Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXII (2007). 269 Pages. Norilana Books. $9.95
I don’t know if I mentioned that I come from a town with a one-room library. It was the first floor of an old victorian, and it didn’t really have much in the way of books. My school had a library, and in elementary school, I believe I managed to read their entire collection, and then some. It was my preferred place to spend lunchtime. I’ve never had a library card before. (Small towns, they just write down your name, because they know you.) When I moved to the Bay Area, I had a school-ID library card, and then I got my first non-school card from the San Leandro Public Library, which was very exciting. I discovered that you can put books on Hold, and when you come in, they’re waiting for you.
I have abused this power to no end. I have a 20-book-long hold list, and every time I come in to turn some in, I’ve got more waiting. It makes life more fun, I think. (It also means that when I go to the library, I can limit myself to the holds shelves so I don’t leave with more than I can read in 2 weeks.)
Oh, there was a point to all this. Because I get my books by putting them on hold, I don’t really get to know what format the book is going to be in when I get there. (Or what shape– there have been several books that I’ve wanted to repair quite badly, but when I left the library*, I lost my access to book-repair and book-binding supplies.) Every other Sword & Sorceress novel has been a mass market paperback, but apparently when they switched publishers, they switched formats. Sword & Sorceress XXII is edited by Elizabeth Waters**
Anyway, there are sixteen stories in this volume, so as I’ve done in the past, I’ll choose a few that really stood out.
I’m going to start at the back of the book with Sarah Dozier’s “The Menagerie.” It’s a good story, and it entertained me, except that it is so very, very similar to “Oulu” by Aimee Kratts, which was in volume XXI. It’s forgivable to use similar stories more than once in a series, but to do so in two volumes which are back-to-back is a problem. Yes, they do take very different approaches to a similar twist, but that does not make them sufficiently different from each other.
“Night Watches” by Catherine Soto re-introduces Biao Mei and Lin Mei– a pair of siblings who made their first appearance in Sword & Sorceress XXI (though, in a story I didn’t review). There was a hint of magic last time, but this time it becomes a bit more blatant; there are magical beings mincing around in this story. (And a bit of political intrigue.) In the first story, it was hinted that these siblings were seeking… something. We haven’t learned what by the end of this story, but it’s led us a little deeper into their world. I am very interested to see where they go, and what is going on with their world.
“Vanishing Village” by Margaret L. Carter has a little bit of a twist, and features a story that’s not quite what you expect. I don’t know how to say a whole lot more without saying too much, but there’s an interesting spell which made this town “vanish.”
Kimberly L. Maughan’s “The Ironwood Box” starts with a form of magic I’ve never read about, as well as a unique political system. It’s a little reminiscent of Robin McKinley’s Beauty or Rose Daughter in that there are three sisters living in a cottage in the forest. I suppose that’s not a very strong parallel, but one makes me think of the other. The characters are interesting, and their story intriguing, making this one of the hilights of the volume.
Dave Smeds has one of the more unique stories with “Bearing Shadows,” which I read while on BART. Aerise loses everything when her baby glows in her belly. It is a mark that she is carrying the child of a Cursed One, something which she is cast out of her village for. Not knowing what to do, and afraid for herself (and to a degree, the unwanted child she is carrying), she goes to the Cursed Ones for help. Slowly, she comes to understand why she was chosen, but she never quite forgives. It’s a very emotional story, with what I hesitate to call a happy ending, though it is hopeful.
When I was a kid, I had a book of short stories which included “The Lady, or the Tiger” which I found to be infuriating. When I later found its sequel, I was only more annoyed. To put it simply, “The Decisive Princess” by Catherine Mintz left me far, far more satisfied by the end of the story. I don’t want to say a lot more, because there isn’t a lot to say without spoiling it, but it’s a very good short story.
One of the darker stories in the series is “Tontine” by Robert E. Vardeman– a lone mercenary enters a bar, and proceeds to drink a very special bottle of wine. There are five glasses worth of wine, added to the bottle by herself and her four friends in their youth. With each glass, she not only remembers her fallen comrades, but relives their deaths through their eyes. Then, Jonna drinks her own glass, and without us ever knowing what she saw, she leaves the bar, off on journeys unknown. It’s brilliant, and unique, and like nothing I ever expected.
The Quick Version:
Elizabeth Waters is not Marion Zimmer Bradley, but she manages to continue the series with the same sort of spirit as her mentor. A lot of the stories were very good, though a few fell flat. It scores a 3.5/5, because there were some very, very good ones, but one too many were mediocre or forgettable enough that I don’t remember them today.
* During College, I worked in the Library, and was a Periodicals and Processing Student Assistant. (Long title, I know.) The very best part about this job was getting to repair the really old books. The coolest one ever was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in large-format hard-back from the 19th century. It had the etchings in it. We got to re-do the binding, and it was the most amazing, satisfying, and fun thing I’ve ever done. Because when you’re done, you’ve helped preserve history, and while you’re doing it, you’re engaged– your mind, your hands, and all your skills. Ok, I think I should stop dorking out about book repair, because there aren’t a lot of people who share that passion with me.
** Elizabeth Waters was apparently Marion Zimmer Bradley’s editorial assistant from Sword & Sorceress II until she died. Ms Waters is about as close as you can get to MZB’s editorial style, so they chose her to continue the series. It works, I think.