"The Hero and the Princess" by Sherwood Smith
"Accident of Birth" by Stephanie Burgis
"Four Clowns of the Apocalypse" by Jay Lake
The setting in Sherwood Smith‘s solid "The Hero and the Princess" felt like a comfortable slipper: a young hero, an inn with rowdy drunks, and a stranger with a past. The story wasn’t as predictable, with almost no action whatsoever despite the early mentioned large sword.
It is told from the viewpoint of Tam, a youth newly free of his father’s carpentry shop who dreams of a hero’s life. For his first quest on the path to fame he intends to battle an unnamed village’s troublesome troll. In the manner of all impetuous youths with dreams of celebrity, he hasn’t given much thought to the reality and cynicism of the world or of innkeepers unwilling to give food and bed on credit to an unknown. It’s this first setback which lands him at a table with the friendly Nelath and her young children, and which introduces the theme.
The dreams of youth confronting their likely outcome is nothing new and "The Hero and the Princess" has little fresh to say on the matter, but it’s worth reading in the current climate for the reminder of the price one can pay for the glory of battle.
Stephanie Burgis‘s slight tale of two sisters in "Accident of Birth" suffers from easy stereotypes. Martha (bitter and opinionated) and Eliza (pretty and shallow) have been sent to stay with their aunt in a cottage on Lake Superior for the sole purpose of finding a suitor on the party circuit. Their parents (superficial and materialistic) expect this will be easy in Eliza’s case, but only achievable through the lure of family money in Martha’s. Cue the arrival of Septimus O’Callaghan (charming and unbelievable handsome) and his mysterious, nameless friend (neither charming nor handsome) which forces Martha to question her assumptions about herself.
There is one moment of descriptive magic as O’Callaghan throws a rose, but it is lost in a sea of mediocrity. The story flounders somewhere timeless where women speak and entertain like Jane Austen heroines, but live in a world where electric lights in sconces watch the proceedings. If you prefer your fantasy light and breezy this will appeal, but it doesn’t linger.
There was a study in the news recently about the differences between male and female humour and I suspect that’s where Jay Lake‘s "Four Clowns of the Apocalypse" falls down for me. As the slapstick got underway I was left feeling that I should be finding it funny. Or perhaps I have it wrong and Lake is cleverly twisting perceptions of reality to make a point.
Despite this, the story was a moderately entertaining crime romp which sees Bubbles, Iggy, Mundo, and Jojo investigating the murder of mime, Emmaus, in a post-Rapture world where the big guns in Hell have moved to New Jersey. As necessary in all good mysteries it has a satisfying twist at the end and I would be curious to read more of their adventures.