Unfettered III (Anthology Review – Part 1)
Lacking health insurance when he was diagnosed with cancer, Shawn Speakman asked friends in the science fiction and fantasy writing community to donate short stories he could use to counter mounting medical debt. The result was Unfettered, an anthology offering tales from some of the best authors working today.
Now, in Unfettered III, Speakman continues to pay forward the aid he received, raising money to combat medical debt for SF&F artists and authors. He has gathered together a great mix of new and favorite writers―free to write what they like―the result a powerful new anthology perfect for all readers.
Below is a story-by-story review of the first half of the anthology. Part two will follow in the coming weeks.
Each story in Unfettered III is prefaced by a short authorial piece setting the context and inspiration for that contributor’s piece story. It is an interesting feature that I hadn’t noticed in other anthologies and brings into sharp relief the two main camps into which the contributors to this substantial and varied collection can be divided.
The majority have taken the chance to give us a deeper insight into one of their main works through a related short story. Either the back story to a much-loved character, an insight into a key event seen from a different minor character’s perspective, or some well-crafted extract that fell to the cutting room floor in the brutal cut and thrust of editing.
A minority of contributors have stepped entirely outside their previous oeuvre to deliver a standalone tale of one form or another.
To be fair, whatever their origins, there are several tales which straddle that simple divide – birthed in a larger milieu yet with the vibrancy of a self-contained story that begs neither antecedents nor successors. There are others where the ending more explicitly beckons you to follow the author into the greater work on which the story drew.
I do like to pass comment on each individual story, but will have to digest this 748 page tome in two parts.
The Heart Box by Callie Bates
This is a poignant little standalone tale, and a lovely opening story, as a man called Ed takes drastic steps to insulate himself from tragedy. Bates writes well with several lines that caught my eye, like:
They did not want to be in the aging building beside the concrete bordered river with the carpet that smelled of time.
The plot resonates in different ways, a touch of Edgar Allan Poe’s the tell-tale heart, or the picture of Dorian Grey. While Bates claims the inspiration came from the third pirates of the Caribbean film – Davy Jones Locker – it also put me in mind of the first film and how even the immortal Captain Barbossa missed the ability to feel. Most of all it reminds me of the gentle film A Ghost Story in its evocation of the pain to be felt in moving on or staying here.
Everybody Said it Would Hurt by Lev Grossman
We glimpse Grossman’s larger works as we follow the travails of a student of magic called Plum working on a project with a dimensional challenge in a bid to win a prestigious academic prize.
Grossman demonstrates a kind of scientific magic reminiscent of Kvothe in The Name of the Wind – there is method and process and spells and cantrips are combined like components in a circuit of complicated electronics.
In a world that makes geekery out of magic, Plum is an endearing geek as well as a magician.
The world outside of Brakehills made her nervous… she had not fully parsed the rule-set of the outside world yet.
Given its setting, the story’s tension draws on the viciously genteel politicking of academia, more than outright physical peril, but Plum and her interactions with Professor Coldwater make for an entertainingly drawn tale, sufficiently detached from the main story to feel like a standalone.
A Thousand Years by Mark Lawrence
Lawrence portrays a formative episode in the early life of one of his most popular characters, Snorri the fearsome Viking, brave foil to Jalan Kendeth’s cowardly lothario.
A tender towering sixteen year old, Snorri has already lost his father (you can find him hiding in Lawrence’s Road Brothers anthology) and also the love of his life who bequeathed him a child he fears to parent. This is the driving force to send Snorri off on a quest of Beowulf proportions to hunt down a fearsome troll-like creature that has been terrorising the northern side of the Fjord. With his friend Olaf wallowing in his wake, Snorri discovers – in a possibly subconscious authorial nod to the Beowulf epic – that it is the mother of the troll he most has to fear.
Among a Throng of Bilious Octogenarians by Delilah S Dawson.
Dawson’s hero Barthur knows he is destined to be a hero because he has been anointed with pixie snot. So begins the traditional tale of farmboy becomes king as it might have been reinvented by the Monty Python team.
As Barthur battles for guidance and endorsement from the Elders I was reminded of Eric Idle assuring the multitude in The Life of Bryan – “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”
Much of the comedy comes from Barthur’s attempts to make himself understood in a to a group of half-deaf, soup-slurping, scarf-knitting elders and to discover whether pixie snot is either a necessary or a sufficient condition of heroic status.
Blood of the Sardaukar by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson
My previous exposure to the epic Dune had been a glimpse of some of the original (1984) film, most memorable for Sting in a bizarre set of winged grey briefs.
This excursion into the world of Dune follows one soldier Jopati in a key moment of treachery – the attack on Duke Leto’s House Atreides. The tale alternates Jopati’s troubled back story with the events of the attack and brings us to an understanding why – at a key moment Jopati plays a part that determines the course of the wider novel. In giving screen time to an anonymous but crucial bit part of the main storyline, this short reminds me of Rogue One (Starwars episode 3.5).
Allanon’s Quest by Terry Brooks
In a similar vein Brooks delivers not so much back-story as prologue to the Sword of Shannara with the druid Allanon searching out the last surviving heir of the Shannara bloodline who can wield their ancestor’s ancient sword.
Again my knowledge of Brooks’ main work is limited, but even in this prologue it is clear how it follows a Tolkien tradition. (Then again magic artefacts and lost heirs are a trope that many have drawn on and taken in different directions J). There is danger and darkness and treachery in what could have been added on as a fairly seamless chapter zero.
Kneeling Before Jupiter by David Anthony Durham
Durham takes the chance to put a different darker spin on the historical fiction he has previously written with this reimagining of Caesar’s Rome. The first-person point of view follows fifteen year old Publius, wealthy patrician on the brink of induction into adulthood. The historic elements are authentic – the fictional elements creep up more subtly on reader and protagonist alike as Publius awakens to just what exactly he has been inducted into.
Stripes in the Sunset by Seanan McGuire
McGuire’s standalone story is thought provoking but short – leaving the reader hungering for more. In N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy a vengeful sentient planet flexes its tectonic plates to rid itself of an infestation of humans. McGuire shows a different kind of push-back from mother Earth doubtless frustrated at how humanity has been trashing all her rich diversity. It also reminded me a little of the World War Z (the book not the film) in the way it presented aspects of a crisis surfacing and developing in different places across the world.
All that Glitters by Marc Turner
Turner blends those old favourites of pirates and dragons into a heady perilous goldrush by the seashore. Castella a thief and Araline a water mage collaborate in a bid to thread their own path to riches. The two women make for an engaging and credible partnership as they spend a windswept day outmanoeuvring the various men who try come between them and their fortune.
The Heir Apparent by John Gwynne
Gwynne gives us an insight into the history of a character Rhin from his Faithful and the Fallen series, though the story still sits well as a standalone. Rhin plays a chess like game with a captured giant as she waits to be named heir by her dying father.
Where some of the linked stories have shone a light on the world or the plot of the author’s major work, Gwynne chose to illuminate the darkness that swirls in the soul of one of his characters. The story stands well by itself let leaves the reader hungry to know more not so much of place or plot, as of Rhin and what she might become.
Dancing on the Edge by Deborah A Wolf
Wolf conjures up the desperate desert plight of her first person protagonist trapped by day away from the sun’s heat in a shadowy crevice with her crippled abusive husband and the rest of his nag of wives (a collective term I guess was invented by the overpowered patriarchy of the world). Like it’s heroine Yaela, this linked story stands well enough and string enough on its own two feet.
The magic – the shadows in which Yaela wraps herself to hunt and trap and brave the sun’s heat – the dance she weaves with another magician – are all conveyed with a touch as light and sure as a lizard’s foot on boiling sands.
The first-person narrative gives an additional intimacy, Yaela’s voice and tone running through the narrative that helps immerse the reader in a blunt simple world of persecution and discrimination – of marriage as slavery in a hostile environment. The reader years to cheer for the moment when Yaela will turn and Dance on the edge for herself and no-one else.
Prologue to Autumn’s Ghost by Todd Lockwood
Lockwood’s is one of the shortest stories in the collection, a single scene or prologue to the story that will unfold in the second volume of his series. Two dragon riders make camp in a search for a lost son, but there is more at stake here and at home than a missing child stolen away by a fanciful quest. When you have dragons the night is sure to catch fire.
Thasha’s Cure for Cabin Fever by Robert V.S. Reddick
We meet Thasha somewhat confused in a long sea journey where all the portholes are sealed and she is stuck below decks watching family and friends arguing over a jigsaw. The reader senses soon enough that something is adrift with reality. However, that perception dawns more slowly for Thasha, despite the efforts of others to send help or at least information into the place she is lost in.
I don’t want to write too many spoilers but Reddick himself describes it as a bridge between one completed series and what might come next.
I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the developing surrealism to Tasha’s situation and the allies that she found in unexpected places. Though there are complex threads knitting this short story to many elements of the preceding quartet the tale still manages to stand well enough alone – carried by its heroine and Reddick’s enchanting imagery,
How Not to Invade A Country by Anna Stephens.
Anna “the Hammer” Stephens – whose debut Godblind had scenes to make a grown man’s eyes water takes one of her favourite characters – Crys Tailorson (gambler, brawler, captain, lieutenant in that order) on a ride on the wild side of the frontier.
Stephens’ writing alternates nice images and coarse barrack-room metaphors:
Yet here he was, with dawn still blushing on the horizon.
Apparently none of these things meant one of Orril’s runny shits to Major Bedras.
In the story’s early stages I had a sense of Tailorson’s CO Major Bedras striding ahead with the ignorant certainty of Custer en route to The Little Big Horn. It would not be too much of a spoiler to suggest that all does not go well and Stephens conveys the frantic desperation of running hand to hand combat with the surety of one who has swung a sword or two in her time.
The Paper Man by Peter Orullian
This was my favourite story of the first half of the anthology, perhaps because it appealed so much to the writer in me. Indeed, it may resonate more with writers than readers. Orullian takes a different angle on Stephen King’s Misery in making horror out of a writer’s life and struggle. Writing it is clear is a torture as sharp and piercing as a paper cut.
Without quite plumbing the hobbling depths of King’s work there is something so apposite about an author with writer’s block being haunted by a blank sheet of paper. In this case the paper shapes itself into a curmudgeonly homunculous berating Orullian’s protagonist for his lack of productivity with the refrain You owe the paper.
There are other lines to smile at as they batter against the fourth wall.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” A pithy saying to comfort those who detour past college to start life.
Resting on his laurels, or maybe planting them was closer.
And finally then
I want to write, I need to write but what do I write?
Merchants have Maxims, by Cat Rambo
As I sit pondering the UK’s current political crises, it seems fitting to end this half of the review on a story about trade, trade gods, and establishing new markets. Dammit Brexit you hunt me down everywhere!
Rambo’s tale takes a bunch of shipwrecked merchants through an atmospherically described jungle to a temporary refuge to await passage back home. Rambo bleeds a lot of information efficiently into the narrative to ensure you start immersed in the story but also informed.
The world building has many nice touches, currency names for boats with each coin’s value in proportion to the size of the vessel it is named for. Merchants, like the protagonist Essa, are addicted to their journals as fervently as a modern teenager to their mobile phones.
Their sweaty sojourn in a humid jungle is brought to a crisis with a mysterious death and I do like a good Agatha Christie – in this case maybe Murder in the Amazon more than Murder on the Nile.
This is a well-crafted tale but it can still point a finger from fantasy back to our own grim real world of exploitation and advantage, not least in this line where one merchant leader defends the unbalanced status quo.
Money goes to the rich so then it will flow downward, administered by their wise hands.
Trickle-down economics works nowhere – but Cat Rambo’s story is an enchanting mix of the Marco Polo style exploration and more sinister psychological peril.
So here ends the first half of my review of Unfettered III – plenty of interest and variety to entertain and still another 370 pages to go!