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Book Review: Return of the Sword edited by Jason M. Waltz

* Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Short Fiction
* ISBN: 0982053606
* ISBN-13: 978-0982053607
* Format: Paperback, 344pp
* Publisher: Rogue Blades Entertainment
* Pub. Date: March 2008

The Return of the Sword is the first anthology published by the newly minted Rogue, itself the publishing arm of the formerly defunct and recently revitalized Flashing Swords e-zine. Giving itself the byline “An Anthology of Heroic Adventure” Return of the Sword is editor Jason M. Waltz’s collection of 19 new stories, one classic reprint, and one article that look at the character of the hero, particularly as he appears in the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy. In Waltz’s introduction to the anthology, he writes that “heroes continue to do the ordinary in extraordinary times and do the extraordinary in ordinary times.”

The stories contained in Return of the Sword manage to show that truth in many ways, with varied success.

The anthology begins with a female protagonist in “Altar of the Moon” a story by Stacey Berg that thinks about the problems inherent in the magical weapons that heroes use. What this hero is forced to do to quell the magic in her sword may surprise you. Berg’s writing is fluid, and this very short story is an interesting take on the magical weapon trope.

“The Wyrd of War” by Bill Ward is a graphic battle story. It is sad for its protagonist and the ending will wrench you heart. Ward has his protagonist make a fearsome decision, one I hope no one in this modern age must face, although I fear that in some ways it is more common than you think. The story has repercussions in the euthanasia debate. (Likely this is something the author did not foresee, but I came away thinking about it.)

“The Last Scream of Carnage” by Phil Emery uses strange word placement, replacement of quotes with italics, and a sense of raw emotion to tell the story of a heroes sacrifice. Waltz’s “editors choice” it is the most groundbreaking story in the anthology. Although groundbreaking in style, I found its narrative difficult to follow and I did not enjoy this story, for all its creativity.

I also disagree with Waltz’s decision to have an “editor’s choice” since in reality, he chose all of the stories contained in the anthology, and to elevate one above all the rest is unnecessary and distracting. His job as editor is to choose stories readers will enjoy, not tell us which one we should like best, as our tastes are not necessarily going to conform to his. His “editor’s choice” decision led to this story being the only one that is illustrated and I’d like to say I feel slighted on behalf of the other writer’s who contributed work to this anthology.

“The Battle of Raven Kill” by Jeff Draper is a story of self-sacrifice. The story is one man’s last stand against a horde of barbarians. Draper weaves an elegant and protracted fight scene that is thrilling to read.

Nicholas Ian Hawkins’ “What Heroes Leave Behind” is about an aged warrior. Tolasun is a hero who has lived longer than his legend. Hawkins writes a believable tale about a warrior who comes full circle, and how when heroes die, there are those who will pick up the mantle. The “shadow” that is part of the story is nicely woven in, and Hawkins makes that spectre an interesting and unique foe.

“Fatefist at Torkas Nahl” is an alright tale. David Pitchford pits the leaders of three opposing armies against each other, a unique type of battle, but it was overly complex, and the Fatefist himself was inexplicably obtuse. This story was neat to read, but I turned its final page not feeling that I had really been told much of a story, just a sequence of events.

Ty Johnston delves into the hero versus fate story with “Deep in the Land of Ice and Snow”. It is a story that has some of the feel of legend. Ultimately though, this story would have better served as a prologue to a larger novel or novella.

“Mountain Scarab” looks into the “knight in shining armor” story. Although in this case, the knight is less than shining, and his reasons for saving the fair damsel are unknown even to him. Jeff Stewart is reprising a character that he has used before, but he story is enjoyable and the way the protagonist wins his battle is quite different if a little too much deus ex machina.

Angeline Hawkes “Lair of the Cherufe” was the least likable story of the anthology. There are glaring plot holes in her story (such as the need for the blood of royal virgins to satiate the monster’s desire. If this were true, it is unlikely the king would ever have let his daughter near the man who worshiped the monster!) It is also is two stories crammed together into one. One is about the search for a sword and the other the killing of the monster. The sword is necessary for the second to be completed, but the tale of its finding either needed to be expanded to hold more interest or done away with altogether. Hawkes also throws in new confrontations with no foreshadowing. (The guardians of the lava monster.) The story ended up being poorly written even in a subgenre that is deeply tolerant of such things as I have mentioned.

“To Be a Man” by Robert Rhodes is a little crude in its content, but it is an interesting flip-flop of the barbarian chases damsel tale. The laughs Rhodes gets for his tale are more likely ones of discomfort that true laughter. Still, it is unique and there are many men who would not have done as the protagonist did for the entire world.

A collection and expansion of some of his blog posts, “Storytelling” is a nonfiction article by E. E. Knight which has a lots of very specific tips and tricks for the budding writer. With several novels to his credit, Knight’s advice is worth reading for any aspiring writer.

James Enge gives readers of Black Gate a new Morlock Ambrosius story in “The Red Worm’s Way”. Though not as strong a story as those in Black Gate is still true to form and continues to entertain. New readers of Morlock should go back and read the first stories in Black Gate.

“To Destroy all Flesh” by Michael Ehart is another story with female heroes. Though this story is not particular exciting, it serves as an excellent introduction to Ehart’s characters, stories if whom have recently been collected into a single volume. I was intrigued enough that I might want to read Ehart’s other stories. His writing is fluid and his characters heroic with a twist.

Thomas M. MacKay looks at the use of rage by the hero in “Guardian of Rage”. MacKay is using a character from other stories he has published and unfortunately what results is a character that those who have not read those prior stories can get attached to. While I applaud the protagonist’s heroic actions the element of rage that MacKay introduces is not distinguishable from the standard behavior of the hero and so adds little to the story.

Christopher Heath tackles the stereotype of the “brute barbarian” in “Claimed by Birthright:. Heath’s story owes a lot to the Conan tales (he even uses the word “Cimmerian”) but twists it just slightly to allow wit combined with brute force to win the day. Not a stand out story, but still solid and entertaining.

Nathan Meyer’s “The Hand that Holds the Crown” is a story about betrayal. There is actually no clear hero, and I am a bit surprised it was included in this anthology. Still, it is a story with not one, but two surprising twists, and I enjoyed how it ended.

“The Dawn Tree” by S.C. Bryce is another story about betrayal, but this time about a hero being tricked into betraying himself. This was an excellent story, and Bryce’s concept of the Dawn Tree ushering in the new epoch is creative.

Allen B. Lloyd and William Clunie’s collaborative story “An Uneasy Truce in Ulam-Bator” is the only truly humorous tale in this collection. It introduces two characters that Clunie and Lloyd plan to write more about. I look forward to the stories these two will tell with this unlikely pair of companions.

Steven Goble writes a tale of a heroes driving force in “The Mask Oath”. In this case, it is not revenge that drives the hero. This is a tale of the noble hero, whose heroism comes from honor, justice, and love of country. It subtly praises the characteristics we prize so highly in our own armed forces.

“Valley of Bones” by Bruce Durham is a story about the front line soldier. The heroism and selflessness displayed by the protagonist is the same we all would aspire to have in our own lives. Durham’s story exemplifies how anyone may be a hero given the right motivation and the right set of circumstances, the type of hero who says that “I only did what anyone would do.”

The final story in this anthology is one of Harold Lamb’s Cossack historical fantasy stories. This is good story for people unfamiliar with Lamb to read to get a sense of those prolific but until recently forgotten author. Now, thanks to Howard Andrew Jones and Bison Press we can read the stories of Lamb again, or for the first time.

Overall, this anthology is enjoyable. It has some stories that are less the stellar and I have pointed them out as well as I could. Readers should also know that although this story is about heroes, it is also mostly about heroes of the sword and sorcery variety. These are the heroes who most often tend to fight for gold, women, and glory. So in some ways, the stories can get repetitious because the same tropes are encountered again and again. This does not mean that he stories are poorly written, quite the contrary, but the reader might want to break up the reading of these stories.

If you like sword and sorcery fantasy, you will like this anthology. If Conan style stories bore you or seem to simplistic, there are no stories here for you. Everyone who writes will benefit from E. E. Knight’s writing suggestions, but they can be found in another form on his blog. Overall, I enjoyed the anthology and read through it quite quickly, proving to me that I was having fun. And that is what this first offering from Flashing Swords Press is meant to do. Return of the Sword is meant to entertain, and it succeeds, for the most part.