by Christine Feehan, Sabrina Jeffries, Emma Holly, and Elda Minger; assorted (2002)
Jove, $6.99, ISBN 0-515-13276-4

At first glance, I thought it's some obscene-looking alien staring back at me from the cover. "Wriggly alien penises" is how my overimaginative friend Hildy describes the cover. And yes, this is supposed to be an erotic romance fantasy. Although if this book is erotic, then I'm Madame X, dominatrix extraordinaire of your fantasies.

Sabrina Jeffries' The Widow's Auction is just too clichéd to be anything more than a lacklustre appetizer. Widow Isobel Lamberton (boring late husband never gave her the jollies, et cetera) is persuaded to play the widow auction game, where men bid on widows for a night of passion. Little does she know that she will end up in the bed of her annoying rival in the school governing board of hers. Yeah, Isobel and Justin are pretty likeable characters, but this story is so familiar that it trundles along, creating nothing more than slight ripples when it comes to my enthusiasm.

Has Robin Schone kidnapped Emma Holly and force poor Ms Holly to type out her dictation? Luisa's Desire is one of most dour, humorless erotic stories I've ever read, although Ms Holly can count more than five when it comes to stringing together words to form a sentence.

A 17th century vampiric being - called an upyr - named Luisa is so sad that she must suck blood to live, oh bo-hoo cry me a river somebody, that she travels to Tibet to learn some mind control stuff. When she is all zenned and mumbo-jumboed up, she hopes she will never have to drink blood ever again. Instead, she and that monkish half-European (of course, I mean, pure-blooded Tibetans probably aren't as sexy as the mighty Anglos, huh?) fellow named Martin will do it.

But not up and down. No whips. No chains. No sodomy. Nothing. Just missionary and only slightly chocolatey vanilla sex. I know Ms Holly wants to get more readers and eat better meals, but it is still a sad, sad day to see Ms Holly write a vampire story that holds itself back. Still, hottest of the bunch, if that's any surprise.

And everything and everybody's so dour and gloomy, it's like watching a French softporn arthouse movie where sex is a matter of life and death - you come just to feel screwed, literally and metaphorically in every sense of the word. Oh well, there's always porn. Oh, did I say that? Forget I said that.

Elda Minger's Mr. Speedy is a welcome relief, although like a friend remarked, this is one Greatest Gay Love Story That Never Was. Miranda poses as a man to infiltrate an all-guy seminar session where guys are taught to be all macho and neanderthal to seduce women (think, like a character in this story says, Tom Cruise in Magnolia running the seminar - "Respect your c**k!"). "Randy" here however shares the room with Jake, a handsome and suave reporter, and oh my. Oh my oh. Oh my.

This one is fun, breezy, and cute, although the sex is more Harlequin Blaze (ie not hot) than Emma Holly on a really good day. But I too can't help thinking that this story will be more fun if Randy here is really a guy. Slash is an acquired taste, true, but hey, come on, man, bring it on!

Christine Feehan. Oh boy. The Awakening. Cat-like hero. Heroine, thankfully not as Barbie-doll like as Ms Feehan's usual heroines, who needs to be dominated. Hero and heroine stare. They stare. They study each other. He must dominate her. He will. Because he loves her. She must submit. Because she loves him.

Oh give me a break. Another author who takes on sex like it's a matter of life and death. Humorless and dour, this one makes the Borneo jungles it is set in suffocatingly hot. Hot, by the way, in not a good way at all.

Three pretty average stories and one bouncy tale that seems more suited for a Harlequin Blaze anthology - if anything, Fantasy only demonstrates the painful limitations of the romance genre. When it could have been hot, wet, and wild, when it could have brought out the whips, dildos, golden balls, and heck, even golden showers for all I care, instead it inches along timidly, trying to be sexy in all shades of PG-13ness.

It is times like this that I am pretty thankful for the much maligned Brava line. At least they can be really as hot as they claim to be.

Rating: 61

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