Title: Shifting Sands
Author: Kimberly Gardner, Ally Blue, Willa Okati, Brenda Bryce, J.L. Langley, Jet Mykles
Genre: Anthology, M/M Contemporary Fantasy, Shapeshifter
Length: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by StaceyR
Six unique stories cleverly woven to read like a single novel. Things get wild on the farm when a curse is cast, binding the ranch hands of the Shifting Sands to the land and a monthly transformation. Will finding true love break the spell for these cursed cowboys, or simply add new victims to their menagerie?
Witches, shifters and ancient curses, such is life on the Shifting Sands.
A woman’s wrath is bad, but a witch’s wrath is hell on earth. No one knows this better than the six men of Shifting Sands Ranch. When the owner’s Chinese witch of a wife abandons him and the ranch, she takes one of the cowboys and leaves behind a curse that dooms the remaining inhabitants to a life that is anything but normal. Now, every month when the moon comes full, each man takes on the form of an animal. Witches, shifters and ancient curses, such is life on the Shifting Sands.
What I loved most about this anthology was how each author’s story shines with their unique style and voice and the circumstances revolving around their couple’s relationship builds on an overall premise, all six stories creating new twists and turns into one fluid and fun novel. Really well done.
In the prologue, ranch owner Daniel is under siege by his ranting wife Yi. In the past six months he’s been married to her he’s never been able to make her happy. Then again, he’s still not sure how his business trip six months back ended with him married to the little Asian woman when he’s pretty sure he’d always been gay. All the men on the ranch are gay, which is what has Yi in such a snit. Her bags packed, she calls for Russell to start the car, a kid who’s grown up on the Shifting Sands and who owns a large chunk of Daniel’s heart. Before he can question Yi, her command freezes him on the spot. Her shouts draw all the ranchhands into the yard and she points to each one, condemning them for being gay as she chants about a curse. Thunder booms, the ground shakes and as she and Russell drive away Daniel feels the change coming over him as he and every guy on the ranch begins to morph into an animal…
Snake Charmer by Kimberly Gardner – 5 stars: Cyrus has a serious problem. Thanks to his boss’s witch of an ex-wife the full moon turns him into a snake, an affliction that also rears it’s fanged head whenever he’s experiencing intense emotions–like in the heat of the moment with his sexy little lover Bobby Lee. Despite the inconvenience and danger of discovery, this strong and silent cowboy can’t stay away from his sweet mechanic. The stronger his feelings for Bobby Lee, the harder he finds it to control the snake, a creature Bobby Lee is not particularly fond of, which only adds to Cy’s dilemma. When Cy walks in on Bobby Lee being hassled at work, he tears into the guy and nearly snakes out in the shop. He makes a break for it, leaving Bobby Lee to deal with the fallout.
Back on the ranch Jud tries to offer some friendly, or no-so- friendly, advice, suggesting Cy might want to tell Bobby Lee about the curse if he doesn’t want to lose him. Cy can’t fathom how he can explain to Bobby Lee when none of them really know what kind of curse they’re dealing with. All the men are dealing with their own beastie problems. After months of living with the curse, no one knows how long the curse will last or if there’s a hope of lifting it. When Bobby Lee comes to the ranch to straighten things out on the night of a full moon, Cy knows he’ll have to trust Bobby Lee with the truth and risk losing the man he’s pretty sure he’s starting to love. But finding true love has consequences neither man could have anticipated…
I loved these characters. I especially liked Ms. Gardner’s shape-shifting descriptions and how Cy feels each change, teeth, tongue, sight, hearing, as he starts to morph…all that getting mixed up with the tingling rush of an orgasm—some great writing. My only complaint, Cy’s favorite tongue-twisting combo of a swearword. Profanity generally rolls off the tongue…shitfuckpiss, not so much.
All The Moon Long by Ally Blue – 5 stars: Judson sheds some interesting light on how everyone is adjusting to their new abilities. How this little rat deals with the larger beasts is too funny. Jud is also the ranch cook and for years he’s been hot for the store owner who keeps the ranch stocked with food and supplies. Too bad he has the habit of scurrying away before making a pass at the hunky clerk. One evening during a full moon, Woody stops by to make a delivery. Jud’s rat-escape-hatch backfires and before he can scamper away, Woody accidentally steps on his paw. Woody is such a great guy. An animal lover at heart, Woody immediately sees that the rat is too tame to be wild. Leaving Jud a note, he packs the injured rat up and takes him home to nurse his broken paw. He talks to the wounded rat the whole way to his place—sweet, and hilarious since Jud can understand him and is trying to figure out how he’s going to escape and get back to the ranch—or worse yet, shift while in Woody’s house and explain how he ended up there, naked.
Never underestimate the distracting power of sex appeal—Jud is soon praising his misfortune, and finds himself in a hot and heavy relationship, one where he’s forced to repeatedly lie to cover the ranch secret. Should he risk this dream come true by confessing his secret? Is Bobby Lee’s new evolution a sure sign of true love? The guys are no closer to finding a fix to the curse, but he loves the man, and Woody loves animals, so Jud figures it’s best to be honest. He invites Woody over the night of the next full moon, confesses his love, and lets his rat loose. What I really like about this story is that Woody reacts the way I’d think most would—he freaks and bolts. Jud is crushed. Woody didn’t shift into an animal, so he must not love Jud, right? He won’t return Jud’s calls so it must be over…or is it? You need to read it and find out :)
Cock of the Walk by Willa Okati – 5 stars: A fucking rooster. Of all the barnyard animals Michael can’t understand how he got stuck with a rooster. He’s the least likely to strut or crow, never wanting to draw attention to himself. At six-foot-seven he’s an overgrown wallflower, proven by his lurking on the sidelines at a neighbor’s barn dance, that is, until he’s approached by Zan. I love Zan’s introduction… ‘Beside and beneath him a crazy, curly-haired guy with a pirate goatee waved up at him. He wore an earring made up of a pink feather dangling from a stud, his face—what Michael’s mamma would have called “a face with character”—wreathed in an impish grin. “What’s a nice man like you doing in a place like this? In the wallflower’s corner, even, where the disenchanted come to lurk?” Bright and bouncy, with his speed-of-light, hilarious banter, Zan is soon dragging Michael out the back for some amazingly good down n’ dirty sex. Afterward, Michael takes off for home before he can’t control his urge to crow.
He’s stunned when a VW bus rambles onto the ranch the next day, with his new lover honking and waving. To his sheer horror, Zan has just been hired as a new ranchhand. Michael is determined to ignore Zan, but the guy won’t take a hint, constantly on his heels, pushing into his space, demanding his attention and an unbidden well of affection for a chatty guy he should find annoying. Michael can’t rely on his coworkers for help when everyone else seems to think Zan is just what the silent, withdrawn giant needs. But Michael knows better, he can’t love Zan. He can’t subject this bright free spirit to the ranch curse. But where he goes, Zan follows, and when Michael gives in it’s Michael who’s in for a surprise. Zan has a few secrets of his own, resistance is futile when you recognize your soul mate…and perhaps his open-minded view on shape-shifting magic will offer new insight to their plight.
This is a fun read, Zan being a bright, smile-inducing ball of energy you can’t help but love even though you feel for Michael who’s rendered helpless against the onslaught of his psychedelic admirer.
Hare of the Bull by Brenda Bryce – 4 stars: In this story, as well as the next two, we get two points of view. A virtual bull in a china closet, Gordy slices his hand open at work. He heads to the house for some first aid and is not relieved by a softspoken offer of help from Tristan, the quiet, skittish distractingly-attractive housekeeper at the Shifting Sands. Tristan isn’t a resident at the main house and, like the other day-hands, wasn’t affected by the curse. All Gordy wants is to impress Tristan but he feels like a big lumbering idiot whenever he gets near him. He knows his large size intimidates his small coworker and despite his attempts to be subtle, Tristan tends to flinch at his every move. He’s tempted to deny the offer of help but can’t pass up a chance to get close to his obsession. But when Tristan presses on a deep part of the cut and Gordy jerks his hand up, Tristan becomes a cowering, whimpering bundle of fear. Gordy’s stunned and then sees red with rage when he realizes Tristan’s reacting like someone who’s been repeatedly abused.
By the time Tristan realizes Gordy didn’t intend to hurt him, that he’s had a flashback of the ex-lover who’d beat him. He’s mortified by the concern in Gordy’s eyes and retreats into a storage room where he tends to hide. He’d hoped he was ready to deal with people again, but clearly he’s still a hopeless mess. Gordy can’t stay away and he’s shocked by the big man’s gentle prodding into his past, and his understanding. Gordy wants to know if the man who hurt him is behind bars, and assures Tristan he wasn’t a coward to not fight back against a man twice his size. But he thinks the man should be confronted, if not made to pay for hurting Tristan. Tristan is relieved to find someone who doesn’t condemn him for his baggage. His grief over the horror he endured rushes to the surface and Gordy’s there to offer comfort. That night Gordy takes Tristan home. Things heat up and they spend a wild and passionate night together.
Tristan can hardly believe his good fortune, falling hard for his new lover over the next two weeks. A threatening phone call from his ex shatters his new-found peace. Tristan realizes he’ll have to face is past if he wants to protect his future. Gordy arrives at the house to find Tristan gone, a day before the full moon. If he doesn’t get him back to the ranch, his shift will be horribly painful—an affliction he hasn’t yet warned his lover about. Can he find Tristan in time and will he have the strength to let Tristan fight his own battles?
I liked this duo, but I had some major niggles with the premise…abuse trauma is a hard one to tackle in fifty pages and I found Tristan’s fast recovery from a cowering abuse victim suffering PTSD to a wanton whimpering sex kitten to be rather…miraculous. Sweet and sexy as Gordy is, I had a hard time believing Tristan would be up for a bull ride that first night—not that it wasn’t a great scene ;-) I also liked how Tristan gains his confidence back and develops a determination to confront his past, finding his strength beside his much bigger and stronger lover.
Lost And Found by J.L. Langley – 5 stars: Shay has come to Wyoming for an internship on the Bar W to finish his agriculture degree, but all hell breaks loose when one of the cowboys spy the pentagram necklace with a zodiac sign his hippie wiccan mother gave him for good luck. Attacked in his bunk, bound and beaten and shoved into a burlap sack, he’s hauled out to God-knows-where and dumped into a field, surrounded by the voices of angry cowboys making plans to show him how they deal with gay witches, popular choice leaning toward setting him on fire. He starts to roll away from the arguing voices and casts a spell to free himself from the bag, but as his bonds breaks apart he hits an incline and starts to tumble out of control, the bag wrapping around him. He can hear his pursuers chasing after him as he plunges into water and slips into unconsciousness.
Ben is out to pasture, enduring another full moon in his equestrian form when he hears a cry for help as something rolls past him. Sending Gordy the bull to scare off the other unwanted trespassers, he hurries into the pond and pulls out a bound man. Rolling him over, his hoof tangles with a necklace, tramping the cord into the mud. Unable to do more than make sure the guy is breathing, he stands guard over the small form, waiting for sunrise, and his shift back into human form. Shay opens his eyes to the fuzzy fission of a big horse transforming into a powerful man. When he comes to again he’s surrounded by other men, namely Cy and Bobby Lee making out. Stunned to find himself on the Shifting Sands Ranch, where gay cowboys appear to be tolerated, Shay tries to keep up with all the new faces and is captivated by Ben when he enters the house. He keeps seeing flashes of the big beautiful horse mingling with images of Ben, and he wonders if Ben is a shaman, a question the gorgeous Native American takes offensively. When an off handed comment about all witches needing to be shot is made, Shay decides to keep any info about his wiccan family to himself, instead saying he’d been attacked for being gay.
Ben’s discomfort only rises when he hears the attractive stranger is gay, increasing the uneasy feeling he can’t shake, knowing Shay saw him shift. Bobby Lee and Tristan become fast friends and allies with Shay, insisting he stay at the ranch, standing up to Ben and the others who protest about taking on more trouble than they’ve already got. Jud agrees that having a guy with an agriculture degree on the ranch could be beneficial and suggests Shay finished his internship with them. That night Shay is surprised when Ben hands him the duffle bag he’d gone and retrieved from the Bar W so that Ben wouldn’t have to go back there. Worried his book of spells might have been discovered and caught off guard by Ben’s kindness, he finds himself caught in a heated kiss with Ben.
Both men are wary of their secrets and avoid each other over the next month, denying their attraction for one another—until Ben discovers Shay’s necklace in the mud around the pond. A confrontation ignites the passion between them. When the men decide to put Shay’s Wicca skills to use and he begins to develop a shield that will ward off the curse, not all goes according to plan… Loved these stubborn heroes, and really enjoyed the touch of suspense to this story. Also liked how all the characters get a voice and page time in this one, all of them interacting with each other, their individual personalities shining through as they deal with the discovery of Shay’s wiccan influence.
Pulling The Dragon’s Tail by Jet Mykles - 4 stars: Daniel is feeling the pressure of bringing the curse onto his ranch and being the last one of the men to find his soul mate—what they believe is the last piece needed to break the curse. What the others don’t know is that Daniel has a pretty good notion of who his soul mate is, the boy he’d practically raised and watched grow into a man he admired. His attraction for a man so much younger than him always left him feeling guilty. The reason he’d gone on the business trip was to get away from his attraction to Russell—instead he came home with a wife he didn’t want, one he now believes must have cast a spell on him to get him to marry her. He’s certain Yi must have cast a spell on Russell to make the younger man betray him so badly. He also knows Yi has been shacked up with Russell for the past two years. Knowing their location hasn’t offered him any solutions. A bizarre phone call from Yi telling him Russell is in trouble and he needs to come get him is all the encouragement Daniel needs to set out to bring his man home.
When Russell arrives home, Yi is nowhere to be found, something that has never happened during the two years of his coerced co-habitation. He’s endured her sharp tongue and temper, being reduced to her house slave and their sole source of income. She keeps him on a tight leash, her threats and his own guilt keeping him from contacting Daniel. He doesn’t know how Daniel could ever forgive him, though he knows now that Yi is some kind of witch and likely had him under a spell. When Yi doesn’t turn up he decided to go out for dinner, all the while feeling like something is crawling under his skin. When he stares too long at a patron that reminds him of Daniel, he finds himself being accosted in an ally, jumped by three men who don’t take kindly to heated looks from queers. As Russell fights back, a new sensation washes over him as his first shift starts to take hold. Daniel arrives amid the brawl to find Russell caught in mid-shift, the man-tiger ready to tear his attackers apart. Daniel’s dragon emerges to help him get the tiger under control.
In the aftermath of the adrenaline and rush of being reunited, both men give in to a moment of passion. Once back at the apartment, they’ve regained their control, and Russell’s shock mounts as he learns about the shape-shifting curse and all new activity on the ranch. Yi still no where in sight, they set out for home to try and put everything to right. Daniel and Russell are sweet guys and there’s a nice set up to their secret crushes on each other, but I found them a tad too passive to hit the hero mark, IMO. They have an annoying tendency to tiptoe around the elephant (dragon, tiger, witch) in the room, choosing to ignore the obvious and simply not talk about it. After all they’d both been through and being the final story, it was maddening and frankly had me thinking these two weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. Still, there’s a good deal of action and intrigue as they find their way back to the ranch and I was eagerly turning the pages, wanting to know if Russell’s reunion with Daniel would be the key to breaking the curse…but these are two wary men, slow to make professions of love and as curses go, this one is a doozy…
For me, the one weak element of this anthology was the set up and flimsy resolution of the gay-bashing curse, which likely colored my view of the last story since Daniel and Russell are the two directly linked to Yi. In each story we get a flashback of Yi’s failed attempts at seduction, her frustration growing as each ranch hand refuses to sleep with her. What kind of men would they be if they had screwed the boss’s wife behind his back—apparently Yi believes it’s better to be a deceitful cheating bastard a than to be gay and a loyal friend. Or was she using reverse psychology—preaching hate so they’d find love? And if she’s a powerful witch (or whatever she is), what did she have to gain by casting a spell over the youngest cowboy and holding him hostage, forcing him to be her maid and sex-slave for TWO YEARS? Was this really for his greater good? These are huge atrocities. Bad enough Russell was dragged away from his home, the man he loved and forced to live with her, but the poor guy had to suffer through girly-bits (*shriek of horror* fear not, none are described in the book, just eluded to) and for what? I wanted viable answers, but the quick epilogue of only five pages where a surprise guest pops in left me thinking Wuh? Seriously? That’s clear as mud, and, um, kinda stupid. Not going to give anything away, but the whole curse resolution didn’t work for me. But that’s me and my logistic brain; perhaps other readers will find this whimsical ending to be charming and a perfect culmination. In all fairness, the very last paragraph was wonderful and helped to smooth my other hang-ups.
Regardless of my quibbles at the end, I certainly didn’t regret the journey. I was drawn into the solid setting of the Shifting Sands Ranch and enjoyed each author’s spin on shape-shifting and their couple’s journey to finding their soul mate, and also discovering the zodiac symbol/animal of their significant other. The evolution of fears, conflicts and ideas on how to break the curse after discoveries in each story kept the overall plot rolling. It’s hard enough to pack six individual stories into an anthology that a reader will equally enjoy and connect with—but to have six that build on and feed into the next story while maintaining the ongoing characterizations of a large cast and keeping the reader’s interest is a quite a feat—one achieved in SHIFTING SANDS. Overall, a brilliant collaboration.