Hammer and Bone, by Kirby Crow

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Title: Hammer and Bone. [Riptide Publishing.]
Author: Kirby Crow.
Publisher: Riptide Publishing.
Date Published: March 2nd, 2015.
The down low: Alludes to or conveys a range of dark themes (suicide, murder, rape, sexual assault, child abuse and sexual assault are some of many) but not in a way that is disrespectful, merely realistic given the settings (rural South, etc.)
The tl;dr recommendation: Hands down fantastic for any fans of weird fiction, horror, supernatural and dystopian fiction who also want an LGBT touch. At the same time, take the down low into consideration if you’re not sure about what you can handle.

Hammer and Bone is a rare and valuable jewel – a collection of short stories with a selection of genres ranging from weird fiction, to horror, to an unsettling magical realism. Each and every one of them contains LGBTQ characters and themes (predominantly m/m, with one f/f and mentions of polyamory in one), with several including disabled and characters of colour. I can’t begin to state how well written these stories are. As I write this review, I’m a few pages into Circuit Theory which Crow co-wrote with Reya Starck that is very compelling, but their technique truly excels with this collection.

The more speculative stories (sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian) are great for the amount of world building they manage to convey or allude to in such a short period. Crank, for example, is set in a dystopian world alluded to have been wrecked and whatever remnants of society there is operates on a sort of industrial caste system. Bellew works as a ‘crank,’ someone on the lowest rung of a factory that produces electricity to the privileged few. He undergoes a terrible trial by spending the night in the Foundry where a nightmare inducing creature lies, so he can be promoted to underboss – those in control of the cranks – and become part of an underboss gang, the Midnight Crew. Hammer and Bone – the short story the collection is named after – is set in a dystopian, post environmental disaster setting where Bone must do all she can to survive along with her lover, Ned, in a wasteland teeming with wild boy gangs and Eaters (humans transformed into flesh consuming creatures with varying degrees of sentience.) In a world where one has to be hurt or the one doing the hurting, she faces tough questions and decisions about the state of her humanity Shadow and Starlight is set in a sword and sorcery world, where the son of a dead tyrant mage is on the run from those seeking to kill him. It’s a melancholy tale that deals with the nature/nurture question surrounding evil – on the one hand, the young prince has led a privileged life due to his father’s cruelty. But on the other hand he’s also an innocent and doesn’t deserve to be punished for his father’s crimes, or fear that he will become just as terrible when his mage gift flourishes. What the people looking to harm him don’t realise is that this gift awakens differently depending on the circumstances they are nourished. In a similar setting with a touch of the Lovecraftian, Knights of the Risen God sees two very different men are sent on a mission to find a city that rises out of the sands and takes people captive. But the city is in fact one in the same as the creature that rules it, an alien creature that’s practically god-like.

They’re not the stories to look to for happy endings, though. These are dark stories dealing with dark themes – sexual assault, child abuse, suicide, murder, and violent homophobia numbering amongst them. Anybody who can’t handle such content – on a part-time or full-time basis – should be advised.

Bellew, for example, hides the nature of his relationship with his lover, Roben, and displays internalized homophobia. When a member of a rival crew of underbosses is too cruel with the people under him and Roben, Bellew attacks him but it’s Roben who pays the price – forced into prostitution and implied to have been beaten and possibly raped. Likewise there are implications that that’s what the gangs of wild boys do to women they find in Hammer and Bone and things delve into body horror and dubious consent in Knights of the Risen God.

That’s not to say they’re not well written these stories are; I can’t get over how well-written they are. In fact, as I write this review, I’m a few pages into Circuit Theory which Crow co-wrote with Reya Starck that is very compelling, but their technique truly excels with this collection. But gritty and dark isn’t necessarily what everyone is looking for.

As amazing as the dystopian and sword-and-sorcery stories are, it was the stories with fantasy elements in real world settings that I found the most moving because they so often focused on love under impossible circumstances. In Hangfire, Angelo is a half-Native American cop in a small, homophobic town, in a secret relationship with his partner while having to remain closeted in fear of losing his job and visitation rights to his son. He’s plagued by re-occurring dreams that he can finally only make sense of when tragedy occurs. But it’s the way that Angelo can’t either express or grieve publically that’s almost palpable – you can feel that frustration, you can understand it even if you’ve always been lucky enough to do both.

It’s a different kind of love in No Gods and No Tomorrows. Virgil is a homeless hustler in and out from juvie who considers making a deal with the devil (or at least some entity from Hell) for the chance at an ultimate fresh start. But to do so would mean others might suffer and in the end it’s the decision to live with himself – with the parts of his past that make him feel dirty and incapable of being loved – that gives him the strength.

Crowheart is about Jamie, a disabled, mixed-race illegitimate boy in a place where he receives abuse for any of those. He’s raised by his mother, a housemaid to a sawmill owner, and Henri, the Kreyól millhand and a practitioner of voudun. Despite never knowing his father, Henri is family to him and more and – when his mother is killed – Henri avenges her life but it comes at the cost of his own life. Passed around foster families, Jamie can’t give up his faith or Henri’s teachings no matter how much it is frowned upon because it’s the spiritual link that ties him to his family ‘in that country.’

And for any fans of the oppressive feeling of Southern Gothic (think first season of True Detective) Sundog is the story for you. Michel’s home life is unstable: his mother committed suicide years ago due to his father’s infidelity and his father is both abusive and homophobic. When he finds Michel kissing his boyfriend Ray in their house, he not only beats Ray into unconsciousness but threatens to tell Ray’s family. But an inexplicable, supernatural entity calls out to him, tempting him to let it possess him. It could provide the solution to all his problems and a life where he and Ray are free to life as they choose. The choice comes down to love or hatred and the answer ends up a strange combination of both.

I remember a while ago on tumblr seeing someone ask if the publisher of Hammer and Bone, Riptide Publishing, was interested in publishing diversity. I’ve also seen people wondering whether it was only interested in publishing m/m erotic fiction. But like the comments in this ask suggests, high quality m/m romance and erotica is published so that they can also publish high quality, diverse fiction. And I am so, so glad that collections like this get the chance to be published somewhere.

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