This week we take a look at the second volume of the sword and sorcery Anthology, Thunder on the Battlefield Sorcery. The question is whether or not the second volume live up to the standard set by the first.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is No. While a good anthology, the stories in this one weren’t quite as good as the ones in Sword. At least I didn’t think so. Your mileage may vary. I have to admit my opinion is somewhat colored by a noticeable lack of sorcery in some of the stories, something I find odd since that’s the theme of the anthology.
Like the first volume, this one contains twelve stories plus the second part of editor James R. Tuck’s introduction. The first story is “Negotiation” by Jeffe Kennedy. This one falls into the school of warriors inherently bad, women inherently good type of story, which I don’t care for any more than I care for the men inherently superior, women inherently inferior story. A wounded general is confronted by a witch with her own agenda. This was one of the best written stories in the book, but I wasn’t the audience for it.
Alex Hughes shows us a mercenary commander who is challenged to combat according to “The Fourth Rule” to determine who will lead the company after she makes a series of poor decisions. This one didn’t go in any of the expected directions but broke with convention in its unflinching portrayal of a sympathetic protagonist. One of the highlights of the volume.
Selah Janel takes us to a far future world in “The Ruins of St. Louis.” This is part of a larger story arc concerning a female pirate and her companion and future mate who have to fulfill a prophecy before they can let their relationship grow, although I’m not sure it’s the first installment or not. The protagonists end up in the Mississippi River after the female crew mutiny. The temperature of the river is close to boiling, but they manage to make it to shore and St .Louis with fewer injuries than one would expect after ending up in the river and surviving an attack by a giant mutant snapping turtle. The consistency of the internal logic seemed pretty shaky at times, and the way it was divided in two parts in terms of story (mutiny and St. Louis) gave me the impression it was an excerpt from a novel.
“Mark of the Warrior” by Steve Grassie was the second darkest story in the book, and I liked it because of that. A young soldier is taken captive and taken to the enemy capital. The king and his sorceress have plans for him. Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, in life or in fiction. To say more would be to commit Spoilers.
Editor James R. Tuck has a story in this volume as well as the first. (It’s good to be the editor.) This is another adventure of his barbarian Theok. While I enjoyed it, I prefer “Where the Red Blossoms Weep” from the first volume. The characters in this one sounded a little too twenty-first century to me in a few places. Still, this is a character I would be interested in seeing more of.
M. B. Weston’s “The Cherubian, the Lindworm, and the Portal”, besides having the longest title, was one of the more unique stories. It’s about a group of cherubians (think kick-ass angels) trying to protect an interdimensional portal. While there wasn’t much overt sorcery, although some was implied at one point, it was one of the more interesting selections.
Brady Allen invokes Clarke’s Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.) in “Grinding the Gears”. Turlough the Aggravator encounters a sorcerer who specializes in metal constructs.
The villain in S. H. Roddy’s “Black Ice” is supposed to be one bad dude, but he doesn’t come across as all that bad, in spite of everyone saying otherwise. In this one, a young woman sells herself into slavery in order to obtain water from a magical well.
Steven S. Long gives us a crusader knight on a mission to extinguish a demonic cult in “The Two Fires”, in an imaginary world reminiscent of Roman occupied Britain. One of the better stories in the anthology.
I could never suspend my disbelief in D. A. Adams’ “Across the Wilds”. This one opens with a young man named Crushaw escaping from slavery on an orc-run sugar cane plantation. We aren’t told how long he’s been a slave, but the author implies most, if not all, of his life. Everything in this one is too easy. Crushaw escapes, kills a crocodile with his bare hands at an oasis after not eating for at least a day and a night, dismembers the crocodile (again with his bare hands) to make a shield and weapon with the bones, and fights off and kills a pack of hyenas the next day. Sorry, not buying it. Things shouldn’t come this easy to heroes, or they aren’t really heroes. There was no sorcery in this one at all, nor was there a battlefield.
The darkest story in the book was “Dark Genesis” by Mark Taverna. It was one of the shortest tales in the book, but it packed one of the strongest punches. A tribe on the plains allies with a sorcerer to repel the invaders who moved in a generation or two ago. Too bad no one told them about the devil you know and the devil you don’t.
I almost didn’t finish Steven L. Shrewsbury’s “Whore of Jericho”. For starters the opening scene consists of a witch (one of two) telling the ruler of Jericho about a battle taking place far away that she’s observing in the water of her cauldron. This is not exactly the most exciting storytelling technique, but I really don’t want to read in detail about the ruler masturbating while the witch tells him what’s happening. The mercenary general sounds like a Viking from the description. Only he can’t be because (we learn from some modern archeologists in the last section) the bulk of this story takes place before the Biblical Flood. Funny, I thought the Flood took place before Jericho was settled because just after the Flood everyone was supposed to be in one place building the Tower of Babel. And how there could be records of this city and accounts of the other witch (who is a major villain) isn’t explained either. In fact I had trouble finding much consistency in the internal logic of this one, from the time and setting to the motivations of the villains.
So, to sum up, the second volume of Thunder on the Battlefield Sorcery doesn’t live up to the standard set by the first volume. The only stories I would consider to be standout would be the ones by Hughes, Grassie, Weston, Long and Taverna. My overall impression is that there are too many barbarians with Conan-complexes. I got the feeling that some of the authors were doing the writing equivalent of paint by numbers.
In reading the author bios, I learned that more than one of the tales included here were first sales. That doesn’t surprise me as the biggest problem with this volume as a whole was poor logic and/or consistency and a tendency for characters to sound like contemporary Americans at times, along with a few too many Clonans. These are things that writers outgrow if they keep writing, although the editor should have caught some of them.
After reading both Swords and Sorcery back to back, I think Thunder on the Battlefield would have been a stronger anthology if it had been a single volume about two-thirds as long as the two together. Still, there are too few markets for sword and sorcery these days, and any new anthology with the percentage of good stories as this one contains is welcome. Editor Tuck and Seventh Star Press are to be commended for putting Thunder on the Battlefield together.
While there were no problems with apostrophes this time, I did notice a few more typos than I had in the first volume. These weren’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book, though. And again, the cover art is superb.