Saturday, February 09, 2008

Books in 2008, #5

#5. Lace and Blade edited by Deborah J. Ross

"Lace and blade," as per Vera Nazarian in the publisher's note, is a term meant to cover a softer subform of the subgenre of adventurous sword and sorcery that is synonymous with names such as Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard. Aggression and over-the-top violence is left behind in preference for a more romantic look on the form. She also used the phrase "girl cooties," which is both comical and still appropriate. I will say upfront that this is not the sort of fiction I normally read, but was initially intrigued due to the inclusion of Tanith Lee.

In "Virtue and the Archangel" by Madeline E. Robins, Velliaune meCorse risked being banished from her family and its fortune for one night of fun in bed with Col haVandron at the Bronze Manticore. Unfortunately, amidst all the sweat and lustful desires, she loses the Archangel, a necklace that is precious to her parents. She writes to Nyana, a schoolmate from the past, pleading for her help. From there, the story follows Nyana on a short detective-like search for the missing necklace. Along the way she'll meet the mysterious Col himself, deal with an inn's less-than-helpful staff, and find herself in a brazenly bold swordfight. All in all, a good start to Lace and Blade edited by Deborah J. Ross. It's a strong mix of romance and swordplay though two aspects confused me: the reasoning behind everyone's last name (meCorse, haVandron, and meBarso) and the kiss at the end. It felt somewhat tacked on.

"The Crossroads" by Diana L. Paxson shared many similarities to the previous story, namely ending with a swordfight and a confusing introduction of some character named Exu that came, seemingly, out of nowhere. I'm pretty sure it went right over my head. Anyways, Claude DeLorme has sailed to a colonial Brazil to inquire about the status of a family emerald mine. Once there, he meets the seductively pleasant Corquisa and ultimately finds himself in a card game for the deed of his family's mine and the right to keep the cabaret she works for in safe keeping. Paxson has provided all the right ingredients to "The Crossroads" to make it an enjoyable, fast-paced piece of lyrical lace and blade. Despite a minor quibble with the ending, it's a fine story that builds tension well and delivers on the action.

If you were to guess that "Touch of Moonlight" by Robin Wayne Bailey was a werewolf story just off its title, you'd be absolutely correct. Elena Sanchez y Vega is on her way to deliver the ransom for her brother's life to Joaquin Cortez, the dark sorcerer that made her the beast she is under moonlight. Along the way, her carriage is robbed by a man claiming to be Ramon Estrada, a ghost of lore for their whereabouts. The story then takes leaps and bounds with credibility and the task of behooving the reader any sense of "being in the story." How so? At one point or another, both Elena and Ramon are butt-naked and fighting an inviolable werewolf. I kid thee not. The jump from Ramon the thief to Ramon the loverboy made me frown. It might've worked in a longer piece, but I didn't buy it here. Otherwise, the story goes on very much expected with a buildup to a fight before everyone achieves happiness.

Ah, the story that got me interested in reading Lace and Blade. Oddly enough, I couldn't finish her heavily S&S debut The Birthgrave. But this, yes, this was much more enjoyable. "Lace-Maker, Blade-Taker, Grave-Breaker, Priest" by Tanith Lee tells the story of a shipwreck and three of the travelers it was carrying across the sea. They survive, but a previous promise onboard permits that two of them will duel at once. Well, as soon as they can find some new swords. This multilayered tale is classic Lee: action, intrigue, wonderfully colorful characters, a hint of the unexpected, and well-written. I enjoyed it very much, especially the somewhat silly determination between Vendrei and Zephyrin to hate each other so devoutly despite just surviving a nasty shipwreck. Definitely one of the better stories in the anthology.

The titular queen in "The Beheaded Queen" by Dave Smeds is exactly that: beheaded. However, she is bound to her husband's life, as he is bound to the demon that allowed him to keep her still talking. As it turns out, her son Bredden is to marry a girl from another country and begs for his mother's opinion on the matter. I was surprised to find this piece to be so serious, focusing on politics and lovers' betrayal. Sure, the joke itself is there, that we're reading about a talking head, but strangely the queen is quite sympathetic. Strikingly different from a previous Smeds read, "Bearing Shadows," but still just as rewarding.

One small spell completely shatters Tanzi's life in "The Topaz Desert" by Catherine Asaro. She only did it to calm her owners' screaming baby. She is quickly discovered, bemoaned as a town witch, and sent to the Holding House for punishment. Lucky for her, she narrowly escapes but now must live in fear of those that hate her so. And she soon meets men who may or may not be helpful. Asaro does a good job of capturing Tanzi's innocence, as well as giving us some gray characters that keep us guessing. Rocks and gems seem to be a staple in fantasy stories, yet here they are treated a tiny bit differently, which is appreciated. I'd have liked to see more magic, but what can you do?

Highwaymen are the focus of "Night Wind" by Mary Rosenblum. Alvaro's entourage is ambushed, and he soon learns much about the brigands. They don't care to bargain, only take what they demand. When he arrives at the home of His Lordship Salvaria, Alvaro hears of the legendary Night Wind, the very same highwayman that robbed him of his money and horses earlier. Eh, I feel like this sort of story has been done before. Revealing that a mysterious robber or thief or bandit is a woman is not exactly original. Sure, it rounds things out for the anthology so Alvaro can feel like he's met his soulmate, but for plot purposes it just turned me off. No thanks, even though the worldbuilding and talk of horses were quite enjoyable.

"In the Night Street Baths" by Chaz Brenchley takes two side-characters from his novel Bridge of Dreams and shows us what they've been up to. This would probably be more, uh, neat if I'd read his book. But I haven't, and so I must enter a world already realized and try to figure out just what is going on. Set in a world similar to Arabian Nights, the streets are home to many a people: dwarves, eunuchs, and people that Shine. And Teo and Djago mean to unearth a city secret. Or just have an adventure. I don't really know. Maybe it was just me, but this felt rather pointless, almost aimlessly written for more of the author's enjoyment than that of his readers.

In "The Rule of Engagement" by Sherwood Smith, Ren Desvransa and many other prominent ladies are attending the Blue Moon Masque, a ball of celebration before the king of Duen Lesc went home for the winter. His court is divided and it shows. That's why he's implemented Ren and her brother Yvo into his court with hopes of solidifying everyone. The introduction teases us that this is "a story of choice, about honor, about the transforming power of love" and then goes on to blast a boastful rendition of the Huey Lewis pop song. Okay, maybe not true about that last part. Either way, it's a complex story, one that seems to truly define what Lace and Blade is all about. That is, courtly intrigue, brave deeds, and romantic, subtle fantasy. Plus, dueling. Always with the dueling. It's a good ending to a somewhat decent anthology.

While the entries from Tanith Lee and David Smeds were enjoyable, the remainder of the tales felt far too similar to really impress me. No country felt particularly fresh or different from any other medieval/European locale, every plot seemed to rely on a duel fight at the end to close things up, and too much emphasis was placed on soulmates or true loves upon characters just meeting members of the opposite sex for the first time. Not bad, but not great. Then again, as I mentioned earlier, this is not at all what I normally like to read about and could be way off on all accounts.

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