plans to move in to the sorority wigwam with her besties so they can have some privacy while they watch Meg Ryan movies and have pillow fights. That’s a little anachronistic, but maybe the pillows are raccoons. Zephyr is stifled by the demands of propriety, the pressure to work in a certain way at a certain time, with no breaks to dance like an idiot over a bowl of porridge. At the same time, she dreams of a “godly man who loves the Protector,” and she shows no compunction against one day becoming “Chieftess” (a word which, for once, my spell check and I are in agreement about).

That’s the bird’s eye view, but on the ground what we get is a dinner scene where our principle characters hide from the rain, then a breakfast scene where everyone decides what kind of porridge they want, and an extended scene where villagers are going around repairing minor damage caused by last night’s rain. Once the buckskins get hung up and the dogs get wrung out, Chief Dad has made his decision. Zephyr is to marry the Head Warrior, an arrogant, unlikable man. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Chakotay. You can see what this setup is. It’s just Pocahontas. We’re reading the novelization of Pocahontas. Take that, you filthy Zoomer! You think you’re so great for being able to bend over without waking up the cat. Wither and wince as my vorpal red pencil goes snicker-snack across your precious manuscript!

Except it’s not Pocahontas, though. As soon as Zephyr draws a dick and balls on the marriage contract before handing it back to the men planning her future, another character steps into the spotlight, Stiff Arrow. Abigail Jeanne snuck this guy in as the obligatory hometown friendzoned twerp, but then a couple chapters in reveals that Stiff Arrow eschewed the position of Head Warrior so he could be assigned to the heir apparent’s personal detail. So that’s our real setup, right? Zephyr has to figure out that the right guy for her was under her nose the who- oh, no. She figures out immediately that she likes him better. If I had a nickel for each fake-out inciting incident in Into the Wind, I would finally have a book that earns me money.

Without spoiling too much, John Smith never shows up; the giant dome hiding them from modern society doesn’t collapse; the framing of the story never becomes anything other than the dynastic politics of a small village. That, on top of an agonizingly slow build up featuring several flavors of porridge, should add up to a slog. But it mostly avoids that fate. Mostly. There were plenty of chapters where I wondered “is this the point? We’re just cooking porridge? Is this porridge porn?” It’s not a typical coming of age fantasy novel where the curtain pulls back on a larger world, nor is it a quick and easy “let’s all share Virginia” Disney story. But it also isn’t one of those painfully slow slice of life animes where the main character is always running to nowhere with toast in her mouth.

As an aside, I’ve broken my own rule comparing Into the Wind to Pocahontas. I hate it when people compare things to Pocahontas, because Pocahontas is nothing; it’s like saying that something tastes like chicken. Case in point, Avatar. When people aren’t calling it “Dances with Blue Wolves,” they’re accusing it of being a Pocahontas rip-off. But Avatar is so much less than that. It’s a nearly verbatim copy of an early Ursula K LeGuin novella called The Word For World Is Forest. Whenever I see someone compare Pocahontas to anything, I think “you could be peeling back so many more layers of this onion,” and now I’ve done that very thing. I guess I’m just salty because Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to disappoint me. For me, as one single disgruntled child (imagine me as I am now, but even smaller and holding a balloon or whatever it is children do with their time), the Disney renaissance ended when Pocahontas failed to live up to the hype.

Into the Wind does not disappoint. While the main character is clearly a power fantasy author insert, she never reaches the level of a Mary Sue, partly because she has her own complex inner life. In general, young people in this book have a complicated relationship to tradition, embracing parts while balking at others, and it works pretty well. The world building is a sometimes cringy Native American analog, and the names are all over the place (I blame Eragon for establishing the precedent that one village may contain people named “Galadyrionx of the Crimson Blade” and “Steve”). The constant made-up words for things that could just be English is a little try-hard. But usually I find myself flipping through a terrible fantasy story that is carried along by its world building, and this was the opposite; I didn’t care that the continent people live on is literally called “The Continent,” because for once the story was actually engaging. Am I bitter that someone still picking amniotic fluid from their hair can write better characters than me? Shut up, no one asked you. Just read Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne. It’s four dollars on Kindle.

Ursula K LeGuin is a ripoff of a short story by Ursula K LeGuin.