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Book Review: Sails and Sorcery edited by W. H. Horner

* Genre: Fantasy
* ISBN: 0971360898
* ISBN-13: 9780971360891
* Format: Paperback, 420pp
* Publisher: Fantasist Enterprises
* Pub. Date: August 2007

When it comes to fantasy anthologies, the short stories can often be hit or miss. You might get some great stories worthy of a Nebula or World Fantasy Award, or you might get a real dog, better for wastepaper when training your new puppy. Even when anthology has well known names, the editor (poor soul) might have been forced to take some of their not-so-good work, just so he/she can use their name on the cover. So when a reviewer like me takes on the task of reviewing an anthology, it can often come with some amount of trepidation.

When I first began reading Sails and Sorcery, I began to think to myself that my trepidation was justified. The initial stories contained in this 28 story collection were at best average and at worst, rather dull. While some of the stories had really good ideas and exhibited creativity the execution was uniformly bad. Bu before I get into that, let me first tell you, dear reader, what Sails and Sorcery is.

Sails and Sorcery is an anthology subtitled �Tales of Nautical Fantasy�. If that isn�t enough to go on for you, let me describe. Essentially, all of the stories contained in this novel mix together seafaring when sails ruled the waves, with the fantasy elements often closely associated with the sea such as selkies, water wizards, sea sprites and the like. Of course, because of the creativity mentioned before, some of these stories get real creative, and mix new elements of fantasy and seafaring to create some pretty neat stories. Chun Lee, in the story Stillworld: Sailing to Noon even manages to weave in an element of science fiction and star travel with the story (although the execution was a little rough around the edges). But still a creative concept in the main. But the majority of the story sticks to fantasy and seafaring, shunning any sort of science fiction elements and giving the reader straight up fantasy with magic, ghosts and all the great things that differentiate it from its kissing cousin science fiction. So Sails and Sorcery is what the title claims, the cleaving together seafaring and fantasy.

Now, one might imagine that after reading so many seafaring stories, that the reader might get a little burned out, or find some repetition in storytelling. And you would be right. But fortunately, W. H. Horner, the editor, did a smart thing, and put the average to poor stories in the front of the volume, and the great stories to the back. At about the thirteenth story (Cassias Song by T. Borreegard) the quality of the tale telling really picks up. In the remaining 15 stories you have such short story luminaries as Paul S. Kemp (The Spinner), Elaine Cunningham (a ghost story called Dead Men Tell No Tales, Lindsey Duncan (Currents and Clockwork), and James M. Ward (with a Halcyon Blithe story). Their stories are filled with the quality tale-telling I have come to expect. They are masters of their crafts, and have given Horner some good material to include in this anthology from a rather small and unknown press. There are also a few other notable authors who I had not heard of before, but whose stories I enjoyed Renee Stern (Hostage), Chris Stout (a chilling tale called The Medusa), Danielle Ackley-McPhail (a selkie tale called Consigned to the Sea), and Jeff Houser (Rum Runners the only humorous tale in the bunch, with a great ending I didn�t see coming) all tell a great story.

As I�ve said, anthologies can be hit or miss. You have twenty-eight stories to choose from in the collection. Some are poor, some of average quality, and some were a real treat to read. And that is the way of anthologies. But the one thing all these stories do have is the desire to reach out and create stories that really explore the mysteries of the briny deep. Each tale, whether a horror, word and sorcery, epic style, or humorous really brings out the sound of the call of the sea. For some it is doom, for others it is the way to happiness, to other treasure, and still others the path of true love. But to each of the characters and stories in Sails and Sorcery: Tales of Nautical Fantasy, the sea has meaning, and its power and vibrancy are deeply entwined into the human experience exemplified by these tales.

I can recommend some of the stories, some with trepidation, and some I would say pass on. But once thing is certain, some of these stories feel like Robert E. Howard stories, some have the ethereal feel of a Neil Gaiman tale, and some are truly unique in my experience.

The illustrations by Julie Dillon (who also did the cover) are great, and really set the mood for the stories that follow without giving anything away. Although the opening on for The Spinner by Paul S. Kemp has the central figures amputations on the wrong sides. That’s a little bit of an oops, but doesn’t detract from the quality of it or the other great black and white illustrations.

I did not like the font setting for the titles that Horner used, as it felt rather gothic, not really like I would picture a seafaring font. Perhaps a ships wheel for O’s might have captured it a little better. But then again, maybe that is just too corny. Still I didn’t like what was used, as it would be better for a series of gothic tales in my opinion. Still, it is well laid out, and easy for the eye to read.

The book might be little hefty in price ($23 US) for the quality of the fiction here, but then again, that is less than a dollar a story not including the forward and afterword, so maybe not so much. The anthology varies so wildly from good story to bad that you are simply going to have to take the dross with the gold, if your interest is at all piqued. I won�t recommend you read this unless you really want to. My reason for doing so was the so many of my favorite Forgotten Realms authors were appearing in it, there were also a few authors whose work I had read in Black Gate, so I thought I would give it a shot. I was rewarded by those authors as I had expected. Along the way, I found a couple others whose other work I want to look into, and there are a few who I will avoid like the plague from now on, unless something drastic happens.

So I think I will give this anthology an overall rating of 5/10 as it is about a 50/50 split between good and bad stories. You will have to decide if the voyage through Scylla and Charbydis is worth the treasure contained herein.