As a whole, this anthology is varied - it's pretty much half science fiction, half fantasy, with some of the fantasy stories set in some sort of fantasy medieval-like world and some of the fantasy stories set in more contemporary times. All the stories in this trilogy were first published in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"Daughter of Regals":
In this fantasy novella, a young woman is trying to get through the evening that will determine whether or not she is a Regal. If she can manage to pass the test (sitting upon a stone that no one who isn't Magic could even touch), then it will be proved that she is a Creature (a being that sometimes looks like a human, but that could also look like a dragon, phoenix, or some other being) and therefore the next Regal. If she does not pass the test, then those around her will kill her. Before she can even begin the test, however, she must delicately weave her way through all kinds of dangerous political machinations, dealing with each of the rulers who have come and expect her to fail.
When I first started this story, my main response was "huh?" but I eventually got over that and accepted that I would never really understand what Donaldson means by "Real" and "not Real." As one who usually reads things by female authors, I expected this story to go a lot differently than it did - a female author would've written things so that the handsome young man who is so attentive to the plain young woman would turn out to be the Creature, saving and marrying the young woman when she fails the test. This isn't what happens, but I won't say what does happen - although my ending would've been more predictable, I think I might've enjoyed it a little more, which isn't to say that I disliked Donaldson's ending. I'm just a romantic, and I wanted a little romance for her - she's intelligent, careful, and seems a little lonely.
- The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This is the first book in Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms Series. Yoko is an ordinary high school student who's been having dreams that foreshadow great danger to her. Then one day at school, Yoko is saved by a young man and ends up getting taken to a strange and frightening world where she is in constant danger from demons and can trust no one. Like the young woman in "Daughter of Regals", Yoko turns out to be pretty powerful. Those who enjoyed reading about a woman who must be suspicious of everyone and about a world with fantastic creatures who may sometimes appear human might like this book.
This is actually an outtake from Donaldson's The Illearth War, so I'd suggest reading that book if you haven't already. I haven't actually read that book, so I was a little lost as I read this story. This is apparently part of a character named Korik's mission to Seareach. As he and his party travel Grimmerdhore Forest, they worry that something is wrong with the Forest and the trees (which, I gather, are somewhat sentient). In the end, the entire party must deal with a pack of dangerous wolves. Since I spent quite a bit of time confused during this story, I won't list any read-alikes. However, I may eventually read the books in Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series - some of the characters in this outtake interested me.
In the future Donaldson presents in this science fiction story, everything that might upset people has been eliminated. Everyone has little biomitter that reassures them that they are okay. Unfortunately, one morning Norman wakes up and his biomitter appears to obviously be wrong - how could he be okay when he's got a hard, horn-like lump on his forehead? As his symptoms begin to get worse, Norman starts investigating things.
It's a simple story, but I still enjoyed it. Although I can't say I agree that the world would ever get this placid, there are some aspects to the future Donaldson has created that are a bit chilling in the connections they have to what's going on in the world today. No one in Norman's world reads (Norman is one of the few people who knows how to read, because he works at the National Library), and no one questions anything.
- Acorna: The Unicorn Girl (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Three space prospectors find a toddler with strange hands and feet, silver hair, and a tiny horn in the middle of her forehead. They discover that she has amazing abilities, and she almost ends up in the hands of scientists who want to study her. The three prospectors whisk Acorna away to a planet where they believe they can keep her hidden, but they all soon discover that the planet deals in child slave labor, a practice Acorna is determined to stop. Those who liked the idea of a character who has the characteristics of a unicorn, one who isn't sure what he or she is capable of or if there are others like him or her out there, might like this book.
In this first-person fantasy story, a blacksmith/wheelwright/ironmonger named Mardik tells the story of the Lady in White and how she bewitched him and his brother. After Mardik's brother saw her and went to visit her home in the woods, he returned blind. At first, Mardik wanted to avenge his brother, but after Mardik saw the Lady in White, he, too, was bewitched. Mardik attempts repeatedly to get to her, determined to have her as his own. The ending of this one is weird - make of it what you will.
I won't give a separate list of read-alikes, but I would like to say that this story reminded me a little of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Just as the beauty of the Snow Queen draws in and changes the boy in the fairy tale, the beauty of the the Lady in White draws in and changes the men in Donaldson's story.
In this science fiction story, it's sometime in the future, and one of the biggest forms of entertainment and ways for people to let out their aggression in a controlled manner is hunting. Special Agent Sam Browne is unusual, in that he feels disdain for these hunters and protectiveness for the animals - on his off days, he likes to go into hunting preserves and smuggle out animals so that they can be taken to a zoo (where, unfortunately, they don't fare much better). Sam's boss, knowing his interests, gives him a case involving a hunting preserve with an unusually high percentage of human deaths. Sam has to try to infiltrate the preserve enough to figure out what's going on and stop it.
This is an exciting story, but, at the same time, it's almost B-movie cheesy in the way it handles genetic engineering fears - not too surprising, since it was first published in 1978, but that knowledge didn't make me stop snickering at some of the visuals (like rabbits with hand grenades).
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (book) by H. G. Wells - In an area that might otherwise be considered a paradise, a mad doctor conducts experiments on animals, turning them into something more human and more "beastly" than they've ever been before. Readers who enjoyed the horrific elements of Donaldson's story, as well its cautions against tampering with nature (or, if you like, "God's creations"), may like this book, which was written in response to the theory of natural selection.
A man who can remember nothing from his past, nor even his own identity, encounters a young woman in need of help. He eventually convinces her to introduce him to her brother, so that he can figure out exactly what's going on and what he must do to save her life. Basically, in order to get his sculptures known and seen, the woman's brother agrees to a gallery owner's conditions that he create all his sculptures out of a strange, evil black clay. He unknowingly is causing his sister's death with his efforts.
I enjoyed this story, although it was obvious well before the end of the story what the supposedly amnesiac man was. All you have to do is read the title for a nice big clue.
- Murder Mysteries (audio book) by Neil Gaiman - Technically, this is actually an audio play, since it's got a full cast of characters and is actually intended to be more like a radio play than an audio book. However, it's rare enough that I'll be writing about any other audio plays that I'll just label this as an audio book. Someone who looks like a ragged homeless man but claims he is the angel Raguel, the vengeance of the Lord, tells the story's narrator about his investigation of the very first murder. It occurred before the world had been fully created - angels were still testing out things like the color green and concepts like love when one angel turned up dead. Raguel was called in to perform his function, talking with those who knew the angel and trying to determine if any of them had a motive to kill him. Those who enjoyed reading about an angel who goes about in the world like a ragged homeless guy, or about an angel doing its best to perform its function, however difficult or potentially heartbreaking that might be, might enjoy this story. There is also a graphic novel adaptation of this story, if you'd rather not pick up the original audio version, since it's pretty expensive.
A young married couple are fighting in their house. The man is upset and is accusing his wife of sleeping with other men, while the woman is upset over what she sees as his unreasonable jealousy. While the two fight, they keep encountering a disgusting, 10-inch long centipede that gets closer and closer to the woman.
Although I didn't think this was the best story in the anthology, the creepy-crawly aspect really stuck with me. The centipede may or may not be a metaphor for the husband's sexually-oriented anger - several of the people in my book discussion group caught this possibility as they read, too, so I'm apparently not the only person to think this.
Sorry, no read-alikes for this story. If you'd like me to list something, you can comment and ask, but I didn't think of anything while I was reading, and I don't want to take the effort to try and find something unless I have to.
"Ser Visal's Tale":
A bunch of young boys sit around Ser Visal as he drinks and tells the tale of events surrounding a young nobleman (I think he was a nobleman - anyway, he had a decently high station) and a witch. Think Salem Witch Trials - any woman accused of witchcraft gets imprisoned and tortured, and, of course, all women who are declared witches are found to be guilty. Dom Peralt was a drunken party animal who owned no slaves, unusual for this society. One day, as he is making his drunken way around, a slaver forces him into a situation where he must buy a slave. Dom Peralt does and immediately sets her free. He passes out from drunkenness and wakes up to discover that he has been jailed for consorting with a witch - the woman he freed. Dom Peralt tries to figure out if there's a way for him to survive this situation. He doesn't want to die, but some seemed to determined to make him appear guilty, and he doesn't want the young witch to die in his place.
Although I didn't like how the story was going when I first started it (Ser Visal seemed like an overly pious bastard, and Donaldson took his usual leisurely time getting around to the exciting parts of the story), the story really grew on me. Ser Visal was not, in fact, the overly pious bastard I thought he was - his slips of the tongue, emotions, and actions reveal that he hates the injustices that are rife in his society. If you can get past Donaldson's verbosity, this is a very thoughtful story. The one bit that bothered me was that there seemed to be a few loose ends that were not necessarily covered by Ser Visal's final revelation.
- The Pillars of the World (book) by Anne Bishop - This is the first book in Bishop's Tir Alain trilogy. In Bishop's new world, a witch hunt is in full force. Witches everywhere are being found and killed. Unfortunately, witches serve a purpose, keeping magic alive in the world and tending the roads between the worlds of humans and faery, and their deaths are throwing all of that out of balance. While all this is happening, Ari, a young witch, unknowingly takes a Fae lover. Ari soon comes to the attention of the inquisitor Adolpho, the Witch's Hammer. Those who liked reading about a witch hunt and enjoyed the story's sympathetic view of witches might like this book.