Lace and Blade, by Deborah J. Ross (Norilana Books, 2008)

In Lace and Blade, editor Deborah J. Ross has brought together a number of stories which look to convey a sense of romantic fantasy, as inspired by authors like Oscar Wilde or Tanith Lee, or classic characters like Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the Three Musketeers. I’d go a step further and suggest that books like Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s Swordspoint or Madeleine Robins’ Point of Honour also help set the tone the editor was striving for here. Publisher Vera Nazarian goes into some detail about her original vision for the “lace and blade” version of fantasy, a “genre within a genre” that’s by turns genteel and elegant, polite and dangerous, with “duels of sharp wit and steel.” So how exactly does the final product compare to the lengthy and descriptive definition? Let’s see.

Madeleine Robins leads off with a charming tale, “Virtue and the Archangel.” When, after an ill-considered tryst, a young noblewoman loses a prized family necklace, she turns to Nyana meBarso, an old schoolmate turned fencing instructor … hardly the profession for wellbred young women. Nyana pursues the matter of the missing necklace with an unflappable attitude and a certain style. Robins, no stranger to this sort of setting, as seen in her noir Regencies, captures the mood and manners perfectly, and ends things with a most unpredictable moment. I’d absolutely love to see more of Nyana meBarso and her world, as Robins really has that knack for creating just the right atmosphere.

Robin Wayne Bailey goes for a more authentic historical setting with “Touch of Moonlight,” a tale which combines the dashing image of the highwayman with the feral nature of the werewolf. Lady Elena Sanchez y Vega is on her way to deliver a substantial ransom for her imprisoned brother, but a chance meeting with the legendary Ramon Estrada, a highwayman of note, leads to a new series of obstacles. But who’s robbing whom, and what will the moonlight reveal? This is an enjoyable story, with a few surprises, and some rather nice chemistry between Elena and Ramon.

Tanith Lee, one of the stated inspirations for this anthology, contributes “Lace-Maker, Blade-Taker, Grave-Breaker, Priest.” It’s a twisted, somewhat convoluted tale that starts off aboard a ship, where several of the passengers, the flamboyant Prince Mhikal Vendrei and the enigmatic soldier Zephyrin develop an almost immediate hatred of one another. Witness to their feud is Ymil, a writer. As the voyage progresses and the ship founders, the three men continue to deepen their assorted relationships to one another, until nothing short of a duel upon the beach will satisfy Prince Vendrei and Zephyrin. As their histories are revealed, the story of a woman spurned is revealed, tying them all together. But how will it all turn out? This is an interesting story, multi-layered and complex, beautifully-told with the various threads weaving around one another until all is made evident. This one may require multiple readings to properly understand.

Dave Smeds tells his story from a most unusual viewpoint, that of “The Beheaded Queen.” The titular character is something of an outsider, a permanent observer thanks to the curse that keeps her alive as nothing more than a head, the punishment for certain extramarital indiscretions. When her son becomes engaged to the princess of a neighboring kingdom, the queen is sent as part of the diplomatic mission to exchange royal “guests” (i.e. hostages) and ascertain the fitness of the princess for her son. How the queen relates to her son, her daughter, and her daughter-in-law to be, well, it speaks volumes of her inherent nobility and wisdom. This is a subtle, character-driven story that looks at the meaning of love and the need to occasionally sacrifice love for duty. It would be interesting to see how these characters develop afterwards.

In “The Topaz Desert,” Catherine Asaro partners an innocent young woman with magical powers, with a lonely, rough-hewn miner who dwells far from civilization. Opposites really do attract, as these two find salvation, comfort, and love in one another’s company, and become all the better for it. Asaro sets up an intriguing world, but only touches on a small part of it as she polishes this romance until it shines. Tanzi and Zebb makes for a rather cute couple, and Asaro applies a delicate touch with words and images to make their relationship feel real. While romantic and fantastic, this story doesn’t really seem to fit the theme quite as adeptly as some of the others do, but it’s still quite pleasant.

“Night Wind,” by Mary Rosenblum, is another story about a highwayman,and again, things are not what they seem to be. When Alvaro runs afoul of the infamous Night Wind, he discovers that the mysterious rider has a taste for justice and a knack for horses, talents which come in handy in their part of the world. However, Alvaro has more important things than a horse-stealing highwayman to think about; there’s his wife-to-be, whom he’s never met, to consider. Furthermore, Alvaro lacks the magic needed to keep his family’s lands, and the olives they cultivate, alive. Can he discover the secret of the Night Wind, and unlock his magic, in order to save his family’s livelihood? While this is a very nice tale, certain aspects of it are fairly blatantly telegraphed, and we don’t get to see nearly enough of certain pivotal characters. Nevertheless, it conveys the right feel of intrigue and adventure, very much drawing from the Zorro school of thought.

Sherwood Smith turns in what may be my second-favorite story, just behind Madeleine Robins’, in “The Rule of Engagement.” It all starts at the Blue Moon Masque, the last great social event of the summer season, when King Lexan chooses to dance with the lovely Ren, much to the dismay of the jealous Duchess Tarsa, all while the enigmatic Duke Cath Lassatar watches from afar. Before the night is out, a plan is executed, wherepon Cath kidnaps Ren for his own mysterious ends. What follows is a quiet, polite game of cat and mouse, where Ren practices a dignified, passive resistance, while Cath tries to win her over. Meanwhile, Tarsa realizes that something’s not right, even with her supposed rival out of the picture. Soon, it’s revealed that a deeper game is being played, a game of love and desire. Superbly-told, this story really exemplifies what I see as romantic fantasy, weaving together courtly manners and rules of behavior, confident people and elegant surroundings. It’s romantic without being a romance, a fantasy without too many of the more garish trappings. This is the sort of thing I’d love to see more of.

Other authors to be found in this collection include Diana L. Paxson and Chaz Brenchley. After examining this anthology, I’m happy to say that it succeeds in its mission statement, the stories tapping into the rich potential of the romantic fantasy genre, a contrast to the more brutal and straight-forward sword and sorcery to be found elsewhere. There’s a nice deal of variety, from Spanish highwaymen to courtly intrigue to unusual women, and it makes for a nice mixture of flavors. As with any anthology, not all stories will please all readers, but Lace and Blade has a lot going for it. I was quite pleasantly surprised, and hope further volumes, should any come out, will keep up the good work.

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