Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Songs of Love and Death

Songs of Love and Death cover
Title: Songs of Love and Death
Editors: George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

There are some big names in this anthology: Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, Jacqueline Carey, Peter S. Beagle, Diana Gabaldon....  I've wanted this book since it was first announced because it has shorts by four of the authors I follow religiously.  That number is almost unprecedented for me; most anthologies I pick up have one author I love and perhaps two or three more that I like.  So if you're not someone who normally likes anthologies, you may find yourself liking this one anyway.

I caught myself referring to the book as "Songs of Love and Loss".  It's something my subconscious picked up on before my conscious did: not all of the stories deal with death, but all of them have some form of tangible sacrifice.  Some of the characters learn to compensate or decide love is worth the price and their stories ended happily ever after.  For others, the loss cut more dearly and there was bitter mixed in with the sweet.  And for some of these lovers, their stars never uncrossed at all.


"Love Hurts" by Jim Butcher - A. This short from The Dresden Files takes place between Turn Coat and Changes.  Wizard private investigator Harry Dresden and his police friend Karrin Murphy investigate a series of sick love spells that drive the victims mad with desperate, perverted passion. Their research seems to lead them to the culprit immediately but they soon realize their partnership may make them vulnerable.  I liked this story; it's a short, self-contained case. I don't think those new to the series will have any trouble following along.  Harry is his usual wisecracking self while Murphy is her normal kickass self.  The sexual tension between them is cruelly played with.  Harry isn't above teasing her, but this comes back to bite him in the end.  The ending sets the tone for the anthology, a bittersweet mixture of love and loss.

"The Marrying Maid" by Jo Beverly - D.  Robert Loxsleigh must marry before his twenty-fifth birthday or an ancestral faery curse will kill him and every member of his extended family.  Unfortunately, his destined bride, Martha Darby, is the virtuous daughter of a minister and does not believe in heresies such as faeries. I'm not a fan of soulmate stories when the characters are obviously incompatible. I didn't like Robert either; he spent more time winning Martha's mother over than he did her. Martha's decision at the end was abrupt and unsupported. Actually it was anti-supported by everything she'd stood for up until then.  It's not enough to have conflict, you also need a satisfying resolution to the conflict.  While I found the short's conflict vaguely interesting, the story did it no justice.

"Rooftops" by Carrie Vaughn - A.  When playwright Charlotte is rescued by a masked, brown-eyed superhero, she can't stop thinking about him or wondering why her brown-eyed boyfriend, assistant district attorney Dorian, is always working late into the night.  This story explores the differences between expectations, dreams and goals.  Charlotte's near-death experience and heroic rescue makes her reconsider what she wants out of life and her lover.  She's always thought Dorian was heroic for helping to put bad guys in prison, but after her brush with the superheroic she finds herself discontented with her old life and wondering more and more about what else there is.  Her changed attitude, shown in the difference between her first play and her second, sums up the theme of the short perfectly.

"Hurt Me" by M. L. N. Hanover - A.  When Corrie buys a house, her neighbors warn her that it is haunted and her mother begs her to reconsider living there.  But Corrie has scars of her own and demons she needs to confront.  This story took my breath away.  It's a ghost story in the best traditions of the genre with a modern twist.  The demonic poltergeist has its roots in a case of domestic abuse that left the husband vanished, the wife in an insane asylum and the house possessed by a spirit that hates women.  Corrie is a compelling character with whom I identified strongly.  Her need to prove herself, to overcome her fear by plunging straight into the fire, burned on the pages.  The resolution of the conflict and the revelation of the mystery both satisfied me deeply.  This is probably the best story in the anthology.

"Demon Lover" by Cecelia Holland - B.  Fioretta was beautiful before the fire scarred and maimed her.  Now she knows she's reached rock bottom when the local ne'er-do-well orders her to marry him.  She flees her village and stumbles into a magical castle where her beauty and health are restored and her worldly troubles cease.  But what price will she pay for her new happiness?  Fioretta's character is compelling, a crippled woman chasing the dreams of her girlhood, and the castle is creepy, with walls that weep if you look too closely.  But the story was a little disjointed because to my mind, especially after a reread, Fioretta's sin is pride.  She's too proud to accept pity from her neighbors and wants her glory days, once taken for granted, back so badly she's willing to sell her future for it.  However, the solution to the conflict comes from her strengths, her cleverness and bravery, and I wasn't quite sure she'd overcome her fatal flaw by the end.  I enjoyed the story though and bonus points for having a peasant girl who can't read (historical accuracy!).

"The Wayfarer's Advice" by Melinda M. Snodgrass - B.  Tracy is a tailor's son, once a soldier in the army, now captain of a trading spaceship.  Mercedes is the emperor's daughter, as high above him as one can get, and duty-bound to execute her orders of cultural extinction.  In this universe, humans started conquering other alien species as soon as they arrived on the scene, which is a change from most sci-fi settings which assume that the latecoming humans will have inferior technology.  But this isn't portrayed as a positive thing, since the aliens work with each other peacefully and see humans as bloodthirsty conquistadors.  Even other humans hate the warmongering League which denies them the chance to live peacefully alone and forcibly assimilates them into its empire.  So the conflict in this short is twofold: the class conflict that prevents the Crown Princess from marrying a man from the middle class, and the tensions of Tracy's alien crew who have little love for their violent enslavers.  While this was a good story, I was more interested in the setting than the characters or the romance and I'd love to read more in this universe.

"Blue Boots" by Robin Hobb - C. Timbal is an orphaned kitchen maid, known for the blue boots her father gave her just before his death.  She has the poor judgment to fall in love with Azen, her lady's favorite minstrel, and realizes too late that the games played with words and loyalties are far above her head.  I liked the first half of this story very much, as Timbal falls in love, is courted and then abandoned.  The second half veered to the dramatic, as Timbal curses her naivete, angsts over her love and virginity, and curses her lack of foresight again.  The ending takes the plunge straight into the melodramatic with two different plot points I think the story would have been stronger without.  But overall, it was a decent short and I wouldn't mind reading more from this author.

"The Thing About Cassandra" by Neil Gaiman - B.  Stuart's old girlfriend Cassandra has resurfaced in his life, appearing on Facebook and bumping into his mother at the store.  The thing is, he made her up when he was fifteen and she was never real.  I found the concept of this story intriguing.  What if a typical "Canadian girlfriend" ("No really, she lives in Canada!  That's why you've never met her!") became real somehow?  Would you be caught in a lie or would she be your dreams come true?  There were even some hints throughout the story that she might have been real from the beginning.  Stuart based her off a photograph blown to him by the wind: coincidence or fate?  But as much I enjoyed the first 90% of the story, the ending...I don't want to say ruined it for me.  It confused me.  I re-read the last two pages thrice and I still don't understand what happened.  I get the basic premise of the twist, but what it's supposed to mean and how it works...?  I'm lost.

"After the Blood" by Marjorie M. Liu - B.  When technology fails, the Amish way suddenly flourishes as people relearn subsistence farming.  But their pacifist principles are put to the test by the monsters that come out of the forest at night to prey upon the living.  A sense of mystery fills this story, bordering on confusion but no less interesting for it.  Amanda, the main protagonist, has to feel her way through this world in the dark, by faith and instinct.  While I didn't understand everything going on between Amanda and Henry, I caught enough of the gist to follow along.  The two of them are bound by painful secrets they have to confront to protect his family.  One of those secrets made perfect sense, even if I would have liked some more development,  The other didn't make sense but after a reread I'm not sure it was supposed to.  While the plot was interesting, the execution was lacking.  The explanations tended to muddy the waters rather than clarify them.  I'd like to read the next draft of this same story, because I think the glimmers in that mud may be diamonds.

"You, and You Alone" by Jacqueline Carey - C.  As Anafiel Delaunay lays dying, he reflects on the events that brought him here.  It all started when he was sent to negotiate a marriage treaty and instead fell in love with his sister's bridegroom himself.  This short is set in the author's Kushiel series and appears to be the backstory of one of her characters.  I think it would be better as a supplement than it is as a stand-alone; key moments in Anafiel's life are compressed or summarized and a character introduced near the end has a huge effect.  For the first ten pages, I thought Anafiel was Edmee's father, not her foster brother.  The focus is on the romance, but after the first half I found that lacking as well.  It's as if the author was excited to share the story of how they met and fell in love but when it came time to tell the rest, she grew bored repeating herself.

"His Wolf" by Lisa Tuttle - F.  When English teacher Katherine meets a pet wolf running loose on her school campus, she feels strangely drawn to him and his master, Cody.  But their whirlwind romance is threatened by human forces.  I did not find anything likable about this short.  The three of them feel an immediate, inexplicable attraction to each other, defying the laws of science and romance.  There's no character development: I never get a sense of who Katherine is beyond "silly twit who becomes infatuated with a stranger", Cody outright contradicts his characterization for the love of a woman he's known 24 hours...yeah, right, and Lobo's personality just didn't make sense.  Dogs have been bred for millennia to coexist with humans.  Wild animals without that breeding, no matter how well cared for, never lose their wild instincts.  Lobo's ability to live in human society without attacking anyone or going insane can only be a symptom of his magical specialness.  Also, in some ways the romance goes three ways (though never the sex) and that's too close to bestiality for my tastes.

"Courting Trouble" by Linnea Sinclair - A.  Captain Serenity Beck's ship has been impounded illegally and her only hope of getting it back rests with Nicandro Talligar, the man who betrayed her years ago.  This is a very typical Linnea Sinclair story; if you are a fan of hers, you will love this story and recognize her favorite tropes.  Unrequited love - check.  The evil ex-lover working behind the scenes - check.  Hero who upholds the law and heroine who undermines it - check and check.  Even the scene where she confronts him on the ramp with a laser rifle is a callback to Finders Keepers.  But despite the formulaic nature of the story, I loved this short.  Probably because I love the formula in the first place.  Ms. Sinclair does a lot of things right in my humble, feminist opinion.  Even though Serri is dependent on Nic to rescue her ship (her home and her means of livelihood), she's not a damsel in distress.  Far from it.  She's a woman with a laser rifle and a lockpick kit who happens to be in unfamiliar territory, is all.  Nic's character is less developed than hers, but still appealing.  I believed that he had learned from his past mistakes and could move on from them a wiser man by the end of the short.

"The Demon Dancer" by Mary Jo Putney - C. A short story from her Guardian series. David is a Guardian, which isn't fully explained but is apparently a race of magical people (I kept confusing them with Meljean Brook's Guardians...superficial similarities, but very different).  He's in love with Lady Bethany, an elderly Guardian forty years his senior.  When a succubus starts killing homeless men, they work together to track her down and vanquish her.  My main impression is that the ending feels entirely contrived.  It was very Hollywood and did not seem genuine at all.  And it irritated me when David hastened to reassure someone that he respected and admired Lady Beth, he certainly didn't lust after her because she was old and that was gross.  Old people have sex lives too, and just because you personally aren't attracted to someone is no reason to imply that she is unattractive.  On the other hand, I loved Lady Beth, who fought in World War II and hasn't slowed down much.  There weren't any major flaws with the story (besides the Hollywood ending) which hung together and flowed well enough.  But there weren't any major strengths either.

"Under/Above the Water" by Tanith Lee - A.  A love story in six characters.  There's Zaeli and Angelo, living in a near future type world.  Zaeli has fallen hard for Angelo, who will never requite her love now that he has committed suicide.  There's Amba and Zehrendir, in a past city of kings and palaces and courtyard gardens that feels like a B.C.E. Mediterranean culture.  Except Amba has fallen in love with Zeh's brother and eloped with him.  And then there are the fisher and the fortuneteller, who never meet but are integral to the winding love story.  This is an interesting take on the soulmates trope.  I've often wondered, in those happyhappyperfect worlds where the protagonist finds their Destined True Love, what happens to all those people who miss the connection?  This is slow to start and at first it's hard to see how the disparate plotlines connect.  But like a Mobius strip, it twists and suddenly you realize that what looks like it has two sides only has one after all.  I also liked the significance of the names in the story, as each pair has one A name and one Z name - one beginning and one end.

"Kaskia" by Peter S. Beagle - A.  Martin is a balding, forty-one-year-old grocery store manager whose marriage has long ago settled into a convenient roommates relationship.  His new computer, of unknown origin and complex design, connects him to an inhumanly beautiful woman from someplace far away and he finds himself growing more distant to the "real" world.  These lovers are quite literally star-crossed, as Kaskia lives in another galaxy.  The ending was completely unexpected and yet made perfect sense in the context of the story and of our modern times.  Also notable is that this short has the sort of opening I normally despise, a list of his daily habits, and yet it worked for me anyway.  Perhaps because Martin's dull routine sets the stage for Kaskia's exotic appeal, or perhaps because the language of the storytelling was so beautiful and precise.

"Man in the Mirror" by Yasmine Galenorn - C.  Galen's spirit has been trapped in the mirrors at his cousin Jason's house for years.  When Laurel, Jason's widow, moves into the house, Galen knows that she can free him.  However, her cat, Circe, is determined to stop him.  I didn't like much of this story.  Laurel over-thought all of her past trauma, hashing and rehashing it at every opportunity.  By the time she actually spelled out what had happened to her, I was impatient because I had already figured all of it out through the broad, anvil-shaped hints she'd been dropping.  Galen's mother was apparently intended to be the wise mentor figure but instead she came off as a nosy creeper.  The clumsiness of this short is highlighted compared to an earlier short that had a similar theme but pulled it off much better.  However, the short managed to redeem itself up to an average grade because of the ending.  It was not what I expected and it made the whole story much stronger.

"A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows" by Diana Gabaldon - C.  Set in the Outlander series during World War II, this short tells the tale of Jerry, a fighter pilot lost in time, and his wife Marjorie who refuses to accept his death.  I didn't like this short very much but I wonder how much of that would change if I read more in the series.  The author's note at the end seems to indicate so.  While I was able to follow most of the story, there were two elements near the end that completely lost me and indeed, felt as if they had been introduced merely to add drama to a story that was doing perfectly well without it.  The building blocks of the story were mismatched; much time and attention were spent on a plane which crashed on its first flight.  However, despite these flaws, the storytelling was masterful.  I was drawn into the world and the characters.  The characterization was vivid and I could really feel each lover's passion for each other even when they were apart.

4 comments:

  1. If you liked the M.L.N Hanover short, have you read any of the Daughter of the Black Sun novels? (Or any of his other novels, not under that pen name?)He doesn't follow the normal UF tropes but I find the premise to be engaging and fun to read.

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  2. I am meaning to look him up and read more of his work. That short was pitch perfect. I should start with Daughter of the Black Sun, you say?

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  3. He also writes under his name, Daniel Abraham, but I first found his books under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover. The series is called Daughter of the Black Sun...but the first book starts with Unclean Spirits.

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  4. Thanks for the recommendation and the explanation. He's on my list for the future =)

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