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Sword and Sorceress XX by Marion Zimmer Bradley, editor

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In this volume we are seeing the last of the stories that had been picked as possibilities to include in the volume of the Sword and Sorceress for which Marion Zimmer Bradley was reading at the time of her death in 1999. In addition, there are a few stories that were specially commissioned for it in order that certain regular authors whose original submissions had been printed in one of the other two volumes that were made from that "maybe" pile would be able to have a story in this volume as well. Typically these are authors that are sufficiently well-known throughout the sf/fantasy community that the presence of their names in the table of contents will serve to draw purchasers.

MZB always opened each volume with a brief introduction, and Elizabeth Waters and Ann Sharp, who did the final selection and editing, continue that tradition. However, it should be noted that the introduction in the book was not the first introduction they wrote for this volume. Originally they wrote the introduction assuming that this volume would be the last ever, after which the Sword and Sorceress anthology line would be put to rest. However, the senior editors of DAW books had a change of heart and decided to put out another volume under the Sword and Sorceress title, with one of MZB's close associates as the editor. As a result, they had to rewrite the introduction to include a reference to Sword and Sorceress XXI, and noted how happy they were to be able to make the change.

This volume begins with a story one of MZB's closest collaborators, Deborah J. Ross, who was selected to continue the Darkover series after MZB's death as a result of dissatisfaction with previous collaborators' contributions. Here she gives us an original-universe story, "Bread and Arrows," in which the widowed baker-woman Celine struggles against a wasting disease that is threatening her life. Only by undertaking a perilous magical journey can she defeat it.

In "Mermaid Offerings" Linda J Dunn gives us another woman in a traditionally feminine occupation who proves that one doesn't have to swing a sword to show courage and defeat evil. In Freida's case, it's a king who has captured a mer-baby, hoping to gain unending life by eating its flesh. At first she thinks this strange creature is just a phenomenally ugly fish -- until its mother comes to rescue it, and she is confronted with undeniable evidence that merfolk are indeed rational, pasionate beings who communicate with language and love their children. Which leaves Freida with the problem of how to save the infant's life and return it to its mother without her own life becoming forfeit in exchange -- a problem with a surprising solution drawn from her culinary skills.

Dorothy J. Heydt gives us yet another installment in the long-runnning adventures of her ancient Greek witch Cynthia in "Blood Will Tell." Over the past several volumes of the anthology series, Ms. Heydt has been chronicling the cultural shift away from Greece to the rising power of Rome, and in this story Cynthia finally arrives on the Italian peninsula, not in the Eternal City itself, but in Neapolis, which we now know as Naples. There she must deal with a Roman patrician for whom maintaining the proper appearances and traditional observances is of the utmost importance.

In "Mairi's Wine" Mara Grey gives us a story set in the Celtic lands. Ras was raised by the Fair Folk, but her human side calls her elsewhere for a season -- and straight into trouble. But the magic she has learned from the Fair Folk may enable her to avenge the death of a murdered woman.

Kathryn J. Brown's "The Mask of Medusa's Daughter" is the story of Calligenia, who has inherited from her notorious mother has the terrible power to turn creatures to stone with her gaze. But because the curse came to her entirely as the result of parentage, not anything she did, and because she was horrified by its effects, the gods have granted her the companionship of a magical statue of living bronze, Andras (literally "man") who need not fear her powers. Together they wandered the world -- until Andras inadvertently aroused the greed of the collector-king Turannos. Now Calli must find a way to free him from the king's palace that doesn't involve turning anybody to stone.

Patricia Duffy Novak is another regular in the pages of MZB's anthologies, and in "The Sorcerer of Rasston" she gives us the story of Lauren, wizard of the White path, called upon to hunt down a killer. However, treachery and double identities make the ugly task even more difficult.

In "Legacy" Lisa Deason deals with a very common theme of these anthologies -- the young woman struggling to find and follow her own path in the face of family expectations. But while protagonists in the earlier volumes often struggled against family dismayed or even angry at their rejection of traditional feminine occupations in favor of dangerous vocations, Serenity is the latest in the long line of women soldiers, the newest bearer of the heirloom blade Legacy. No matter how hard she tries to master the arts of the swordswoman, it becomes increasingly clear that her hands are meant for other work. Yet she cannot bear to disappoint her hero mother, the redoubtable Merriment.

MZB was not fond of retold fairy tales, largely because so many of them were done in an extremely superficial way that offered no distinctive voice or new insight upon the old stories. However, like all her guidelines, she was always willing to break it for a sufficiently good story, and Patricia Sayre McCoy's "The Last Swan Princess" was just that sort. Set in a quasi-Russian magical kingdom but belonging to no specific point in Russian history, it features a gender reversal in which it is the daughters who have been transformed into swans by the wicked witch and the single brother who must perform heroic feats in order to free them. However, the breaking of the enchantment is only the beginning of the story, because while the older sisters are delighted to be rid of the enchantment and return to their human form, the youngest had been so young that she had no real memories of her life as a human, and thus finds the role of a princess frustratingly constraining. But how can she regain the power of flight and its attendant freedoms without becoming once again the thrall of evil magic? The answer proves surprising, taking her beyond the boundaries of her homeland to yet another captive, a prince from a hot southern land quite unlike her own.

In "Swordtongue" Anne Cutrell gives us another story of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world. After surviving a terrible fire, Dalia was regarded as marked by the element of Fire for its service. Although she had no interest in the way of the warrior, the usual profession of those dedicated to Fire, she applied herself doggedly to absorbing the instruction of her new teachers. However, she has only managed to distinguish herself in her talent for argument -- but might that turn out to be a strength rather than the weakness it seems? This story is particularly interesting by showing that there are more ways to defend the weak and vulnerable than with a blade -- and sometimes skill in argumentation can be even more valuable than prowess at arms.

Cynthia McQuillan's "Leaves of Iron" is another story dealing with the Fair Folk and their intersections with humanity. In this story, the protagonist is a changeling who was saved by the intervention of the village sorceress, Dama Brit. After being fostered with a childless couple, Tally has become apprentice to the woman who saved her life. When the people of her village are seized by trolls, she has to delve into the history of the various races and their natures in order to discover her own powers and rescue them.

Although this is an interesting story, it has one major element that bothers me: namely, it uses the notion that the Fair Folk have no souls without providing either theological or psychological explanation for them. The tradition in Primary World folktales that fairies had no souls was the result of the collision of pre-Christian folklore that populated the world with a wide variety of rational beings and the Christian theological position that God had created humans alone to be rational beings with immortal souls, and thus they alone had need of a Savior to redeem those souls and spare them the torments of Hell. However, there is no evidence of any religion in the story's Secondary World to correspond to Christianity, or any form of Abrahamic monotheism. In fact, many other world religions, particularly those of India and East Asia, regard all rational beings, or even all animals, to be imbued with souls that survive the death of the body and participate in the endless cycle of rebirth. In fact, the near-universality of the belief in life after death has lead modern psychologists to believe that it is rooted in the development of the concept of person-permanence (the idea that people continue to exist once they move out of range of one's immediate perception) in early childhood -- which would also explain why the notion that the Fair Folk, who are clearly portrayed as rational beings, should lack souls and thus life after death should strike many moderns as particularly unsettling.

From Northern Europe we go to a pre-Islamic Middle Eastern setting for Richard Calantropio's "The Challenge." Safiyah is despised for her lame leg, but she sees true and pierces the dissimulation of her mother's warriors. However, speaking truth to authority is always a risky business, and the story deals with her struggle to prove her words to those who would prefer not to have to believe the worst of people they have thought highly of.

In "Celtic Beauty" Winifred Phillips tells once again the age-old story of the woman whose extraordinary beauty drives men to destruction -- but with a modern twist that hinges upon the evil of regarding another person as means unto one's own end instead of an end unto herself. King Conchobar of Ulster had thought to evade the curse of beauty upon the infant Derdriu by holding her apart from all other men for himself alone, and left her to the ollamh (bard) Leborcham to raise. But Derdriu is not mere two-footed livestock to be bought and sold, but a being in her own right with free will and affections that go as they will -- and not to the king. Far from it, his possessiveness repels her, and her heart instead longs for a young man she has glimpsed in her dreams. As an ollamh, Leborcham knows that Derdriu dreams true and takes her to find her beloved -- sparking the very war that had been foretold at the girl's birth. But the wisdom of women may yet be able to wrest a less dreadful ending than the usual bloodbath we read of in most stories, and perhaps even teach wisdom to the very king whose pride and possessiveness brought the prophecy to its own fulfillment.

Margaret L. Carter's "Late Blooming" is another story of a young person struggling in a line of work that is simply not right for her and discovering her true calling. Miri has tried hard to learn wizardry from her Aunt Katwin, but all her spells seem to go awry -- until the day they are attacked by an old rival who wants to steal a spellbook and she learns where her magical talents really lie. Although it is an interesting change rung on the old theme of the ugly duckling discovering her true swan self, I would have liked a little more solidity in the description of Miri's sudden discovery of her ability to use plant magic -- particularly the scene where she suddenly starts crying out mysterious magical syllables without knowing what they mean, which struck me as just a little too convenient for my tastes.

In "Swords for Teeth, Mirrors for Eyes" Charles M. Saplak gives us the story of a mixted-gender group of warriors traveling deep into the mountains on a quest to find a dragon's tooth, a token that is essential to resolve the political situation of their imperiled country. However, the dragon is not exactly what most people would expect -- nor is the nature of the peril they must face.

One of the really telling details about their society that I really liked is the novelty of a steel knife, the possession of one of the most senior knights in the story. Although we moderns often don't really appreciate it, steel was an extremely rare metal until the Industrial Revolution. The earliest steels were made by the cementation process, by which iron bars were beaten together in order to drive out the impurities and mix the carbon into the metal to increase its tensile strength and ability to hold an edge. Needless to say, this method was extremely labor-intensive and could produce only very small amounts, suitable for providing very fine blades for a small number of elite men at arms. Even in the early modern period the best steelmaking processes used small crucibles that produced mere pounds of steel after hours of cooking -- sufficient to make blades and fine tools, but certainly not adequate for mass application. It was only with Henry Bessemer and his eponymous Bessemer converter that it first became possible to make steel in such quantities that it could be economically used in vast amounts.

After so many stories that take place in societies based to a greater or lesser degree on pre-Industrial Western society, Mary Soon Lee takes us to a China that never was in "Shen's Daughter." Intelligent and curious, Wai Suan is a misfit in a world where daughters are expected to be demure to the point of social invisibility. But when one of the emperor's advisors offers her the opportunity to take the place of an imperial princess who has refused the marriage made for her to cement a peace with a neighboring nation, she grabs it with both hands, even when it means switching bodies with a complete stranger.

When she tells us that the distant nation's people are a race of monsters, we smile and nod, knowing that of course insular peoples often regard the Other thusly. But when her training is complete and they arrive for the betrothal ceremony, we discover that yes, they really do have horns and hooves. Literally -- this is a world in which humanity is not the sole rational species. However monstrous their physical appearance may be, these people are not complete monsters in the social and moral sense. Far from it, they actually value intelligence and will in females, and suddenly Wai Suan's chiefmost flaw becomes a surprising asset.

I was rather surprised by Phyllis Ann Karr's "The Robber Girl, the Strangers, and Ole Lukoie." Normally MZB was quite adamant in her dislike of rogue characters, particularly the sort that cheerfully committed the sorts of crimes that would make us not want them moving in a society we share. While she wasn't rigid about demanding that every single character be strictly law-abiding -- she did acknowledge the existence of tyrants and the moral legitimacy of resisting them -- she strongly preferred that characters be at least chaotic good with a strong emphasis on the good part, making clear that they are breaking the laws of the land only in pursuit of a higher good. But in the very first sentence the first-person narrator cheerfully informs the reader that she and her buddy Half-Ear (who got that way because she bit off the rest) murdered a farmer and kidnapped a little girl. Not because he was an abusive parent or a nasty boss who mistreated his day laborers, or otherwise needed taking down, but just for the heck of it.

I'm even more astonished to have Frostflower and Thorn suddenly show up after open references to Copenhagen and to Christianity -- I was always under the impression that the Frostflower and Thorn books belonged in a completely different world, in which familiar places and religions either never existed or belonged to an era now forgotten. However, there was some mention of traveling between worlds, so it's possible that they crossed worlds as a result of some magic that wasn't made sufficiently clear because of the first-person narrative voice. However, what really got to me was the ending -- after Frostflower has rescued the little girl and removed the memory-wipe spell the witch put on her, she turns around and takes away the girl's memories of her time with the witch. Blurring or dimming them until the girl's grown up enough to process them I could understand, but simply yanking them out of her head lowers Frostflower to the same level as the witch -- and worse, gives her actions the overtones of that condescending "we'll decide what's good for you and you'll like it if you know what's good for you" that I see so often in dealings with children, buttressed with "it's all right for us to do it, because we're the good guys."

After this very disturbing story, I have to say that George Barr's "Too In the Morning" manages to hit the right notes, dealing as it does with a lovely young woman who wants so badly to be a sorceress -- except that she seems to always do everything to excess. A simple spell to fill a room with the perfume of roses instead crams it with the flowers themselves: blooms, stems, thorns and all. So she leaves magic school, and although her beauty catches the king's eye and she becomes a queen beloved to all (even her works of charity and justice are done to excess), she still longs to be a sorceress. And then one day her royal husband's realm is threatened by an enemy for which a little excess may well be just what the doctor ordered.

The last story in this volume is "The Song of the Stones," another of Diana L. Paxson's stories of Bera, now Voelva in her own right after the passing of her elderly mentor Groa. Invading Scots are threatening their lands, and she has to find a way to defeat them so they won't just keep trying over and over again.

However, it is not the final item. That honor belongs to the text of the homily given at MZB's funeral by the Rev. C. Robbins Clark, the Episcopalian minister at the church to which she belonged. It is a brief but profound meditation on the role of MZB's life in the lives of those she inspired, drawing upon the Gospel text of the woman who bathed Jesus' feet in costly perfume.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Elizabeth Waters and Ann Sharp
  • "Bread and Arrows" by Deborah J. Ross
  • "Mermaid Offerings" by Linda J. Dunn
  • "Blood Will Tell" by Dorothy J. Heydt
  • "Mairi's Wine" by Mara Gray
  • "The Mask of Medusa's Daughter" by Kathryn J. Brown
  • "The Sorcerer of Rasston" by Patricia Duffy Novak
  • "Legacy" by Lisa Deason
  • "The Last Swan Princess" by Patricia Sayre McCoy
  • "Swordtongue" by Anne Cutrell
  • "Leaves of Iron" by Cynthia McQuillin
  • "The Challenge" by Richard Calantropio
  • "Celtic Beauty" by Winifred Phillips
  • "Late Blooming" by Margaret L. Carter
  • "Swords for Teeth, Mirrors for Eyes" by Charles M. Saplak
  • "Shen's Daughter" by Mary Soon Lee
  • "The Robber Girl, the Strangers and Ole Lukoie" by Phyllis Ann Karr
  • "Too in the Morning" by George Barr
  • "The Song of the Stones" by Diana L. Paxson
  • "Homily" by the Rev. C. Robbins Clark

Review posted May 20, 2010.

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