Posted by Holly
Collaboration is an interesting thing, especially in writing. Best case scenario, you end up tapping into the best aspects of each author – the prime example of this being Good Omens, a personal favorite of mine. In other cases, you end up with a muddled mess of ideas. Dark Duets is an anthology of dark fantasy and horror that focuses primarily on this concept – each story in it was penned by at least two contributors.
Unfortunately, in this case, I feel there was more of the latter than the former. The collection isn’t bad, per se, but it is underwhelming. It’s just there. I never once felt compelled to pick it up and read, even with the consistent promise of a new tale.
Part of this, no doubt, comes from the choice to include both dark fantasy and horror as the selected genres, both with a wide individual range of stories accessible to them. This results in an uneven collection with a disparate tone, having stories leaning heavily on the tamer end of dark fantasy seated directly next to visceral, gory entries in horror. Duality is part of the premise of this collection, but with no other central thee, there’s nothing to unite it.
I’m only familiar with a small handful of the authors whose works are collected here, and so I can’t say if these stories are true reflections of their skill. That said: they’re mostly all weak stories, even independently. The few that stand out are a nice reprieve, but they’re mostly the exception, not the rule. In fact, the first story in the collection I truly enjoyed (She, Doomed Girl) was the sixth in the book. I had to wade through five stories I had no interest in before I got to anything I enjoyed.
However, the stories that are strong are worth checking out. She, Doomed Girl is a nice foray into gothic horror, with a strong atmosphere, and a tragic melodrama at its center that is actually entertaining. Hollow Choices is a fun spin on the classic ‘sell your soul to the devil’ story, and is solid throughout. Sins Like Scarlet is probably the best piece in the collection (which is presumably why it was saved as the last story in the book); while it won’t offer anything particularly surprising to people who have read or watched their fair share of horror, it’s still a fun ride.
I’m giving a special mention to Renascence, because I think it stood out the most from the other stories, in regards to its depiction of women. The main character, Rasheeda, is something of a mix between Dr. Frankenstein and a necromancer, with her eye on the bottom line of the very successful staffing business she runs. Not only is she intelligent, competent, and an independent business owner in the 1878 setting of the story, she also has an interesting rivalry with another female business owner, Madame Louisa. The power play between these two women is really fun to read, and so it’s one of the stories worth your time.
On the other end, I’m giving a special mention to Steward of the Blood, which was probably my greatest disappointment. It had a promising premise, and solid writing, but then fell prey to a handful of very damaging tropes. Most notably, the use of an autistic character as a lazy shorthand for supernatural abilities. The main character’s daughter is essentially the center of the story, yet her perspective is only minimally explored, she’s depicted as mute, and ultimately this culminates in the story telling us that this is because she is literally a monster. That bears repeating: the young, mute, autistic girl is reduced down to nothing more than a monster in human form. I absolutely want to see more characters who are on the spectrum respectfully portrayed in all kinds of media, but I found this particular use very off-putting.
Overall, I was very disappointed and underwhelmed with the whole book. While there were a few bright spots, I don’t think they really added up to enough to carry the whole collection on their own merit. On top of that, there was enough of the usual victimization of women, with a few other offensive bits, to be more of a wash with the good stories.
Rating: 2 out of 5. I’d check out the strong stories on an individual basis, but skip the book.
Scariness level: Very few had genuine scares.
Violence level: Decently high in some of the stories. Hand Job alone made me a little nauseated. Amuse-Bouche, Welded, and Replacing Max were others that had high violence levels.
Bechdel test: Renascence. That may be the only one that passed, though.
Mako Mori test: Once again, Renascence passes. Blind Love is about a woman trying to save her (female) friend. Hand Job is about a woman versus her own body.