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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: 'Songs of Love & Death'

Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Themed anthology
November 2010
Gallery Books
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5014-6

This new cross-genre anthology purports to be an "all original" collection of tales of star-crossed lovers written by fantasy, romance, horror and crime authors. The all-original tag doesn't hold up with the first story, Jim Butcher's "Love Hurts", in which Dresden and a friend fall victim to a spell. It's the same setup seen in hundreds of TV shows in which characters flirt with, or are tricked into thinking, they are in love and go back to their old ways by story's end.

The introduction is odd as well. It's a lifeless, Wikipedia-type essay on what star-crossed means. With no signature, one can only hope it is the work of a publishing company intern and was not created by either Martin or Dozois. If it was Martin's contribution, it's the only thing he wrote for the anthology. But then things get better, even if the actual definition of "star-crossed" doesn't always apply to the stories.

Jo Beverley weds the world of Faery and Georgian splendor in "The Marrying Maid", in which legends and fables are woven into a tale of a society peacock who recognizes a grey canon's daughter as the woman he must wed. The heroine's characterization is strong, the hero's less so because he is entirely made up of his problem that he must solve. The end feels rushed, as if a word count had been reached and it had to be wrapped up posthaste. Although it's not technically a star-crossed lovers story, because Beverley remains true to her romance roots, it still works well as an example of how old folk tales can be made part of a new tapestry. It also shows how well Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell works. Cecelia Holland's "Demon Lover" is another trapped in Faery Land tale. And, again, it's not technically star-crossed. Neither is Lisa Tuttle's "His Wolf", a story about two chance meetings and a lot of wish fulfillment.

"Rooftops" is an engrossing story by Carrie Vaughn about what it takes to make a hero. A young playwright is rescued by a vigilante, a new one in a city strewn with them, while her assistant DA lover is gone night after night. There's even a link to the value of work and creativity by all three main characters, and the story inspires thoughts about what is the difference between real life and the story we make of our lives so they make sense. This is well done, not over done.

Nearly every neighborhood has one -- a house that doesn't quite match, doesn't quite fit in, there is something off about it. People don't stay there long. There is such a house in "Hurt Me", a brilliant story by paranormal author M.L.N. Hanover. That house got that way for a good reason. And now a new owner has moved in, a woman with a past searching for something. Just as with Hanover's Black Sun's Daughter novels, there is both action and deep characterization that work very well together. As with other stories, the "star-crossed lovers" trope really doesn't hold. But when the stories are as good as this one, it doesn't really matter.

Although it's set in the future in space, "The Wayfarer's Advice" by Melinda M. Snodgrass fits the theme of the anthology perfectly. Her Star Trek: The Next Generation roots serve Snodgrass well in this story of a smuggler and a lady far above his station.

The delightful Robin Hobb contributes an utterly delightful story about a nice girl and a minstrel. "Blue Boots" is charming and strict definitions of "star-crossed" be tossed. As in her novels, the interplay between a varied cast of characters animates the story, making main character's ups and downs as fortune dictates more vivid.

And then there is Neil Gaiman. Right now, an anthology is just not complete without this red-hot writer. However, with "The Thing About Cassandra", Gaiman is instead icy in his dissection of a boy who thought he had his life under control. This one has a twist. Or more than one, actually. And they're beauts. Another master is Peter S. Beagle. His "Kaskia", about connections across the cosmos, is not to be missed. What a lovely, lovely story.

Post-apocalyptic vampires reached an apex, if that's the right term, in Justin Cronin's The Passage. Marjorie M. Liu's "After the Blood" has a very similar feel, but crashes up against the boundaries of a short story. A woman copes alone, except for a multitude of cats, on a farm, protecting her land with drops of her blood on the fence. Amish neighbors exile the man she loves because he's now undead. As a setpiece to introduce a longer novel, it would work. On its own, there's too much strain showing in going for the feelings and emotions rather than presenting a new world and its inhabitants. The ending is pure setting the stage for chapter 2.

Jacqueline Carey contributes a novella based in the world of her Kushiel's Legacy series, the tragic love story of Anafiel Delaunay and Prince Rolande de la Courcel. Although there is much foreshadowing and prose that borders on being overwrought, "You, and You Alone" is a successful tale that both stands alone in relating the consequences of an oath that will not be forsaken, and as fitting into a complex fantasy series. It brings to mind the classic writing of Mary Renault.

A high-adventure caper is the basic storyline of Linnea Sinclair's "Courting Trouble". It goes on for pages and pages with one problem half solved, only for two more to pop up in this story of a freight ship captain who runs into her old friend after he doublecrossed her.

Mary Jo Putney may be better known for historical romance, but her "The Demon Dancer" is set in an urban fantasy present New York City. A heroic demon hunter and his exceptionally talented older mentor take on a succubus with results at least one of them never expected.

King Arthur lost the two people he loved best. In Tanith Lee's "Under/Above Water", she plays with time and place so lovers meet/are reunited. For other genre writers who would write lush, this is how to do it without a tinge of purple. Dimensions also separate would-be lovers in Yasmine Galenorn's "Man in the Mirror". Ignore sloppy word choice and ideas such as the one that the Seattle area has bright mornings only as often as blue moons appear, and there is a poignant act that saves the story. The anthology ends with a contribution by Diana Gabaldon.

Songs of Love & Death shows the strain of trying too hard to corral a group of barely related stories into one volume. But it likely will serve its purpose of drawing readers in who know one or two of the writers and getting them to sample the works of the others. Unless, of course, the readers are the type who read only those authors they know and ignore the rest of the book. For those readers, the quality of what the other writers produce or how well their stories fit into the theme of the anthology won't matter anyway, defeating the purpose of the book.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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