This collection of thirteen (mostly) fantasy short stories and a novelette or two is tied together by their ballroom settings, whether it be the Almack’s Regency ballroom (where a group of young ladies happens upon an overly potent magical love potion in Marissa Doyle’s “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s”) or a Civil War-era ball in Galveston, Texas (P.G. Nagle’s “A Waltz for May”). There are also some other themes that surface and resurface: masks and hidden identities, romance, and ― as editor and author Sherwood Smith freely admits in her foreword ― escapist wish-fulfillment. Here be faeries, vampires, thieves, pirates and lots of other intriguing characters. “I did not want disasters, dystopia, or downers,” Smith explains. “The news provides plenty of all three. I wanted stories that readers could enjoy right before turning out the light, or on the commute, or as a substitute for the endless yammer of the media.” This collection fulfills that goal nicely.
The women who authored these thirteen stories are a varied group. Some, like Smith, Brenda W. Clough and Marie Brennan, are fairly well-known fantasy authors and previous nominees for various awards; the rest were unfamiliar to me. Though the collection is a bit uneven, with a few stories reading more like incomplete scenes taken from a longer work, there are some standout stories, and overall the collection was worthwhile reading. Some of the more memorable stories include:
“The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan is a charming, fast-paced criminal heist tale set in a steampunk fantasy world. The notorious master criminal Laperi has thrown down a challenge to Codruţ, the wealthy, overbearing brother of the narrator’s close friend Oana, by sending him a note that Laperi is going to steal the famed Şiret Mask from Codruţ before the end of the Festival of Changes. Codruţ predictably refuses to lock away the mask, but does surround it with dozens of guards. I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game Laperi plays with Codruţ and others, as well the irony that the mask is, really, highly ordinary. Only its notoriety gives it value … but that’s enough for Laperi. “The Şiret Mask” was previously reviewed by Bill Capossere in our November 27, 2017 SHORTS column.
In Charlotte Gumanaam’s “Kerygma in Waltz Time,” a job-hunting woman with a not-so-useful English degree joins a group of job candidates who are presented with an unusual task: organize a ballroom full of random books in whatever way they think is most appropriate. The payoff when they finish their lists was unexpected! The narrator’s off-the-cuff literary discussion with one of the other women candidates made me laugh out loud, especially when they critique authors like Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy … and Barbara Cartland:
“The ellipses! The untrammeled hearts, and the big eyes! And the heroines with last names that all sounded like Waif!”
Jen shakes all over as she chuckles. “And all the dukes seem to be named Blayse Ravensomething, who manages to get on a first name basis with the winsome young governess within a day. Cartland’s stuff is like a paper that’s been recopied so many times it becomes a distorted blur. The reader has to do all the work. All the author provided was bog-standard tropes, glued together by ellipses.”
“The Gown of Harmonies” by Francesca Forrest has a blind seamstress for its heroine. Grazia determines to sew a gown for Princess Marguerite for the Midsummer Ball that will weave music into its very fabric. It’s a major challenge for Grazia, made more difficult by the fact that her employer has expressly forbidden such side projects … not to mention meetings with admirers, which also becomes an issue for Grazia. And then the fairies get involved …
Lynne April Brown’s “The Dress” has an unusual take on the Cinderella legend that I really appreciated. It’s extremely short ― just two pages ― but memorable. I only wish Brown had written a more extended, in-depth version of this story.
The final story in the collection is Sherwood Smith’s “Lily and Crown,” set in her Sartorias-deles fantasy world (where the INDA series and Crown Duel are set, among other books). “Lily and Crown” takes place in the county of Colend, one of the less familiar countries in that world. A masquerade ball in Colend one night changes the course of history not only for Colend, but for two other countries as well. If you like your fantasies with a large dose of political scheming and intrigues, this story will fit the bill. It’s intelligently written and satisfyingly complex.