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Sword and Sorceress XVIII by Marion Zimmer Bradley, editor

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume of the Sword and Sorceress series is the first of three that were put together by Elizabeth Waters from the manuscripts that Marion Zimmer Bradley had chosen as preliminary picks for the volume she was putting together at the time of her death in 1999. As a result, it has a feel slightly different from that of the earlier volumes, which were entirely MZB's editorial decisions with only secretarial help from Ms. Waters (although increasingly so as her health deteriorated and she became less able to work).

As a result, we have a selection that is somewhat less severely winnowed than had been typical of the previous several volumes. On one hand, this allows the inclusion of some voices that might otherwise not have been heard at all. On the other, it has resulted in the inclusion of a few stories that seem to have been set into the "maybe" pile solely because their authors were long-standing contributors. One wonders on a couple whether MZB was setting them aside in order to have some time to figure out how to let her friends know their stories were not acceptable.

One of MZB's longstanding practices for these anthologies was to open with a brief introduction explaining her selection process. In the earliest days of the anthology series, she frequently would have to hold forth on the sorts of themes she didn't want to see, particularly cliched role-reversal and revenge stories. But as the reputation of the Sword and Sorceress series developed, she was able to devote more space to discussing the development of deeper themes such as transformation and self-discovery, and what could take a story beyond cliche territory to make it unique. With MZB gone, Elizabeth Waters instead used the introduction to eulogize her, writing briefly about her editorial practices and techniques.

Generally MZB has started each of her anthologies with a story by an established author, and as the series progressed, she tended to select writers who had an ongoing character who had appeared in a number of previous volumes. Elizabeth Waters has followed that practice by starting this volume with "A Passage of Power," the latest in Diana L. Paxon's long-running series about Bera, a seeress of the Viking era. In the previous ones she has leaned heavily on her mentor, Groa, but in this story their relative positions are reversed as the result of Groa's aging and consequent failing health, and Bera must undertake a perilous quest which may not necessarily end as she had hoped. For there comes a time when the youth must come of age and take full possession of her powers, however inadequate they may feel themselves to the task.

Many inexperienced authors have a tendency to treat magical powers as a cure-all, something that can resolve every problem at need. Even when they make a nod to rules or limits on magical powers, it's often almost in the spirit of a game, to make a challenge for the protagonist to get things to go right, rather than a genuine sense of finitude. By contrast, "Lessons Learned" by Kati Dougherty-Carthum actually revolves around the principle that magic has its price, that if one spends one's energy on it, that energy will not be available to be used for more mundane tasks and activities that need to be performed.

Throughout the run of the Sword and Sorceress series, MZB had a history of preferring stories in which the protagonists use their wits rather than brute force to resolve their problems. In "Kendat's Ax," Jan Coombs pits two traveling players against a vicious ogre that wants to tear down a village because they objected when he expressed a desire to taste human brains. Since neither of them have any background in the martial arts, they have to draw upon the skills with which they are most familiar, including the gift of gab and juggling, and play upon the ogre's vanity to maneuver him into an untenable position.

One of the fantasy idea that MZB considered to be grossly overused and frequently warned writers against was the "final exam (or entrance exam) for magicians." However, she also allowed that no idea was so completely worn out that it could not be made to work by a sufficiently new treatment. In "The Tower of Song" Howard Holman gives us a society in which a mysterious magical tower chooses each successive Royal Bard by unknown means, since the penalty for failure is instant death by equally unknown means, presumed to be gruesome beyond words. As a result, the aspirant must puzzle out each successive test with absolutely no idea of what the objective might be. And just to make sure we know how tough this test is, the story begins with the most famous musician of the land, armed with a magical harp, entering the Tower as the candidate everyone is certain will win, and failing. So when the waiflike Erin comes armed with only her voice to try her luck, everyone thinks it will prove just an ugly way to commit suicide.

But the real strength of this story in my opinion is not the method by which Erin wins, since the conflict is a binary one -- either she succeeds or she fails -- and MZB always had a strong preference for happy endings, so the real question in that regard is not so much whether as how. Instead, what in my mind really set this story apart from the typical "magician's test" story is the big reveal after Erin beats the test, in which we learn that the popular perception of the Tower is in fact a fabric of legend that has grown up around a rather prosaic history, and that the simple and the quiet is far more important than the grand and flashy. And in doing so, Holman explicates an idea that MZB frequently tried to drive home to aspiring writers -- that ornate stylistic fillips are of far lesser import in a writing career than the simple ability to convey one's ideas clearly, such that a reader can understand them.

The protagonist of Denise Lopes Heald's "The Needed Stone" faces one of the perennial problems facing women, namely family obligations -- but because she is the daughter of a sorcerer, those problems are entangled with magic. After years of seeking a suitable heir through liaisons with powerful sorceresses and witches, he'd made a love-match with a common lass, and their daughter showed extraordinary promise. But he had attracted the jealousy of a powerful sorceress, whose hateful spell struck against the defenseless woman and the child she bore. He was able to save his daughter, but only at a terrible cost, and now she is struggling to repay that debt by finding a magical cure for the wounds he was done.

MZB always liked stories that played with our expectations, and this one uses the title to set up the idea that the protagonist will be seeking an object, perhaps some kind of priceless gem or mineral that will have powerful magical properties. But instead of a Plot Coupon quest, this story proves to be a story entirely about human relationships and the nature of family, with a heartwarming ending in which the protagonist ends up bettering the lives of several more people beside her father and herself.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of Armageddon, but in the story of that title Lisa Silverthorne turns our expectations on their head, and leaves us laughing. And all in a mere three and a half pages, proving that good things can come in very small packages. To say more would be to give away the heart and soul of the story -- you really must read it yourself.

MZB often liked to juxtapose stories with contrasting themes in order to give the reader a sense of variety. For instance, she might alternate stories in which magic saves the day with ones in which the protagonists came up hard against its limitations and were reminded of the importance of mundane pursuits. With David Smeds' "The Land of Graves" we have a double contrast with the preceding story -- we go from a very short story to a long one, and from a light, humorous take upon a rather dark subject to a very serious one. In fact, this story comes about as close to horror, a genre to which MZB had an abiding loathing, as anything you'll ever see in a Sword and Sorceress volume. Yet at the same time, Smeds gives us a light at the end of the tunnel moment which makes all the grimness of the story worth it.

Many fantasy stories take place in settings that cannot be connected to any historical place or period, save for being pre-industrial and generally monarchial. By contrast, Susan Urbanek Linville sets "Light" very specifically in Ancient Egypt, mentioning Osiris and other well-known gods. And she even manages to hint at the actual dry riverbeds which recent satellite photographs have revealed in the sands of the Sahara, in the climactic confrontation with the powers of the underworld in which it is revealed that ancient Pharaohs used magic to restore their lives but in the process destroyed the many rivers which once watered Egypt, until only the Nile remained -- and if the protagonist is to restore her beloved sister to life, she will have to expend it, leaving Egypt with nothing at all.

Similarly Dorothy J. Heydt's "In the Sacred Places of the Earth" takes place in ancient Greece, in a world where the gods of Olympus are objectively real and have tremendous power, although that power is shifting away from the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula westward to the Italian Peninsula and in particular, Rome. The sorceress Cynthia has encountered a number of the deities over the course of her wanderings through the Mediterranean basin (chronicled in previous volumes of the anthology), and now she too comes face to face with chthonic powers in hopes of restoring a loved one to her. However, she also faces mortal danger, in the form of a man who is entering the Elysian Mysteries under false colors with the intent of committing sacrilege against Mother Demeter. And in doing so Cynthia is assisted by the young goddesses of the new principles, the abstract qualities such as Wisdom and Health that are slowly taking over from the more particular gods of various natural phenomena.

Of what use is a glass knife? Larry Niven offered us one answer in his stories of disappearing Magic which were in fact parables about the perils of wastefully using non-renewable fossil fuels. In "The Glass Sword" Richard Corwin offers us another answer, one rooted in the myths and legends of India. Lady Kali, the fierce and terrible wife of Shiva the Destroyer, has given up her divine powers in order to more fully experience the world, but in doing so she has entered a most peculiar liminal state, which the Lord of Serpents hopes to use against her. His blandishments make me think of two major temptation stories, one Eastern and the other Western -- both the Buddha and the Christ faced such temptations at the beginnings of their ministries.

And speaking of Christianity, Elizabeth Waters' "Bed of Roses" belongs not in a never-never quasi-feudal world without clear religion (or at best a vague pantheism), but in medieval Jerusalem and the protagonist is explicitly named as being a member of the Christian faith (presumably Catholic, since it appears to be set before the Protestant Reformation and there are no references to practices that are normally associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, although it is quite possible that the story is set before the schism between Rome and Byzantium). Whether an Order of the Holy City dedicated to co-operation between Jews, Christians and Muslims ever existed, or even could have in historical medieval Jerusalem, Ms. Waters' skillful writing puts all doubts out of our mind in this story of a young woman determined to save her beloved brother from a fate worse than death, and her faithful friends of two kindred faiths who stand beside her.

In "Sword of Peace" Lucy Cohen Schmeldler combines the themes of the person enchanted into nonhuman form by an evil sorcerer and the separable soul that is hidden in order to protect the villain from ultimate defeat and weaves a story of a female fighter who gets dragged into much larger matters than she is used to.

Many fantasies tend to whitewash over some of the darker aspects of pre-industrial life, in particular the high infant mortality which meant that most women lost at least one child before its first birthday. By contrast, Mary Soon Lee makes infant mortality the heart and soul of her story, "The Fall of the Kingdom," right alongside the issues of succession and stability that often plagued hereditary monarchies (clue to certain people: Henry VIII of England did not marry six times out of lust -- that was what mistresses were for, in the view of most royals of his era -- but to have a legitimate heir to reign after him, to ensure that the kingdom would not be torn by civil war between rival claimants) and of the casual attitudes of the rich and powerful to those who serve them. And she manages to do it without ever crossing the line to the gratuitiously disgusting.

"Arms and the Woman" by Lawrence Watt-Evans has one major flaw that never ceases to bother me as a historian -- the society that endures for centuries upon centuries with little or no evidence of cultural change. It often gives the impression that the great spans of time are just tossed out by the author to make us feel impressed, without any real thought as to exactly what they mean. In this story, the Undead Lord was first mentioned sixteen centuries earlier -- a period roughly equivalent to the amount of time which separates the fall of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks from the fall of Rome to the barbarians -- yet there is no evidence that kingdoms have risen and fallen in the meantime, let alone any sort of social or technological change.

On the other hand, the opening suggests that the story is intended to be a humorous one, with the irritation of the protagonists at the beginning that the omens have been known for ages but nothing has been done until the matter has become a crisis. Many cliches can be forgiven in a humorous story, particularly if it is poking fun at those cliches, so long as the audience is laughing at the appropriate moments, and not as a result of unintentional humor.

In "The Stone Wives" Michael Chesley Johnson offers us a darker story, a variant upon the theme of Scheherazade, the brave young woman in the framing story to the Arabian Nights who put her own life on the line to end a mad sultan's pattern of wedding young women and beheading them after a single night of pleasure. However, Princess Tiwa does not come willingly to the halls of King Brald, nor does she know of his crimes until she is escorted to her bedchamber and there discovers the grotesque chess set which was once the mage-king's thirty-one previous wives. A set that she will complete if she fails to provide him an heir within a year.

In addition to her wits, Tiwa has her magic -- but King Brald has taken the precaution of making sure she cannot use it against him in the most obvious ways. So she has to fall back on more subtle measures, and realizes that his previous victims may not be entirely beyond help. Although they appear to be naught but dead stone, her magic takes a bit of her own flesh, a cup of the king's blood, and the love of a gentle midwife who would have cherished even a monstrous child because it came from her own womb, and together works a magic that simultaneously fulfills her bargain with the wicked king and gives new life to his victims in a most ingenious twist ending.

In "Tiger's Eye" India Edghill returns us to historical times and places, specifically the conquest by Alexander the Great of the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent. In the West we have stories of men who take the form of wolves under the full moon, but in that ancient land the most feared predator is a great cat. And as befits the common association of the supple and slinky Felidae with women, it is not a man but a woman who puts on a striped pelt and hunts on silent paws. However, Ms. Edghill goes beyond the obvious shapeshifter story and weaves in elements of the magic of iron which appears in various forms in every traditional culture that knows ironworking. Iron is the most difficult to work of the metals that can be smelted with pre-Industrial technology, and is the strongest, taking far better and more lasting edges than copper or bronze. As a result, every culture that has learned to work iron has held it in awe and ascribed to it various magical properties, something that diminished only when the technologies of the Industrial Revolution took it from being a rare and valuable useful metal to an extremely cheap and common one.

Another of the themes that MZB frequently warned young writers to avoid was the attempt to retell an old fairy tale. All too often the efforts result merely in an insipid rehash rather than fresh insights. But occasionally a particularly skilled writer can succeed in making all that was old become new again. In "Raven-Wings on the Snow" Pauline J. Alama takes not one but two familiar fairy tales -- the story of the twelve ravens and that of the seven swans -- and weaves them together to tell the story of the steadfast daughter of a wicked king and the twelve brothers he sought to murder, twelve brothers she must free through a desperate act of self-sacrifice and the womanly arts. And not only does she make this mating of two disparate fairy tales work, but she does it in the first person, so skillfully that we feel like the protagonist is actually sitting right there in front of us telling us her story (since she's clearly not writing it, for the simple reason that literacy would have enabled her to beat at least one key challenge with ease instead of squeaking through).

Unfortunately this splendid success is followed by one of the most problematical stories in the entire anthology, Rosemary Edghill's "Little Rogue Riding Hood." Again and again MZB adamantly stated in her guidelines that she would consider no stories in modern settings. No industrial technology, no gunpowder, nothing that brought unwanted associations of anything ordinary and prosaic. Yet this story has significant sections that take place not just in the modern era, but in the present day, the here-and-now. Sections that are intended to make us feel that they are taking place even as we read them. Including the entire first four pages. Sure, the protagonist ends up going to a magical world for real and having adventures there, but if the author weren't Rosemary Edghill, I can't imagine that MZB would've even read beyond the first sentence to discover them. No, the moment she hit the words "prime-time television" she would've reached for a form rejection slip and off it would be going back to its writer, dismissed out of hand for the simple reason that it was obvious this person had not bothered to read the guidelines and sent her a wildly inappropriate story.

Which leaves me wondering whether MZB was holding it while she figured out how to send it back and ask for a story more appropriate to the anthology, only to have her final, fatal heart attack cut short her dithering and leave the story lying there in the "maybe" pile. Because quite honestly I can't imagine how any writer who sent a story in and got it rejected with the "perfectly good story" rejection, and especially one of the small number of writers who had their stories held in the "maybe" pile for months only to have it rejected at the last minute when the final cuts were made, can feel anything but annoyed at seeing this story here. A story that blatantly flouts MZB's guidelines, yet was admitted when theirs were shut out and thus effectively robbed them of the possibility of a place in it. I don't care how good of a story it may be, it not only does not fit the guidelines, it actively thumbs its nose at them, and as such I simply cannot enjoy it.

On the other hand, the story after it, "The Queen in Yellow" by Gerald Perkins, is another of those successes that will stick in your mind long after you put it down. MZB was a longtime fan of Robert Chambers' haunting "The King in Yellow," and an attentive reader can see echoes of it all through her writing, especially her Darkover books, which liberally use the mysterious names of Chambers' imagined play that drives men mad. And Perkins clearly is familiar with those motifs as well, although he uses them in quite a different way -- instead of a play we have a dress which becomes a deadly weapon against an arrogant invader.

MZB always liked to end her anthologies with a relatively light piece, and preferably one that reminded us that flashy magic and enormous strength aren't always necessary to win out over an adversary. And Pete D. Manison's "Magic Threads" quite honestly makes me think of H. G. Wells' masterful ending to The War of the Worlds, in which all of humanity's most powerful weapons, the pride of Victorian Britain's science and technology, have failed to turn back the Martian invaders, but even as the human race lies prostrate before their conquerors, the invaders fall victim to some of the humblest of living organisms. Similarly, a magical cloak may give a would-be tyrant invulnerability, but the wool of the cloak itself has its own vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a wise weaver. Who would think a tiny insect larva, a soft and seemingly helpless caterpillar, could bring a conqueror low -- but Manison makes us cheer at that final revelation.

On the whole this anthology is a good one, with a number of strong stories that more than make up for the occasional weak one and even the one that got in only because the author was a friend of the editor. It's just a shame that we'll have only two more volumes in the anthology series that represent MZB's own choices, rather than her legacy as the series is continued by other hands.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Elizabeth Waters
  • "A Passage of Power" by Diana L. Paxson
  • "Lessons Learned" by Kati Doughery-Carthum
  • "Kendat's Ax" by Jan Combs
  • "The Tower of Song" by Howard Holman
  • "The Needed Stone" by Denise Lopes Heald
  • "Armageddon" by Lisa Silverthorne
  • "The Land of Graves" by Dave Smeds
  • "Light" by Susan Urbanek Linville
  • "In the Sacred Places of the Earth" by Dorothy J. Heydt
  • "The Glass Sword" by Richard Corwin
  • "Bed of Roses" by Elisabeth Waters
  • "Sword of Peace" by Lucy Cohen Schmeidler
  • "The Fall of the Kingdom" by Mary Soon Lee
  • "Arms and the Woman" by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • "The Stone Wives" by Michael Chesley Johnson
  • "Tiger's Eye" by India Edghill
  • "Raven-Wings on the Snow" by Pauline J. Alama
  • "Little Rogue Riding Hood" by Rosemary Edghill
  • "The Queen in Yellow" by Gerald Perkins
  • "Magic Threads" by Pete D. Manison

Review posted December 14, 2009

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