Warriors edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
I find this anthology something of a conundrum. At the editorial helm stand two very distinguished individuals who may properly be labelled as pre-eminently working in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It may therefore be a not-unreasonable expectation that any book jointly edited by them would be stuffed to the rafters with science fiction and fantasy stories. But this is not the case at all. Surprisingly, the majority of stories are historical without any obvious fantasy or horror elements. In this respect, I was somewhat saddened by my decision to buy. I don’t usually read so many non-sf, fantasy or horror stories.
“The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland is a “straight” historical reconstruction of fighting between feuding groups of Vikings in old Norseland. It strings out the prebattle boasting and swearing of loyalty oaths, to the sea battle and its aftermath. The problem is one of scale. The author is overambitious and she includes too many characters and plot lines. It’s impossible to resolve all these threads at this length. As a novel, with time to get to know the characters, it could be interesting. At this length, I found it boring and tedious. Robin Hobb has the scale right in “The Triumph”. It’s essentially the story of the relationship between two men set against the background of the Punic Wars, making simple statements about loyalty and honour. I thought the decision to feature the snake surprising and distracting. No matter whether it’s realistic, it did nothing to enhance primary thrust of the story. Steven Saylor’s The Eagle and the Rabbit” is set after the fall of Carthage and manages to avoid sentimentality in describing the campaign to round up the Carthaginian stragglers. But it lacks originality.
Joe R. Lansdale is rather better as he weighs in with “Soldierin’” which captures some of the racial tensions and practical fighting by the Buffalo Soldiers. This is a taut and economical story, told with characteristic dry wit. “The Scroll” by David Ball is equally pleasing with a sadistic Emperor of Morocco building a great new monument to his own importance using captured French soldiers and engineers. This would sit comfortably in a fantasy anthology although I take it to be “historical” in its intent. It beautifully captures the despair of the architect as victim of the psychological games played by his captor. While Diana Gabaldon’s “Custom of the Army” has us watch the British take Quebec. This is the most engaging of the historical stories with an interesting hero, delightfully electrified and beset by circumstances. What sets it apart from the majority of the other stories in the anthology is a real sense of irony — somewhat unusual in an American author.
Moving into more modern times, “Ninieslando” by Howard Waldrop has a different take on the “truth” about No-Man’s Land between the trenches in WWI. I doubt it would be possible to create a Utopia in this unforgiving place. Worse, the morality of its ghoulish occupants is unbelievable. I suggest anyone with any sense would relocate to Switzerland and wait for the warriors to run out of steam. Living in relative luxury by scavenging on the dead and stealing from the living hardly shows them in a good light. “The Girls From Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn moves on to the next war with women delivering planes during WWII. The tone is feeble. Even if the plot does reflect the dangerous hostility culturally demanded from the male pilots, it lacks any real sense of authorial outrage. Although there were some excesses to the feminism of thirty years ago, it did at least challenge the reader to acknowledge the injustices suffered by women. Ms Vaughn seems to think we can brush a homicide under the carpet and buy her heroine’s silent complicity by offering her a better job. This is so far post feminism as to be depressing. In “My Name Is Legion” (an unnecessary pun) David Morrell has a rather more interesting view of honour in the unfortunate necessity for factions in the French Foreign Legion to fight each other during WWII. This is gritty and nicely captures the difficulties when loyalties are tested.
Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate” is a perfectly respectable serial killer story. I’m just not at all sure how or why it is included. How can this campaign make her a warrior? That goes double for “The Pit” by James Rollins. I can recall reading this type of story as a coming-of-age adventure using the boy’s POV. Reinventing it from the dog’s POV as a warrior does little to improve a hackneyed idea.
“Forever Bound” by Joe Haldeman moves into my preferred reading territory with a more interesting consideration of how team-building could develop as technology allows ever-greater sharing of thought. But the idea it would take ten people to run an armored fighting machine is somewhat absurd. It makes the co-ordination between the minds unnecessarily complicated and would only be justified as redundant systems if you really expect significant losses from the group mind. Two couples would have made the point. Nevertheless, it manages to get to a coherent end by distinguishing the literal chemistry of the linked humans and the real emotions of the civilian lovers. Naomi Novik’s “Seven Year’s From Home” has us playing in the sandbox of managed destabilisation as our heroine encourages ever greater military effort from “her” side in the conflict. It nicely personalises and inverts the old adage “si vis pacem, para bellum”. The original Latin means, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” In this story, we see a conflict encouraged between an aggressive nation and an essentially peaceful, but technologically advanced, people. Unfortunately, our agent provocateur has no real control over “her” side’s ability to turn its technology to war. When the dust settles, our heroine’s actions inspire a world-weary response from her bosses. David Weber’s “Out of the Dark” is a wonderful alien invasion story. Frankly, I realised the possible resolution quite early, but never thought he would have the nerve to do it. It’s a delight to find an author and editors prepared to take a flexible view on genres (it also explains the incredulity of the losing aliens)*.
“And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams is a pleasing variation on the infiltrator assassin theme with our driven hero sent to kill the leader of an opposing philosophical group. If you strip away the technology, it follows in the footsteps of Condon’s Manchurian Candidate by asking what would happen if the programmed assassin is allowed to think for himself. “Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle sees us skating on the edge of graphic novel/comic book vigilante territory without losing sight of the importance of real storytelling. This is a particularly pleasing piece of writing as our heroine struggles to understand who or what she is. In “Ancient Ways”, S.M. Stirling has us in a post-apocalypse version of the Steppes. It’s always interesting to watch the predictions authors make about the fault lines along which societies might fracture. In this case, it’s reasonable to suppose the old tribalism would reassert itself and it’s a nice touch to flirt with gender issues as the damsel in distress turns out to be a closet chemist who can throw together weapons with a test tube and bunsen burner. Gardner Dozois puts the mantle of editorship to one side to contribute “Recidivist” — another post-apocalypse story. This time, the Earth has been overtaken by its own inventiveness as AIs assert independence and, with due frivolity, undertake a planetary redesign. Not the most original of plots but well executed. Robert Silverberg’s “Defenders of the Frontier” watches the end of an Empire with a dispassionate eye. The men debate whether to hold their position or, with no apparent enemy to defend against, withdraw to some nearby outpost of civilisation. Finally, George Martin lays down his editorial burden and offers “The Mystery Knight”. Now I remember why I bought this book. You plough through all the rest to get to this latest instalment from the world of Song of Ice and Fire. This is a terrific read with one slight regret. Despite their lack of height, I would have preferred to see more of the comic dwarfs.
Overall, the decision whether to buy this 730-page monster will depend on your view of the authors collected. If you like historical fiction with a few science fiction and fantasy asides thrown in, this is for you. Otherwise it’s a not inexpensive way of buying the latest from Robert Silverberg, Peter Beagle and George Martin — not forgetting David Weber’s contribution which was the surprise winner of my “favourite” story competition. Finally, I admit a small victory for the editors in that I’m slightly tempted to look at one of Diana Gabaldon’s novels. If one of the purposes of anthologies like these is to introduce you to “new” authors, this is as good a taster as you can get.
*David Weber has now expanded the novella into a full novel. Here is the review of Out of the Dark.
The dynamic duo has now produced an anthology in celebration of Jack Vance: Songs of the Dying Earth, a second on the theme of star-crossed love: Songs of Love and Death, and a third set on a pulp version of Mars: Old Mars.
For anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.
The anthology itself and “The Mystery Knight” by George R R Martin are finalists in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Anthology and Novella respectively. “The Mystery Knight” is also nominated in the Best Novella category for the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.