Title: Studs and Spurs
Author: JL Langley, Dakota Flint, Kiernan Kelly, Angela Fiddler
Publisher URL: http://mlrpress.com
Genre: Cowboys GLBT (M/M)
Length: Anthology/ 200 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Kassa
Saddles, spurs, Stetsons . . . and love? Sexy cowboys grab hold of more than a saddle in these entrancing stories from four talented authors of the genre. Kiernan Kelly takes us on an adventurous cattle drive to the Oregon Territory with a greenhorn and an old hand. Angela Fiddler’s retired rodeo men accept each other and the black riders. Two men overcome grief, rebuild a ranch and find love in Dakota Flint’s story. And JL Langley offers a light-hearted tale of a city boy and a rancher filled with love, laughter and a marriage of convenience?
Four authors, eight cowboys, action, adventure, humor, grief and sex all wrapped up in one naked chest on the cover. Really, how could you go wrong? Unfortunately the anthology doesn’t quite live up to that hype and those like me that devour cowboys (in all ways) may enjoy the stories but you will likely feel slightly disappointed. But, they are cowboys and that is enough of an appeal for some.
The Convenient Husband by JL Langley 2.5 stars
I’m a big JL Langley fan so I don’t really understand her choice with this story. The premise is classic romance and reads very much like Harlequin novels I’d read many years ago. The idea is that two people must quickly marry to avoid the ranch from falling into the evil hands of a homophobic family member. Since the two men already are in love with each other but won’t admit it, the perfect solution is to get married and everything works out after a few emotional revelations. Given the rather dated premise, I was expecting the author to add a fresh and light hearted spin to the tale. Unfortunately, the story was as dated as the premise but with two men instead of a man and a woman.
Micah is the classic younger character who adored and followed Tucker around for years before daring to kiss the older man on his eighteenth birthday. Since that rejection, Micah has been running himself into the ground to save the family ranch against ruin while trying not to dwell on his lingering feelings for Tucker. Tucker is also a classic stereotype with his cold, career driven attitude ignoring his family and the problems in favor of his work. While these are classic stereotypes for a reason, the typically strong writing of the author could have given these characters new life. Instead, there was nothing unique or really interesting about these men. Add in the antiquated storyline with multiple holes and confusing beginning, this wasn’t nearly as good as I’ve come to expect.
The writing was ok but many details are omitted or sparsely given so it takes a bit of time to understand the complexities and everyone’s relationship. Especially in the first chapter where the amount of time passed from the prologue is not said and thus creates an abrupt change in the story. There were also multiple scenes that didn’t seem to add much if anything to the story or characters such as the horse foaling scene and subsequent fight between Micah and Duncan. Additionally the tension between Micah and Tucker was contrived. Neither man protested much nor was there any real question about the future so their weak attempts to create distance and uneasiness felt flat. Overall, this was disappointing to read based on all of Langley’s prior work and fans of the author will likely read the story anyway, if only for the hot sex scene. However, I predict they may be as frustrated with the story as I was.
Seeing You by Dakota Flint 4 stars
Here is my favorite story of the group in Dakota Flint’s contribution about a brother’s grief and falling in love with his best friend, and dead brother’s partner. This was written in first person and given the content, a bit of a hard to sell to start with but mostly delivered. There are some hanging questions and quite a bit of acceptance in a small Montana town but it was a sweet and romantic story. The story was well done and allowed a bit of time to pass for Wade to get over his grief before moving on to a life with Dylan. Even with the holes in the story and characters, this was a solid story and stood out amongst the anthology.
Dylan is the first person narrator and apparently been in love with Wade for years. Wade was his best friend and there is a single, quick reference that Dylan introduced Wade to his brother Simon and the two quickly fell in love. The fact that Dylan has been in love with Wade all this time and never made his feelings known before or after is slightly suspect. Just as the fact that Dylan remained on the ranch with Wade and Simon, quietly pining away without ever moving on in his life. I get the impression that if Simon hadn’t died, Dylan would never have even dated but preferred to suffer from unrequited love. The idea is romantic for sure, but rather impractical and unfair to all parties. Fortunately for Dylan’s love life Simon dies and he’s able to help bring Wade back to life.
Wade’s grief process is handled delicately and sensitively, allowing a lengthy time to pass before Wade realizes he wants to live and be happy again someday. He seems a genuine character with deep rooted integrity and the classic cowboy mentality. Therefore, once Simon’s clothes are donated, the lack of any mention about his dead partner is odd. The first half of the story sets up the scenario and grief, showing its essential role but then Flint drops any mention of Simon in favor of getting Wade and Dylan together. It works rather well but considering the importance of Simon, something felt missing between these two. I was left feeling as if the connection would always be awkward between them. There is however a nice plug for James Buchanan’s A Good Thief within the short novella so that was inventive and playful.
Judas Steer by Kiernan Kelly 3.25 stars
This story is set back when the west wasn’t quite as settled and cowboys were needed to ride herds long distances. Here Granger Blue is your typical cowboy with a not so sterling past who is looking to leave town before his lusting after other men is exposed. When he signs up with a ranch and leaves to drive cattle west, he befriends an inexperienced young man who eventually gets caught up in Granger’s messy past. No one can write quite like this author so fans will enjoy the authenticity and flavor she uniquely brings to her prose. Sometimes not always attractive phrasing, nonetheless the gritty feel and masculine quality to the men and setting is never in doubt.
Granger is rather easy going, not needing much beyond some company and food. He’s at home with the outdoors and is happy enough to share his tent with a willing partner. His streak of possessiveness is at odds with his internal musings but with all the action going on from the routine and spontaneous activities of the cattle drive to the outpost action, not much time is spared for character development. This is especially true with Billy, who besides being young, inexperienced, and naive is not given any real purpose other than towards the end. He’s inoffensive but forgettable and inconsequential. Their relationship felt hollow in the face of Granger’s memories. The character of Sinopa is perhaps one of the very few given much depth. His motivations and thought process are somewhat linear but clear and with obvious passion. He’s not supposed to steal the scenes but he did, quite vividly for me. His connection to Granger felt more central and palpable than Granger’s with Billy.
That being said, the story was interesting enough and easy to read. The ending was abrupt and predictable with a bit of an unbelievable course of action but it doesn’t take away the enjoyment of reading for the most part. I liked the story well enough as will most readers. There is nothing especially memorable, which is rare with a Kiernan Kelly story, but there is nothing that will turn you off for the most part.
Forgotten Favor by Angela Fiddler 2.75 stars
Angela Fiddler’s contribution is an interesting note to end the anthology. The short description states retired rodeo men accept each other and the black riders. I’m not sure how others read this but I thought this was going to be an interracial story or perhaps an acceptance of black riders on the rodeo circuit. Well it turns out these black riders are actually some kind of spiritual cowboy death squad that show up when someone dies. I found this rather odd and furthermore it’s very poorly explained. It’s not until almost the end of the story that the author demonstrates the riders aren’t actually real, but spirits. Their role in the story obviously revolves around death and some unexplained connection to the main character Mark. Due to the ill explained concept of these black riders, it affected how I read the story and ultimately my enjoyment.
The relationship is actually between Mark and Jake who were on the rodeo circuit together and discovered mutual attraction. The day Jake showed up to act on that attraction with a still immature and young Mark, they are interrupted by several events which set up a lengthy separation for the men. Several years later when Mark is injured they have a chance to renew their relationship and do so quickly. The emotion between the men isn’t shown very much but implied with statements, which left their connection and commitment puzzling. Although we’re told they are in love, the lack of communication or even comments that they’d been thinking of each other or working towards being together makes me wonder at the speed of their renewed relationship.
Additionally the author threw a lot of different elements into this rather short novella between the relationship, the mystical riders, homophobia from Mark’s father, the recovery ranch, and finally vandalism attempts. All of these together in a shorter story left nothing very well fleshed out and the scenes moving fast from one aspect to the next without the needed context. Ultimately, this was my least favorite of the stories though in a longer story the elements may have come together more cohesively.
Overall it’s a bit of a mixed bag but all of the stories come in as ok, with Dakota Flint’s story as my favorite. You’ll want to judge for yourself though and if nothing else, there is hot cowboy sex. Really, it’s good.