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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Irresistible Forces edited by Catherine Asaro

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“Winterfair Gifts” by Lois McMaster Bujold
“The Alchemical Marriage” by Mary Jo Putney
“Stained Glass Heart” by Catherine Asaro
“Skin Deep” by Deb Stover
“The Trouble with Heroes” by Jo Beverley
“Shadows in the Wood” by Jennifer Roberson

Image“Winterfair Gifts” by Lois McMaster Bujold started off with a lot of specific details, leaving me with an overwhelmed feeling.  It wouldn’t have been a problem had I been familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan clan from the outset, but I wasn’t.  It is the author’s responsibility, especially in science fiction, to take the reader by the hand and lead them into an unfamiliar world, and I feel this wasn’t done.  Aside from that, this story was very cute, one of the best of the bunch—it wasn’t Bujold’s fault that the bunch wasn’t very good.  It’s got an adorably politically correct M/F romance in the midst of a winter wedding event, and has the nice kick of providing some insight to the Vorkosigan family history, with the evil people being soundly defeated and love triumphing at the end.  I appreciated Bujold’s humor, too—she picked some of the technically hardest genres for this story, and pulled them off quite well.

“The Alchemical Marriage” by Mary Jo Putney was more dramatic, which made me want to get into the story more.  But the best drama is played out with subtlety, and I did not see that in this story.  Even with the attraction of opposites, romance needs time to build.  Sir Adam Macrae is the typical fifteenth century roughish Scot, but just sensitive enough to not utterly repulse the reader.  Why?  I have no idea.  I was left wondering if Sir Adam was less a 3-D character and more a 2-D concept. The familial responsibility of Guardianship has the potential to make him more interesting, but isn’t really seized upon.  Isabel de Cortes appealed immediately, all spitfire and brimstone, but after that, Putney loses it—it’s like de Cortes doesn’t even like Sir Adam, and despite that, Putney is determined to get them together anyway, forcing the issue every step of the way.  John Dee makes an appearance, and the plot deals with a commendable historic mystery (England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada), but it’s the characters that make a romance, so the conclusion of the story comes off flat.

“Stained Glass Heart,” by Catherine Asaro bothered me.  I’m willing to cut her a little slack—she was the editor of this anthology too, and I can’t imagine what stayed in the slush pile.  But to have characters say “What the hell?” strikes me as way too obvious, and she uses it way too often.  The parents of the groom, who is our hero, are trying to arrange a high-ranking political marriage for him.  The groom wants to marry his childhood sweetheart instead.  Seemingly, his parents would have better things to say upon finding out about the marriage’s cancellation on galaxy-wide TV.  Or better things to feel, or ways to find out, or something.  Add that to the candy-colored setting and the fact that the groom is, god forbid, a dancer (because on this world men just don’t do that), and the whole story comes off as juvenile.  True, we’re talking about two teenagers—but teenagers in love have thoughts and feelings and emotions too, real ones, and I would have liked to see Vyrl actually care about something in a beyond-token fashion.  And Lily was barely a cardboard cutout.  The world and galaxy of Torcellei Valdoria took center stage here, and it took it far enough to be ridiculous.

My reaction to “Skin Deep” by Deb Stover can be summed up by “Oh, God.”  Nick Riley, former lawyer and husband to Margo, comes back from heaven as a “drop-dead brick shit-house babe.”  Named Raquel.  To ascend, s/he has to match Margo with old flame Jared (once betrayed in life by Nick) who we first meet undressed up in a male strip joint.  Stover lost me right there.  Margo’s inner monologue as she is watching the show is nothing short of ridiculous; I don’t care how long she’s been celibate.  Stover might try relying less on stereotypical reactions and getting more into specifically what makes her characters tick if she wants to get a romance that really means anything.

“The Trouble with Heroes” by Jo Beverly bounces back and forth between joviality and terror, discusses the symbolism of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and finally closes with some talk about modern values.  We meet heroine Jenny Hart at work, watching refugees from The Blighters on Angilacom, the Gaia-wide news network.  The hero in question is Dan Fixer, who spends most of his time psychically healing (“fixing”) a great variety of broken things, except when the blighters come to call.  Blighters turn Gaians to ash, and you never know where they are, unless you’re a fixer or about to be ashed yourself.  Dan and Jenny fall in love despite themselves, but the big problem (with an easy solution) is that Dan survives the big war, and the home he wants to come back to is very suddenly not keen to have him.  The complex plot here makes it seem like the characters are rounded individuals, but they aren’t; Beverly just manages to hide it better.

Finally, we have “Shadows in the Wood" by Jennifer Roberson.  It’s an adventure more than a romance,  starring Maid Marian and Robin Hood, because all of the romantic tension has been dealt with long ago, one night in an oratory.  The adventure, in case you’re curious, is to bring back Excalibur from King Arthur’s grave in the place that once was Avalon, and restore it to Merlin.  We first find Merlin out of time and in a tree; Marian and Robin get separated from the Merry Men and run bleeding into a druid’s grove.  Their blood has magical properties—they are Sacrifices, kind of natural-born martyrs, a concept that greatly disturbs me, and might not have if Roberson had bothered to explain it a little more and connected it to the lives of the characters.  Everything works out in the end, though, and Merlin goes to his well-earned grave saying, as Merlin was to Robin, that those two will be legends themselves one day.  An interesting concept for fantasy fiction, but I think calling it a science fiction romance is a bit of misnomer.

Publisher: New American Library (February 1, 2004)
Price: $14.00
Paperback: 383 pages
ISBN: 0451211111