Pandora's Box

Irresistible Forces

Lois McMaster Bujold, Mary Jo Putney, Catherine Asaro, Deb Stover, Jo Beverley and Jennifer Roberson
2004, Science Fiction Romance
NAL, $14.00, 379 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451211111

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Irresistible Forces is an Alternate Reality Romance anthology comprised of stories from several noted SF and Romance authors.

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold features characters from her Miles Vorkosigan saga, and involves two bodyguards who fall in love during the celebration of Miles's wedding. In Mary Jo Putney's The Alchemical Marriage, a couple with magical powers fall in love as they help defeat the Spanish Armada. The Stained Glass Heart by Catherine Asaro is set in another world where a hero must decide whether to go through with an arranged marriage that will benefit his family and the empire, or marry for true love. Deb Stover's Skin Deep features a very macho lawyer who dies and comes back in a woman's body - so that he can reunite his widow with her true love. In Jo Beverley's The Trouble with Heroes, a hero with magical healing powers must participate in a deadly war to save a planet colonized by Earth. And Robin and Marian help set the world to rights by returning a magical object to its proper place in Jennifer Roberson's Shadows in the Wood.


Blythe:   Linda, Irresistible Forces is different from anything else we've discussed previously. It's a anthology, and something of a Romance/SF hybrid, with six stories. Let's discuss them each in turn, then compare them.

Science Fiction Romance

Blythe:   First up is Lois McMaster Bujold's Winterfair Gifts. I've heard a lot about Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan saga, but I've never read her. I think that was a huge handicap for me with this story. I thought it was okay, but I had no knowledge of the players. It think it probably would work much better for Bujold fans but if the idea was to introduce romance readers to a new author, I don't know how well it succeeded.

Linda:   Well, even though there were lots of names and ranks thrown around (which slowed the story) I did like the main character Roic and his mutant heroine. I hadn't read Bujold before and I am sure it would have helped to be familiar with her characters and families.

Blythe:   Yep. I liked Roic and Taura, but in many ways I felt they were just incidental to the story, and that the real point was for long-time fans to see their old friends. I really don't know how Bujold's stories work and whose stories have been told, but the list of characters was long and hard to follow at times.

Linda:   Yes, all of those people coming and having drinks or tea, with their titles given at length were a big distraction. But I've heard similar complaints from non-regular Diana Palmer readers who don't enjoy the mention of all of the people at a party. For those of us who love her books it's such fun to see how familiar couples several years after their story have progressed. So, I assume if we were Bujold readers we might have enjoyed seeing more of these extras. For me they detracted from Taura and Roic's story and I would have preferred more of them. I loved the vision of a semi-naked Roic covered in "bug butter."

Blythe:   I was kind of confused about the whole bug butter story, and couldn't quite figure out how he got covered in it. But I thought it was interesting to have a little romance between a palace guard and (essentially) another body guard, rather than a member of the noble family.

Linda:   Not to mention she was a mutant with fangs! I thought her makeover was fun too. There was a lot to like in this story but I think it was the most "SF" of the group with the possible exception of Asaro's, which we will get to later. All in all I thought this was a very interesting group of stories.

Fantasy Romance

Blythe:   Next was Mary Jo Putney's The Alchemical Marriage. The basic premise of this story was that the storm that decimated the Spanish Armada in 1588 was magical in origin. The hero is a Scot who belongs to a group called the Guardians. They are people with magical abilities who are sworn to protect England. The heroine has magical powers as well. I thought this whole idea was worth exploring, but would probably be better showcased in a longer format; here it felt a little rushed. However, Putney mentions at the end that she will be exploring the Guardian idea in future historicals.

Linda:   You put your finger on my problem with this story - I wanted more of it. I suppose it's a compliment that we want more of a story because we liked the characters so well. I really loved Isabel, I don't recall another heroine of Jewish descent (but having to pretend to be Protestant) and I really admired her courage and spirit. Macrae was a force of nature and the kind of Highlander that I love to read about.

Blythe:   Yes, there was definite potential - in both characters. Aside from the length though, I did have a problem with the precise way in which the storm was achieved. Let's just say it involved a somewhat hokey cliché that I saw coming a mile away.

Linda:   LOL, that cliché is a staple in both romance books and soap operas; even if I saw it coming I still enjoyed this couple's pairing and loved the ending. I'd have liked to read a full-length book about this couple.

Blythe:   Me too. And I think the Guardian idea could give Putney's historicals just the shot in the arm that they need. I definitely plan to give them a try. It looks like the first one will be out this summer.

Linda:   I enjoyed her China Bride series and look forward to her new historicals.

Blythe:   I've actually been a little afraid to read The China Bride and The Bartered Bride, since The Wild Child was something of a disappointment to me, but I'll get up the nerve sometime.

Linda:   My favorite was The Bartered Bride. The heroine is one of the strongest romance heroines I've read and the hero is divine as he risks everything he holds dear to rescue a damsel in distress, one who survived life in hell. I highly recommend it.

Science Fiction Romance

Linda:   How did you like Catherine Asaro's Stained Glass Heart.

Blythe:   Asaro is also a new-to-me author - and she's definitely one I will try again. This was one of my two favorite stories of the anthology. It centers around Vyrl, a younger son of a noble house who learns that his parents have arranged a marriage for him to a much older woman. The society is matriarchal, and he will be consort to a ruling Matriarch. Linda, I was actually amazed at how involved I became in this story. There were some ups and downs along the way, and my heart sank every time I thought that Vyrl would have to leave his true love.

Linda:   I've read a couple of Asaro's and particularly liked The Veiled Web. Her powers of description are almost poetic; it's as if she paints "word pictures." I can see the environment so well that even though it's set on another planet I am able to visualize the background she creates. I loved Vyrl and Lily, but again this story would have been better if a bit longer - I would have liked to have seen more of the romance between the Matriarch and the commoner.

Blythe:   Part of what enchanted me was the world building. As you say, she paints a beautiful picture. The hollow, springy iridescent grass, the glowing balls that separated from their stems as the couple ran through, the unicorns in pretty colors (they are called something else, but whatever). I thought this sounded charming.

Linda:   The story itself was a stock romance story set in outer space, but even if a tale is familiar one can enjoy the "ride" if the author makes the characters and setting interesting enough and I think Asaro did.

Blythe:   Yes, she did. I think that's partly why I was so surprised at my emotional involvement. We've all read about forbidden love and couples who elope, but I can't remember the last time I felt so outraged at the injustice of the situation. I think part of the reason it is interesting is that the gender roles are reversed; usually it is the heroine who is being married off to some older man.

Linda:   I agree, it's usually the heroine being married off to some randy old goat for the sake of her family's financial welfare, so this was a nice switch, turning the usual story on its head. I also loved Vyrl, who loves to dance, and spends hours a day practicing, on a planet where men don't dance.

Blythe:   I kind of liked the youth of the couple and the obvious predilection of (as far as I could tell) the entire planet to have numerous offspring. This book ties into Asaro's Skolian Empire books, but unlike Bujold's story, this one stands very well on its own.

Linda:   I agree. I thought this story stood very well on its own. But a bonus is that fans of this series will also enjoy seeing favorite characters.

Science Fiction Romance

Linda:   Next up was my favorite story in the book: Deb Stover's Skin Deep. This one had me sniffling at the end even though I could see it coming a mile away.

Blythe:   I thought this one okay. Again, the premise is interesting. A dead man comes back to life as a woman in order to help his widow get together with the man of her dreams, her destiny. I thought there was some definite humor here. What woman doesn't dream of what a man would do if he suddenly had to experience that time of the month? I had to laugh when Nick/Raquel suddenly understood the power of chocolate. But I thought the ending was odd. The last minute revelation made no sense and seemed completely unnecessary to the story.

Linda:   The revelation revolved around a lie by Nick's father that was alluded to earlier but I hadn't guessed what it was. I did think that the sudden revelation went a long way to explain why Jared and Nick had been so competitive all of their lives. Especially for Nick, who always came in second.

I loved having the self-absorbed lawyer come back as a woman. I laughed my head off when Nick got all hot and bothered looking at the sexy redhead in the mirror and then suddenly realized he was looking at himself! This story read quickly and I enjoyed it a lot.

Blythe:   It was a quick read. I think it really centered more on Nick than on Margo and Jared (or maybe it was just that I thought Nick was funnier and more intriguing), but it wasn't bad.

Science Fiction Romance

Blythe:   What did you think about Jo Beverley's story, The Trouble with Heroes?

Linda:   This was my second favorite story - I adored it. Jo Beverley combines humor (they get their history of Earth from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and deep pathos at the end. The use of Churchill and Wellington's speeches brought tears to my eyes. Beverley did a great job of grounding her people on a planet colonized by earthlings and yet not going overboard with SF devices that sometimes spoil a SF Romance for me. I guess I am just not much into gadgetry!

Blythe:   This was one of my two favorites as well. I think it is definitely the most melancholy story of the lot. There is a war on, and the mood is quite dark. But I found the world very intriguing, and I liked both main characters. The Monty Python bit is really, as far as I can recall, the only real humor in the story. But I really enjoyed that too. Hearing a character explain matter of factly that people used to fight by catapulting cows over castle walls...well, words fail me. It also got me to thinking about how we analyze ancient works, and perhaps find "meaning" that isn't actually there.

Linda:   Exactly. It served to lighten the story just enough, but melancholy is certainly the right word for the general tone of this story. But, I just loved Dan Fixer and Jenny. These two are the type of people who survived the bombing of London and carried on with stiff upper lips all the while trying to make the world a better place. Transferring them to an Earth colony just gave them new challenges, but their steel backbones and great emotional empathy made them a pair that I loved reading about.

Blythe:   I found the whole society quite interesting. It's a planet settled by people from Earth who have taken many ideas from their home planet, but changed how things are done as well to reflect the magic inherent in the planet. There is no real centralized government, and many technologies are different. I thought it was interesting when Jenny is looking desperately for Dan but can't get in touch with him - and wishes cell phones were customary on her world as they are on Earth.

Linda:   Yes, having recently driven across Nevada where I went a whole day without a working cell phone and being totally frustrated by the "no service" signal, I could sympathize with Jenny. I had to remind myself that I had functioned just fine without a cell phone for over 50 years.

I thought Beverley did a brilliant job of capturing real human emotions in an otherworldly situation.

Science Fiction Romance

Linda:   How did you like the final story: Jennifer Roberson's Shadows in the Wood?

Blythe:   I am also a big fan of my cell phone, and I sometimes wonder what my mom did without one. What if we were sick at school and she was running errands? Or what if she wanted to talk to her friend and grocery shop at the same time? Suffice it to say I will not be settling on a planet without cell phones. <g>

Okay, the Roberson story. Again, this was interesting...but really short. I think it was the shortest of the lot. But I liked her vision of Robin and Marian in Sherwood Forest and would like to try her in a longer format. I remember seeing Lady of the Forest in a book store when it first came out. I actually wrote the title down and thought I would try it sometime. Well, twelve years later, sometime hasn't come yet. But I'll definitely think about it.

Linda:   Yes, this was a short story and I think it suffered following on the heels of such a strong story by Jo Beverley. I liked it well enough and loved Robin and Marian but am not really a big fan of the King Arthur/Merlin legends - perhaps I've read them one time too many.

Blythe:   Yeah, I thought Robin and Marian were interesting figures. I was actually disappointed when the guy in the tree turned out to be Merlin. Maybe it says a lot that my favorite telling of Arthur's story is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "Some watery tart throws you a sword and you call that the basis of a government?"

Linda:   LOL, one can't go wrong with Monty Python.

On the whole I thought this anthology was well done with several stories that were outstanding and no clinkers in the lot.

Blythe:   I liked the stories to varying degrees, and though a couple were just "okay," I didn't dislike any of them. For me that's great. So your favorite was the Stover, then? Mine was probably a tie between the Asaro and the Beverley. My least favorite story was the Bujold; I just never felt very involved in the story, and the setting didn't especially interest me.

Overall, I think this anthology works pretty well, and it's nice to have an equal balance between "mostly romance" and "mostly SF" authors. The one story that sticks out is Stover's. It's more of a traditional romance than the others, with little SF to speak of. And it has a very different tone.

Linda:   I think the Stover was my favorite as it gave a needed bit of humor to the overall tone of the anthology, I wonder if perhaps it would have been even better placed after Jo Beverley's wonderful story that had a definite melancholy tone. The Beverley story is a close second for me. I didn't dislike any of them, but my least favorite was the Roberson.

The stories worked well as a group, even though they ranged from medieval to contemporary to Earth colonies in outerspace. I thought all of the stories fit the theme and would have been bored had they had all been set in outerspace.

Blythe, I was interested in the term "speculative romance" that Catherine Asaro refers to in the introduction. Along with this book there is the new Luna line from Harlequin that will have both known fantasy and romance authors contributing books. I think all of us that have been begging for "something new" should be very happy about this trend. The only thing is, taking an old hackneyed story line and setting it in a Fantasy or SF setting will not cut the mustard. This anthology shows that some oft used plots as in the Asaro story can be made new and fun with an otherworldly twist. As long as a story has a fun couple and a happy ending I am willing to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride.

What are your thoughts on this new trend in romance and do you think it will be as popular as romantic suspense has become?

Blythe:   I am not usually driven to read a lot of SF or Fantasy romance, but I think part of the problem might be that the few I've tried weren't all that great. But I think many of us tend to focus in on one sub-genre or another. To me aliens wearing tunics are not as sexy as a Regency stud in his evening clothes. However, reading this book has gone a long way toward convincing me that there is good SF romance out there. As to whether it can rival romantic suspense in popularity, I don't know, but I think it might satisfy a huge chunk of readers who are looking for something different. I agree that serving up a hackneyed plot on another planet is not good enough; in order for a story of this nature to succeed, it needs to have solid world-building. I think in the end that is why the Asaro and Beverley stories worked so well for me.

Linda:   Next month we have a real treat since we are reading Loretta Chase's long awaited Miss Wonderful. I loved The Last Hellion and all of her traditional Regencies and can hardly wait to read Miss Wonderful.

Blythe:   I have some of Chase's old Regencies, which I bought on the recommendation of Julia Justiss. However, I must confess that they are still tbr. The only Chase's I have read are Lord of Scoundrels and The Last Hellion. I know LOS is a favorite with many people, but I actually traded it back in to the ubs and kept the less popular Hellion. At any rate, I don't think anyone would disagreee that this is a long-awaited book. I've found good historicals a little hard to come by lately, so I'm hoping I like this one.

See you next month.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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  Author Links
Mary Jo Putney at AAR

Catherine Asaro on Feminism and Romance

Deb Stover on Time Travel Romance
Jo Beverley at AAR
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