Monday, April 12, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: Warriors edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

On the outside, Warriors is an impressive tome: it's this massive hardcover that features an all-star lineup of contributors. Even the introduction sets the standard: this anthology is genre agnostic and simply tries to tell the best "Warrior" stories there is, whether it be historical, crime, science fiction, or fantasy. As praise-worthy as that is, the question is whether the book lives up to its packaging.

There are twenty stories all in all and thankfully, each one of them is a solid story. There are no weak or under-developed stories here, although each one does not necessarily stands out. And that, I think, is the blessing and curse of Warriors. The bar is admittedly high: whereas other anthologies might have stories that are sub-par, here, every story is more than competent and has a strong foundation. But just because a story is well-written does not necessarily mean it's automatically a favorite, and the dilemma here, like any anthology, is finding a wide variety of stories that stand out.

Take for example "The King of Norway" by Cecelia Holland, "The Triumph" by Robin Hobb, "Soldierin" by Joe R. Lansdale, or even the Song of Ice and Fire novella "The Mystery Knight" by George R. R. Martin. If it comes down to discussion of technique, there's nothing wrong with these stories. In fact, they work within the context of what the author sets out to accomplish and they are, when read indepedently, enjoyable stories. In the context of this anthology, however, they feel a bit too commonplace, meeting one's initial expectation of warrior-related stories. That's not bad per se, simply that they're classified as good stories when they could have been greater.

And then there are stories which experiment a bit and are memorable because they do so. Examples are "Dirae" by Peter S. Beagle which is admittedly confusing at first but readers eventually figure out the puzzle as the author presents an unlikely warrior; "The Girls from Avenger" by Carrie Vaughn which tackles the plight of female pilots during World War II and relies more on emotional drama rather than action to drive the narrative; "The Scroll" by David Ball which has has an Arabian Nights atmosphere to it, due to the setting and determinism philosophy belying the piece.

The strongest pieces for me are "Clean Slate" by Lawrence Block and "Out of the Dark" by David Weber. "Clean Slate" clearly overturns expectations as to what kind of story it is. There's a distinct transition as the reader experiences curiosity, eroticism, and finally horror. Block covers a wide spectrum of emotions and the fact that the story nonetheless retains its impact on the second reading makes this a noteworthy story in my book. "Out of the Dark", on the other hand, I feel will polarize readers. On one hand, Weber is a master of atmosphere: he sets and establishes the mood right from the outset, and while unwary readers might think this is simply the author using well-established techniques, this is actually Weber setting up the reader for the coup-de-grace. On the other hand is the ending and this will divide readers into two camps: either this is a brilliant finale or the worst. I belong to the former camp. Admittedly, "Out of the Dark" is more of a guilty pleasure rather than a piece you read for literary achievement (which I think the other stories in this anthology qualify).

Overall, Warriors is a solid and sturdy anthology and with all the A-listers included in the back of the book, it thankfully meets expectations. If this were a tournament, Warriors is the equivalent of betting on the expected winner as opposed to the underdog: the odds are for it and there's a good reason why that's so.

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