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Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXIII by Elisabeth Waters, editor

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume represents the third Sword and Sorceress anthology assembled entirely by an editor other than MZB herself (the first three issued after her death were assembled from the manuscripts in her "maybe" pile for the volume she was reading for when she was stricken with her fatal heart attack). Because it is edited by MZB's long-time personal secretary Elisabeth Waters, we can see a strong continuity in the types of stories selected, not merely in the authors represented, but in the themes and their treatment.

Keeping with the tradition established by MZB, Ms. Waters opens the volume with a brief introduction in which she discusses some of the issues involved in the editorial process. In particular, she focuses upon the selection process and the factors that lead her to accept or reject a particular story. This is particularly of interest to aspiring writers and those who have sold a few stories but have not yet established a name for themselves to the point that editors automatically give them the benefit of the doubt.

Often the submission process seems to the writer rather like a black box with a slot on one end into which one slides the story and a chute on the other from which comes either a prized acceptance or, far more frequently, the dreaded form rejection that is nothing more than a pretty way of saying, "NO." As a result, writers who want to go beyond just writing for their own enjoyment and the amusement of their circle of friends often pour a great deal of time and effort into trying to divine what is going on inside that black box, and thus how to write something that is going to get that coveted acceptance instead of yet another rejection.

However, as Ms. Waters points out, there is no simple formula by which one can write a story that is guaranteed acceptance. Part of it is that market needs shift over time. A story that might have been accepted had it been submitted at the very beginning of the anthology's reading period can no longer be accepted as the reading period closes, because it no longer fit in the anthology as it takes shape. It may be a physical fit -- a long story requires more room, and as other acceptances use up more and more of the total word count available, the chance diminishes that there will be enough left. Or it could be a thematic fit -- as stories are accepted, they establish a tone for the anthology, and latecomers may no longer fit which might have been accepted when the volume was still more of a tabula rasa. Conversely, hurrying to get a story in during those first days of a submission window can lead to it feeling unpolished and unsatisfactory. So the real conclusion is that there's not a whole lot one can do to guarantee a good fit with the editor's desires, beyond writing the very best story you're capable of and making sure that it fits the market in a general way.

MZB had an abiding dislike of horror, but she could be persuaded to make an exception for a story that focused more upon the shuddersome rather than the grossly disgusting (MZB was after all very heavily inspired by Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow, with its atmosphere of brooding wrongness centering around the titular play which was said to drive its readers mad). The very first story in this volume, Dave Smeds' "A Morsel for the Plague Queen," falls into the former territory, dealing as it does with epidemic illness of a supernatural sort without wallowing in the disgusting medical details of what is happening to the people who fall victim of it. Rather, the story's focus is firmly upon the politics of what it means to have a plague caused by a supernatural entity who can only be stopped by one of royal blood -- but the king is too politically valuable to risk himself as one of his ancestors did in more simple times. However, given the proclivities of the human male, royal blood can be found in surprising places -- and if found and properly trained, such individuals may well prove to be long-term assets rather than threats to the kingdom's stability.

There is some controversy concerning the propriety of editors including stories of their own in the lineup of an anthology. Some readers feel it is a conflict of interests, and an editor cannot be truly objective in judging the value of his or her own writing. However, Elisabeth Waters began her collaboration on the Treasures series of short stories with Michael Spense years ago, when MZB was still editing the anthology and there was no such conflict. The Treasures series take place in a world where magic is doing much of the work technology does in our own, to make life better for its users rather than to just produce cool effects and bigger, nastier weapons. Thus it feels somewhat like our own, yet with odd little differences here and there.

The Treasures are ancient artifacts of great and often inimical magic, which can only be controlled if they are kept in the hands of their proper Guardians. Or at least that is the way it works in the West. Things are a little different in China, and when a traveling exhibit of Chinese magical goods arrives at the city where Laurel lives, she gets to discover just how life-changing an event it can be called as a Servant to such an artifact.

Science fiction is full of symbiotic intelligences who are effectively immortal because they can move to a new host when the old one succumbs to the infirmities of age. Some of them are monstrous, taking their hosts without any respect to the other being's wishes, while others regard the relationship as a partnership and thus are often portrayed as good guys. In "The Vessel" Gerri Leen translates it into fantasy, which gives it a somewhat supernatural overtone -- but the real charm of the story lies in the conflict of values between the tough old warrior-woman spirit and the well-brought-up young merchant's daughter who has welcomed her.

We often speak of knights in shining armor, to the point it has become a figure of speech. In "Polish On, Polish Off: A Dragon Tale" Tom Inister gives us a rather amusing story of just what it takes for a knight's armor to really shine -- and a humorous role reversal to boot.

Patricia B. Cirone's "It's All in the Making" Desi has been brought up to believe that it is unnatural, even evil, to have the ability to feel the inner structure of metal and manipulate it. As a result, she has spent most of her life trying to cut off a significant piece of herself, a process made all the more difficult because she is a goldsmith and jeweler. But when a strange woman comes with a commission to repair a magical sword, Desi has to rethink the beliefs that have been drummed into her head from her earliest days.

My one reservation about this story is the lack of any sense of substantial theological underpinnings for the prohibition of Desi's gift and others like it. Of course there is only so much room for worldbuilding in a short story, but it still comes across as the stereotypical Bad Religion that issues blanket prohibitions against stuff because it's supposedly Bad, but which turns out to be false -- much as religion has been portrayed as universally hostile to advancements in science and technology here in the Primary World.

The histories we learn in school often gloss over the ugly realities of war and conquest, particularly the slaughter of an entire community's menfolk and the subsequent taking of the women as wives, or more often slave concubines, by the conquerors. But in "Daughters of Brightshield" Pauline J. Alama gives us a community of women who aren't completely helpless when a ship full of raiders attacks their village. They may not be able to take up arms in their own defense, but magic affords other, more subtle weapons against the minds that guide the weapon -bearing hand.

One very common motif of fantasy is the externalized heart or soul that is intended to make its creator invulnerable and immortal. Sauron had his Ring of Power, and Lord Voldemort had his horcruxes. Of course both of them made these instruments in secret, for there was great shame and trespass in what they were setting out to do. But what if a society existed in which such an action were normal and accepted for certain categories of leaders? In "Undivided" Marian Allen envisions such a society -- except with an astonishing reversal that is revealed only at the end, when it proves the undoing of the villain in a truly surprising way.

In her advice for beginning writers, MZB regularly warned against rewriting classic fairy tales, mostly because it tended to produce superficial stories that didn't really provide any new insights on the story. However, like any of her strictures, she could be persuaded to set it aside to accept a story written so well that it captivated her and wouldn't let her go. Melissa Mead gives us just such a story in "The Fairest of Them All," the title of which is a direct reference to Snow White. However, this character is not the Disney version of Snow White, but a character with an earthy sense of humor and a delightful taste for irony.

K D Wentworth's "Deermouse" tells the story of a living land and of the Tamraire, a sort of Fair Folk who sometimes forge alliances with individual humans but generally keep themselves apart form human concerns. And of course the human aristocrat who thinks himself a hero and comes bumbling into things he really doesn't understand.

In "Blood Moon" Catherine Mintz gives us the story of a Fastness under siege by supernatural forces, guarded by a powerful magical Dame. But she is growing old, and soon will come the time that she must perforce pass on her guardianship to another. But the succession is troubled, which makes a precarious situation only worse.

Jonathan Moeller's "Stolen Ghosts" is a direct sequel to his story in the previous volume of Sword and Sorceress. Caina is a Ghost of the Empire, a covert agent responsible for dealing with threats too dangerous to be tackled openly by the Emperor's regular law-enforcement agencies. In the previous story, she killed a necromancer and put an end to the particularly vile spells he was attempting to do. However, in the process she made some powerful enemies who would love to do her a bad turn. And is often the case in such situations, there are ties to those in high places.

In "The Frog's Princess" Kristin Noone gives us yet another retold fairy tale, but with an interesting twist. Andrie isn't your typical fairy-tale princess, beautiful and rather squeamish. Not only is she on the plain side, but she's also a brain, what in a sf story would be termed a nerd or a geek, and when we first meet her, she's hiding right beside the castle's moat, hoping desperately not to be found. She has been betrothed to a man she doesn't want to marry, because her father the king has sunk into a depression after the death of her mother the queen. And then she drops her golden ball into the filthy waters of the moat only to have it retrieved by a talking frog.

In the original fairy tale, the princess was a delicate creature, easily disgusted by the prospect of having to fulfill her promise to the frog. Not so Andrie, whose immediate response is to carry him up to her private apartments in her pocket, right alongside her golden ball. As they converse in those quarters, certain peculiar facts begin to come out, leading to a dramatic confrontation and surprising revelations about fraternal jealousy, not to mention a resolution to that problem of the betrothal she wanted no part of.

In the Middle Ages, fairy tales were largely the province of the peasants. The nobility had their romances of heroism and chivalry, among which are the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And they too have been the subject of the interest of modern writers who have sought to rediscover them in the terms of modern sensibilities. Leah Cypess gives us an interesting take on them in "Shalott's Inn," a story from the perspective of the Fair Folk, rather than the usual human characters. I will warn readers here and now that it has a most decidedly dark ending.

In "Wolf Maiden" Linda L. Donahue takes us to Scandinavia in the time of the Vikings. Lost and afraid, Asdis discovers a miserable, mangy dog tied up outside of the longhouse which has given her shelter. As she feeds it and it regains its health, she discovers it is not a dog, but a wolf. And not any ordinary wolf either, but the fabled Fenris Wolf, which will be instrumental in the fall of the gods in Ragnarok, the Scandanavian apocalypse. And the encounter will change her forever, in most surprising ways.

In the old days, MZB was adamant that there were to be no modern settings in stories being submitted for consideration for Sword and Sorceress. No gunpowder, no industrial technology or other elements of the modern world. In Sword and Sorceress XVIII Rosemary Edghill's "Little Rogue Riding Hood" started in an explicitly contemporary setting, although it did involve magical travel to a pre-industrial world. It had seemed out of place, but apparently enough readers liked it that Elisabeth Waters has decided to relax the prohibition against the modern sufficiently to make room for Resa Nelson's "Black Magic," which takes place in the 1800's, aboard a tallship of the East India trade. George is a young surgeon's assistant aboard it, except "George" is a false name, and he is in fact a she. Disgusted by the prospect of the narrow life of domesticity ordained by her father as her future, she ran away to sea, where she encounters a terrible magic which will lead her to rethink her relationship to her father and her role in society.

Deborah J. Ross is Jewish, and that fact is the central touchstone of her contribution to this volume. Although "Remembering" is not a simplistic allegory of the pograms and persecutions the Jewish people have endured over the centuries, the themes of the persecuted people of the Book and their search for a safe place has a deep resonance. And there is the additional twist of a woman with ties to wondrous entities, who may be able to offer extraordinary aid to the people who took her in -- if only she can resolve her own torn loyalties.

After an extremely serious, even grim, story of the survival of a persecuted people, Michael H. Payne offers us a humorous story in "Squirrel Errant," in which the confrontation between knight and dragon takes on a most amusing twist.

Catherine Soto's "Hope for the Dawn" is the latest installment in her Temple Cats series of stories, which began when Lin Mei's act of compassion in rescuing a litter of orphan kittens resulted in the survival of herself and her brother. Now she is in the capital, where she and her brother have found work as bodyguards for hire. When an ambassador's token is stolen, they must find it before the entire city is punished for one person's misdeed.

It was MZB's established practice to end each volume of the Sword and Sorceress anthology with a story that was both short and funny, and Ms. Waters has decided to follow that practice. "Scam Artistry" is also Ms. Waters' second collaboration in this volume, this time with Mercedes Lackey, one of those authors whose careers had their beginning in the early volumes of S&S. Like "Black Magic," it is set in a clearly modern era -- the date of 1910 is specifically mentioned, and one of the characters is described as a "dippy hippy." Quoth, the protagonist, rather clearly takes his name from Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem "The Raven," and is a familiar with the peculiar job of teaching new witches their craft. Usually they are young, but his latest assignment didn't show any magical potential until she hit menopause. Which means she has a most decidedly different outlook on life than the typical pretty young thing.

On the whole this is another good contribution to a fine old tradition. Although some of the stories may not be to everybody's taste, there's not a single real clunker to be found anywhere.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Elisabeth Waters
  • "A Morsel for the Plague Queen" by Dave Smeds
  • "Daughter of Heaven" by Michael Spense & Elisabeth Waters
  • "The Vessel" by Gerri Leen
  • "Polish On, Polish Off: A Dragon Tale" by Tom Inister
  • "It's all in the Making" by Patricia B. Cirone
  • "Daughters of Brightshield" by Pauline J. Alama
  • "Unidvided" by Marian Allen
  • "The Fairest of Them All" by Melissa Mead
  • "Deermouse" by K. D. Wentworth
  • "Blood Moon" by Catherine Mintz
  • "Stolen Ghosts" by Jonathan Moeller
  • "The Frog Princess" by Kristin Noone
  • "Shalott's Inn" by Leah Cypress
  • "Wolf Maiden" by Linda L. Donahue
  • "Black Magic" by Resa Nelson
  • "Remembering" by Deborah J. Ross
  • "Squirrel Errant" by Michael H. Payne
  • "Hope for the Dawn" by Catherine Soto
  • "Scam Artistry" by Mercedes Lackey & Elisabeth Waters"

Review posted January 31, 2010.

Buy Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword And Sorceress XXIII from Amazon.com

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