“A brave anthology which does away with binary concepts of gender, love and sex, instead presenting the reader with love that is realistic, heartfelt, though at times, naturally, stepping into the fantastical.”
Hardened Hearts begins with a foreward by James Newman (Animosity, Ugly as Sin) where he describes love, with assistance from a number of prolific genre authors, from Stephen King to Ursula K. LeGuin, as something which is inseparable from pain, from conflict, from complications. It is a fitting start to a brave anthology which does away with binary concepts of gender, love and sex, instead presenting the reader with love that is realistic, heartfelt, though at times, naturally, stepping into the fantastical. Love here is romantic, familial, fatalistic and at times downright deadly.
‘40 Ways to Leave Your Monster Lover’ by Gwendolyn Kiste is a second-person warning, sounded against abusive, toxic relationships. It weaves metaphors about the bi bad wolf expertly, while grounding its prose in real world relationship issues. Somer Cannon’s ‘It Breaks My Heart to Watch You Rot’ is the tale of an immortal female and the pain she feels as she watches her chosen mortal mate decay before her through dementia. It is delivered tragically, with fond memories of the relationship that preceded the one we witness. ‘What is Love?’ by Calvin Demmer starts with a fiery scene of destruction as the protagonist—a man imbued with mythical powers of winged flight and the ability to throw fireballs—swoops over a village, turning all to ash. Shortly after, he decides to walk away from his tribe, leaving the sorceress who gave him his powers behind. When he attempts to find love, however, some remnants of his warrior self complicate matters.
Theresa Braun’s ‘Heirloom’ is perhaps one of the strongest stories in the anthology, starting with a relatively simple premise of a psychologist and a dominant patient who harbours inappropriate feelings for her. The heirloom of the title—a mirror passed down through her family—ratchets up the intrigue, as it offers passage across dimensions and time to past lives. ‘The Recluse’ by John Boden is a very short tale, composed of episodes in which the protagonist fights against his own shyness as he attempts to spark up conversation with a woman who has caught his eye. Eddie Generous’ ‘Dog Tired’ is a werewolf road story with a difference. Pitched as a plague brought on by a lunar anomaly, we follow a couple in love—one an ex-con, one his younger waitress girlfriend—as they drive as fast as they can north in a desperate attempt to escape. The plague only latches on when sufferers fall asleep, driving the tension as they consume energy drinks, scream along with loud music and do just about anything to stay awake.
‘The Pink Balloon’ by Tom Deady is a tragic tale which many readers can surely relate to. An exhausted father excusing himself from family duties and only later finding consequences with which he simply cannot cope. ‘It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To’ by J. L. Knight is a short but powerful tale of loss, where a newly-bereaved partner will do anything to cling to whatever is left of his lost loved one. Madhvi Ramani’s ‘Consumed’ is a story of a married man who meets a woman that fills him with the excitement that his marriage has lacked for too long. When his mistress wants to take the next step in their relationship he is faced with a choice: to own up to his marriage or take drastic measures to eliminate the problem. ‘Burning Samantha’ by Scott Paul Hallam features Samantha, a female-identifying high schooler in a young man’s body. Her friend and crush, Andrew, has offered to take her to the Spring Dance. The reader watches on as they try to cope with shame from her family, as well as the torrent of abuse they receive from ignorant classmates. Robert Dean’s ‘Class of 2000’ begins at the end. Alex Stanchon is dead. We learn, from the protagonist’s memories, of Alex’s homophobic outbursts while on sports teams and the pain this has caused to the narrator’s first love.
Jennifer Williams’ ‘First Love’ is a quietly horrific piece about the narrator’s life of love. Of the bodies they have left behind, decorated with scars. The beauty of the prose only makes the dark content more haunting. ‘Brothers’ by Leo X. Robertson is a complex story, told partly in the present, partly in the past and partly epistemologically. The tale is one of loves spilling over and crossing one another, affairs and desires overlapping between the cast at various junctures as we come to understand why certain tragic events have taken place. The story contains some stunning prose, but is occasionally difficult to follow, owing to the structural complexity. Laura Blackwell’s ‘Porcelain Skin’ is a fantasy story, told through dream-like sequences revolving around a jewellery box with a pale ballerina, who symbolises the protagonist’s former best friend, who she dearly loved. Through the box she is transported to another world, where she worships the effigy, before feeling more at home there than in reality.
‘The Heart of the Orchard’ by Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi is another of the strongest works in the anthology. A dark fairy tale focussing on a young woman with a scarred past who is offered help in her quest to succeed with her fruit orchard by a character known only as The Orchard Man. She gratefully accepts his assistance in the form of herbs for her sleeplessness and fertiliser for her peach trees. Something altogether darker unfolds at the same time, though. Sarah L. Johnson’s ‘Meeting the Parents’ is a light-hearted story of the anxiousness of introducing a new lover to one’s parents, framed around a girl’s relationship with a spider. It is a well-woven tale (excuse the pun) with excellent comic delivery in places. The anthology ends with ‘Matchmaker’ by Meg Elison, a beautifully heart-warming tale of a computer expert whose relationship has just ended. Rather than go through the dating game conventionally again, he decides to set up a programmed routine to find him an appropriate match through an online dating site. The results are not as he might have expected.
Hardened Hearts is a journey through many recognisable facets of love, taking in rejection, desire, jealousy, fear and much more besides. The variety of tones and lengths in the story keeps the anthology feeling fresh throughout and the quality of every story is extremely high. For readers who want stories with the highest possible stakes—and what could be higher than those of love—but want to avoid the tropic, predictable relationships of so many romance stories, Hardened Hearts is a great place to look.
Release Date: 4 December 2017
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