by Elizabeth Vaughan, fantasy (2008)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22061-0

Dagger-Star is set in the same world as Elizabeth Vaughan's Chronicles Of The Warlands, with this one taking place in the southern region where the flavor is comparable to that of medieval Europe. Dagger-Star is a complete one-eighty from the trilogy, however, because not only does Ms Vaughan reveals a bawdy sense of humor here, there is a 100% role reversal here as the heroine takes on the role generally reserved for romance heroes while the romance hero is, well, the typical romance heroine here.

"I am Red Gloves, mercenary out of Soccia," the brunette said. "And the Chosen. Wanna see my tits?"

Our mercenaries Red Gloves - not to be confused in any way with Red Sonja or Xena, I'm sure - and her female companion ("sword sister") Bethral are looking for jobs and they are hoping that Palins, a country currently ravaged by civil war, will offer plenty of opportunities for them to make lots of money. When they find instead is the revelation that the birthmark that Red Gloves sports just under her breast brands her as a Chosen of Palins. It's a long story, so let me just say that a Chosen is the designated heir to the currently vacant throne of that country. There are actually several Chosens, many of them killed by the current Regent who wants to keep his rear end on the throne, and currently a ragtag team of rebels hoping to end the civil war protect a few young kids that bear the birthmark. With Red Gloves being not only the oldest of the current living Chosens but also one capable of leading the generally untrained rebels, she naturally becomes the chosen of the Chosens, heh, to help bring peace once more to Palins.

Not that Red Gloves wants to be a ruler, since she's more of an action hero type rather than a politician, but she sees an opportunity to make some profit out of the whole thing so she goes along with the program. Besides, Josiah, the brother of one of the key members of the rebellion, is cute and she doesn't mind having him in her bed on those cold nights.

Red Gloves is the stereotypical action man type normally reserved for romance heroes and she remains in character throughout the story, much to my delight. You want a heroine who can rally the troops and mount an attack? Red Gloves is your lady. You want a smart, sharp, and pragmatic heroine? Red Gloves is your lady. You want a heroine who is the aggressor in bed? Red Gloves is your lady. Seriously, Red Gloves is too much fun as a heroine. She may fall in love with Josiah, but that doesn't mean she becomes stupid as a result. She can take care of herself - no man is needed to come to her rescue - and Red Gloves actually comes to the hero's rescue.

Needless to say, with romance readers being what they are, your enjoyment of Dagger-Star hinges greatly on how you like your heroes and heroines to be. If you like your heroines to be the nurturing and selfless type like Lara in the author's previous trilogy, approach this one with caution because Red is really in-your-face with her blatant aggressive approach to life.

The plot is not high fantasy either, it's actually a parody of your typical hero-discovers-his-destiny plot with even a bard-like character happily pointing out most amusingly how often Red Gloves breaks the role of a typical female in such a fantasy story.

"There is something else," Ezran said.

Red drew a deep breath. "What?"

"You must decide on an archetypal role for your leadership. As a woman..."

Red stilled. "What of that?"

"A woman in power is typically found in one of three roles. The first is that of a virgin queen, all-knowing, untouchable, willing to sacrifice all for her people."

There was dead silence. Josiah was staring to get a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"You think I'm a virgin?" Red demanded, scowling.

Ezran seemed oblivious. "Or the role of the woman betrayed, leading her people to avenge a wrong. The best example of this is Empress Penalla of Wensosa. We are told that she and her three daughters were raped by the forces of - "

Red's mug crashed down on the table. Her eyes were wide and fierce.

Ezran continued. "Or you could take on the aspect of the great whore, a woman rapacious in her appetites, sleeping with everyone and everything, including lifestock. The primary model in this case was - "

Red threw herself across the table at the man.

Because I view this story as a parody, I am not too bothered by a considerable number of "What on earth?" moments in the story, especially how the coup is pulled off way too easily in this story.

The only reason why I do not give this book a keeper grade is the hero. Josiah's character is way too irritating regardless of his gender. He has had only one serious relationship in the past which led to a great betrayal and now he spends all his time brooding, whining, moaning, and complaining about everything and anything. He's all about the relationship when Red is like, eh, sex is sex, so she doesn't get why he is making all that fuss. It's not like he's the best she ever had (really, she says this - to herself, of course - in the story) but she likes him and he's cute so she's letting him stay in her bed. Josiah embodies the worst trait of the most irritating romance heroine in the genre: he's supremely whiny and completely useless at the same time. His most significant role in the story is to become the lad-in-distress late in the story. Everyone here remarks that Josiah, stuck with a "curse" of having magic completely unable to work on him, can be a most useful "weapon" as mages are completely useless in a fight against him, but what do you know, that guy turns out to be a complete dead weight here. Just like a psychic heroine with very special powers tend to be in a paranormal romance, heh.

It is a good thing that Josiah for the most part is shunted to the sidelines. Seriously, this is one story where the hero plays such a small role in the overall storyline. For the most part, I can happily pretend that he doesn't exist. It is only late in the story when he becomes the lad-in-distress that he becomes supremely annoying with his utter uselessness. Still, because he is generally shunted off to the sidelines most of the time, trotted out dutifully as Red's plaything when she goes to bed, he's not that bad. At least Ms Vaughan is aware that Josiah is useless and doesn't try too hard to force him to show up unnecessarily in the main storyline.

Dagger-Star is a most enjoyable parody, although I wish the Josiah isn't such an accurate depiction of a truly irritating romance heroine at work here. I can't say that this story works as a romance, since I can't imagine Red being able to stay in the same room with someone like Josiah for ten minutes without making that annoying brat cry like a baby, but as an entertaining and playful fantasy story that goes all the way in reversing the roles of the hero and the heroine, Dagger-Star works like magic.

Rating: 88

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