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Unfettered III
edited by Shawn Speakman
Grim Oak Press, $30.00, 748 pp
Published: March 2019

If you aren’t familiar with Shawn Speakman’s amazing anthologies, you’re in for a treat.  But you need a bit of background.  Back in 2011, Shawn was diagnosed with a cancer and as a writer, he didn’t exactly have any health insurance.  Unfettered was conceived of as a way to alleviate his crippling medical debt.  His friend, Terry Brooks, urged him to reach out to the fantasy writers he knew and ask if they’d consider contributing a story to a little anthology - gratis.  And they responded – some of the biggest names in the fantasy genre.  The first one was a huge success, apparently; because when Shawn was ready to bring on Unfettered II, he announced that the proceeds would benefit other authors or artists struggling with medical debt – an ever-present concern of the self-employed.  And now, six years later he generously gifts us readers with Unfettered III:  a glorious collection of stories from the best in the field.  Within this collection you might find unexpected glimpses of characters you know or hadn’t yet met from series you love.

But the first story is a surprise.  The author is a relative newcomer, Callie Bates, but her offering is Just. Really. Good.  It is a sensitive, appealing sideways look at a man crippled by loss and redeemed by the bravery of a young girl, and her mother who is facing an equally crippling loss. 

The next one is From Lev Grossman.  If you don’t know that Lev Grossman wrote the series The Magicians which is the basis for the current TV show…then maybe you won’t care that this is an excerpt that was cut from his third book The Magician’s Land.  It is a tiny little experience of Plum when she was a senior at Brakebills.

Mark Lawrence gives a glimpse of one of his characters, Snorri, from his Red Queen’s War trilogy.  This is Snorri as a young man and we see an event – with trolls – that contributes to the character of the man he would become.

Hopefully, you’ve seen the pun-ish Tales of Pell that sprang from the twisted minds of Kevin Hearne and Delilah Dawson.  If so, you’re going to really enjoy Ms. Dawson’s story.  It’s a tale of another unknown and nondescript young boy who gets “anointed” by a pixie and sent off to find his destiny.  But this boy decides that before he goes haring off into dangerous adventures he’d do well to get advice from the sage and wise elders.  Trouble is…the elders aren’t exactly sage or wise.  They tend towards the crotchety, snide and self-involved type of elders but they would have done better to have respected Barthur’s aura of greatness… This one was good snarky fun.

Some might say there have been too many Dune stories already but it’s equally true that the universe is undeniably fascinating.  The partnership of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson give us a story from the viewpoint of a Saudaukar Bashar leading part of the attack against Duke Leto Atreides.  It is an almost sympathetic view of Saudaukar and a pivotal moment for Duncan Idaho, though he may not have known it.  This was a well-crafted story that instantly took me back to that universe.

And there will probably always be something from Terry Brooks, and something from Shannara – usually together.  This time it’s a tale of the search for the last surviving blood relation of the House of Shannara.  Someone has to be found to wield the Sword of Shannara one last time against the Dark Lord. But when the Dark Lord sends all his minions to murder every last one with even a drop of Shannara blood, it falls to the Druid Allanon to find the only one of whom the Dark Lord doesn’t know.

David Anthony Durham delves into the twisted recesses of his mind to deliver a dark piece of fantasy – an alternate version of ancient Rome.  A young man and his friends come of age and while they feel they will never be the equal of the wondrously strong, brave and invulnerable nobles of Rome, they are eager to join their ranks.  But the price is, of course, their souls.

My favorite is from Seanan McGuire.  It’s my favorite as it speaks to something I believe in – that humans have not been the best caretakers of Mother Earth.  When extinct species start reappearing from the wombs of ordinary animals, it feels like we’d been given another chance to make things right.  But Mother Earth may not have the same faith in mankind.

Dragons are the focus of the story from Marc Turner although we really don’t get to see much of them.  It’s really a story of thieves and a question of honor.  The thieves are women, in this case, and the twist is whether profit is the most important thing.  One might imagine women being more practical than men and these two women are no exception although what each considers important is quite different.

John Gwynne brings a story set in his Banished Lands saga using a character named Rhin although at a very different point in her life.  Rhin’s father, the King, is dying and she is determined that he will name her as his heir.  While waiting for him to die, she does what she can to cement a potential alliance with a captive Giant.  But when her father starts to name her brother as heir, she shows her true nature and if the Giant had made a different decision, her nature might have had a reason to change.

From Deborah A. Wolf, we get a story from her Illindriverse concerning a background character named Yaela.  This was not a pleasant story, the world-building was depressing and the characters were miserable.  The desert where these people live is hell on earth where it means death to be out during daylight.  A young woman, her pregnant sister and their dying husband are all that’s left of their polygamous family. Yaela’s primary purpose is to protect her sister – from the desert, from raiders and from their abusive husband.  Her conflict arises when she has the opportunity to escape but only at the expense of her beloved sister.

One of the least satisfying pieces is a prologue to Todd Lockwood’s Second Book of the Evertide. It might be more relevant to someone who’s read the first book but it was so short and lacking that it didn’t mean much to me.

Fans of Robert V.S. Redick’s Chathrand Voyage Quartet will probably really appreciate this new story.  It is a familiar theme or even themes…Thasha is on an ocean voyage that never seems to end.  All of her attempts to leave her cabin or even question their progress or destination are rebuffed by her traveling companions.  And for a long time, she doesn’t question her existence.  When she does finally notice that things are amiss, she risks her very life by exposing the charade.  And to escape she has to enter into a contract with an inhuman creature who has no mercy.

Anna Stephens used a couple characters from her debut novel Godblind:  Major Bedras and Cyrs Tailorson.  It involves an arrogant ass, a bad thunderstorm, panicked horses and a great deal of bad luck.  It tended to remind me of old cavalry vs. Indians movies, not terribly interesting.

And the creepiest story came from the mind of Peter Orullian, hands down.  It is the stuff of writers’ nightmares…what would one be willing to do to overcome a writer’s block?  What if a writer had to satisfy the monkey’s paw or pay the djinn to be able to write? 

Cat Rambo has written stories in a world called Tabat and she gives us a story set before her Beasts of Tabat.  A woman trained as a Merchant finds herself in a remote apparently primitive village where existence is idyllic and untouched by the Trade Gods.  She has an unexpected relationship with a non-descript and unimportant child; but a child who challenges her beliefs.  The child goes to great lengths to keep the primitive village untouched but it seems inevitable that civilization will always appear to disrupt and change.  The only real difference is in perception; for some it is disruption, for others a natural progression.

When Ken Scholes wrote the Psalms of Isaak he left tidbits laying around that he had planned to return to and this book was a great excuse to do so.  This is an amusing tale of two men; a king and his best friend who decide to run away and become pirates.  But it’s a great deal more complicated than just volunteering for some pillaging.  In this case, the king, Rudolfo, is only interested in sailing with a particular pirate captain so he has to do something spectacular enough to gain the captain’s attention and respect.  But after having done so, Rudolfo and his friend, Gregoric, are also expected to prove their worth and trustworthiness.  Gregoric, being a rather cynical and suspicious sort, fails to trust the captain at a crucial moment and uncovers the captain’s secret. But rather than causing a bloody confrontation, it changed the captain’s life and secured Rudolfo’s and Gregoric’s futures.

One of my favorite writers, Megan Lindholm has an apparent fascination with reality TV shows and her little tale is a behind-the-scenes with a house flipping show.  The unnamed narrator is responsible for staging houses before the TV crew arrives and one night she starts hearing voices.  It’s not unusual for her to hear ghosts from time to time but she can generally ignore them.  This time, though, the voice is loud and persistent and after some discussion with her producer, it might actually bring them better ratings.  The ghost wants closure – not an unfamiliar theme.  And she wants her killer brought to the house to apologize. Our narrator has to find a way to make that happen; both to complete the show’s shooting schedule but also to help the ghost(s?) rest.

For Tad Williams’ fans who are anticipating the May 2019 release of Empire of Grass; here is a preview.  The universe appears to be set in a norse mythology (I think); I’ve not read any of it. This tiny excerpt concerns itself with a small family who has to return to the maternal grandfather’s clan when the father disappears.  The family is treated as slaves and as the mother withers away from sadness, the young girl decides to leave her grandfather’s less-than-loving embraces.  She holes up in an empty house and encounters something both amazing and devastating – little people.  That snippet ends unsatisfactorily. The excerpt also relates an encounter between a High Magister and a Prince-Templar who has arrived to check on the progress of excavating a tomb; a tomb that lies beneath a fortified fortress protected by very well-armed humans.  Also an unsatisfactory snippet.  As with any excerpt or prologue, it may tantalize the dedicated fan but does not satisfy or entice this reader.

But the short story from Scott Sigler does satisfy. He has provided a sequel to his contribution in Unfettered II; paving the way for a very cool idea:  serial stories in Unfettered volumes, I hope there’s more.  In this world, society is at a horse-and-buggy level when all metal wasted away.  A young woman, Lisa, who is a trained assassin leaves her mountain refuge for a vacation in the big city of Frisco on the eve of the millennium.  Unfortunately, she finds herself on the run after murdering the man who had violated her as a child.  Her companions are Jimmie and Fish.  Jimmie is just a decent man who saw a girl who needed help; Fish, his partner, just saw a young woman of interest.  In any case, Lisa is beholden to Jimmie who hadn’t any reason to involve himself in her troubles.  Their journey through the desert brings them to a wealthy enclave where they hope to find help to save Jimmie after he was savaged by some nasty beasts.  But such help comes dear, as Lisa discovers.  She can, of course, walk away but her conscience won’t allow it; so she becomes the wealthy man’s champion in a duel to decide ownership of a piece of land.  She is confident of her success…until she realizes what she faces in the form of the other landowner’s champion.

And then there’s another favorite of mine:  Carrie Vaughn; who never disappoints me when she writes of superheroes.  Carrie doesn’t actually write from the POV of a hero; she generally gives us the view from an onlooker, a relative or even…a sidekick.  There’s little I can relate in a synopsis without major spoilers so I’ll just say it was six kinds of fun and I really hope we see more of Ms. Smith and her boss, Darren Bane.  It could be another serial…in the next Unfettered…just sayin’.

The next one was a nice little story from Patrick Swenson.  It’s not an unfamiliar theme; a mystery that must be solved by the protagonist who is able to communicate with a hawk.  Jarrel must find something stolen from his Queen but his investigation is complicated when he loses communication with his hawk who is behaving erratically.

Ramon Terrell returns to the world of his first book, the World of a Broken Age.  These events occur before Echoes, for those familiar with his work. A swordmaster, Shinobu, is looking for his long-lost siblings, stolen by a demon, when he discovers a magic sword.  Unfortunately, he also discovers the monster that guards it.  Pretty typical fare.  What’s not so typical is how the sword helps Shinobu maneuver through other dimensions with the ever-adapting monster hot on his trail.  And the payoff is when Shinobu discovers who owns both the sword and the guardian; and is possibly the one who stole his siblings.

Anna Smith Spark has a King who speaks to dragons and his sister who must balance the value of the wonder and marvel of her brother who can command a dragon… against the sacrifice it requires.

The story by Jason Denzel holds a special place in his heart, he relates.  The idea started long ago, in 2011, and finally found a home here.  And it is a special story; a story of a stone golem and how time matters little but purpose matters much.  A wizard created the golem and set him tasks in exchange for the golem’s eventual release by either the wizard or his successor.  The golem asked for just two things:  his freedom and sight.  The wizard, unwilling to free him so soon, does agree to provide sight.  And that’s when it goes awry.

Brandon Sanderson (and Robert Jordan) provide a small sequence that had been pruned from A Memory of Light, the final book of the Wheel of Time series.  The sequence was removed causing changes to the characters and chronology; leaving this story to stand alone and apart.  Imagine, Sanderson advises, that this is a glimpse of what might have been.  The enemy has been using an alternate dimension known as the Ways to move and resupply troops.  Our heroes, Perrin and a team of elite troops and channelers, have determined they need to destroy those paths.  It is, of course, a dangerous and almost impossible task unless the requisite cavalry shows up…in the nick of time. Sanderson spends some time explaining the need for the cut and what it ultimately meant for the final resolution of The Wheel of Time.

One of my all-time favs, Naomi Novik, has a fascinating story of a woman who assumes her dead husband’s career as a potter, against the usual cultural restrictions for women, yadda yadda.  The fun part of this story is that, as usual, it takes a woman to see things clearly.  The most talented potters are expected to create wondrous works with a special clay; a clay that eventually kills.  But the woman isn’t inclined to believe such an end is inevitable just because it’s “always been this way”.

And finally:  Shawn Speakman himself.  Shawn adds a short story from his Annwn cycle about a Knight and his trusty fairy guide trying to reestablish an extinct fey species – the Phoenix.  But their efforts to protect the last egg from the Phoenix’s hereditary foe and the supposed guardians of the Phoenix may be more than they are capable of accomplishing.  It is a fitting story to close this volume.  ~~ Catherine Book

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