This is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy e...moreThis is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy end of the spectrum, and I suspect that fantasy readers will be more pleased by it than romance readers, for only one of the stories properly delivers the happily ever after ending that the romance genre demands. Still, as mind candy it works admirably well, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading it.
I picked the anthology up for the first story, Patricia McKillip's "The Gorgon in the Cupboard." It is also the best in the book -- so good, in fact, that it was later included in the Science Fiction Book Club's anthology The Best Short Novels: 2005. It is a story about Harry, a struggling painter desperately in love with his mentor's beautiful wife, and Jo, a girl destitute and forsaken on the streets after several hard turns of fortune. The fantasy element comes into play when Harry pulls out a painting he never finished because his model disappeared and paints his mentor's wife's mouth onto it in a fit of despondency that he will never be able to create a work worthy of her; he is understandably shocked when the mouth comes to life and begins to speak to him. That is the only fantasy element obvious in the story (though it is a rather glaring one); the setting is vague and paintings speaking are clearly not a common occurrance. The romance is also very slight. This is because what the story is really about is perception, the ways that we see what we want rather than what is. It's gossamer-light, yet far richer than it seems on the surface, wise and sensitive to the myriad ways life is fragile and bittersweet, particularly for women. It is stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks (reading-wise) beautiful.
The second story, Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords," is the one I suspect romance readers will be happiest with, and it made me smile and roll my eyes in equal amounts (often at the same time). It made me roll my eyes for more reasons than I can count -- the self-conscious modern fairy tale narration (complete with "In which [blank happens:]" as the title of each chapter); the combination of hopelessly modern actions on the characters' part even as they speak in hopelessly archaic (and likely inaccurate) dialogue; the fact that the man has just lost his family and his kingdom in an epic battle, the woman has a price on her head, and all they do is frolic in the forest getting muddy. It also doesn't have time to even get to the two swords part of the title -- the story is entirely the romance component (and the true happily ever after ending). I believe the story is something of a prequel to one of Kurland's ongoing series, so perhaps the two swords part is dealt with in one of the novels. However, despite all those things that irked me, I still couldn't help liking the characters and liking their romance, so I suppose Kurland did her job well. (Should I hate myself a little for falling for it?)
The third story, Sharon Shinn's "Fallen Angel," is the one romance readers will have the most trouble with, and it may even be hard for fantasy readers that are unfamiliar with Shinn's Samaria series. It's set ten years after the end of Archangel (and even has a fairly toothless cameo by the Archangel Gabriel) and Shinn seems to assume that the reader has enough background knowledge of her books that she doesn't need to explain the slightly unusual way Samaria works. Unfortunately, this has led to some readers calling the story sacrilegous, because they have no context for this tale of angels behaving badly. For those who want to read the story and don't have that context, please keep in mind that the angels are nothing more than humans with wings -- they are not actually the angels of Christian mythology. Even more unfortunately, "Fallen Angel" just doesn't quite work as either fantasy or romance -- as I already mentioned, Shinn doesn't give enough grounding in the fantasy world-building to satisfy those fans, and the romance is decent (if of the "ooo, what a sexy bad boy" variety) only until the ending totally destroys suspension of disbelief with an out-of-left-field resolution that heaps all the evils in the world on one head. Still, I didn't hate the story, because it actually starts to address some of the thornier side of the world of Samaria -- the sort of chaos that can ensue when a ruling class with a free love worldview comes into conflict with a merchant class with very strict rules of propriety.
The fourth story, Claire Delacroix's "An Elegy for Melusine," is a retelling of the Melusine myth. It hews very closely to the story as described on Wikipedia (I wasn't overly familiar with the myth, so I looked it up, lol) and is rendered in serviceable enough prose that the myth's full power shines through. It has a totally unnecessary framing story, unfortunately, but other than that I quite liked it. However, romance readers should again be warned: the myth does not have a particularly happy ending.(less)
This was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the init...moreThis was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initial volume in any of Shinn's series always blows me away, then each successive volume is only half as good as the one before. Two of the four novellas in this volume are set in the worlds of Shinn's two longest series, and those two novellas have reached only homeopathically good territory. The second reason is that I just don't think Shinn is capable of writing stories with the sort of thematic freight she attempted here -- the two non-series novellas are drawn from two of her more message-heavy novels, and the two series novellas attempt to address some of the seriously thorny issues inherent but not really addressed in her previous world-building.
Still, it's the sort of volume that if you are a Sharon Shinn completist, you simply have to read it. And since her prose is always pleasant and easy to read it goes very, very quickly.
Flight (set in Samaria, just before Archangel) This was by far the worst story in the bunch. It features the return of Raphael as the Biggest of all Big Bads, doing evil just because he can; a really, really, really clunky and histrionic speech about the evils of a system where women are only valued because they can produce angel babies; and a completely forced romance. I rather wish I could erase my memory of it.
Blood (set in the world of Heart of Gold) The novel this is based on is one of the few by Shinn that I have never re-read; though I don't remember disliking it nothing about it ever stood out enough in my memory that I wanted to revisit it. So this was the one case where I could not tell what information was new for the novella and what was a reference to the novel, which probably made it feel fresher than it would have otherwise. It too features some clunky speachifying on the evils of a patriarchal system, but there is a greater focus on the budding friendship between Kerk and Jalci, a very Hollywood but still somewhat heartwarming set of scenes at a sort of shelter for abused women and their children, and an actual honest-to-goodness moment of heartbreak and moral ambiguity. That moment gets completely ruined a moment later when Jalci recasts everything as black and white, but it made the story worthwhile for me. I think this was the best of the bunch.
Gold (set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn) I think this novella would actually work better for people who have not read the novel. If you have not read the novel, it's a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of living in fairyland -- not a particularly memorable entry into that canon of literature, but I happen to like those stories with their depictions of dangerous beauty. If you have read the novel, as I have (though not tremendously recently), something about the story just doesn't quite seem to match what came before -- I spent the whole time trying to figure out what on earth happened in the interim to twist the recurring characters' motivations to this result. The story also featured a tremendously whiny teenage girl protagonist, and again the romance seemed forced.
Flame (set in the Twelve Houses, just before Mystic and Rider) Senneth is my second-favorite of all of Shinn's characters (right after Jovieve in Wrapt in Crystal) and Shinn went a fair way to ruining her for me in this story. Here she is wishy-washy and whiny or self-righteous by turns. Because of the difference in her character, I assumed that the story was set several years before Mystic and Rider; I would believe that this teenage Senneth would grow into the wonderful Senneth I so loved. Unfortunately, Shinn then made it explicit that Senneth went straight from the events of this story into the events of Mystic and Rider, so my interpretation was invalidated and I was left feeling merely annoyed. Plus the resolution was completely predictable (which is problematic because the story is set up as a pseudo-mystery rather than a romance) and again there were far too many soapbox moments. (It's bad to burn witches. I know this already.)(less)
I was incredibly conflicted in deciding what rating to give this collection. Two of the novellas were near perfect, one was kind of lame, and the last...moreI was incredibly conflicted in deciding what rating to give this collection. Two of the novellas were near perfect, one was kind of lame, and the last one was such complete trash I'd almost rather believe it was written as a satire of romance novels. Still, I am going to try and focus on the stronger stories, so I bumped the rating up a little.
The first story, loosely centered around the element "Air" and also very loosely a reimagining of the Cinderella myth, is called "Bargain with the Wind," and is written by Sharon Shinn. It is the reason I bought this collection, and it really impressed me. Shinn's writing style is fairly simple and a little weak, but she excels at creating characters that the reader cares about. This story is some of her strongest work in some time, nearly at the level of her Campbell Award-winning first novel, The Shape-Changer's Wife. Like that novel, it also ends with a melancholy, haunting beauty that lingered in my mind for some time.
The second novella is very loosely centered around the element "Earth." "Birthright," by Jean Johnson, was the story I found a bit lame. It felt pulled in two directions -- there was too much romance to have enough time building the world and setting up the plot, but there was so much plot (and a rather weak plot to boot) that Johnson skipped all the most interesting parts of the romance: the actual falling in love. Her characters meet, want each other, spend a month together that the reader doesn't get to see at all, then fall into bed (or in this case a bathing pool) with each other and are ready to pledge their undying love. Still, it moved quickly, and the bathing pool scene walked the fine line between being R-rated and X-rated carefully enough that it was titillating rather than either horrifying or ludicrous.
The third novella is the strongest. Centered around "water" and set in the world of her major trilogy, "Unmasking" by Carol Berg was a revelation. I had read Berg's standalone novel Song of the Beast and wasn't terribly impressed; it read quickly, but I forgot it almost as soon as I finished it. This novella caused me to go out and get the first novel in her Rai-Kirah trilogy immediately on its strength alone. There is nothing flashy about her writing style, but it is serviceable and there is no clunkiness as there sometimes is in Sharon Shinn's writing; but the strength in this story is her characterization. It is the shortest of the novellas in this collection, yet its characters are the ones I will remember the longest -- the inhabit a world I can picture perfectly, they are multi-faceted, and the protagonist faces quite a few hard choices with wonderfully realized courage and grace. While the romance takes up very little time, it made my heart ache. Truly an impressive work.
The fourth novella is sadly the weakest by far, and left a horrible taste in my mouth after Berg's small masterpiece. Centered around "Fire" -- and much more literal an interpretation of the element than the other three novellas -- "Huntress Moon" by Rebecca York was disgustingly inadequate from the very first page. The characters make no sense, the world-building is trite and nearly non-existent, the plot is hackneyed, and the content is. . . well, I have to say that I don't read romance novels. I will admit to some snobbishness about them. But I never really believed that someone (and a woman no less!) could write such utter filth, and that other people (women!!!) could enjoy it. It is a horrifying tale of a girl buying into her own destruction wholeheartedly. The main character agrees to become a sex slave with the hope of saving her mother and is instantly swooning over her purchaser. Their sex is described graphically (but not at all sexily) and repeatedly, and then they are magically brought together by several coincidences, the evil-doers are conveniently routed, a couple of slaves are freed (but of course, not all of them can be, that would be a sign of weakness -- but by the way, when did Zarah learn to care about slavery? it isn't shown in the text), and everyone lives happily ever after. I only kept reading after the first two pages because I didn't feel qualified to review it if I didn't finish it. I strongly recommend anyone else picking up this collection to simply cut the pages out of the book and burn them.
Still, if I ignore the fourth novella, this is a strong collection -- one brilliant story, one excellent story, and one that is adequate. I will take my own advice and burn Rebecca York's novella, and then I can absolutely place this collection on my keeper shelf.(less)
This is a sweet, serviceable young adult novel. Shinn's writing style suits the genre, featuring long passages telling the story and no real action/fa...moreThis is a sweet, serviceable young adult novel. Shinn's writing style suits the genre, featuring long passages telling the story and no real action/fantasy set-pieces to liven things up, and the characters she introduces here are fine, but not particularly memorable. The novel moves quickly and fairly gracefully, and is really marred only by the too-neat tying up of loose ends that undercuts the interestingly hard emotional revelations of earlier passages. Still, it is unfortunately not a novel I will remember long.(less)
Just as with the other two titles in this series, this was a light, pleasant afternoon's read, suitable for anyone roughly 10 and up. The characters a...moreJust as with the other two titles in this series, this was a light, pleasant afternoon's read, suitable for anyone roughly 10 and up. The characters are likable, the world is likable, though people do bad things there's no real sense of danger or despair. . . it's sweet and quite innocent. The comparisons to Shakespeare in the editorial quotes, as a result, come off as a tad overblown, but I do understand where they come from -- the novel rests on mistaken identities and people in disguise, and everything of course comes together all at once for a chaotic but happy resolution. So pleasant, probably the most pleasant of the three, but ultimately probably forgettable.(less)
This was my least favorite of the Twelve Houses books. I re-read the previous four leading up to this, and when placed back to back like that their si...moreThis was my least favorite of the Twelve Houses books. I re-read the previous four leading up to this, and when placed back to back like that their similarities began to wear on me. Four romances with class distinctions as their primary conflict got tiresome, especially when so few people actually seemed to care about the class issue in any other setting. Perhaps it is true, what the British say, that Americans simply do not understand class the way people with a history of an aristocracy do -- certainly Sharon Shinn does not. The book felt very odd, coming, as it does, after the major political and religious conflict in the series has already been resolved. It also would have been stronger if it had followed Wen solely. Shinn spent a great deal of time getting all the principle players in the previous novels together again and then to Forten city, but none of them had any real stake in the matter. They are all happy, and while I am happy that they are happy, there was no conflict in any scenes with them. I found myself even disliking Senneth a bit, reduced as she was to grousing about ball gowns and travelling -- totally out of character for her, as in every other book she has wanted nothing more than to be on the road. Wen's heartache never connected with me on anything but an intellectual level, and there was virtually no jeopardy to anyone through vast swaths of the book, despite all her vigilance. I understand that that is the usual lot of a bodyguard, but it does not make for dramatic reading. Still, Shinn does have the trick of making you care that her characters are happy, and the book reads quickly enough that it did not feel like an imposition. I only hope that she is now done with this series and can turn her imagination to something new.(less)