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Sword and Sorceress III by Marion Zimmer Bradley, editor

Cover art by Jael

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

As Marion Zimmer Bradley notes in her Introduction, this volume marks the point at which the publishers became sufficiently confident of the market for it that they were willing to agree to commit to it becoming an annual production. Looking back from two and a half decades later, after the anthology series has not only survived the passing of its original editor, but also its departure from its original publisher to a small press owned and operated by a woman whose writing career started in these very volumes, it may be hard to appreciate just how big of a step it was. Not only did it mean that writers could plan and prepare stories in advance of the announcement of the reading period (which was particularly important in those days before the Internet, when getting news of anthology reading periods was often a matter of chance if one was not plugged into the word-of-mouth network), but it also meant that publishers were acknowledging that there was a market for woman-centric heroic fantasy fiction. This isn't necessarily as trivial as it might appear at first glance, since we're still having trouble convincing review-column editors that yes, readers do want reviews of books by women authors.

Ms. Bradley also discusses the problem of how to establish one's female protagonist as strong and competent without slowing down the story. While earlier stories might have centered around the process by which the protagonist breaks free of social constraints and becomes empowered, such an approach has become dated, and as a result it is best to simply presuppose those qualities in one's protagonist and move right to telling the story of her adventures.

It's interesting that the science fiction example she uses of a dated story that can no longer be written -- the first lunar landing -- has itself become dated thanks to the rise of alternate history. In fact, one of the best ways to get a lot of followers on the alternate history boards is to create a timeline with Gus Grissom as the first man on the Moon. There are a lot of alternate history fans who want the Apollo 1 fire to didn't happen.

In her introduction to the first story, Deborah Wheeler's "Dragon-Amber," MZB gives a different example of the importance of not doing stories that are already done; namely, that most of the dragon stories she received covered the same ground as Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. This story, by contrast, gives us dragons as liminal entities, existing on the boundaries between matter and spirit. The protagonist is a forest guardian who has to face off some truly nasty sorcery with the guidance of such a dragon.

During the 1970's there was considerable discussion in feminist circles of whether women could be strong and independent in the same society as men, or if they should retreat to establish separate communities of women only. In "Enter the Wolf" A. D. Overstreet gives us a separatist community based around a Wolf totem. It has been violated by hostile forces and many of its members captured or killed. The surviving elder, the Mother Wolf, was blinded and is now in failing health. As a result, the protagonist must take over the leadership role at a far younger age than is usual.

However, she is not without resources, for the wolf totemism of their community is not mere symbolism. But she doesn't have her predecessor's decades of experience with this binding magic, so she's hard-pressed to find her place.

In "Valley of the Shadow" Jennifer Roberson gives us the story of an encounter in a taproom on a cold and dreary night. Here we have three assassins, and some very deadly history between them. It will not end well, but to say more would be to spoil the story.

While the first three stories took place in that vague pre-Industrial-age realm that's the setting for so much fantasy, Dorothy J Heydt takes us to Classical Greece for "The Song and the Flute," another story of Cynthia the witch. Thanks to her companion Demetrios, she's at sea in an ill-maintained boat with a fresh coat of paint but old sails, and there's a storm coming. And then they hear voices of unearthly beauty -- one of the infamous Sirens who lure sailors to their doom on the rocks. But Cynthia is a woman, which may give her a little defense against their allure.

This story includes a note on the literary history of the Sirens in Greek myth. Interestingly enough, they were originally associated with Persephone and were not malicious. When she was kidnapped into Dis by Hades, lord of death, they took on avian forms to search for her. How they went from loyal followers to sinister temptresses is left for the reader to consider, but may well represent a growing mysogyny in Greek culture as the earliest myths were developed into their literary forms.

In "Journeytime" Dana Kramer-Rolls gives us a priestess facing down a king who seeks to elevate one god in their culture's pantheon over the others, and to forbid altogether the worship of the various goddesses. It's a good demonstration of the idea that one is at most danger from a theocracy of one's own co-religionists, since they are most apt to inquire closely into the specifics of one's doctrinal positions, as opposed to merely hassling and discriminating against the infidels.

Mary Frances Zambreno gives us "Orpheus," the story of two women who enter a hellmouth to retrieve a dead poet for their employer. It's a brief story, and although the title is taken from classical mythology, the culture that is described seems to be more generic fantasyland than any of the cultures of antiquity.

In "Scarlet Eyes," Millea Kenin gives us a story of magical time travel, complete with time loops in the tradition of "By His Bootstraps" or "The Man Who Folded Himself." I think this may be why MZB felt it had a technological feel, rather than any specific technological element, since the time travel is accomplished by magical means and the story takes place in a pre-Industrial society. The protagonist is a former slave soldier, now picking up work as a mercenary when she encounters a woman who looks like herself, to the point she's not sure who she herself is -- the sort of identity failure we often see in science fiction stories in which the protagonist doubles back on herself (consider how drained Lessa felt the first time she went between times in Dragonflight and wound up in the air over Ruatha watching her child self take refuge from the attack that slaughtered her family).

Anodea Judith's "The River of Tears" is the story of a student healer struggling to gain mastery of her chosen profession. Subhana has been struggling with her own sense of inadequacy for almost a year, ever since she reached the point at which she should've finished her course. When she decides that she needs to push herself further, she winds up in deeper than she'd intended, and learns a lesson about the importance of friendship.

In "Fresh Blood," Polly B. Johnson gives us a society reminiscent of Mesoamerican cultures, but with horses and other animals not known in the Americas prior to the Columbian Exchange. Naila is a young princess in a city-state ruled by the bloodthirsty Jaguar Cult. An orphan, she has been raised by her mother's handmaid, a woman taken prisoner from a nearby city-state in a slave raid. That woman has secretly taught her to examine the tenets of people's faith.

When a prince from that city-state is taken prisoner, that upbringing gives her the courage to visit him and question him about his people's beliefs. He tells them of their astronomer priests who lead their solar cult and who study the sun's movements to better learn the times of planting and harvesting.

The next story, Diana L Paxson's "The Mist on the Moor," takes us to the Highlands, or at leaat something very much like them. Shanna is on her way back to the Emperor's court when her horse falls ill. Struggling to find help, she encounters two mysterious cottagers and agrees to help them in return for physicking for her steed.

Except simple household tasks turn impossible under their roof. Bidden to fill the cauldron, she carries bucket after bucket only to find it empty of its own accord. Wool refuses to spin into yarn, never mind she's worked the simple drop spindlle since childhood. Given the fire to tend, she cannot keep it at a steady level no matter how she tries. It is clear she is in the presence of the uncanny -- but when she confronts it, she has an extraordinary revelation.

One of the great pleasures of re-reading older anthologies is seeing afresh the beginnings of the careers of writers who have since become major figures in the field. If this anthology wasn't Elizabeth Moon's very first sale, it was one of her earliest, and one she almost didn't make. As MZB notes in her introduction, the first several stories she sent proved unsatisfactory, and only when MZB said she really needed something short and humorous did Ms. Moon produce "Bargains," the story of Lady Rahal and a horsetrader.

It's a mark of just how much the antholgies have grown in popularity among writers that a contemporary writer wouldn't get the chance Elizabeth Moon got. For the past several years the editorial policy at Sword and Sorceress has been that each writer gets two chances per year, and a third story will be rejected unread.

In "A Woman's Privilege" Elizabeth Waters gives us twins Acila and Briam, children of the deceased lord of a disputed castle. The lord of the nearby realm seems to think that they are easy pickings because they are young, but they do not intend to yield. Brains can be as important as might in such a situation.

Terry Tafoya's "Tupilak" draws upon her background as a traditional Native American storyteller. Tupilak is a magical construct, similar to the Jewish golem but of feathers and bones and teeth. It's made by a shaman, and not necessarily for a benificent purpose. But our protagonist has her wits about her, and shows us yet again that the obvious strength is not always the one to bet on.

In "Sword Sworn" Mercedes Lackey gives us a new twist on the rape and revenge story that appeared so often in the earliest volumes oof the series, and even more in the slushpiles. Tarma is a member of a nomadic people, the Shin'a'in, whose success in horsetrading has attracted the envy of neighboring clans. A talented in-fighter as well as a singer, she's able to hold her own when they're attacked in their own tents, but in a cruel twist of fate, she's only knocked out and left for dead. Thus she survives to seek her revenge, not just for her own violation, but also for the massacre of her entire clan. And in the process she meets Kethry, holder of a magic sword made to answer to woman's need.

In "A Tale from Hendry's Mill," Melissa Carpenter gives us the story of Maveth, who may be a self-willed king's son or a demon. Like many stories told around campfires, the individual tales often contradict one another, but they're all intended to frighten. And then young Roona receives a visitation, meant to terrorize her into telling everybody and thus leaving them spending their last day in sick dread. However, Roona has her own kind of strength, a quiet sort of one that's easy overlooked. She holds her peace, and when Maveth reappears and mocks her with the command to choose the person whose soul he will collect, she turns the tables on him in an unexpected way.

Patricia B. Cirone's "S.A.R." is almost science fiction, dealing as it does with a young woman who develops the ability to walk between worlds. She's heard of the Society of Alternate Realities, but she's always dismissed it as a bedtime story -- until one of its agents appears to her, telling her that she belongs among them.

In "More's the Pity" L. D. Woeltjen gives us a bit of the darker side of the warrior woman archetype, and some of the griefs that may drive a woman to flee hearth and home to take up the wandering fighter's life. Bracer was once the pampered Arista, until her husband had to go to war, leaving her in the hands of unkind in-laws just as her pregnancy began to work changes upon her body. With no friendly woman to turn to, she descended into a sort of madness and as soon as she gave birth she fled, blotting the memory of her baby from her mind. And now he has returned to her, but it may well already be too late.

Charles R. Saunders gives us "Marwe's Forest," a story of Dossouye the ahosi or woman fighter. The kingdom of Abomey is loosely based upon the historical kingdom of Dahomey, which actually did field a company of women warriors, although they operated in a time in which firearms were the typical weapons of the battlefield. Dossouye lives in an alternate Africa where the metaphysical has a very real presence in the material world, where magical swords can make a woman the equal of a man in physical combat, and where uncanny creatures may walk the forests. Creatures such as the strange cow that has seduced her war-bull Gbo, or the mysterious woman who invites her into her home. The nature of this magical being is somewhat ambiguous, but I will say that the story does come to a happy ending.

The final story, "The Hunters" by Mavis J Andrews, is a new twist on the werewolf motif. However, it is also so short that to even attempt to describe it would be to give away the ending.

Overall, it's a very interesting look into the early years of what has become one of the most long-running anthology series of the fantasy world, in a time when feminism hadn't been stolen by the political correctness crowd and was still about equity in society and the importance of letting individuals be themselves, of all kinds of strength both obvious and quiet, including strength in what are considered the traditional feminine domains of home and hearth.

And given that it is now out of print and available only used, there is less of an issue in relation to the recent revelations about MZB, of royalties going to someone who may well have enabled abuse and not to the victims of the alleged abuse.

Table of Contents

  • "Introduction: The Evolution of Women's Fantasy by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • ""Dragon-Amber" by Deborah Wheeler
  • ""Enter the Wolf" by A. D. Overstreet
  • ""The Valley of the Shadow" by Jennifer Roberson
  • ""The Song and the Flute" by Dorothy J. Heydt
  • ""Journeytime" by Dana Kramer-Rolls
  • ""Orpheus" by Mary Frances Zambreno
  • ""Scarlet Eyes" by Millea Kenin
  • ""The River of Tears" by Anodea judith
  • ""Fresh Blood" by Polly B Johnson
  • ""The Mist on the Moor" by Diana L Paxson
  • ""Bargains" by Elizabeth Moon
  • ""Talla" by J Edwin Andrews
  • ""Tupilak" by Terry Tafoya
  • ""Sword Sworn" by Mercedes Lackey
  • ""A Tale from Hendry's Mill" by Melissa Carpenter
  • ""S.A.R." by Patricia B. Cirone
  • ""More's the Pity" by L. D. Woeltjen
  • ""Marwe's Forest" by Charles R. Saunders
  • ""The Hunters" by Mavis J Andrews

Review posted October 8, 2014.

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