Once Upon a Waltz
by Carola Dunn, Karla Hocker, & Judith A. Lansdowne
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN: 0-8217-6796-6
With anthologies, concept is everything. Well, not quite everything. It helps to have good authors writing good stories. But sometimes the “concept” simply doesn’t work and then even good authors can’t save the idea. I fear that is what happened with Once Upon a Waltz. Even some of Zebra’s best Regency authors can’t quite make this book work.

I gather that the “concept” was to base the stories on lesser known, magical fairy tales. I must admit to being only vaguely familiar with the stories upon which these plots are based. It’s been a long time since I read fairy tales. Thus, I can only judge these three novellas on the basis of how they work as romances.

Carola Dunn’s entry, “The Firebird” was the least satisfactory of the three. Well, what do you expect when the heroine spends much of the tale as a fox and the hero as a bird? Reynata Gresham, a foundling discovered by a wise woman, is a wer-fox. She can change shape at will but when the moon is full, she becomes a fox willy-nilly. Hence she has little hope of marrying. She grew up with the sons of the Earl of Androwick and has loved the eldest, Aldwin, Lord Drake for years. She has little time for the two nasty middle brothers and is fond of the youngest, John.

When the middle brothers attempt to murder Aldwin, Granny Gresham casts a spell to save him. The spell turns him into a firebird. The rest of the tale consists of Reynata’s attempts to rescue the lovely firebird from those who have captured it, with the inefficient assistance of an owl and brother John. I have a feeling that Dunn followed the plot of the fairy tale pretty closely, but frankly, there wasn’t much romance even though true love does triumph in the end.

“The Dancing Shoes” by Karla Hocker tells the story of a school mistress who can’t understand why her charges’ dancing shoes are wearing out when they never attend any dances. Minna Elfinstone was forced to take a teaching position in a seminary in Brighton when her family suffered a reversal of fortune. She is well-loved by her students. She finally discovers that when she puts on the dancing shoes, a panel in the dormitory opens onto a passage which takes her right into the Prince Regent’s Pavilion.

There she discovers her errant charges, dancing the night away in the arms of some young officers, chaperoned by Stephen Ardleigh. Stephen has heard so much praise of Miss Elfinstone that he is half in love with her before they meet. Their meeting is enchanting and in Stephen’s arms, with the magical shoes, Minna discovers that she, who always had two left feet, can dance her way into love and romance. While Hocker’s characters are attractive and well drawn, there isn’t much romance other than magically falling in love at first sight.

Judith Lansdowne has taken “King Thrushbeard” as her magical fairy tale. I imagine that there is a story of this name, but the plot is very familiar - the disdainful young woman who rejects all her suitors in a haughty and prideful manner who, forced into marriage with a seeming beggar, ends up with prince charming after all.

The haughty lady is Artemis Breckenbridge who was instilled with the idea that marriage is a trap and men are rotten at the school she was sent to after her mother died. Her father is despairing, especially since he has lost most of his fortune and can no longer support Artemis in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Then, Elias Thoroughgood, Earl of Lanningsdale rides to the rescue. Elias was Artemis’ childhood friend and loves the girl she once was. Convinced that she has been bewitched, he calls on the magical powers he inherited from his father to rid her of the spell. Unfortunately, Elias is not a very accomplished wizard and things go awry, but all ends well.

“King Thrushbeard” does contain more than a few examples of Lansdowne’s enjoyable humor, but Artemis is so unpleasant for so long that it’s hard to have much sympathy for her. Still, this was the best of the three.

So I must warn readers to “think twice” before reading Once Upon a Waltz. This is one concept that doesn’t work.

--Jean Mason

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