I have four titles from Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series gracing my bookshelf: XIII, XVI, XVIII, and now XXII. Not the greatest collection to refer back to, but hey, I just started nabbing them a few months back. I'm positive the used bookstore down the road from me has more, and I'll be hunting for others in the near future as it is seemingly harder and harder to satisfactorily fill the genre stepchild that is sword and sorcery. For now, the latest edition of the fantasy anthology that started back in the 1980s as an answer to a lack of strong female protagonists in the S&S subgenre has turned out to be quite enjoyable despite some quibbles.
The anthology opens with "Edra's Arrow" by Esther M. Friesner, a somewhat stereotypical sword and sorcery tale set in a magical land now void of animal life. Edra, a huntress, which her sister Jir believes to be the reason the gods are upset and cursed their people, has taken on the task to discover where all the forest's game has gone. Along her journey she is visited by the spirit of a dead shaman who gives her a gift and a choice. While I thought the choice was both obvious and rather trite, Edra's actions and the ultimate outcome surprised me. A sound story, replete with beautiful imagery and a lead woman that seems to be everything MZB looked for in a protagonist.
"A Nose for Trouble" by Patricia B. Cirone had a lot of different ideas in it, but the story's plot and its reveals were far too neat and tidy for my taste and did not justify the mystery's length. It opens with Marina returning late from her mam's to Madame Fertaglio's to half-witness a murder. Now she's worried sick that the sniffers are going to discover her and place the blame on her, but that's far from the truth. Soon, both the living and the dead will come to her for help. Cirone's world-building is pretty strong, offering a locale somewhat different from what one might expect in a sword and sorcery tale of magic, mystery, and manifestations. I just didn't find the solution to the Peacemaker's murder satisfying, and it's quite clear that Marina is beyond passive. This could've been so much more.
Anshazhe, hired assassins, are attacking the unbeknownst siblings Lin Mei and Biao Mei in Kendar in "Night Watches" by Catherine Soto. Luckily, both of them are skilled enough to defend themselves. Lin Mei has been having bad dreams as of late, is concerned about the kittens her brother and her saved from a caravan, and grows more and more suspicious of everyone within the city's walls. I really enjoyed this intricate story. It has several moments of tense, well-written action, and I found myself examining every character Lin Mei came across just as scrutinizing as she was; the problem of the deadly killers is only one of two that the sister and brother duo have to deal with, the latter being the far more intriguing difficulty. And I'm still thinking about those portentous cats—what's up with them, anyways? From Soto's bio I see that there's other stories centered on Lin Mei and Biao Mei, which is like music to my ears.
"Vanishing Village" by Margaret L. Carter let me down. The story is that of Liriel and Bertrice, a duo of mage companions that stumble upon the vanishing village of Meadowmill in search of the Duke's son who'd gone missing some time back. They get in, but can't get out—not until they deal with the powerful mage in complete control of everything happening within the village's boundaries. This includes the weather, the repair of necessities, and the creation of food. The two are impressed and nervous, but confident in their skills. Upon meeting the mage keeping everyone locked in they…talk it out. In a world where mages "cast an invisibility spell" I was expecting a bit more of a showdown at the end. Even though the magic system didn't work for me—I like deeper, intricate spells over simple ones—I still wanted a battle of magic come the end. Some might like this sort of thing, but the story just didn't resolve effectively enough for me to be glad to have read it.
"Pearl of Fire" by Deborah J. Ross is one of my top favorites in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXII. Rayzel's Great-grandfather passes along a family heirloom—the Pearl—to her before he dies, mistaking her for Devron, its rightful owner. The magical necklace sort of, kind of works like the One Ring in that epic fantasy book…hmm…what was it called again? Lord of the Rings? Yeah, that's it. As long as Rayzel wears the Pearl around her neck, she cannot be harmed. A sword cannot cut her, a fire cannot burn her—she's unstoppable. And just like anyone might expect this gift quickly becomes a curse, but not just for Rayzel. I enjoyed the story well enough, but couldn't fight this lingering feeling that it's been done many times before.
As an author's first published story, "The Ironwood Box" by Kimberly L. Maughan is astounding. It concerns three sisters, two of whom are magically gifted. That third is Pansy, or rather Persal ne-Marit, who has been having terrible dreams lately about the ironwood box that she is to look over but not open. Feeling useless, she flees—a dangerous decision given the circumstances. Head Queen Iril is after all three of them, wanting what they have internally, wanting it for pure and selfish reasons. A battle ensues, and with it the truth of Pansy's purpose is revealed. Hopefully, there'll be more from Maughan in the future.
One of the anthology's longest entry, "Bearing Shadows" by Dave Smeds is the saddening tale of Aerise, a woman exiled from all that she knows after it is discovered that her baby has been ill-conceived. She seeks sanctuary with the Cursed Folk, and there she meets the father of her child along with a fate that will test time itself. Smeds' use of language and dirty, almost surreal visuals of the Cursed Folk are beautifully done. There's a rather poignant moment at the end of Aerise's journey where she reacquaints herself with someone from her past. It had potential to not work, to even ruin everything Smeds had been building up to, but it did better than work—it made everything worth it, even the hard times and the pain Aerise went through with her pregnancy. This would be my favorite story in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXII.
"Black Ghost, Red Ghost" by Jonathan Moeller is, simply put, a fun story. Caina, an Emperor's Ghost, is on a secret mission to discover if Druzen, the Governor, is guilty of supporting a slaving gang operating in the province. If so, it then is her task to kill him, and to kill him like a ghost might—undetected, swift, and cold. While sneaking around undercover in Druzen's ballroom, Caina meets a magus named Ryther, who, seemingly, has the same intentions of her. Or is there more to his story?
This is a story full of mystery and magic, its action scenes heavy and brimming with tension, its world both interesting and unexpected. Caina is a strong heroine, capable of both containing herself and solving the numerous problems that pop up to block her path. I enjoyed the twist at the end the best, how she reacted to it, and the problem's solution—the actually ending itself could've been more abrupt, but I still found myself having a good time, all while thinking of Moeller's work as a holy mixture of an episode of Firefly, an adventure akin to something Mercedes Lackey might storm up, and an explosion of fantastical espionage.
"The Decisive Princess" by Catherine Mintz is a short, very descriptive piece of alternate history. To say much more of the story would ruin its effect, and I'd just recommend anyone reading the anthology to not skip this one lightly; it's a strong story, deeply built with a scenario that forces a princess to make a hard decision. Mintz writes very well, and I enjoyed the subtleness of "The Decisive Princess," especially the way it is still popping up in my head days after I've read it. Now that's the mark of an excellent story.
"Child of the Father" by Alanna Morland is a hard story to talk about for many reasons: it's complicated, faster than a fireball, and just mentioning some of the characters and who they are can ruin the truly deviously set twist at the tale's end. I will say this much: the piece is well-written, with engaging dialogue and believable heroines, and the danger they face is both creepy and captivating.
First, there is death. "Child of Ice, Child of Flame" by Marian Allen opens on a grim scene: Casilda stands triumphantly over the town's slain champion, waiting to receive her prize for defeating such a warrior. Will it be jewels? Land? Or power? The prize she's given is certainly unexpected and has its own stout tale to tell. Allen manages to pack a lot into this short story, balancing both the history of the townspeople's culture and the plight of Casilda's choices rather well. It never feels like too much is happening when, clearly, a lot actually is going down.
"Skin and Bones" by Heather Rose Jones focuses on Ashóli, a Kaltaoven witch otherwise known as a skinchanger. The Marchalt of Wilentelu has chosen her to find the nearest village of skin-singers and bargain with them for his sake. She does, but soon finds herself bargaining for those she cares most about. I found myself a bit confused at exactly what skinchangers were in Jones' world, and suspect that previous Skins stories might clear that up. Ashóli is another strong example of the type of female protagonist that exemplifies a refreshingly ample amount of humility and heart. What the story lacks in terms of action it more than makes up in characterization. An excellent read, and now I must find others in the same universe to devour.
I find the inclusion of "Crosswort Puzzle" by Michael Spence and Elisabeth Waters to be a bit bothersome here. For one, it's half-written by the anthology's editor, raising (half) a red flag on its merit immediately. Second, from what I've gathered the Sword and Sorceress series has always prided itself on publishing both old and new authors, always eager to find fresh new voices in its slushpiles and make them heard loud and clear. So, er, yeah…I don't know. This, at first glance, just feels wrong.
With that said, let's move on to what it's actually about. Laurel and her colleagues are trying to solve the crosswort problem. See, crosswort treats melancholia, but it can also have the opposite effect and turn folks suicidal. Turns out the Royal Guard just ordered a huge shipment of the herb, whether they know its bad effects or not. So the question is: what can be done now? The story works well enough as a problem/solution archetype, and I liked a lot of the world-building. Magic is done subtly, and there's a lot of mystery in the beginning which is cleared up in no time at all. It definitely felt different than what I was expecting, and now after reading all the stories this one most certainly stands out like a wizard's tower in a grassy field. I'm not sure what that actually means in the long run, but it seemed worth mentioning.
And one last thing, which really has nothing to do with the story, but I have trouble reading the name Melisande as any other character other than that demon-laboring sorceress in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Everyone else just pales in comparison to her.
"Fairy Debt" by T. Borregaard does indeed have a fairy being in debt to a human king. Unfortunately for our fairy protagonist, her mother (who originally owed the debt) died and left the task to her. And the second unfortunate problem would be that she does not have working means, which as anyone knows means she does not have working magic. Her Aunt Twill offers her the only viable solution: working the debt back the tough way, with honest-to-fairy servitude. Borregaard's writing reminding me a lot of Terry Pratchett, in that it's both serious and silly; of course, it leans more to the silliness at times, but that's not a problem in a world where fairies go swimming in a rather dramatic river. This is an amusing story, and probably would've been a better choice to end the anthology on.
"Tontine" by Robert E. Vardeman is the type of dark sword and sorcery work that I absolutely love. Captain Jonna el-MMarran has returned to the tavern that, thirty years prior, her friends and her had given their essences (so to speak) to a bottle of wine. This is a magical pact, a tontine, one where the last surviving member of the group has to drink the bottle's entire contents. By doing so, they are not only drinking to their dead friend's memories, but vividly reliving them. The death of her three friends are dolefully experienced, and there's still a sense of accordance as Jonna finishes off the bottle and exits into the night. Dark, abnormal, and ruthless—overall, a story I'd highly recommend.
It's been a recurring crux that each entry in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series ends on a short piece of humorous fiction. Thus, "The Menagerie" by Sarah Dozier, a tale of two kingdoms at war and the assassin being asked by both sides to help out. It's a quick history lesson, peppered with some sneaky tricks and magical creatures. The problem lies in that humor is more often than not subjective. I didn't necessarily find anything funny about the story, but I still liked it regardless.
I do hope the series continues on as there were some definitive standouts in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXII. The anthology covers a lot of topics and ideas, and bounces from one female lead to another with little transition. Still, each story stands on its own merits, making this easy to read and even easier to enjoy. Start with "Bearing Shadows" though; I promise you it's that good.