From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith & Lace and Blade, ed. Deborah Ross

The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith
Earthling Publications (224p) $30

Michael Marshall Smith’s The Servants is a gentle, moving story about as far removed as one can get from the action-packed, hard-hitting thrillers he writes as Michael Marshall. It is a charming reminder just how good — and versatile — a writer he is. Eleven-year-old Mark sees the world as most children do: from a self-centric perspective that often excludes what the adults around him know as reality. Plus, Mark’s world has become particularly unreliable. His mother has re-married and moved with him from London to Brighton where his new stepfather has bought a Regency townhouse in the Brunswick area. His mother is ill, he resents his stepfather, David, it’s winter and the seaside tourist town is somewhat bleak, he knows no one, he is not attending school (a point the reader wonders about a bit), and has nothing better to do than spend his days hurting himself trying to master a skateboard. He meets an ancient lady who lives in the basement apartment of David’s house who shows him the old servants “downstairs” domain from the days when such a house ran as smoothly as clockwork powered by the “machine” of a staff that knew their duties and kept to their places. Sneaking back on his own, he sees the servants and, even more imponderably, they see him. (Smith conveys Mark’s initial fear with heart-thumping effectiveness.) His visits downstairs reveal that something is very wrong there, just as wrong as the situation upstairs where his mother is getting sicker and no one gives him enough answers. Mark is, like all heroes, eventually called upon to act and everything hangs on his ability to understand what must be done and do it. Despite the youth of the protagonist and a message about communicating with children, this is a tale mostly for adults, a wonderful reminder that, like the downstairs of this house, there’s a part of us and our world out front that everyone knows…and then there’s a door.—ISBN 978-0-9795054-0-9—Paula Guran

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Lace and Blade, edited by Deborah J. Ross
Leda (307p) $11.95

“Lace and Blade” is a term coined by Norilana publisher Vera Nazarian, for a sort of romantic subset of sword and sorcery: stories where the duels are as likely to be with wits as swords, and where women are as likely as men to wield swords (not to mention wits!). And here is a book composed entirely of such stories, stories resembling older novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel – or newer novels like Swordspoint. Lace and Blade delivers exactly what it promises; almost every story satisfies, with plenty of color and passion and wit and magic.

A particular highlight is Sherwood Smith’s novella “The Rule of Engagement,” in which a woman is kidnapped by a man who hopes to marry her, and must find a way to engineer her escape without causing political issues, or harm to the man’s retainers. The story is satisfying in its scope, and hints at a fascinating backstory…all part of a grand fantastical history that Smith has been elaborating since childhood, and which is the source of her excellent Inda novels for DAW.

Tanith Lee’s “Lace-Maker, Blade-Taker, Grave-Breaker, Priest” is also great fun — on a ship journey, a couple of swordsmen take a sudden inexplicable dislike to each other, to the point of proposing a duel. But a shipwreck intervenes, and the real story is eventually made clear on the (mostly swordless) island at which they end up. Most readers will see quickly the shape of the story, and the twist, but it remains a delight getting there.

Two stories very nicely use Spanish settings. Robin Wayne Bailey’s “Touch of Moonlight” has a Lady encountering an outlaw – rumored to actually be a ghost – while on a journey to ransom her younger brother. By the end, supernatural beings have been encountered – as well as, of course, more naturally beastly humans. In Mary Rosenblum’s “Night Wind,” a young man is being pushed to a marriage he fears will be loveless, in order to save his family’s fading fortunes. But the mysterious rider called the Night Wind may change his ideas…again, the reader will recognize immediately what’s going on, but the story still satisfies.

Dave Smeds, in “The Beheaded Queen,” features the most interesting main character, as indicated by the title. And her fate is treated uncompromisingly – her interest is seeing to the future of her son. Madeleine E. Robins’s “Virtue and the Archangel” reminded me just a bit of her wonderful Sarah Tolerance novels (how I wish a publisher would pick them up so she could write more), in telling of a woman led by circumstance to a not very respectable job as a private investigator – here she helps an old school friend to recover a lost jewel.

The other stories come from Diana L. Paxson – an effective tale set in Brazil; Chaz Brenchley – sort of a pendant to his novel Bridge of Dreams, involving enough but perhaps just a bit too much a side trip and not its own journey; and Catherine Asaro, whose story was the only one here to really disappoint me.—ISBN (978-1-934169-91-9)Rich Horton

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