Sword and Sorceress XXI, edited by Diana L. Paxson (Daw, 2004)

With this volume, the groundbreaking anthology of feminist fantasy created by Marion Zimmer Bradley reaches twenty-one, thus making it one of the longest-running anthology series in the field, as well as allowing it to drink legally in the United States. This is a landmark volume in another way, being the first in the series not to bear any of Bradley’s hand’s-on influence. Rather, her influence is seen here only in the legacy she’s left behind, and in her chosen successor, Diana L. Paxson, who does an admirable job of hewing to the standards established in previous editions, while looking to the future and the long-term viability of the series. The first Sword and Sorceress appeared in 1984, when the fantasy field looked quite different from it does now, and two decades later, it’s impressive that the series has persevered. While the necessity of the Sword and Sorceress franchise may be questionable these days, given that you can’t swing a dead Evil Overlord without hitting a strong female protagonist (such as Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre), and it’s even spawned a humorous response (in Esther Friesner’s Chicks in Chainmail series), it’s nice to see there’s still a place for short fantasy fiction with a female perspective.
However, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by this particular collection of stories. It’s not that they were bad; rather, very few actually appealed to me in terms of tone or theme. Paxson may have tried a little too hard to stick to the criteria first established by Bradley, and some of the stories came off either bland or generic, taking themselves way too seriously. Some did catch my attention, though. Jim C. Hines’ “Spell of the Sparrow” looks at domestic bliss gone awry, as a spellcasting interloper threatens to shatter a family forever, unless the protagonist can save her husband through quick wits and timely action. Naomi Kritzer returns to the setting of her first book, Fires of the Faithful, in “Kin.” A war-weary mage is forced to choose between the magic that is her life, and the orphaned infant whose life depends upon her, a choice that could haunt her for the rest of her days. Jenn Reese turns in an intriguing story about vengeance and family and a woman possessed by a very demanding bear-spirit in “Ursa.” Kit Wesler’s “Red Caramae” examines the lengths to which one frustrated would-be magician would go to in order to gain revenge on those who rejected her. Lee Martindale’s “Necessity and the Mother” is an entertaining look at what happens when a town relies too strong upon its magicians, and offends the mercenaries who normally keep it safe. Terry McGarry returns to the land of Eiden Myr in “Kazhe’s Blade,” telling an untold story of a forgotten, tired heroine.
. While almost all of the contributors to this volume are Sword and Sorceress veterans, or alumnae of MZB’s other endeavors (such as the sadly defunct Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and the Darkover series), newcomers such as Marie Loughlin and K.A. Laity prove the door’s still open to fresh blood. Ultimately, Sword and Sorceress XXI is a worthy addition to the series, with some rather nice stories standing out from an otherwise satisfactory mixture. There’s a little something for everyone here, and it’s good to see the series still has life to it.

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