“Unfettered II” edited by Shawn Speakman

I’ve been waiting for my pre-order of Unfettered II to arrive for weeks, so I was pretty excited when it finally got here last week. Unfettered II is an anthology of mostly fantasy stories, with no underlying theme at all. Editor Shawn Speakman created the first Unfettered to help with his medical debt, and I originally bought it because it contained a story that was deleted from the final book of Wheel of Time. Unfettered II was created to help other authors get out of medical debt, and contains stories from many authors that I like – Michael J. Sullivan, Django Wexler, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, and of course, Brandon Sanderson (the impetus for me ordering this collection – a chance to read a little bit of Oathbringer ahead of its release in November.)

Overall, I thought it was a solid collection of stories. There aren’t really any total clunkers, which was surprising, I usually at least dislike two or three stories in any anthology I read. Since there’s no theme, there are a wide variety of tones and themes, and I thought that helped keep the book from getting too repetitive or boring.

Some of my favorite stories:

And Men Will Mine the Mountain for Our Souls by Seanan McGuire: This is a lyrical and tragic story about the last stand of dragons who know they are about to be destroyed by humans and can’t do anything about it. The imagery in this story is just stunning.

Day One by Jim Butcher: A Dresden Files story featuring a side character. I’ve only read the first Dresden Files book, but I’ve read a handful of stories set in the world in various anthologies, and they’re all great and just make me want to read the series. Considering I own the first eight or so books, I should really get around to it. Anyway, back to the story – it’s a nice story about a nerdy medical examiner going on his first mission as a knight and building his confidence, and it was fun and heartwarming.

Magic Beans by Django Wexler: This story was originally written for a coffee shop erotica anthology, and so it has lots of sex in a coffee shop. It’s fun and weird and has a ton of heart. I don’t have much else to say about it.

The Hedgewitch by Sarah Beth Durst: I thought the world of this story was really cool – the people live in huge trees and are constantly under threat of attack by sprites. The protagonist, Hanna, has the magic to control the sprites, but is terrified of them after they killed her family, and has to learn to accept her place in the world. There’s nothing better than a well done coming of age story! Based on this story, I think I’m going to read the author’s novel set in the same world (bonus: it also features Hanna in some capacity.)

A Duel of Evils by Anthony Ryan: This is another story that made me want to go out and get the author’s work set in the same world (although in this case, Blood Song has been on my wishlist forever.) It’s written in the form of a historical document, and I love in-universe writing. The author of the document is chronicling the fall of a city, and he’s trying to be objective and academic about an event that clearly had crazy magical stuff happening. That kind of writing can fail horribly, but in this case, it works really well.

The Raven by Erin Lindsey: I love a villain that you can empathize with, and that’s the intent of this story. We follow Tom, a prince who is trying to do the right thing for his kingdom, but is blocked at every turn by the king (his brother), who has the best of intentions. You understand and agree with every single choice he makes, even though you can see why it’s wrong. Apparently Tom is the antagonist of Lindsey’s novel The Bloodbound, and I’m definitely going to seek it out.

The Gunnie by Charlaine Harris: I liked this alternate history gritty western type story featuring young mercenary Lizbeth. Lizbeth works as part of a crew that protects traveling families from bandits. When her latest job goes horribly wrong, she has to singlehandedly complete her mission. I liked that this story wasn’t just about Lizbeth being a hero, it also follows what happens to her and how she feels once she’s back home.

I would have expected The Thrill by Brandon Sanderson to be on my favorites too, but I wasn’t that impressed by it. We don’t learn much about the world or any secrets about Dalinar’s life (unlike Edgedancer, the awesome Stormlight novella that was in Arcanum Unbounded.) The bigger disappointment was that I felt like Dalinar’s voice was too generic – he’s young and quippy like a lot of other Sanderson characters, and he didn’t have any of the gravitas that characterizes present day Dalinar. I know part of the point is that Dalinar is very different than he used to be, but he didn’t even seem like the same person. I still enjoyed reading it though, and I have enough faith in Brandon Sanderson that the complete story will make more sense – I just didn’t love the excerpt as its own story.


Unfettered II by Shawn Speakman
Grim Oak Press, 2016 | Buy the book


“Twenty-First Century Science Fiction” edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

21st-Century-243x366Twenty-First Century Science Fiction features stories from sci-fi authors that have risen to prominence since 2000. All of these stories are new to me (apparently I don’t read enough short stories!) and the collection contained a pretty wide spread of subgenre and length of stories.

One thing that struck me about this collection is that more often than not, humanity is portrayed with such pessimism – apparently in the future, we’re going to be more and more cold, power-hungry and selfish. Most of my favourite stories in this collection had robot protagonists. As a huge Star Trek fan, my default view of humanity has always been optimistic, so I found the onslaught of cynicism somewhat disconcerting. I wish the editors had varied the tone a little.

As per my usual anthology review format, I’m not going to talk about all the stories, just the ones I liked most and least. The stories I enjoyed the most:

“Infinities” by Vandana Singh

This opening story was set in India (where I’m from), and I was thrilled to read sci-fi written by an Indian writer. I have no idea if this story is objectively good, but it was cozy and familiar and poignant. It involves an old mathematics teacher who dreams of seeing infinity. The sci-fi aspect of the story is pretty subtle.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky

Anyone who says science fiction can’t pack a deep emotional impact needs to read this story. It offers a fresh new twist on the trope of the robot wanting to be human, but backs it up with the real relationship of a robot, a human and their daughter.

“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear

I’ve read and loved Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy, and now I can’t wait to read more of her sci-fi work. A forgotten military robot strikes up a friendship with a feral teenager, but her power is running out. Another moving story.

“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a very short story – about two pages long, but it takes as incisive look at genetic manipulation and animal testing, while also managing to be touching.

“The Algorithms For Love” by Ken Liu

If pressed, this would probably be my favourite story of the collection. A designer of AI-like dolls is so successful that she starts to lose faith in free will and intelligence itself.

“Ikiryoh” by Liz Williams

An exiled genetically engineered being takes care of a disturbed little girl sent to her by the current goddess-ruler. The world of this story is what made me fall in love with it; the science fiction ideas are incidental, but seemed a little bit more like fantasy.

“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory

The protagonist of this story is a teenager who has overdosed on a drug that completely erased her personality. She’s spent years being coached to be who she was before, but she just can’t seem to do it. I loved the exploration of identity and consciousness, and it was very believable.

“Balancing Accounts” by James Cambias

One of the most fun stories in the collection. In this future, there are so many robots that there’s a robot society within human society, and our protagonist rocketship/odd job robot is one of them. His latest cargo seems like a lot of trouble, but he needs to make his human owners money, so he takes it on anyway. I imagined the world described to be kind of like the excellent game Machinarium.

Other good stories: The Tale of the Wicked by John Scalzi (Scalzi as a writer is kind of like Hugh Grant as an actor – he does the same thing all the time, but does it excellently), Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction by Jo Walton (I need to read her books!), A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee (a story in encyclopaedia form!), How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente (a story in guide form!), The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (journalism in the future!), The Calculus Plague by Marisa Lingen (memories transmitted virally!), and His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi (a dog and a cat set out to rescue their master, armed with very cool technology).

The ones I wasn’t as thrilled by:

“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross

I’m not going to say this was a bad story… I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t sure why the farm was called a farm; it seemed to just exist so we could be amused at the idea of a farm trundling towards a farmhouse. I didn’t understand why the protagonist was so anti-farm even before he knew what it wanted to do (hillbilly joke?). This story wasn’t for me.

“Third Day Lights” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Another story that I was just plain confused by. A sci-fi story involving pocket universes and the future of humanity, but borrows heavily from fantasy tropes. I didn’t get the romance, and I didn’t get the pocket-universe creatures.

“The Island” by Peter Watts

This was a well-written and compelling story, but it just made me depressed to read it. The protagonist is a crewmember on a automated starship designed to make space travel gates, but they’ve been doing it for millions of years and seen civilisations rise and fall countless times, and the AI controlling the ship won’t let them stop. In this story, they encounter something that they’ve never seen before (and that part is awesome!)

Overall, this is definitely worth buying. It’s a great introduction to a lot of authors, as well as to the staggering breadth of SF.


Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell & Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Dangerous Women” edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

076533206X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I was really excited about this anthology! I love anthologies, I love kickass women, and the Martin-Dozois anthologies attract the best fantasy writers. I’ve read and liked one of their anthologies (Songs of Love and Death) before, but this one blew it out of the park!

Dangerous Women doesn’t just feature sci-fi/fantasy stories; there are a variety of genres represented. This makes the collection have an incredibly broad range. The eponymous dangerous women are all pretty different too – physically or magically powerful women, women who flourish despite their circumstances, femme fatales, vengeful ghosts, and more. Sometimes they drive the plot, sometimes they’re the protagonist, and sometimes they’re both.

I enjoyed some stories more than others, but unusually, I didn’t think any fell flat. Some were disturbing or implausible, but I think they still made good additions to the anthology. I’m not going to review every story, but I’ll talk a bit about some standouts.

The Hands That Are Not There by Melinda Snodgrass

This story takes place in the same universe as one of my favourites from Songs of Love and Death, and I was immediately pulled into this universe again. Unfortunately there aren’t any full-length books in this universe, but I’m hoping there will be soon! It involves an extraordinary story told in a bar, which if were true, would have incredible repercussions.

Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t really like the title of the story, but the story itself was fantastic. It’s set in Sanderson’s Cosmere (although I don’t know what planet) and features a terrifying world and a resourceful woman who makes it a little safer. I’m probably biased by my indefatigable love for Sanderson, but I loved this story.

Bombshells by Jim Butcher

I’ve only read the first book of the Dresden Files, but this story made me really want to catch up with it (it also contains major spoilers for the direction of the series, but I didn’t mind that). It features Molly, Harry Dresden’s apprentice and some other Dresdenverse women on a mission. Molly gets some great character development, and there’s a lot of gratuitous ass-kicking. Some of it was a little cliched, but it was so much fun that I didn’t mind.

A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman and Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland

Both of these stories were historical fiction and featured women figuring out how to become dangerous in a male-dominated world. Other than that, they were fairly different – in the former, Constance, future Queen of Sicily, takes charge of her unhappy life and in the latter, a young Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile learns how to get her way. I found both fascinating, and I really need to read more historical fiction.

My Heart Is Either Broken by Megan Abbott

I don’t want to say very much about this heartbreaking story, but it examines the emotional consequences of knowing a truly dangerous woman. Or thinking you do.

Lies My Mother Told Me by Caroline Spector

This story is set in the shared Wild Cards universe, and involves a superhero that goes from having dangerous powers to being truly dangerous even without her powers. I found it very poignant.

I could keep going, but I’ll just say that I also loved Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie (I can’t wait to see more of Shy in his latest book, Red Country), The Girl in the Mirror by Lev Grossman, Name The Beast by Sam Sykes, and Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn (I haven’t read anything by Vaughn that I haven’t loved). The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin read like the dry medieval telling that it was meant to be, but was strangely fascinating.

The stories I wasn’t as thrilled about:

I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block

This is an extremely well-written story, but it left me feeling unclean just having read it (which seems intentional). It definitely adds to the diversity of the anthology, but I wish I hadn’t read it. It probably didn’t help that I was envisioning Tricia Helfer as the “dangerous woman” in the story.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Krees

The idea behind this story was fascinating (discovering beauty in an ugly world), and I was somewhat touched by the ending, but I was distracted by finding the worldbuilding implausible – 99% of women are sterile, and civilisation totally breaks down. I can see how women’s place in society would change significantly, but I don’t think cities and technology would be completely destroyed. I didn’t even mind the world, but the cause of it seemed forced.

Pronouncing Doom by S.M. Stirling

I got the gist of this story, but was thoroughly confused by the world. American society is now heavily influenced by ancient Scottish/Irish tradition, and this all happens within a few years? I found out that this is set in the “Emberverse”, but I don’t think there’s enough of an introduction to this universe for people not already familiar with it.

That ended up being much longer than I anticipated. Summary: this is one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. Buy it!


Dangerous Women by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.