Bradley, Marion Zimmer (ed.). 1999. Sword and Sorceress XVI. New York: DAW.

Reviewed 09 November 1999

Sword and Sorceress XVI (cover) Oh dear. Anything I say is going to sound like disrespect to the recently departed. I'll be as polite as I can. But, as frequent readers of these reviews will anticipate, that's still going to hurt some feelings.

Before getting into the stories themselves, though, a few words about the packaging seem in order. If MZB could look back on her introductions (both to the book and to the individual stories) in twenty years or so, she would cringe if she had any shame in her soul. The introductions are arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and yet bland and seldom relevant to the stories. Describing the setting in a few words is not a satisfactory introduction, particularly when combined with reminiscences that, when read together, show a peculiar disrespect for the various authors by always "one-upping" their backgrounds. The quality of the introductions has steadily deteriorated since about volume V; these are just awful. Ellison and Asimov provide witty, relevant introductions and afterwords. They discuss the core of the story, the core of the author. After reading these, I'm uncertain that MZB could even identify either one.

That same analytical weakness, unfortunately, has seriously damaged the quality of this anthology series—and this volume in particular. Sword and Sorceress is an interesting concept, and was certainly called for during the macho-male-dominated 1980s. The first five volumes or so really did expand the concept. But then something happened; the series stagnated. Certainly since volume IX, an increasing majority of the stories has revolved around the same tired chicks-against-male-domination subtext (a subtext lampooned quite effectively by Esther Friesner's Chicks in Chainmail), regardless of MZB's claims over the last several volumes that the stories have seemed to have different themes. It's humorless, relentless . . . stereotyped.

And what about this volume in particular? Of the 26 stories in the collection, only those by Nazarian, Silverthorne, Watt-Evans, and Wheeler created any resonance beyond "I've read that before, probably in a previous volume." The majority of the stories probably would not have survived a contest-rules (double-blind) submission process held under professional literary standards. The obvious cliqueishness revealed by the table of contents only increases the frustration level. This isn't a collection from established writers chosen for "star value," either (compare Legends and Far Horizons). Even the more-prominent (and successful on their own) "MZB discoveries" are absent—no Lackey, no Lisle, etc. This contributes significantly to the overall lack of inventiveness. Telling the same story again and again with slightly different settings and character names is not satisfactory.

Despite these problems, the anthology manages to rise out of the depths of utter crap to which the contemporary theme anthology has descended. Sword and Sorceress XVI isn't Mickey D's; it's more like Burger King. It has its own trademarks and emphases, a limited menu, and minimum-wage workers. But there are a couple of tasty items on the menu, and only a couple of the stories reek like fries that have sat under the IR lamp for an hour or so.

Overall rating: 2 stars
Mediocre.
I hesitated to rate the anthology as a whole even this favorably. But then I thought about the recent output of theme anthologies, and realized that most were far worse. Sword and Sorceress XVI is largely buoyed up by the utter worthlessness of its competition. It is good of its kind; but that is not very good.


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