Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXIV by Elisabeth Waters, editor
Published by Norilana Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When Marion Zimmer Bradley made her call for submissions for the very first volume of Sword and Sorceress in 1983, it was a groundbreaking event. At the time, heroic fantasy was almost entirely a male province. To be true, there was Robert Howard's Red Sonja and C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, but they were in many ways the exception that proved the rule. As a result, MZB got a lot of grossly inappropriate submissions, particularly the sort she always loathed in which the female characters are little more than bad-conduct prizes for thuggish, murderous male characters who are portrayed as heroes. Thus she spent the introductions of the next several S&S volumes explaining what she didn't want to see, trying to stem the tide and reorient people's efforts more productively.
After a while, she was able to concentrate more on themes that she felt to be overused, or to need particular caution in their use. In the last few volumes she edited, she began to express concern about how difficult it became to keep a balance between new voices and that group of writers whom she considered to be her own. A few times she was frankly frustrated at having to choose between an otherwise excellent story by someone who didn't have that connection and a good but not outstanding story by someone she considered one of her special group.
In 1999 MZB left us, after a massive heart attack proved the final straw upon a lengthy series of medical problems. After some bobbles, Norilana Books, owned and operated by Vera Nazarian, one of those authors whose careers were launched in these volumes, took over the publication and MZB's personal secretary Elisabeth Waters took over the editing. Since then the volumes have been coming out regularly again, and Ms. Waters has turned her introduction to how far we have or haven't come in the intervening years. It's quite instructing to see the comments on how the description of a woman's appearance and attire can reveal the gender of the writer, or how well that person has observed actual living, breathing women here in the Primary World, as opposed to reading other writers' descriptions and faithfully copying them.
Deborah J. Ross made her very first professional sale to the very first volume of Sword and Sorceress, giving her a very special place in MZB's inner circle, as reflected by the fact that she has been given the task of continuing the Darkover series after it fell into sad disrepair in the last few years of MZB's life, with uncredited collaborators producing very problematic novels. "The Casket of Brass" is an original-universe story set in a vaguely Middle Eastern society in which the ruler has grown old and feeble, and her heir is an untried young woman beset by a jealous rival. It's an intricate story, and I must confess that it took me a few readings to really follow what is going on in it, but the effort is most decidedly rewarding.
Living with a packrat is frustrating, particularly when he insists that he knows exactly where everything is and won't let you sort or clean anything, but important things are never to hand when they're needed. For the protagonist of "Merlin's Clutter" by Helen E. Davis, it's even worse because her packrat husband is a magician -- and the magical items lost in among the clutter are interacting in strange and unpredictable ways that make life in that house decidedly unpleasant. So one day while he's out, she sets about cleaning the place up, with most surprising results. Although this anthology series has a strong bias toward heroic adventures and derring-do, a short, humorous story of how women could be strong and have agency even in traditionally domestic pursuits always had a warm place in MZB's heart and on her S&S lineup for the simple reason that she understood that while the strong-thewed heroes were out there fighting evil, someone had to be keeping the homefront something worth fighting for. And Ms. Waters is clearly keeping that tradition in selecting this story for this volume.
In addition to her editing duties, Elisabeth Waters has included a story of her own, a collaboration with Michael Spence entitled "Sceptre of the Ungodly." It is one of her Treasures series, which deals with a group of ancient artifacts which are kept by Guardians. Some of these artifacts are good, and seek to remain with their holders as long as possible so that they can maintain the stability of civilization. Others are not, and in in keeping with their negative orientation they seek to create as much havoc as possible when passing from hand to hand. Such is the titular artifact, and its previous Guardian had sufficient self-knowledge to know the time of transferrence was coming and was on the way to the new Guardian -- but not soon enough. Now the Sceptre of the Ungodly has fallen into the hands of someone with no protections against its power, and the new Guardian must find out who that is. Unfortunately, the nature of the Sceptre is such that the unwitting holder is very unlikely to volunteer the information -- and is apt to be doing damage in the meantime.
In legal terms, a material witness is a person who possesses information material to a criminal proceeding. In a magical world where inanimate objects can be granted a measure of intelligence, might entities other than persons be able to provide such information? Brenta Blevins story "Material Witness" gives us a young princess desperately trying to prove that her father the king was murdered by her uncle, who now sits upon the throne. Her only proof is a magical tapestry which she claims shows the crime -- but how can she get anyone else to believe her and stand behind her against a man who may be the legitimate sovereign or a murderous usurper?
K. D. Wentworth's "Owl Court" is another story of a young woman's struggle for justice against overwhelming odds. When the men of the Elk Clan attack the Owl Clan and take their women, Jolice turns to Lady Owl, her people's guardian spirit for justice. But to gain what she desires, she must learn some things about herself -- and she will no longer be the person she once was. The story has a vaguely Native American feeling, mostly because of the kinship-with-animals theme and the mention of particularly North American animals such as the bobcat, but it does not refer to any specific tribe or nation.
In "Nellandra's Keeper" Theresa Howard gives a magical twist on a situation many sisters know all too well -- being responsible for a sibling's behavior. The first-person protagonist is supposed to see to it that her titular sister gets to her wedding on time -- except that Nellandra doesn't want this marriage. Which leaves our protagonist with a problem of seeing family honor satisfied and the promised husband not stood up.
Cetherine Soto's Temple Cats stories began with an act of compassion that proved life-saving for its doer as well as its recipients. In the latest installment, "Sages and Demons," Lin Mei has grown from a frightened refugee girl to a woman in the employ of her Emperor, the Khan (which would suggest this is set in the period of the Yuan dynasty, Mongols who ultimately became assimilated into Chinese culture). There is a magician in the area, and it would seem that he is not using his powers for good. Far from it, the very fact that nobody says anything bad about him would suggest that he has made himself feared as well as loathed. And he may be the one who is holding the Sage Penchen Rimpoche prisoner -- which means Lin Mei and her cats need to break the wise man free.
In "The Case of the Haunted City" Josepha Sherman gives us a story of secret-agent derring-do in a fantasy setting. The Organization of Magical Sovereignties is tasked with keeping the world safe from the Dark that lurks just beyond the edges of civilized life, and Tallain and Serein are two of its agents. When they stop in a rather peculiar city and try to get a room in an in, they find a most peculiar state of unwelcome. Curious as to what would lead a business to be unwilling to take their coin, they do a little investigating and discover some very unpleasant secrets.
The hero who slays the dragon has become one of the enduring motifs both of fairy tales and of sword and sorcery, to the point of becoming cliché -- some heroes seem to kill dragons so regularly that it's a wonder how they (and their writers) can maintain the interest over a whole series. As a result, an interest has developed in reversal stories in which the dragon is not merely a vicious monster to be destroyed, but may actually have honor and suchlike redeeming characteristics -- and even be willing to coexist with humanity. Except there's one problem, as Cate McBride notes in her "Pax Draconica" -- namely, how does our peacemaking dragon go about demonstrating willingness to coexist, such that humans will actually believe?
The lover taken from the uncanny realm of magical beings is a common trope of fantasy stories, as is the peril of rapacious pirates. Cynthia Ward combines them in "Sea-Child" to give us the story of Vekki, a young woman who has spent her life a social outcast because her mother loved a nereus, a powerful spirit of the ocean, who begat her before returning to the sea. When raiders attack their lonely home on the outskirts of the village which grudgingly tolerates them and kidnaps her mother, Vekki must find within her the powers that are her unknown father's legacy.
In "Ghost Masks" Jonathan Moeller continues the story of Caina, who serves her Emperor as one of his Ghosts, covert agents who watch the watchmen and otherwise deal with threats to the Empire which cannot be handled through the normal means of the law courts. However, in the process of rooting out corruption she has made powerful enemies, ones who would gladly treat with the worst of villains. Worse, one of her friends was killed in an earlier operation, and she is beholden to avenge his death.
Dave Smeds gives us "The Vapors of Crocodile Fen," the story of a young woman of the marshes apprenticed to a sorceress to learn potion-making. She tells the story of how she discovered bit by bit that her mistress was more than she appeared, that words that are technically factual may not be the whole of the truth of a matter. In particular, the matter of a potion to halt aging, which Countess Lithra claims must be made with ingredients that no longer exist -- but does that necessarily mean that they have passed from the world forever, or that they simply don't exist in their fabricated state?
One interesting thing about this story is the way in which the first person narration is used. In the 1700's and 1800's, when fiction as a modern genre of literature was first developing, readers had to be coaxed into suspending their disbelief. Common ways of doing it included writing the story in the form of letters exchanged by the characters, or presenting it as a manuscript found in an obscure place, or even letting the reader know the narrator was actually telling it to an unnamed listener who was recording it word-for-word. As time passed and the conventions of fiction become more of a given, authors no longer had to work so hard to provide a clear mechanism by which the account of the events of the story could have come to the reader's hands. Thus, first-person narration became just one more literary technique, alongside third-person and omniscient narration, and readers rarely gave much thought to whether the character who was telling the story was actually speaking or writing their account -- or even how the narrative could have reached the reader. In fact, some stories are written in the first person in which events happen which would preclude the account reaching the reader by any natural means -- for instance, the narrator is captured by aliens and taken away from Earth forever. Not so in this story -- far from it, the fact that it is being told by the protagonist becomes exceedingly important when the time comes for the big reveal at the end.
In Therese Arkenberg's "Lord Shashensa," the protagonist is facing ruin after raiders set fire to the fields of her estate. Just as she is beginning to give up hope, her steward discovers a young slave wandering the ruin. Upon his collar is an inscription identifying him as the property of Lord Shashensa, a master our protagonist does not know. However, the lad is quite willing to work, so she's glad to set him to various tasks. Only later does she discover that she made one very dangerous assumption -- that the lad's master was a mortal man.
Michael H. Payne's "Three on a Match" brings back Cluny and Crocker, familiars in training. When a dragon approaches their school with a most interesting tale, things are not quite what they seem.
Most of us are familiar with the trope from hardboiled detective fiction and noir film of the femme fatale who comes into the detective's office bearing a tale of woe and wanting the detective to help her. Annclaire Livoti gives it a fantastic twist in "A Curious Case," with the lovely young lady being nothing less than a succubus, a female demon of sexual desire. It is another of those few stories that are clearly set in the modern world -- this sort of detective story really needs the modern state with its sophisticated legal apparatus in order to work properly, rather than the personal justice that was more typical in the medieval world, in which the lord or king personally heard cases and decided them based upon understood custom rather than a system of laws produced by a legislative body.
From the modern era we go to a land somewhat like the desert Southwest for Julia H. West's "Soul Walls." In Tiva's society, when someone is married a Soul Wall is painted for them, filled with symbols that will mark their future. Apprenticed to the painter of Soul Walls, Tiva longs to know how old Yongosona knows what symbols to paint, even after the older woman tells her what they mean. Learning the answers will be a dangerous spiritual journey for her.
MZB always liked to end each volume of Sword & Sorceress with a short humorous story. She also frequently warned her writers against rewritten fairy tales, but was always willing to break her own rule should a sufficiently original one present itself. Melissa Mead's "Little Red" provides just those ingredients -- and a delightful twist at the very end.
On the whole, it's another good showing. There are a few that are a little hard to get into, and a few that seem to be a bit on the fluffy side, but none that are truly objectionable or fall completely flat.
Table of Contents
- Introduction by Elisabeth Waters
- "The Casket of Brass" by Deborah J. Ross
- "Merlin's Clutter" by Helen E. Davis
- "Sceptre of the Ungodly" by Elisabeth Waters & Michael Spence
- "Material Witness" by Brenta Blevins
- "Owl Court" by K. D. Wentworth
- "Nellandra's Keeper" by Teresa Howard
- "Sages and Demons" by Catherine Soto
- "The Case of the Haunted City" by Josepha Sherman
- "Pax Draconica" by Cate McBride
- "Sea-Child" by Cynthia Ward
- "Ghost Masks" by Jonathon Moeller
- "The Vapors of Crocodile Fen" by Dave Smeds
- "Lord Shashensa" by Therese Arkenberg
- "Three on a Match" by Michael H. Payne
- "A Curious Case" by Annclaire Livoti
- "Soul Walls" by Julia H. West
- "Little Red" by Melissa Mead
Review posted July 31, 2010.
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