A Midwinter Fantasy

A Midwinter Fantasy is a collection of three novellas that take place at, of course, Midwinter. In all three of the stories, it is the festival of giving, but because all of the stories are fantasy romances, the holiday celebrated is not always or not exactly Christmas.

The first story in the collection is A Christmas Carroll by Leanna Renee Hieber, and the story is set in the same storyline as her Strangely Beautiful series. In fact, the action of this Christmas tale takes place directly after the events of The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker.

Not being familiar with the previous tale, I felt like I had been dropped into the middle of a story, only because I had been. Once I caught up, things got a lot more interesting.

The title of the story is a play on both Dickens’ classic and the name of one of the characters. The author’s world is a close parallel to our Victorian era, except that the Victorian fascination with spiritualism represents concern about a real, and sometimes dangerous threat. But the spirits of Hieber’s “Whisper-World”, can also help the living, just as Marley’s Ghost arranges in Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol.

The “Carroll” in Hieber’s story is Michael Carroll, and the spirits help both him and Rebecca Thompson to discover not the true meaning of Christmas, but the true meanings of both friendship and love in this wrap-up of her series.

Although enough of Michael and Rebecca’s story was told in flashbacks for me to empathize with them, I would have enjoyed this more if I had read the entire series. But I enjoyed it enough, and I was intrigued enough, that I plan on going back and reading everything!

The Worth of a Sylph by L.J. McDonald is the second piece in the book. Lily Blackwell is an elderly woman who raises orphans in a remote house in Sylph Valley. She is also the human Master of a Battle Sylph named Mace. Mastery can be an equitable, loving arrangement, and in this case it is, although it is not always so. Sylphs provide the different types of magic that keep the Valley heated, the crops irrigated, provide water for washing, and protection, among other things. Linking to a master provides a Sylph with nourishment, including emotional sustenance, and a way of remaining in the world.

When the last of Lily’s orphans runs away, out of the Valley, she tasks Mace with retrieving the boy, no matter where he has gone. She also charges him with finding himself a new master before she dies, one that she can approve of. On Mace’s quest, he finds, not just the boy he was sent for, but a woman he can truly love and spend a life with, and not just one son, but two.

The story takes place during the Winter Festival, which is supposed to be celebrated with family. There is a message in the story that the family you create with love can be much stronger that the one you are born to.

Although Worth of a Sylph is also a part of a continuing series that begins with The Battle Sylph, it was much less obvious about it. I was able to jump right into the story and be involved with the characters right away. The story was complete in and of itself.

Last, but not least, the final story in this anthology is The Crystal Crib, by Helen Scott Taylor. I said not least, because the story deals with some larger than life figures, the Norse gods. Odin is the bad guy, having kept a father from his daughter for over 2,000 years, and enslaving his sons for the same length of time, all for crimes that other people committed.  Odin is someone who really knows how to hold a grudge!

Sonja thinks she has come to Iceland to convince the owner of “Santa’s Magical Wonderland” to allow her Aunt’s travel company to arrange tours to his resort. Little does she know that the owner of the resort is Vidar, the son of Odin, and, is also the “Guardian Angel” who has been protecting her all of her life. And, that her life has been considerably longer than the scant decades she remembers.

Her unexpected presence in Odin’s backyard forces a confrontation among the gods, monsters and angels who have protected her for her entire existence, and brings surprising dangers and rewards to everyone in her path.  This was a story about love truly conquering all.

This story is set in the same universe as Taylor’s The Magic Knot, but it reads as a stand-alone. I read it as someone playing tricks on Odin, which, considering the story, and considering other stories about Odin, seemed perfectly fair to me. However, this was also the least satisfying of the three stories. I wanted a lot more explanation for a 2,000 year old grudge than I got. And the heroine took the fact that she had been in suspended animation for those same two millennia a bit too much in stride, especially factoring in that her lover had been watching over her the entire time! Oh, and she might not die, ever. There was a bit too much fantasy in this fantasy.

Out of three stories, I vote Sylph very satisfying and complete, Carroll good and intriguing enough to make me want more, and Crystal not satisfying enough to make me go back for a return visit to the author’s world. YMMV.

Escape Ratings:  Christmas Carroll B+, Worth of a Sylph, A and, The Crystal Crib, C. 


Queen of the Sylphs

L.J. McDonald’s Queen of the Sylphs is her latest book set in the same world that she began in The Battle Sylph.

As the story begins, Solie has settled in as Queen of Sylph Valley. She has also grown into her new duties and responsibilities. She may sometimes mourn the days when she was a carefree girl who could afford to have simple friendships, but she is confident in the role that she has taken on, and she has every right to be.

The surrounding kingdoms are threatened by Sylph Valley. Their unorthodox treatment of their sylphs, allowing them to talk, to assume human form, to be educated and to  have an equal say in the way the Valley is governed, threatened the belief systems of every country that surrounds them. The battle sylphs protect all the woman in the Valley from every perceived threat, making Sylph Valley women the equals of men as they are nowhere else. Their more conservative neighbors are appalled. Sylph Valley women are called trash, whores, and sluts, but not within the confines of the Valley.

But Solie is Queen because all the Sylphs in the Valley are bound directly to her, and they will all protect her. Which means that she is the target of repeated assassination attempts by neighboring kingdoms. Especially from the Kingdom of Eferem, the land she escaped from in The Battle Sylph.

In Queen of the Sylphs, it is not just external threats that Solie has to fear. There is an internal threat as well, but one that is deeply entrenched within the Valley. Battlers can sense the emotions of those around them, but only when there actually are emotions to sense. A person who feels nothing, but commits terrible crimes anyway, in other words, a sociopath, is undetectable. A female sociopath presents a tremendous threat, because battlers are conditioned to protect females at all costs.

I didn’t enjoy Queen of the Sylphs as much as I did The Battle Sylph. The newness of the world has worn off, so I was expecting more growth from more of the characters, or a story with new twists and turns, preferably both. Solie is the one character who keeps moving forward, but the other characters are increasingly stock characters, particularly the villains. King Alcor is the distant big, bad, sending assassins to do his dirty work for him. The closer evil was the standard beautiful and manipulative witch. And, as a bonus added attraction, since she had no emotions, there wasn’t any way to get into her head to understand why she was committing her evil acts. I didn’t want to sympathize, but I did need to get the point, or at least, her point. I know she wanted to take over the Valley and get power. But why?

There is a secondary story, that of a healer sylph on the other side of the portal. This sylph is on her way to morphing into a sylph queen, but wants to remain a healer. She has a battler who has been exiled from the hive who wants her to become a queen and form her own hive, in the hopes that he will be her consort. It was an interesting idea for the author to try to show the other side from the sylph’s point of view before they cross over, but it is difficult to tell a story with characters who don’t have names.

Overall, this was an okay read. But I stayed up late to finish The Battle Sylph. I didn’t stay up to finish Queen. I went to sleep and waited until the next afternoon.  Escape Rating C.

The Battle Sylph

There are a lot of myths where a virgin sacrifice (always female) is necessary to tame some monster or other. Occasionally, the sacrifice is bait for the monster, so that the intrepid hero can slay the “dreadful beast”. If the sacrifice survives, she’s either a pariah or forced to wed the beast-slayer, whether she wants to or not. She’s his reward.

The Battle Sylph from L.J. McDonald turns the entire trope on its head, and in this story, throws the entire female-subjugating society that produces it for a loop as well.

Solie runs away from home. Her merchant father is going to marry her off to one of his friends, a fat old man three times her own age who has been leering at her ever since she grew breasts. Solie’s plan is to run to her aunt in the next village, five miles away. Instead, she is captured by the king’s men.

The kingdom of Eferem, and all the lands around it, use creatures called sylphs to perform all kinds of magic. Elemental sylphs control wind, water, fire and earth. Healer sylphs cure diseases and injuries that would otherwise be untreatable. These sylphs are lured from their world to Solie’s by priestly incantations that open a portal between the worlds, and presenting the sylph with something that they like, such as music for air sylphs, or a really interesting injury for a healer. Once the sylph crosses the portal, the they are summoned for gives them a name, and then they are bound to each other for the life of the summoner.

Battle sylphs are different. To summon a battler requires a human sacrifice: the aforementioned female virgin. Then they can be bound, but only by a strong warrior. And the battler will spend his time on this side of the portal projecting hate at everyone who is near him. But one battler is the equivalent of whole armies in combat.

Solie is supposed to be the sacrifice for the son of King Alcor. But the prince was a weakling, and Solie had a surprise up her sleeve. Or rather, in her hair. Her barrette contained a tiny knife, and with that knife she cut the ropes binding her. When the battle sylph was summoned, she stabbed the prince in the arm. She didn’t kill him, but she proved herself stronger, and the battler bonded himself to her. She named him “Heyou” because she stuttered “Hey You” when he faced her, but it was enough. Heyou killed everyone in the summoning chamber to protect her.

In their escape, Solie and Heyou gathered a motley group of followers. The first was Devon Chole, the master of an air sylph, who refused to watch as the king’s men attempted to cut Solie down in cold blood while Heyou fought another battler. Then Garrett, an older man who rescued the wounded Heyou after the fight. And finally an entire valley of desperately poor refugees just trying to carve out a life separate from any of the surrounding kingdoms.

Solie’s escape from her father challenged his authority. Her bonding to Heyou challenged the King’s authority. Even worse, Solie’s position as the master of a battler, for that matter, her position as the master of any sylph, challenges the entire male-dominated structure of her society. And every move that she and Heyou make, every ally they secure, continues to chip away at the authoritarian structures everyone around her believes are solid. But nothing is solid, because it is all built on the loyalty of the sylphs to their masters. Solie’s story represents change, and an awful lot of people don’t like change.

On the other hand, conflicts and change make for great storytelling. There were parts of this story that I liked a lot. Solie is a very interesting character, because she has to both grow up, and also grow as a result of the role she is thrust into. Her journey from merchant’s mostly ignored daughter to valley leader is well done. She’s someone I’d like to meet. The battlers are more difficult, because of their nature. They are strong warriors, but they have a built-in compulsion to obey their masters, even if they hate them. It makes for a lot of perfect warriors with Stockholm Syndrome. Also, Heyou doesn’t grow up, but that may be because his lifespan is longer than Solie’s. He looks like an adult, but he isn’t. The true villain of the piece is King Alcor, and he was a little too one-dimensional, as were his underlings.

But on the whole, this was a good read. More than good enough that I picked up the second (The Shattered Sylph) and third (Queen of the Sylphs) books in the series.