Phoenixfalls's Reviews > Elemental Magic

Elemental Magic by Sharon Shinn
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's review
Feb 22, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, fantasy-romance, sharon-shinn, carol-berg, female-author

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 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.
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