From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Sharon Shinn, Rebecca York, Carol Berg, and Jean Johnson; Charlie Huston

ELEMENTAL MAGIC by Sharon Shinn, Rebecca York, Carol Berg, and Jean JohnsonBerkley (378 pages) $15

In recent years the romance subgenre of paranormal romance — romance stories with a fantastical or science-fictional element — has soared in popularity. The interest of these stories to sf/f readers varies. For me, an intriguing and convincing “paranormal” element is key. I’m looking more for a good sf/fantasy story than for a good romance story — which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the occasional romance novel. Like many sf readers, I greatly enjoy the works of Georgette Heyer and I also enjoy such more recent romance writers like Jennifer Crusie and Jo Beverly (who actually was a winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest).One of the common publishing formats in the romance category is the original anthology of novellas. (This was once common in sf/f, too, particularly in the 1970s. But, alas, it has become rare in our category.)

Recent years have seen quite a few such collections of sf/fantasy romance stories, notably Irresistible Forces (which featured Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, and Jo Beverly among others) and To Weave a Web of Magic (which featured an outstanding Patricia A. McKillip piece). Elemental Magic is the latest I’ve seen.

The four stories, all on the order of 25,000 words, share one weakness: they are too short. It is, I think, difficult to both present a consistent and convincing fantastical world and present a nicely paced, carefully developed, romance in that space. The better two stories solve that problem to some extent by stinting (a bit) on the romantic element.

In particular, Carol Berg’s “Unmasking” only hints at what might be a romantic relationship developing after the close of the story. The story is set in a world Berg has used for several novels. The insular country Ezzaria is home to a variety of magically gifted people, who battle demons called “rai-kirah”. Their society seems strictly hierarchical, with the most magically gifted on top and, at the bottom, the ungifted pitiable (and despised, it seems) menial laborers who are not even allowed to create permanent structures. Joelle is a highly gifted student who has, as yet, failed to complete her studies — apparently due to a lack of confidence. After she stumbles across a man in a sacred pool, who may be a spy from the dangerous warlike Derzhi, she is recruited to use an ungifted farmer in a scheme to convince the Derzhi spy that the rumors of Ezzarian powers are greatly exaggerated. This leads her to close involvement with the farmer, and thus to some understanding (not enough, in my view) that she (and the rest of her society) has rather undervalued these people.

The best story here, Sharon Shinn’s “Bargain With the Wind”, succeeds in part by originality of plot — its resolution is not at all what is normally expected for a romance story. It’s set in what seems a version of nineteenth century England, except with real elemental magic powers. It is told by a servant — the housekeeper of an ancient country estate. Her new master, who inherited unexpectedly, falls for a mysterious woman, Lady Charis, and they quickly marry. But all along we are given hints that Lady Charis is not what she seems – and we are told how dangerous it is to bargain with wind spirits — surely she has something to do with the wind, and indeed she seems changeable as the wind: sometimes devoted to her husband, at other times flirting scandalously with a young visitor; sometimes engaging to the local people, other times picking fights with influential neighbors. There is a reason for all this, and Shinn lets us figure it out as things go along – and then she resolves it all in a quite affecting and honest fashion.

The other two stories don’t work as well. Jean Johnson’s “Birthright” probably has the most interesting and best developed romance: between Arasa, the twin daughter of the King of the Flame Sea area, and Elrik (an unfortunate choice of name, I thought), a mage from another country. The basic story concerns Arasa’s search for a means to decide whether she or her beautiful sister is the true heir to their kingdom. It’s not bad stuff, but just a bit sketchy. Rebecca York’s “Huntress Moon” is the only science fiction story of the bunch, set in a post-holocaust sort of society — the holocaust being caused by the sudden onset of psychic powers. The true nature of this world is revealed as part of the plot and it’s fairly interesting, but the revelation comes too abruptly. The same can be said of the romance between Zarah, an aristocrat sold into slavery by the corrupt leader of her city-state, and Griffin, the leader of a rival city-state who ends up buying her. Zarah is supposed to spy on Griffin for her own city, but of course she learns to love him instead. All this could work, but it just happens too fast — this is a novella that probably needed to be a full novel. (ISBN: 978-0-425-21786-3) — Rich Horton

* * *

Del Rey (240 pages) $13.95

Charlie Huston’s third pulp-noir-socio-political-metaphysical-spiritual-vampire-hard-boiled-detective-kickass novel begins about as bleakly and bloodily as even the most severely depressed could possibly imagine. His job as Security for the Society Clan necessitates some gory assassinations and his beloved Evie is in the last grim days of AIDS. There’s also the mysterious slaying of a human blood supplier, the Candy Man. He’s viciously murdered in a manner that indicates a “Van Helsing” (slang for a dedicated vamp killer) is responsible but, strangely, the Candy Man was not a vampyre.

If you’ve yet to become acquainted with Huston’s world, you’d probably do best to start with Already Dead then go on to No Dominion before reading Half the Blood. The basic idea: “vampyrism” is the result of “the Vyrus” and 40,000 vamps live in New York City. Manhattan has been divided by Clans into territories. The main players are the rich Mafia-like Coalition (14th Street north to 110th) and the social activist-types of the Society, which controls the East Side from 14th to Houston. The Hood (everything north of 110th) is controlled by black and Latino vamps. There are other smaller bands, too, and various alignments. Protagonist Joe Pitt starts out as an unallied Rogue vampyre who plays “handyman” and sometime detective for both the Society and the Coalition.

But now, with the third novel, summation is no longer quite so easy. Huston has, with three relatively short novels, built a politically and spiritually complex world. Pitt is back with the Society, primarily to assure a decent blood supply for the hospitalized Evie (who is still unaware of his vampyrism) and enough stability in his life to help care for her. The mysterious and metaphysical Enclave plays a larger role. Pitt’s core moral dilemma — he could save Evie by turning her into a vampyre, but the cost of such salvation is, of course, living death and blood-dependency — has reached its climax.

Some sort of vampyre Armageddon seems to be coming and alliances are being forged. The possibility of alliance gets us off the island of Manhattan for the first time and we venture, with Pitt and Lydia Miles (über-politically correct head of the Society-camp Lesbian, Gay and Other Gendered Alliance) into the wilds of Brooklyn. The possible allies are a band of freaks — literally — who perform as Grand a Guignol as only creatures who heal almost immediately can. It turns out they have a very good reason to need a strong ally: they have enemies whose murderous hostility is based in fanatical religious belief.

Further detail might prove a spoiler. Let it suffice to say Huston deftly uses stereotype and satire to create his monsters.

Since part of Huston’s shtick is social satire (and he intentionally uses simplified and standardized concepts and images), characterization is never exactly subtle or multi-dimensional. In this novel, several characters from the earler adventures play integral roles. Without background, readers may still grasp most of what is going on, but they probably won’t understand as well or as completely as those who have read the first books.

In the end, despite devastation and loss, Joe Pitt also has garnered some hope. New complications are dawning. What appeared to be originally intended as a trilogy now seems to have an open end. If, like me, you’ve become a junkie for these books, this is good news. But I’d suggest hitting up with the first couple of doses before trying this third. (ISBN: 9780345495877) — Paula Guran

Tagged as: