Review: Songs of Love and Death

Songs of Love and Death edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

It’s no secret that I love and adore Jacqueline Carey. When I discovered there was a short story set in the Kushiel’s Legacy universe collected in Songs of Love and Death, it immediately went on my wishlist. Since I like to space out installments of doorstopper fantasy series by at least six months, I wasn’t planning on picking up Kushiel’s Chosen any time soon, so I more or less forgot about it until I got home for the winter holidays and discovered that my local library, in fact, owned a copy. So happy holidays to me!

Songs of Love and Death is a collection of short stories focused on the concept of ill-fated love, especially in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural fiction. From the vastness of space to the beauty of Terre d’Ange to the streets of Chicago, fantasy authors and romance authors alike tell stories of lovers parted by time, fate, or even just old-fashioned circumstances, as well as tales of false love, obsession, and murder most foul. Halloween meets Valentine’s Day in these stories of, as the cover says, “star-crossed love”.

To misquote Forrest Gump, short story collections are like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. Since I don’t often read short story collections, I think of them fondly as treats, even though I don’t have the best track record with them. I knew I would love the Jacqueline Carey story included (I will read anything that woman commits to paper) and maybe the Neil Gaiman story (I find him uneven in short form), but I was unsure about the plethora of supernatural and romance authors also included in the collection. I have issues with “urban fantasy” (how I loathe that semantically idiotic term) as a genre and I’m quite unfamiliar with romance.

But I was quite pleasantly surprised with the first few stories. The collection opens with Jim Butcher’s “Love Hurts”, an episode in the life of Harry Dresden, Wizard PI. I have a friend who absolutely adores the Harry Dresden series (and sadly has very bad luck when trying to get to one of his author events), but I’m a little tentative about supernatural noir. It turns out I had little to worry about. While I’ve been so burnt out on procedurals that I couldn’t enjoy that aspect of it, it was lighter and more good-natured than I had expected, which I quite liked. It didn’t turn me into a Dresden fan, but it’s a lovely way to open this collection and get the tone right. I also really enjoyed the contributions of seasoned romance writers like Jo Beverly; while “The Marrying Maid” has some mildly problematic consent issues, it’s nice to see a romance writer play with a supernatural element without missing a beat.

Jacqueline Carey’s “You and You Alone”, which concerns Anafiel Delaunay’s backstory, was as magnificent as I wanted it to be. It was funny—it’s been five or six months since I read Kushiel’s Dart, but everything came back effortlessly. I wanted to read it before picking up Kushiel’s Chosen because I thought it was important, but you can read it alone and thoroughly enjoy it. I was thoroughly pleased and shocked by Neil Gaiman’s “The Trouble About Cassandra”, which touches on the nature of fiction. Peter S. Beagle’s “Kaskia” was my first introduction to the author, and I look forward to The Last Unicorn now.

But the collection runs out of steam towards the end, or perhaps I ran out of steam. Part of the reason I stay away from traditional romance unless recommended it is the fact that it can be so problematic and suffocatingly heteronormative. In fact, Carey’s “You and You Alone” is the only piece featuring a gay couple in the collection. And all of those things start to crop up more and more towards the end, as people who have met for mere days fall in complete and utter love without the excuse of say, being reincarnated lovers. But the worst offender in this line is Mary Jo Putney’s “The Demon Dancer”, a piece of supernatural noir about a succubus (who apparently can only affect men?) that ends oddly—I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for you. A young wizard (excuse me, Guardian) with the help of his kindly and much older female mentor who he’s attracted to, takes down the succubus, only for the succubus and the old woman to switch bodies, allowing them to finally get it on. This particularly got to me, not because the characters were uncomfortable with the fact they were attracted to each other because of their significant age difference (a totally understandable conflict), but because the narrative presented that as universal and reinforced the idea that it would be wrong for an older woman and a younger man to get together. The only way for them to be together wasn’t to overcome society’s disapproval, but for her (who was already quite prepared to die after a long and full life) to become young and hot again. Harold and Maude it most certainly isn’t.

Bottom line: Songs of Love and Death, a collection of ill-fated love stories, starts strong but runs out of steam as the collection wears on. Highlights include the fantastic “You and You Alone”, Neil Gaiman’s “The Thing About Cassandra”, and “Kaskia”, but not much else. Pick it up for one of those, but otherwise, only if you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Songs of Love and Death

  1. Whenever I see this book, I can’t stop thinking it never had a chance.

    “Love Hurts,” the opening story by Jim Butcher, was written for this anthology, but was first released in SIDE JOBS, the anthology of Harry Dresden short stories. What should have been the main draw to SONGS… became the biggest drawback of the book.

    I haven’t read it, but I thought I’d share that tidbit, since it seemed timely.

  2. As much as I love short fiction, I’m leery of short romance. Much of it tends to be heterocentric, as you pointed out, and I don’t feel like many authors leave enough space for a meaningful relationship to develop. This leads to too much instalove, which frustrates me. I like smouldering tension, not “Eek, we’ve just met, but I already know I must snog you or I shall DIE!”

    I’ve sort of resisted this anthology for those reasons, but I imagine I’ll read it eventually just for the few authors whose work I already enjoy.

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