by Jo Beverley, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mary Jo Putney, Catherine Asaro, Jennifer Roberson, and Deb Stover; fantasy (2004)
NAL, $14.00, ISBN 0-451-21111-1
Hear that sound? That's the sound of shears being sharpened as the bigwigs in New York finally realize that "those stupid fat cow romance readers" actually read something other than the preconceived stereotype of books featuring only heaving bosoms, ridiculously puritannical values, and silly sex. Watch out, people, the latest bandwagon is fantasy and sci-fi redux! I wonder if this time the authors will get it right and start respecting the intelligence of their readers instead of pushing forth silly barbarians and virginal idiot psychic healers down the readers' throats. If Irresistible Forces is any indication, the second attempt at a romantic fantasy renaissance may just work this time.
Arguably, some of the fantasy authors here are already writing stories that can be deemed romantic fantasy. It's all semantics, this "romantic fantasy" label, but if labelling is what it will take for the likes of Jo Beverley to cross genres and do it well, bring on the labels. I'll be happy to help lick the sticky parts of the label to make it stick.
Lois McMaster Bujold kicks off the show with Winterfair Games, which is the story of her popular character Miles Vorkosigan's wedding to Ekatrina. The hero is the Armsman Roic of the House of Vorkosigan who joins forces with the Amazonian Sgt Taura in looking to the bottom of some sabotage and even murder attempts taking place before the wedding. It is not easy for these two as they also have to juggle their investigations with make-overs and other wedding bustle. This story is fun from start to finish as both characters are fun and far from stereotypical.
The large cast in this novella may intimidate readers unfamiliar with the author's Miles Vorkosigan's series. For what it's worth, I am currently working my way through the series and am still unfamiliar with most of the secondary characters here, but I can read this novella without encountering much difficulties. I'm not sure therefore how much this novella spoils the previous books by this author. Not much, I think. At least, it doesn't diminish my enthusiasm to keep my catching up on this author's backlist.
Mary Jo Putney's The Alchemical Marriage is unfortunately the kind of romantic fantasy stories that don't fly the last time around with its emphasis on silly "sex and love are the answers to everything" nonsense. I always maintain that the paranormal fantasy romance subgenre flopped the last time around because readers are too smart not to get tired of the incessant cheesy "let's have sex to save the world, let's have a kid to break the curse" routine, so maybe Ms Putney should just move on to something more credible in her next forays into this subgenre.
In this novella, Scottish weather mage Adam Macrae will have to accept Queen Elizabeth's court magician Dr John Dee's bargain if he wants to be free after being tossed into the slammer for supporting Queen Mary. Adam must use his powers to sink a Spanish armada. Isabel de Cortes may be Spanish but she hates her country (after all, which country, aside from Scotland and Ireland, is holier and more righteous than England?). Adam doesn't trust her but he is weakened by his incarceration so he has to shag her to restore his powers. Isabel, the walking Viagra, will have to submit if she wants good to reign supreme. Alright people, let's get naked and busy if we are to save the world in time for dinner. Who's with me?
That silliness aside, Isabel and Adam are too underwritten and their "Hate! Hate! Shag! Love!" routine to a happily ever after is grating and tedious.
Catherine Asaro continues her downward spiral that started in her silly novella in Charmed Destinies with Stained Glass Heart. Prince Havyrl Torcelli Valdoria, or Vyrl, is fifteen and has a crush on Lily. But a marriage of "utmost convenience" to thirty-eight year old Devon Majda (that's the heroine, just to make that clear) will have to force him to reexamine his feelings.
Okay, being the ancient geezer that I am myself, I won't deny harboring some pleasant little fantasies about me and some young hottie stud in some tropical paradise vacation, but Vyrl is fifteen and he acts fifteen. Instead of making me go "Ooh, a nice fantasy!" I instead think "Statutory rape is so unromantic and dull - why do people do these things anyway?" Vyrl is dull and has very little going for him (then again, very few fifteen year old kids have anything going for them when it comes to enduring love). What's wrong with an intelligent twentysomething hottie? Now that's something I may enjoy reading about.
Oh, and this story is unbearably cutesy with all that dancing and what not. When's the Carebear show going to start, Ms Asaro?
Deb Stover's Skin Deep is another unpleasant throwback to the dead first attempt at a paranormal fantasy romance renaissance: it is silly, the plot is silly, everything about it is silly. Nick Reilly is punished by the powers above for arranging for his ex-wife Margo to find her True Love, Jared, in bed with another woman so that Margo will marry him. Any Einstein-wannabe can tell Nick that if he has to go to such extremes to get her to marry him, it probably won't last. Anyway, Nick is punished by being forced to live inside the body of a hot and sexy woman. Maybe this explains Jennifer Lopez - she's actually Benny Hill in a new hot body!
Anyway, "she" must now help Margo be reunited with Jared. Margo is doing well on her own: she is working on a scoop as to why guys become strippers (ooh, now that is going to get her journalistic credibility, I tell you) when she finds Jared shaking his bon-bons on stage. Predictable non-hilarity and tortuous psychobabbles ensue. This is one plot where the characters have to be big nitwits to work so it's a double-edged sword. And in the case of this story, the nitwits rule. Ugh.
Jo Beverley's The Trouble With Heroes proves that she is one of the really few romance authors that understand how you don't have to dumb down your fantasy stories because romance readers aren't imbeciles living in a fantasy bubble of escapism. This novella is easily the best of the bunch. At the surface, the story of humans in a different planet versus the original inhabitants seem like something that can easily go wrong, culminating in the two leads having torrid sex to Break The Curse and Make Magic Baby to Fulfill The Prophecy. Thankfully, this novella offers a decent look at humanity and love with a touch of humor. Dan Rutherford and Jenny Hart are two very memorable characters and the story is fully realized and well-written. I have the occasional flashbacks to the American animated movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within while reading The Trouble With Heroes thanks to some superficial similarities between the two, but all in all, a fabulous story.
Finally, Jennifer Roberson's Shadows In The Woods, in which her Robin Hood and Maid Marian from her previous books go on a quest for the sword Excalibur to kick Prince John's bum some more. This one is a very short novella and acts more like an interlude between the author's books than a story in its own right. It must be nice to be an author like Jennifer Roberson - just send off some page gas story and watch as the royalty check comes in.
When it's bad, this anthology is really bad. When it's good, it's really good. Irresistible Forces may not live up to its title, but anyone with $14.00 to spare and searching for some pleasant romantic fantasy stories may want to give this book a look. At the very least, there are a few future romantic fantasy authors to note down as "take a look" or "be wary of" - Jo Beverley has what it takes, for example, while Catherine Asaro and Mary Jo Putney will really have to work hard to get it right.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
Search for more reviews of works by these authors: