Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sword and Sorceress - ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley

   The second great wave of swords & sorcery was in the sixties and seventies making it contemporaneous with great changes sweeping Western culture.  One of those changes was feminism and as in the rest of society it made inroads into even such minor things as S&S.  

   Women had always written S&S, C. L. Moore in particular helping lay its foundations.  Still, it was dominated by men in its creation and its consumption.  That reality led to several explicitly feminist anthologies looking to open wide the doors of something seen by many as a boys-only club.  

   The first was Jessica Amanda Salmonson's "Amazons!" and the second was   Marion Zimmer Bradley's  "Sword and Sorceress".  Salmonson only managed a second volume of "Amazons" but Bradley's spawned a series that ran to nineteen sequels before her death and six more since.

   Unlike Salmonson, Bradley introduces her book not with a call to arms but by informing the reader she could not envision female themed heroic fiction as simply stories that switched "mighty Amazon warrior for a hearty hero".  In fact her introduction to "Sword and Sorceress" reads like a direct response to Salmonson's fiery broadside.  

   First she states she believes no historical basis for any sort of matriarchal or Amazonian societies exists and then she attacks the very idea of the Amazon as an empowering image.  Quoting Abby Kleinbaum, she claims that in most classical stories Amazons were defeated and or raped.  They exist, not as bold women, but instead as some sort of male creation drawn into existence to prove men could conquer them.   

   But why, asks Bradley, is the image so persistent and even popular among women.  It and other cliches exist and lay the basis for much of the woman oriented heroic fantasy submitted to her, so why?  She never comes up with an answer why but I suspect she hoped readers would simply find an answer in the material.  My own belief is that, classical tales aside, the real case is that it is an empowering and artistically inspiring image that allows authors to examine and present women as adventurous and courageous as men.  

Marion Zimmer Bradley - hey, she lived on Staten Island once
Marion Zimmer Bradley

   Another trope she encountered and initially found distasteful was that of rape and revenge.  She actually hoped to include no submissions using it but found herself unable to.  At the outset of heroic fantasy, specifically in C. L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss" the theme was present.  She notes that she had once written that "(in heroic fiction) the seamy underside is always rape".  Her question was, and it's a significant one, what actually happens at story's end when the warrior claims his prize of treasure and the girl?  It's an good example of the sort of insights Salmson, Bradley and all the authors involved in these books were trying to impart to S&S.  In the end she included three such stories in "Sword and Sorceress".      

   Alongside Amazons and rape there are comical episodes, peaceful sorceresses and other things in "Sword and Sorceress".  What binds them together is the simple emphasis on women protagonists.  But Bradley was trying to do something more than just set the stage for female characters.  Her stated goal was to present female-centric S&S that felt real, that addressed both the female and male halves of the world.  Feminist propaganda is as awful as sexist male fiction she warns.  With tales by men as well as women she believed she reached her objective and kept it entertaining.

   Despite her excellent intentions, "Swords and Sorceress" is a surprising disappointment.  There are good, even excellent stories (would it surprise you Charles Saunder's story is one of them?) here but too many that are not.  Bradley's goal is broader and subtler than Salmonson's but the result is a book less exciting than "Amazons!".  Salmonson's punch-to-the-eye attach turned out to be just right for S&S, Bradley's less militant approach not so much.

   "Amazons!"'s authors took the traditionally male virtues of physical strength and courage and adventurousness and applied them to female characters and more often than not it worked.   Perhaps because she started from a less confrontational place, less looking to create warrior women, Bradley let in too much that's not particularly valid even by very wide definition of S&S.  She gives the reader too many stories that are simply general fantasy.  As such they too often lack the narrative drive and excitement that are among S&S chief hallmarks.  

   Eight of the stories qualify as S&S and all save one of the best are among them.  When she lets in the amazons and bold thieves the stories work better than where they're absent.   Both editors sought to bring women in from the roles of damsels in distress, maidens in need of conquering or sidekicks and out to center stage as heroes.  "Amazons!" however is true to the verve and action as well as the darkness of S&S.  Too often the tales in "Sword and Sorceress" are muted in tone and plot.

Phyllis Ann Karr

   That being said, "Sword and Sorceress" opens with the thoroughly respectable "The Garnet and the Glory" by PhyllisAnn Karr.  Her series characters, sorceress Frostflower and warrior Thorn, find themselves drawn into the Old Hills by the unknown and alien sorcerer Dathru.  More intriguing than exciting, "The Garnet and the Glory" features a struggle between differing types of magic and the different methods of fighting Frostflower and Thorn.    

   Glen Cook's "Severed Heads" is set in the faux-Arabian lands of his Dread Empire novels.  A girl is raped by a sorcerer and later he returns to steal the son born of that violent union.  In response she casts off the restrictions of her sex and takes on the skills of a warrior and seeks out her attacker and son.  Written with Cook's usual blunt brutality, "Severed Heads" is one of the better stories in the collection.   

   "Taking Heart" by Stephen L. Burns is one of the funny stories.  Slight and obvious, it's told from the perspective of Raalt.  A thief he's been imprisoned and is facing death for the theft of a jewel of great value, the Heart of Arrmik.  In the seclusion of his cell he is visited by fellow thief Clea who offers to free him for a share of the proceeds from selling the Heart.  He accepts, planning to outwit her at some point and renege on his promise of shared profit. There's no surprise in this story but the constant misperceptions of Raalt are amusing.   

   I wanted to like Emma Bull's "The Rending Dark" more than I did. It was her first professional sale. Two women, the Songsmith Kit and her more martially inclined companion Marya seek a warm bed out of the dark and snow in the town of Sallis. Marya is not a normal woman however. Her left arm is replaced with "lean bone and tendon and long, curving, cruel claws, all black and shining". That night they are forced to confront a secret darkness haunting the town that leaves Marya in fear of her own future. It's a tale with enticing sci-fi intimations but too much left unexplained (and not in a good, intriguing way).   

   Next is the second of Charles R. Saunders great woman warrior Dossouye stories, the first, "Agbewe's Sword", having appeared "Amazons!".  At the end of the first tale, Dossouye was fleeing the ruins of her old life.  At the beginning of the second she is beset by a pair of bandits.  After killing one and allowing the other to escape with his life, Dossouye encounters a strange song singer.  Soon there is love, dark magic and violence delivered in Saunder's usual vivid prose.

   Charles De Lint's"The Valley of the Troll" is another comic story.  Swords-woman Aynber and the insufficiently talented wizard Thorn Hawkwood make an attempt on the treasure of a troll.  There's humorous dialogue, a troll to outwit and bandits. Good stuff but nothing special.


Deborah J. Ross

   "Imperatrix" by Deborah J. Ross (written as Deborah Wheeler) has a wizard, and a hired swords-woman with the ability to tame great alien beasts called Weires.  There are strange realms of magic to be traveled by mystic roads and in the background an enemy in the form of the Imperator.  I found the story unclear, the characters less than engaging and the title a spoiler for a secret that isn't really very secret.   

   "Blood of Sorcery" by Jennifer Roberson doesn't work at all.  A prelude to her lengthy "Chronicles of the Cheysuli" series, it's a boring start.  Keely, a shape-changing princess, has been captured by an evil wizard. She has been raped repeatedly with the intent of impregnation.  Possession of their child will allow him to work his demonic magic and take control of the lands.  Tainted by his seed she is stripped of her native abilities but must still find some way to escape her captor.  It only left me sleepy.   

   Pat Murphy's "With Four Lean Hounds" is a fairy tale flavored story.  A young thief named Tarsia learns she might be the lost daughter of the Lady of the Winds, a mighty figure whose power stretches over the lands for both good and ill.  Deciding to seek the Lady out, Tarsia falls in with a minstrel she realizes has the same goal.  Really not S&S, it's an adequate story with an enjoyable heroine.  The ending's a little unclear but it works well enough.   The same can't be said for the next story.  

   Anodea Judith's "House in the Forest" is a dull, pointless story of a healer and a goddess.  It's inclusion is a mystery.

Diana L. Paxson

   The rape-revenge theme reaches its apex in Diana L. Paxson's "Sword of Yraine".  A group of girls, about to be dedicated to various goddesses, are captured by a group of bandits who invade the shrine where they live.  One of the girls is Shanna, daughter of a nobleman and a skilled if untested swords-woman. When the bandits decide to rape their prisoners Shanna sees it as her duty to free her comrades.  Despite her training, Shanna's less than bloodthirsty reactions are believably human.There is a brutality to the bandits' assault absent from Cook's or Roberson's stories and it's terrifying.   Not especially S&S but easily one of the best written stories in the collection.   

   Described in its introduction as a tall tale, Michael Ward's "Daton and the Dead Things" is delivered in colorful and snarky tones.  It is my favorite of the comical stories.  An adventurer in search of her runaway companion chases him to a ruined city and runs up against a very logically and literally minded cyclops.  It's one of the clearest S&S stories in the book.   

   Janet Fox, another alumni of "Amazons!", turns up here with "Gate of the Damned".  Swords-woman Scorpia falls in with a crusade being led by Baucis, King of Thurgia.  The king aims to free the demon ruled lands lying beyond the town of Abzu Rii, also known as the Gate of the Damned. A central focus of the story is Scorpia's relationship with the mercenary captain Telis, rooted in the loneliness of life on the road and an intimacy with death and violence.  There is also beastmen, battle and an ancient, sorcerous queen, so good stuff.   

   The longest story in the book is Robin W. Bailey's "Child of Orcus".  Set during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius, ex-gladiator Diana serves his wife, Messalina.  Diana is sent to investigate rumors of a cult of Orcus, god of death, that has supposedly discovered the secret of immortality.  Diana does indeed discover the cult and the nature of its secret.  Ultimately she ends up waging several bets with Orcus himself.  I didn't love the story but Diana's final action did make me love her.

   "Things Come in Threes" by Dorothy J. Heydt is ostensibly a humorous short-short tale but I wasn't able to tell.  It's a disappointing end to a book that rarely rises above the average.

   "Sword and Sorceress" is nothing more than an average anthology of S&S.  Too often, like in "Blood of Sorcery" or "House in the Forest" the stories lie flat and lifeless on the pages.  There are too fairly generic duos like in "The Rending Dark" who come upon a monster and have kill it.  The comic stories are at least funny but they're all pretty much one-note tales with nothing else.  Above all, S&S needs to be exciting and a lot of these stories just aren't.

   I've read elsewhere there was a dearth of stories for Bradley to choose from but that changed with the second volume in the series.  I'll probably give that one a chance down the line but I can't really recommend this one.  The highlights are easily "Gimmile's Song" and "Severed Heads" and both are available in anthologies you should own already.  I know this book was important in sounding the call for a new approach to S&S but it's just not that good.  Of course it's available cheap and any completist should get one anyway.


  1. I have that one but haven't read it yet. I've dipped randomly into some of the later volumes but wasn't overly impressed. I suppose I should read one or two all the way through.

  2. I admit it's a little hard going back in time and assessing the impact the book must have had. It would be easier if it was a better book.

  3. I have Sword and Sorceress III, and frankly, I don't care for most of the tales. No offense to the authors or the editor, but this is not my idea of real S&S. And from what I have read, the series does not get any better. If only Swords against Darkness, or Echoes of Valor had gone on for this many volumes!

  4. The idea of either of those series running over twenty volumes is mind blowing. Wagner was one of the best anthologists bar none (his Year's Best Horror collections are one of my most prized possessions).
    I suspect Bradley's title is really more of a marketing device than any real indicator of the contents. The failure of so many of the stories to actually conform to even the loosest definition of S&S is my biggest criticism of the anthology.

  5. Interesting clear-sighted overview! Enjoyed reading this.

    1. Hey. thanks for stopping by and thanx for the kind words.