The first story is entitled “Redwater” by Noleen Cavanaugh. It’s about a lowland woman named Sorcha who is a guest in a highland home. While there, the homeowner’s cattle come down with a disease called redwater, which similar to mad cow disease, except it’s a lot more fast-acting. The homeowner is an old woman who has the ability to bind the disease. It turns out Sorcha does, too, which is something that has almost been eradicated from the lowlands by the Red Priests.
This story, while competently written, didn’t do as much for me as I’d hoped for two reasons. For starters, it read like a first chapter in a novel, and there were parts of the backstory I would have liked to have known. The crisis only serves to bring Sorcha into contact with the person who reveals to her the abilities she didn’t know she had, but other than that, we don’t learn much about her. Based on the ending, there is clearly going to be more to come. The second reason this one didn’t do a lot for me was that I’ve seen enough variations of the wise woman taking in an apprentice who was totally unaware of her power to get too excited about it again.
Who the Red Priests are, or why Sorcha is in the highlands is not information we’re given. I’m assuming that information will be imparted in future installments. I can’t imagine this story not being the inaugural installment in a series given how it ends. In spite of this one not being entirely to my taste, I see a lot of potential here. Kavanaugh implies that Sorcha is quite powerful but also lacks control of her abilities. It would be nice to see a sorcerer/mage/adept who is either unable to control her gift or has some other obstacle to overcome in order to use it. I’m sure that type of story is out there, but I’ve not seen much of it. Since Sorcha has only discovered her talent, neither she nor the reader really has a clear idea of the extent of her abilities. Depending on how Kavanaugh chooses to develop Sorcha’s talents, this could be a breath of fresh air, in spite of my previous comments. I enjoyed the writing enough to be willing to read one or two more installments.
The other story in the issue was more along the lines of what I look for in a fantasy story. “Hel Awaits” is a historical adventure by David J. West. While David and I share a last name, we have never met in person, and we are not related (as far as I know). Whereas “Redwater” had no physical action, “Hel Awaits” was brimming over with it. It’s the story of Tyr, a Norse mercenary who has been hired to assassinate a caliph.
The Robert E. Howard influence can be seen in this one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This story moves at a breakneck pace, and I found myself being swept up in the action. While Tyr is almost more superhuman than I like at times, the tale had a nice twist at the end, where we learn why he accepted a commission to assassinate the caliph.
There were no fantasy elements in this one, or if there were, they were so minor that I missed them. It was all straight-out action-adventure in a historical setting. That’s not something you see much of these days, and I for one would like to see a lot more of this kind of thing. While the first story emphasized the sorcery, this one emphasized the sword.
So, overall, what did I think of this issue of Swords and Sorcery? I liked it. Will I read the next issue, or go back and read the first issue? Yes. In addition to trying to support a new S&S publication, I enjoyed the stories, even if one of them wasn’t entirely the type of thing I generally read. These aren’t award winners, but with a new publication, that isn’t surprising. The authors are more than competent storytellers, which is more than I can say for some of the work I’ve seen printed in more prominent publications. I hope Swords and Sorcery succeeds. I’ll be adding it to my list.