Review: Shattered Shields

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.”

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Review: The Best of Connie Willis

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories by Connie Willis

‘The Best Of Connie Willis’ is a collection of award-winning short stories by Connie Willis. The hefty volume also includes an introduction by the author and three of her speeches. Both the introduction and the speeches are as entertaining as the stories.

In the introduction, Willis explains why it’s hard to talk about her own stories or the process by which they journey from idea to completion. She explains that the stories often change, conceptually, as she is writing them. She says, ‘While you’re writing one story, your subconscious is busily writing another.’

I’ve had this happen! Nice to know such wandering is not the product of a disorganised mind, but more a creative side step.

Willis also talks about her introduction to and enthusiasm for the speculative fiction genres. I remembered reading the same stories and thinking the same thoughts when I fell headfirst down the rabbit hole some thirty-five years ago.

Each story in the anthology is followed by an afterword where Willis does guide the reader from seed to story. These journeys of thought are fascinating and contain a lot of interesting biographical information, making this volume essential for Connie Willis fans.

On to the stories. There are ten of them and they are, as the title of the anthology suggests, her best.

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Review: Conservation of Shadows

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

Conservation of Shadows is a collection of short stories by Yoon Ha Lee. Like shadows, many of the stories are furtive in nature, requiring the reader to chase them from page to page. No two stories are alike. The point of view and tense often change, but there is a consistent theme of patterns and forms expressed through various arts—poetry, music, calligraphy, art and dance. Lee’s imagination is not bound by these forms. The stories range from otherworldly, to an alternate history feel, to science fiction. All read a little like fantasy, though, with the repetition of the artful themes.

The entries that caught my attention were The Shadow Postulates, The Bones of Giants, Swanwatch and Effigy Nights.

Simply, The Shadow Postulates is a story of mathematics and love. A student searches for facts to support her thesis. Along the way, she takes lesson from life, and, in particular, her roomsister. She examines relationships and finds correlations between these and her research.

My favourite story would be The Bones of Giants. Tamim, the son of a necromancer, is on a quest to stop a sorcerer from destroying his world. He accepts the aid of another necromancer who teaches him how to animate and control the bones of giants. They ride the massive skeletons into battle, controlling their movements with gestures that can be captured and preserved by a form of calligraphy.

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Review: Jagannath

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath is a collection of thirteen short stories by Swedish author, Karin Tidbeck. The stories are written in English, but maintain a Nordic flavour. Not all the tales in this slim volume appealed. Though I found myself amused by the number of organic creatures populating the pages, I did get the sense I might have appreciated more of the stories if I had a more broad understanding of folklore. Jagannath has collected some outstanding reviews, however, and a couple of the stories easily illustrate why.

The last story, for which the anthology is named, is one of those odd adventures in literature where the reader constantly grasps for meaning. Rak is born into what appears to be the inside of a being known as Mother. Once she is grown enough, she is put to work massaging food through the intestines. Scraping sustenance from the interior walls and sleeping in a fleshy alcove, Rak expects to work there until she dies, at which point she will be massaged through those intestines by her replacement. Mother roams the world outside looking for food. Inside, the workers thrive and starve according to her diet. After a particularly lean period, Rak visits the nursery for a replacement worker and discovers there are no more babies. By the end of the story, I had little more idea who or what Mother was than Rak did, but I had plenty of theories—my favourite of which involved a post-apocalyptic scenario and alien centipedes. Either way, as Tidbeck’s story draws to a close, Rak’s begins again as she is birthed into the outside world. I found the imagery and imagination of ‘Jagannath ‘ extraordinary. I wanted to know more, but enough clues were provided for me to devise my own conclusions.

Another story that captured my attention was ‘Augusta Prima’. Augusta is a member of court in a world that exists out of time. Days are filled with activities that amuse the courtiers. Nights with revel. Servants are gruesomely treated and the bodies piling up across the pages were treated with less than idle curiosity until Augusta finds a trinket on one. She discovers it’s a watch and that it is used to measure time—a concept she is unfamiliar with. Once made aware of its passage, however, she finds she is unable to ignore it. She starts measuring her world and as a result, becomes bound by what she describes. A nice and simple allegory for the modern condition.

Many of the other stories lost me a couple of pages in as I either failed to find a speculative element or identify with the subject. Not so say the stories were badly written or boring, more not to my taste. I would like to mention one last tale, however. ‘Cloudberry Jam’ was simultaneously disturbing and sweet. As a mother, I felt the bittersweet pain at the end as the narrator of the story lets her baby go and that parting, mothers and children, seemed a theme throughout the collection.

While I did not understand or get ‘something’ from every story, reading Jagannath was still a worthwhile experience. I chose it on the strength of those outstanding reviews and, for me, the highlights outshone the low points.

Written for and originally posted at SFcrowsnest.