“Bearslayer and the Black Knight” by Tom Crosshill
“Sinking Among Lilies” by Cory Skerry
Reviewed by Aaron Bradford Starr
Reading Chaucer in the original brings home what a different world the man lived in. When the words that history allows us to read, even so soon afterward, are so very different, our entire understanding gets adjusted, and, for a moment, we feel the gulf of time and culture that separates us. To try to evoke that same feeling of difference in fantasy fiction is a goal few can achieve, and to try too hard results in fiction either stilted and limping on one side of the spectrum, or completely incomprehensible on the other. And yet here we have two stories that deliver just such a sought-after feeling, in very different ways.
The first is “Bearslayer and the Black Knight” by Tom Crosshill, which evokes the Fornaldarsogur, the epic Norse poems that recount the deeds of mighty heroes. The stylistic verses are very well done, calling to mind all of the power of ancient heroes, full of terrible, inhuman violence and power. And the interleaving prose carries its own weight, both stylistically as well as narratively.
The density and intensity of the images evoked in the writing are striking, and Mr. Crosshill wields them like sledgehammers, yet somehow crafting a delicate tale of love, and the hope of acceptance. But the protagonists were not created to be creatures of love, and the people whose champions they are do not barter in acceptance.
This story brings to mind the Illiad, and Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus, or Haphestion and Alexander the Great. Stories exploring any form of emotional depth between men are rare, and, given the erotic nature of the relationship between Bearslayer and the Black Knight, some might find the story difficult to get through. But Mr. Crosshill invites the reader to embrace many concepts far more alien, with protagonists who are city-destroying juggernauts with the power of their entire nation coursing through them. It is only in their new-found relationship with each other that the two warriors become human, and therein lies their downfall. A story that truly stands alone, so unique is it.
“Sinking Among Lilies,” by Cory Skerry, is the more inviting of the two, but draws such a clear scene that the elements one comes to expect in fantasy writing seem new and fresh. Our protagonist is Imuri Bane, a woman who hunts magical creatures called, collectively, anathema. She is a freelancer, using her training in a religious order to give her the knowledge and abilities she needs. Her motives go beyond money, however, as her path split from her order over her view that common folk must know how to defend themselves.
The mystical creatures might make one believe we’re in an Ireland just a few universes away, and yet the mannerisms and cultural differences make it feel new and different, and very engaging. Even the creatures Mr. Skerry populates his story with are refreshing, from silkies to nixies, and others that are all too rare, drawn from Gaelic mythology.
“Sinking Among Lilies” goes beyond its own fantasy trappings, however, to present an interesting moral dilemma: that power, given with all good intentions, can all too often make monsters of those who might otherwise be victims. Can the answer truly be to never help the weak? “Sinking Among Lilies” presents a tale that is not only rich in texture, but intriguing as well, and I, for one, hope to read more of the travels of Imuri Bane, but failing that, will gladly take up anything else written by Cory Skerry.