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Heroes in Training by Martin H. Greenberg and Jim C. Hines

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Heroes. Larger-than-life characters who inspire our awe with their courage and resolution. So often they seem to spring from the pages fully formed, as if they always possessed the qualities that make us look up to them. But everybody comes from somewhere, and these are the stories of the making of heroes.

Jim C. Hines starts off the anthology with a brief introduction in which he talks about his own experiences reading about the training of heroes, as well as a few brief comments on the stories.

Esther M. Friesner has a well-deserved reputation for wit, and proves it yet again with "Roomies," the story of two misfits in the Royal Academy of Damsels' Arts. Aurina is beautiful, but her family has fallen on hard times, while Brandella casually carries around vast amounts of treasure to smooth her way, but it can only go so far in the face of the unhappy fact that she is painfully homely. So much so that she is repeatedly mistaken for a troll. Both have been sent because their families want them to learn the skills that will enable their families to recoup their fortunes. But they've no sooner befriended one another than they run afoul of two of the snottiest, bitchiest students and everything goes awry. Until Brandella reveals a most surprising fact about her mother and Aurina suddenly discovers that there are other opportunities out there for a quick-witted young noblewoman.

This story is a non-stop satire of all the standard tropes of heroic fantasy, particularly the Damsel in Distress and associated tropes of heroism. The scenes where the girls are consciously playing upon the expectations of Standard Damsel in Distress Behavior are real thigh-slappers, and the surprising reversal at the end is even funnier.

From the humorous we go to the serious in Vera Nazarian's "Three Names of the Hidden God." It's the story of Ruogo the birdcatcher, who becomes entangled in the intrigues of the court of the Qalif when the beautiful Lake Veil suddenly gives way to a foul and muddy marsh, revealing a mud-encrusted temple in the center. The mysterious symbols upon it reveal it to belong to the Hidden God, and when the servants who attempt to open the doors are suddenly struck dead, the fear factor goes up even more. And then the Qalif's son and daughter reveal their treachery, killing their father, and the Hidden God acts.

But they have no intention of surrendering to the Hidden God's demand for accountability. So in the time-honored fashion of bullies everywhere, they grab the nearest nobody and shove him forth. That happens to be Ruogo, and the Hidden God gives him a task suited to his own unique talents -- or is it a divine illusion? In any case, the need for justice is fulfilled and the story ends in a most satisfying fashion.

As a longtime teacher, Sherwood Smith often focuses upon the process of learning and how to motivate students to apply themselves to the task. It's been said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear -- but what if the situation won't wait for the student to become ready to learn the skill that is desperately needed? This is the situation that faces Kimet's homeland in "The Princess, the Page, and the Master Cook's Son" -- and the way in which she deals with the headstrong young Princess Zarja would put many teachers of years' experience to shame. But then she doesn't have the authority to simply punish noncompliance, so she has to wield more subtle tools to shape the mind and soul.

The first three stories of this anthology took place in magical lands Beyond the Fields We Know, but in "The Children's Crusade" Robin Wayne Bailey brings us back to Earth to all too familiar sorrows. Aryamand, called Ari by his friends, is an Iraqi boy, an orphan of war. After his parents and sisters were killed in the 2003 invasion, he's been living with his Uncle Abad, who's turned terrorist in anger at the US occupation. Ari has a secret -- his ability to teleport -- which his uncle is making him use to plant bombs. But when Uncle Abad pushes him too far, he flees, seeking out his friend Abraham in Tel Aviv. The young Jewish orphan shares his ability, having had it awakened within himself when Ari rescued him from a terrorist camp somewhere in Afghanistan. He too is fed up with adult politics being played out over children's bodies, and together they decide to use their powers to send a message of change in a way nobody will miss.

Catherine H. Shaffer takes us to Fantasyland in "Apprentice," but it's clearly to skewer the here and now. Princess Sari starts the story menaced by a dragon -- except that it's a fellow student's ill-conceived graduate project. Then she's out of school and working in a magical corporation that's a clear and blatant spoof of the modern cubicle farm, complete with hostile takeovers and ugly downsizings. It's a laugh-a-minute satire, but its really the pluck of the protagonist that carries the story along.

James Lowder has become known for his chilling horror, particularly in TSR's old Ravenloft series, and in "Beneath the Skin" he continues the tradition with a story of werewolves in the chaos that followed the upheavals of World War I. However, it brings a more subtle nuance to the problem of horror -- what happens to the family of the people who are transformed into monsters and have to be destroyed? In most stories, the idea that the person transformed into a monster may have left a family behind is never really addressed, or it's simplistically handled by some idea that their monstrousness became so total and self-evident that the family instantly and completely disavowed them and regarded them as if they had been always monstrous. But we know that here in the Primary World family members will often be quite obstinate in their persistent love for persons who are known to have committed horrible crimes, so why should it be any different in a world in which people can be taken over by terrible creatures of the Darkness?

After the grim we have the lighthearted in "Giantkiller" by G. Scott Huggins, a rather revisionist take on the traditional story of Jack the Giantkiller. It turns out that the pat little story we heard as children was rather simplified, and things were in fact rather different.

After so much fantasy, Michael Jasper gives us science fiction in "Drinker," the story of how his alien Wannoshay lost the technology of their first civilization, and how change was forced upon them so that they had no choice but to rediscover the fragments of it in order to flee their freezing world. All of it is told through the eyes of a protagonist who is at the bottom of his people's social structure, viewed as little more than a walking water barrel and filter. Yet in such stories the wheel of fortune often gives us surprising upsets, and this one is no exception.

In "King Harrowhelm" Ed Greenwood takes us back to the time of Arthurian romance, or more correctly, the years and decades that followed the disastrous battle at Camlann and the various forces that emerged to fill the power vacuum left by Arthur's fall. It's another dark story, yet at the end there's a glimmer of hope that the ideals that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table once stood for have not completely died.

From medieval England we go to medieval Japan in Eugie Foster's "Honor Is a Game Mortals Play." Ayame is the granddaughter of a famed taijiya, or demon hunter, but she has proved a grave disappointment to him -- as his ghost informs her in the very first scene. So off she goes to prove herself, only to run straight into an oni, a particularly nasty demon of traditional Japanese folklore (no, this is not one of the cutsified oni like Lum in Urusei Yatsuro). Except he's wounded, and some odd bit of compassion leads her to decide to heal him of his wound -- upon which point he reveals that he's been charged with conveying a particular infant to Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman. The infant that Ayame was, some years ago -- and thus Ayame discovers the whole sad story of her family and of how she came to be.

In "The Wizard's Legacy" Michael A. Burnstein takes us to a magical land that might be England, since the names seem English. The protagonist, Edmund, is one of two young boys chosen to be apprentices by the aging wizard who tells them to call him Merlin but adamantly denies being the one who advised King Arthur. The other boy, Jacob, seems interested primarily in spells of power, and there is something vaguely disturbing about his attitudes. Then Edmund's innkeeper father tells him a surprising secret -- in the past, wizards always chose a single fifteen-year-old student. But Edmund and Jacob are both thirteen -- which suggests that the wizard's power is failing faster than usual, or a threat is coming more rapidly than expected.

When Jacob's misbehavior forces a confrontation with the wizard, Edmund discovers even more of the mysterious workings of magic. And then it's time for the final confrontation, with a terrible demon dragon which is more than it seems. A confrontation which forces Jacob to finally reveal his secrets.

Julie E. Czerneda gives us the anthology's second science fiction story in "A Touch of Blue," a story of her Web Shifters. These are shape-shifting telepaths, almost immortal, traveling through the universe in the guise of other beings. Esen is the youngest of the group, and quite put-upon -- but quite happy to have an opportunity to travel with another of their Web to the nearby planet to sell art. Until they are attacked by a poisoner, and Esen suddenly must outwit the would-be assassin without revealing the secret of the Web Shifters.

The anthology is closed out with "Sir Apropos of Nothing and the Adventures of the Receding Heir," yet another installment in Peter David's Sir Apropos of Nothing series. The titular character is now old and weary, and since he has become a King, he is in need of an heir to pass his crown. Which is not such an easy task as it would appear, since a young heir would be too weak, but an older heir may be too ambitious. The puns may not be to all tastes, but it's a rather sharp look at the problems of trust and treachery.

In addition, there are brief biographies of all the writers at the end.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Jim C. Hines
  • "Roomies" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "Three Names of the Hidden God" by Vera Nazarian
  • "The Princess, the Page, and the Master Cook's Son" by Sherwood Smith
  • "The Children's Crusade" by Robin Wayne Bailey
  • "The Apprentice" by Ctherine H. Shaffer
  • "Beneath the Skin" by James Lowder
  • "Giantkiller" by G. Scott Huggins
  • "Drinker" by Michael Jasper
  • "King Harrowhelm" by Ed Greenwood
  • "Honor Is a Game Mortals Play" by Eugie Foster
  • "The Wizard's Legacy" by Michael A. Burstein
  • "A Touch of Blue: A Web Shifters Story" by Julie E. Czerneda
  • "Sir Apropos of Nothing and the Adventure of the Receding Heir" by Peter David
  • About the Authors

Review posted April 29, 2010.

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