This is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy end of the spectrum, and I suspect that fantasy readers will be more pleased by it than romance readers, for only one of the stories properly delivers the happily ever after ending that the romance genre demands. Still, as mind candy it works admirably well, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading it.
I picked the anthology up for the first story, Patricia McKillip's "The Gorgon in the Cupboard." It is also the best in the book -- so good, in fact, that it was later included in the Science Fiction Book Club's anthology The Best Short Novels: 2005. It is a story about Harry, a struggling painter desperately in love with his mentor's beautiful wife, and Jo, a girl destitute and forsaken on the streets after several hard turns of fortune. The fantasy element comes into play when Harry pulls out a painting he never finished because his model disappeared and paints his mentor's wife's mouth onto it in a fit of despondency that he will never be able to create a work worthy of her; he is understandably shocked when the mouth comes to life and begins to speak to him. That is the only fantasy element obvious in the story (though it is a rather glaring one); the setting is vague and paintings speaking are clearly not a common occurrance. The romance is also very slight. This is because what the story is really about is perception, the ways that we see what we want rather than what is. It's gossamer-light, yet far richer than it seems on the surface, wise and sensitive to the myriad ways life is fragile and bittersweet, particularly for women. It is stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks (reading-wise) beautiful.
The second story, Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords," is the one I suspect romance readers will be happiest with, and it made me smile and roll my eyes in equal amounts (often at the same time). It made me roll my eyes for more reasons than I can count -- the self-conscious modern fairy tale narration (complete with "In which [blank happens]" as the title of each chapter); the combination of hopelessly modern actions on the characters' part even as they speak in hopelessly archaic (and likely inaccurate) dialogue; the fact that the man has just lost his family and his kingdom in an epic battle, the woman has a price on her head, and all they do is frolic in the forest getting muddy. It also doesn't have time to even get to the two swords part of the title -- the story is entirely the romance component (and the true happily ever after ending). I believe the story is something of a prequel to one of Kurland's ongoing series, so perhaps the two swords part is dealt with in one of the novels. However, despite all those things that irked me, I still couldn't help liking the characters and liking their romance, so I suppose Kurland did her job well. (Should I hate myself a little for falling for it?)
The third story, Sharon Shinn's "Fallen Angel," is the one romance readers will have the most trouble with, and it may even be hard for fantasy readers that are unfamiliar with Shinn's Samaria series. It's set ten years after the end of Archangel (and even has a fairly toothless cameo by the Archangel Gabriel) and Shinn seems to assume that the reader has enough background knowledge of her books that she doesn't need to explain the slightly unusual way Samaria works. Unfortunately, this has led to some readers calling the story sacrilegous, because they have no context for this tale of angels behaving badly. For those who want to read the story and don't have that context, please keep in mind that the angels are nothing more than humans with wings -- they are not actually the angels of Christian mythology. Even more unfortunately, "Fallen Angel" just doesn't quite work as either fantasy or romance -- as I already mentioned, Shinn doesn't give enough grounding in the fantasy world-building to satisfy those fans, and the romance is decent (if of the "ooo, what a sexy bad boy" variety) only until the ending totally destroys suspension of disbelief with an out-of-left-field resolution that heaps all the evils in the world on one head. Still, I didn't hate the story, because it actually starts to address some of the thornier side of the world of Samaria -- the sort of chaos that can ensue when a ruling class with a free love worldview comes into conflict with a merchant class with very strict rules of propriety.
The fourth story, Claire Delacroix's "An Elegy for Melusine," is a retelling of the Melusine myth. It hews very closely to the story as described on Wikipedia (I wasn't overly familiar with the myth, so I looked it up, lol) and is rendered in serviceable enough prose that the myth's full power shines through. It has a totally unnecessary framing story, unfortunately, but other than that I quite liked it. However, romance readers should again be warned: the myth does not have a particularly happy ending.
I bought book primarily for the story by Lynn Kurland alone. I love Ms. Kurland's work and I wasnt disappointed with it.
I read only the Sharon Shinn story, which was set on Samaria. I really enjoy being on Samaria and learning about some new characters. My only complaint was that the story got really good at the end, and then it ended! I wanted it to continue much longer to find out what happened to Eden.
I requested the book for the story by Lynn Kurland-The Tale of the Two Swords. I love Lynn Kurland's and enjoyed this one just as much as some of her other books.
I got this book for Lynn Kurland's Story, The Tale of Two Swords. I don't care for the other authors, but I LOVE that story!
The story opens as young Harold is yearning for adventure, and decides he must settle for a story of adventure instead. His father reads The Tale of Two Swords, and we are sucked into the story of Gilrahen the Fae, whose father has just died on the battlefield, leaving him with a palace in ruins, no army, and an enemy who longs to kill him. He has an uncommon amount of magic, but he's not at all sure it'll be enough, and he doesn't care for the engagement he's bound to. Maher of Angesand flees from HER suitor. She runs to the palace, hoping that the king's mage can teach her the spells in her mother's book. Instead she finds a palace in ruins, a man who claims to be no one, yet knows the spells in her mother's book and has a crown and sword hidden under his bed.
I won't ruin the end of the story for you, but both it, and the epilogue (which switches back to young Harold) are fantastic!
PS. This is the story that is referred to several times in Star of the Morning and The Mage's Daughter.
Four separate stories in the fantasy/romance genre two from successful fantasy authors and two from successful romance authors.
The Gorgon in the Cupboard Patricia McKillip
The moral of the story is that men put women on pedestals, and the women dont always appreciate it.
In this tale of a group of artists and their models, the pedestals are almost literal. The spirit of the gorgon Medusa speaks to one artist through one of his paintings, helping him to see a woman for who she is as a person, rather than one of the idealized mythological figures he paints women as.
Its a bit heavy-handed, and the fantasy element is really not even particularly necessary to the story.
The Tale of the Two Swords Lynn Kurland
You know how sometimes you watch a bad fantasy movie, and the actors look completely embarrassed to be wearing medieval-style costumes, and you can tell theyre barely holding back snickers as they say their thees and thouss? Well, this story is kind of like those movies. A completely generic medieval-style setting, generic, unbelievable characters, anachronistic dialogue. If it were just a bit more tongue-in-cheek, it might succeed as humor, but as it is, I found it to just fall flat. Framed as a story read to a child (which also didnt work for me), our heroine runs from an arranged marriage, encounters magic, and finds love with a handsome prince. Blah.
Fallen Angel Sharon Shinn
This one, I really liked. Shinns Samaria, setting of several of her novels (which are still sitting on my TBR shelf!), is a Middle Eastern-type land where human tribes and winged angels co-exist, and serves as a well-realized backdrop to her story of a young woman of a wealthy human family who is expected to marry for money and political advantage but instead falls for a young angel of dubious reputation. A age-old tale but done here with some original twists, and fascinating characters.
An Elegy for Melusine Claire Delacroix
The cursed fairy Melusine tells her story to two human women who chance to enter the ruined castle where once she lived with her human lover. Although the character makes a fairly big deal about telling the story from her point of view rather than from the mortal point of view that has come down to listeners through the years, the story, as written, is a fairly straight recounting of the basic French legend, right down to the details, without any major changes. Nice, but not exceptional.
Romantic fantasy anthology with four unconnected stories.
The first story, by McKillip is only barely either fantasy or romance, it reads more like a fable and is nice but not memorable. The second story is A Tale of Two Swords by Lynn Kurland. If you are a fan of her Nine Kingdoms series, you'll want to get this book for this story alone. It is a prequel to the series and a fine addition. Shinn's story Fallen Angel is set in a world I am unfamiliar with but is apparently part of a series. It is an interesting introduction for me and I would read more. The final story by Delacroix was a poor way to end, a retelling of Melusine, it is not a happy tale.
It's rare to find an anthology without a bad or at least mediocre story, and this one is a great collection. Patricia McKillip's Gorgon in the Cupboard was amusing but also touching, about an artist looking for his muse. Lynn Kurland's Tale of the Two Swords was my favorite, about a feisty magical heroine who runs away when her father betroths her to a cruel older man, and unknowingly meets the son of the king. Sharon Shinn's Fallen Angel is as good as all her Samaria tales, with a nice little twist in the end; and Claire Delacroix's An Elegy for Melusine, about a half-fey who wagers with a human and gets more than she bargains for, turns out to be surprisingly poignant.
These are good stories by talented writers, but the McKillip tale didn't feel as magical as most of her novels have felt to me. They're all definitely worth a read, but I don't feel the need to keep it for repeated readings.