Sometimes I wonder about the lengths that I will go to read a Lois McMaster Bujold story. In concept, Irresistible Forces, an anthology edited by Catherine Asaro, sounds like something I would avoid like the plague. The book contains six SF romances by three leading romance authors and three SF authors, all of the stories dealing heavily with emotions and various other romance genre tropes. As a reader who actively avoids the romance genre, I approached this book with caution. Sadly, the caution was justified, though the Bujold story almost makes up for it. At least half of the stories contain most of the romance stereotypes that I despise, such as the constant "one touch by him set her aflame" prose, or the overly emotional language. One of the romance authors surprised me while one of the SF authors disappointed me, making for a collection of stories that was obviously not meant for me. If you're a fan of romance novels, however, the writing was generally strong enough in that aspect that I'm sure there's plenty in here for you if you like a little bit of the fantastic with your romance.
I'll highlight the best and the worst and then just comment in general. "Winterfair Gifts" by Lois McMaster Bujold is the Miles Vorkosigan story that I requested this book for, and it was well worth it (I probably should have read it last). This is the story of Miles' wedding to Ekaterin after the almost disastrous courtship in A Civil Campaign, and it continues the wonderful humor of the series by giving us the whole story in the view of one of Miles' armsmen, Roic. It's Roic's job to guard the Vorkosigan estate at night, as well as to ferry Miles (or one of his designates) around when needed. Seeing the world of the Vor elite from the point of view of a commoner is interesting. And when the guests start showing up, it gets even more interesting, with the feral (but gentle when she wants to be) Sergeant Taura striking Roic's interest despite his shyness and the chaos going on around them. Of course, somebody is out to kill Miles and/or his bride to be, so everybody must still be on there toes even as love blossoms all around. I love Bujold's prose, romantic and light, yet not overwhelmingly so. This is a story of emotions, both the happy couple's as well as Roic's, but Bujold doesn't slather it on, and she always keeps the humor front and center. Miles is the embodiment of chaos, so of course things will be blowing up soon, and I loved every minute of it. It is also a tremendously sweet story, and if this is the last Miles story, I will be sad, but glad that I read it.
Unfortunately, I'm just sad I read Catherine Asaro's "Stained Glass Heart," which completely turned me off. On a terraformed planet a long way from Earth, young Veryl finds himself entangled in familial obligations, a young man from a well-to-do family who is betrothed without his knowledge to an older woman, the heir to a prominent family. Yes, the typical "forced to marry against his will for the sake of politics" story is pretty predictable. Already in love with a young woman (both of them are only fourteen, but that doesn't always mean anything in these societies) before he finds out about his obligation, he is determined to undermine the marriage any way he can to be with his love. They run off and get married, almost causing an interstellar incident. But perhaps Veryl's passion could make things turn out all right by demonstrating what true love really is to his prospective spouse? Both main characters in this story are annoying, with Veryl being especially whiny. Yes, teenagers can be whiny, but that doesn't mean I want to read about them like that. There is an interesting side story, about Veryl's love of dance (which men on this planet just do not do) that forces him to make an interesting decision, but again, the outcome is thoroughly predictable and I didn't really care for the journey there.
The rest of the stories are average, three by romance genre authors and one by a fantasy author who has a fair share of romance in her books. "An Alchemical Marriage," by Mary Jo Putney comes the closest to being bearable, as she avoids most of the romance tropes that I hate - aast until the ending, where she falls into the pit and gives me everything that I don't like about the genre. "Skin Deep" by Deb Stover has an intriguing story but it simply wallows in the overly emotional language that I can't stand. Every touch sets somebody on fire, sending blood rushing to some interesting places. Jared, the main male character, is almost the perfect specimen, with women falling over just when he looks at them, and of course Margo, the female lead, is destined to be with him.
Jo Beverley does an acceptable job avoiding these pitfalls in "The Trouble With Heroes," which is slightly more annoying than Putney's story but much more interesting. A slow beginning brings this one down just a notch below Putney, however. We end with Jennifer Roberson's "Shadows in the Wood," a tale of Marian and Robin Hood (and yes, that order is intended). While I liked the characterization of the two main characters, nothing much happens in the story. I did like how Roberson weaves two of England's greatest myths into one story, but I didn't get any sense of danger from the story, other than the accidental ambush that sparked the whole story to begin with. Ultimately, it is a nice, short way to end the book, but it's nothing special.
All in all, the Bujold story made it all worthwhile, and I trudged through the rest of the stories. Irresistible Forces reinforced my antipathy to the romance genre, despite one of the authors surprising me a little. Bujold completists, go ahead and get the book. Romance fans, you will probably like it (unless you just can't have anything out of the ordinary in your romance novels). For the rest of us strictly sf/f sorts, however, stay far away.