Discovery

This one came to as a gift from Henry Ram, regular reader of this blog, who has a story in the collection and whose weird westerns I’ve reviewed.

Since it had a story by Daniel J. West who had a piece in Tales of the Al-Azif, I decided to read it now.

Review: Discovery: A Challenge! Series Anthology of Heroic Tales, ed. Jason M. Waltz, 2017.

Challenge
Cover by V. Shane

Sword and sorcery or, as it’s called now, heroic fantasy, is not a genre I read a lot of. I don’t have anything against it. It’s just that I’d rather read other things. I do have fond memories of reading some of Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies in the 1970s when I was a kid. They led me to Michael Moorcock’s many novels. But, apart from those, I haven’t read a lot of it.

These stories have all the things I want out of sword and sorcery stories: heroic figures, beautiful women, giant spiders and snakes, mysterious ruins, meticulously described violence, and devious sorcerers. The writers all put me in their worlds to smell the dust, sweat in the jungles, freeze in winters, and gasp at wondrous magic.

The heroes and heroines sometimes fight to save whole peoples and sometimes just a single person. Sometimes they survive. Sometimes they don’t

Sometimes the worlds of the stories are in our past, sometimes our future, sometimes in a some when where the names have a familiar ring.

The challenge of the title was that every single author had to, somewhere in a heroic story, incorporate the cover image by V. Shane. Writing to a cover illustration is a fine pulp tradition.

A couple of stories may have stayed in my memory for only a couple of days, but I had a good time reading every single one.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a weird western here. “Someplace Cool and Dark” by Frederic Durbin has a couple of treasure hunters in the American West. They battle strange critters in caves to retrieve gold left behind by a mysterious and vaguely Lovecraftian race called the Old Ones. But the real enemy is a criminal gang seeking that same treasure and who ambushes the pair in town. It’s a tale of blazing guns, laconic men, and deep if understated friendship and loyalty. Durbin also contributes the sole non-fiction piece in the book, “The Writing of ‘Someplace Cool and Dark’”. It doesn’t add much and is half the length of the story.

And there’s a third Durbin piece, “A Fire in Shandria”. The old queen of an Amazonian society has been overthrown by her sister Azanah. Something like a police state has been created, and our heroine Ragaan runs afoul of it when her secret meetings with an imprisoned dragon she has a telepathic link with are discovered. Azanah fears it is the fulfillment of an old prophecy predicting her downfall and tries to kill Ragaan who then has to go on the run from her still loyal old comrades and free the deposed queen.

For me, both of Dubin’s tales were highlights of the book.

Keith J. Taylor’s “Witch with Bronze Teeth” doesn’t take place in the jungle setting you might expect from the cover illustration. Given my interest in the Crusading orders, including their spinoff in the Teutonic Knights, I was hoping they wouldn’t be the villains here. But they are, and medieval Lithuanians are fighting for their lives against them. Taylor focuses on the Knights as viewpoint characters though all will come to bad – and memorable –ends.

In heroic fantasy, you’ve got your warriors and your wizards, And, of course, you have thieves. Liridonia is one of the latter in Richard Berrigan’s “Fire Eye Gem”. At first she just wants the titular rock to bring her lover, who accompanies her as a panther, back to human form. Time is running out, he tells her. He’s growing more like an animal every day. But an African tribe is dying, and they need to the gem to survive. They’ve sent a legendary warrior to get the gem before Liridonia does.

I would argue that John Kilian’s “Inner Nature” doesn’t exactly fulfill the heroic remit. The narrator is a dying man from sort of a Roman-like Empire that has penetrated into kind of a sub-Saharan Africa. He’s the sole survivor, mortally wounded, of that expedition. I suppose his relations with a woman in a fabled jungle city represent a sacrifice of a sort, but most of the story’s vigor comes from hearing about what happens before he lays dying.

The Ash-Wood of Celestial Flame” by Gabe Dybing was one of the book’s stories that left my mind quickly. Heroine Wuf-Pei is sent on a quest to find the celestial light that can save her fellow women back home as they are threatened by something coming out of the village’s quarry. I suspect the story’s jumping about in time and having two lovers as living symbols of cosmic forces may account for it not sticking with me longer.

The challenge that created the book came with prizes, and Frederik Tor’s “World Inside the Walls” got third place. A man fleeing from thugs in a city enters a deserted compound where the remains of the previous inhabitants, slaughtered years ago, are still about. But he does meet one lone survivor, a girl. It’s a simple and poignant love story with lots of fighting.

I liked the background for Daniel R. Robichaud’s “In the Ruins of the Panther People” in what seems to be a future where advanced science (though still nothing we can do and with a steampunkish air about it) is indistinguishable from sorcery and many of the names sound like corruptions of those from the European Middle Ages. The story has a set up similar to “Inner Nature” – the hero is the sole survivor of an expedition to a jungle city – but goes on to include raiders from the sky and an army that becomes smoke when killed only to reform. One of my favorites in the book.

David J. West’s “The Serpent’s Root” is a somewhat humorous tale with some unexpected plot twists. Its heroine is a thief that needs the tooth of a cockatrice to remove a curse on her sister. The help she gets along the way is surprising as is her helper’s fate.

Nicolas Ozment picked up well-deserved second place with “Cat’s in the Cradle” which is something like heroic fantasy crossed with film noir. Telarra, a Warrior of the Higher Law who lives in poverty and travels the land dispensing justice and protecting peasants (sometimes from their own foolishness), is hired by a dodgy sorcerer to find a gem needed to ransom his son. Said son just happens to be an old lover of Telarra, so she takes the job despite her well-founded misgivings.

You wouldn’t expect to see Vikings in the plush jungle implied by the cover image, but that’s what you get in Henry Ram’s well-done, first place winner, “Attabeira”. A group of Vikings search the Caribbean for a Northmen expedition that vanished 20 years ago. It even finds the expedition’s remains and some survivors. They include one who now thinks she’s a god and is at the center of a power struggle. The story ends on a nicely gloomy note of sacrifice and future doom and, like “Inner Nature”, the idea that heroism can be an essence apart from action.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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