Warriors, a collection of short stories and novellas by some of today’s best fiction authors, is a captivating and wonderful compilation of twenty unique tales (and an excellent, thought-provoking essay by George R. R. Martin detailing the evils of genre categorizing). Obviously, some of these stories are better than others. Most are very good, some are undeniably awful, and a few are truly fantastic. Since Warriors is not a “novel” but an anthology, I’ll address each story individually with a short blurb about its contents, author, and my opinion of the work.
Introduction: Stories from the Spinner Rack, by George R. R. Martin
Why even bother with the introduction, you ask? Because it is one of the most brilliant essays I’ve ever read. I didn’t read it once. I didn’t read it twice. I didn’t even read it thrice. I read it four times. It’s that good, and it perfectly sums up everything I’ve ever thought about genre division. Yes, genres can be a good thing, but in today’s world, they have begun to block the expansion of the world’s collective reading mind. Of course, we all have our favorite types of tales, but we shouldn’t lock ourselves away in what we prefer and lose sight of what is really important – a good story. Those can come in any shape, form, and, yes, genre. George R. R. Martin explores this concept flawlessly, and any reader will be better for having experienced it.
The King of Norway, by Cecelia Holland
Cecelia Holland is a renowned historical fiction author, and she sticks with what she knows on this story of adventure, peril, heroics, and bloody battle, set during the heyday of the Viking domination of the northern seas. It ranks somewhere in the middle of the stories in this novel for me, which is not a bad thing, since the majority of these tales are well worth reading. It was a good start to Warriors, and, factoring in my love for works of adventure and battle (not to mention Vikings. I mean, who doesn’t like Vikings?), it made for an enjoyable read. One con that comes to mind: the main character seemed a bit flat to me.
Forever Bound, by Joe Haldeman
From the science fiction author who brought us the classic novel The Forever War comes another look at the future of warfare in Forever Bound. Surprisingly, most of the story is about sex, not combat, which normally would irritate me. But Haldeman’s characters, settings, and mindsets are inextricably bound up with physical contact – in essence the sex, and their reasons for engaging in the particular coupling occurring in the story, is essential to the situation and the overall plot. That being the case, I didn’t have a problem with the sexual nature of Forever Bound. (When sex is just thrown in for “HEY, SEX!”, then it rankles me. I don’t need or want flesh shows for no particular reason. That’s just pandering to horny people to read your stuff. If you’re a reader looking for pornography or bodice rippers, go watch/find those. There’s plenty out there. Don’t write a story filled with sex just to have sex. If it advances the plot, character development, etc. I’m fine with it.) Anyway, a decent story overall, but, as most of the stories in Warriors are better than decent, nearer to the anthology’s lower end.
The Triumph, by Robin Hobb
The Triumph was another decent read, so not quite on the better end of the stories in Warriors. It was one of several that concerned Rome/Carthage. In this case, we see from the point of view of an ex-Roman Legionnaire, who has to watch his friend and commander suffer in a brutal public execution. In particular, it addresses issues like loyalty, friendship, patriotism, defiance, and, most important, learning when it is time to rest from conflict and hang up your sword. While wonderful issues to ponder in a story, unfortunately they were explored through a series of flashbacks about a giant snake the Legionnaire had confronted with his commander in the past. The flashbacks weren’t particularly engaging or effective in my opinion, and they made the story and themes suffer. I’ve not read anything by fantasy writer Robin Hobb, but based upon this story, I’m on the fence as to whether or not I’d pick up one of her books.
Clean Slate, by Lawrence Block
Here we come upon one of the more intriguing and exceptional stories of the volume – as well the most disturbing. Lawrence Block is an accomplished mystery/thriller writer, and he brings us to a dark and disconcerting place in Clean Slate. Once again, we have another highly sexual story, this time concerning incest and – I’m unsure what to call it – willing molestation, perhaps? Yeah, like I said, a highly disturbing story, but no less impossible to put down for all of that. What is most explored is the effect, mostly psychological, of sexual abuse. I couldn’t put Clean Slate down, but it did make me feel like I needed to shower after reading – repeatedly. Fans of the television series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit would find it highly appealing, I’ve not doubt. You’ve been warned. Read at your discretion.
And Ministers of Grace, by Tad Williams
Is it just me, or are all of fantasy writer Tad Williams’ stories about religious indecision? I can’t help but think the guy must struggle constantly with his own spirituality, because he writes about characters who can’t decide if God exists or not CONSTANTLY. Frankly, I’m getting tired of the same ol’ theme, Taddy. This one is about a religious assassin from a god-fearing society who is fighting a war against a purely atheistic society. Repetitive theme reminiscent of Tad’s The Burning Man. Story is “shrugs” OK. I think this is a wonderful and potent theme to work with, but Mr. Williams has done it to death. Time to move on, sir.
Soldierin’, by Joe R. Lansdale
This one is about the frontier’s Buffalo Soldiers during the wars with the Plains Indians – in this case, the Apache. This was a decent read, with some funny humor – and some that missed the mark, straying into borderline degrading. I enjoyed it, though, and Lansdale managed to tell his tale without getting too preachy about racism or slavery. Soldierin’ is good historical fiction that includes humor, survival, and a look at the lives and motivations of black cavalry soldiers on the frontier in the late 19th century.
Dirae, by Peter S. Beagle
Beagle’s short work in Warriors is a bit out of the box, and it’s pretty good because of his asymmetrical thinking. It details the brief, violent existence of a powerful girl, who doesn’t know who she is or why she exists. I figured out what was happening fairly early on, but the unique concept didn’t suffer too much because of the decidedly clairvoyant attempts at mystery. A fun and…invigorating read. It made me feel like sometimes everything does happen for a good reason.
The Custom of the Army, by Diana Gabaldon
First, I had better point out that I have a clear bias against Diana Gabaldon. I hate her stories. Remember that stuff I said about throwing sex into a story because why the hell not? Sex sells! That mindset is incarnate in Mrs. Gabaldon, and it drives me nuts that her novels (The Outlander series) are as popular as they are. This story is another novella about her popular side-character Lord John Grey. He is an English military officer in the 18th century – and he’s gay. Don’t forget that part, because Gabaldon surely won’t let you. In his every tale, he is going to find some other secretly gay guy (somehow), he’s going to know instinctually that he’s gay (somehow), and they’re going to hook up by the end of the story. It’s maddening. Not only does coupling like that not happen even to straight people, who can reasonably assume that they have a wide playing field of options around to score with, but homosexuals in the 18th century would have had a much more difficult time of such because they would be afraid of being caught. Homosexuality wasn’t tolerated in that century, and while Gabaldon acknowledges that, somehow Lord Grey still manages to find a sexual partner in every story without giving himself away to others. Plus, for me, I had a REALLY hard time getting through that stuff. It is super weird for me to try to read. I have to skip paragraphs when it gets too hot and heavy with man-on-man grappling. As a straight guy, that seriously grosses me out. Admittedly, other than the inexplicable gay sex, I find Lord Grey to be a compelling character, and this particular story was much better than many of his other adventures. (Though he does hook up with a gay Indian before the Battle of Quebec. Seriously, Gabaldon? A gay Indian? Can we get any more implausible in our quest for sex scenes to serve our readers? Palm slaps face. I’m not saying an Indian couldn’t have been gay in that time period, I’m saying that the odds of something like that happening in 18th century America between an English gentleman and an Iroquois scout while surrounded EVERYWHERE by British soldiers is slim to…nope it’s just an impossibility.) By the way, I don’t want to rag too much on the gay scenes, because Gabaldon does this with straight sex scenes too. In her works (of any length) there are going to be copious sex scenes, often with no reason for them, and many times, there is just NO WAY they would occur. It just, ugh…Sorry, moving on now.
Seven Years from Home, by Naomi Novik
This story was not in any way unique. Novik uses a form often used but rarely well, in which the narrative is presented by way of a journal, and it is the result of the protagonist’s integration into a culture alien to her own. Dances with Wolves, anyone? The Last Samurai? Avatar? (There are countless others.) Despite falling into a boorishly used trope, however, Novik’s tale does manage to entertain, and by the time I turned the last page, I realized I had become as enthralled in the chain of events as I had in almost all of the previous stories, in spite of my first inclination toward irritation at the preference of delivery. Just goes to show that when you think you’ve seen, heard, and learned it all from the old and much-used, it can surprise you and teach you something new. This was a good one.
The Eagle and the Rabbit, by Steven Saylor
I’m not sure how I feel about Saylor’s contribution. It is another of the Rome/Carthage based tales, this one from a Carthaginian’s viewpoint. It takes place after Carthage’s final fall, and details the eradication of all peoples of Carthaginian blood by way of death or slavery. It was an intriguing look at the psychology of the broken mind, but the conclusion was a bit lackluster.
The Pit, by James Rollins
The Pit is about gladiators. Not gladiators of ancient Rome or any of the other savage contests conducted throughout history between men. In fact, it isn’t about men at all, but it is about warriors. Warriors of a different kind, perhaps, but warriors all the same, with courage, ferocity, and will-to-live equal to any contest of man. My one complaint, which we see a lot in today’s fiction on screen and in books, is that Rollins did some major projecting of human concepts, emotions, and ideas onto animals, which is great to see – occasionally. This has been WAY overdone in the past thirty years, and is starting to grate on my nerves.
Out of the Dark, by David Weber
I really liked this story at first, then it started to drag a bit in the middle, and finally the end killed the plot for me. Out of the Dark had an interesting and inspiring concept, but then Weber attempted to mix myth with a world already well established as “normal” (Normal for sci-fi, anyway). The result was an unsatisfactory conclusion that felt like it came out of nowhere and had no place in the story. I did find Weber’s specific concept of a galactic community made up and divided by different species type (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore) to be exceptionally interesting, though.
The Girls from Avenger, by Carrie Vaughn
I can’t say that the plot was incredibly entertaining, but I did enjoy being introduced to a piece of history with which I was ignorant. I never knew that female pilots were used in World War II, and I found the idea behind the story (the actual history and struggle with sexism the female pilots faced) to be both well presented and somewhat inspiring. Learning about these largely unknown American heroes was a treat.
Ancient Ways, by S.M. Stirling
I had never heard of S.M. Stirling or his alternative history novels, but thoroughly enjoyed this short story, so I may have to pick up a book of his. Ancient Ways takes place in a future in which a technological apocalypse has occurred. No machines or mechanical devices work anymore, and on the steppes of Russia and around the Black Sea, a young Cossack can hardly imagine the world being any other way. Our Cossack protagonist runs into a warrior very different from himself – in more ways than one – and sets out with him to save a princess. The concept might sound hokey, but I assure you, this doesn’t feel like a Disney movie – at all. You’ll enjoy every minute of it.
Ninieslando, by Howard Waldrop
I have only a few things to say about Ninieslando. 1) It made no sense. 2) Other than some interesting passages about life in the trenches during World War I, it was incredibly boring. 3) The main character was unbelievably flat and had no personality. 4) It made no sense.
Recidivist, by Gardner Dozois
I can’t say I enjoyed this much. Recidivist takes place in a world in which humans have been overthrown by AIs who have almost no interest in them and who do things seemingly at random. The plot wasn’t incredibly coherent, and the ending was not great. Dozois’ theme was perseverance, even after you’ve already lost. Great in theory – now I need something to make me believe it.
My Name is Legion, by David Morrell
Even if it was a bit predictable, My Name is Legion was a great read. Detailing some of the French Foreign Legion’s actions in the Second World War, Morrell’s story shows how much “Honor and Nobility” (the FFL’s second motto) cost men of the Legion. It is poignant and stirring and is only slightly tarnished by the main character’s insistence that not only was God punishing him, but that God should unquestionably do so. This is one of the better stories of the entire volume.
Defenders of the Frontier, by Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg’s tale of estranged soldiers long dedicated to their cause but long forgotten by their people (or worse), was stimulating. Its presentation, style, and mystery were sufficiently captivating to have me fully drawn into the plot – until the conclusion. For such a good read, Defenders of the Frontier had a dismal ending that concluded nothing and left off almost right where it started (or behind where it started). So, naturally, I was disappointed by Silverberg’s story, because it promised much – specifically, some answers – but didn’t deliver. I’m still mad about that, but I can grudgingly admit it was one of the better additions to the volume.
The Scroll, by David Ball
The Scroll managed to be both darkly satisfying and utterly unappealing at the same time. I don’t know how to describe it. I hated the antagonist for his cruelty. I hated the protagonist for his cowardice. I hated the events that happened. I hated its conclusion. And yet, David Ball managed to keep me immersed in the plot the entire time, despising what was happening, drowning in the brutality – but absolutely caring that it was happening. And that is the sign of a great story, is it not? When it makes you feel something? When it makes you care about the events and the characters and the people despite its fiction? I hated this story – and I loved every minute of it.
The Mystery Knight, by George R.R. Martin
We have come not only to the last story, but also to the best one. Three cheers for the return of Dunk and Egg! For those of you haven’t read Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, you’re missing out. For those of you who have, but have not experienced The Hedge Knight novellas, you’re missing out even worse, because you came close but never touched Martin’s stories of true genius. The Mystery Knight is the third installment detailing the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, Egg, following its predecessors, The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword. I first read The Hedge Knight in the fantasy anthology Legends, and have been in love with Martin’s Westeros of 100 years previous to A Game of Thrones ever since. Don’t get me wrong, I love our heroes from Martin’s wildly popular fantasy cycle, but his big, slow-thinking, honorable hedge knight from generations before will always be my favorite champion.
And there you have it. The Mystery Knight caps off a wonderful collection of adventures of all different sizes, shapes, lengths, types, genres, and quality, but overall, I feel vindicated in testing the waters. Warriors is a success, in my humble opinion. I’ve heard that the new sequel to this volume is now out, called Rogues. After this experience, I’m sure to give it shot.