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Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXI by Diana L. Paxson, editor

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Marion Zimmer Bradley was stricken with a fatal massive heart attack in 1999, she was in the middle of her annual reading period for the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology. As a result, she had enough manuscripts in the held-to-reconsider pile to fill three books. After some negotiations with her literary estate, it was decided to put them together into three volumes (other than a handful which were rejected at the very last minute when it was decided that there were just a few too many to fit in three volumes, but not nearly enough for a fourth) and bring them out over the next three years.

After those three volumes were published, there were real questions about whether the Sword and Sorceress anthology series should be retired, or if it should be continued under new editorship. Because it had been a good steady seller, DAW was interested in putting out another volume, if MZB's estate was agreeable and a suitable editor could be found. The result was this volume, which has a somewhat different flavor from the old ones, yet still manages to capture something of the same spirit we saw in the originals.

Diana L. Paxson has longstanding ties with both MZB and DAW Books, so it was natural for the publishers to approach her for the task. Since she has had stories in most of the previous volumes of Sword and Sorceress, she has a very good sense of what made a story a good fit for it. Furthermore, she has followed MZB's tradition of opening each volume with a brief introduction telling a little about how it came to be.

The very first contribution, "Sword and Sorceress" by Jennifer G. Tifft, is unusual in that it is a poem. MZB was a very demanding audience for poetry, and did not consider her anthology to be a poetry market, to the point that she would specifically include in her guidelines that she did not want to see any poetry. However, like any part of her guidelines, she was willing to break that restriction if she was sufficiently impressed by something.

After that we have the first regular story, "Dawn and Dusk" by Dana Kramer-Rolls. A long-time contributer to the Sword and Sorceress, she gives us a story set among the medieval Scandanavian peoples. Dagne, whose name means "new day," was born out of season, and as such is the subject of superstitious hostility because her very existence represents hard evidence that her parents broke an important taboo of their society. Now that her mother has died and her father remarried, she no longer has a protector in her father's steading and has been driven out, her only companion a tiny kitten whom no one gave any chance to survive. But Dagne is determined not to succumb, and as a result she discovers the home of a mysterious old woman who seems to live on the boundary between the mortal and magical worlds.

From the dark and grim Jim C. Hines takes us to the humorous world of the domestic lives of professional thieves in "Spell of the Sparrow." Their daughter Mel wants to be a wizard, something the protagonist isn't exactly happy about -- until her husband becomes the target of the determined affections of a Cloudling, a member of a mysterious race who work their magic through birds. It takes wits and thieving skills as well as magic to combat a love spell in the form of an egg -- and to make it rebound upon its caster in a most amusing and embarrassing way.

In "The Woman's Place" Susan Urbanek Linville gives us a story of magic among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. When the hunting becomes desperately short, El must take desperate measures in order to ensure the survival of her people, even if she must pay the ultimate price.

What are the ties that bind us together? Is an adoptive mother less a real parent than the woman who gave birth to the child? In "Kin," Naomi Kritzer tells the story of a woman who had to confront just such a choice. In Julia's world, those who use magic cannot bear children -- but one day she discovers a tiny babe, the sole survivor of an attack on a village. Having no other way to quiet the child, she puts it to her own breast as she carries it back to the camp of the army to which she is attached, intending to feed it upon mare's milk. But to her surprise, she discovers her own breasts now heavy with milk, and when her commanding officer orders her to hand the baby over to a wet nurse and forget about it, the decision is no longer so cut and dried as she would have expected. (I should note that the part about her milk coming in does not necessarily require magic -- even here in the Primary World some adoptive mothers have been able to nurse their infants by the simple expedient of having applied a device to their breasts that simulates the effect of a child nursing).

Although Esther M. Friesner is usually known for her humorous stories, in "Child's Play" she gives us a far darker and more grim story about a little girl with a magical talent -- and the king who would do anything to gain her services for himself. Her mother left her with a most unusual toy, and left her in the hands of a gentle Teacher who once faced much the same situation. A teacher whose own family were murdered in cold blood by their own sovereign for the crime of having secreted her away rather than allowing her to be taken to court where her power would be used without any regard for the harm it would do to an innocent child. But this time around it may be possible to break the cycle of escape and destruction -- if only the king can be fooled into believing that the magic did not reside in the girl at all.

The she-bear is one of the fiercest mothers of the animal kingdom, as many foolish humans have discovered to their sorrow when they got too close to that cute little bear cub. The protagonist of Jenn Reese's "Ursa" is a woman sworn to use her bear-spirit magic to protect the helpless. However, when she awakes one morning knowing that a child is in desperate danger, she expected to confront evil. Instead she discovers a young lad's muddled thinking and desperate need to put to rights a mess he'd made.

In "Red Caramae" Kit Wesler gives us a short-short of a young magic student's encounter with a ghoul in the cemetery of the magic school she attends. This is one of the few stories I found problematical. Although some short-shorts are perfect little gems of insight, almost like poems in prose offering us a Zen-like flash of enlightenment, I think this one could really have stood to be a little longer and let us see a little more of what was going on in it, because I just felt frustrated by its scantness.

Although most sword-and-sorcery stories take place in societies somewhere between the Bronze Age and the Renaissance in terms of technological development, Cynthia McQuillan gives us a story of Stone Age magic in "Parri's Blade." Young Hamli may be only a child, but she already has a well-developed ability to see into the world of the spirits. When her brother dies prematurely, she insists upon standing vigil over his bier as his next-of-kin -- over the objections of his bereaved fiancée Soela. When Soela sneaks up on that sacred watch, Hamli discovers why -- Soela intends a grave sacrilege, stealing Parri's fire-hardened wooden knife and fleeing from the band's village into the rain forest. All too aware of the dire purposes to which a sufficiently skilled magic user could put a possession of the dead, Hamli pursues her. But instead of finding malice, she instead encounters love that cannot bear to let go, and has to find some compromise that will allow living and dead to be what they must be.

There is an old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention," and in "Necessity and the Mother" Lee Martindale plays upon it with the story of a veteran mercenary put out of a job by a disabling injury. Although she had intended to retire to a quiet life in her mother's tavern, Donta discovers that old habits of thought and action die hard -- especially when they are facing a high-handed Royal Council full of mages who think that edged weapons are too dangerous for ordinary people to possess.

In "Sun Thief" K. A. Laity gives us a new twist on the story of the maiden offered as a sacrifice to appease a monster. Arja has been chosen to be given to the Winter Giant as a bride so that he will allow winter to end. But unlike the frightened milksops that were given in previous years, this spunky lass has the nerve to ask the Winter Giant some questions, and discovers that everything her people have known about him is in fact a lie based upon braggadocio. However, she has no intention of becoming a cannibal feast for this creature, and sets about making her escape. Unfortunately, the ending is a little vague as to just how she came upon that vital magic, making it one of the very few stories that really didn't work for me.

Rosemary Edghill gives us a story of a woman warrior with a magical sword in "Lostland." Ruana Rulane is the sort of woman who would be the object of hostility in more settled times, but instead she becomes a hero. I would really like to see this one expanded into something longer and more detailed, with more information about the world and more of her adventures, which from the hints and suggestions we see would probably fill a novel quite easily.

Although many of the stories in this volume take place in imagined lands, Rebecca Maines takes us to Chaucerian England in "Plowshares." Like Chaucer's storytellers, Elisabeth is on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the sacred relics housed there. However, she faces one threat that never was touched upon in that great classic of Middle English -- bandits and highwaymen. Particularly the Dark Men, whose atrocities have become the subject of considerable talk.

Except things are not always as they seem, as Elisabeth discovers when she and the other women of a town in which she pauses for the night are taken prisoner by them. In English folklore Robin Hood served out economic street justice against the rich and powerful who used their positions not to help the weak but to exploit them. In the world of this story there are women who have taken up arms to deal out gender street justice against men who use their testosterone-derived greater strength to brutalize their wives and children rather than protecting and providing for them. And these women are quite willing to take new recruits.

From medieval England Catherine Soto takes us to ancient China in "Step by Step." When Lin Mei is moved to compassion by the sight of two abandoned kittens, she thinks she is only fulfilling a vision she saw the night her family was slaughtered in their sleep, a vision that enabled her to get her younger brother out safely. But instead her act of compassion proves a fortuitous circumstance, for it ensures that she is up and alert when the caravan in which she and her brother are traveling are attacked by bandits.

One of the greatest challenges a ruler faces who would rule well is being able to get a true assessment of the situation in his or her country. It is the nature of high rank to surround a person with layer after layer of social padding, and the people who are supposed to make sure that the ruler's time is not wasted by foolish tasks can all too easily take control of the information flow and conceal real problems. Even if it isn't for reasons of malicious self-aggrandizement, the very fact that comfortable lies are often better received (and rewarded) than unpleasant truths will ensure that courtiers will tend to shade the truth in ways that will make it more palatable to the one in power. Thus we have the long tradition of stories of the ruler who goes out among the people in disguise in order to know what really is happening on the streets, a concept Lynn Morgan Rosser gives a surprising twist in "Favor of the Goddess," which appears to be the story of an amnesiac woman soldier but proves to be much more.

In "Rose in Winter" Marie M. Loughin gives us the story of Rosabel, the dreamy daughter of an impoverished nobleman. When she goes to court, she is somewhat overwhelmed at first, but is determined to make the best match she can. But even as she attracts the notice of the king's own son, she is herself courted by a mysterious figure who calls himself Spindleshanks and who may be a jester or a magician. At first she is repelled by this absurd figure, but as he continues to visit her, she feels drawn to him -- yet at the same time she knows that allowing herself to be won by the king's son will ensure her security.

In "Kazhe's Blade" Terry McGarry gives us a new twist on the old problem of who will watch the watchmen. All too often the fighters who were originally supposed to protect the populace instead turn tyrant in turn, with exactations every bit as heavy as the last crew of bullies they ran out of town. Kazhe has an opportunity to break the cycle.

After all too long an absence from the pages of these anthologies, Heather Rose Jones brings us a new story of the Kaltaoven, the skin-changers, in "The Skin Trade." Ashóli and Eysla arrive in Wilentelu, where they have a contract to deliver horses to the Marchalt, the king's governor. There they find a Kaltaoven family in the service of the Marchalt. At first Ashóli is startled by the matter-of-fact acceptance of Keale's abilities, for she is more familiar with fear and envy. But she soon discovers that Keale is being held as a not-quite-prisoner, his desired departure to seek his own people being forever put off by the Marchalt, always in soft words about convenience and duty. In order to free him, Ashóli must work a triple bargain, a complex ritualized agreement between two Kaltaoven families which will result in the Marchalt releasing Keale and his family. But these bargains are not easy things to work.

Although Marion Zimmer Bradley always had fairly involved and stringent guidelines for the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, she always stated that a sufficiently well-written story could induce her to break just about any of them. One of the things she warned against was the "final exam for wizards," or by extension, any wizarding-school type story in which the entire point is to pass a test in order to gain academic progress. In "Multiple Choice" Leslie Fish gives us a humorous twist on the notion of a test for magic users -- one that probably would've gotten past MZB just as well as it has her successor. (I can almost imagine MZB chuckling in delight while reading it).

In "Oulu" Aimee Kratts takes us to a small town and shows us that a magic-user can face just as dangerous of conflicts as in the more typical high-fantasy settings of sieges and battles and royal courts. As someone who grew up in a small town in the rural Midwest, I found her characterizations all too believable, particularly the various petty jealousies, lies, secrets and co-dependencies woven among people who know far too much about one another. It's often said that the fights in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low, and it's true in small-town backbiting and gossipmongering too.

In the US service academies one of the first things a cadet learns is that there is no excuse for failure, no proper answer for criticism of failure save, "I have no excuse." The protagonist of John P. Buentello's "A Kind of Redemption" lives by that stern code, and thus while others may see her as having been strained beyond her capacity and therefore not at fault for having broken under pressure, she refuses to take the easy way out. But after years of regarding herself as dishonored beyond remedy, Tavis is offered an opportunity to fight one last battle against her enemies.

In "Journey's End" Dorothy J. Heydt gives us yet another story of Cynthia, the ancient Greek woman who has met with the gods of Olympus and the new gods of rising Rome to the west. And now she begins to see some of the themes and values which will inform faith yet to come -- the idea that the gods do not want sacrifices, but a just and merciful heart, the idea of the indwelling divine spirit, the image of the god slain and reborn. We can only wonder if this story in fact represents the end of Cynthia's story, or if there will be other stories about her.

MZB always had a tradition of ending each anthology with a very short, humorous story, and Diana Paxson keeps it up with Marilyn A. Racette's "Love Potion #8 1/2." The title is of course a play on the oft-covered Clovers song "Love Potion #9," in which the perpetual loser narrator buys a potion which causes him to experience a mad infatuation with everything around him (rather like poor Ron Weasley in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). However, even in its humor this story manages to have a serious side about the danger of getting what we say we want, rather than what we actually want.

On the whole it's a good collection, if somewhat different from what MZB herself usually put together. Although there are fewer really stellar stories, there really weren't any total flops either.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Diana L. Paxson
  • "Sword and Sorceress" by Jennifer G. Tifft
  • "Dawn and Dusk" by Dana Kramer-Rolls
  • "Spell of the Sparrow" by Jim C. Hines
  • "The Woman's Place" by Susan Urbanek Linville
  • "Kin" by Naomi Kritzer
  • "Child's Play" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "Ursa" by Jenn Reese
  • "Red Caramae" by Kit Wesler
  • "Parri's Blade" by Cynthia McQuillin
  • "Necessity and the Mother" by Lee Martindale
  • "Sun Thief" by K.A. Laity
  • "Lostland" by Rosemary Edghill
  • "Plowshares" by Rebecca Maines
  • "Step by Step" by Catherine Soto
  • "Favor of the Goddess" by Lynn Morgan Rosser
  • "Rose in Winter" by Marie M. Loughlin
  • "Kazhe's Blade" by Terry McGarry
  • "The Skin Trade" by Heather Rose Jones
  • "Multiple Choice" by Leslie Fish
  • "Oulu" by Aimee Kratts
  • "A Kind of Redemption" by John P Buentello
  • "Journey's End" by Dorothy J. Heydg
  • "Love Potion #8 1/2" by Marilyn A Racette

Review posted April 29, 2010.

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