Norilana Books, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-934648-99-5
Norilana Books is an interesting publisher. Yes, it’s small, with books only available through online retailers at the time of writing, and yet it has the backing of some pretty recognizable names in the fantasy genre. I am hoping to get an idea of what this publisher of romantic fantasy has to offer by giving their Valentine’s Day anthology, Lace and Blade 2, a try.
Since there are eleven stories here, not counting the introduction by editor Deborah J Ross, I’ll just mention the ones that I find memorable for both good and not-so-good reasons. By the way, I’m pretty surprised by the homosexual elements present in many of the stories here. I am not against reading such things, of course, but nothing on the packaging of this book leads me to expect such elements to be present here! Also pleasantly surprising is the number of stories set in fantasy versions of China and Japan.
Rosemary Hawley Jarman kicks off the show with More in Sorrow. This one is the story of young Captain Rudek Palzani, who is cocksure about how his life can’t be any better at that moment. He soon finds himself torn between his affections for Michalla, the beautiful daughter of a nobleman whose father doesn’t like Rudek much, and Luce, a mysterious man who awakens a more primal kind of passion in Rudek. I like the story, but yikes, the author has such a florid prose here that the writing isn’t just purple, it’s the shade of Barney the Dinosaur.
Mary Rosenblum’s Dragon Wind is a semi-historical account of the renowned Chinese admiral Zeng He (that’s how his name is spelled here). Zeng He and his Treasure Fleet arrive at a distant land in this story to “escort” a healer said to be talented enough to restore the ill Emperor back to good health. Wait until she learns that she is expected to marry and sleep with the Emperor, on the account of her “dragon blood”, to accomplish the task. The Dragon’s Daughter, as the healer is known, will not go without a fight, however. Add in some encounters with the local gang of robbers and Zeng He realizes that this mission isn’t going to be easy. If that isn’t complicated enough, Zeng He begins to find himself increasingly conflicted by his loyalty to his Emperor and his sense of justice – if he takes the Dragon’s Daughter away from her home, there will be no one else to care for the downtrodden folks already suffering under the local tyrant’s rule. The romance in this one can be very subtle if you are not familiar with that kind of subtext between men, heh, but this story is a very enjoyable read indeed. I can only wish this story has been part of a longer story set in an alternate version of 15th century China where magic really existed.
Francesca Forrest’s The Biwa and the Water Koto is set in Japan, as you can tell from the title of the story. The talented biwa player and the personal instructor of the crown prince, Tadahiro has a problem. He has “lost” the biwa belonging to the imperial treasury. He had this bright idea to let the abbot of a temple use it to improve the abbot’s playing skill, you see, and now the abbot claims that it has belonged to the temple all along so he’s not giving it back to Tadahiro. The imperial court wants the biwa back, so Tadahiro is now in a complete bind. Yuko, a lady who has retreated to the temple hoping to find peace and what not, decides to help Tadahiro get the biwa back within three days before Tadahiro gets branded as a thief by the imperial court. While doing so, she will learn of a most surprising guest of sort living in the temple… I really like this one as well, although a part of me feel sorry for the poor fellow who gets screwed over by our hero and heroine in the end. Sure, I mean, he’s not a nice guy, but he’s just an aspiring American Idol wannabe underneath his evil exterior, and I guess I feel sorry for him because of that.
The Pillow Boy of General Shu by Daniel Fox is the most forthright story when it comes to homosexual elements in the tale. This one isn’t a happy romance as much as it is an Alfred Hitchcock-like historical tale with a touch of dark romance. General Shu is adorable by the way – he’s not the most virtuous man around, but his pragmatism causes him to be kinder than his peers when it comes to treating the serfs they have conquered. He knows that people laugh at his rotund girth and his less-than-handsome appearance, but at the same time he puffs up with the knowledge that he has power to wield and abuse over those buffoons if he so chooses. And he is so adorably confident yet at times awkward and even bashful around the servant boy that has caught his fancy, how cute. This fellow is a most intriguing character. My only complain with this story is how Mr Fox keeps mocking Shu’s size. Come on, that is what makes Shu a fascinating unconventional character. Stop making fun of what makes Shu unique! Does the author even realize what a great character he has created here?
In Miss Austen’s Castle Tour, Sherwood Smith exposes the hitherto unknown events that happened in Jane Austen’s life during a period of time not chronicled in her letters to her sister. And really, I bet you will have never guessed what happened to poor Jane. Of course, we now have that book with zombies that have upstaged what Ms Smith has come up with here, but hey, this one is still an unexpectedly fun story. I wish Ms Smith has bucked convention and give this Jane Austen a different kind of character that isn’t like in every other story featuring Jane Austen as a character.
Traci N Castleberry, who also writes as Nica Berry, has a pretty interesting gay tale in Rent Girl. Orossy is in love with Feisal, but their affair is marred by his insecurities. Feisal is the son of the Lord Governor in this fantasy setting. Also, Feisal likes his men to be manly men while Orossy likes wearing dresses and such. Perhaps it is time that Orossy get a makeover from some experts. It will not be easy for a former “rent girl” to become respectable though. In this story, it’s actually a heartbreaking experience. Orossy is in a way an incredible character, complicated and strong-willed yet vulnerable and emotionally codependent all at once. Unfortunately, his relationship with Feisal is so one-dimensional and flat that it robs this story of much of its heartbreaking poignancy. Also, being in love turns Orossy into a simpering, whiny, and clingy twit that I actually want the angst-ridden and persecuted Orossy to come back. That Orossy is fabulous.
The other stories in this anthology are not bad, it’s just that they are not as memorable as I found the above mentioned stories.
Don’t be fooled by the romantic Euro-centric cover art of Lace and Blade 2 – this one is a very entertaining diverse collection of fantasy stories, containing everything from gay and lesbian elements to magic to murder and strange dream-like boyfriends and girlfriends. This is a wild collection alright, and I am so glad that I get to read it.