I’ve finished reading It Happened at the Ball
—very interesting to see the directions the stories took the theme.
I have to start with Sherwood Smith’s story, which is the crowning jewl of the collection. It’s a novella, which means you can really sink into the place, the characters, and the situations. If you’re familiar with Sherwood’s Sartorias-deles world, this story shows how Colend became its own nation—but if you’re not familiar, no worries at all. This story is completely comprehensible on its own.
The situation: A great ball is being held; all the nobility of the region will be at it. Warriors from an aggressive bordering state are also in the city, on a pretext of being interested in trade but actually planning an attack. They, too, are invited to the ball—what will happen?
The genius of the story is in the characters, especially the intelligent, charismatic, and above all kind
protagonist, Martande Lirende. It is a delight to watch him defuse situations, deflect unwanted attention, and engage enemies without spilling blood (blood does get spilled, but not on screen). Here, for example, is how he reacts when a noblewoman he’s dancing with makes fun of the looks of the king:
“Prince Fish Face. Now the king. Surely you know that [name for him]. Everyone in the first circle says it.”
“Ah, but I find him beautiful,” Martande said.
Luor slanted a glance of derision, assuming shared mockery, to smack into a wall of sincere
“Beautiful,” she repeated, the exclamation half question. “I’ve seen him, when my mother presented me at court. He cannot have changed so materially in ten years.”
He lifted a shoulder as they dipped, turned, and met palm to palm again, toes pointed, shoulders back. “We know the word beautiful,” he said in that tone of calm sincerity, “but I expect we all define it differently. For me, that which delights my heart is beautiful, and King Eniad, in all his painstaking doubt and generosity of spirit, is beautiful.”
But it’s not just Martande whom we get an intimate feel for: it’s pretty much any character who steps onto the page--the elderly (female) Count of Ranflar, tasked with dancing with the warlord Rajin; the warlord himself, whose misreading of the ballroom is an object lesson in cultural blindness; Messenger Yedoc, struggling to express herself in a language she can’t speak well; even little Gelis, a child:
“Everything was fascinating! Even the older people. Usually so boring. It was strange, how expressive elders were when you couldn’t see their faces. ”
Seriously: even if you didn’t like any of the other stories in the anthology, it would be worth it for this one tale.
But I suspect you'll find things to like in the other stories--each has something unusual or interesting to recommend it. ( the other stories )
And that’s all of them!