I love these anthologies as they give us all a chance to sample new authors without making the investment in either the money or time in buying and reading their novels. The novellas are the best, they give the authors the chance to write not at novel length so that they can explore their worlds, but they won't have the space to jam in a lot of filler. It's a case of fight or fall as far as storytelling goes. Or, we can see just how good our favorite authors are at the shorter-than-novel length.
The first novella in "Huntress" is 'Devil's Bargain' by Christine Warren and is an old-fashioned yarn that, except for the hot sex, could easily have appeared in the old pulp magazine "Unknown/Unknown Worlds" during the forties, which specialized, in such modern updates of classic fantasy themes. Here hottie supernatural retrieval artist Lillith "Lilli" Corbin is hired by the demon Samuel to retrieve a stolen book, and in doing so, she will complete her contract with him, something she desperately wants to do. Things are never as easy as they seem to be. As Lilli is searching Alistair Carruthers' house looking for Samuel's grimoire, she meets Alistair's nephew Aaron Bullard. Mistaking her for a burglar, which she is, they get into a tussle over the book, kick the stuffing out of each other with Aaron coming out on . . . ah . . . on top. It's only after they swap stories, amongst other things, do they realize that they have got a tiger by the tail, as Samuel wants the book for an apocalypse. You know, demons eating people, dogs living with cats, conservative talk show hosts saying nice things about Democrats, "Lost" will actually start making sense, and the world will end. So in between being distracted by each other's tight pants (yes really) they have to figure out how to complete Corbin's contract, keep the book out of Samuel's grasp, stop the apocalypse, and stay alive long enough to make like rabbits in heat. This is a good, light entertaining puzzle fantasy in which the two leads are BOTH intelligent, competent, and knowledgeable about their chosen specialties. The humor that infuses this story is evident from the snippy first sentence which I'm using for the title this review.
Marjorie M. Liu just seems to be getting better and better. Having created two major series, and having contributed to two others, Liu seems to wander merrily in and out of various genres determined to make her fans work hard to just keep up with her. 'The Robber Bride' stretches the boundaries of the romance-adventure genre by giving us a bleak, post-apocalypse world in which a bunch of mysterious bikers are raiding the few surviving settlements. Maggie is a young woman who is way more than what she thinks that she is, as she also has the ability to see flashes of the future. She also runs a junkyard and she helps a mysterious biker who takes her dignity and leaves her literally in the dust, while promising to come back for her. After this encounter, she acquires a crow as a familiar who seems to be bound and determined to help her. Then the bikers return, some village women are kidnapped, and her friend has disappeared, and in true Joseph Campbellian manner Maggie begins her journey to find who and what she really is. Liu's training as a lawyer does her well, as her story stays on track, with no wandering filler, and with prose that is concise and to the point, not given to being overly descriptive. Liu's story will give literary purists hives as she creatively mixes the science fiction, fantasy, romance, adventure, coming of age, and biker (!) genres into one great dark fantasy that others would have turned into a massive trilogy instead of a mere novella. `The Robber Bride' should reach a greater audience that it probably ever will.
If Liu's fantasy was dark, but with an underlying streak of hope, then Caitlin Kittredge's wonderfully titled 'Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go' is almost positively black. This is the story of struggling punk rocker, mage, and new series character Jack Winter, who is contracted by the Goth Ava who wants Jack to do a job for her. He doesn't want to, she insists, he still doesn't want to, she insists even more, yes THAT way, he agrees, against his better judgment and against his will, and so starts this gritty and bleak tale about a quest in the seamy, dark underside of Edinburgh. Yeah, really.
While Warren's story is amiable, light, and fun, Kittredge's story is dark and nasty, and told in a typically cynical, and nihilistically noirish way. Jack will find things that will strain his abilities to survive, to succeed, and he will find new allies, be betrayed, and Kittredge will truly stretch the definition of what a "romantic-adventure" is. I suspect that those that liked the comfortable feel of Warren's story may be disturbed, or offended by the continued proclivity of this anthology's to continue down the path into darker and bleaker themes and tones until we end up with Kittredge's story ending up having more horror than romance, with even the romance elements being dodgy at best. But, for those who are willing to open themselves to supernatural noir, then they may very well find this, like Liu's to be one of the year's best fantasies.
The last story is a story in Jenna Maclaine's Cin Craven. Having never read one of Maclaine's novels I don't know where this story fits into Craven's mythology, but I know that the story pretty much stands on it's own, at least when I read it, and I was able to enjoy it on it's own merit without having read any previous stories in this series.
'Sin Slayer' starts out with Cin Craven being interrupted at an opera and being informed that she is being summoned to London from Paris. The reason is that somebody is killing vampires and her expertise is needed. Like Warren's story, this is a light adventure involving a strong female character in an action driven story. This is a historical that involves long simmering hatred and vengeance, demons, and the supernatural. The love and dedication that exists between Cin and her husband is great, there is no quest between the two to prove their love, by the time that 'Sin Slayer' takes place that love is already a given. And in a reversal of the old pulp tradition, Maclaine has the woman end up saving the man. Maclaine also takes the time to have all of the supporting characters strut across the stage, gives us a suitably bad (Boo! Hiss!) villain, a nasty killer, a smart and dependable (Yay!) protagonist, and a hell of a slam-bang climax. Good stuff.
"Huntress" is a major anthology in that it is not a strictly "romantic" anthology involving the paranormal, as the definition of what romance is stretched to here almost the breaking point. The Kittredge and Liu stories really go far beyond the sex and supernatural clichés that seem to populate most of these anthologies. Both of these stories are more dark fantasy than paranormal romances and will have a wider appeal to more people than those that this anthology is marketed to. And each of the stories here has their own tones. Warren's is a traditional modern paranormal romance adventure, Liu's is a post-apocalypse quest story, Kittredge is the anthology's horror story, and Maclaine's story is a historical superhero story.
I can't really grade the stories in this anthology as I think all four stories deserve five stars, and all are good professional entertainments that will encourage me to read more of their works.
And one last thing. Aren't we all getting tired of these anthologies being anonymously edited? I for one would like to know the editor's name. Is the editor ashamed of their work here? C'mon, sign your work, give us a name, and let us know who you are.