by Kevin Klehr

Book Cover: Winter Masquerade
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 978-1-951880-26-2
KindleAudiobook

Ferris wakes on the Sea Queen, an enchanted cruise ship sailing on a chocolate sea. He has no idea how he got here and desperately wants to go home to his boyfriend.

The Alchemist is the only person who can help Ferris, but he’s been kidnapped. The ransom is high tea with scones and jam.

Meanwhile, the passengers are gearing up for the Winter Masquerade, a ball where love and magic reign.

With a murderous musician, an absent boyfriend and a mystical party, Ferris soon learns that Wednesday is not the day to fall in love.

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The Alchemist’s wife loved watching the sun rise. A fact everyone with whom I spent time with in the captain’s quarters knew well. They decided the Detective and Janus should talk to her, but that didn’t stop me and Cole tagging along.

She had small wrinkles, conveying kindness rather than worry. As Janus introduced her, she smiled. The stylish deep blue dressing gown, her outfit of choice for early mornings, had no hint of age or wear. The sea breeze unable to mess her snow-white hair.

Her name was Camilla. She wasn’t alone, though.

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Holding her hand and sharing the view was Molly, the Alchemist’s mistress. She wore a candy-pink dressing gown that shed fluff all over the deck. You could find her cabin from the trail of bright fuzz. Her damp hair left a wet patch on her shoulders. During this conversation, the sun turned up its slow heat, making her hair dry curly.

“Now, Janus, why would I kidnap my own husband?”

I showed her and Molly the ransom note.

“It does look like your handwriting,” Molly said. “You’ve always had those curly tails when you write the letter Q. And look, that tail is bursting with life.” She turned to me. “I can read handwriting, you know. Write your name, and I’ll tell you all about yourself.”

Camilla took the note and studied it closely. “Yes, that is a Q I’d be proud to call my own. But, Molly, you have lavish tails on your Q’s as well.”

Molly took the note. “I’d also be proud to call that Q my own. I think I picked up the curlicue habit from you.” Molly gazed at me. “Letters infiltrate us, you know. My life and Camilla’s have become so intertwined our handwriting appears to be the same.” She examined the note again. “And we’re both writing rounded O’s. Camilla, yours used to be oval but now yours are as rounded as mine.”

“This reminds me of the time I solved a case by examining a bowl of alphabet soup.” The Detective reached for the note, but Molly was unaware of his gesture. “The false eyelash sticking to the spoon was a major clue.”

“So, did you write the note?” Janus asked Molly.

“And look at your trademark squiggly S,” Molly continued, not answering. “That shows you’ve lived before.” She turned to Cole. “We’ve all lived before, you know. I was a fishmonger’s wife once. Don’t look so shocked. I was very happy once I got used to the smell.”

“Was the sea made of soft chocolate when you were a fishmonger’s wife?” the Detective asked.

“No. It was an odd period. The sea was water.”

“Didn’t you say the sea was made of water when you entered that other dimension, Ferris?” Janus jumped out of the Detective’s bag and landed on deck. We all looked down at him.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Does this mean Molly used to live in that other dimension?” Cole asked.

“Yes!” the Detective said, enthusiastically.

“There’s not enough evidence to tell,” Janus replied.

“But it matches Ferris’s description of the other dimension.”

“Where I come from, ocean is made of water.” I couldn’t help but sound glum. “I think Molly’s past life was in my dimension, not the dark one I experienced.”

“How do you know?” Camilla asked.

“Just a feeling.”

“Trust your feelings,” Molly said. “You’re empathic, you know. I can sense it.” She gave Camilla a curiously affectionate grin. “Ferris is very empathic like your cousin, Katherine.”

“Yes, Katherine knows everything about us.” Camilla slipped a hand under her robe and onto her heart. “She’s wise beyond her years. Even as a child she—”

“This conversation isn’t getting us anywhere,” Cole said. “Who wrote this ransom note?”

“It’s a long story,” Camilla said. “Perfect for telling during sunsets. But not the best topic of conversation for watching the sun rise.”

“If you don’t gaze at the sky too often, you can fool yourself it’s a sunset.” Janus’s reasoning made sense. Any reasoning would have made sense at this stage.

“Go on, Camilla,” Molly said. “Tell this story. I like this one.”

Molly and Camilla held hands again, swaying their arms like children displaying their playful affection for each other.

“This is a tale best suited for sunsets, red wine, and an array of cheese,” Camilla began.

“That’s true,” Molly confirmed. “I’ve heard her tale with those very accompaniments.”

“My husband was in a restless mood. He sensed more than our ship sailing on a chocolate ocean with an overly bright rainbow in the sky. He sensed more than just a population of women with a few men thrown in for good measure.”

“She meant no offence, guys.” Molly looked very concerned.

“None taken,” Janus replied.

“And he sensed music made with more instruments than just a harp, a guitar, and drums.”

Camilla paused. Once again, she slipped her hand inside her gown, but this time she pulled out a string of pearls which she clutched. She turned on her heel and looked back out to sea. We did the same. Janus sauntered up to the edge of the deck and peered from the gap under the barrier. The sun had crept up into the sky. The rainbow sheet flapped. A rainbow pair of shorts and overalls also hung in midair.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Books That Burn on Books That Burn wrote:

Winter Masquerade is a bizarre and wonderful fever dream of a story, a magical mystery tale running on dream logic, punctuated by nightmares; speaking slantwise of slowly coming out from gaslighting, falling out of love, perhaps realizing it was never love at all.

It conveys how it feels to slowly realize that everything is wrong, that it's okay to not be okay, and how hard it can be to try and make a change. This runs on witty banter and dream logic; that's a style which I specifically enjoy, and this is a particularly concentrated version of that type. The story has a recognisable kind of structure, a narrative style which mimics how dreams feel when you try to remember them; the pieces connected so beautifully while you were asleep, but upon waking they feel disparate and discordant.

This mimics how it can feel to realise that things are a little bit wrong, a little bit broken. That maybe what you thought was “good enough” is actually neither “enough” nor “good”. That air of wrongness permeates this fantasy, hinting towards the reality which undergirds it. It gradually becomes more overt as the MC strains to figure out how to feel and what to do about it when this dream finally ends.

Camille on Joyfully Jay wrote:

Outwardly, Ferris seems to have a pretty put-together life. But one night, a strange visitor tells him he needs rest, relaxation, and a healthy dose of self-reflection. When Ferris next wakes up, he inexplicably finds himself aboard a fantastical ship named Sea Queen, sailing a sea of literal chocolate under a technicolor rainbow. He counts a guitarist named Cole, a drummer named Scallywag, a detective and his miniature pegasus, and a pair of ladies named Molly and Camilla among his new companions. But the eclectic group talks in familiar tones of the most absurd things: Miss Take’s sartorial faux pas, Miss Endeavor’s not-so-mysterious disappearance, an elusive man named the Alchemist, and the changing fortunes encountered on specific days of the week.

Ferris’ new companions talk of nothing, but their fanciful cruise to nowhere. His efforts to discern who they are, where they are going, and why they are on the Sea Queen at all go unanswered. But Ferris soon discovers that mentioning his life with his boyfriend, Harris, comes with unsavory consequences. Every time he thinks too long upon his relationship with Harris, the charmingly absurd Sea Queen morphs into a rusting vessel plowing through scrap metal. Worse, the usually pleasant Molly transforms into a murderous harpy intent on killing Ferris. He manages to evade the worst of her attacks with the help of Cole, the guitarist. And as quickly as the nightmare ship appears, it soon disappears. When he asks about this dark version of the ship, Ferris is told it is an alternate dimension and he ought to seek out the one called Alchemist.

But to find the Alchemist, Ferris must endure the dark dimension. When he finally manages to contact the Alchemist, he compels Ferris to contemplate the whole of his life during an event called the Winter Masquerade. Ferris must also reflect on who his fellow traveling companions are meant to represent. Suddenly, Ferris sees his life with new eyes and realizes how much he has sacrificed for appearances’ sake…but is he strong enough to change?

Based on the official blurb, I was hoping for an absurdist piece I could get lost in and I think Klehr certainly delivers. First, I appreciated the tidy “bookend” scenes with the monks that serve as a sort of bridge between Ferris’ real life and his time on the Sea Queen. For me, having that intermediary stage between the two worlds helped me accept the seeming folderol aboard the Sea Queen. Another crucial element that held the fantasy world aboard the Sea Queen together was the carefully consistent reference to concepts and people in that world. For example, there is a whole series of other passengers whose names are puns (Miss Represent, Miss Calculation, Miss Assumption) and seem to provide the main supporting cast (especially Molly and Camilla) with conversational topics. This coupled with the physical description of the Sea Queen’s world of chocolate seas and rainbow lights in the sky really helped me imagine Ferris landed in a world that had been in motion before he ever arrived and that temporary visitors like him were nothing out of the ordinary. In other words, the supporting characters did not seem to be there merely to prop up Ferris’ journey.

The reason for Ferris ending up on the Sea Queen is revealed gradually through the course of the book. I thought it was subtle and compelling how his life in the real world affects how he experiences the Sea Queen. At first, Ferris is just amazed at this bizarre world of people on a cruise to nowhere talking about other passengers Ferris cannot see and preparing for some fancy ball. His efforts to figure out how to disembark from the fanciful ship always seem to circle back to these same ship-bound events and it makes Ferris more anxious to get back to his own life. And he quickly learns the ship is not all carefree leisure. At several points, he finds himself transported to a dark, gritty version of the same ship where the formerly pleasantly aloof Molly is transformed into a murderous villain. The frequent flips from the happy-go-lucky version of the ship to the noir version ties in well to the overall plot of the story. In hindsight, I think the flip-flopping would make even more sense and the reader would be able to understand more foreshadowing on a second read through. For the sake of comparison, I think the two worlds and its various inhabitants remind me a little bit of the schtick from The Life of Pi (at least the film version).

Apart from the delightful worldbuilding, there is plenty of relationship drama that centers on Ferris. Over the course of the book, we learn the boyfriend he initially pines for is actually not all that great. We also get a tantalizing tease about Ferris’ “the one that got away.” The latter seems to be represented by the Cole character on the Sea Queen and a romance between the two kindles. This raised a couple of questions that were fun to contemplate, regardless of how they panned out in the story. If Ferris gets together with Cole on the Sea Queen, does that mean he finds a way to get the one that got away back? If Ferris can leave the Sea Queen and return to his real life, what about the other people aboard the Sea Queen?

My only real criticism of the book is how the wrap up after Ferris leaves the Sea Queen and returns to his real life felt a little glossed over. The events that happen immediately following Ferris’ return to his own life seemed to follow the same time frames as the preceding events. However, the story continues for a few years in the future to wrap up Ferris’ romantic life and this felt like a lot of time being compressed into a couple paragraphs…which, I thought, was sort of a disservice given it was Ferris’ love life that served as the basis for the book in general.

Overall, I found this story extremely enjoyable. The characters were eclectic and there is a lot to chew on when you compare their representations on the light and dark versions of the Sea Queen. I really enjoyed how Ferris’ love life served as the motivator for the plot and that this is viscerally reflected in the two versions of the ship. I also liked the way Klehr manages to build a significant bittersweet thread into a story that ultimately has a happy ending. This is a book I would recommend to anyone (with the caveat that there an on-page domestic abuse event and multiple references to emotional manipulation).

Amos Lassen on Amos Lassen Reviews wrote:

Kevin Klehr’s hero, Ferris awakens to find himself aboard the “Sea Queen”, not understanding how he got here. He does know that he really wants to be home with his boyfriend. He does not want to be on “an enchanted cruise ship sailing on a chocolate sea.” It seems that there is only one person who can help Ferris and that is the alchemist but he’s been kidnapped. Then there is a very strange ransom— high tea with scones and jam.

On board, all of the the passengers are getting ready for the Winter Masquerade, a ball known for love and magic. We can only wonder what is really going on.

This is the story of two universes—-Ferris’ voyage and time in a fantasy world and his life at home. When Ferris first begins his sea journey, he is on a very strange and absurd adventure but as we move forward we realise that he gains strength as a result. I also realised that the story is not as absurd as it first appears. We all have strange occurrences in our lives and often by escaping reality, we learn something about ourselves.

Ferris sees that he never lost those who care the most for him but it took a world of fantasy and strange characters for him to understand this. The characters at work at making him understand this and eventually he is able to return to the real world more confident and stronger than he was when he left it. What I first thought was going to be a “fluff” read became something much more serious when I realised the message that Klehr was sending us. The writing is clear and fun with great puns and characters’ names and seeing the world from a different point of view kept me reading. I also enjoyed the metaphor of the “Sea Queen”, a world that is always there for those moments when we need to escape the way we live every day.


About the Author

Kevin lives with his husband, Warren, in their humble apartment (affectionately named Sabrina), in Australia’s own ‘Emerald City,’ Sydney.

His tall tales explore unrequited love in the theatre district of the Afterlife, romance between a dreamer and a realist, and a dystopian city addicted to social media.

His first novel, Drama Queens with Love Scenes, spawned a secondary character named Guy. Many readers argue that Guy, the insecure gay angel, is the star of the Actors and Angels book series. His popularity surprised the author. The third in this series, Drama Queens and Devilish Schemes, scored a Rainbow Award (judged by fans of queer fiction) for Best Gay Alternative Universe/Reality novel.

His novel, The Midnight Man, won the Fantasy category in the 2021 Gay Scribe Awards and won in the LGBT category of the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewer's Choice Award. It also was Runner Up at the Rainbow Awards in the same year his novella, Winter Masquerade, scored an Honourable Mention.

So, with his fictional guardian angel guiding him, Kevin hopes to bring more whimsical tales of love, life and friendship to his readers.



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