RogerBW's Blog

Swords, Sorcery, & Self-Rescuing Damsels, Lee French and Sarah Craft 10 April 2020

2019 fantasy anthology, on the theme of female characters who solve their own problems rather than waiting for a man to do it for them.

While one can see the timeliness of the theme, many of these stories seem oddly old-fashioned; all right, the first Sword and Sorceress anthology came out in 1984 (they continued after the death of Marion Zimmer Bradley, up to volume 34 last year), but to say now that the damsel who needs to be rescued is an outdated and tedious trope is, well, at least thirty years too late for those of us who've actually been reading recent fantasy. (And obviously there are plenty of earlier examples too, but that's when I remember the trend coming in in a big way and I don't think it's really retreated since.)

What's more, many of these stories are oddly linear: a female character is in some sort of bad situation, recognises a problem, does something about it, and… the story ends before there's time for anything more than a single conflict. All right, the stories average less than 5,000 words and there isn't much room to develop more than that… but I found myself left oddly flat by most of them.

"Falcon's Apprentice" (Jody Lynn Nye) is a good example. It has the falconer's daughter, the nasty Comte, and the Beast of Gévaudan… and while the Beast may be dealt with, the nasty Comte is unchanged. So why put the gun on the mantelpiece if you aren't going to fire it?

"She Remembered" (Lee French) gives us a retired mercenary and magical nastiness, which feels like rather too much material to fit into its length.

"Alive" (Raven Oak) has an ex-assassin being baited by someone murdering women who look like her. Everything is as it appears.

"Thorn Girl" (Connie J. Jasperson) has a slave working out that revolt is possible. Nicely observed psychology in service of a straightforward story.

"The Princess and the Dragon" (Robyn Bennis) is one of the better pieces here: the princess and the dragon are collaborating in order to take back the kingdom from the usurper, but things get more complicated than that. I think it may have been Bennis's name that brought the anthology to my attention, and the story didn't disappoint.

"Ashna's Heart" (Robert J. McCarter) is an overlong story of death and reincarnation, and somehow manages to say nothing at all.

"Aptitude" (Matt Youngmark) is rather fun, with the girl growing up as a servant in the Great House who ends up being the only person who can do something about the Cunning Plot. There's a novel dealing with this character in later life, and I'll look for it.

"Warmaster" (Ian Berger and Lou J. Berger) has the girl brought up on her grandfather's stories of fighting for the fairies against the trolls… but for some reason her parents regard these as myths. They aren't, of course.

"Princess Last Picked" (Dawn Vogel) suffers by having the same basic idea as "Aptitude", and is cod-Celtic at that.

"Yendy Loves Rattlescale" (Elmdea Adams) has a dragon with low self-image meeting a girl with intellectual disability. They make friends, and that's about it.

"Water and Light" (Katie Cross) really ought to be a book; as it is we get just the climax of the story, with no reason to develop emotional attachment to anybody.

"Low is the Land" (Fulvio Gatti) is very obviously a Second World War story wrenched into a fantasy setting.

"Calamity" (Edward J. Knight) genuinely gets out of Fantasyland, the first story to have done so, to give a tale of ghosts in the Old West.

"Not a Whisper" (Sarah Bartsch) is another tale of ghosts, or something like them, which like so many of these feels like the first chapter of a novel.

"Hope Beyond Death" (Jeremy Zimmerman) is a much better ghost story (but why three in a row?), in which the ghost takes steps to preserve her existence.

"Balancing the Scales" (Esther Jones and Frog Jones) has Rome sacked and the abandoned daughter picked up by one of the Lares of the house. But really, just because the terribly wise person who tells our heroine what to do isn't male, that doesn't mean the heroine has agency!

"Remember to Thank Your Healer" (Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins) offers a potentially interesting theology in a generically D&D-style world.

Apart from Nye and Bennis I think these are all quite new authors, and it shows.

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