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This anthology contains a good collection of short stories and stories by a range of authors. My personal favorites are “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nakh-Maru” by Jessica Cluess and Ruocchio’s Sun Eater/Sollan Empire novella “Queen Amid Ashes.” This is a story that starts out as a standard new adventure in an established world and takes a bizarre turn that really confronts the characters with an astounding moral dilemma. I was really surprised, despite knowing that Ruocchio can absolutely pull this off (as he has in every other novel and short story I’ve read). Other bright points include Tim Akers‘ “A Murder of Knights” and Simon R. Green’s “Saving the Emperor.”
Also included is a witty and pointed introduction by the editor, wherein he points out his interest for the fiction part of science fiction, leaving science by the wayside. This is just to say that a subtle genre distinction brings us Eric John Stark and John Carter instead of a plot that turns on scientific detail. The stories in the anthology, that is, are fantasy in space: character-driven, adventurous, and, though not devoid of science, much more interested in honor and courage than in time dilation.
Jess Cluess’s story, for example, could be right out of a collection of Leigh Brackett stories, a tale of a shipwrecked soldier dragging an unwilling damsel across a desert, unwittingly caught up in the planet’s politics. He does this for honor, because it’s the right thing to do to use his other-worldly strength to protect a strange woman in the desert.
The other thing all these stories have in common is that they’re good: even the ones I didn’t like all that much were written with the goal of entertaining the reader and weaving an adventurous and exciting tale. Sword and Planet has renewed my faith in science fiction and fantasy short stories. Anthologies like this are the best place to read good short stories. Most stories in the elite, Hugo-winning markets are boring, intentionally bizarre, blatantly agenda-driven (it’s the “blatantly” part that is distracting; see Oscar Wilde). Often they don’t qualify as science fiction; sometimes they don’t qualify as fiction. They certainly don’t qualify as fun, entertaining, or even interesting. They don’t offer anything new, or anything nostalgic about good science fiction. Most of them are not even good in literary terms. I don’t know why they get published, honestly, though I feel like the notoriety of particular names in the Readercon-attending community has a lot more to do with publishing than the quality of the stories.
The only downside to relying on anthologies like Sword and Planet for short stories is that all the authors are established, novel-writing authors. This is just a fact of life in today’s publishing world, where you can’t make a living writing for magazines. You can discover new writers in places like Writers of the Future, which is usually available in the anthology section at Barnes and Noble; but also check the magazine section, where I do regularly see The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and sometimes Analog. These magazines are better than the other elite markets, but they feature maybe one really good story out of ten. They seem more interested in winning awards (i.e. serving the Hugo voting community, which is a very specific group of a few hundred people) than in publishing stories that are good by the typical reader’s standards. Lots of people on the internet talk about starting periodicals that will reinvigorate short stories and bring back the “glory days” of Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard, but I have trouble taking any of them seriously. Most people writing short stories are writing them for other writers, not to appeal to people browsing Barnes and Noble. I think that’s sad, but it’s good to know that some editors are putting together anthologies that do appeal to that audience. Sword and Planet is one such anthology.
In the early days of speculative fiction, when the line between SF and fantasy was much more fluid, there was a golden age of what would become known as the sword and planet subgenre. Featuring as much derring-do heroics as they did ray guns and aliens, these stories filled the pages of Amazing Stories, built the careers of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, and cast a long shadow ranging from Dune to Star Wars.
Edited by Christopher Ruocchio, Baen’s latest anthology features thirteen original short stories that manage to go in wildly different directions, ranging from fantastic adventure to hardboiled action, and in tone from black as pitch to comedic. What they share are tales of heroes facing down foes—be they alien, robotic, or something else entirely—with a blade in their hands and courage in their hearts.
There are some familiar names among the contributors, Jody Lynn Nye, Tim Akers, T.C. McCarthy, and Susan R. Matthews among them, and Warhammer 40K scribe Peter Fehervari even contributes his first original work, “Bleeding from Cold Sleep.” Despite this, two of my personal highlights from the anthology come from two contributors whose work I’m reading for the first time. In L.J. Hachmeister’s “A Broken Sword Held High,” Luddite colonists from Earth face dragons and invaders beneath an alien sky, as a young girl chafes against their pacifism. Cybernetic knights do battle to save humanity from an invading alien hivemind in R.R. Virdi’s “A Knight Luminary.” If you’re like me, these stories will soon send you looking for what else they’ve written.
In addition to the entirely original works, a few of the authors have penned new stories in their existing universes. Simon R. Green revisits the fan favorite Deathstalker series with “Saving the Emperor,” a short story offering a look into how the Deathstalker clan first rose to power and glory. D.J. Butler follows up his recent sword-and-planet novel In the Palace Of Shadow And Joy with another tale of the mercenaries Indrajit and Kish, as they attempt to solve a murder mystery in “Power and Prestige.” Ruocchio himself contributes a story set in his Sun Eater saga with “Queen Amid Ashes,” with a newly knighted Hadrian Marlowe and his legionaries sent on a rescue mission to a war-torn world.
The wide mix of stories, and the surprising places they go make this anthology a particular joy from start to finish. Sword & Planet offers a glimpse into everything that has made stories like these a popular standby since the pulp era, with enough creativity, variety, and talent showcased to prove that there’s still plenty of life left in the century-old genre. I recommend it heartily—maybe you’ll come away with some new favorites too, and perhaps a new look at a genre that’s enchanted readers since John Carter first set foot on Barsoom.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 7, 2022
I’m the type of reader who struggles to venture out of my comfort zone even though I want to. If you’re in the same boat this anthology is perfect! It allowed me to explore various subgenres of speculative fiction with stories that are short enough to wet my appetite without feeling overwhelming. Plus the author list reads like a “who’s who” of Baen authors. Definitely worth the read, and the re-read!
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 24, 2022
This is a nice collection of space fantasy - sword and planet - what have you. Heroism with swords!
This anthology had thirteen original short stories that vary in tone and direction. They're each individual stories that share manage to go in wildly different directions of stories but at their base is the idea of the hero facing down all kinds of danger with sword at hand.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 2, 2022
"Sword and Planet" is a sub-genre mixing science fiction and fantasy tropes that, although one of the oldest in modern SF (think "John Carter") doesn't get the attention it merits. Fortunately Baen put out a collection of several such stories, which I got the pleasure of reviewing. Here goes...
The collection starts out with a bang with Tim Akers' "A Murder of Knights." Basically a member of a high-tech knightly order has to investigate some sinister doings and finds himself facing off against something abominable, with a very bloody deadline. It seems like an origin story for a particular character and according to a conversation I had with the author, there's more content out there set in this universe. The fact my first reaction to the story was to see if there was more of it reflects very well on this collection.
Another story I enjoyed was R.R. Virdi's "A Knight Luminary" in which a trainee knight in a future war with a machine intelligence *still* hasn't manifested the psychic powers he needs. He and his fellows investigation an outpost that's gone silent and, as can be expected, things go very, very wrong.
"Bleeding From Cold Sleep" by Peter Fehervari features a fugitive member of what are essentially humanity's Cossacks (the vanguard of human expansion against a myriad of alien races, the first of which are based in a more pulp-fiction version of our own solar system) and just why he's a fugitive. It turns out there's a threat much, much closer to home.
In T. C. McCarthy's "The Test," a world that has regressed into a medieval state features a king, his son who reminds me a lot of Prince Hal from Shakespeare's HENRY IV, and another son who'd like to usurp him. And did I mention there are monsters and priests using advanced technology? This was fun too.
Rounding out my favorite stories is the novella "Queen Amid Ashes," set in author Christopher Ruocchio's SUN EATER universe. Our hero Imperial noble Hadrian Marlowe and his companion, the foreign cyborg doctor Valka, and their Imperial troops must liberate a world under attack by the predatory alien Cielcin, but there's much more going on than an alien invasion. There are some very vivid descriptions here.
Unfortunately, not every story in the collection is so grand. I loved the Deathstalker novels when I was in middle school, but Simon R. Green's "Saving The Emperor," which describes the origin of the titular Deathstalker noble family, was disappointing. I had a hard time following Susan R. Matthews' "Operatix Triumphans."
Still, no collection is perfect and I would definitely recommend this one.
Christopher Ruocchio has assembled a roster of authors the envy of any anthology editor. From longstanding veterans like Simon R. Green and Jody Lynn Nye, to current staples like DJ Butler and promising up and comers like Hinkley Correia, this anthology is chalked full of joyous, escapist adventure the likes of which Edgar Rice Burroughs and Papa Heinlein himself might envy.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 18, 2022
I count an anthology as a win if I get one new "must find more by this author" story, and the lead off story by Tim Akers qualifies. Add in Butler, Virdi, Ruocchio's stories, and that just makes it even better.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 28, 2021
I originally bought this from the BAEN e-book store to support them, but felt it best to review here as this is the most popular book-seller.
I really enjoyed this call back to what felt like everything people love about old space fantasy, both the pulp, and the stories beyond that. Neither a bad thing, and if you have tastes for all sorts, you'll really enjoy the offerings in here.
The biggest 5 star standout stories to me were:
R.R. Virdi's, A Knight Luminary, which felt like a great military space/fantasy take on the Knights Templar having a first contact mission with a dead planetary outpost that goes radio silent. Great aliens, a soldier's internal struggle between following orders and doing the right thing, what does brotherhood mean, and finding his own courage even when the odds are against him. Absolutely fantastic and gave me feelings of the Halo books in the best way.
The next great story is from Christopher Ruocchio's Sun Eater universe (which I am now going to check out) which continues the space fantasy theme, bringing in a space opera universe and teases a grander story to be found in the ongoing novel series. Hadrian is an interesting character and the alien Cielcin are just as fascinating and race and antagonist to showcase. Very good.
Lastly, and no surprise, is the story by Simon R. Green, coming from his wonderful DeathStalker series. That is one of those, "Enough said," moments and stories. Simon R. Green's Deathstalker universe is one of my most favorites in space fantasy/opera. It's an automatic win. And the story lives up to that standard.
All of the entries were great. But these three are gems. Well worth it.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on February 24, 2022
This is ultimately an anthology of tales of hope. Taking place in the far future, it harkens back to the time when science fiction and fantasy were much more closely allied than they are now.
The highlight, for me, is the story by Christopher Ruocchio. It takes place in his Sun Eater universe and, as always, I am amazed at his facility for painting pictures by using just the right words. It reminds me a bit of Jack Vance.
That is not to say the rest of the stories are not good. They are. R.R. Virdi's "A Knight Luminary" is a brilliant tale of the coming of age of a knight in a future where knights use something called Darklight as weapons. Jody Lynn Nye's "The Fruits of Reputation" is fairly whimsical telling of one race's search for help. And new to me author Jessica Cluess gives us a future space opera story of a man out of place.
I recommend it to all, especially to those needing a dose of sense of wonder.