“Unfettered” Review

This review will be a little weird. Unfettered is an anthology of short stories released to help Shawn Speakman with medical debt. Those who donated a story were given no topic, genre, or length restrictions. It’s impossible to review as a whole, so instead, I’m going to give a brief review of each story in the anthology. The length of the individual review will likely depend on how much of an impact it made on me; however, I’ll try to say something about each piece.

I won’t have a spoilers section (another weird bit for me, since I usually feel lost without them), but if anyone wants to have spoilery discussions, the comments are a great place for them.

Imaginary Friends

This will be the first of many stories in this anthology I say this about: This story didn’t work for me. At all. But I’m not the target demographic for it. I’m a slightly-cynical reader of Epic Fantasy who finds attempts at a sense of wonderment hokey. This story feels like it would be perfect for late Middle Grade or early Young Adult readers who are looking for that sense of wonder.

How Old Holly Came to Be

Patrick Rothfuss is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Not only for his writing, the worst of which I still found to be fantastic, but also for the personality behind the writing. The modest, humorous, kindhearted storyteller. It’s the reason that I had liked his page on Facebook before I’d read a word of his fiction.

He both wrote the foreword to the anthology and offered a story of his own, so he was the expected delight of the anthology.

Well, I say story, but Old Holly is almost more of a poem. It’s an incredible piece in the same way that The Slow Regard of Silent Things was, although it leans even further into experiment than the novella had. If you’re fascinated by the use of language and the choice of perspective very different from our own, you’ll love this. If you’re looking for an emotional punch to the gut or high adventure, well, this is not that, although that is coming before too long.

The Old Scale Game

This story was good old fashioned Fantasy fun. I knew from the introduction to the story that I’d love the piece, and sure enough, I did. It’s not one of those stories that is meant to tug at the heartstrings and leave marks on your soul. It’s meant to make you smile, to make your day a bit brighter as you read. And I think it accomplishes that.

Game of Chance

Game of Chance was one of three stories that truly hit me emotionally. It has characters that I grew to love, a premise both original and interesting, brilliant execution, and a powerful ending. This is one of those stories where the last few paragraphs will stay in your head for weeks.

The Martyr of Roses

The second story that really impacted me. The descriptions, the characters, and the worldbuilding are what make this piece stand out. Small surprise, since it’s a non-canon story set in the world of a larger series. What surprised me was how quickly I took a liking to the main characters, and how the language made me feel the sunshine, taste the dust, see the blood. And once again, the ending is hard to forget.

Mudboy

To me, Mudboy felt like it took deep roots from character-driven Fantasy like Feist, but with a bit of the swift-moving pace of Salvatore. This is hardly a bad thing. Briar is an interesting character, set in an interesting world where interesting things happen. It’s a quick read, and worth your time. However, it is on a straight line to the end from the very beginning, which you can see coming from almost word one if you’re genre savvy.

The Sound of Broken Absolutes

This is the last of my three favorite stories in the anthology. I’m a guy who likes some catharsis, some moral dilemma. I like sympathetic protagonists who make mistakes, and try to make up for them. Dynamic, imperfect characters, who learn, grow, and are changed by what happens to them.

But the thing I might love more than anything is when a Fantasy world has what I call gravity–though I suppose you could call it a form of object permanence. When I can believe that the world in which the character lives not only continues to exist when they’re not looking, but that it continues to exist when I’m not. When I can feel the weight of a world’s history in the smallest object, when I believe that if a character wanted, they could pick up said object and throw it–and face a realistic consequence for doing so. It’s the reason that I play the Elder Scrolls games, the reason that I listen to random conversations between NPCs, the reason I hoard the in-game books and read them when I have the time. It increases this sense of gravity, and enriches my experience.

This is the story that captures all of these things with subtlety and care. It is a masterwork of worldbuilding, magic that hums in the background of each page, character backstories–some revealed, some hinted at, some left in mystery–and winding paths that the main characters follow that at the end seem predestined (without being predictable while reading). This is a piece that has single handedly convinced me to look up the author’s other work.

The Coach with Big Teeth

This story feels more like a short from Stephen King than a piece by R.A. Salvatore. This is neither praise nor condemnation; I feel the characters are quickly recognizable, the story is simple yet intriguing, the development is steady and well-shaped. But the ending is about as strong as the typical King ending. A quick BANG and then it’s over. It left me feeling a bit hollow.

Keeper of Memory

Keeper of Memory is a strong story, in the tradition of classical Fantasy work, with some strong characters and effective writing setting it apart from the more outdated stuff. It features a couple of plot twists, some excellent, some borderline-nonsensical, a strong lead, and an effective main story. It builds tension steadily, it expresses wonder and horror without telling us to feel one or the other, and it has us rooting for the lead. It gets away with things that would make me wince in a lesser work, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give to a piece.

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Without the introduction the author provides, this story is ok. Interesting concept, solid execution, and emotional journey. It takes both its style and its execution from some Central and South American background, and captures the mix of surreal and realistic very well. With the introduction, the story becomes truly heartbreaking.

Either way, it’s worth a read, though the ending doesn’t have the degree of resolution I would have liked.

Dogs

This is basically a horror story. I thought I’d open with that so that you step into it prepared. It has a horrifying premise, brief mentions of gore, and the building tension of a character slipping into paranoia if not downright madness. Again, as with many of these stories, I don’t feel that the ending does it justice, but the road up to that point is fraught with turmoil. I liked the characters involved, and the story is depicted in a realistic way, in which even the most banal moment is coiled and ready to snap.

The Chapel Perilous

Another fun, delightful read. This is a story that will make you chuckle when it’s not making you grin. The best part of the narrative is wondering how much of this story is true. It’s always in question what is being exaggerated for the audience, which keeps you interested and explains some of the more outlandish bits. The lead character is the only one with any depth, but he’s the only one who needs depth. The rest work fine essentially as backdrops, since the main character’s voice carries through even the quietest moments, tingeing it with humor.

Select Mode

This story convinced me to read more of Mark Lawrence’s work solely through the voice of the main character. Ok, truthfully, a friend had recommended his work repeatedly beforehand, but Lawrence writes Grimdark, which I have a well-established feud with. But reading this short story, the voice and the prose of it, convinced me to read his first novel. Maybe I’ll hate it. Maybe, despite having the same lead as the short, some magic of it will be missing. But in this story, at least, every word is exquisite.

All the Girls Love Michael Stein

This one didn’t connect to me personally. I have no solid reasons for feeling this way, and I’m not going to try to turn anybody else off from reading it. Just sharing my personal experience.

Strange Rain

Strange Rain felt more like something out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark than something from a largely Fantasy anthology. It isn’t bad for that. if you like a sense of creepiness and an aura of foreboding, there are worse stories. The characters are intentionally grotesque, but handled well and made as close to sympathetic as I feel they could be, and the ending was…interesting, to say the least.

Nocturne

This story reminds me of the Edgar Allan Poe stories that deal with madness in an almost experimental way, letting the madness bleed into the prose. This story is feverish and abstract in some ways. It doesn’t take long for you to clue in to the fact that not everything that’s happening is happening in a literal sense; some of it might be a hallucination or delusion or nightmare. How much is real, and why it’s being made up, are the large driving mysteries. In the end it is explained pretty directly, pretty baldly, where I feel it could have shone through more gradually, more subtly. This, too, has elements of horror, though not as strongly as some previous.

Unbowed

Unbowed is a mostly fantastic short story that has a few flaws I feel held it back from greatness. Its tone is very much along the lines of Raymond E. Feist, with maybe a tad slower pace and a bit more character depth, a good fit for me. The characters, plot, and setting are awesome. The main character is instantly likable, and you root for him throughout the tale. The setting/supporting characters are cool, though I can’t say I ever root for them.

The two weakness (I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can, so I’m sorry if I’m a bit vague): One of the characters manages to be the annoying tagalong that messes everything up, AND the one who needs to be rescued. I can stand one or the other if the character is well-developed and interesting (which this one is), but both make me resent the character for existing, particularly when the lead does not. The other problem I had was that I didn’t feel the main character’s motivation was completely solid throughout. He tends to do things because he does them, or maybe because they’re objectively the right thing to do (from the reader’s perspective), even when I felt the situation was a bit less clear than the main was treating it. That kind of moral certainty and quick decision-making is enviable, but it strains the suspension of disbelief just a bit.

Unbowed doesn’t quite reach the perfection of other stories in this anthology, but for the most part it is very good, definitely worth a read, and definitely memorable. It’s another story that will probably lead me to read other works by the author.

In Favour with Their Stars

This is an odd one. A good one, but odd. It starts out Hard Sci Fi, and trends increasingly not only into Fantasy, but into Heroic/Sword and Sorcery. It expands from a tight third into near-omniscient. It’s not consistent in tone, perspective, or pacing. And yet I walked away happy from this. It ends up being another fun, quick story that just makes you happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

River of Souls

This will be the longest review of the bunch. Fair warning.

I am a huge Robert Jordan fan. He is the reason that I write, the reason that I edit. The Wheel of Time remains what I consider to be the greatest single series in Fantasy. Not perfect, mind you, not by a long shot. But the greatest. I’m also a fan of Brandon Sanderson, both for his work (which I can’t seem to keep up with), and because Sanderson (and Writing Excuses) is the reason that I consider myself a GOOD writer, and that I know what to look for when editing. I often refer friends and/or customers to Writing Excuses when they’re looking for tips on a certain subject. That’s why I’m spending so many words plugging it here.

My feelings with the last three books of the Wheel of Time (Collectively “A Memory of Light”, all co-written by Sanderson after Jordan’s passing) are complex and hard to define. Mixed is a good word, though not from lack of effort on anyone’s part to make them perfect. As Jordan might say, and as I believe Brandon did say, what he wrote was not the ending of the Wheel of Time, but it was an ending.

I knew that there was a story supplied by Sanderson in this anthology. It was, at the time (before I started reading Rothfuss and before I’d heard of Mark Lawrence), the main driving point for me picking it up. However, I did not know that it was a deleted sequence from the Wheel of Time. So the moment I read those words was surreal.

This is the last piece of new fiction I’ll ever read set in the world of the most formative story of my life.

It was ok. Nothing terrible, nothing mind-blowing. It’s racked with many of the same issues in Sanderson’s standard work, but it also has many of the same strengths. The characters are instantly memorable, the pace is swift and steady, the tone is consistent, and the action is awesome. And the setting is something that I think any Wheel of Time fan will be excited to see. But it doesn’t have the same heart as the main part of the series. The same hollowness that pervades my read of A Memory of Light is here as well, which makes sense, seeing as these pages were ripped from the books.

Bittersweet is the best word to describe my time in this story. I’m not sure if the experience will be better or worse for those unfamiliar with the Wheel of Time.

The Jester

The Jester is fun, well-written adventure Fantasy. It feels like it could be straight out of a pen-and-paper RPG, with a classic array of characters in a classic treasure hunt. You can’t fault it for being what it is, particularly when it’s written as well as this is. The only two problems are that I didn’t really like any of the characters (which is mostly intentional on the author’s part, but something I don’t personally enjoy), and that the very tail end of the story had a sappy line that made me roll my eyes. Again, no big deal. For the most part, I really loved this piece, and was smiling throughout.

The Duel

The first thing you’ll notice about The Duel is the voice of the character. I liked him immediately. Irreverent and witty, geeky and trying so hard to be cool (and occasionally succeeding), the lead character makes every page a joy to read. The main story is pretty basic, but it’s a good setup for a fun scene, which the writer then provides. It’s like Narnia with an edge, like Prince Caspian with a foul mouth. I have no complaints.

Walker and the Shade of Allanon

Out of all the short stories, this one felt the most haphazard. Not that it’s written any worse than the rest, but nothing seems to happen in it, and what does happen doesn’t seem to mean much. Perhaps this has the same problem as River of Souls (above), in which the piece loses much of its significance if read by someone unfamiliar with the main series. However, this one I feel has the problem keenly, as opposed to stories before, in which the short story not only felt complete without having read the main series, but they convinced me to look at the main series by being so good on their own.

The Unfettered Knight

The Unfettered Knight is an irregularity amongst irregularities. Most of these stories fall neatly into Sword and Sorcery or Epic or Urban Fantasy or Historical Fantasy. This somehow manages to bridge many of those gaps, all without feeling cheesy or self-aware. It feels genuine, which is something you hardly see in modern works of this type. Generally, the only way to make a story like this is to turn it into a satire, go for the easy laughs. But this is treated seriously, and somehow, incredibly, the writer makes that feel right. The writer convinces the reader to suspend their disbelief on things that should be utterly ludicrous.

This isn’t on my list of favorite pieces from the anthology. But that’s not to say that there’s something wrong with this. In fact, this story is objectively better than some pieces I might personally place higher on the list, simply because they are what I was looking for, what I wanted. However, this piece did something that the others didn’t. It surprised me.

Overall

This anthology was a mixed bag. There were stories I loved, stories I hated, and stories that didn’t make an impact on me at all. But it introduced me to new authors that I’m excited to get to know better, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing about this anthology; unlike many, themed anthologies, this one with definitely have something for everyone.

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