Lost Lore: A Fantasy Anthology
My fondness for anthologies dates back to my early reading days when first “The Ten Tales of Shellover” and then a translation of the Dutch classic “King of The Copper Mountains” kept me enthralled from one night’s reading to the next. In Lost Lore we have an eclectic mix of very different tales by very different writers, that still kept me devouring stories at a more rapid rate than the one a night of my childhood.
Lost Lore kept me entertained and frantically noting many lines that charmed, or shocked or amused me. The windows into so many different worlds, through the lenses of so many varied imaginations are too individual for a collective commentary, so each gets their own mini-review.
‘No Fairytale’ by Ben Galley
“Not everybody can have their name roared at roof-beams over the clash of tankards.” But a girl can dream, and a girl can play games to fire her imagination and toy with new-discovered talents. But fifteen year old Hereni’s life and that of her family is about to take a sharp turn in a new direction.
Galley takes a familiar theme of farm girl awakening to latent powers, but denies his heroine that prophetic primacy that so many stories pursue. While Hereni may be “one” she is not “the one,” still less “the chosen/only one.” Through a rapid sequence of trials and experiences, Hereni must come to terms with her place in the challenges ahead and decide who she will stand with and for.
‘And They Were Never Heard from Again’ by Benedict Patrick
Felton is on a mission and has lured his little brother Tad along to cover his true intent. The adolescent Felton’s actions are driven not so much by the head as by the heart, or perhaps a somewhat lower organ! But the journey through the forest is fraught with danger, for little boys were not meant to be out after dark – the night belongs to other things.
Patrick’s story has an inventive take on the theme of belief and stories. It reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, or the Dr Who episode where Martha Jones spent a year telling the world about the Doctor. In both cases stories beget belief and belief begets faith; so too it is in Patrick’s world. A story can be a dangerous thing, taken up by others and twisted in a game of Chinese whispers until the hive-imagination of a frightened people imbue a story with its own power. At the end, Patrick’s doughty brothers have to find a way to change the story in order to save themselves.
‘A Tree Called Sightless’ by Steven Kelliher
Kelliher throws you into the head of a boy called Maro facing a challenge that reminded me a bit of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That is, in so far as there are children competing for a prize in a maze-like environment. However, unlike Harry, Maro is really not a nice person. His intention – indeed, his desire – is to kill all the competitors in pursuit of the ultimate prize – and he doesn’t plan on stopping the killing spree there.
The story grew on me in the telling and there were several lines that particularly caught my eye. Like this one: “…the Willows… with their prophecies and gathered truths that were only a goat’s intestine away from being the same as the Blood Seers of the west; these were beings worthy of hate. If Maro could find the time for it, he thought he might give them his.”
‘Barrowlands’ by Mike Shel
A young warrior, Hesk, leads two desperate rogues in a foolish and indeed illegal attempt to raid the tombs and the treasures of the lost nation of the Djao. When a blood-stained stranger and his truncated companion wander into their camp, their plan changes and then changes again as the land begins to divulge its secrets. Not since Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb has grave desecration encountered such potential for disaster.
This well written piece is full of striking descriptions, such as a cavern of skeletons: “… clothing and flesh had rotted away long ago. Now they were intertwined in morbid intimacy.” Throughout there is a louring sense of doom as Hesk tries to balance the cheerfully murderous intent of his larcenous associates and the cryptic mutterings of their driven new companion.
‘Into the Woods’ by Timandra Whitecastle
Jelena is a girl coming into womanhood, sent out – with a red shawl about her head – to run an errand to grandma. Whitecastle swiftly turns any perception of a Red Riding Hood-style adventure not so much on its head as inside out – and the tale is not the only thing that experiences some surprising inversions.
Whitecastle’s world has Jelena being scion of a seafaring race, now landbound and living in timber lodges near the stone ruins of a race of wights they once traded with. The wights might, in another story, have been termed elves, for they do not appear to have been the conventional undead of D&D fame. But then, there are enough elves in stories – not all lost races should rely on pointy ears for their mystery. Again I found lines to savour. “Winds coming down from the mountains had met winds on the water, and together they danced their storm dances, whipping the trees into curious shapes”; or “… lichen like old men’s beards hung limply from the intertwined branches overhead.”
The spine of the story is a tale told by Grandma to the young girl. The banter between child and adult is convincing – though when Grandma’s story reaches its bloody denouement I did wonder at a sudden shift in her language. I’m sure my grandmother never used such terms in conversation with me or my sister, but then the sheer brutality of the event – a twist that totally surprised me – swept me swiftly along and away from any quibbles of an old woman’s terminology.
‘Paternus: Deluge’ by Dyrk Ashton
For those familiar with Ashton’s sprawling epic, Paternus, Deluge is splattered with familiar motifs of demigods like the firstborn – part animal, part human, appearing in the lives of many different peoples. Ashton’s encyclopedic mastery of the range of human myths enables him to weave a thread that joins Egyptian gods and Irish myth, Celtic fables and Biblical deluge. Ashton is a master at seeing and creating patterns, and in this re-imagining of the deluge he rationalises the worldwide prevalence of flood myths in diverse and disconnected peoples.
It’s a topic that interests me from a different angle – so please forgive a little digression. My daughter is a Quaternary scientist whose studies covered the end of the last ice age – a mere 10,000 years ago – within the reach of tribal memories handed down from generation to generation. When so much water was locked up in glaciers squatting on land masses, sea-levels were far lower than today. Great Britain was not an island, the English Channel was a wide river basin along which the extended Rhine flowed all the way to the Atlantic. The Dogger Bank was not a shallow patch of the North Sea, but a patch of highland in a broad plain that stretched from mountains that became the Orkney Islands to the Scheldt. The sea level rise that came with a different kind of global warming was not a gradual affair. The sudden collapse of unstable ice sheets triggered tsunamis that washed away entire communities, imprinting a sense of waterborne disaster on collective memories. This then for me seems the likeliest origin of the universality of flood myths within human consciousness.
That digression aside, Ashton spins an entertaining tale that blends archaeology and myth in a telling that reads like one might an imagine a skald regaling a Norse lord in his feasting hall, or a bard singing in a Celtic tavern.
‘I, Kane’ by Laura M. Hughes
I’d just read this twitter thread about the danger of Donald Trump before I picked up Lost Lore story #8 and read the protagonist pronounce “the imminent fall of the world you call ‘Earth’.” The one known as Kane goes on: “My tale is one of fatal hubris (aren’t they all) and tells how mankind worked to bring about its own declension through pursuit of an absurd conviction: namely, that one has the right to impose one’s ideology upon others using fear, fire and lead.” I have to hope that real life and the story do not follow too closely on from this startling opening.
In Kind Hearts and Coronets, the framing scenes feature a protagonist on the eve of his execution reflecting on Johnson’s saying that imminent death “concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The same is true of Hughes’ eponymous hero, the mysterious but radiantly powerful creature known as Kane. In some subterranean cavern on one of the most inauspicious dates in human history, the chained Kane delivers his final testimony to an interrogator and a dutiful scribe – determined to be as precise as any court stenographer. The tale is presented as the scribed record of every word and utterance of the mighty Kane, down to the last sigh.
As such, this is a powerful and entertaining first-person story carried by the mellifluous voice of Kane. Hughes creates a convincing and humorous persona for her strange hero, at once charming yet pompous, courteous yet overbearing and delightfully, ingenuously oblivious of the effect he is having on the two attendants in his last hours. A fascinating story that sweeps the reader along so well they would have stayed in that underground prison just to hear Kane roll out more lines like this as he describe one hapless human: “It appears my earlier suspicions were correct: naught but jelly beneath a shallow crust of courtesy.”
‘The Huntress’ by Michael R Miller
Miller’s tale is of Elsie and her personal and professional struggles in a land of humans invaded by dragons – or at least, dragons in human form. It is a motif – almost a sub-genre – that I was aware of but have not read widely in. In The Huntress we do not see any dragons in full winged Smaug glory, and I am not sure if that is how Miller’s dragons operate. Instead, dragon becomes a cypher for a race of super-powered, arrogant, graceful humanoids. Not quite indestructible – but almost so, and determined to subjugate the puny humans they invaded.
In The Huntress, more so than in the other stories in Lost Lore, we have explicit world building and links to Miller’s main trilogy – to which this short forms part prequel, part back story to the main event that occurs seven centuries later.
We meet Elsie – eponymous heroine – returning to the hunt after a nine-month lay off. Cu-sih, the fearsome howling hounds of her homeland, are the least of her worries as circumstances conspire to test her powers of love, of command, and of compassion. Even the threat of the soon-to-be-legendary Dragon Prince Dronithir pales as, in the end, Elsie is forced to make her own “Sophie’s choice.”
‘The Prisoner’ by Phil Tucker
Although one of the shorter tales in the anthology, there is a visceral heat to Tucker’s story that grabs the reader. The challenge of leadership, of inspiring a disparate and desperate group of individuals, transcends genres. Tucker’s antagonist, young lordling Enderl, embraces his first opportunity to lead his father’s company of brutal soldiers – the Black Wolves – in battle. Whether his enthusiasm lasts, or is even shared by the men, is for the reader to discover. But, in the course of a few hours of action, Tucker skilfully depicts Enderl’s transition as he tries to meld his idealism with the brutal pragmatism of battle.
Tucker writes well, with several lines to catch the eye – and this one appealed particularly: “The portcullis was rising like the skirt of a withered hag grimly intent on displaying her goods.”
‘A Simple Thing’ by Bryce O’Connor
The difference between writing in the first person point of view or third person point of view, for me, is like the difference between acting and directing. First person stories are carried by the quality of the protagonist’s voice, which must be distinct from an author’s voice. O’Connor manages this superbly in a tale of an assassin reflecting on his first kill. Not since I read Polansky’s Low Town series have I finished reading a story before realising I did not know the protagonist’s name, neither heard it nor needed to, so convincing is the voice that carried me rapidly through a meticulously planned contract.
Written as the opening entry in a hopefully soon to be available full journal, the anonymous assassin’s tale not only gripped me with the sense of foreboding that only truly meticulous plans can instil, but also had me stopping to note lines of particular delight.
“It is only the assassin, however, who can slip a blade up the shield-bearer’s ass and convince him he swallowed it.”
“My walker was … a creature of habit. Such men are a rare and ripe fruit in my profession.”
“There is a moment in most men’s lives where they come to accept what it is they are, wherever it is the adventure of life has led them.”
For me, that is an impressive hit rate of memorable lines for a novel, let alone a short story.
‘Palesword’ by T L Greylock
I was acquainted with Greylock’s world of fjords and Norse Gods through having read Raef Skallagrim’s Odyssey in The Blood-Tainted Winter. This Lost Lore short story explores the backstory to one significant relic that coloured Skallagrim’s tale – the Palesword.
Greylock’s protagonist, Eyja – fisherman’s daughter and would-be priestess – is a feisty individual who we glimpse at different stages in her search to achieve and to belong within her strained community. It is always refreshing to see female characters like Eyja, and Gunnlief the shieldmaiden, leading the story to its denouement with agency and independence.
Some of them do not acquit themselves so well in the face of Eyja’s fierce determination – as captured in this couple of lines:
“Help me, Kolli, or watch. I care not. But do not think to tell me what is best for me.”
“Eyja saw Kolli in the crowd, saw the cowardice in his eyes.”
‘The Light in the Jungle’ by Jeffrey Hall
The opening of Jeffrey Hall’s taut short story is pure Dungeons and Dragons. An ill-sorted party of adventurers stand on the threshold of an epic ruin determined to plunder the treasures of a lost people. There is even a scene later on in the story which put me very much in mind of the cover of my original player’s handbook.
However, Hall’s world is sharply different from anything Gary Gygax imagined. The five different characters quickly and naturally reveal their individualities of personality, of power, of race. Hall does not ram their otherness down the reader’s throats with lengthy descriptions; instead, we glean that from references to whiskers and tusks and tongues that deviate from normal human experience. I liked Laughs, the character who can talk to plants far more persuasively than he talks to women (insert your own Prince Charles joke here).
The character’s motivations are as diverse as their natures, each seeking something different from the flawed ruins of Hathis. The leader, Scrap, is prepared to gamble anything in seeking the priceless treasures of his lost family.
Hall conveys effectively some distinctive features of an imaginative other world – systems of magic and denizens of evil that may tempt many a reader into exploring more of his writing.
‘Black Barge’ by J. P. Ashman
John Wayne first rode to cinematic glory as the Ringo Kid in the film Stagecoach – an eclectic collection of characters journeying in peril across an old fashioned wild wild west (a milieu now powerfully re-imagined in the brilliant Hostiles – but that’s another review).
Ashman’s protagonist, Tips, doesn’t walk quite as tall as Big John, on account of being a gnome, and rather than a stagecoach Tips and her small family ride a steam powered barge down a canal. But even a journey along a leisurely waterway can encounter hostile intent and even a small barge can hide some big secrets. Ashman writes lively action sequences spinning a nice turn of phrase: “The well-kept engine did what the unkept cleaver had not and finished its victim.”
References to the main work creep in as ties between the boat crew and one of Black Cross’s key characters slowly emerge from within the barge’s capacious hold.
‘Making a Killing’ by David Benem
The Dead Messenger is a strange name for a strange inn and, at one point, set me in mind of the dead letter boxes that were such a feature of John Le Carre’s spy thrillers. Fencress Fallcrow is stepping up in the world, or down depending on your moral perspective, and teams up with the redoubtable Karnag Mak Ragg to take on the next stage in her career: to pursue the dark rewards of dark work. But as the innkeeper observes: “The dark work always bloodies more hands than those doing it.”
Fencress is a resourceful young woman, and – in this engaging little short – displays her subtle skills and inventiveness while she considers whether she has the resolve for the work ahead. One wonders which will put up more of a struggle, the target or her conscience.
‘The First Thread’ by Alec Hutson
Jhenna is a consort of the Emperor and Prince Ma is his son raised in a tradition that believes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong – so Prince Ma must be pretty strong.
Superstition and court politics intermingle in a story flavoured with the orient. Disastrous portents call for extreme measures, and Jhenna – silent witness to both natural tragedies and the imperial response – is haunted by what she sees. Prince Ma, unlike his father, is determined to change not just how things are done, but to change things that have been done.
The world building is convincing. I like the logic to the four warlocks of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, appointed for life like American Supreme Court judges, but promoted in turn. Hutson writes well, fluid prose carrying the reader along – but, in First Thread, as in all good stories, things are never quite as they appear. Those who pull at a loose thread risk unravelling an entire jumper.
With so many quality stories it is difficult to pick a favourite, but I would say that Bryce O’Connor’s “A Simple Thing” is my primus inter pares.