Juno Books, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-8095-5653-3
Best New Paranormal Romance is not a daring taunt of a title. What Paula Guran is trying to do here is to introduce into paranormal romance a type of anthology typical in the horror or fantasy genre – an anthology where the editor compiles stories published in genre magazines that he or she believes are the best of the crop – and those anthologies typically have “Best New” in the title. We don’t have this type of anthology in romance so far, which probably explains why many of the short stories here skew very heavily towards “fantasy with romance” instead of “paranormal romance”.
Paula Guran realizes and anticipates this, which is why she started things off with an introduction that justifies the heavy skew towards fantasy by pointing out that paranormal romance, despite being a subgenre of romance, plays by different rules that are acceptable to its readers. After all, what else would explain the popularity of books by Laurell K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, and other authors among readers of romance? Some of these books are even marketed as paranormal romance despite having elements like polyamory and such. And while I don’t entirely agree with Ms Guran, I think she has a point when she says that paranormal romance is a genre where the rules can be broken without alienating too many readers. Just look at how many enraged readers of historical romances who want a non-virginal heroine’s head on a pike – I haven’t seen many of these readers sniffing around the paranormal romance shelves, thank goodness.
Ms Guran’s introduction sets the tone for this anthology – expect nothing formulaic here. There are no werewolves, no demons, no angels, no alpha males – in fact, barring the story by the lone male author of the bunch, these stories are so strongly heroine-centric that the romantic elements present seem more like metaphysical exploration of her psyche instead of, you know, a mere love affair in the making. What this anthology has in abundance is beautiful narrative. Seriously, with authors like Jane Yolen, Elizabeth Hand, Elizabeth Bear, and Delia Sherman on board, this book is like a canvas and words are these author’s colors, colors that they apply with deceptive ease to create stories that is so evocative, vividly atmospheric, and so “I feel like I’m transported right into the setting and experience all those sensations with my own senses” that this anthology could have been word pornography at times. But be careful – not every story has a happily ever after.
In Elizabeth Hand’s beautifully haunting and macabre Calypso in Berlin is the story with the strongest description of the male love interest, that’s only because the hero’s physical beauty is the fuel of the nymph heroine Calypso’s obsession with him. It is his beauty that catalyzes her creativity, to religiously capture his beauty on canvas, and this drive consumes her as it is, literally, the fire that keeps her alive. Like many of the stories here, there is no conventional happy ending for the couple. She’s happy in a way, of course, but the ending is exactly what you can expect from a tale inspired by the Greek legends of nymph. This story is amazing because it is romantic in a very twisted and macabre manner, and the ending is worthy of a The Twilight Zone episode.
Claudia O’Keefe’s A Maze of Trees is another example of a desperately romantic story that ends in a manner that makes me cry. Our heroine Carly, still doesn’t understand why or how she came to be what she is today, but here she is, a protector of a heavily-forested region, living among other humans when she’s also covertly using the magic of nature to drive away the encroachment of progress. It’s not a bad gig, except that she can never leave her domain. She has never felt suffocated until she falls for a man who is from the city. It is wonderful, she has never felt more happy, but at the same time, she finally realizes why the person who held the gig before her committed suicide. Loneliness can sometimes be too much of a burden to bear, especially when you know that you will spend the rest of your existence alone with only memories of love to brighten up the gloomy Sundays. I tend to avoid stories like this one, but at the same time, there is no beautiful catharsis like a well-written romantic tearjerker. I tell you, I have read the last three pages six times and each time still makes me feel all choked up inside.
Elizabeth Bear’s Follow Me Light, Deborah Coates’s Magic in a Certain Slant of Light, and Sandra McDonald’s Fir Na Tine are more paranormal women’s fiction than romance, in the sense that romance is only a small part of the heroine’s journey of self discovery. Jane Yolen’s A Knot of Frogs is more of a HP Lovecraft-type horror story with a little hint of romance. John Grant’s The Hard Stuff has the hero married to a mysterious woman, but the story is more of the hero’s journey of healing and self-discovery as he tries to adjust to life after losing bits and pieces of his upper limbs in Iraq. Mr Grant’s story is also an excuse for the author to vent his frustrations at the way things were run during the Bush administration in the US. These stories are fine in their own right, as they are all interesting and entertaining in their own way, but they all lack that special “something”, mostly because the short story format prevents the authors from developing their stories into something more substantial.
Of the stories in this bunch, the only stories that can be safely considered romance without raising eyebrows among genre purists are Rebecca York’s Hero’s Welcome and Catherine Asaro’s The Shadowed Heart. Unsurprisingly, they were taken from a straightforward romance anthology, The Journey Home. I’ve already reviewed these stories in my review of that anthology, so I’ll just briefly recap my opinion of these stories here. Catherine Asaro’s story is great, if tad conventional compared to the rest of the story here, and Rebecca York’s story feels very contrived and pedestrian as it’s even more formulaic than Ms Asaro’s story. They show up at the back end of the anthology, so by that point, I’m too intoxicated by the lush prose and unorthodox structure of the other stories to be taken in by these more conventional stories.
This anthology also has comedy, but the three stories that fall into this category are a mixed bag. Sarah Prineas’s A Treatise on Fewmets is silly, and Heather Shaw’s Single White Farmhouse – about a house that runs away to meet and have sex with a tower she has corresponded via Internet! – is even sillier. But Delia Sherman’s Walpurgis Afternoon is a thing of beauty, an adorable and charming read from start to finish.
But on the most part, the stories in this anthology are beautifully written tales of insecurities and loneliness, with love being more often than not a transient moment of bliss that only amplifies the tragedy of the inevitable heartbreak. Let’s put it this way – reading this anthology is like getting drunk in a bar while Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You is on a loop in the jukebox, with you thinking back of the most beautiful moments of a failed love affair and wailing to some poor guy whose only crime is to sit next to you at the bar, “But he was so beautiful! And we were supposed to get married and have two kids… and then… and then… we were walking along this street and this giant piano fell from the sky and killed him. Selfish bastard! Leaving me like this! Men are all assholes!” And then you wake up with a terrible hangover but damn, you’d give anything to go back in time and experience those wonderful emotions with him again. This anthology is like that. But I guess that’s what sublime tales of miserable people getting all hacked up over love are supposed to do.