Sword and Planet: My First Anthology Review!

This is fairly exciting for me.

They say you never forget your first, and this review is two “firsts” combined. This is the first time I’ve tried my hand at reviewing an anthology, as opposed to novels or series. It’s also the first review I’ve been specifically asked to do by a publisher, Baen Books, courtesy of an editor sending out word on a couple of Facebook groups I am part of, that they were looking for reviewers… and I literally responded with, “I volunteer as tribute!”

So, yeah, I’m just a little bit giddy about this. It’s a new experience and it’s an experiment! To quote Bilbo Baggins, “I am acquiver with anticipation!” Of course, he says that while trading riddles with a filthy, ravenous creature in the black underbelly of a mountain full of monsters, so, there’s that.

The basic idea behind Sword and Planet, edited by Christopher Ruocchio, is the idea of putting fantasy and science fiction into the same stories. There’s magic and futuristic technologies, knights and starships, wizards and ray guns, “sword and planet.” That sort of thing.

The distinction between fantasy and science fiction can get wonderfully blurred at times, and these are certainly not the first authors to play around with that line. It’s not uncommon to throw some futuristic “lost technology” into fantasy stories, as Terry Brooks did several times in his Shannara franchise. It is also not unheard of to put something more magical into sci-fi (I’m looking at you, Star Wars and Stargate). And the complete blending and side-by-side interaction of magic and science is a staple not only of Marvel and DC superheroes, but of the masterful works of Brandon Sanderson with his several soft and hard magic systems.

Sword and Planet‘s stated objective is to showcase “stories that put the fantasy back in science fantasy.” And this, they do… albeit with some mixed results.

That’s sort of the peril of anthologies, isn’t it?

If it’s an anthology of shorter stories and novellas published by one author, then there is automatically a greater consistency in quality and subject, not to mention that the audience might already be familiar with the background of these stories. The groundwork is already done. (Example: Side Jobs, by Jim Butcher) Even when each story is a contribution to the same universe (such as The Monster Hunter Files, edited by Larry Correia) one which the audience is likely already familiar with, the type and quality of story can vary widely, especially if a “contributor” is actually pushing one of their own stories in without any real regard for continuity. (coughJaneYellowrockcough!) Take a random variety of authors with a variety of franchises and throw them all together? Oh, can that make for some mixed results! Even with some uniting themes behind them, it can get very interesting! The best experience I’ve had with one of those was with Kaiju Rising, and even then, quality varied immensely from one story to the next.

Variety is the spice of life, but any good chef knows how to use spices in moderation and balance. Too much of any spice will overpower the senses.

All of which is a fairly meandering way for me to say… I’m playing this by ear. I will probably find a way to streamline this in the future, but for my first anthology review, since I want to be fair towards each of the contributing authors, and to keep my thoughts better organized, I’ll just leave a couple of remarks in response. My two cents, so to speak, in regards to each of their works, my brief experience with them, and how well I feel they fit with the proposed themes of Sword and Planet.

Starting with the first, and proceeding to the last:

“A Murder of Knights,” by Tim Akers
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This felt less like putting the two together and more like people had forgotten so much about science that they referred to technology with magical terms. It required paying attention some attention, but I could make some sense of it, translate it into tech terms. The story itself was fairly straightforward: knights fight to rescue innocent girl from horrific monster. It felt a little more like a beginning than a complete story, especially with an obvious intimation that the “gods” are not gods, which make me wonder why the cyborg knights really serve them as if they are. But the most important thing: I enjoyed it. It was a good story.

“Operatrix Triumphans,” by Susan R. Matthews
…now this was a confusing mess. The setup was about these cartels running everything in a hard, brutal environment, so anything that doesn’t immediately benefit survival (like learning knowledge of the past) is left to rot, but then they have fencing “sword dancers” for some reason? And the system of scoring the points with this sword dancing didn’t make much sense to me, it actually seemed fairly technical. And somehow there’s some “forbidden dance” which is a self-destruct sequence? And something about the protagonist canceling that sequence with sunlight in a cavern at a pivotal moment or…? And what was with the random explanations of all sorts of things in the middle of dialogue with some sort of chant going on in the background interrupting every so often? …yeah, this one did not do so well with me.

“Power and Prestige,” by D.J. Butler
In a much more fantasy-like setting, a couple of freelance mercenaries (like all-purpose adventurers), are hired to investigate the disappearance of a senior academic and two of her students. The sci-fi aspect is fairly downplayed as lost technology, which interests powerful parties who want to use it to secure their own interests. Such interests mean that the one who unveils the ancient mysteries will achieve prestige, which threatens those who already have such prestige. It’s basic murder mystery, solved rather quickly and easily. I suppose this felt more like a random excerpt from the lives of some established characters in their own franchise. One of the protagonists clearly has some strange issues – and I don’t mean the one that, being part canine, is somewhat prone to compulsively eating his own poop – but it’s fairly amusing and insightful, if also straightforward (no time for beating around the bush here, after all!)

“A Broken Sword Held High,” by L.J. Hachmeister
This is a very abbreviated YA girl power story. In short: a culture that has spent decades violently suppressing any violent behavior for any reason gets a crash course in how stupid that is. Forget how there are dragons on this terraformed planet who breathe lightning and that there is a girl who can command the dragons and direct the lightning to destroy ships, ships which are piloted by humans from Earth who are possessed by extraterrestrial bugs, and forget how one scientist has been working to get old technology up and running again, no, forget all of that… the most fantastical thing about this story is that these zealots who have preached and imbibed this anti-violent rhetoric for decades actually accepted that they were all wrong after only one horrific, blood-soaked demonstration.

“The Fruits of Reputation,” by Jodi Lynn Nye
A warrior queen is kidnapped by a group of entertainers who have neither combat nor diplomatic skills so she will save them from invaders. It’s Alice in Wonderland, or maybe Dr. Seuss, gone interplanetary. It has a certain charm, made me smile and chuckle.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nakh-Maru,” by Jessica Cluess
Super-strong warrior man: check! Proud, voluptuous princess: check! Brigands and monsters and hostile, alien environment: check! Villain set on taking power with an ancient weapon of great power: check! It’s a short version of the usual adventure epic, complete with saving the day and getting the girl. This one’s pretty fun!

“Saving the Emperor,” by Simon R. Green
Generally, the prequel/beginning/origin story of an entire saga probably should not be a short story included in an unrelated anthology. There’s no guarantee the audience already knows the franchise in question, so one risks alienating, instead of hooking, potential future readers before they even touch the series itself. Such is the case here. It starts out fairly well, but tries to be some epic genesis of an entire series without doing that to earn it, ya know? If I already knew the series, perhaps I’d be more interested, but without that, it kind of just fell flat for me.

“A Knight Luminary,” by R.R. Virdi
Straight-up calling the mystic technology something “between science and magic.” And that even has some bearing on the plot, too! It’s one of those where a youth, disappointed with his lack of special abilities, comes into some very special power at a most opportune time, just when it’s needed most to protect his brothers-in-arms as they face an unending robotic horde. I enjoyed this one, and it even intrigued me slightly. The premise makes me wonder if this is part of a larger franchise, and, if it is, I might be interested in this one.

“Chronicler of the Titan’s Heart,” by Anthony Martezi
Now this one was almost entirely fantasy, with a bit of sci-fi tossed in, a bit like in Shannara. The style of prose was also far more poetic than most of the other stories. Not that the they were bad, just that they were poetic lightweights in comparison, and this was a heavy hitter. In fact, perhaps a little too heavy, as things began slow and steady and then things picked up, and then they really picked up, everything suddenly happening so fast like a rocket reaching for the stars, with the audience just hanging on tight to its metal skin. So, pacing may have been an issue towards the end.

“Bleeding from Cold Sleep,” by Peter Fehervari
Oh, wow! That was magnificent! A single short story, entirely self-contained, yet commenting deeply on humanity itself even within a fairly simple story. And not a bit of the sci-fi tech really needed explaining. It was all shown, not told. Now that was well done! Top marks!

“The Test,” by T.C. McCarthy
Having no explanation works best when there isn’t one needed. This was a good story, almost on par with the previous one, though it felt slightly more like an excerpt from a novel or series. It was fantasy, medieval setting, but with a clergy that wielded guns and flamethrowers which they passed off as God’s power and God’s will. Not an entirely unique idea, but I think this is the first time I saw our level of tech being used that way in something like Medieval Europe. Which leave me wondering… how?! How did the church get weapons from the future (our present)?

“Queen Amid the Ashes,” by Christopher Ruocchio
“A new chapter to the Sun Eater saga!” I will admit, this is pretty well-written, and well-paced, and does not shy away from the horror of war, and of evil. I enjoyed it. But it was filled with spoilers for both before and – being narrated by the protagonist long after the fact – after this particular chapter. It might be worth reading the rest of the story, the real story, but when you already know not only the end but various pivotal details… it’s not especially encouraging, ya know? Add to that how this full-fledged novella took up the last quarter of the anthology, and that it was written by the same man who edited said anthology, and it felt very imbalanced. At least it was left to the very end, slightly lessening how much it overshadowed the other eleven authors and their work.

In summary:

Overall, a good experience. Out of a dozen, two or maybe three didn’t quite appeal to me, six of them were enjoyable on an average level, two stood out as great, and the last one was enjoyable but a little longer. Nothing wrong with length, of course. In fact, some of these probably could have benefited from a larger word count, enough to smooth out some rough edges by letting things take more time.

The ones which can stand alone were, in my opinion, more enjoyable than those that either obviously were, or could be, or felt like they should be part of a greater saga.

Besides that, there were some editing errors scattered throughout, mostly involving grammar. I know they happen, alas, and are impossible to avoid completely, but, still, I don’t usually notice quite so many. Just a detail, though, and only mildly distracting, and they don’t really detract from the enjoyment of higher-quality stories.

I’d say it was imperfect but mostly good, and quite often enchanting, endearing, insightful, and hilarious.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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