Laura J. Underwood
Dark Regions Press, Trade: ISBN 1888993340 PubDate 2002
Review by EJ McClure
226 pages List price $12.95
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This charming anthology would make a nice gift for the fantasy lover in your family (especially if it is you). Laura J. Underwood's deep love of the magic and mystery of the Celts shine through each of these short stories. Ten of the stories are reprints from Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine, various Sword and Sorceress anthologies and other genre publications, while five appear for the first time in print.
Laura Underwood got her start when the late Marion Zimmer Bradley bought one of her stories, and since then Underwood has produced a respectable body of work. She takes advantage of the fact she is presenting her stories against the familiar backdrop of Celtic culture and mythology to focus her efforts on character development. Yet her well-crafted short stories are crisply action-oriented. No pathos here; just smoothly turned phrases of dialogue, a nicely-timed climax, and a satisfying sense of resolution at the end of each story.
"His Heart of Stone" pits the tomboy Kira Ni Niall against one of the dread unseelie for the sake of her brother Aubrey's life. Fortunately, she is not alone in her quest. Old Shona, wise in the ways of the Old Ones, helps Kira find a weapon that can pierce a heart of stone. But it is Kira's own courage that takes her into the dark domain under the dolmen, where she barters with the gille sith for her brother's heart.
"Grind His Bones" is a gruesome tidbit, though it starts pleasantly enough: Alice falls in love with Eldon, the miller, and sets out to woo him with all the guile at her disposal. She ignores her grandmother's muttered hints about the gruesome fate of young men who fall under the spells of the Ballydoons, and ventures to Eldon's mill to coax him to look on her with favor. He refuses her. Angry and ashamed at his rejection, Alice hides in a hay byre and watches the mill, certain that something is amiss with a healthy young man who can so staunchly reject a woman's advances. She waits, watches, and learns the dreadful truth of her Grandmother's warnings.
"The Cave of Roses" was one of my favorites, perhaps because it was one of the few in which I was really in doubt of the outcome. It begins darkly: "There were once four ways to die in the Kingdom of Aurari." Young Petru wants to change that. Newly come to power after his father's death in a boar hunt, he yearns to free himself and his people from bondage to the cruel old ways . . . almost as much as he yearns to free himself from a loveless marriage to the sly, sinister Loredana. For Petru's heart belongs, as it always has, to wholesome young Dorina. Overwhelmed by passion, he takes Dorina for his own, and enjoys a brief season of guilty bliss before Dorina tells him that she is with child. Then Petru's heart freezes, for the law of the Aurari decrees the fourth death for a woman who bears a child out of wedlock: she must be sent to the Cave of Roses, a den of venomous serpents from which no one has ever escaped alive. Will Petru be able to wield his new power to save his beloved, or will Loredana's cunning strategies thwart his good intentions? "Cave of Roses" has a melancholy Russian feel to it, a grim foreboding of fate that cannot be evaded.
A number of the stories in Tangled Webs have characters in common: Anwyn Baldomyre, a minstrel, figures in four of the tales, and the Keltoran mercenary Conor Manahan is the protagonist in two others. This gives a nice feeling of continuity to the anthology without actually committing the reader to the task of tracking a character through a novel-sized challenge.
Underwood's straightforward prose has a natural cadence that would make it easy to read to a youngster who has recently discovered hobbits, elves and fledgling wizards, and is eager to explore the world of the fantastic. There is even a moral in each of these fairy-tales, a morsel of truth about human nature; the Brothers Grimm would have approved of Laura J. Underwood.