Sword and Sorceress, XXV, edited by Elisabeth Waters, takes the reader on a waltz through divergent worlds and heroines. Add a dash of romance and derring-do, not to mention a generous portion of sorcery, and we’re presented with an all-encompassing panorama of awesomeness.
The twenty stories within the anthology were pretty darn good. The vast majority had good bones, or structure, and the action was enthralling. Most of my more critical comments involved being incredibly anal.
I would like to offer one comment on the anthology as a whole that is not a criticism, just something to think on. Sword and Sorceress features sword and sorcery stories with strong female protagonists. Many of these women have some pretty mad skills, and a large number of them are mercenaries. We love to read about chicks that kick metaphorical and literal butt.
There’s only one problem with that, sociologically speaking. The idea that, “Women can do anything men can do, and do it with style,” is a very recent ideology that’s actually derived from technological advancements. Traditional feminine gender roles are largely due to the biological necessity of needing to keep women home with babies, since, for thousands of years, breastmilk was the only source of nutrition for infants.
As a result, one did not historically see female sword fighters or warriors. There were a few exceptions, like the female berdaches in the Native American tribes of the plains, but they rejected femininity altogether and became male. Women as a whole were not able to embrace traditionally male roles until birth control, baby formula, and daycare were all invented, and then only after they became socially acceptable.
Please realize that I’m not claiming that Sword and Sorceress stories should all have contained women in traditional roles. What I am saying is that throwing a chick a sword in a medieval-style setting and having everyone else think it’s normal makes no sense, sociologically speaking. Something needs to be present in the way in which the people, elves, dwarves, etc., live their lives that would make female warriors and mages being seen as normal make sense.
Perhaps it is considered normal for grandparents to be the ones who raise the children. Perhaps only single females are allowed to practice war and magic. Perhaps the women in the stories are given a choice to embrace war or the home. Or maybe the female protagonist is the exception to the rule of what is considered normal.
I realize that those who write short stories haven’t got a lot of time to build a world and culture. But, it’s something to think about. Without further ado, let’s delve into the stories in the anthology.
In “The Etherine Road” by Dave Smeds, we encounter a tipsy, aging princess and mysterious royal assassin, both facing the cumulative consequences that result from being bound to a king with a dark side.
I liked that the author used units of measure that make sense for the culture, and the descriptions of the flight magic taking over, which made the flight scenes easy to imagine. The characters were complex enough to feel real.
The only issue I had with the story dealt with my own personal taste, not the skill of the writer. I tend to root for underdogs, like Neville Longbottom in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, though more gritty, darker characters can be refreshing at times. With this story, though, I never felt compelled to root for either of the characters in achieving their goals, though I was interested in how it turned out at the end, nonetheless.
In “Caden’s Death” by Amy Grimswold, Caden the Blacksmith knows the very day in which she’ll die, and as such, has no wish to take in the little whelp that arrives on her hearth. Small but mighty, the young girl soon helps Caden face the agent of her death, a cruel, yet logical dragon.
Speaking of rooting for characters, I found Caden to be a compelling main character placed in a compelling setting. It had an excellent premise, and a very interesting take on the nature of dragons. I found I enjoyed it immensely.
In “Matriculation” by Michael H. Payne, young Cluny must prove herself to the students and staff at Huxley, an academy for magicians. Never mind that she’s a squirrel.
The dialogue had a slightly inconsistent flow at times, as I couldn’t always hear a clear voice for each character. Shtasith the familiar had the best voice. I found the character of the unicorn a bit cliche. The story brought to mind happy college experiences, considering my college experience had a decided lack of partying and a plethora of fantasy books. The plot structure was very clever, and it contained twists I didn’t see coming.
In “Inquisition for Blood” by Michael Spense and Elisabeth Waters, Lady Wizard Sarras and her assistant, Lady Wizard Alyssa, have a big problem on top of the average busywork required of University Department Head. The Guardian of one of the most powerful artifacts of the Western world has been murdered. Not only is the culprit nowhere to be seen, but the next Guardian cannot be immediately identified.
The authors achieve a very smooth voice and dialogue. As a very religious person, sometimes magic wrapped up in Christian doctrine can make me a little skittish, but I confess that I was immediately hooked. ”Inquisition for Blood” is a great little murder mystery with a strong ending, and I really want one of those mirrors from the story.
In “Fire and Fate” by Deborah J. Ross, Cinnabar is one tough lady, schooling her young escort in swordplay and other stuff, if you know what I mean. Hired to assassinate a sorcerer that threatens an aging ruler, she must succeed against a foe that has a strange power over her companion.
The story’s setting is clear and interesting, and the characters have depth. I liked the funerary rituals, and the fights scenes were great. Also, kudos for a super creepy bad guy, super creepy creatures, and a great ending.
The flow from beginning to end was not as consistent as I’d like to see. It begins with an infodump, which I would have liked to have seen woven into the story.
I had one thought regarding the Cinnabar’s connection to the earth, though it is not a criticism, just an observation. Fantasy stories often have a hippy-like view of the earth and natural order, something that is fragile, wonderful, and ought to be preserved. For various reasons, this is a point of view I find somewhat cliche, which I discuss further here on my blog, but in the story it didn’t seem to be an overarching theme.
In “Winter in Khotan” by Catherine Soto, Lin Mei and her brother, Biao Mei, armed with only two Temple Cats and some mad knife skills, have only a little time to sniff out who has been sending assassins after the Iskanderi.
I loved the voice of the story. The characters and dialogue are distinct and smooth. The story was told from an Eastern perspective, and I adored the sly reference to the Bible story. It was strange. It has none of the components I usually look for, but I was entranced.
In “The Sorceress’s Apprentice” by Pauline J. Alama, the young apprentice has gotten herself ankle deep in trouble. Literally. At least the crotchety sorceress has finally noticed her ability to do something other than fetch tea.
I will admit that I was slightly bothered by the premise at first. The opening scene was taken from Disney’s “Fantasia,” but the gender of both characters was changed. It felt a little like plagiarism, but beyond the opening scene, it went in a very different direction, which was a relief.
I can tell you from experience that there are many different types of teachers. Some teachers throw out tons of information and expect students to remember. Some teachers hold students’ hands throughout the entire learning process, often keeping the student from doing any real work or thought.
The sorceress in the story reminded me very much of my college sociology professor. Dr. Cochran sometimes taught social rules by saying something I could never repeat here, watching the mayhem ensue, and then pointing out observations of the results. That kind of lesson sticks with a person for life. I liked both characters, and enjoyed the story.
Some, maybe most people think they have a bummer job. They obviously have never been a professional sacrifice. In “Pantheon Shift Change” by L.M. Townsend-Crow, Asha bites a bit more off than she can chew, finding herself offered to a wannabe god that isn’t inclined to cut her loose at the last possible second.
I was hooked by the first line, and the premise explores a ritual the modern mind finds sensational: human sacrifice. When thinking of human sacrifice, the Aztecs immediately pop to mind. They were rather enthusiastic about it, but Spanish accounts were greatly exaggerated. One wonders, “Who does that? Really?” But, in ancient times, it was more a question of, “Who doesn’t?” The author had an interesting take on the practice, and I loved it. The story, I mean. Not the human sacrifice. The tone was deliciously sarcastic through most of the story.
There wasn’t much to be picky about, except for the medical improbability of waltzing away from the worst torture imaginable with only a limp. The real consequences of intense pain were absent. I wasn’t crazy about the ending. It works, but it felt a little like changing horses in the middle of a race.
In “The Sundered Star” by K.D. Wentworth, our heroine is sent on a mission that caused the disappearance or smoldering death of the men who tried before her. Sent out by the spoiled daughter of the king to retrieve a fallen star, she has no idea how she, or her family held hostage against her failure, will survive.
The author created very interesting characters and a sense of backstory and history between them without cluttering the page. It was interesting, and effectively showed how different personalities, be they male or female, approached the impossible mission.
The smooth flow of the prose seemed to dip a bit right before the end, but the ending was most unexpected, which I love.
In “A Wall to Keep the World Out” by Helen E. Davis, the sorcerer Raccan has a library that would be a bibliophile’s wet dream. The mercenary Kyrlia has been sent to rescue the Prince trapped inside said library, but soon finds that Raccan and the young Prince are not what they seem.
Prince Salace is a pretty special young man. I work with many, many special young men and ladies that look, react, and feel differently than their peers. Comparing the fictional Prince to the real children I know, I can tell you the Prince is very real himself. I loved it. The main characters are compelling. My only complaint is that the mercenaries other than Kyrlia seemed a bit one-dimensional.
In “Killing Stars” by Robin Wayne Bailey, Frost is sent to the City of Sins to confront Dagoth, a ruler that sacrifices perfect children to a dark deity. She meets Mirella, a child blinded by her mother to protect her from sacrifice, and together must stop Dagoth.
This was by far the darkest story in the anthology, and the prose was fabulous. The author created a scene so real one could almost touch it, and the characters had clear personalities and motivations. This was probably my favorite story in the anthology.
In “Proving Grounds” by Steve Chapman, Shada has managed to insult the son of just about the only guy with the power and cojones to threaten her father’s kingdom. It was the impudent prick’s fault, not that anyone seems to care, and now she has to fight a duel that she cannot win.
It reminded me of an old German folk tale about the King who would marry the woman who fits a certain ring. His daughter, Sapsorrow, in a moment of panic, puts it on and has to marry her dad. Like the old fairy tale, one understandable “my bad” leads to grave consequences that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen.
My favorite part was the description at the beginning, which captured my own sentiments regarding formal parties full of entitled, I mean, titled people. I also loved the fight scenes, but I didn’t find Shada’s affection for her attacker entirely believable. Overall, it was a great story.
In “Mira” by Steven Brust, everyone in the kingdom has heard about Mira. No one seems to be able to divine her motives behind her heroics, but who needs a paltry thing like truth when one could just make it up?
The story’s format was intriguing and unusual, and incredibly short. It was a great idea, and it really captured a bit of what it means to be human. I understand why it was short and it was still effective, but I would have liked to have seen more.
In “Impossible Quests” by Kate Coobs, Princess Gillian must retrieve a dragon’s tongue to wrest power from her councilors now that she is of age to rule. Prince Lan must rescue a princess and marry her to claim his throne. It’s good to have company while pursuing impossible quests.
I loved some of the twists in the plot that turned fairy tale cliches on their ears. I also thought the characters were well-developed and felt very real.
I felt the problems in the story lay in the structure and setting. The story felt much like “Into the Woods,” which was a Broadway musical structured like a mashup of several different fairy tales. What made “Impossible Quests” not work as well as “Into the Woods” is that the readers aren’t familiar with any of the fairy tales in the story. I see what the author was trying to do, but I think she made too many references to things we couldn’t know. Also, I question the sense of sending the only heir to a throne on a quest. One could claim it was the tradition, but I found the stakes too high. It didn’t quite seem to fit.
In “Ghost Puppet” by Jonathan Moeller, Caina, one of the Emperor’s Ghosts, must protect the spoiled Lucan, son of the Lord Governor. Disguised as a man, she must divine the both the reason for the price on Lucan’s head, and who’s paying it.
I found the main characters very likeable. This was also one of the few stories that didn’t have the disconnect between women’s gender roles and the setting. There was a nice twist with the necklace, and the protagonists have some cool tools. I did find the bad guys a little cheesy, but not too bad, and I liked the resolution.
In “Well Enough” by Lauren K. Moody, Darmura is assigned to her first mission as a body guard. It seems like an easy assignment, except Niani doesn’t particularly want to be protected.
The best part of the story was the characters. They were well-defined, with strong personalities that didn’t exactly jive. Darmura doesn’t have a great deal of experience, and we love her and find her believable because of her mistakes. She barely squeaks by, which is something to which we all can relate.
In “The Lost and Found Talisman” by Josepha Sherman, Tallain and Serein, Secret Agents of the Organization of Magical Sovereignties, must track down a talisman used to commit a murder, unaware it had to power to send Tallain to another dimension.
I liked the agents’ tools and abilities, which reminded me of a mixture of sorcery and Star Trek. It had good elements of sword and sorcery and a great premise.
I truly hate to say this, but I didn’t care for the story. There is an art to leaving details out. Good stories leave out just enough details to leave something to the imagination, but leave enough in to make the story and setting clear. ”The Lost and Found Talisman” tended to leave out critical details that allow the reader to imagine the action.
One has no idea how old the boy in the first few pages is, which would make the scene make more sense if I knew. One also doesn’t know what the talisman actually looks like, which makes it deuced difficult to imagine. The lack of certain details interrupted the flow and left me constantly flipping back to see if I missed something. It seemed to start almost as a weird Western, but I couldn’t quite tell how to imagine the setting.
It was a cross between sword and sorcery and a whodunit, but the deductive reasoning exhibited by the main characters was subpar. The main characters found the bad guy on the second try, and the process by which they eliminated their first suspect made no logical sense, leaving many stones unturned. I am truly sorry, but I felt the story could have been much stronger.
Mifrav is deathly ill. If the elf dies, the political fallout could be explosive. In “Simon’s Fish” by Barbara Tarbox, Rennik has to deduce the mysterious source of the elven noble’s ailment.
Children see the world differently, and often more clearly, than adults. I liked the boy Simon’s perspective, and his bravery. I also enjoyed the different paradigm of elven motives, appearance, and behavior.
Cathlin’s been dead a while. She’s not really sure how long. In “Homecoming” by Jonathan Shipley, she’s been called back to her ancestral hall to complete a task, which she would happily do if she could just figure out what was required.
My favorite stories are ones that inspire deep emotions. ”Homecoming” made me long to be able to see some of those who have passed before me walk about in the flesh, even if it was for a short while. I loved it, especially the very interesting resolution.
In “Saved by the Soap” by Susan Wolven, Nell is accused of cursing the army uniforms she washes. The officers are ill-inclined to believe her protestations of innocence, especially considering the explosive results of her last attempts at magic.
I found Nell endearing, having been on the receiving end of low expectations at times. Also, having taught elementary kids for several years, I know some of the best discoveries are accidents, as these characters found out. The story’s plot did not have a great deal of depth, but I think the author’s intention was to be lighthearted, so that is not unexpected. I would have liked to been drawn to at least one other character as much as I was drawn to Nell, but overall, it didn’t detract from the story a great deal.
Sword and Sorceress, XXV is a creative anthology that twists elements of the sword and sorcery genre. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.