Heroic Visions. Warning: Contents May Not Be As Advertised On Cover.

Heroic Visions. Nice title. And take a look at that cover. No, really, we’re going to come back to that. Take a good look. Okay, moving on to the Introduction: The editor, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, seems embarrassed to be doing this, as if editing an anthology of heroic fantasy was more a paycheck than a labor of love, and she wants you to know she is above such trash. In fact, she’s damn well going to do something about it, you Philistine, you knuckle-dragging S&S fan. I think I will avoid engaging with the introduction (from 1983, though rather au courant in content.) Let me merely state that I do not concur. But, to provide an example of JAS’s thinking, I’ll quote part of a paragraph.

Before I do, an aside.There are many other assertions made within the intro, to which I object, but I’m not writing these web log posts to be disagreeable. I think I’ve demonstrated that primarily I write these anthology reviews to celebrate Swords-and-Sorcery, not demean it. I’ll be up front, I’m not going to enjoy writing this post. For the most part, I have no objection to the stories printed in Heroic Visions on their own individual merits. Most are quite good. But, as we go along, take the occasional look at that cover. Consider the title, Heroic Visions. Heroic. Thus endeth the aside, and here follows the quote from the introduction. Consider it as a representative example of JAS’s tastes and opinions, and reach your own conclusion.

“Heroic fantasy, in recent decades, has seemed to be epitomized by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, and this is a sad state of affairs. The millennia-old heritage of magical and heroic tales does not begin or culminate in the rather simplistic fictions of the pulp era or the current, slavish imitations thereof. Howard’s work is admirable; he was surprisingly well read, and invested his stories with the hodge-podge of an amature historian or Harold Lamb fan, creating something primal, evocative, intriguing. Stylistically, he was weak.”  [The damning with faint praise continues for a few more sentences.]

So, what sort of stories does JAS think are properly heroic visions, suitable for more refined tastes? Let’s find out, shall we.

The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars. Fritz Leiber. A surprisingly solid first selection. One of the grand masters himself. This story is part of the final Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collection, The Knight and Knave of Swords. But this choice does represent a bit of a head fake. Leiber has, at this point, taken the Duo in a different direction. This is not the place to consider his reasons, that his own ruminations on age or personal mortality, etc. might have steered his interests onto a new path. Reviewing the story qua story, I can say it is a lesser — and slow paced — tale of the Twain, while still retaining enough of the Leiber touch to render the experience a leisurely pleasure rather than a trudge. Unfortunately, that glacial pace detracts from the forward driving momentum I prefer in S&S and related heroic fiction. The Twain are, in fact, generally pawns in this story, not fully in charge of their own actions. This deprivation of agency undermines the heroism of the characters at a fundamental level. Instead of a heroic visions, this is more of a mediation on maturity and decline. And, to ensure I’m addressing story issues rather than personal preferences — I must note that the motivating incident goes unresolved. The story lacks a narratively satisfying ending. I’ll have to check my copy of Knight and Knave to see if Leiber addresses this in one of the subsequent stories.

Sister Light, Sister Dark, Jane Yolen. There is the backbone of a solid S&S story here. The premise is weird and interesting — the temporarily corporeal and partially independent shadow self as battle companion — and in general the story is entertainingly told without excessive padding. But the framing devices are authorial self-indulgence, and the bald-faced gender politics therein are unnecessary and off-putting. Still, despite the drawbacks, a decent yarn.

Tales Told to a Toymaker. Phyllis Ann Karr. A fine, vintage 80s fantasy tale. PAK displays deft world-building skills and precise control of language. The device of a traveler telling an old friend anecdotes of his adventures works well enough; imagine one of your less reliable Veteran buddies spinning “No shit, there I was” tales. All that said, there is no story here, and what there is ain’t S&S. Heroic fantasy? Perhaps as a courtesy. After all, I did enjoy reading it.

Prophecy of the Dragon. Charles E. Karpuk. This is an atmospheric work, evocative of the Far East. It is a sequence of gorgeous watercolors, picking out details that tell the story while perfectly maintaining the mood and setting. An admirable piece. Alas, not an entertaining one. I do credit the two main characters with bravery. This is indeed a heroic vision, but it isn’t one that engrosses me. Shame. Perhaps in a differently themed anthology it would work better; providing the proper surrounding for the artwork seems an appropriate consideration for this particular story.

Before the Seas Came. F.M. Busby. Another tale with a Far East setting. A promising beginning, trailing off into disappointment. This is partly due, I think to the detachment necessary to the third-person omniscient, stylized “story teller” voice Busby employs. Partly also due to forcing an agenda onto the story. Sometimes doing so weakens the willing suspension of disbelief. I think a more straightforward tale — sans gender politics and absent fluttering virtue flags — would have worked better. But, this is the story he wanted to tell, and I don’t want to be too critical of an artist expressing himself. The story is — fine. It had its highlights near the end; heroic enough. This is one of those stories told in synopses, sections reading like chapter outlines for a larger work. I think this might have worked better as a novel.

Thunder Mother. Alan Dean Foster. Leave it to an old pro like Foster to deliver the goods. I’ve never considered him a practitioner of S&S, but this quasi-historical heroic fantasy compares well to some of the examples found in 60s and 70s anthologies. How did a throwback like this slip through JAS’s filter? The ‘weird tale’ ancestry shines through in this story of Incas, Conquistadors, and ancient magic. Short and sweet.

Dancers in the Time-Flux. Robert Sliverberg. Silverberg contributes a scintillating, novel science fiction story. I suppose JAS figured that if Robert Silverberg writes a story for you, you just accept it, even if he’d mailed it to the wrong editor and sent the one intended for a heroic fantasy collection to, say Asimov’s. This tale is, indeed, a vision. And there are suggestions of heroism of a sort about it. In some respects, this is the most entertaining piece in the book. As to why it is in the book, I remain uncertain.

Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. Joanna Russ. I’m sure this mannered paean to women writers of the nineteenth century is brilliant. But what is it doing in an anthology with this cover? (Go ahead, take another gander at that barbarian warrior, cowled thief, and Death waiting menacingly in the background.) I’ve long since realized that I’ve been conned by the old bait-and-switch, but really now. There are limits.

The Nun and the Demon. Grania Davis. I wanted to like this more than I ultimately did. The payoff of combat against a supernatural foe and the quasi-ironic tragic/horror story ending wasn’t quite worth the slog to get there. Trimming the lengthy first act would have helped. Adding in a Hong Kong style martial arts training scene might have livened it up and added a touch of verisimilitude (if verisimilitude is the appropriate word in this context) to the fight of a slender, untrained girl against a powerful demon. Still, by the standards set by most stories in this book, this is a reasonably heroic vision. Sorry, I really don’t want to be this negative.

Vovko. Gordon Derevanchuk. How did this get in here? Action/adventure S&S riffing on Slavic legend. Skin changers, water demons, a monstrous child, magic, a descent into the underworld. And, did I mention action? Finally, a story that seems to belong beneath the cover of this book. A bit late, if you ask me. Only one story left.

The Monkey’s Bride. Michael Bishop. And, we’re back, after that brief hiccup of a genuine piece of heroic fiction. Just to remind you what JAS thinks of the field, here’s an excerpt from her intro to Michael Bishop: “In a field — a genre if you will — more and more dominated by writers whose styles are more suited to comic book scripting or exploitation film screenplays, MIchael Bishop is a rarity indeed.” I’ll leave that right there for you to digest. Moving on The Monkey’s Bride: A well written, moderately humorous piece of fantasy/magical realism, with a deliberately ambiguous — though suggestive ending. Fittingly, there is nary a hint of heroic fantasy about the ultimate story. Got a few chuckles out of it, so there’s that.

Summing up: I’m okay with things not being for me. But please, be up front about the nature of the work. Don’t provide a suggestive title such as “Heroic Visions” and slap a colorful S&S cover promising action and supernatural antagonists onto a book whose very mission is to thumb its nose at those of us who enjoy such material. I want to reiterate that I genuinely enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology. But, and this is important, CONTEXT MATTERS. I don’t like to be duped. I spent money on a book I wouldn’t otherwise have purchased. So, good job Ace’s marketing department, I guess.

Now I’m too grumpy to promote my own work. Grrr. See you next week.