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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Warriors -- ed. George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

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Warriors

Edited by

George R. R. Martin

and

Gardner Dozois

“The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland
“Forever Bound” by Joe Haldeman
“The Triumph” by Robin Hobb
“Clean Slate” by Lawrence Block
“And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams
“Solderin’” by Joe Lansdale
“Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle
“The Custom of the Army” by Diana Gabaldon
“Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik
“The Eagle and the Rabbit” by Steven Saylor
“The Pit” by James Rawlins
“Out of the Dark” by David Weber
“The Girls from Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn
“Ancient Days” by S.M. Stirling
“Ninieslando” by Howard Waldrop
“Recidivist” by Gardner Dozois
“My Name Is Legion” by David Morrell
“Defenders of the Frontier” by Robert Silverberg
“The Scroll” by David Ball
“The Mystery Knight” by George R.R. Martin

Reviewed by Bob Blough

Warriors is a solid volume of short fiction.  It fulfills the two themes of the book, those being stories about warriors and what George R.R. Martin, in his introduction calls the “spinner rack” idea.  This spinner rack idea  harks back to the way many of us had to buy our books in the neighborhood drug store, those racks which contained paperback books of all kinds side by side – mystery, historical fiction, SF, fantasy, etc.  You could pick up a western one day and after saving your allowance pick up a fantasy the next time.  I like this idea for the book – it keeps you constantly hopping from one genre to another.  You may not like every genre but may also discover that a specific type of story does appeal to you, one you might not have opted for in the bookstore.  

The first story, “The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland, is straight historical fiction (save for the brief mention of a wizard on the final page); a story of the quintessential warrior.  It's a distillation of what a warrior does and the code of the warrior.  The warrior is not a soldier (although he fights), and is not a mercenary (although he may be fighting for a group that is not necessarily his own kin), but one who adheres to a strong moral code.  This is summed up by the protagonist:

“Fate takes us,” Conn said, “and all there is for us to do is meet it well.  Simple enough.  Come on, let’s get going.”

The tale centers on a power struggle between a warrior who, following his support of the one he has helped into power, has not been rewarded with what was promised, and his attempt to gather forces to oust the one who has betrayed him. A stark, realistic, and brutal tale, it is a fitting introductory piece.

The second story is the first SF story of the volume, and is by one of my favorite SF authors, Joe Haldeman.  “Forever Bound” contains an interesting idea that, I believe, needed more space to do it justice.  It takes place in a future where war is waged by the people at home – keeping their regular jobs but taking off 10 days every month to operate a “soldierboy."  These recruits are jacked into the soldierboy, which is not a new idea in SF, but Haldeman takes it to the next level, for by being jacked into the soldierboy you are also jacked in with the other nine members of your platoon, and are able to share the most intimate thoughts. It’s an interesting concept.  While Haldeman explores the concept he doesn’t give us enough sense of what it feels like to be a part of this “hive mind.” It's an idea story that I hope will be expanded to a full novel so that the situation—and its interesting implications--doesn’t feel quite as rushed.

Next is a strong fantasy by Robin Hobb. “The Triumph” could easily have been purely historical except for the addition of the slaying of a dragon.  It is a grisly tale that starts with the final torture of a Roman soldier (being hung up above the populace of Carthage in a torture cage) and details his path to this situation.  It is told from two viewpoints – the warrior Marcus who is slowly dying in the aforementioned cage and his best friend who is a reluctant warrior indeed, who must watch his friend humiliated by the populace and sentenced to a slow death.  The story turns out to be about friendship, loyalty and duty.  It lingers in the memory long after its conclusion.

“And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams is a science fiction story taking place on the world of Archimedes, told by a spy from the planet Covenant.  Covenant is a planet  founded by a fundamental Christian sect whose worst enemies are the non-religious people of Archimedes.  As a spy, Lamentation Kane has had his “spirit of God” implant replaced with the implant of Archimedes as well as the ability to transform his body into a stronger and more protected person.  He is to kill the Prime Minister of Archimedes.  Whether he accomplishes his mission I can’t say, but I will say that the story turns out to be about the larger issue of free will.  Can you really choose your own path after being indoctrinated by a specific religion (in this story, either fundamental Christianity or the religion of worldly sensation) or is it pre-determined by your upbringing. An important, serious issue this, that could be fleshed out more in a longer story, but it raises and explores the issue and at the same time  provides a well-written, entertaining story.

Now, though, we get to one of the best stories in the collection.  Unsurprisingly it is by Peter S. Beagle, who is having a glorious run of terrific stories at this stage in his career.  “Dirae” is a fantastic story that starts confusingly and ends up an emotional powerhouse.  A new superhero is in town that the police cannot identify.  Unfortunately the superhero does not understand who or what it is, either.  This mystery is told in the first person by the superhero who slowly comes to understand its own creation.  In a few short pages it is resolved with an achingly sad but absolutely beautiful ending.

“Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik is the next genre title on tap.  It'ss good to see this author writing things other than her wildly successful Temeraire novels.  This is straight SF taking place on the planet Melida.  The existing human cultures on the planet are very different – one has been genetically tweaked to live more closely with the ecosphere.  The later arrivals are normal human stock.  These later arrivals have over-populated their continent  and wish to expand on the original settlers.  So enters the protagonist, Ruth Patrona, to find out who attacked who on this split planet and engineer a resolution.  Then ensues an enjoyable story of coming to understand an “alien” culture and the personal and political transformation this brings about. Amidst this ambassadorial visiting between the factions, there is violence and death, not to mention cleverly contrived weapons invented from the existing bio-forms, all leading to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.  A good read.

The next SF/Fantasy story is from David Weber.  “Out of the Dark” (one of the longest in the book) is of a sub-genre which just isn't my cup of tea.  It's a military-in-space story with a fantasy ending.  Nevertheless, if you are a fan of this sub-genre or of Mr. Weber’s popular military SF you should enjoy this one.

S.M. Stirling gives us a rip roaring adventure in a post “change” Earth between the remnants of the Russians and the Tartars.  “Ancient Ways” is a nicely written tale with a whiff of magic supplied by pre-change technology.  There is nothing new here but it's freshly told and quite enjoyable.

Howard Waldrop.  How to define a Howard Waldrop story?  People have used “gonzo,” “weird,” “wild,” “individual,” and others.  As far as I am concerned he is a genius – a true one of a kind.  “Ninieslando” upholds that belief. It's a quirky yet deep story of Esperanto and World War I and the hope for a future better day.  It won’t change your life but it may take you to places you wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

Now we arrive at one of the major reasons for my buying this book in the first place – a new Gardner Dozois story.  He's a great editor, no doubt, but I pine for the days when a new story by him came around more often than once a year.  Anyway, “The Recidivist” does not disappoint.  It takes place after the singularity and deals with those humans left behind.  

“Entities millions of years more technologically advanced than humans were playing with them, like bored, capricious, destructive children stuck inside on a rainy day…” is how the world is now explained.  The protagonist is a repeat criminal and a warrior for the human race.  Excellent story.


The next story is very good as well.  “Defenders of the Frontier” by Robert Silverberg is a far future story about a stalled war campaign. A frontier fort is on the lookout for the enemy, though none have attacked in ages.  The fort is down to a handful of men who no longer even have names.  They are called by their responsibilities instead.  It's a study of waiting and wondering.  Then, when a decision is finally handed down, the tale turns on how it affects this lone handful of warriors.

The final story in the book is a long one and one that many of us have been waiting for.  “The Mystery Knight” by George R. R. Martin is another chapter in the cycle of the hedge knight from his “Song of Ice and Fire” series.  I dare say that this novella alone will be a major reason for people to buy this collection.  And it will have been worth it.  This story, like many others in the series, is characteristically fascinating--with real people, clever palace intrigue, drama, and humor.  Read it and enjoy.  

The great thing about readers of Martin's work, those buying the book for his story alone, is that they will be introduced to many other terrific writers whose imaginative tales, in whatever genre, will hopefully pique their interest.

Among the non-genre stories, I really enjoyed the Diana Gabaldon story, “The Custom of the Army.”  It's part of her larger historical fantasy series, but this reads as straight historical fiction.  In any case it's smoothly written and interesting in character and plot throughout.  Carrie Vaughn's “The Girls from Avenger” is a wonderful piece of historical mystery taking place among the women who ferried airplanes within the USA during World War II to the various airfields the male airmen then flew into war.  It's an overlooked era of our country’s past told in a strongly felt narrative.

The irrascible and always entertaining Joe Lansdale gives us a rip-snortin' tall tale of the Old West (expertly blending a life and death situation with homespun humor) in “Soldierin'.”  Lawrence Block, veteran best-selling mystery novelist, turns in a grim tale with even darker insinuations, though it skirts the edge of the “warrior” theme. Steven Saylor offers a real page-turner with his “The Eagle and the Rabbit.” This reads like straight historical fiction at the time Carthage was finally captured by the Romans, and the absolutely horrific vengeance the Romans visited upon the populace, especially those who tried to escape into the hinterlands. Brutally depicted with strong scenes of violence and torture, and with certain sexual situations present, this one may not be suitable for younger readers. That said, this is perhaps one of the strongest stories in the book, with the overall theme and message—the story of just who “The Eagle and the Rabbit” represent—making this a memorable piece of fiction, regardless of genre. “The Pit” by James Rollins tells the tale all dog lovers will love to hate as it tracks the life of brother and sister pit bull pups taken home by separate families, and brought up peacefully. When one is stolen as nothing more than “bait” for hardened pit bulls who train on them in preparation for their fights, we learn how a peaceful animal can turn into a hardened killer—a real warrior—and what it takes to remove the hardness from its heart. While a few scenes actually made me wince, this story, and its message, should be read by dog lovers—young and old. A must read for PETA members needless to say, and for that matter everyone who finds themselves repulsed by the inhuman brutality of pit fighting. David Morrell created the character of Rambo in his novel First Blood, then saw his creation hit the silver screen and become a worldwide phenomenon. Here he gives us a thoroughly realistic tale of the French Foreign Legion during World War II. Set in Syria, “My Name Is Legion” is a story of how members of the Legion are sent either to Britain or to Algeria, where Algeria, it is thought, would be a place to escape the war for at least a while. But when the supposedly “neutral” Vichy French government (which is in reality a puppet government for the occupying German forces) decides to exert its authority over French-controlled Algeria, the Legionnaires there must fight not only against their French brothers and sisters and for the Germans, but also against their former Legionnaires. Thus the stage is set for a story of divided loyalties—especially between two former friends who now find themselves fighting on opposing sides. The Legionnaire code of honor conflicts with their personal loyalties, and when they happen to meet in the heat of a fierce battle near Damascus these loyalties surface...but which loyalties prevail, and who lives and who dies? An action-packed examination of guilt, salvation, and what goes through a soldier's mind form the crux of this thoughtful slice of historical fiction. David Ball’s “The Scroll,” as noted in the introductory remarks, is a grim tale. That’s putting it mildly. While easily one of the more intense and memorable stories, it is also easily one of the most gut-wrenching pieces to read as a slave-engineer is forced to do the bidding of a bloodthirsty, sociopathic Muslim emperor in 17th century Morocco. No speculative elements to be found in this one, but it hardly needed any, such are the human-inflicted horrors described here.

So, there you have it, a cornucopia of fiction with something for everyone, with a few of the best SF/Fantasy stories of the year in the mix.  

Warriors
Edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Tor hardcover, March 2010
736 pp., $27.99