Warriors, edited by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois
Tor Books (736 pages. $27.99. March 16th, 2010)
Warriors is a unique anthology. With its smorgasbord of genres, there is a tale and a Warrior for any reader. Well, there is a tale for every reader. Similar to Swords & Dark Magic, the other 2010 mega-sized mega-star-studded co-edited anthology, Warriors’ cover — title and text — misleads the reader as to the nature of its contents.
The cover — which at my very first glance I mistook as a pencil rather than a bared blade of steel — gives the impression of being a ‘how-to’ text on writing about Warriors. This struck a chord with me, for it bears a remarkable resemblance to a looming RBE publication. Turns out, this is not the nature of the anthology. This is a collection of…what, exactly? Experimental works? Writing exercises? Explorations of what being a Warrior is? Perhaps. Yet the back cover cites Homer, Achilles, Gilgamesh, Crane, and Jones, and does not in fact mesh well with an experimental/instructional image, or the actual contents.
Unlike S&DM though, I was unable to read Warriors straight through. No, this anthology took me several months to read, months of setting it down to fill my sparse personal reading time with something more entertaining, more exciting, then reluctantly returning to and finally bulling through it due more to Black Gate’s looming deadline than any other reason. Fortunately for me, five of the final seven tales were winners. In these (and a few earlier) delightful tales, I also happily discovered a few authors new to me.
Unfortunately, almost half the tales contained in Warriors are not of ‘Warriors’ as such titling and portrayal would have one believe. ‘Fighters’ most certainly: every tale delivers a fight. ‘Survivors’ more accurately: every fight delivers a survivor… But Warriors? I think not.
The word “Warriors” applies to a particular set of individuals who live by a particular set of criteria. Not just any character can be a Warrior. Most can only aspire. Warriors are the stuff legends and dreams are made of. Every story lacking such characters in an anthology purporting to be filled with them is disappointing and deplorable. And there are far too many of those stories.
Warriors exhibit mastery, a focus of purpose, ability, skill, desire, a willingness to shut out pain, fear and other emotion, to control the self to a level beyond that of the general ‘fighter’— and even to sacrifice that self, though not unnecessarily, and not without cost or reason. Some societies recognize a Warrior Class, whose cultural mores are coupled with special codes of conduct, and often value honor, loyalty, and courage.
While there certainly is a “survival of the fittest” mindset found in this anthology’s tales, the Warrior is the uncommon creature who requires much more: to show great vigor, courage, and aggressiveness, to be damn good — the best — at what he or she does. On the flip side, every human is a fighter. There is nothing more common than fighting to survive. An anthology titled Fighters or Survivors just wouldn’t have the same appeal though, would it? Such titles would bring their own expectations. So what does the Warriors anthology actually deliver?
George R.R. Martin writes an endearing introduction. His nostalgic opening appeals to readers of similar history and adroitly sets the stage for what he says is to come: a jumble of exciting stories of adventure and Warriors, the only other characteristics they share being delivery by experienced storytellers and the baited-breath anticipation of eager readers. We shall see if he is correct.
As stated in my last review (Swords & Dark Magic, June 23, 2010), when reading short story compilations, I employ a simple win-loss-tie ranking system similar to that used in sports. While there is rarely such a thing as a universally undeniable loser or winner of a tale, my system is effective in determining if a compilation (be it anthology, magazine, or collection) is recommendable as a whole. I have sought to evaluate the following contents both on their merits as a story and as a contribution to the stated theme of Warriors.
“The King of Norway” from Cecelia Holland delivers a great protagonist in a rip-roaring Viking tale of ale and arms and anger and answers. The overly convenient ending mars an otherwise exemplary opening tale. Definitely a Warrior’s saga.
Joe Haldeman’s “Forever Bound” is well written and engrossing, with a fully developed main character. It is creative and personal. As usual with science fiction and me, it leaves a tangy distaste in my mind. Science fiction always expends lots of words trying to teach me something, sometimes overshadowing the tale. That is not how I enjoy reading. I liked this Warrior, but tired of his tale.
Robin Hobb provides a strong poignant tale of two men, childhood friends till death. They are two sides of the same coin, with two views of major life events as Roman soldiers. “The Triumph” is somewhat long in the telling; consequences and decisions matter more than action heroics. This is a tale of friendship and loyalty — and a wonderful example of the difference between a Warrior and a fighter.
“Clean Slate” by Lawrence Block is a tight, tough story. If such a loose interpretation of ‘Warrior’ was intended for this anthology, then less concentration upon Gilgamesh and war and soldiers on the back cover and introductory texts would have been nice, and also more transparent. With limited reading time, I don’t appreciate bait-and-switch reading. That said, this is a very fine story.
Tad Williams’ “And Ministers of Grace” confused me at first. I read the opening twice, then once again after I had read a few further paragraphs and caught on. I’d never read Williams prior to this; it wasn’t a promising start. Then the story became sanctimonious, and I was most discouraged.
However, once past that opening and once I learned to tolerate the writing, Lamentation Kane really grew on me, and now I think he’s a helluva character. Restructuring that beginning would make this tale a guaranteed winner. As written, I can believe many readers will stop before they get to its meat. Lamentation really guides the reader to examine the motivations of masters and followers and look deeper than the action.
“Soldierin’” by Joe Lansdale is unique, in that I find it neither appealing nor unappealing, not a loss or a win. It is simply a tale told. It is the clearest-cut out-right tie I have ever read since adopting this method of story rating. This story is the first person tellin’ of a ‘colored fella’ in 1870’s Texas cavalry fighting. Interesting, though I would have preferred a Songs of the Dead Lansdale Warrior to this survivor.
The introduction to Peter Beagle’s “Dirae” is most unusual in that it warns the reader that the opening of the story is confusing. It follows this surprising notice with encouragement to “stick with it” for a fine reward. While not in the least reassuring, the claim that this story holds the “strangest and most unlikely Warrior” of the anthology is compelling.
So I read it. (Not like I had any choice.) The beginning, almost — almost — was enough to persuade me to skip ahead. But read it I did, and I grew to understand its purpose, its contribution to the tale. I still probably would have edited it differently, but the meat of the story delivers a powerful read of rescue, selflessness, and sacrifice. I ended up loving this story so much that I won’t say any more lest I risk revelation. I only wish the opening could be a bit less drastically obtuse, for I fear readers who do not appreciate confusion won’t stick with it for the reward.
“The Custom of the Army” by Diana Gabaldon is set in British high society. Mid-1700s is my guess. This is a rather unusual story with several unique characteristics and warmly delivered, but come story’s end, I felt like it had tread water the entire time, accomplishing little.
Naomi Novik’s “Seven Years from Home” is the best tale of the book. I enjoy Novik’s writing, and this most curious tale very subtly crept over me until I was addicted and had to know what happened next. It is awesome science fiction, delivering its message quietly, without once pounding the podium or decrying another. Ruth Patrona is a compelling character with major emotional and intellectual appeal, who easily pulls the reader in. A Warrior? For a cause, perhaps, though it is not a label I would apply. Despite the sweetness of this tale, it was at this point in my reading that I came to the conclusion that this anthology is more a catalogue of “Fighters” than “Warriors.”
“The Eagle and the Rabbit” by Steven Saylor is a moving piece about what makes a man and what a man is made of. A study in contrasts, conclusions, and courage, it is a steady tale that complements the Warrior theme though does not define the anthology.
“The Pit” from James Rollins is a grotesque tale of salvation with another scrappy ‘Warrior’ of a different stripe. Bloody, dark, fierce and violent with a hint of love, a touch of salvation. Not really my cup of tea.
With the next story my already waning interest in the anthology begins to vanish at a much faster rate. Almost three months would pass from my reading the first to last words. Even amidst designing, editing and reading for multiple RBE titles, I found other titles for my personal reading. I’d sporadically pick up Warriors and pick at this tale — until I was finally given a deadline. Do or die time.
David Weber’s “Out of the Dark” exacerbated my reading experience with its sedentary politicizing and proselytizing and plain old filler. It is fourteen (14!) pages before we find something worth reading: a character who is unsure whether he is coward or hero yet shoulders a leader’s role in the midst of tragedy and carries on to the best of his ability. Finally! This is a seventy-seven page story that could have been fifty-five, should have been less than fifty. After the last four pages, I felt cheated, not only out of reading time, but also out of my investment in a character that had truly grown on me. Its unnecessarily length, lack of hook, and employment of a deus ex machina earn this story a “Most Disappointing in the Anthology” label.
“The Girls from Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn is a well-researched and well-characterized study of WWII female pilots. It is a thorough examination of the sexism they worked against and the support they had to be for each other and only occasionally found elsewhere. This is another story of friendship and of fighting through adversity in pursuit of truth. It is also another story sans the implied ‘Warrior.’
“Ancient Ways” is my first exposure to S.M. Stirling and Emberverse—and it was absolute fun! Interesting characters and setting totally compensates for a rather common plot and storytelling style. It is reminiscent of Harold Lamb’s Cossacks, from the use of ‘Grandfather’ to the dialogue to the action. This is the type of tale the title brought to my mind, and I will definitely read more of Stirling’s work.
Howard Waldrop’s “Ninieslando” is troublesome. I do not know why it is present, or, honestly, why I even read it. Its blatant ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ Warriors’ attitude is tedious. A weird writing of a fantastical utopia of escapism crafted out of nothing but pipedreams and regret in the midst of WWI. A faux Warrior in a faux Warrior tale.
Fortunately that mockery of Warriorhood was followed by the best immersive setting in the anthology. Gardner Dozois’ “Recidivist” delivers very good storytelling with a believable character amidst enticing events. This is another take on the end-of-the-world-as-humans-know-it-due-to-AI idea that is still more real, with a more believable Warrior character, than several of the other tales in the anthology. A slightly ho-hum close of the tale, but — as the man said — he had to try.
David Morrell’s story, “My Name is Legion,” offers a fascinating conundrum. He examines the nature of loyalty and penance, guilt and love, in an historic setting during an historic event, wherein there are no winners. There are numerous Warriors, yet come story’s end, those left are merely survivors who marvel at their survival.
This is strong storytelling and good characters with compelling motivations — however, all of it builds to yet another inconclusive conclusion. Surprising, for a story of such studied effort to offer no affirmation. I enjoy Morrell’s writing and I have always found his stories to have strong internal exploration, but this one seemed to lack just a little oomph.
Far too many words are invested in Robert Silverberg’s “Defenders of the Frontier” — and far too much of my time. I seem to have come upon Silverberg too late, either in my reading life or his writing life; my only exposure to him has been his tales in Swords and Dark Magic and Warriors. I am not encouraged to read another.
This is a most frustrating story, wherein the continuous employment of ineffectiveness and futility aggravated the heck out of me. A page into the tale, I would have tossed it aside if I were reading for my own pleasure. Overdone verbiage, uninterrupted prattling about a bland existence in a bland locale during bland events, repetitive bull riddled with contradiction and built upon an unbelievably faulty premise — so banal that banality could be its only purpose. Blah.
David Ball is brand new to me, an author I admit to knowing not a thing about. His biographical description and the introduction to “The Scroll” were very promising. I was excited to jump right into this one. It is a very dark-toned and troubling story, very well developed in pursuit of an intriguing premise. I was thoroughly saddened by a protagonist so devoid of self-worth and belief, eking out his existence in the depths.
This dismal tale frustrated me just as much as the previous one — but it lacked the dull futility. My connection to the main character makes all the difference. And then — Wow! The shocker conclusion! The feebleness of the main character dooming another to the vindictive evil of the antagonist! While there is no Warrior here, I shall read more of David Ball.
Finally we come to the main draw: the editor, writer, and star of Warriors — George R.R. Martin and his annual Westeros taste test. “The Mystery Knight” is a fun read and quite properly of the Warrior nature as I understood and anticipated the anthology to be. While knights and their squires and swords and dragons are not required for Warrior tales, bold characters (those taking decisive action when indecisive, showing loyalty and integrity and inspiration even when tempted not to, who strive to do and be their best for the sake of others when the easier route would be to succumb, flee, or turn one’s back) are.
Warriors are the cream of the crop, the ones that youths want to be, the ones that ‘civilized’ folk don’t want to be. Martin, as usual, nails all forms of the Warrior type in this novella of Westeros’ past. Some aren’t admirable, some are opportunistic, but each is true to the code of expectation. Reading this tale was bittersweet, as visiting with Dunk and Egg reminded me that once I pined for the next part in the Song of Ice and Fire saga. While I doubt I will ever read one, I am grateful that Martin’s tale ends the anthology on a strong note. I wish it had been representative of the whole.
So how do the tales of Warriors stack up?
There are a number of well-written and entertaining stories. There were several new authors (new to me anyway) whose works I intend to pursue. I found this to be a strangely assembled anthology, and when read en masse not so very entertaining. Of my five personal favorite stories, two hold no Warrior and a third is debatable. There are another six strong tales whose protagonists are most certainly Warriors. All in all, the count of tales with Warriors (even stretching for a few) is 12 to 8—a surprising 60% for an anthology so titled.
Overall final story standings are 11-3-6, a passable 70%…until converted to a straight win/not-win of 11-9, a barely recommendable 55%. If you are a reader who likes your reading material to live up to its billing and you can’t find this anthology at a bargain price, I suggest you watch for your favorite authors’ stories to appear in some reprint. At the very least, borrow it from the library before splurging in this economy. While sharing a similar final percentage with that other 2010 mega co-edited anthology, Warriors will not share a like fate in my library. I’m keeping my copy of Swords and Dark Magic.