The Sword Review, #15, June 2006

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"From the Ashes"
by A. B. England
"The Lost Freehold" by Scott M. Sandridge
"The Guilty Party" by Alex Popkin
"What is Done in Secret" by J. A. Stardust
"A Kabrisk’s Son" by Sean T.M. Steinnon
"From the Ashes" by A. B. England is about transformation, specifically what events in our lives shape us and make us who we are. Avon, a broken girl, is left for dead during a raid. Cathbad, a kindly, old druid, heals her, takes her in, and asks her to train to follow in his footsteps. If that were the end of the story, it would be a simple and familiar one, but Avon’s tale doesn’t stop there, it continues through the years as she transforms into Deidre the apprentice druidess. As Deidre grows in knowledge, she also grows into a lovely young woman, and in any society, beauty can be both a blessing and a curse.
The question that should hook the reader is: Will Deidre be able to follow her avocation, or will she have to follow her society’s more traditional dictates for a woman? Unfortunately, it doesn’t, at least not completely. I never felt enough of a connection to the character to care. The events that surround Avon early on are meant to draw the reader in, but it wasn’t compelling enough for me. Other characters, like Cathbad or King Conchobar have just enough going for them to make them interesting, but not enough depth to save the story. The best parts of the tale are the snippets of druid herb lore.

"The Lost Freehold" by Scott M. Sandridge reads like a chapter in a fantasy novel. While there is a definite beginning, middle, and end to the action—specifically the story of Korgash’s pursuit of a band of renegade thieves led by a wily goblin—the ending leaves enough things open to continue the tale indefinitely. There are all the elements you might expect to find in any good fantasy tale: strange lands, characters that are everything but human, lost treasure, mystical powers, and an omniscient being. Korgash, the lead character, has a distinct personality, and the dialogue between him and the other characters rings true. The middle of the tale drags a bit, but the story never completely loses momentum; it is well worth the read.

Attorney Henry Klinbald thinks he has the perfect case, open and shut. But, as with most things in life, the case isn’t quite as simple as it seems. "The Guilty Party" by Alex Popkin is a commentary on modern American society disguised as short fiction. The story expounds on the idea that Americans will sue just about anyone over just about anything, in this case an abstract concept. Popkin uses touches of humor and a familiar style—the classic courtroom procedural—to effectively shape his tale.

Not quite a character study and not quite a morality tale, "What is Done in Secret" by J. A. Stardust focuses on Atel Santor, a prison guard with a conscience. Thoughts of his own daughter prompt him to find compassion in an environment where it is severely lacking. Will kindness be rewarded or cursed as a sign of weakness? Is Atel a hero or an anti-hero? The only way to find out is to delve into J.A. Stardust’s well-paced tale. The element that makes the story work is the characterization of the main character. While the other guards and denizens of the kingdom never rise above your stock bad guy/good guy, protagonist Atel shows genuine conflict. Just as real people can’t be put into neatly, labeled boxes, neither can our hero be so simply categorized.

The heroes in "A Kabrisk’s Son" by Sean T.M. Steinnon are Drace and Shabak. Drace is a young man who yearns to make the next big step in life. All he wants is to escape from his current life on Talon Hill to one that involves a bit more excitement and the damsel of his dreams. Until that happens, he has to make due with his current life, as the adoptive son of Shabak the kabrisk.  What is a kabrisk? The best I can tell, a kabrisk is a long-lived race of sentient insects known to be fierce warriors.
Being a fierce warrior and the son of a fierce warrior comes in handy when a princess in distress crosses their path. Once Princess Ophilia appears, the action never lets up. The story moves at a good clip and the characters seem true to life, especially the parts that capture Drace’s teen angst. Shabak is everything you might expect a warrior father to be, and Ophilia is close to what one might expect from a beautiful princess. My only quibble is with the “bad” guys and secondary characters, who are exactly what you would expect bad guys and secondary characters to be and nothing more.

Other than wishing that some of the minor characters had more bite, the story is an interesting read. The well-rounded lead characters, the pacing, and the introduction to a new realm make “A Kabrisk’s Son” well worth the time.