Reviewed by Robert Rhodes
"The special sub-genre of fantasy known as 'sword and sorcery' has been the last to be integrated between man and woman," writes author and editor Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon; Darkover saga) at the beginning of this anthology, the first in a series of twenty-one featuring female protagonists. (Ms. Bradley died in 1999, so the last volumes were edited by others.) "Anyone can write male sexist fiction; anyone can write feminist propaganda," Ms. Bradley opines, adding, "I hope to avoid both, and to entertain you while I'm doing it." Will a reader in the era of SwordAndSorcery.org believe she succeeded? A brief, spoiler-free review of each story follows.
"The Garnet and the Glory" by Phyllis Ann Karr.
The heroines of the novel, Frostflower and Thorn, the former a gentle sorceress, the latter an earthy warrior, are transported to another world by a wizard with shadowy motives. A so-so beginning to the anthology, as a ho-hum climax offsets some gripping imagery.
"Severed Heads" by Glen Cook.
The creator of The Black Company delivers an unusual tale of kidnapping and revenge. Its Middle Eastern atmosphere is welcome, but this is essentially a condensed novel that chronicles years of the young heroine's struggle against a mysterious tormentor. It feels, consequently, both too short and too long (and employs a heavy dose of divine intervention.)
"Taking Heart" by Stephen L. Burns.
The "Great Thief" Raalt is forced to unite with the mysterious Clea in recovering an artifact from its hiding place (where Raalt left it just before his capture). The plot is predictable, but its unfolding is delightful nonetheless. One of the best tales here (and featuring one of the most likable characters in Clea.)
"The Rending Dark" by Emma Bull.
The warrior Marya and the bard Kit aid a village against a nightmarish predator. Marya and Kit form an intriguing duo, but their witty banter often blunts the sense of horror the author is attempting to evoke. Also, several events are unclear (e.g., one of the heroines has a skeletal, jet-black arm with strange properties...and little to no backstory.)
"Gimmile's Songs" by Charles R. Saunders.
Dossouye, a warrior-maiden from an African-flavored kingdom, encounters a minstrel whose songs are both blessed and cursed by magic. One of the best tales here. (Dossouye's origin tale, "Agbewe's Sword," can be found in the anthology Amazons!, edited by Jessica Salmonson (DAW, 1979).)
"The Valley of the Troll" by Charles de Lint.
The huntress Aynber and the wizard Thorn Hawkwood endeavor to raid a troll's trove. The heroine's possession of "a leather pouch holding a half-score lessen-yaln--Aelfin death-stars, small five-pointed discs wrought of star-silver" may have prejudiced me against this tale from the start, but its danger-fraught and humorous moments never seemed captivating or humorous enough.
"Imperatrix" by Deborah Wheeler.
A lord's henchman hires a mysterious woman as his master's bodyguard. Solid characterization bolsters this tale, which is refreshingly told in the first-person, but the conclusion feels rushed. (The story's title is also poorly chosen.)
"Blood of Sorcery" by Jennifer Roberson.
Ugh. I skipped this tale initially due to its long, info-dumping opening. Sword-and-sorcery purists will find little to praise in the melodramatic efforts of Keely, a kidnapped princess, to escape the clutches of Strahan, the wicked sorcerer.
"With Four Lean Hounds" by Pat Murphy.
The tale boasting the best title in the anthology also features some of the freshest, most dream-like prose. The young sneak-thief Tarsia accompanies a minstrel to the palace of the Lady of the Wind. One of the best tales here.
"House in the Forest" by Anodea Judith.
In this "change of pace," the healer Subana confronts the mystery of a cottage in the forest. An innocuous tale with no swords and little sorcery, but it provides a respite before the concluding stories.
"Sword of Yraine" by Diana L. Paxson.
The origin tale of Shanna the warrior-princess (who debuted in the anthology Swords Against Darkness IV, edited by Andrew Offutt.) A gritty tale of resistance and swordplay dulled slightly by its length.
"Daton and the Dead Things" by Michael Ward.
A nameless warrior spins a yarn of her encounter with a cyclops, carrying on as if the reader were beside her in a tavern. Most readers will likely not find the narrator as engaging or amusing as she finds herself.
"Gate of the Damned" by Janet Fox.
The warrior Scorpia (a former "Amazon," though apparently of a different world) joins an army seeking to conquer a land ruled by sorcery. Based on this tale and "Morrien's Bitch" in the Amazons! anthology, it appears the author has a talent for describing memorable anti-heroines and their darkly nuanced relationships with men. One of the best tales here.
"Child of Orcus" by Robin W. Bailey.
In ancient Rome, Diana, a gladiator retired only in name, accepts a commission from the empress to investigate a cult rumored to possess the secret of immortality. Only a non-traditional ending (slightly) weakens a tale that evidences an impressive command of written storytelling. In the introduction to the tale, Ms. Bradley writes, "[If the author] stays the course, he should become an outstanding name in the field"; and indeed, he has penned the bestselling DragonKin series and become president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). His first three novels featuring the female warrior Frost have recently been released in a stunning compilation entitled Night's Angel. The best tale here.
"Things Come in Threes" by Dorothy J. Heydt.
A joke presented as a thankfully-short tale. Enough said.
As may be obvious from the above capsules, most of the tales here are not "true" S&S, as defined by SwordAndSorcery.org . Once again, though, I am grateful for the modern definition of S&S (as opposed to the broader genre of "heroic" or "epic" fantasy), which time and again has proven its potential for thrilling tales.
Overall, I can recommend this as a library loan or (inexpensive) used purchase for sword-and-sorcery fans, largely due to the tales of Burns, Saunders, Fox, and Bailey.
and related genres, go to the
Sword and Sorcery Book Reviews.