Shattered Shields is an anthology of military fantasy edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jennifer Brozek. Included are seventeen new stories from such well-known authors as Glen Cook, Elizabeth Moon and David Farland. Some are set in established worlds, others in new universes. It’s a wide selection of tales dark, light, serious and humorous. Swords and sorcery, hack and slash. About half-way through the anthology, I did have to put it aside for a couple of days. I found it hard to consider each new story with a fresh perspective but I did actually read every single one of them, which is unusual for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever completed an anthology read without skipping at least one story.
The title of the anthology is taken from the first story, “Ashes And Starlight” by David Farland. Set in the Runelords universe, this story is easy to fall into. A prisoner of the Knights of Mystarria proves himself to his captors by saving the king’s daughter twice and uncovering a secret that may save the kingdom as well. In return, the king grants his daughter’s request. The captive will be trained as a guard but she is warned to keep her distance, for
“He is a soldier, a shield. In times like those that are to come, such shields will be easily shattered.”
I liked this story, and was intrigued enough to conduct a little research. It doesn’t look as if the tale of Dval (the prisoner) and Avahn (the princess) is continued anywhere else, but the flavour of the universe was well-represented enough in “Ashes And Starlight” that I could easily imagine myself becoming immersed in any of the available novels.
I generally choose three or five stories to talk about in an anthology review. Those that stand out from the crowd and encourage me to fill my already overflowing bookshelves with more books. It’s going to be difficult to constrain myself to so few recommendations this time ‘round, particularly as I read every story in the anthology. Accordingly, I will keep my notes brief.
The next absolute standout story for me was “The Keeper Of Names” by Larry Correia. I was looking forward to this entry as I really appreciate Larry’s sense of humour. I’ve been following his blog for a while and have enjoyed his ‘Monster Hunter’ books. The humour in “The Keeper Of Names” is subtly interwoven and very dry. It makes the story lively and the characters more real and accessible. It’s a simple tale. The casteless are planning a rebellion. The announcement that a Protector of the Law will be arriving soon advances their schedule. A stranger appears first and gives advice to Keta, the leader of the rebellion, before ultimately passing on more than Keta bargained for.
There was a great sense of history and background to this story, none of which overwhelms the reader. At no point did I feel I had started reading a book in the middle, which is the fault of so many short stories. It’s difficult to build a world in so few words. Larry Correia manages it beautifully here and I would definitely look for more epic fantasy from him.
Sarah A. Hoyt has been a favourite of mine for years. I adore her ‘Darkship’ novels and have formed the habit of haunting her blog while I wait for the next entry in that series. Her entry here, “Rising Above”, introduced me to a new universe, one populated by dragon-shifters. I’m hooked. Coincidentally, I found two books in her ‘Shifters’ series in the library bin only a day after I read this story. They are both now safely tucked into that teetering pile of books I call my ‘To Be Read’ shelf.
Air supremacy changed hands between the Germans and the Allies several times during World War I. “Rising Above” puts a different spin on events by introducing dragon-shifters into aerial combat. Shapeshifting is a treasonous offence. Captured by his own people, Freiherr Manfred Von Richthofen argues that his shifting cannot be responsible for the volume of magic detected. Even after two more dragon-shifters are captured and brought in, the equation is still unbalanced. Manfred makes a suggestion and after proving his theory, he and his fellows are inducted into a new aerial squad.
This story is quick and concise, giving just enough detail to invest the reader in a new world and perhaps entice them to read further. One of my favourites from this collection.
“A Cup Of Wisdom” by Joseph Zieja is the sort of short story I hope to find in every anthology. A story that was born to be a short story, no more, no less. Would I read the novel if I could? Sure, but I got so much from this simple tale that the idea of reading on is largely irrelevant. This story is about a concept, an idea. The characters and their interactions frame that.
A boy and his father on the eve of battle share a ritual cup. Every time the boy drinks, he falls into a vision of war. He is a commander by default, one who is betrayed and a simple soldier crushed in the first rush. The boy believes his father is working to discourage his desire to fight. Rather, his father aims to teach him what war really is, and to pass on the idea that he will never be ready, no matter the number or value of his lessons. The last vision in particular drives home this point. I’m not going to share it here; it wouldn’t necessarily spoil the story, but the boy’s reaction to this last glimpse of what war means is what makes this story so special.
Another tale of alternate history set during World War I, “Words Of Power” by Wendy N. Wagner inserts giant golems into the conflict. One of the golem mechanics finds a way to animate one of the machines she loves. During the process, she becomes a part of the corps herself. This is a short, encapsulated story with a good dose of action.
“Yael Of The Strings” by John R. Fultz stands out from the collection because the hero of the tale is not a warrior. After spending the night singing courage to troops, a minstrel watches the infantry cut down by a plague of spiders that arrive with the dawn. A pike and sword are thrust into Yael’s hand and he is ordered to fight. He learns that the enemy values something other than holy spiders. When he takes that knowledge back to the queen’s palace, he is knighted, given to the griffon he saved and taken in to the confidence of the knight who bid him to fight.
The missing element in this collection was addressed by the story “Bonded Men” by James L. Sutter. There are many reasons to go to war and many reasons a man or woman will fight. Being as I am the romantic sort, I find stories where a warrior fights for love to be the most powerful, whether that love is for a partner, a family or something broader. The Bonded Legion is a legendary troop of mercenary warriors. They fight for coin, pledging their loyalty to the highest bidder. Their honour is not for sale, however.
What makes this legion special is the fact that they fight in pairs. Each pair are lovers and they share a bond that makes them stronger together, on the field and off. When the legion is ambushed, half of the men are either killed or captured, leaving broken pairs and broken hearts scattered across the field. The warlord that captured these men believes he can tarnish the honour of those remaining by setting a bargain. He will release those they love, if the legion will switch sides.
This story set such an unusual twist on traditional military fantasy. Needless to say, I loved it. The battle scenes were exciting and the emotion was finely wrought. The questions of love and honour beautifully answered. I would love to read more stories set in this universe.
The anthology ends with two stories that are sure to please fans of Glen Cook and Elizabeth Moon who both deliver tales set in the well established universes of the Black Company and Paksenarrion. I enjoyed both stories, but found Elizabeth Moon’s more captivating. It’s the tale of a young man out to prove himself. Coming of age tales are amongst my favourites and this one reminded me of why I enjoyed the ‘Paksenarrion’ books so much.
If you like military fantasy, Shattered Shields is an awesome collection. It’s not a doorstopper, though in the age of electronic books, size isn’t as much of an issue unless you have your eye on the percentage marker at the bottom of the screen. Still, at 260 pages, this is not a tome that will collect dust on the nightstand. It’s an easily digestible volume with a good mix of stories. The introduction by the editors clearly illustrates their enthusiasm for the genre and the biographies that pad the end have plenty examples of further reading.
Written for SFCrowsnest.