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Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Badguy, edited by W.H. Horner
Posted byPhil Soletsky
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“Beerwolf” by Lawrence C. Connolly “A Different Shade of Knight” by Jason S. Ridler “Assassin’s Playground” by A. G. Devitt “Mistress Fortune Favors the Unlucky” by Eugie Foster “A Lesson in Heroics” by Jeremy Yoder “The Ice Maiden Speaketh” by Paul Crilley “Keep Coming Back for More” by Margaret Ronald “The Great Thrakkian Rebellion” by Megan Crewe “Always Read the Fine Print” by L. L. Donahue “Heard It” by Dale Mettam “Crossing Swords” by Murray J. D. Leeder “Hallah Iron-Thighs and the Hounds of Hell” by K. D. Wentworth “There’s Only One Dakon the Mighty” by Elizabeth H. Hopkinson “Goblin Hero” by Jim C. Hines “No Shit, There We Were” by Michael Brendan “But Before I Kill You…” by Lindsey Duncan “An Incident at Black Tongue Tavern” by Michael Turner “Delilah’s Dames in Nomadsland” by Melissa Lee Shaw “The Atrocious Head-Bashing Troubadour” by C. M. Huard “The Voice of Reason” by Ken Brady “In the Shit” by Barbara Davies “The Wrestler’s Apprentice” by Stephen Castillet “The Order of the Crimson Tunic” by Kevin N. Haw “Just Temping” by Susan Sielinski
By way of disclaimer, I, habitually, do not read fantasy stories. I played D&D a little in high school almost 25 years ago, I never managed to finish The Hobbit, and I am aware of the existence of Terry Brooks without having read anything written by him. I am, however, reading the apparently unending The Wheel of Time series, so go figure. Therefore, stories many of you may think have been done to death may be absolutely new and fresh to me, and well-known fantasy literary references are likely to sail clear over my head. Consider this fair warning.
Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Badguy begins with “Beerwolf” by Lawrence C. Connolly. Even I recognize this is a Beowulf satire, but having never read Beowulf, I really can’t say any more about that. A drunken and not too bright hero enters a lake looking to pretend to slay the creatures that live there and make a name for himself. He miscalculates the depth of the lake and the weight of his armor and so almost drowns and ends up meeting the real denizens of the lake who really just want to be left alone. I liked this story for its vivid characters and its lush dialog, though it falls considerably short of laugh-out-loud funny, if that was its intent.
“A Different Shade of Knight” by Jason S. Ridler is a fun if sort of silly story about a young wizard who has his tongue more or less held hostage as he works off his debt to a corpulent tavern owner. My lesson for the day is, at least in this world, you can’t cast magic if you can’t speak, or maybe it’s that the wizard’s magic resides in his tongue—whichever. The work at the tavern is vile as the author deftly illustrates with several graphic descriptions. Increasingly desperate, the wizard makes a deal with a lesser god to become his knight, with the plan that he will be able to recover his tongue. What follows aims for the feeling of sort of a zany classic French farce; a target that it more or less hits with success.
“Assassin’s Playground” by A. G. Devitt reminded me of a Stephen Chow movie called Kung Fu Hustle. Two hapless, clueless, and, for the most part, helpless heroes try to rescue a man’s daughter from a strip club where she is being held against her will. Are they up to the task? While the comedy here relies on sort of worn out fantasy comic standards—one of the heroes spends much of his time bellowing about wanting to get some mead—the two heroes are as unlikely as they are likeable. The ending furthermore is a fair twist, though pretty disturbing if you really stop to think about it.
You may consider this the review of disclaimers. Here’s another one: “Mistress Fortune Favors the Unlucky” is written by our very own Eugie Foster. This story is almost a mystery really, though with a strong fantasy bent, involving a search for a missing bauble and the person who stole it. I found both the characters and the story as a whole very strongly and clearly detailed, especially considering its ten-page length, and it even manages to squeeze in a passable mystery. The story does sort of stand out from the rest of the anthology in that it really isn’t even remotely funny. It is clever, and a little dramatic, and is maybe overly fixated on corsets, flogging, bondage, blindfolds, and discipline—something that I might discuss with Mrs. Foster in greater depth at some other time.
Heroes can be so inconsiderate sometimes. Sure, they’ll catch the bad guy, but how many innocents’ carts are upset, how many bystander’s doors get bashed in or gardens get trampled on? In “A Lesson in Heroics” by Jeremy Yoder, someone is going to teach two heroes how to clean up their messes and right some of the wrongs they’ve caused. It’s a humbling lesson, a little bit funny around the edges, and overall a simple joy to read. It is a straightforward story which yet manages to conceal a few small surprises in its folds.
“The Ice Maiden Speaketh” by Paul Crilley is a very smart story about a woman who works her way up the evil corporate ladder. She starts a “Dear Abby” style advice column in a newspaper printed in the evil citadel (many of the letters to which are pretty funny) and in doing so, subtly, and not so subtly, ends up in charge of everything. The author effectively weaves old fantasy culture and modern corporate sensibilities into a surprisingly cohesive narrative.
I’m sure it totally sucks to be the sidekick to one of the world’s greatest heroes. You keep taking the lumps; he keeps taking the glory. Worse still if you happen to be immortal, and so die again and again, only to have to come back again and again to do it all over. “Keep Coming Back for More” by Margaret Ronald tells this tale in a surprisingly fulfilling and believable fashion, and while the hero is sort of generic cookie-cutter, the sidekick is fully fleshed, cynical, world-weary, and angry. But can he find a solution to his problem?
If you’re an evil wizard, you’ve got to remember to keep your Thrakks busy. It wouldn’t do to have them idling the hours, wondering why they’re the ones going to battle for you, sleeping in the dirt and eating slop while you’ve got a good bed and a good meal after a hard day of not having spears stuck in you. An entertaining slant on the modern union labor dispute, “The Great Thrakkian Rebellion” by Megan Crewe shows us how to keep your Thrakks in line, should you ever come across such a problem yourself. I like this unusual view from the trenches, and have often wondered myself just why all those goblins agree to hurl themselves against the heroes’ swords.
A wizard, trying to create a life-sized animated toy bear for his niece’s birthday instead turns himself into a large stuffed toy bear. That’s just the beginning of his troubles in “Always Read the Fine Print” by L. L. Donahue. While even in my meager experience I know that “spell gone wrong” tales are a staple of comic fantasy storytelling, I liked this one for its thoughtful story that ends up somewhere I really had no idea it was going. Also, not to get too freshman college lit class about it, the sweet juxtaposition of the bear as both a loveable children’s toy and a rather large carnivore just begs for a good bit of humor, and this story succeeds there.
If you’ve ever played D&D for a couple of years as I have, you quickly come to realize that, though there are minor variances, each dungeon crawl is more or less like every other one, which I suppose explains how they became known as dungeon crawls in the first place. “Heard It” by Dale Mettam comically plays on that redundancy as a hero brazenly rushes into all manner of dangers because he believes he’s done this sort of thing so many times before that there is no surprising him. This story really captures the “been there, done that” feeling and then turns it on its side in a funny and surrealistic fashion. His heroic and yet world-weary attitude to everything he runs into is really very amusing.
Just what do enchanted sentient swords think about? To be perfectly honest, I’ve never given it a moment’s thought, though clearly Murray J. D. Leeder has in his appealing story “Crossing Swords.” For starters, there’s a lot of waiting around in a dungeon somewhere for a person brave and capable enough to pass its dangers and retrieve you. Those millennia kind of suck. And then, what if you’re ultimately wielded by some doofus? It’s not all beer and skittles, that’s for sure, and this story is an unusual romp through an unexpected and largely unexplored realm.
“Hallah Iron-Thighs and the Hounds of Hell” by K. D. Wentworth starts out interestingly enough as two adventurers (one of which is the titular Hallah Iron-Thighs) accidentally adopt a hell hound. Far from the perfect pet, it’s untrained and very stinky. They wander across the countryside with this unfortunate pet and are set upon by an elderly set of bandits. It’s here that the story veers uncomfortably into a tree. It meanders much, consumes a great deal of words for a short story, and seems to sacrifice any attempt at narrative flow for absolutely any punch line it can find. The plot lurches to and fro, the story just kind of ending when all the characters tire of talking to each other and go their separate ways. If asked to write a short story without planning it out in my mind first or editing it afterwards, I think this is a lot like what I would end up with.
In “There’s Only One Dakon the Mighty” by Elizabeth H. Hopkinson, a high-speed collision occurs between old time adventure and modern day celebrity. Dakon is a famous adventurer, hero, quest-solver and maiden-rescuer. He’s got fame, fortune, book signings, promotional appearances, and probably a line of calendars and coffee mugs, but what he really wants is to be an adventurer. It seems simple enough to get a double (or triple, or quadruple) to fill his shoes on the press junkets while he does the fun stuff. Confusion and hilarity ensues.
A small goblin seeks to earn some respect in “Goblin Hero” by Jim C. Hines. This isn’t really a funny story despite a little early slapstick involving a fire spider, but don’t hold that against it. It is instead a well thought-out adventure as the goblin leaves his deep caves for the realm of the cloudlings, where, not to give too much away, he has . . . an adventure. My sole objection is that the hero of the story is really the fire spider, though I suppose the little goblin should get some credit for using it wisely.
The structure of “No Shit, There We Were” by Michael Brendan is interesting in that, at only three pages, it is really more of a story within a story, both of which are therefore incredibly brief. A sergeant of the watch sits in the bar and tells you (the reader) about a particularly spectacular arrest he made once. The frame story, the bar scene, is simple (as it must be, given the length) yet reasonably agreeable as a lead into the inner story, that of the arrest. The inner story is just a quick chase scene, more or less, like walking into an action movie during the big shootout and then walking out again. That’s not particularly satisfying, and in some ways I wish a more substantial inner story had followed the pretty good lead in. Instead, I’m left with this sort of vague lacking of an idea only half formed.
“But Before I Kill You…” by Lindsey Duncan is a strange one. An evil princess rises to the throne when her father the king steps aside. She hires some people, fires some others, and generally makes the operations of the castle her own. She deals with assassins, peasant rebellions, and political maneuverings by her advisors, mostly by having a lot of people killed and throwing them in dungeons. Where’s the humor in any of this? I’m not exactly sure. I don’t think the author intended it to be funny. They had a story to tell, sort of a romance, and it unfortunately ended up here. It’s not a bad story by any means. The woman promoted to evil queen is clever, and the problems she deals with and her solutions to them are realistic, if not exactly gripping, but of all the stories, this one alone doesn’t fit in with the rest of the anthology.
When I was fourteen playing D&D, the story of a barbarian, a thief, and a warrior woman in a chain mail bikini trying to collect the bounty on some criminals drinking and playing cards in a tavern would have had me rolling in the aisles with prepubescent glee. I’m not fourteen anymore, and “An Incident at Black Tongue Tavern” by Michael Turner is a little too obvious and heavy-handed to sustain its meager storyline, even through its protracted length. Anyone want to guess whether or not she ends up topless and bound in her own bikini top? As I said, fourteen-year-old males will love it.
A group of warrior woman (completely buff, half-naked warrior women) lead a caravan across a desert populated by nomads and thieves. On the way to meet a Prince, the Prince’s vizier and his bride-to-be must not be waylaid. The adventure that awaits them in “Delilah’s Dames in Nomadsland” by Melissa Lee Shaw is neither terrifically unexpected nor particularly original, but it is well presented with several well-drawn characters, even if those characters are sometimes stupid to a level that stretches belief near the breaking point to keep the plot going.
Told from a barbarian’s point of view, “The Atrocious Head-Bashing Troubadour” by C. M. Huard is a difficult read filled with sentence fragments and stilted dialog. Though I realize that, to some extent, that was the author’s intent—the atmosphere he was reaching for—I feel he overdid it. Also, the final joke of the story, the one that the whole story is building up to, falls completely flat through a combination of too much foreshadowing and simply not being funny. The resulting payoff vacuum is a real letdown.
Among the shortest of the stories in this anthology, “The Voice of Reason” by Ken Brady nonetheless holds its own admirably. A woman who built a house in the middle of nowhere, specifically to get away from it all, is kept awake one night by a singing Minotaur. Why won’t he just go away? While I admit that in summary, the story doesn’t sound like much, it does contain a full measure of empathy. We feel for her in the face of this unearthly wailing, and her solution . . . well, that doesn’t work out quite as planned.
Though it contains a few gross, funny moments, “In the Shit” by Barbara Davies is more heartwarming than anything else when a woman who owns a boarding house teams up with a thief and a mercenary to help out an elderly wizard who rents a room from her retrieve a magic bracelet. Her motivations for the extensive sacrifices that she makes for this wizard, described for the most part as merely “kindly” and “old,” is poorly established from a narrative perspective. Also, I must admit to a certain confusion regarding Davies’s selection of title, which refers to a crawl through an active sewer pipe, representative of only a very small part of the whole adventure.
A giant who gets sick at the thought of violence and the scrawny son of a famous wrestler become unlikely knights in “The Wrestler’s Apprentice” by Stephen Castillet. While written in a fluid and readable style, the plot of this story is extremely forced, as the kid uses judo-like wrestling maneuvers to get himself out of trouble over and over again. It has some cute moments, but even the mildly observant reader can see the jokes lining up on their approach vectors from miles away.
Written in the form of letters home to mom, “The Order of the Crimson Tunic” by Kevin N. Haw invokes feelings similar to the old song “Camp Granada” by Allan Sherman. A new apprentice is on his very first dungeon crawl (The Caverns of Attrition) under the leadership of a hero who bravely leads from the rear, a thick pad of apprentices between himself and all the nasty dangers. The letters remain light and cheerful as his fellow apprentices succumb to all manner of horrific traps and beasties, winnowing down the numbers with comic ease. Our young apprentice’s naiveté is delicious as he and his fellow apprentices blindly stumble one after the other to their doom. Look out for that Bohemian Earspoon trap!
I freaking loved “Just Temping” by Susan Sielinski, and not just because she has a last name that’s almost as difficult to spell as my own. A woman loses her job and turns to a temp agency to find work. She ends up with, I’m sure you can guess, Evil Overlord of a nearby dimension! What?? A really witty spin on modern life, in this world she’s got to deal with a bad boyfriend, a car that needs work, and a nagging mom, and orcs, trolls, a dragon, and heroes who want to kill her in that one. Her solutions to her problems in both dimensions are very creative. On the originality scale, this one is clear off the charts. If you buy the entire anthology to read this story alone and throw the rest away, you’d still be coming out ahead. OK, so maybe that’s a bit over the top, but I really did like it a lot.