In 1984, the first Sword and Sorceress anthology came out, edited by the notoriously feminist writer and editor, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Her goal: to breathe new life into the roles of females in the fantasy field, to encourage strong new female protagonists in a genre dominated by macho men in fur loincloths and wielding big swords. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the truth is, back then, there was a distinct imbalance between men and women in the sword and sorcery field, and by hook or crook, Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB for short) was going to change that. And to the surprise of many, the series was a sleeper hit, with each new volume finding its place on the bookshelves. Like clockwork, a new volume came out each year, introducing dozens of strong female characters, and furthering the careers of a number of authors. The series helped bring writers such as Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Vera Nazarian, Jennifer Roberson, Elisabeth Waters and Josepha Sherman into greater prominence, and launched a few continuing series, such as Lackey’s Tarma and Kethry stories. Charles de Lint, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charles Saunders, Glen Cook, Emma Bull, and Pat Murphy were also occasional or frequent contributors. As the years passed, and the series grew more prestigious, the number of submissions grew exponentially, until MZB was forced to make the anthology invite-only; with dozens of qualified S&S alumni to draw upon, she couldn’t accept every willing contributor, after all. When Marion died, it looked like the end of the line for the series. She’d finished editing Volume 18, and there was enough stockpiled material to produce three more books after that. In 2004, with the release of Volume 21, the series seemed dead, once and for all. It had done its job though, right? After two decades, the field had seen a healthy increase in strong female characters and female-oriented sword and sorcery (albeit often with a romantic edge to it, as witnessed by the Luna line out of Harlequin).
Some people, S&S alumni and regular contributors, weren’t willing to accept the end of Sword and Sorceress. After some negotiation with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s estate, they obtained permission to ressurect the series. Edited by Elisabeth Waters (MZB’s former secretary) and published by Vera Nazarian’s fledging Norilana Books, Sword and Sorceress XXII (that’s 22 to you non-Latin speakers) came out, reviving the series after its three year hiatus. Waters hearkened back to an old S&S tradition, that of the open submission policy, allowing both veterans and newcomers alike to try their hand at contributing, and the result is a fascinatingly mixed bag.
I approached this volume with both anticipation and trepidation. Would this new volume live up to the standards of its predecessors? Could it capture the right sort of feel? Would it stand out in a market that’s changed considerably over the past few decades? I’m happy to say that Sword and Sorceress XXII is a worthy addition to the series. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a strong continuation of the legacy.
The lead story is by Esther Friesner, who deviates from her more humorous tendancies to tell a gripping story of a young woman who bucks all tradition to become a huntress for her tribe, only to come into conflict with her sister and many of her tribemates. “Edna’s Arrow” is a complex. beautiful story that looks at what happens when gender roles are challenged, and the gods make their wishes known.
Patricia Cirone’s “A Nose For Trouble” is an interesting, quick story in which a medium’s apprentice discovers an unusual ability, and gets caught up in a matter concerning ghosts, traitors, and the law. It’s a nice setup for a larger work, and I hope we’ll see her expand upon the setting, since this only serves as a brief taste of the character’s potential.
In Margaret L. Carter’s “Vanishing Village,” a pair of female sorcerers, currently on a job to track down a missing person for their employer, discover a mysterious village, hidden from the outside world. Inside, it’s a paradise, with everything provided for the residents as needed. The problem is, once in, no one is able to leave. When our heroes try to unravel the mystery, they discover a sorcerer unlike any other, and wrestle with a powerful ethical dilemna, one with a thought-provoking ending, Again, I’d love to see more of these characters, as they share an easy comraderie, and both their chemistry together and their general setup remind me pleasantly of Mercedes Lackey’s early Tarma and Kethry stories.
Kimberly L. Maughan makes her fiction debut with “The Ironwood Box,” in which three sisters, long-exiled from their home, must now face the challenge of returning, to fulfil their destinies and rescue their land from an usurper. But only two of the three sisters possess the traditional magic of their lineage. Can the third rise to the challenge and discover her own strengths? This was a pleasant, enjoyable story, and it’s a strong opening for Maughan. Hopefully, we’ll see more from her soon.
Jonathan Mueller’s “Black Ghost, Red Ghost” is a tale of intrigue and adventure, as a woman acting as a royal spy investigates a governer suspected of treason. Magic, action, and unavenged ghosts mix together to weave a strong, fast-paced story filled with twists and turns. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this setting and the main character.
Catherine Mintz’s “The Decisive Princess” is a short, sweet story. Unfortunately, it’s so short, that I can’t describe it to say why I like it, except that Mintz delivers an insightful twist upon Robert Stockton’s classic “The Lady, or the Tiger?” to satisfying effect.
In Marian Allen’s “Child of Ice, Child of Flame,” a wandering swordswoman discovers far more than she expected after killing a village’s champion in a duel. In this case, victory doesn’t necessarily lead to fortune and glory, especially when the village’s dirty secrets are revealed. Allen has an intriguing setup here, and this story really does feel like classic Sword and Sorceress.
In “Skin and Bones,” Heather Rose Jones explores the rules governing a bizarre form of magic known as skin-changing, as her hero investigates a mysterious community and discovers a frightening new aspect to the skinchanging concept. Definitely an interesting story, set in a world full of potential.
Michael Spence and Elisabeth Waters collaborate in “Crosswort Puzzle,” which is a clever mystery full of intrigue and twists. This is a prime example of Sword and Sorceress’ tendency to support continuing series, as the characters featured here appeared in at least one previous volume.
T. Borregard’s “Fairy Debt” uses old fairy tale traditions to weave a new and satisfying story, as a fairy goes to work undercover for a princess, in order to settle an old family debt. Is her limited magic enough to save the day when a dragon comes to visit? This is a pleasant, warm-hearted story with more than a little humor, and an upbeat tone, and I rather liked it.
Robert E. Vardeman’s “Tontine” captures a much darker mood, as the last survivor of a group of soldiers upholds a debt of honor, drinking to her friends’ memories. It’s a great concept, and a nicely atmospheric, moody execution.
The book finishes up with newcomer Sarah Dozier’s “The Menagerie,” a short, humorous tale of one sorceress and how she ended a war through creative magic. It’s a good start for Dozier, and I hope we’ll see more.
Other authors featured in this book are Catherine Soto, Deborah J. Ross, Dave Smeds and Alanna Morland, making for an even sixteen stories.
So, the verdict? Sword and Sorceress XXII is a worthy successor to the original run of the series, and hopefully, signals the start of a whole new dynasty. Waters has revitalized the series by once again bringing in a mixture of old and new blood, giving several new writers a chance and reintroducing us to some old favorites. There’s a wide range of stories, themes, moods and styles, enough to appeal to a variety of readers. I found enough stories in this collection to satisfy me, and there’s definitely enough to make it worth picking up. If you like strong female characters, and sword and sorcery, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection. I was quite pleasantly surprised by the end results, and it’s obvious that not only does Waters understand the concept and the purpose behind Sword and Sorceress (no surprise, given her relationship to the earlier volumes), but she’s able to help the series adjust to the times. The later books in the original run felt a little dated, even forgettable, but XXII feels more up-to-date, in tune with today’s sensibilities, and that’s important when trying to keep a venerable series such as this fresh and appealing. Sword and Sorceress XXII definitely seems like a successful restart of the franchise, and I’ll be looking forward to new installments in years to come.