Flashing Swords #5, Winter 2006

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"By the Sword" by John C. Hocking
"The Blood Marsh" by D. K. Latta
"The Dead God’s Puppet Show" by Robert Burke Richardson
"Prayer of the Warrior" by Nathan Meyer
"Tal’s Tale" by Nancy Virginia Varian
"Island of Fear" by John M. Whalen
"Homecoming" by Bruce Durham
This newest issue of Flashing Swords, #5, has nine stories. Leading off the pack is “By the Sword” by John C. Hocking. Hocking has had a story published in all three issues of Flashing Swords I’ve looked at, but this isn’t one of his Archivist Kel series.
“By the Sword” is a Norse revenge tale. Wolf the Hunter returns to his camp to find his people murdered by an enemy clan. After killing the scavengers that remained behind, he sets out to avenge his people. While this is a fairly standard storyline—the protagonist gives up his own life in the name of vengeance—it is interesting to see how he does it.  

Next up is D. K. Latta’s “The Blood Marsh.” Zargatha and Vyanna are lovers fleeing from assassins and must pass through a caustic, algae-filled marsh where the water runs red, the eponymous marsh.  It is haunted by a young woman who was taken prisoner by a evil wizard, or so the old man who agrees to ferry them through tells them.

“The Blood Marsh” is a reasonably good story, following a format often used in the early days of sword and sorcery. The writing isn’t necessarily crisp, but the characterization is good.  I enjoyed it, and in the end, that’s the important thing.

“The Dead God’s Puppet Show” by Robert Burke Richardson is the second installment in a series of stories about Jack Nimble and his assassin partner, Phillipe. Phillipe bumbled his way through an assassination and is thinking about retiring, but Jack talks him into another job, in his charismatic and sly way. The job, it turns out, is to steal a holy artifact from a vicious, bizarre little cult. Jack smiles his way through the job, until Phillipe takes the time to rescue the apes being tortured in the cult’s religious practices.

“The Dead God’s Puppet Show” hearkens back to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.  Richardson mirrors Leiber in his subtle use of dry humor and philosophical meditation, and writes a highly entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking story.  One of the best in this issue.

Nathan Meyer is next with “Prayer of the Warrior.” Vargas and his band of mercenaries were hired to help the priestess of a death god escape from a city-state that declared her a heretic. They stop for the night in a ruined village, and as they are settling for the night, men start dying.

“Prayer of the Warrior” is a pretty standard fight-the-monster tale. While Meyer’s writing is acceptable, there isn’t much here to separate it from others of its type, nothing to push it beyond formulaic.

“Tal’s Tale” by Nancy Virginia Varian is a reprint, originally published in Adventures of Sword and Sorcery. Tal, a warrior seeking his fortune, is smitten by King Odd’s bond-slave, Hervor. He seizes his chance to join the king’s household only to find he has stumbled into an unfinished drama of murder and vengeance.

“Tal’s Tale” is both complex and chilling. While it seems to start as just another revenge story, it moves beyond the limitations of this well-worn trope with strong characterization that boosts it from good to great.
Next up is Lawrence Barker’s “Awakening on Sorenson’s Planet.” Pravat O’Grady is on a rescue mission flying anti-virals to an exo-archaeology team on a distant planet. Things are complicated by the fact that the anti-virals are needed to save his sister. As Pravat’s ship nears its destination, it is shot down by a hostile attack of unknown origin.

The editor likens Barker’s tale to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories, but I don’t think the comparison is an apt one. It’s closer to exploration adventure stories like Robert A. Heinlein’s "juveniles," serialized in Boy’s Life in the ’50s, where humans meet sinister or confrontational alien species they are forced to defeat or flee from. That distinction aside, “Awakening on Sorenson’s Planet” is a fairly good story that follows in the footsteps of the many adventure tales that once populated the best pulps.

John M Whalen’s “Island of Fear” is the tale of a skeptical seafarers who come upon an island steeped in superstition and perhaps magic.  Tragon and Yusef save a young woman from a dinosaur-like beast.  They learn she is a chieftain’s daughter deposed of her station when a conniving witch doctor killed her father and her betrothed. She spurned the witch doctor’s advances and he condemned her to be sacrificed to the village’s god who resides in a volcano.

“Island of Fear” steps away from the standard seafarer tale with an ending that requires the characters to question their beliefs. It’s refreshing to see some thoughtfulness in a work which, on the outset, seemed like just another elementary adventure.

In “Betrothal in Darkness” by Jay Stevol, Yaga has stolen the prized courtesan of the most powerful warlord in the land. As he flees with her from the hunting parties of Sunswat, they enter a valley of strange beast men. They retreat to a mysterious cave that the beast men will not enter because they are afraid of the monstrous hag who sleeps within. This is a pretty straightforward story, the kind sword and sorcery fans will have seen before. Yaga would fit perfectly into a Hyborean adventure of lust, where the strongest takes the spoils. But it doesn’t push beyond that.

The final story of this issue is Bruce Durham’s “Homecoming.”  Delacroy, Lyman, and Moirya ride towards Moirya’s home, Qaitl, and discover a flood of refugees fleeing from a city recently conquered by an ambitious lord. They sneak into the city to find Moirya’s parents killed, and Moirya is promptly taken prisoner. This is another well known variety of sword and sorcery tale, but deft characterization helps it stand out.

This issue of Flashing Swords shows that it’s still feeling growing pains. While there were some excellent stories, there were also some that seemed to be mostly filler. On the whole, I thought #5 was better overall than previous issues, and I hope to see the magazine continue that trend.