This month, I rebounded from some rant-worthy romances I can’t talk about (contest judging… do not recommend) by rereading an old favorite and breaking the glass on an expected feel-good I’ve been saving in case of emergency.
All links go to Amazon and are affiliate coded. Almost all books are available at other sellers (I’ll note when that’s not the case and chastise myself for poor shopping habits), but linking every book to every store is a lot of work to do for free, and the two other affiliate programs are a pain in the ass.
COMPLETELY by Ruthie Knox: Rosemary is 39 years old, divorced, mother of a 19-year-old daughter, and she’s trying to reclaim her own identity by climbing the seven biggest mountains in the world and writing a book about her experience. Her Everest climb is interrupted by an avalanche that requires her climbing party to be evacuated. They’re unharmed, but the base camp below is wiped out, killing 29 people, many of whom had become her friends while waiting to start her climb. She’s shell-shocked when Kal, the 32-year-old “ice doctor” who was in charge of the safety of her group and still feels responsible for her, checks up on her at the hotel to which they’ve been evacuated. In the customary “we’re lucky to be alive” fashion, they celebrate with food, wine, and sex.
Their relationship is extended because their paths have them traveling to New York together, from where Rosemary plans to fly to Wisconsin to visit her daughter. While in New York, Rosemary meets Kal’s mother, another mountain-climbing woman Rosemary would like to write about, but Mom says she’ll give Rosemary an interview only if they all take a road trip together to Wisconsin, where she also has some business, which prolongs Rosemary and Kal’s relationship even further.
There are a number of superficial obstacles to the relationship that aren’t really a problem. The 7-year age difference is noted and easily accepted. Kal’s family is middle class while Rosemary is a former baroness with gobs of money, but she’s not snobby about it and he doesn’t resent when she spends money. Her life is in England and his in New York, but they both travel, so splitting their time isn’t necessarily prohibitive. Their real barrier is that her mission at the start is climbing all these mountains, and his mission at the start basically culminates in shutting down these rich-people vanity climbs so fewer people die (particularly the impoverished workers attending to the rich people). They have to work out what they really want to do with their lives as individuals and how best to accomplish that before they can work out their future as a couple, so there’s a lot of soul-searching and self-interrogation.
Knox has a knack for writing characters who like each other. Sure, they want to bang, but they’re also playful and teasing and supportive and interested in each other’s hopes and dreams and all that crap. They have fun together, and that’s heartwarming for me to read (my heart gets to romantic love via friendship, so those are the most believable, satisfying stories to me).
She’s great at complex non-romantic relationships, too. Kal’s relationship with his mother is characterized thusly:
They were like house cats most of the time. They did their own thing, left the occasional dead bird of love on each other’s doormats.
Rosemary has difficult feelings about motherhood, and her daughter is angry with her because of the divorce and running off to climb mountains, but there’s a lot of love there. She fell out of love with her ex-husband, but he’s still there for her when she needs a place to stay in New York. At one point, she’s having an emotional crisis and doesn’t know where to turn because she’s at odds with all the obvious options, so she calls her former mother-in-law, who hopes they’ll get along much better now that an unhappy marriage isn’t casting a pall on their relationship. No relationship is all sweetness or all strife.
The story became a little less compelling toward the end. I believe the unconventional way they worked out their future is right for their happily ever after, but the emotion of the last few chapters wasn’t there for me, perhaps because too much time was devoted to wrapping up the busy-ness of other characters from other books instead of being laser-focused on Rosemary and Kal.
Because of the other-characters busy-ness, this book isn’t ideal to read solo. To set the stage completely, you’d need to read ABOUT LAST NIGHT (which isn’t even part of this trilogy), TRULY, and MADLY, probably in that order. On the bright side, none of them suck, but I fervently wish more books—even related ones—carried all of their own weight and no extraneous baggage.
TENDER REBEL by Johanna Lindsey: Roslynn Chadwick is a Scottish heiress who has fled to the home of a childhood friend in London, where she intends to buy herself a husband in order to thwart a dastardly cousin’s plan to force her into marriage to him so he can steal her money. While she’s thoroughly unromantic about this quest, she means it to be a real marriage and would prefer a husband who’s decent enough to get along with and who will give her children. Her friend shares Ros’s plight with recently married Regina, who is much more well connected through her husband and her own family and invites Ros and a batch of matrimonial prospects to a house party to get further acquainted. Also in attendance is Regina’s favorite uncle, Anthony Malory, an incorrigible rake who is sublimely uninterested in marriage but volunteers to “help” Ros with her choice because the sooner she’s married and bored out of her mind, the sooner she’ll be seeking a lover—a role he’ll be more than happy to fill. Since he’s in the best position to obtain relevant information about her prospects, Ros agrees, giving him one week to dig up the dirt that will help her narrow the selection.
Before that week is up, however, her cousin manages to abduct her with the intention of dragging her before an unscrupulous parson and forcing her into marriage. Ros makes a daring escape and goes to Tony to demand a name so she can marry a man of her choice before her cousin strikes again. Tony isn’t keen to marry her off, so he (mostly) makes up outrageous lies to render the men unsuitable. Hopeless, Ros declares she should have stayed in Scotland and married a farmer just to get it over with, and that becomes her new plan. Tony’s not having that and blurts she should marry him. When she’s done laughing, Ros thanks him for lightening her mood, but they both know he’s completely unsuitable for marriage. He actually doesn’t hate the idea, once he has a chance to think about it, and sets out to compromise her so she has no choice. Since she still plans to leave the country and marry the first peasant she finds who won’t be picky about her virginity, she says, “Compromise away, big fella.”
By the time she wakes up in the morning, he’s obtained a special license as if he’s serious. The prenup that keeps her husband’s grubby mitts off her fortune doesn’t deter him. But he’s still a rake, and in order to protect herself from shattered expectations, she insists that he agree to keep his mistress(es) so she never has any illusions about his fidelity. She thinks this is an ideal arrangement for him and doesn’t understand why he’s so pissed at the suggestion, but he relents after a token protest, and they tie the knot in a small family gathering. Shortly afterward, he confesses he lied and has no intention of seeing other women because if he wanted to keep screwing around, he could very easily have not married her because, frankly, it would have been less of a hassle to just kill her cousin, eliminate her need for a husband, and get right to the sexing. But since he went to the trouble to marry her, they’re going to act like it, dammit, and all seems well. UNTIL he comes home with a long blonde hair stuck to his jacket and Ros uses her mad forensics skills to deduce he cheated on her the day after saying he wouldn’t (he didn’t), and they spend the second half of the book mutually angry with each other about betrayal and lack of trust.
This book was published in 1988, when I was an impressionable 14-year-old, and it remains my #1 favorite romance, surely due to a large dose of nostalgia (and also the cover—see below). Truthfully, if I picked up this book for the first time today, I wouldn’t have made it through the first chapter thanks to loosey-goosey shenanigans with point of view (“how the hell do you know what she’s thinking, are you a mindreader, OH I SEE, WE’VE JUMPED INTO ANOTHER BODY FOR A BIT, don’t bother getting comfortable anywhere”). And even if I somehow overcame my aversion to that because it was a style common to the era (not likely because I’m not a historian and don’t read irksome books for science…), plenty of the male behavior would warrant a DNF. I mentioned above Tony lies. He’s more interested in what his dick wants than in what Ros wants/needs to accomplish, and he threatens her security to get his own way. He persists when she tells him to take a hike. More than one man “steals kisses,” which I find far from charming.
There’s also an unfortunate use of the word “lathing,” which is wildly different from the intended “laving” and deserves a place of honor in any romance bingo or drinking game.
None of which stopped me from enjoying this reread, but I’m duty-bound to warn others whose tolerance isn’t softened by sentiment.
Perhaps what makes it tolerable for me, even upon confronting these problems head on, is that everything is over the top to the point of farce. Ros is the feistiest of feisty redheads. Tony is such a rogue, one glance from him is enough to ruin a woman. When Ros’s cousin offers to explain how he pulled off the kidnapping, she says “nah,” and he’s like “I’M GOING TO TELL YOU ANYWAY, VALIDATE MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!” It’s not a comedy, but it’s far from serious, so the problematic elements don’t have a lot of weight. I actually thought of Shakespeare while mulling this over, but I’ll spare you that whole tangent. In short, it’s obviously theater and very far away from hitting a real-life nerve.
Ros is 25, which, as we all know, is a Regency spinster. She was raised by her grandfather, who wasn’t much of a feminine role model, so she’s better with money than most of her peers, has no romantic illusions, and doesn’t hesitate to stab attackers. Her best friend got pregnant out of wedlock (bloody rakes…) and was forced to marry an abusive old man, so Ros has heard an earful and doesn’t expect great behavior from men. She’s not a naive 18-year-old. She’s not afraid of these clowns when they’re taking kissing liberties. She’s irritated, not imperiled. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a good shot of pepper spray in the eyeballs to teach them better manners, but it’s not written in a way I find traumatizing, and I’m often viscerally repelled by “pushy” “heroes” because (a) they haven’t been given sufficient redeeming qualities to offset the ick and (b) the heroine’s explanation for not being terrified/not punching them in the dick hasn’t been convincing. In this case, they’re silly fuckbois and Ros can handle them.
A few things that could have gone very badly aren’t as awful as they could have been, especially considering the era. A handful of the Malorys who are dark-haired and blue-eyed (as opposed to the green-eyed blondes that are standard issue for the clan) are said to have inherited their looks from a “g*ps* grandmother.” The word itself is a slur, but it’s not accompanied for a change by depiction of the people it refers to as curse-casting criminals. One of Ros’s potential husbands is gay (in truth, not one of Tony’s lies), and that whole discussion consists of “he prefers men”/”that won’t do because I want children, who’s next”—it’s not played for laughs or portrayed in a way that casts aspersions on the man’s character.
There’s could-have-been-a-wallbanger-but-wasn’t storytelling thing at the very end, so I’ll hide it:
Some of the scenes in this book remain among my favorite makeout/sex sessions. The conservatory! The “I believe I owe you a lesson in a chair”! *fans self* They’re not particularly explicit by today’s standards, but they were scorching at the time and still get the point across perfectly well.
This is the second book in a family saga of approximately 15,000 books (which I stopped reading after Jeremy Malory, son of a PIRATE, was positively proper as a hero *snore*). The first book, LOVE ONLY ONCE, is about Tony’s niece, Regina. Her relationship is referred to in this book (mostly in terms of “Nick was a rake, and he settled into marriage all right, so Tony can, too”), but it’s not plot relevant. You won’t be lost if you read this one solo, and the shout-outs to the previous book aren’t frequent enough to be a major distraction.
I bought the ebook for this reread because my 1988 paperback is in a moving box somewhere, and that’s probably for the best because it’s on the verge of falling apart after being read a hundred times, despite my non-spine-cracking tendencies. That book originally belonged to my mother, but I traded her for a fresh copy when boring floral print covers were in fashion because I wanted to keep this clinch for myself.
(The “red” outline around the title font is actually gold foil, which doesn’t scan well.) This may have been the beginning of my obsession with a well-turned male shoulder. In the books, much ado is made about Tony not looking like the rest of his brothers, so it’s particularly hilarious that this is the last cover before Fabiomania took over because he really doesn’t look like any of his mulletted bodybuilder kin.
I considered a couple more romance rereads, but upon updating my book tracker, I noticed the contest judging knocked my percentage of authors of color from just short of my goal of 40% all the way down to 25% (thanks again, contest!). I don’t want to be trying to correct that like an afterthought at the end of the year, so I’m going to get right with my spreadsheet before revisiting favorites by Loretta Chase and Meljean Brook.
THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS by P. Djèlí Clark: Creeper, a 13-year-old street urchin in an alternate-universe steampunk New Orleans during the Civil War, overhears a plot to obtain a devastating weapon from a Haitian scientist. This information is valuable enough that she believes she can trade it for a coveted post on Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine’s airship. The captain wants the weapon but not a kid to babysit, so Creeper has to carefully dole out tidbits to make herself indispensable, which places her in the midst of gunfights and death-cult compounds on a quest to save the city from a hurricane in a bomb. Fortunately for Creeper’s health, a small part of the wind goddess Oya dwells within her, offering warnings and other gifts that contribute to her continued survival.
There are tons of women in power positions: the smuggler captain, in whom dwells a small part of another goddess; Madame Diouf, proprietor of the brothel where Creeper’s mother worked before her death, who always has a hot meal and pampering for a plucky orphan; the two nuns who know eeeeeeverything that’s going on in New Orleans; a fearless young swamp guide aptly named Féral; and Creeper herself, who’s formidable enough at 13 but will be a force to be reckoned with when full grown under the tutelage of all these women.
This is a novella (112 pages in print), and a big save-the-day story told well in a small space. The central conflict regarding the weapon is entirely resolved, but there will clearly be further adventures for Creeper and Co., and that’s a good thing.
SCORING OFF THE FIELD by Naima Simone: Tennyson and Dominic were foster kids together (his awesome parents died; she was removed from her MSP mother). Dom was adopted by his football coach and eventually became a bigshot NFL quarterback, which gave him the ability to supplement Tennyson’s college scholarships, after which he gave her a job as his PA, which she classifies as “charity.” The story opens with her telling him she’s quitting and moving on with her life, and very carefully not telling him being treated like his BFF/kid sister is killing her by degrees because she’s in love with him. He tries to get her to stay through the end of the season so he can concentrate on football leading up to a contract negotiation, but she knows if she gives in, she’ll keep giving in for the rest of her life. She grants him a month to find and train her replacement. Meanwhile, she forges ahead with dating and applying for jobs thousands of miles away.
Dom is not a fan of any of this. He rejects all the applications for the PA job, for mostly ridiculous reasons, at which time he notices Tennyson’s looking pretty good. He runs into her while she’s on a date, while he is also on a date, and proceeds to ruin her date. Since he knows that was a dick move, he takes his date home and goes to Tennyson’s place to apologize to get that phase of her wrath over with, at which time he notices she’s looking… really good. They kiss. He stops because this is a huge violation of their friendship. While she’s still hot and panting from the kiss, he apologizes for it.
Remember when I said near the beginning of the post that friendly lovers warm my cockles because I get to romantic love through friendship? Yeah, well, that’s more cockle-warming when the friendship develops apace with the pants feelings. When the friendship is longstanding and one party has unrequited pants feelings and the other is feeling “brotherly” and the unrequited party dies a little inside every time the dumbass grinds on somebody else, I GET A LITTLE TRIGGERED. I cussed at Dom so much. “Do not fucking apologize to her for kis—oh, you shit. DON’T YOU DARE apologize to her for giving her a handj—you stupid, stupid shit. I swear to god, if you do that to her again, I’m teleporting into Storyland and ripping out your tongue by the roots.” But I don’t want to ruin our friendship. Well, it’s intolerable for her to be around you, dumbass, so the relationship either evolves or ends. Pick your poison. Then take a big drink and drop dead, you oblivious oaf.
Which is to say, it was written super authentically. *laugh-cries while shoveling consolation chocolate into my face*
High five for Tennyson, who stuck to her plan and fully embraced the fatalism of her situation—she was leaving him one way or another, and if she had the opportunity to get him in bed before she left, she wanted that experience. And high ten for the following speech delivered to Dom’s face:
At some point, God, I’m not even sure when, I realized I’m worth love. I deserve it. The kind of love that lights up a man’s face when I walk into the room. The kind that movies are written about. The kind that consumes a man so his first thought in the morning is me, and his last word at night is my name. That’s the love I want and am worthy of. And I’m finally accepting that you can’t give it to me.
Despite my desire to maim Dom entirely based on my personal baggage, his rationale for concentrating on football and holding his only longstanding relationship sacrosanct probably makes sense, and he’s pretty good about owning his bullshit (i.e., he finds out his agent told Tennyson she’d distract him from his career and starts to blame that asshole for her leaving… but promptly realizes he has been telling her for years his career is the most important thing in his life and he‘s the one who drove her away).
This is a Book 2. I haven’t read Book 1, and you don’t need to in order to understand this book. Mentions of other couples past and future are minimal. I’m not going to read that Book 1 because the “our entire relationship is based on a lie” premise is a nope for me, but I’ll definitely be checking out other books by this author.
HUDDLE WITH ME TONIGHT by Farrah Rochon: Paige Turner is a popular culture blogger known for her unforgiving reviews. She gives two stars to the memoir/cookbook of football player Torrian Smallwood because although some of the recipes are good, the writing is lackluster and his life story doesn’t warrant more attention than countless other athletes who survived hardships before making it big. Torrian is no stranger to criticism and should know better than to respond, but in this case, he’s using the book to promote a restaurant he’s opening with his sister, who held off her dreams for years to raise him after their parents died, and he wants her success to be untainted. He therefore takes the negative review more personally than he should and leaves a testy comment on Paige’s post, and thus begins their public feud. Eventually, a local TV station approaches them about settling their differences with a 5-part charity cook-off.
Paige had a learning disability as a child and is justifiably proud that she’s being paid to write now and understandably touchy about “can you even read?” remarks. Torrian is losing some of his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, so his football career is near its end. His football player friends have things going on in their lives, too, and one of them is interested in dating Torrian’s sister. There were several interesting things going on; unfortunately, these things were barely mentioned, and I wasn’t interested in the romance in this romance novel.
I had a hard time suspending disbelief for too many things. Torrian has second thoughts after his initial comment and intends to take advantage of the 5-minutes-to-edit feature to dial it back a notch—but he’s interrupted by a conflict between his sister and nephew and “misses” the opportunity to correct himself. He sends an email to Paige asking her to delete the comment, and several additional emails over the next few days as their comment war escalates—but she doesn’t see them because she only looks at her professional email once per week. He calls in some favors to get her phone number and her home address so he can speak to her in person, which they both acknowledge is stalkery—but that issue gets swept under the rug because he wants to talk to her and she thinks he’s hot. She says she doesn’t “go into a review hoping to find things to complain about”—but just before that, she considered docking “a couple of points” from a restaurant’s rating for “nosy waitstaff” because the employee she had asked to move her to a different table waited nearby while she carried on a lengthy conversation during a surprise encounter with Torrian (what should the employee have done differently, walked off and left her without a table?). It was a lot of telling me one thing (he’s really a decent guy, she’s really a responsible and positive woman) and showing me another (he’s an impulsive stalker, she ignores her job, trashes people for kicks, and welcomes stalkers into her apartment) for plot convenience. I learned long ago that words which contradict actions are lies, and judging these characters solely by their actions, I don’t like either of them.
None of the blog strife other than Torrian’s initial comment is shown; it’s only mentioned in passing, so you have to go on faith that it got really heated. Paige dwells upon Torrian’s “raw, in-your-face sexual magnetism,” which you also have to take on faith because other than being in good shape because he’s an athlete, he doesn’t exhibit any qualities I associate with magnetism. Paige tells him “I can’t go from despising you one minute to not despising you the next” after they’ve had several perfectly cordial interactions in which no one seemed to despise anyone. The words on the page are just not aligning with what I’m being told to believe.
I DNF’d around 40% (when the cook-off plan finally showed up) after being told for the umpteenth time there’s OVERWHELMING SEXUAL TENSION even if I can’t see any evidence thereof.
DUCHESS BY DAY, MISTRESS BY NIGHT by Stacy Reid: Georgiana, Duchess of Hardcastle, a young widow, has been searching for her son’s missing nursemaid with no results. On her behalf, her brother contacts Rhys Tremayne, a shady character who has made his fortune trading information for favors. He’s climbed from poverty to being a wealthy business and landowner, but the one thing he still lacks is respectability to see his sisters married well and taken care of in the event he meets a bad end. He wants the Duchess to owe him a large enough favor that she’ll agree to launch his sisters in society. Unfortunately for him, the nursemaid is so easy for him to find, his services aren’t worth anything at all.
I grabbed a notebook to jot down grievances in the first chapter, so I knew this wasn’t going to go well right away. First of all, Rhys has a deaf sister. Yay for disability rep! He muses about her beauty, kindness, and intelligence, and then adds “but none of that would matter to a beau, for she was handicapped.” There is no followup challenging that idea. No any man would be lucky to have her and only the best will do for my sister. He just leans all the way into defective-and-unlovable. She’ll probably get her own book and maybe her deafness will be awesomely handled and embraced, but THIS GUY, the “hero,” is looking like an asshole before he even leaves his house.
Rhys got a summons to meet a Duchess at a ball in the garden at midnight, and he was intrigued by her daring (as was I), but it turns out her brother sent the message and signed her name to it, and she had no idea this meeting was taking place. She went from being an assertive go-getter to an oblivious prop in the space of one explanatory sentence, which is an unfortunate way to characterize a protagonist who is supposed to be driving the story.
When Rhys first lays eyes on Georgiana, she’s described as having “a glorious mane,” which is “parted in the center and twisted into a smooth coil at the nape of her neck.” That hairstyle can be done with sparse hair to cover a bald spot, so I don’t know how he arrived at “a glorious mane,” but perhaps it was the same mad powers of observation that enabled him to discern the precise turquoise shade of her eyes from a distance, outdoors, at 10 p.m. (He showed up early for their midnight appointment because he’s naughty like that.) I had to go back and reread the summons to make sure this wasn’t happening in broad daylight because WOW everybody’s color vision was sharp! I can’t judge the color of someone’s eyes from more than three feet away when they’re looking directly at me in great lighting, so this is truly impressive (or defies the laws of nature).
Georgiana has a whole infodump conversation with her brother in the garden to explain the backstory they both already know. When the scene changes to Rhys, who’s lurking in the shadows, he recaps the entire conversation you just read rather than focusing on the parts of immediate significance to him and his thoughts about what he’s learned. PAGES of redundant information that could have been delivered, once, to the person who didn’t already know it.
The nursemaid (Jane) vanished weeks ago, and the authorities have been suspiciously unhelpful, which is why Georgiana needs the assistance of this underworld character. Rhys gets back to her in two days with the news that Jane is set up, willingly, as some dude’s mistress, and doing great, no foul play involved. Georgiana’s reaction: She had not thought Jane would be so easily persuaded to become someone’s soiled dove. SHE WITNESSED JANE FUCKING HER BROTHER. HE SAID HE DEFINITELY WASN’T THE FIRST. But she just CANNOT BELIEVE this mistress business? I mean, it was kind of rude of Jane to take off without letting someone know she hadn’t been abducted or murdered, but if she had a habit of shagging rich dudes for fun (allegedly—I don’t exactly trust rich dudes when they say the servants enthusiastically consented), it’s not what I’d call SURPRISING that she’d run off to shag a rich dude who wanted to set her up in style.
So Rhys has gotten the information and tells Georgiana she owes him nothing because the job was so trivial. (How did this man ever make any money? NO ONE else was able to get this information for her. It is therefore worth, minimum, double whatever the useless Bow Street runners charged her. Submit that invoice, amateur!) But then he says she owes him a peepshow, and when he gets slapped for that, he demands a kiss. When she declines that, too, he says, regarding the debt HE SAID SHE DIDN’T OWE, “I believe I’ll keep you in my debt.” BUT WAIT! Then he says, “You are not in my debt.” This is all in one conversation. There is ZERO consistency. He does not have a stance that he pursues or defends. What squirts out of his mouth is whatever will prolong this excruciating exchange.
That’s the end of the mystery of the missing woman, by the way. Since we left that meeting with no debt (I think???), there is no longer any legitimate reason for these two people to have anything to do with one another, but we’ve got 80% of the book left, so he conveniently runs into her riding alone in the park. There’s some pointless conversation, ending with her inviting him to ride with her, and then they just ride in silence and cut to an unrelated scene. Nothing was accomplished by this scene. Nothing changes. There’s not even a throughline of plot logic to bear us from one event to the next. There is no setup for a future event. It’s filler.
HE HAS A GOOD REASON to establish a connection with a duchess: he wants a sponsor for his sisters. If he had been one smidgen as committed to that as he should have been, he would have performed the investigation, made a HUGE deal out of his effort (“I could have DIED!”), and named his price (“help my sisters find a place in society”). That’s the only motivation he needed to make this story work. It would have accomplished his goal of doing right by his sisters AND kept him in proximity to Georgiana for the romance. Instead, he minimizes his work and does his best to alienate the only person who can help him by asking to look up her skirt, which makes him seem gross and stupid. Again, an unfortunate way to characterize a protagonist.
DNF at 22%. But it’s been 99 cents for ages (maybe permanently) and other people have given it a 4.6 average rating, so you might find it worth trying it for a dollar.
HOW LONG ‘TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH by N. K. Jemisin: Ah, it seems like only last month I was complaining about my difficulties with short stories—likely because it was only last month! BUT in a single-author collection, there should be more of a thread of consistency than there is in an anthology because one way or another, writers show up in their work, and no matter how dissimilar characters/settings/plots/etc. may be, the mark of the creator ties them together. When the single author is N. K. Jemisin, I have a high confidence level because I’ve read several of her novels and either liked or loved all of them.
Overall, this was probably the best experience with a short story collection I’ve ever had, and my lack of enthusiasm, on the rare occasions it arose, was mostly based on aesthetics (I prefer a more organic vibe to “hard” sci-fi and go into the latter with kind of a blergh attitude, even when I recognize the writing is good). My biggest problem here was condensing plot summaries to a couple of sentences because there was SO MUCH (eight notebook pages of notes!) that was cool or interesting or educational, each of the 22 stories could easily have gotten a 500-word review.
For the last batch of short stories, I noted +/- after each story to indicate a positive or negative opinion of it. None of these earned a -, but I liked some less in comparison to others and have marked those with a lukewarm ~.
- “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”: In a utopia where everyone is valued and cared for, problems that would be familiar to you and I have been mostly eradicated. However, the good life leaves people with free time, and some of them use that time to peek at a parallel society (which would be familiar to you and I), thereby becoming infected with hate and arrogance that must be dealt with to keep the infection from spreading. Sometimes the infected are too far gone to save, but others can be treated, and this story accommodates both in a hopeful way.
- “The City Born Great”: When the coming and going of people creates a tear in the fabric of reality, a city becomes a living entity. A young homeless man is chosen to be the midwife the baby city needs to help it into the world and defend it from enemies until it gets stronger. (“Don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here” is a great line.) This might be related to the forthcoming novel THE CITY WE BECAME.
- “Red Dirt Witch”: In pre-desegregation Birmingham, one of the fey offers a deal to a Black family—give one of them to her as a slave to ensure the safety and prosperity of the other three. A mother makes a difficult decision about who will make the best use of the promised safety and prosperity.
- “L’Alchimista”: A fun story about the science, art, and magic of cooking.
- “The Effluent Engine”: A Haitian spy in New Orleans seeks a scientist’s help converting the methane byproduct of rum manufacture into a stable fuel for dirigibles and weapons to defend Haiti’s freedom from French attackers. The intended scientist isn’t receptive, but his sister is interested, capable, and attractive. Intrigue, gadgets, and women falling in love.
- “Cloud Dragon Skies”: The earth has been mostly abandoned. Those who remain have adapted themselves to the environment, which includes clouds with a mind of their own. Scientists who’ve returned from space want to fire a missile that will diffuse some chemical into the atmosphere and “fix” the sky. Thing is, when you shoot a missile at sentient dragon clouds… they fight back. The epilogue didn’t satisfy my thirst for justice, but the author being less bloodthirsty than I is a recurring theme and not necessarily a bad thing.
- “The Trojan Girl”: This put me in mind of a reverse Matrix. The plucky band of rebels lives inside the net and ventures out into the human meat world on their quest to retrieve a renegade with a destiny-altering bit of code. This one was my biggest “hard sci-fi” disconnect, as foreshadowed above. The evolution of the AI’s humanity is a worthwhile story, but it feels cold and sterile to me overall, which is absolutely a “me” problem. ~
- “Valedictorian”: The weakest 10% of students and the best student in the graduating class are sent beyond the Wall, never to be heard from again. Zinhle is driven to be the best while everyone around her strives (so to speak) to be utterly average. The adults pay the tribute of their children without protest because they don’t want to fight back, and they definitely don’t want to keep rebels who strive to be the best despite knowing a terrible fate awaits—that’s dangerous, world-changing thinking. A creepy emissary from outside the Wall suggests to Zinhle she’d have a better life there and encourages her to keep pursuing excellence. I’m nosy and want to know the truth, so the resolution-pending ending was too abrupt for me.
- “The Storyteller’s Replacement”: Content warning for mention of rape and suicide. King Paramenter is told to consume a male dragon’s heart to put the oomph back into his libido, but his hunters can find only a female dragon, so he eats that instead. He spreads his newfound vigor around and begets six strange, cold, calculating daughters. This was a favorite. Something about the tongue-in-cheek viciousness of old-school fairy tales appeals to me. It’s ultimately a tale of evolution and carrying on by any means necessary in whatever form is necessary.
- “The Brides of Heaven”: Interplanetary colonists reached their destination only to find the men’s section of the ship had malfunctioned during the journey and killed them all. Five years later, one of the women who is big on pointing out “sinners” and believes God has appointed her as savior has sabotaged the water supply. There’s a pool of space jizz involved, which is both hilarious to read and enraging to contemplate.
- “The Evaluators”: An epistolary tale in the form of current chats about a missing team and that team’s old journal logs. They were sent to set up a trade alliance on a planet where the dominant species seems eerily in harmony with the resources, as if ruthlessly managed. The shapeshifting cheetah-like rep with whom they deal is noted to become more human-like with each interaction. Another tale of evolution and carrying on by any means necessary in whatever form is necessary.
- “Walking Awake”: Children are cared for in a facility until they can be physically taken over by parasitic “Masters.” Fourteen-year-old Enri undergoes the transfer and then appears in caregiver Sadie’s dreams to tell her what it’s like to lose one’s body and what he’s learned from proximity to the Masters, including a way to stop them. I’m not so sure about the soundness of this plan, but Sadie’s noted to have a mental health diagnosis, so I’m not entirely sure the plan is supposed to be sound. She makes a noble sacrifice, but what it accomplishes, if anything, is left unsaid.
- “The Elevator Dancer”: The guard monitoring a security camera in an elevator observes a woman dancing every time she’s alone inside. He’s supposed to notify the police because dancing is illegal in the land of commercial-and-prayer breaks during prime-time TV, but he’s infatuated instead, distracted, reckless. The ending is poetic.
- “Cuisine de Mémoires”: A small, exclusive restaurant serves cuisine from history, with menu items such as Marie Antoinette’s last meal. Those who question the authenticity of preparation are invited to order a custom meal from their own past to compare to memory. One impressed diner sneaks into the kitchen to learn the chef’s secret and gets a lesson about dwelling on the past.
- “Stone Hunger”: Set in the world of the Broken Earth trilogy. A nameless girl with the ability to direct the power of earthquakes tries to break into a walled city and ends up jailed. A stone-eater offers to break her out of her cell. She agrees, if it will take her to the man she wants to kill.
- “On the Banks of the River Lex”: Death and various celestial and fictional beings are personified and at loose ends after the extinction of man. Death has a revelation about life after an encounter with a determined octopus. This was quirky, bleak, and hopeful at the same time. I had to pause for a few minutes and admire the skill of weaving all of that into the same story.
- “The Narcomancer”: Set in the world of the Dreamblood duology. Content warning for mention of rape and suicide. Sleep spells that are supposed to be unique to the Temple are being used by brigands to subdue their victims in a distant village. Cet and Sister Ginnem (who is a dude) travel to the village, as it is the duty of priests of the Goddess of Dreams to bring peace. After disposing of the brigands, conflict remains between the two most prominent women of the village, and peace must be established even at the cost of breaking religious vows.
- “Henosis”: Winning a writing award is such an honor, the winner is killed afterward and body parts sent off to inspire students at MFA programs and writing workshops. Funny from a three-time Hugo winner and snicker-worthy for everyone who has ever not-won an award.
- “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows”: The universe broke and separated people into individual splinters of the world. They can communicate over the internet but never meet in the flesh. Some of the members of a group chat vanish, and there’s speculation that strong personal bonds zap them out of existence. Two young lovers further their relationship, willing to risk whatever fate awaits them.
- “The You Train”: This story is told in one-sided phone conversations. The narrator talks about bad dates and a bad job and feeling like she doesn’t belong, but the focus is on the behavior of trains behaving strangely. The narrator had a strong voice and I had a good sense of her as a person, but the disembodied nature of the narrative still came close to the “cold and sterile” feeling I noted above. ~
- “Non-Zero Probabilities”: NYC is experiencing an unusual frequency of “luck,” both good (high incidence of lottery winners, cured diseases) and bad (train wrecks, floods, “a fatal duck attack”), which the highly religious attribute to the city being a den of iniquity. Most people turn to superstition for “protection,” but some are unconcerned—a little more shit, a little less shit, it’s still shit, so why stress and fight it? Again, I kind of wanted a disaster ending to wipe out a certain group of people, but it went in a more optimistic, uplifting direction because not everyone is as mean as I am. *ahem*
- “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”: Tookie is riding out a hurricane in New Orleans when he strikes up a conversation with a lizard that might be an alligator, except it has wings and talks. His lizard friend and his elderly neighbor warn him about something hateful that flourishes in the aftermath of storms, something that infects everything it encounters with hate. Corny as it sounds, the power of friendship saves the day. This was another favorite. Tookie’s easy acceptance of talking bat-winged lizards was great characterization (of him and the lizards), set the tone, and established the “rules” early in the story. An optimistic character who’s a good guy during an event that’s horrifying on several levels (human, environmental, and supernatural) is a hero worth rooting for.
I’m going to be studying these for short-story-writing reference. Jemisin writes in the introduction that when it was first suggested she develop her short writing skills as an adjunct to novels, her low length limit was 17,000 words, which is relatable (I’m stuck around 20K myself). One of my obstacles, perhaps the primary one, is conceiving ideas that can be told satisfactorily in 1,500 to 5,000 words, which is a HUGE adjustment from thinking in terms of 100,000-word novels (or 500,000-word series!), which demand complications. Novels are muscular bruisers while short stories need to be svelte and elegant, and each requires a different developmental program from the start. There’s a lot to analyze here, and the stories that evoke simultaneous contradictory emotions are a skill level to aspire to.
DESTINY’S CAPTIVE by Beverly Jenkins: Content warning for rape backstory.
Pilar Banderas needs a ship to smuggle guns for Cuban rebels, and merchant Noah Yates has one that will do nicely. She and her men abduct Noah, use him to get onto his otherwise empty ship, put him in a lifeboat out at sea, and wish him luck getting back to land. When he does, he demands the authorities find his ship, but they have more pressing problems, so he returns home to attend his mother’s wedding and rebuild his business but vows to return and get vengeance. Meanwhile, Pilar gets attacked by the navy while running guns, and Noah’s ship is blown to smithereens. She survives, but now the authorities are looking for her, so she, her mother, and her sister skedaddle to visit an uncle in Florida. Part of Noah’s plan to rebuild his business involves an alliance with that same uncle, which delivers the slippery thief right into his hands.
There’s a secondary romance for Noah’s mom—a widow remarrying (including her wedding night!) in what’s surely the conclusion of a subplot that spanned the books of the two previous brothers. While it was nice to see older people getting some love, it did take a lot of time away from the main romance. Pilar and Noah interact at the beginning only long enough for her to steal his ship and let him go, and they don’t meet again until the 25% mark. That’s not all Mom’s doing (Pilar’s smuggling operation going to hell in the meantime is plot relevant), but it contributed to a looooong delay in getting the main characters together. Estimating based on the print length, that’s about 80 pages at the beginning where they have nothing to do with each other, which is a lot for a romance.
When they finally reconnect at her uncle’s birthday party, Noah’s anger and Pilar’s desire not to get killed lead to a sword fight. She holds her own for a while, but while their skills may be evenly matched, he has the advantages of size and strength, so she surrenders when backed into a corner. His response is to demand marriage. (He has PTSD-like issues following prison rape and doesn’t enjoy life, but the fight gave him a moment of elation and makes him hope for the first time in years that he can string those moments together into something resembling happiness, and the feisty pirate who tried to cut his heart out is apparently the only woman who can help him, so he decided she’s “the woman he wanted in his life” and “staked his claim.”) If she doesn’t want to marry him, her other option is to be turned over to the authorities to be tried for piracy. She’s wise enough to ask if he intends to hurt her as punishment for the ship incident, and he says no, despite fantasizing in the previous chapter about feeding her to sharks. He’s thinking of this like an ordinary arranged marriage, made in good faith, in which he’s decent toward her, provides for her, and welcomes her into his family—except for the minor detail of imprisonment (which he, of all people, should not want to inflict on someone) and probable execution if she declines his offer.
I’m not a fan of coercion when it comes to sex and relationships that involve sex, but I carried on beyond the marriage “proposal,” hoping Noah might have a “she’s here against her will, I can’t do this and must set her free” moment. What happens instead is Pilar gets the news that her rebel friend is dead and his mother got sent to prison camp by association, so she immediately becomes a fan of getting married and getting away from her mother and sister for their protection. (Her friend being dead didn’t protect his mother, though, so I don’t know exactly how that’s supposed to work.)
She was a rebel pirate—until she just stopped without a second thought for the life she left behind. He was a man bent on revenge who could never make his home anywhere but on the sea and didn’t want to inflict his gloom on anyone, including a wife—until he just stopped to marry his nemesis and go back to live in San Francisco. They didn’t “develop” so much as “suddenly change” without any clear growth trajectory, and even they seem confused. After the wedding, they’re talking about Pilar’s childhood, and he’s really judgmental when he learns she was trained to rob houses at a young age and her sister is an art forger. He goes so far as to worry that his bride is going to rob his mother. Dude, the woman kidnapped you, stole your ship, and used it to run guns. Maybe you should have questioned her character before you coerced her into marriage.
And then at 53%, it was back to Noah’s mom’s story, and I had to DNF there because I was just not having a good time at all.
Overall, it felt kind of Eighties to me in both the prose style (same head-hopping issue as the Lindsey noted above, purpley phrasing like “the bud that defined her as a woman,” balls-kicking manspeak such as “Refusing to answer means yes”) and the plot devices (for example, the impulsively coerced marriage, also similar to the circa 1984 book noted above), although the copyright page says first printing in 2014. If you’re able to enjoy new-to-you Old Skool romances as you work your way through the hall of fame, this may be a feature rather than a bug. To me, it felt dated.