Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Best Six Novels I’ve Read in the First Six Months of 2011, Sort of

Well, 2011 is about half gone, and while I’m not going to look at the New Year’s Resolutions I posted (because I’ve exceeded some considerably and failed at other even more), I thought this would be a good time to look back over the novels I’ve read during the first half of the year that I’ve written about and see which ones were the best.

One thing quickly became clear:  I need to read more novels.  Not all the novels I’ve read have appeared here for the simple reason that some of them were not fantasy or historical adventure.  I’ve decided to keep the science fiction separate (which is why I started Futures Past and Present), and after one review, I’ve not blogged about any mysteries or detective stories.

So here’s my list of the top six (very loosely defined, as you’ll see) of the best novels I’ve read so far this year.

6.  The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell.  Okay, if you want to get picky, these are two books, not one, and they’re novellas rather than novels.  I”m going to stretch the definitions a little because they were written in a unique collaborative manner, take place in the same world, were marketed together, and were published at the same time.  They discuss a world filled with something called bramble, which I described in my review as kudzu on steroids.  Bramble is the side-effect of using magic and is slowly taking over the world.  And it’s a world I want to see more of.

5.  Hawkwood’s Voyage by Paul Kearney.  This one is the first of a series of five.  It’s in print in an omnibus volume entitled Hawkwood and the Kings along with the second installment, The Heretic Kings.  I’ve read both of them, although I haven’t gotten to the remaining three yet (I will).  I think I prefer Hawkwood’s Voyage to The Heretic Kings simply because of the way it’s structured.  There are several viewpoint characters, and in the first book, the viewpoint alternates between chapters.  In the second, the book is divided into sections with each section telling the story from a particular character’s viewpoint.  This is epic fantasy on a dark and bloody scale, with action, intrigue, heroism, villainy, and mystery.  They’re both much better than average, and if you haven’t read them, you should.  My reviews of both are here and here

4.  This book will be discussed later.  You’ll see why.  Trust me.

3.  The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.  This is the first in a series of at least three.  Martha Wells has been posting snippets of the next volume on her blog, but I’ve not had a chance to read them yet. This series could turn out to be science fiction at some point, but for now I’m considering it fantasy for two reasons.  One, Martha has only written fantasy so far.  Two, it reads like a fantasy.  But it has that sense of wonder you get with the best science fiction that seems to be missing these days.  It’s the story of a young man (but not a human man) you discovers who his people are and what his purpose in life is.  It has some of the best aerial combat sequences I’ve read in a long time.  Here’s what I thought of it in detail.

2.  Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  This one is a great novel about an honorable thief who finds himself trying to save his kingdom.  The sword fights go on for pages, yet Hulick, an accomplished fencer, makes them seem like only a couple of paragraphs, they flow so naturally.  Beginning writers should study him to learn how to write a fight scene.  Loads of fun.  The complete review is here.

4.  Thirteen Years Later, 1. Twelve by Jasper Kent.  Vampire hunting during the Napoleonic Wars. Evil, repulsive vampires, not the sweet, sexy kind meant to appeal to the necrophilic fantasies of teenage girls.  The vampires in these books are pure evil and not to be trusted at all.  This is vampire hunting for the intelligent reader.  I’ve put these two books together because they are part of a greater story arc.  While you can read Twelve as a standalone, Thirteen Years Later is very much dependent on the previous book.  I put them together on the list because I think of them as part of the same work.  How to rank them, along with The Cloud Roads and Among Thieves was tough.  I loved each of these four books, but for different reasons.  In the end, I decided to use the vampire books to bookend (so to speak) the other two.  This pair of books is intelligent, fresh, and surprising.  A high water mark in vampire fiction.  Reviews are here and here.

And that’s it.  The best six novels I’ve read in the first six months of the year.  If you’re looking for a good read, you can’t go wrong with any of these.  I’ve put a widget up at the top of the page in case anyone decides to take a closer look at one of these books.  It will probably stay up for the next month or so.

I’m looking forward to what the next six months will hold.

David Gemmel Legend Award Winners Announced

The winners of the David Gemmell Legend Award were announced

The winner of the Morningstar Award for Best Newcomer was Warrior Priest by Darius Hinks.

The other nominees were Spellwright by Charlton Blake, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy)by N. K. Jemison, Shadow Prowlerby Alexy Pehov, and Tymon’s Flight: Chronicles of the Tree Bk 1by Mary Victoria.

The Ravenheart Award for best cover art went to Olof Erla Einarsdottir for Power and Majesty by Tansy Raynor Roberts.  Since many of these books weren’t published (at least originally) by US publishers, I’m going to refer you to the Award website, where you can see the cover art.  The art often differs from country to country, and what I find may not be the correct illustration.  (Since I’m writing this during a break at work, I’m pressed for time and doubt I can find the correct covers before I have to go back on the clock. And I’m not sure about the legality of posting them without permission simply to show off the ark.)

The Legend Award for Best Novel went to Brandon Sanderson for The Way of Kings.  The other nominees were The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett, The War of the Dwarves by Markus Heitz,The Alchemist in the Shadows by Pierre Pevel, and  Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan for Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time, Book Thirteen).

There’s a nice writeup on the Award site with a slide show of the presentations.  If you have a second, you should definitely check it out.

Gods of Justice

Gods of Justice

Kevin Hosey and K. Stoddard Hayes, ed.
Mark Offutt and Joel Gomez, ill.
Cliffhanger Books, 205 p., ebook $4.99, print (forthcoming)

This is turning out to be the summer of the superhero.  Not only are we seeing more superhero movies than we ever have in a single summer, but print-wise superheroes seem to be on the rise as well.

Case in point, Gods of Justice, edited by Kevin Hosey and K. Stoddard Hayes.  This the sophomore publication of Clffhanger Books, a new small press.  Their first publication was an anthology of paranormal romance.  It was a nominee for Best Book of 2010 for The Romance Review.  That means they set a high standard their first time out.

The question is, do they live up to it in this book?

The answer is “Yes, they do.”  The book’s webpage summarizes the stories, so I won’t try to do that here.   Instead, I’ll give you my overall impressions.

First, these stories are not set against a common background or universe.  Of the ten stories, one is set in a dystopian future and one on a distant planet (that one is a Western, of all things, and one of the best in the book).  The remaining eight take place on Earth, with one occurring in No Man’s Land in World War I.

The tone and settings vary widely.  So do the characters.  Some are about scared people trying to do the right thing when the right thing isn’t always clear or could be quite costly.  Some deal with the obligations of heroes and power, while others examine the corrupting effects that power has on the hero and how heroes can sometimes become villains.  More than one author deals with time travel, a popular theme in superhero tales.  Although there’s no explicit sex, a couple of stories contain mature themes and language, so if you’re thinking of giving the book as a gift to a young reader, you might keep in mind age-appropriateness.  I’d say the book is a PG-13.  But if your reader is mature enough, you should give the book.

I met editor Kevin Hosey back in February at ConDFW.  When the review copy showed up, I had let the book slip my mind, so it’s arrival was a pleasant surprise.  The next pleasant surprise was in reading it.  With the exception of DC Comics writer Ricardo Sanchez and Star Trek author Dayton Ward, the lineup seems to consist of fairly new authors.  At least I wasn’t familiar with the authors names, so I was a little unsure about what to expect.  I needn’t have worried.  

While one or two entries didn’t do much for me (primarily for reasons of personal taste), I found the quality quite high over all.  If most of the writers are at the beginning of their writing careers, they should only get better with time.  I’m going to watch for some of these people.  The variety makes this another diverse anthology, meaning most readers should find plenty to like here.  I certainly did.  I seem to be blessed with a number of this type of anthology lately, with one more I should have finished in a few days.

A couple of stories committed what I think of as comic book logic, which threw me out of the story, but the level of craftsmanship is better than what you would find in most anthologies with a high percentage of new writers. I think this is the first time I’ve read a western set in space in which I want to read more.  While I like westerns, I’ve found they usually don’t work well on other planets.  This one did, and it couldn’t have been set in the Old West and worked.  The story about the time travel murders was a refreshing twist as well.  And “The Justice Blues” had one of the best character developments of the book.

Most of the stories have an illustration, which was a nice touch (particularly the one on p. 71).  But the focus here is on the stories.  As it should be.

All in all, I found this to be a fun book.  The contents were well-written, thought provoking, imaginative, and entertaining.  I was sorry there were no more stories when I reached the end of the book.  If you like comics and superheroes, by all means give this one a try.  This is the first in a series with at least two more planned, although I have no idea when they’ll be published.  Hopefully soon.  I’m looking forward to them.

This review was also posted at Futures Past and Present.

First J. K. Rowling; Who’s Next?

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not had time to post as much as I’d like.  (I did manage to submit a story to a top pro market, so the week hasn’t been a total wash.)

One thing that did happen, which is still echoing, was the announcement by J. K. Rowling that she will be publishing the Harry Potter books herself through a new website.  She’s able to do this because she retains the rights to the electronic editions.  (If you want to know more about this, start with this series of posts by Passive Guy at The Passive Voice.)

There’s been a lot of talk (mostly from publishers and agents) about how Rowling is an outlier, that most writers won’t be able to do this.  I’m not so sure.  This could very well change publishing permanently.  For the first time an author will control access and price, not a publisher, not a distributor, not a buyer for a major chain, not Amazon. 

While the ramifications of this development are still being debated, I thought I would throw out a question:

What other authors, fantasy in particular but other genres are open to consideration, could be the next to pull something like this off?  Which ones would you like to see next? 

From what I understand, it takes some financial resources to put together a deal like this.  Forget the interactive website for a minute and just think about books.  Who do you think is a big enough name to self publish their works and sell directly from their website only without going through an intermediary?  I’m not talking about a newbie who doesn’t have the audience, but someone who is a brand name.  I’m also not talking about an author like J. A. Konrath, who sells through Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, etc.  I’m talking about the author being the only source for the book.

Stephen King and Tom Clancy come to mind.  George R. R. Martin is riding high right now with a successful adaption of A Game of Thrones on HBO and the upcoming release of A Dance with Dragons.  He could probably pull it off.

I realize that many of the top names may not own the electronic rights to their works or have other contractual restrictions.  Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that those things don’t apply.  Also, Rowling’s announcement says she wants her readers to be able to read he books on any platform.  So let’s assume that the ereader isn’t an issue.

Who is next?

RIP, Martin H. Greenberg

Dean Wesley Smith is reporting that Martin H. Greenberg passed away this morning after a long illness.  If you’ve ever picked up an anthology is the last twenty or thirty years, there’s a good chance his name was on the cover, usually following the name of a well known author or editor.  (Isaac Asimov comes to mind as the most prominent, but he was far from the only one.)  If the anthology was published by DAW books, then his name was almost certainly on the cover.  Greenberg was the publisher of Tekno Books, one of the leading book packagers in the world.  (A packager puts the project together, then sells it to publisher.)  While his work was often behind the scenes, he was a major player in fantasy and science fiction publishing, as well as a number of other genres.  I never met Mr. Greenberg, but I’ve always heard only good things about him.  His passing is a major loss to the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Think of him the next time you read one of the anthologies he put together.  Dean Wesley Smith worked with Greenberg and has written a moving eulogy.

1066: An Invasion, a Tapestry, and a Mystery

1066:  The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry
Andrew Bridgeford
Walker & Co., 384 p.,  $15.95 softcover, various ebook editions available

From time to time, I like to post something having to do with history, and just history, no fiction.  Or rather, no more fiction than serious history books promulgate.  I came across this book while browsing in the local box store, read a chapter or two, came back a week later and read another chapter, and then bought the thing for my ereader.

I found it quite fascinating.  I knew, of course, who William the Conqueror was.  The coaches teaching my history classes in school were able to impart that much information to me.  And I’d heard of the Bayeux Tapestry, the only surviving tapestry from the time period, and considered one of the primary sources of information (albeit limited) that we have about the events leading up to the invasion.  But I’d never really known many of the details about either.  Until now.

I have to say, I found this to be a engaging book.  The conventional wisdom is that the tapestry shows the invasion of England from the Norman point of view.  Bridgeford, through meticulous but entirely readable, historical detective work, builds an alternative interpretation.  Throughout the book he builds his case that the Tapestry tells the story of the events leading up to the invasion (leaving out Harold’s defeat of the invading Harald Hardrada of Norway a few days prior to the Battle of Hastings) from the English point of view.  Furthermore, he argues that William the Conqueror (also called William le Batard, although not often to his face) isn’t the central figure of the Tapestry.  Rather Count Eustace II of Boulogne is.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold’s death

While much of the argument is speculative, something the author readily admits more than once, he does his best to build his case on existing records and documents.  He’s surprisingly thorough and makes his case, at least as far as this nonexpert is concerned, quite consistent, both with itself and with known facts.

There are a number of mysteries associated with the Tapestry.  To name a few:  How did the Tapestry come to Bayeux?  How did it manage to survive when no other tapestry from that era has?  Who are the four named figures who are not royalty in the tapestry and why are they significant?

Bridgeford addresses all of these at length, providing historical and sociological background.  The history of the Tapestry, so far as it’s known, is quite interesting.  He does what any good historian should do, or teacher in general for that matter.  He makes you want to go and learn more.  His prose is easily readable.  While there are endnotes, there aren’t so many that they distract from the flow of the text.

I learned a lot from reading this book.  There has been some discussion, to use that word somewhat loosely, at various websites over the last few months about the role of women in positions of power throughout history.  In providing some of the backstory to the events of 1066, we meet several who were at least, if not more, ruthless than the men.

The only place where I found the argument to be somewhat far-fetched was in the chapter on Turold the dwarf.  I’m not saying Bridgeford isn’t right, just that this chapter is the most speculative in nature of all of them.

If you like a good history book that’s easily accessible and well written, then this is a book for you.  If you have any interest in this time period, check it out.  There’s enough information that a good fantasy writer can probably come away with one or two ideas for a good story. 

This book is available at Adventures Fantastic Books

Announcing Futures Past and Present

I’d like to announce a new blog I’ve started, Futures Past and Present, which will focus on science fiction. 

Relax, I’m not abandoning Adventures Fantastic.  Far from it.  I want to keep AF going and make it stronger.  It’s looking like this month is going to be the best one yet, and thank you, everyone who has stopped by to browse, see what I said about your story, followed (formally and informally), or posted a comment.  This is still going to be my primary blog.

So why am I starting another one?  That’s a  good question that has several answers.
First, I’ve always loved science fiction.  Even before I really started reading fantasy, I was into science fiction.  Now I’ve posted reviews of science fiction here, but I don’t want to do too much of that.  I want to keep my the focus of AF on three or four main areas:  fantasy (especially heroic and sword and sorcery fantasy), historical adventure, occasional editorials on publishing and writing, and once in a while some historical fact pieces (look for one in the next couple of days).  Of course there will be deviations from time to time, but for the most past, that’s the approach I’ve tried to take for the last few months.  It seems to have worked.  I’m getting more readers, and I don’t want to alienate them.  I lost a few of the early followers back when I was just getting started.  I can’t help but wonder if it was because I wasn’t as focused as I am now.

Also, I try to review mostly new fantasy, with certain notable exceptions such as Robert E. Howard.  There will be some other giants from the fantasy field I’ll write about in future posts, but for the most part the fantasy focus will be on what’s happening in fantasy in general, and sword and sorcery in particular, now, at the present time.

For the science fiction, I want to take a broader approach.  By that I mean not just look at new stuff (although I will), but at some of the classics as well things I have on my shelf that I simply haven’t had a chance to read yet that I might like to write about or recommend.  I explain this a little more in the “Opening Salvo“.  The thing is, if I take the time to read a lengthy science fiction novel, I will either be hard pressed to find a justification for writing about it here, or I will try to read other things at the same time.  The latter is a strategy that is rarely successful for me.  An additional blog will allow me to write about science fiction without stretching the limits of this blog too much.

The other thing I want to do is to have the freedom to experiment and play around with things like formatting and design.  I tried to set up a Facebook page for AF a few weeks ago.  Somewhere in the process, Facebook turned the page from a page for the blog into an individual page for me.  I’m not sure what happened, because I intentionally didn’t set it up as a personal page.  Now I’ve refused for years to get on Facebook, MySpace, or any of the other social networks.  Lost friends from high school are lost for a reason and should remain that way, and if I wanted them to have the means to find me, they wouldn’t be lost in the first place.  I couldn’t figure out how to turn the page back into a page for the blog, so I deleted it.  I’ll try again with Futures Past and Present.  I’ll also try Twitter and some other stuff.

I’ll only post there about once a week or ten days, not nearly as often as I post here.  Like I said, this will still be my primary blog.  There will be some  items I’ll cross post, like the extensive look at Henry Kuttner’s short fiction I’m working on in my spare time.  The cosmetic things at Futures Past and Present will change fairly frequently, though.  Once I get something figured out, or decide I like a certain approach or look to something, or find something that works really well, I’ll import it over here.  

The first post is up, a review of Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Engineering Infinity.  Check it out.  And check back here for more sword and sorcery and historical adventure.

Now if I can find a venue to write about detective fiction, I’d have all my bases covered…

Blogging Kull: Swords of the Purple Kingdom

Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p. $17

There are three stories left in the Kull series, and they are “By This Axe I Rule!”, “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, and “Kings of the Night”.  I’m going to skip “By This Axe I Rule!” for reasons I’ll explain at the end of the post.  Instead, let’s turn our attention to “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, shall we?

In his afterward to this volume, “Hyborian Genesis”, Patrice Louinet says that this story was probably written sometime around June of 1929.  That makes perfect sense, considering the opening paragraph.  Here are a few lines describing conditions in the city of Valusia:

“The heat waves danced from roof to shining roof and shimmered against the smooth marble walls.  The purple towers and golden spires were softened in the faint haze.  No ringing hoofs on the wide paved streets broke the frowsy silence and the few pedestrians who appeared walking, did what they had to do hastily and vanished indoors again.”

I don’t know how many of you have ever dealt with a Texas summer, but that’s a pretty good description of what it’s like.  A high pressure dome typically forms over the state, what winds happen to blow are hot, and the air is hazy.  This passage strikes me as Howard incorporating what he knew (and may have been living at the time) into his fiction.  The description is perfect. 

The city is a powder keg waiting to explode.  The people have prospered under Kull’s rule, and consequently they have forgotten how they suffered under the tyranny of his predecessor and how they welcomed him when he took the throne.

Add to this, our old friend Delcartes is still around pestering Kull to command her father the Count to allow her to marry the commoner of her choice.  (It’s a different person than in the earlier story.  Young love is so fickle.)  Kull of course refuses, in part because he doesn’t want to interfere in a family matter on general principles, but also because Delcartes’ father is one of Kull’s closest friends and strongest supporters.

There’s a conspiracy against Kull, of course.  Betrayals and intrigues.  And an intense combat scene where Kull defends Delcartes against a small company of soldiers at the top a stair in an abandoned ruin. 

One thing the story doesn’t have, that many of the other Kull tales do, is a lot of existential philosophy.  Not that Howard didn’t include some philosophizing. He does, but it deals more with the weight of the crown Kull wears.  In the opening scene, before Delcartes enters the audience chamber, Kull and Brule are talking.  Kull laments the fickleness of the people he rules.  Here we see Howard’s fascination with the cycles of empire, where the established empire becomes soft and weak, only to be overthrown by the barbarians, and the cycle starts over again.

Consider Kull’s words to Brule:  “The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me.  That is the price a nation must pay for decaying – the strong  young people come in and take possession, one way or another.”

Later after Delcarrtes leaves (not before her father arrives), Kull shows extreme sensitivity to the man, who is expecting Kull to order him to allow the marriage.  “Not for half my kingdom would I interfere with your family affairs, nor force you into a course unpleasant to you.”

Two things I want to comment on.  First, we can see Howard’s philosophy of individual freedom at work here.  Kull sympathizes with Delcartes, and if it were up to him, he would allow her to marry.  He believes a person should be free to marry whomever he or she wishes.  The point is made in more than one story.  However, if Kull were to interfere and order the Count to allow his daughter to marry the man she loves, he would be in greater violation of this principle than her father in that he would deny the Count the freedom to manage his household as he wished without interference.

Second, Howard’s detractors often accuse him of writing hack-and-slash fantasy without any depth to his characters.  They need to read Howard more closely.  In “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, Howard shows Kull having more depth and sensitivity to his subjects needs and positions than he does in any of the stories we’ve considered to date.  (I’m exempting “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of the Night” since we haven’t looked at them yet.)  He does this again with Brule at the end of the tale, when Kull and Brule decide not to tell one of the recurring characters in the series that a relative of his has turned traitor because of what the news will do the man.

Lest you think this story is a touchy-feel-good piece of fluff, there’s plenty of action later in the tale.  Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this particular piece by developing the characters and their backgrounds.  By 1929 he was hitting his stride as a writer.  While the Kull series may contain a number of fragments and false starts, they represent an important phase in his development.

Now, as to why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”  There are two stories left in the Del Rey edition.  Both of them are significant, albeit in different ways.  “By This Axe I Rule!” was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime.  He would rewrite it a few years later as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the story that introduced the world to his most famous character, Conan of Cimmeria.

The other story, “Kings of the Night” is really a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a guest appearance.  That story will be the launching point for a series of posts about Bran, and it will be the next post in this series.

I’m also going to do the same thing with Conan.  The final Kull post will be a comparison of “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of  the Night”.  That will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories.  The reason I’m doing this is because of the Conan movie that will be released in August.  The movie will generate some, hopefully a great deal of, interest in Conan.  My desire is that people doing a search for Conan will find these posts, read them, and then go read the original stories rather than the pastiches.  (If they want to read the pastiches later, that’s fine with me, so long as they understand that Conan has Howard wrote him isn’t the same Conan as others wrote him.)

I’m not gong to do the Conan stories in order, or even look at all of them.  I’ve already discussed “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” at length and see no need to repeat myself on that one. What I’m going to do is pick and choose among my favorites (which will be most of them), although I don’t know if I’ll look at Hour of the Dragon simply because of its length.  I’ll start the posts sometime in July, when interest in the movie should be picking up and do a post every two weeks or so, shifting to at least a post once a week near the movie’s release, and continuing until I burn out, interest in the movie drops off, or I cover all of the Conan stories. 

The Bran Mak Morn posts should start up by the first of July.   They’ll run concurrently with the Conan series, although not as frequently. 

And that’s why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”

Trading on the Oldest Profession

The Ladies of Trade Town
Lee Martindale, ed.
Harp Haven Publishing, 297 p., $16.99

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly.  The anthology under review is about the world’s oldest profession.  But before we get into that, a few words regarding what this book is not are in order.  This book is not porn.  Nor is it erotica.  Lee Martindale has been working on getting this book published for a while, and part of that process involved, if you’ll pardon the phrase, pimping it at various conventions to prospective contributors.  Her words when explaining the restriction about explicit sexual content were, and I quote, “How good a writer are you?”  In other words, she was more interested in well written stories about the characters themselves than the details of said characters’ plumbing.  Some of the stories have essentially no sexual content.  Sexual themes, yes; sexual content, no.

Also in order is a small disclaimer.  Lee is a longtime friend, as you know if you’ve read the interview with her.  That does not mean I am automatically going to cut her slack if I think this is a poor book.  (She didn’t cut me any slack when she rejected my submission, and she was right in rejecting it.)  We’ve known each other for too long and have too much mutual respect to let the other get away with substandard work.  I’m going to be honest about what I think.

Lee Martindale Photo courtesy of George Martindale

There’s a variety of genres represented here:  fantasy, science fiction, space opera, steampunk, alternate history, and several genre mash-ups.  First, before we address matters of quality, let’s survey the contents.

Elizabeth Moon provides the introduction, which should tell you something right off the bat about the quality of what you’ll find since she doesn’t put her name on just anything.  Lee Martindale, in her introduction, explains why she edited the anthology.

Jim Reader leads off the fiction with a steampunk retelling of two classic American folktales, putting a whole new, er, thrust to them with “The Ballad of Eskimo Nell Revisited”. Merlyn Finn takes us to a space traveling future to look at ways the profession can be twisted by evil men with power and money in the touching “First Fruits”.  Mary Turzillo shows us a society in which vampires are real and what type of flesh trade they might be interested in with “Dreams of Blood and Milk”.  Cecilia Tan considers “What a Man Wants” in a near future science fiction tale.  The multitalented Melanie Fletcher (she did the cover art, more about which later) tells the tale of a police detective who learns that some working girls aren’t restricted by time in “A Touch of Ginger”.

Tracy S. Morris gives us a sword and sorcery look at a disgraced courtesan who finds herself having to save the life of the prince who dismissed her from court in “The Queen of Knaves”.  Rob Chilson gives us an installment of his “Prime Mondeign” series set 60 million years in the future, in which high stakes and politics come together to unite a leader with the courtesan residing “In the House of Allures”, a courtesan he desired from afar as a penniless young man.  Brandie Tarvin uses “Silk and Steam” to tell a tragic steampunk fantasy about betrayal in wartime.  The young woman in Gloria Oliver’s “Art” learns that some men want more than just physical pleasure.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle’s “Do Unto Others” gives us a contemporary story of a werewolf who finds herself becoming a madam after intervening on behalf of a young prostitute and learns that the most vicious predators are often those on two legs.  Mark W. Tiedemann returns to his Secant universe in “Duty Free”, in which a courtesan discovers that not only terms but sometimes intentions should be negotiated.  Catherine Lundoff investigates murder most foul “At Mother Laurie’s House of Bliss.”  The editor herself has the title story, in the only military sf tale in the anthology.  Jana Oliver lets us know that a working girl’s work is never done, even in the afterlife in “The Last Virgin.”  And finally Melinda LaFevers answers the question, what is “The Oldest Profession?”

So how do the stories stack up?  Quite well, overall.  There was one I simply didn’t like and aspects of a couple of others that didn’t sit well with me, but for a book containing fifteen stories of such variety, it’s not unusual for most readers not to care for one or two.  A good editor puts together as broad a selection as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of readers, knowing that not every story will work for every reader.  The key is to have more that work than don’t.  For this reader at least, the editor more than succeeded.  All of the authors herein submitted professional level work.  The fact that I liked some less than others wasn’t due to the quality of the writing but rather personal taste and preference.

I have to say this was a quite enjoyable anthology; several of these authors are people to watch.  While I’m not going to name the story I didn’t like, I will point out a few of my favorites.  Melanie Fletcher’s time travel piece read like it was the sequel to another story because the two main characters had met previously.  If this was a sequel, I would like to see more of these characters and hope the author will let me know where to look to find any previous installments.  I really enjoyed the glimpse of the criminal underworld in “The Queen of Knaves” and hope Ms. Morris returns to this setting and these characters.  Perhaps in a novel?  I have to say my favorite was Lee Martindale’s “The Lady of Trade Town.”   This one made me laugh, made me smile (not at all the same reactions), and in the end darn near made me cry.  I experienced a range of emotions, and none of them were forced or the result of cheap manipulation.  I’m going to go back and study this one carefully to see if I can learn how she pulled it off.  I realize I sound like I’m reneging on my earlier statement about not cutting Lee Martindale any slack, but I’m not.  Read the story and see what I mean.  I suspect her training as a bard came into play when she wrote this one.

Now, before I conclude, we need to discuss production values.  Harp Haven Publishing is a small press, and a fairly new one at that.  The Ladies of Trade Town is their first anthology.  With the economy the way it is, it’s not enough these days for the stories to be good.  I want to know that I’m getting a quality product in every respect, something that’s going to last.

We’ll start with the cover.  You saw it at the top of this post, but I’ve put here as well for easy reference.  Melanie Fletcher did the art and design.  That’s a beautiful picture.  You can see something (longing, perhaps?) in the woman’s eyes.  The soft colors only accentuate that impression.  I don’t know how many small press books I’ve seen over the years with cover art that looks like it was done in crayon by the publisher’s five year old.  This is a professionally done cover that looks better than a lot of stuff coming out of New York.  Thank you, Melanie, for not giving the woman a tramp stamp, at least not one that’s visible. (BTW, various items with this picture on them are available at Melanie’s Zazzle store.)

Some books have binding that falls apart on the first reading.  Not this book.  I read it over a couple of weeks while donating blood plasma.  That means the book got banged around more than if I were sitting at home on the sofa reading it.  Not that I tried to see how far I could push the binding before it gave way, but that it underwent more than the usual wear and tear I place on a  book.  It held up.  The spine never creased.  The pages never came loose.  I’ve had books from the big publishers that didn’t hold together as well as this one did.

All in all this was a professionally done book.  But that’s to be expected.  Lee Martindale is a consummate professional in every aspect.  Over the years I’ve learned a lot about professionalism from her and the people she chooses to associate with.  It’s only natural that when she publishes a book, she does the job right.  I doubt she is capable of doing otherwise.  This is a quality anthology, both in terms of content and production.

By its very theme, this anthology isn’t going to be for everyone.  But if you aren’t put off by the theme, then buy and read this book.  There’s enough variety here, both in genre and approach, that you’ll enjoy it.  While you do, I’m going to be waiting for Harp Haven’s next anthology.  (That’s a hint, Lee.)And since I wrote this review, the book was launched over the weekend of June 10-12.  Lee tells me that half the print run sold out, and furthermore within 20 minutes of the page to order going live, the book was selling.  Not that you should rush to get your copy or anything.  I’m just saying….