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

Lords of Swords

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"Vali's Wound" by John C. Hocking
Image"Something Dwells 'Neath Hannah Town" by D.K. Latta
"The King's General" by David L. Felts
"Line of Blood" by Howard Andrew Jones
"Champion" by Barbara Tarbox
"That of the Pit" by E.E. Knight
"Dragon's Eye" by Beth Shope
"Viro and the Iron-Circlet" by Jonah Lissner
"The Slaying of Winter" by Vera Nazarian
"Iron Hands" by Ray Kane
"The Oaths of Gods" by Nancy Virginia Varian
"Blood Drop" by Joseph A. McCullough V
"The Woman in Scarlet" by Tanith Lee

When I first received my review copy of Lords of Swords I was a little put off by the cover which featured a large-busted, blonde Amazon wearing a dress cut so low I doubted that her modesty would be retained in the heat of battle.  The book is professionally put together.  The only flaw I found was a lamentable lack of proofreading that, at times, became distracting.

I was unable to discern a pattern in the choices of the collection's editor, Daniel E. Blackston.  He seems to have attempted to offer a little of everything.  From his comments, it is easy to see that he loves heroic fiction, and I suspect his enthusiasm guided his choices more than a critical eye.  This anthology is definitely aimed at readers who love a good swordfight, and that's not a bad thing, but it should stand as a warning to readers not as enraptured by heroic fiction.

"Vali's Wound" by John C. Hocking leads off the collection.  The Vali from the title receives a mortal wound in battle.  When a valkyrie comes to carry him off to Valhalla, his friend, Brand, threatens to fight her, then offers to take Vali's place.  Instead of taking Brand, she strikes a deal with him, which, in essence ends with him serving as a supernatural hitman sent to kill Thrymir, another valkyrie.  

The plot offered very little conflict.  At the end, why the valkyrie asks these warriors to kill Thrymir is never resolved.

Next up was "Something Dwells 'Neath Hannah Town" by D.K. Latta.  Though a little more sophisticated than the lead off story, "Something Dwells 'Neath Hannah Town" never really managed to get off the ground, suffering from stiff dialogue, a sentient ax, and a helpless female character with an unpronounceable name.  Kainar, the hero, with his trusty ax, Hawk's Wood, leads the lady, Breer'l, into the sewers of Hannah Town to save her subhuman female servant, Gorkka, who has been kidnapped.  In the sewers, they stumble on an entire race of cave dwellers who suspiciously resemble Gorkka.  The natives, being decidedly unfriendly, steal Hawk's Wood and attempt to feed Kainar and his lady to an eye-pilfering beast.  The story is most successful as an homage to early fantasy pulp writers.

"The King's General" by David L. Felts begins well.  The ex-king's general, Nicolo, runs into his first love who tells him that she was pregnant when he abandoned her twenty years earlier and that he has a son who has joined the Guard, just like his father.  Over the course of the evening, Nicolo examines his past and the atrocity he committed in order to win a war.  The next morning, he goes out to meet his son and makes a terrible decision in order to protect the young man from the horrors of war.

The ending of "The King's General" delivers an unexpected jolt.  Nothing foreshadows Nicolo's action toward his son.  It's the story's major flaw.  While at the beginning he appears to be a different man than he was in his prime, he makes exactly the same mistake he did when he was the king's general.  Other than that one, admittedly large, flaw, "The King's General" is well written and engaging.

Mirian Raas, the heroine of Howard Andrew Jones' "Line of Blood," is a spunky salvager on her way to meet a mysterious employer, Tyryan Relgen.  After a brush with death, she manages to fight her way through to the city of Mekkara with the help of her reptilian friend, Jekka.  Tyryan sends her into the underground tombs of the city where she is to act as a bodyguard during a coming of age ceremony for the city's next ruler, Evren.  The ceremony is interrupted by Evren's duplicitous uncle, Lord Kilvan, who wants the power for himself.  The party is attacked by deadly mist-dwelling creatures, while Evren and Kilvan's sorceress battle for the power that is more insidious than they had been led to believe.

The story's greatest strength is in its action.  The sword fights are fast and furious, but the sections between are bogged down by repetitive description.   While the misty tomb full of strange monsters is interesting, I didn't care about the characters enough to be concerned that they might not survive.

A young warrior being recruited as a champion before he is strictly ready is not a new concept.  In "Champion,"  Barbara Tarbox offers a nice twist on this familiar tale.  Argin is chosen by Kufink, the Royal Sorcerer, to fight the ensorcelled champion of the invading King of Glesha.  Kufink binds his power to a magical sword so that Argin can draw on his power.  During the fight, Argin nearly drains his new friend in his quest for victory and is transformed into the hero Kufink hoped he would be.

The story is well written with a nice build up.  There could have been a little more tension at the climax, but overall the story was a satisfying read.

At best, "That of the Pit" by E.E. Knight is confusing.  The Blue Pilgrim, also known as Sky Eyes, is in the city of Dynnenhann during the crowded Summer Festival, to witness the execution of a boy named Lar.  He does nothing to save the boy even though we are told that The Blue Pilgrim is a formidable warrior.  When the time comes to take action, he does nothing.  He is captured and, through sorcery, the Sayhrae attempts to force him to retrieve a mystical rod.  

While there is some beautiful description and quite a bit of attention given to building the world of The Blue Pilgrim, the story doesn't work.  The plot goes nowhere and the point of this story seems to be that things happen to The Blue Pilgrim, and he lets them happen.

"Dragon's Eye," as Beth Shope's first published story, is quite an impressive début.  The heroine, Lir, is a young woman existing on the edge of society.  She lives in the ancient ruins of an old city that serve as a foundation for the city of Sharal.  In her home, a dilapidated palace, she has sculpted a dragon from the remains of a bath house wall.  A wish-seller has told her that she must open the dragon's eye in order to escape the city.  While painting the eye, a stranger finds Lir's hiding place and tells her the dragon's eyes are the wrong color, but that he will get her the expensive paint she needs if he gives her the one thing she won't give, her father's knife.  The stranger is arrested.  Lir breaks into a unique prison to rescue her knife and the stranger by default.  

The ending is predictable, but not glaringly so, and it does answer all the right questions.  The characters were engaging and the prose reasonably tight.  The story is a nice blend of romance and adventure.  I cared enough about Lir and her stranger to want the happy ending that Shope implies is possible.   

"Viro and the Iron Circlet" by Jonah Lissner is pure pulp through and through.  Viro, a barbarian swordsman, plunders an ancient tomb in search of a mythical circlet.  Lissner vividly describes Viro's world through its history and politics.  Unfortunately, this rich description overwhelms the character and his adventure.  At the story's end, I was unsure of what happened or why it was significant.

Vera Nazarian's "The Slaying of Winter," with the exclusion of the final story, was the best in this collection.  Iliss, an unstable woman from the world's southern lands, travels to the Northlands on a quest to kill Trei, the God of Winter, in retaliation for the rape of her sister and the murder of the rest of her family.  On her journey, she unwittingly interrupts the coming of age ritual of the Northman Waevan's son.  Waevan captures her and takes her to his tribe.  She reveals her plan to kill Trei, and Waevan and his brother join her.  Iliss' quest ends in an altercation with the god that doesn't turn out as she had planned.  She gains wisdom, and a certain measure of peace.

At times, the characters' interactions veered toward those found more commonly in romance novels, but Nazarian's deft control made it work for the story.  The ending, though satisfying, revealed a little too much of the story's lesson, but that tiny misstep doesn't mar the overall quality of the piece.

In "Iron Hands" by Ray Kane, an aging warrior named Jerimo finds himself married to his dead friend's widow and on trial for tax evasion.  As a result of the trial, he is unfairly maimed by the whim of a capricious monarch and left in the forest to die.  Jerimo assists a young wizard who bestows the iron hands of the title.  Jerimo joins the wizard's band of rebels who plan to murder the king and his chief wizard in a revolutionary coup.

At first glance, "Iron Hands" seems to be a simple revenge tale.  But Jerimo is not obsessively bent on vengeance.  While he is not a completely passive character, he seems inclined to go with the flow.  Not enough time is spent on his motivations.   He doesn't have the type of anger that would fuel a desire to kill those responsible for his lost hands.  Also, as a minor point, the dialogue stands out as a little modern for a pre-industrial fantasy setting.  

In "The Oaths of Gods" by Nancy Virginia Varian, Garroc, a dwarf with the ability to converse with the dead, and his foster son find themselves caught in a battle of wills between the gods Wodan and Hel over the soul of their fallen liege lord who should have gone to Valhalla instead of Hel.

Varian's narrative voice is similar to that of the Old English epic, Beowulf.  While she does it very well, it can be daunting.  In reading Beowulf, part of the fun is wading through the Old English and repetitive structure of a poem that originated in an oral tradition.  It works because Beowulf is a fairly simple tale.  The more complicated plot of "The Oaths of Gods" wars with the challenging language and the plot gets drowned out.  However, Varian's story is a good one and she uses the petty disagreements of the Norse Gods to good effect.

While "Blood Drop" by Joseph A. McCullough V does not contain the best writing in the collection, what it lacks in finesse is certainly made up in swashbuckling fun.  McCullough gives us two bands of pirates, evil fish-men, exotic priests, a saucy wench, and a mysterious jewel.  The men all have flowing locks, and the saucy lady pirate, when clothed at all, is constantly characterized by her outfit.

There are missteps in dialogue, and my suspension of disbelief took a few good thwaps, but "Blood Drop" is so much fun that I didn't mind.

I knew when I scanned the table of contents for Lords of Swords that Tanith Lee's "The Woman in Scarlet" was the crown jewel of the collection.  "The Woman in Scarlet" is a tale of love, betrayal, bitterness, and death.  From start to finish, Lee never hits a sour note.

The Lady in Scarlet is the secret name of Sas-peth Satch, the sword and spouse of the Sword's Man, Coor Krahn.  Coor travels the land as a sort of noble mercenary.  At night, he sleeps with Sas-peth in his arms until she transforms from a sword to a beautiful woman who haunts his dreams.  Sas-peth leads Coor Krahn to the palace of Lord Tyo Lionay, where Coor Krahn is discomfited by the luxury and opulence of the place.  Coor Krahn senses his lady pulling away from him.  She tells him she wants top stay with Lord Tyo and Coor Krahn leaves her to him.

The bittersweet ending was beautiful with a complex message that stuck with me long after the story was done.

Publisher: Pitch-Black Books (September 2005)
Trade Paperback: $14.95