This book consists of four stories, loosely themed around Air, Earth, Water and Flame. The stories are widely different, but each has its own fascinating concepts with appealing characters.
Bargain with the Wind by Sharon Shinn
This first story in the collection is a beguiling tale apparently set in England
during the Regency period. Duncan Baler has recently inherited the house Grey Moraine after the death of his uncle and his cousin on the same day. Duncan arranges a social event at the house, and it is gatecrashed by a beautiful young woman, Charis, who immediately catches Duncan's attention. Over the next week, Duncan and Charis spend time together then get married, and Charis begins to settle into life as Lady of the Manor.
Things might not be as they seem. The whole story is narrated from the point of view of the housekeeper, Nettie, and she spends a great deal of her time listening at keyholes and overhearing conversations in other rooms. Nettie begins to suspect that Charis may
be hiding some secrets from her husband. Why, for example, does she seem bent on alienating the next-most important household in the county? Why is she so worried after hearing Nettie's explanations of the Air Spirits and the disastrous bargains young women will make with them to get what they want? What is Charis's secret, and is she something other than she appears?
This story is well-written and always interesting as we learn, along with Nettie in snatches of overheard conversation, what's actually going on. If this is set in the English Regency period, there are some historical and language mistakes, but they are common errors and don't detract too much from the story. It's an interesting read and
not at all predictable. Five stars.
Birthright by Jean Johnson
This story almost couldn't be more different from the first in this collection - one of the advantages (and sometimes disadvantages) of collections of this nature. This story is set in a fantasy world with mages and magical lore. Arasa is on a quest to discover whether she or her twin sister
is the firstborn, as there was some doubt at their birth. Arasa has discovered a way of finding out by retreading a walk that one of her ancestors did between "The Womb" and "The Heart." "the Heart" is the name of their major city, but the only "Womb" she knows is in a faraway land. The story starts as Arasa is trying to find a good map of the route to the Womb of Tarden; she is almost tricked by an unscrupulous chap, but fortunately a Mage who is also in the Inn offers her the use of a Truth Stone.
It soon becomes apparent that the map-seller was trying to confuse her. In discussion with the Mage, she quickly discovers that she's on the wrong track for the "Womb" anyway, that it actually refers to a temple in her own land. She and the Mage, Elrik, agree to travel together to her land so that he can visit the Mage academy and she
might have some protection on the way.
When they arrive, Arasa learns her twin has also discovered a way of finding the true firstborn but isn't willing to discuss it. She says that Arasa's method is better, so the twins set out on the journey with Elrik and her sister's fiancé alongside.
There's some unexpected danger on the way, and Arasa has to decide whether to step up to the position of power and authority that she has or to take the easier road, which may have long-term negative consequences.
There's an endearing romance in this story between Arasa and Elrik; in fact, the whole story was enjoyable from beginning to end. The setting
is different, the writing style good and the overall story well done, although the pronunciation guide given at the start
seems rather too self-important for a short story. Five stars.
Unmasking by Carol Berg
Yet another great story, and another completely different read from the other two so far in this collection. In this story, Joelle is in training as a Searcher, a special kind of sorcerer for those who have the greatest magical skills. However, she always seems to fail the final tests so can't graduate to become a true Searcher, and these failures are causing her great anguish.
Trespassing at a sacred pool one night, she sees a man who shouldn't be there and initially thinks he is a Warden, another kind of sorcerer, until her companion, Kenehyr, points out that his hands
aren't clean (something that a true Warden would ensure). Joelle reports this to the magical authorities, who conclude he must be the spy they have heard of from another land trying to find out whether there is true magic within her country or just some illusions. A complex plan is created to trick this spy into believing that the people don't have real magic, and Joelle is chosen to be part of this plan, along with a Tenyddar, a man with no magic who works on the land.
When Joelle meets her Tenyddar, she recognizes him instantly as the man at the pool, and things start to get more complex.
This story is fascinating, particularly with regard to the relationship between Joelle and Bran/Gareth as they try to trick the spy. Bran/Gareth's position in society is at the lowest point as a farmer without magic, yet Joelle begins to see that some people can make more of themselves than others might think.
He is also able to help her understand her failures and their significance. This isn't really a romance as the romantic element is tiny, but it's an excellent story about understanding other people and the possibilities that exist within them. Five stars.
Huntress Moon by Rebecca York
This last story in the collection is not as enjoyable as the rest although still a reasonable read. It follows the variable fortunes of Zarah, a nobleman's daughter who has fallen on hard times. Her father has been executed for apparently embezzling money,
and her mother is dying of cancer. Zarah is told by Scanlon, head of the city White Flint, that if she agrees to spy on Griffin, head of Sun Acres, her mother will get healing treatment. Zarah's role in spying on Griffin will be that of his mistress. She eventually agrees, knowing that her own honor is less important than her mother's life.
Zarah's journey to Sun Acres is dangerous, but she is helped by Quinn, another of the slaves. When Zarah is chosen by Griffin and taken to his house, she begins to question whether she should be spying on him because he seems to be a far more good and honorable man than Scanlon. However, when he finds out that she is a spy, things look bad for her. Quinn's role in the story becomes more important, and Zarah's magical skills prove to be a great help to Griffin.
This story is written quite simply without any great depth to the characters.
The rapidity of Zarah's fall to slavery and subsequent rise to a position of importance
is pretty startling, especially as everyone knows she had been a slave. I was also unsure about some of her motivations and of the almost instant 'falling in love' between hero and heroine. It's a pleasant enough read but lacks the depth of the other stories. Three Stars.
In conclusion, this is an excellent collection of short stories with three outstanding and one reasonable tale. Three of the four are fantasies and the fourth is a historical story, but they are all very different from each other and consider different themes with varying characters. This should be a really good read for those who like to read mystical romances.