Mandy and the Tentacle Monster by Bebe Harper (2021)
Heat Factor: Sort of perfunctory
Character Chemistry: They are brought together by a series of epic misunderstandings.
Plot: Mandy is abducted by nefarious aliens who sold her to himbos with tentacles who don’t realize that humans are sentient. Mandy feels like a pomeranian until the translation implant is installed.
Overall: The plot is not really well-developed, and we had some feelings about the breeder kink, but the writing is so fun that we kind of didn’t care.
Stalked by the Kraken by Lillian Lark (2021)
Heat Factor: I can totally envision an octopus twirling its tentacle to make it fit in a, ah, space, and why is that so hot?
Character Chemistry: Him: “I want to woo her, let’s have convenience sex.” Her: “I am having an existential meltdown.”
Plot: She’s having business troubles. He’s on a treasure hunt. They’re having a lot of sex.
Overall: Fun and (depending on how much you like tentacles) sexy, but nothing particularly unexpected or surprising.
It’s our last week of Monster Mash Smashdown, and we’re ready to get back to reading and talking about some non-monstrous smut. Of course, we saved the weirdest for last. Let’s talk tentacles!
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Mandy and the Tentacle Monster?
Erin: It’s not as sexy as I was expecting, but it was as outrageous as I was expecting in terms of bonkers alien smut.
Ingrid: I was a bit let down. It wasn’t as fleshed out as I had hoped.
Holly: When I was reading it, I was like, “OMG this book is so much fun!” But then afterward, when I was recapping it for my husband, I was like, “WTF did I just read?”
Really, the most important information that a reader should know about this book is that Mandy renames the three tentacle aliens Chthulhu, Kraken, and Seven of Nine.
What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Stalked by the Kraken?
H: Not gonna lie, I DNFed this at 30%. It wasn’t speaking to me, I didn’t like the hunting vibe, and the kraken *doesn’t even have tentacles*. (I guess they appear eventually.) So I can’t tell you much about this book.
I: On the one hand we have an effort to be very sex positive and on the other hand, he is technically stalking here.
E: This is not gonna be for readers who hate a super-aggressive hero, but I did think that the author made the protagonists extremely cognizant of their behaviors, such that we did not veer into alphahole territory.
I: That’s the truth, I agree.
H: It’s true that I’m on record as not digging alphaholes, and I might have been able to overlook his behavior if the heroine hadn’t also been so irritating. I just couldn’t deal with her emotions.
I: Holly, as I was reading these books, I couldn’t remember which one you had DNFed, and purposely didn’t check the thread, and was convinced it was Mandy and the Tentacle Monster. I thought you would really like this. But I get it based on the percentage you read.
E: The whole time I had Ingrid’s voice in my head being like “does this characterization match her emotional state?” And yes, yes it does.
*Now that we’ve gotten the basics out of the way, let’s dig in!*
Is Mandy and the Tentacle Monster just meant to be one long “hold my beer”?
I: I’m gonna go ahead and say “Yes.” We have alien spiders, what else do I have to say?
E: The third book in the series is about the alien spider finding his mate.
H: As someone who has read another book about alien spiders, and given that she’s on a ship with alien octopuses, I wasn’t even that weirded out by the alien spider. In fact, I found him kind of charming.
That said, I do think this book was one long hold my beer. The way it’s structured, every scene is like AND THEN THIS HAPPENED!
E: That’s how I felt too. How many more wild and bizarre things can Harper put in here? OK.
I: I have to be honest, there were lots of bizarre things in there, but the real problem for me was that it didn’t feel that emotionally fleshed out. Even when Seven and the boys got abducted, Mandy was alone on the ship and worried, but she wasn’t like “I miss Seven’s tentacles!” It wasn’t very romantic.
E: It seems like these types of story end up reading like:
||: “OMG what’s gonna happen next?” *page turn* :|| (that’s my typed version of a repeat symbol)
…but the actual relationship development takes second stage to the sex or the outrageousness of the story.
This was the case with Stalked by the Kraken too—there was a lot of sex. There was really kinky fuckery and then all of a sudden they want to be together. At least in Mandy there was a slow burn where he’s petting her and taking care of her and she has feelings for him. But even with that slow burn aspect, the emotional development of the romance was not primary.
H: I agree. Mandy’s feelings for Seven were very abrupt. All of a sudden she thinks, “I’m falling for Seven,” and that’s that in terms of emotional development. But before we got to that point, I was wondering if Harper was going for a reverse harem situation, because Harper spends a lot of time showing the development of Mandy’s friendship with Ken, and establishing that Cthulhu is a bit standoffish with Mandy (classic romance hero behavior!). There was a whole bunch of development showing the friendship within the group, such that I was surprised when Mandy started thinking about her romantic feelings for Seven.
E: There was a lot of development of Mandy’s relationship with Ken and Cthulhu that wasn’t there with Seven. With him it was more focused on the pet relationship, and that didn’t really go away after they realized she wasn’t a pet.
I: I had the exact same thought as Holly: “Is this going to be a poly situation?” The friendships felt more fleshed out than the romance.
What did you think of Seven’s characterization? Is he actually a bumbling idiot?
E: I do think he’s a bumbling idiot. The way he’s written it’s like he never thinks critically about anything and relies on his gut feelings. In the only moment where he takes decisive action, it’s because he has a bad feeling about the way Baht is hovering over Mandy. The rest of the time, it’s all supposedly breeding-driven protective instinct behavior or clueless sweet little pet behavior even after he finds out she’s not a pet. “We must feed her the best food and give her the best art supplies.”
H: I agree, but it took me a while to realize that he was meant to be a bumbling idiot because this characterization is so unusual in alien romance. The alien monster hero may be a barbarian, he may not have technology, or he may have patriarchal ideas about gender, but he’s almost always competent. Seven is really inept—so much so that he doesn’t even realize how in over his head he is. He has no awareness about his own ineptness. From his own perspective he’s big and scary, so in the first few chapters from his perspective I bought it. Maybe this says something about how attentively I was reading the book, but I must admit that it took me a while to realize how truly wrong about everything he was. With that said, I liked seeing a himbo monster—I thought it was a fresh take on the characterization of alien heroes.
I: There was one exchange between Seven and Mandy—I cannot for the life of me remember the conversation it was—but it absolutely etched into my mind that Seven was not ever going to be what we’d consider capability porn. Maybe it was when he realized that humans don’t mate for breeding. The way Mandy soothed him was so cringy and very infantilizing and felt like she almost took advantage of him. It’s TSTL. How could you not know that this guy wouldn’t understand what you were saying because you are barely connecting the dots in your conversations with him.
With Mandy it just felt like she was going with the flow – just making the best of her situation in every moment. It would have felt more fleshed out if she’d had any other emotional response than “Huh. OK!”
I’m a famous artist now! Huh, ok.
I’m a millionaire in expired coins! Huh, ok.
I’m pregnant with eggs! Huh, ok.
It was definitely a good read, but I expected a lot more based on its reception. Maybe my expectations were too high.
E: That is an interesting point because I thought the way that the author created the characterizations reduced the squick factor. The fact that he’s a himbo and she’s trying to figure stuff out is what made their relationship not totally sketchy. But you’re right, Ingrid, that he has no idea and is so compelled by his breeding instinct that he can’t even think rationally. Which is very EEK! And before that sex scene, Harper had specifically noted that the translator was translating it as “fuck” as “breed.” I can sympathize with where Seven’s coming from but oof. This is something.
I’m pretty sure we have to talk about breeding.
I: This is specifically why I thought this is the one that Holly didn’t finish.
H: Well, by the time the breeding happens we’re 75% of the way into the book and I was invested in the whole “hold my beer” aesthetic, so I just went with it. But it was a lot.
I: She’s warned that getting knocked up by these dudes could be really unsafe for her and then is like “I hope this doesn’t go badly.” Like. What?
E: So it’s also interesting that she said, when they’re talking about birth control, he’s like “I can just not breed you.” And she’s like “WHAT?” And he said “You told me to breed you 4 times, so I did it 4 times.” I thought it was weird that it was that intentional on his part, even though it was kind of unintentional.
I: It was 100% intentional from his side. Just a really bad misunderstanding.
H: So we’re calling this an accidental pregnancy romance, right?
I: Yeah, that’s a pretty big whoops in communication. You’re supposed to have the baby prevention talk before you put it in. “Don’t impregnate me on purpose” should be a conversation you have before you do it. I dunno.
H: I thought her acceptance of her pregnancy was really bizarre. Maybe that’s just me, because 1) I am not in love with a tentacle monster and 2) If I had four alien eggs implanted in my body, I’d be like, “OH SHIT, I better call Sigourney Weaver.”
I acknowledge that human-alien hybrid babies are common in sci-fi romance, but I don’t like it. This is why I don’t think I can read the rest of Ice Planet Barbarians (even though the first one was so much fun) because it’s all about making little blue babies.
I: All about those little blue babies.
E: I agree. It’s a big component of sci-fi romance and I’ve always interpreted it as “Hey look, you can have the romance and not lose the baby option.” Instead of “I have a weird alien creature growing inside me.” But this wasn’t even that. It wasn’t like, “I want to have babies with this person I’m in love with.” It was like I want to have sex / I will implant her with my eggs. And the whole thing with his species is that it’s a problem species because of the way they lay eggs. So it wasn’t a happy babies thing at all.
I: It was not my favorite. My impression of alien baby-having is that there’s a moment of ultimate vulnerability and acceptance. If you’ve made a family with an octopus person, you can’t relocate to Tennessee, you’ve fully committed to space life. There’s no going back from that. But in this case, she has these eggs that come out fully independent, and they just sucked a little DNA out of her.
E: I think it would have been more satisfying from both a romance and a baby-having perspective if she’d gotten to mother the babies or if she’d been more than a temporary incubator. Partway through the gestation, she’s just got these squidlets in a tank—
I: And one weird swimming tiny adult human. It was a very strange hybrid.
E: Did you feel like it ended on a sort of cliffhanger? Like they had their relationship and had their babies? But then…dundundun
H: Well, yes. Obviously. We’ve wrapped up Mandy’s story but we’ve got to get readers excited to read the next story! What will happen to Cthulhu now that he’s crash-landed on Earth?!?!!??
In Stalked by the Kraken, Rose, the heroine, owns a magic sex bathhouse. Is it just me or is the bathhouse business model kind of wack? Why not have a nominal fee for matching and space rental?
E: The whole central point of the plot was that there’s an issue with her business because they’re not making any money because she’s not matching people but also their sex energy siphoning is down. Is there something wrong with people renting the space? Or people paying a fee to have access to the space.
I: Like in Winged Embrace, there’s a bathhouse there and you pay for the room.
E: Why do they give the space away for free and they only make money off the magic they harvest?
I: That was weak. Unless there’s some kind of regulation? It would have made more sense to just have people pay.
E: Even just a nominal fee to keep it functioning.
I: It also felt really weird to me like we’ll set you up with somebody and then you’ll agree to have your FIRST TIME in the bathhouse and that was awkward to me. Can you imagine being on your third date, and being like, “Well, feeling frisky. I guess we have to go to the bathhouse now.”
H: I read enough to get to this part, and I agree that the matchmaking agreement is really weird. What if you want to be matched but you don’t want to have sex in a bathhouse?
I: It would have made more sense if it had been like “Members of our bathhouse get a discount on matchmaking.” It seemed like a really elaborate business model that didn’t make sense.
E: And this is one side of the plot, and the other side of the plot was Gideon’s treasure hunting thing and I was so bored with that until over 50% of the way through, until it became suddenly relevant to the story.
I: Plotwise it just dropped off for a while, and everything went to sex.
The narrators of Stalked by the Kraken are very self aware, with Gideon’s awareness focusing on his acquisitive and predatory nature and Rose’s focusing on her irrational responses to her emotional hurts. Does this help the narrative?
H: Up until the point that I read, I didn’t feel that they were particularly self-aware. Rose is supposed to be this witch who’s really emotionally attuned to stuff and she’s just really up in her feels in a not-rational way. And I guess she knows it’s irrational, but there wasn’t a lot of introspection going on. And Gideon was just like MY BEAST WANTS. I was just bored.
I: At some point in their humpalooza they do develop self-awareness. Right about the time, conveniently, the author gets back to Gideon’s treasure-hunting plot.
H: That’s what I get for giving up right when the humpalooza started.
E: I felt like this book worked in large part because they were self-aware. Rose would be like, “I know that statistically, my matchmaking skills are really solid,” but she still had to feel the way she had to feel. It wasn’t just that she had a 100% match that went wrong, it was a 100% match that was supposed to be her perfect mate. It wasn’t that she was wrong, it was that she was wrong about herself. I agree with you Holly, that her handwringing got old. And I had to keep reminding myself that she had to get over a thing that happened to her.
If we’re talking Gideon, he would stop and say “My Beast Wants to stalk this woman and I know I shouldn’t do that but I can’t help myself.” His predatory thing worked for me because it’s the kind of hero that works for me, but his self-awareness made it more acceptable to me. For some that might make it more yucky, but for me, the fact that he wasn’t taking action without considering it at all made it better.
It would not have worked if they had been less self-aware.
I: Maybe the issue isn’t self-awareness. Maybe the issue is self-absorption. Both of them seemed to ruminate a lot on their own inner workings. The intention there is to spell out their respective journeys. Basically they both have baggage and the alternative is for them to work out the baggage with other people. But in this case, the whole front part of the book is them working it out internally or with each other. It does get kind of old, especially since it takes 70% for her to figure out who the guy who broke her heart really was, that’s a pretty long way for that to start unravelling.
E: That rumination is everywhere. In their first sexual encounters and beyond. So it’s a lot about Rose’s being unable to accept that she was wrong about a partner.
Is soul-binding less morally repugnant than murder?
H: What’s soul-binding?
E: It’s not super clear but Rose basically takes away the bad guy’s free will and makes him unable to do anything rather than unemotionally respond to whatever’s happening. So when the police show up and start asking about human trafficking, he just…answers.
I: They’re stressed because he’s made all of these threats that spell out, essentially, that even if he’s arrested he’ll face no consequences and can still harm these women and their loved ones. So the solution Rose comes to is to remove his ability to make choices for himself.
H: That is horribly morally repugnant. Taking away someone’s free will is maybe worse than murder.
E: I just find it an intersting question because often in romance the protagonists will pick the choice that’s not murder. And typically the bad guy gets what’s coming to him on his own. He falls out the window without being pushed. The protagonists are not responsible for it. In this case, Gideon says, “You can’t kill this guy, we need him to answer questions,” and Rose comes in all emotional and throws a spanner in the works and then has to clean up her mess and ends up soul-binding the guy.
I: Not the best solution, perhaps.
E: So my question is: Is this supposed to be better? She didn’t murder him? I didn’t feel like this was better than murdering him.
I: I agree, but the issue was if they kill him then they can’t save the family members of the trafficked women. Plus, Rose gets to take her vengeance out on the guy who just emotionally gutted her. It seems like it was the author’s attempt to provide the most desirable outcome with the number of complications in play. But on the flip side, it just seems like a really intense step to take.
E: Rose did this very morally questionable thing and the big worry was that she might get in trouble with the legal authorities, not that she did a really powerful thing to another person.
H: Which seems to imply that this is a “better” solution.
I: Maybe the author didn’t think through the implications. It was distressing. Normally they make it easier on you as the reader, so the bad guy gets his just desserts without the hero stepping in.
H: I don’t know if I agree that romance heroes don’t kill bad guys. I feel like they get up close and personal and kill them all the time.
I: What about heroines though?
H: There are plenty of romance subgenres where the heroine wielding the knife and having her moment of vengeance is not unusual. Like His Beauty! We talked about vengeance and protection last week, and I agree that violence is often framed in a moral way, but I don’t see them pulling their punches much.
E: This might be a place where indie and traditional publishing diverge. In books I’ve been reading recently where, given an opportunity for self defense, the protagonist will try to find a way not to kill, which becomes a springboard for another plot interaction. I feel like I experience this all the time. When it comes down to the moment with the villain and they have the shot, they don’t want to take it. I’ve been seeing this a lot in historical romance and Urban Fantasy; the contemporary romance I read that might include killing seems limited to Romantic Suspense, where we don’t really see this dynamic.
H: I’ve definitely seen it in Urban Fantasy, though less so in historical romance—maybe the histrom I read with killing is leaning more heavily into the suspense vibes? It definitely varies by subgenre. (Maybe it’s time for you to make a chart! We haven’t had an Erin chart in a long time!)
How are tentacles sexy?
I: I’m gonna be honest with you, I find them unnerving and very disturbing and I’ve always found them that way. I think other people find them sexy because they’re like penises that have their own minds.
E: I think that’s valid. I think the idea of a thick thing that can go inside you and also have the dexterity of a finger is intriguing.
I: My face:
E: *Laughs at Ingrid’s face* From where I’m sitting, do I want to go out and buy a tentacle dildo? No. I think the appeal is in the description—it’s about how other bodies can provide unique avenues to pleasure.
H: I was listening to last week’s Fated Mates podcast, which is all about monster romance, and they discussed how human penises are not designed to give human vulvas pleasure because there’s no clit stimulation. With tentacles you can have your hands held and your feet held and your boobs played with and your clit stimulated at the same time.
I: Honestly, they’re telling the truth when they say “I just want to see how much I can shove up in there”
E: Just picture his tentacle swirling around…
I: These were tough scenes for me to get through. Lots of grabby-grabby. I assume there’s some parallel here for lots of different people. But there’s a lot going on. It’s hard enough to direct traffic with two pairs of hands, but with many it seems like too much. Beyond that, it makes my stomach urgh
E: What about the suckers? They might be useful for clit stimulation but then we forget about them. Have you ever had a sucker stuck to your body? I have and it doesn’t feel that great.
I: I’m going to bed.
That’s a wrap, folks! Thanks for joining us on our epic month of reading monster romance. We have one more group post coming up to help you get into the Halloween spirit, and then we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of lots of reviews where we never once say the word tentacles.
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