Unfettered • 2013 • Fantasy story anthology edited by Shawn Speakman


Meta: ISFDB, edited by Shawn Speakman

Dozois praised this anthology to be one of the year’s best. The author list is impressing as well, any hard core fan of Brooks, Rothfuss, Williams etc. would probably order it instantly. Especially knowing that it is a kind of charity where authors donated stories to help the editor out of financial debts imposed by his medical situation, treating cancer. This alone is a curiosity for my cultural background: Here in Germany, everyone has health insurance, no one would have to face those dangers. I don’t know if Mr Speakman’s solution to the problem is very common in U.S. (or people go bankrupt). But I simply don’t find myself into this donation system. But what I understand completely is the cancer background of several of those stories: My father had cancer for over a year, and he passed away last September.

So, there is some part that I do understand und some part of the context that I don’t. I don’t want to praise each and every story alone because of the charity effect. If you care for it, you’ll buy it anyways, right? What I’ll do, is to disregard the charity effect. Meaning: If I think that a story doesn’t work for me, I won’t give it more stars only because it was donated for a good cause. Does that sound fair?

You’ll find the reviews below. I had high expections because there are many authors involved that I really like. I never crossed an anthology that frustrated me so much after a couple of stories that I wanted to toss it aside. Summing up, I think that the anthology as a project of fiction failed: Out of 24 stories, I only can recommend works of three authors, none achieved my best mark of 5 stars. What makes it really a failure are the loads of bad stories in it – 6 got only 1 star (meaning „I didn’t like it“) and one even zero stars (meaning „I hated it“). Only one (Nocturne) tried getting out of standard narrative structures and risk a literary experiment. The overall topic was a bit vague and the stories didn’t find new answers.

My favourite ★★★★ stories were

  • The Sound of Broken Absolutes by Peter Orullian
  • Unbowed by Eldon Thompson
  • The Unfettered Knight  and The Twilight Dragon by Shawn Speakman

Zero, ★ for me were

  • The Duel by Lev Grossman
  • The Coach With Big Teeth by R.A. Salvatore
  • Imaginary Friends by Terry Brooks
  • How Old Holly Came to Be by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Dogs by Daniel Abraham
  • Nocturne by Robert V.S. Reddick
  • Walker and the Shade of Allanon by Terry Brooks

Contents (from isfdb):

  • ★★★★ for Foreword (Unfettered) • essay by Patrick Rothfuss • absolutely amusing
  • Introduction: On Becoming Unfettered • essay by Shawn Speakman • how the editor got the contributions
  • ★ for Imaginary Friends • (1991) • novelette by Terry Brooks  • precursor to Brooks‘ Woid and Void series. Blending reality and fantasy. A heartwarming story about overcoming cancer and the inner battle for survival. Predictable, dull plot, shallow characters, pretty dated fantasy, a waste of time.
  • ★ for How Old Holly Came To Be • shortstory by Patrick Rothfuss • love poem between a holly tree and a lady
  • ★★ for The Old Scale Game • shortstory by Tad Williams • 10th century English retired knight and dragon hatch a scheme to fake a fight, con is expanding. Nothing new – plotline similar to Dragonheart. Lighthearted, shallow read.
  • ★★1/2 for Game of Chance • (2013) • shortfiction by Carrie Vaughn • Magician gang try to change history to create a better world. Main protagonist stumbles into their ranks but doesn’t share their vision. She concentrates on small things instead.
  • ★1/2 for The Martyr of the Roses • 2013• shortstory by Jacqueline Carey • precursor to Kushiel’s series set in an alternate Russia. I don’t know anything about Kushiel, so this story imposed only confusion upon me – all those locations, names might have meaning for fans. Topic is decadent against barbaric civilization: Two friends from different background witness a miracle. Not self-contained. Too much fluff for too few stuff.
  • ★★★1/2 for Mudboy • shortstory by Peter V. Brett • The world Briarpatch is growing up is full of demons. The young boy does not only have to evade those fiends but also his elder brothers and sisters. And he needs to pee all the time but has to hold back. Good characterization, great setting, dark atmosphere, nice tension arc. The Warded Man has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a while but I’ll come back for it now sooner than later.
  • ★★★★ for The Sound of Broken Absolutes • novella by Peter Orullian •  Musician student destroys his teacher’s instrument and goes to war. Those two POVs confront us with difficult choices – how to use education and rebuild facing the loss of a loved one. Very good character development, great setting, interesting magic system, lots of music. It remembered me a bit of Cat Stevens‘ „Father and Son“. The interleaving of the two stories is emotionally involving with its mourning and grief.
  • ★ for The Coach With Big Teeth • sports shortstory by R. A. Salvatore • Salvatore introduces and motivates this story very well with his personal background. But my sport is soccer; I know a bit of basketball, boxing, etc. But nothing about baseball. This story throws loads of technical terms at me, that could be Kisuaheli cursing – I simply can’t follow. Other sport stories do it better. Overbearing coach doesn’t accepts young and timid baseballer’s failure. Cliche, Predictable but horrifying end.
  • ★★★ for Keeper of Memory • novelette by Todd Lockwood • Lockwood is widely known as an artist, e.g. his cover illustration for this anthology or for Natural History of Dragons. I know a couple of additional works from him, but I wouldn’t count him to my favourite artists. He didn’t publish much fiction yet – one story besides of this and there is his debut novel „The Summer Dragon“ currently edited at DAW books. The last days of a country under siege, fighting dragons. Only a group of scholars preserve the history of their people. One encounters in a dream-like sequence a maybe-future featuring main protagonist Maia from his debut novel. Somewhat rough dialogues, but interesting setting. I’ll watch for the author’s novel, appearing in 2016?
  • ★★★ for Heaven in a Wild Flower • SF novelette by Blake Charlton • men built a technological heaven from where they incarnate or turn back. Natural born children are seldom, baby girls even more. When someone picks up an incarnated baby, his life is bound to the child. This is a father-daughter story with quite predictable ending. SF background remains mysterious. Plotline is emotionally very involving, but story and action-wise a bit tenacious or even boring. Strong characters. The basic philosophical questions, i.e. difference between natural and reincarnated death, is handled very weakly. I’ll come back to this author and will dive a bit into his novel.
  • ★ for Dogs • novelette by Daniel Abraham • I hate horror stories. This one is no exception predictable. A man is attacked by a pack of dogs and has to rebuild his life. But all dogs – even his own – could be time bombs. Confused, unexplained motivations and setting. But pacing is good.
  • ★★★ for The Chapel Perilous • Iron Druid Chronicles novelette by Kevin Hearne • review
  • ★★ for Select Mode • shortstory by Mark Lawrence • Set in the Broken Empire featuring Jorg and The Nuban shortly before the start of Prince of Thorns. Religious fanatics catch some mercenaries and force them to undertake a ritual to see if they are worthy to be inducted into the group. Offers nothing in terms of character building, just a small bit of world building. It is intended for those who want a short introduction to a day in life of Jorg. You won’t get out much if you know his series already. Given that, it was ok.No, I’m not a Lawrence fanboy, sorry about that.
  • ★★★ for All the Girls Love Michael Stein • ghost story by David Anthony Durham • When cats die, they don’t leave the world. No, they change from selfish creatures to caring ghost felines. Problem is that they can’t interact and the living cats simply don’t care. Michael Stein is such a dead cat and a girl misses him. Heartwarming, easy read without much depth.
  • ★★ for Strange Rain • shortstory by Jennifer Bosworth • prequel to Struck which is about lightnings that change your life. In this case it is the life of conjoined twins where one suffers from the separation and the other starts to develop a life of his own. Nice character study, some weirdness, but not too interesting.
  • ★ for Nocturne • novelette by Robert V. S. Redick  • fever dreams of a Romanian 19th century male turning into a weird story • a challenge: non-linear narration, perspective changes, some strong visualizations. I usually like such stories but I couldn’t connect to this one – it was a struggle to even understand the setting: It could have been anything starting from fantasy or SF in a different world to a weird fairy tale. In the end, I was too confused to appreciate the effort and the story dragged on and on.
  • ★★★★ for Unbowed • novelette by Eldon Thompson • The owner of a Ninja school is accused of being part of an assassin gang. His son sets out to rescue him. Interesting father-son and romance relation spiced with lots of fighting scenes and Ninja action. At the end, the protagonist from Asahiel series faces some tough morale questions. Page turner, good world building, fine tension arc. I’m going to take a look at Thompson’s series.
  • ★★ for In Favour With Their Stars • shortstory by Naomi Novik •  Boring remake of Temeraire, this time in space. You’ll get nothing new if you read some Temeraire novel; if you didn’t you’ll be probable confused. Same structure, same characters, same simplicity, only the SF setting is not very convincing.
  • ★★ for River of Souls • shortstory by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson • This is a cut scene from the final novel of Wheel of Time, featuring Demandred trying to unite Shara. I’ve read the series but don’t think that I missed anything with this story. Hardcore fans might rush to it, you might consider it as a bonus DVD. I’d rather have read a real standalone story by Sanderson.
  • ★★★ for The Jester • novelette by Michael J. Sullivan • Riyria protagonists on a treasure hunt with hints from a jester. Reads like a RPG adventure. A bit predictable. Narration structure with its dialogued retrospectives was different than most of the other plain stories in this anthology. If you like this novelette, you might want to read the series.
  • zero stars for The Duel • shortstory by Lev Grossman • a 21st century boy fights magically enhanced a barbarian army’s champion, citing Tolkien and Matrix. Scenery could have been taken from a Narnia movie. No tension arc or character insight, sloppy, colloquial language, just a filthy highschool wanking fantasy. Is this a joke or what? I can’t believe that I endured it.
  • ★ for Walker and the Shade of Allanon • shortstory by Terry Brooks • something from Shannara. Just a dialogue between some druid and a ghost without context, character development or plot.
  • ★★★★ for The Unfettered Knight  and The Twilight Dragon • two novelettes by Shawn Speakman • Urban Fantasy set in the Annwn Cycle where two different protagonists – one from the otherworld Annwn and the other a bishop try to resolve conflicts imposed by invading creatures – Lazarus (the one from the Bible) as a vampire, the other a dragon. I really liked the take on Lazarus resurrected and turned to a Vampire searching the secret Vatican archives for a means to end his life, because simple wooden dowels won’t do it for him. The world building involving catholic church and its mysteries is very nice. No narrative experiments here, just a plain structured story.  Speakman builds a very good tension arc including enough action, twists, interesting dialogues and a maybe too long epilogue.
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