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.
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….