Unfettered III (Anthology Review – Part 2)
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 second half of the anthology. You can read my review of the first half here.
And so – after a brief hiatus for SPFBO#4 duties – I come to complete my review of Shawn Speakman’s third Unfettered anthology. As with the first half there are a mix of linked and standalone stories, and – as a general observation – I found the standalones more satisfying. There are many excellent stories, but if I had to pick out my favourites in this half it would be:
- Seven by Naomi Novik
- The Stone Golem of Qual’jom by Jason Denzel
- Throwdown by Scott Sigler
However, there is much to admire in all of them, as I have noted below.
Of Anchor Chains and Slow Refrains and Light Long lost in the Darkness by Ken Sholes
Sholes takes two characters from his Requiem and Canticle books some twenty years back into a short prequel about Rudolfo and Gregoric’s piratical youth. Rudolfo, the rakish lord and prince, and Gregoric, his strong right arm, are on a quest to find a famous pirate and enlist with him for a journey or two.
As with others in the anthology, the reader must be swept along with glimpses of worldbuilding – shadows cast by the longer work into this short form. But the writing and characters are engaging enough. There is a moment where Rudolfo attempts to entice a slightly older woman in a tavern who has dismissed him as “too young and too poor” with the riposte that “I may be that book that is on the wrong shelf of the library.”
She returned the wink and leaned in. “An unfinished book, I fear, on a rather small library.” Then the woman moved even closer, her hands moving down the front of Rudolfo’s shirt toward his waistband. “On, I suspect, a rather short shelf.”
I do like a little innuendo!
Second Chances by Megan Lindholm
Lindholm is upfront with her reference to The Sixth Sense; her protagonist is a TV researcher who, like Bruce Willis’s young patient in the film of that name, can see dead people – a problem that comes up every now and then in her work dressing derelict housings for the very staged ministrations of a family of property developers at the heart of a reality-TV show. The writing is wonderfully credible, evoking not just scene, character and setting but the essential interrelationships in a production company.
More so than most, the reader can see this story translate into a haunted house film – perhaps because it is one of the few times a book has given me a genuine jump scare, as words leapt off the page at me as startling as any image.
The story’s strong start and wonderfully rendered characters deserved a fuller treatment than the short form can allow. I could have stayed in that house for many more pages and my only criticism is I found the end a little rushed as the story sought to tie itself up in a neat bow.
The Hidden by Tad Williams
Tad Williams offers us, not so much a standalone short story, or a piece related to an existing work, as an extract from “The Empire of Grass.”
We meet Derra living in a strange subterranean world, hiding and hoarding in a plan to escape her monstrous grandfather. Along the way she comes into conflict with a subcommunity with their own struggles. At one point in her experience I was sharply reminded of a key reveal in Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall.”
And there is also Viyeki – at this point in the tale quite detached from Derra– with the feel of a civil servant in his diplomatic language and fondness for form and ritual.
Inevitably the extract/story leaves loose ends untied but it nonetheless gives an intriguing flavour of Williams’ characters and the world they inhabit.
Throwdown by Scott Sigler
Sigler picks up in Unfettered III where he left off with Unfettered II, making this the second in a potential series of short stories about Lisa, a glass-throwing killer on the run. ‘Glass-throwing’ here means throwing lethal slivers of sharpened glass – the only weapon in a future world where all metal has wasted to rust.
I really enjoyed this story which combines both the sense of backstory you get with a series and the completeness of an arc you get from a standalone. While there were a few irksome typos – more so than elsewhere in the anthology – the central spine to the story held me tight. Lisa, trapped by obligation and circumstance, is forced into a true Mexican standoff, part gunfight, part duel. I daren’t say more than. Just – wow.
Sidekick by Carrie Vaughan
Vaughan places her first person protagonist all bewildered in a hospital bed, subject to baffling inquisition and dubious medication as she tries to recall how she got here and why the doctors want to ask all these questions about her absent enigmatic employer.
The menace jostles along with a sharpness of wit. Miss Smith protests that she is
“Just a secretary. A glorified secretary! I have a master’s degree in literature… I’ve read Finnegans Wake, but this is the only job I could get.”
“I don’t believe you,” the doctor says curtly. “No one’s read Finnegans Wake.”
At the same time there is a fear for Miss Smith – not unlike I felt for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Marathon Man, and the awful doubt as to whether there was anyone he could trust except himself.
Hawkeye by Patrick Swenson
Swenson offers us a fantasy mystery, which grew organically for him from its opening line. Jarrel, an investigator – with a distant and distracted hawk as his Dr Watson – must find a stolen artefact on which rests a fragile peace between nations. The magic in Swenson’s world should make it easy for the thief and the property to be retrieved, but something has gone very much awry in the order of things.
Although the magic develops with the story, Swenson avoids the deus ex machina with which gardened short stories can sometimes wrap themselves up. There is pleasingly sharp twist and a satisfying resolution to the mystery that would have graced a Sherlock Holmes tale.
The Spectral Sword by Ramon Terrell
Terrell’s protagonist, Shinobu, is tracking down a mysterious sword with the power to cut through and between dimensions, and an insistence on speaking to its wielder telepathically, as if Moorcock’s Stormbringer had been married with Pullman’s Subtle Knife.
What follows is a breathtaking switchback ride between worlds as Shinobu dodges pursuit from a fearsome monster that just refuses to die in this world or the next. The nonstop action leaves the reader and Shinobu with little time to catch their thoughts until the end, when a puzzle unravels itself.
Gold Light by Anna Smith Spark
Smith Spark’s story reads like a piece of lyrical Celtic mythology. The prose flows like quicksilver, richly evoking more of a sensation than a story. Yselta is sister to a king, and events play out around the tall tower from which Yselta mournfully views her city and world. It evoked in me a sense of the Lady of Shalott but without a mirror or a Lancelot, or of Suzanne Vega’s haunting ballad The Queen and the Soldier.
Her brother talks to dragons and draws Yselta into his dark covenant. One might ask what sacrifices it would take to command a dragon, or worse, to unbind oneself from that mutual obligation once it has been entered into.
The Stone Golem of Qual’jom by Jason Denzel
As an eternity unfolds in Denzel’s story, it is impossible not to feel empathy for a lump of stone. Golems are a rich vein for fantasy authors to explore – the fantasy equivalent of sci-fi’s robots with their incredible strengths, endless patience, blind obedience and the inevitable psyche-warping contradictions in seeking to protect without harming.
The first person perspective of golem stories enhances their poignancy, and as the eons stretch out before Denzel’s golem, I was reminded of H.G. Wells’ time traveller watching the millennia fly by in an instant of sitting on his machine, or David Lowery’s gently mesmerising film “A Ghost Story” starring Casey Affleck, described as a “singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence.” At times too, the golem’s experience evoked N.K. Jemisin’s depiction of a living, sensing planet in her Broken Earth trilogy.
A majestically sweeping evocation of the totality of existence in a single short story.
A Fire Within the Ways by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
There is an inherent difficulty in feeding in a story that, while large by the standards of the anthology, is a drop in the ocean of the epic Wheel of Time tale. A Fire within the Ways still works as a standalone – though it might work better still for those who have read the epic. However, be warned: this is not the missing scene, the additional chapter to the canon, but something of an alternative universe where the story and its characters followed a slightly different path and explore some endings that might have been.
Indeed, paths are very much the theme. A group of elite soldiers with their own factional worries embark on a desperate commando mission through dangerous paths “The Ways”. By nature, the Ways feel like a cross between interconnected stone lily pads and Stargate openings that carve shortcuts through different dimensions. By atmosphere, they feel something like the Mirkwood of The Hobbit; just as that place was once called Greenwood but turned grim and dark by corruption, so too there are hints of what The Ways once were and might become again after the Last Battle.
The soldiers battle on in their mission, with their channellers in attendance weaving magic with the utmost discretion. The party is led by Perrin, and Wheel of Time aficionados will understand better than me the lupine origins and references to his character and his ability to smell emotions in others.
This is a long short story, but it needs that space to give each of its characters sufficient airtime and their moment in the limelight. But it works well, and there are nice lines like this one describing trollochs:
“A horror that had too much beast to ever be tame, but too much man to ever be trusted.”
Seven by Naomi Novik
Novik’s standalone story struck home more sharply than most, not just for its quality but also for its poignant dedication to Kathy Speakman, who inspired it but did not get to read it.
I liked this one so much – a patriarchal society in an accidentally-named city of Seven, where master potters are revered with the same fervour as a modern pop star and the potters in turn aspire to be the one permitted to work with the lethal but alluring white clay. Grandmasters, once elevated to their lofty post, inevitably enjoy a few short years of intense but fantastic creativity (like Schubert in his period of remission) before an accumulation of injuries from sharps hidden within the white clay carries them off.
Into this small but perfectly formed fantasy world comes Kath, widow of a master potter, with children to feed and no means of support beyond bringing her husband’s unfinished stock to fire and sell. And standing-grim faced in defence of pottery proprieties is Grovin.
I love the writing; the gentle evocation of setting and character, of the value of art, of the differences in a man and a woman’s approach to peril – one blinded by opportunity, the other weighed by responsibility. This story stuck with me.
The Fire-Risen Ash by Shawn Speakman
Speakman builds a standalone tale in a world of the Annwn Cycle. We follow Richard McAllister and his fairy guide as one hazardous quest begets another, when the loot from one dangerously deceptive monster turns out to contain a most precious treasure that must be carried through dangerous forests to fulfil a prophecy.
McAllister is well served by Snedeker, who I imagined as a kind of feisty weaponised male version of Tinkerbell. Aderyn, a dour druid, is assigned to their party because of her expertise in the object and family connections in their destination.
There is plenty of action as the trio come under monstrous attack and are forced to dig deep into their reserves and beyond. The story throws up a few mysteries and resolves them neatly in a fitting and gripping denouement.
Unfettered III is an epic anthology, but looking back now at all 28 stories I would say my favourite – in a crowded field of excellence – is Dancing on the Edge by Deborah A. Wolf.
So, for your convenience, I’ve re-posted below my comments from part one of this mammoth review.
Dancing on the Edge by Deborah A. Wolf
Wolf conjures up the desperate desert plight of Yaela, 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 its heroine Yaela, this linked story stands well enough and strong 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 to help immerse the reader in a blunt, simple world of persecution and discrimination, of marriage as slavery in a hostile environment. The reader yearns to cheer for the moment when Yaela will turn and Dance on the edge for herself and no one else.