Review: Silk & Steel

Silk & Steel by Janine E Southard (ed)

There are many ways to be a heroine.

Princess and swordswoman, lawyer and motorcyclist, scholar and barbarian: there are many ways to be a heroine. In this anthology, seventeen authors find new ways to pair one weapon-wielding woman and one whose strengths lie in softer skills.

“Which is more powerful, the warrior or the gentlewoman?” these stories ask. And the answer is inevitably, “Both, working together!”

Herein, you’ll find duels and smugglers, dance battles and danger noodles, and even a new Swordspoint story!

From big names and bold new voices, these stories are fun, clever, and always positive about the power of love.

So I backed this on Kickstarter after spotting it on Aliette de Bodard’s Twitter, and it was so, so worth it! Every story in this anthology is cute, fun, quirky, action-packed and absolutely, adorably queer. I think my favourite thing is the fantastic mix of genres and styles in a collection that feels both cohesive and very mixed – and it’s absolutely, unashamedly fun. My top picks are “Little Birds” from Cara Patterson for a heart-tugger, “Elinor Jones vs the Ruritanian Multiverse” by Freya Marska for sheer fun, and “The Parnassian Courante” by Claire Bartlett for a lovely mix of action and court manners, but there isn’t a single story that isn’t worth reading, and every writer has managed a ridiculously fun and queer story that makes the entire anthology a joy to read.

The anthology starts with the adorable “Margo Lai’s Guide to Duelling Unprepared” from Alison Tam: what to do when you wake up (with a hangover, incidentally) to find that you’ve accidentally talked yourself into a duel – with a wizard! – for the hand of your best friend, which you definitely, absolutely don’t want? Try to talk the wizard out of it, and then get said best friend to learn magic… the back-and-forth between Pip and Madge is the best part of the story, but I also adore the oh-so-easy worldbuilding and the hilarity of the pair of bumbling young adults figuring it all out as they try to escape the consequences of… well, everything.  “Danger Noodle” by SK Terentiev also has a similar feel, and I absolutely loved the mix of geek, snark and personalities – a couple have headed out to explore, and unfortunately find something a little more dangerous than the monster they were expecting… I love the back-and-forth, and the sheer amount of enthusiastic monster-geek!

“Elinor Jones vs the Ruritanian Multiverse” by Freya Marska is another fun one; portals make it possible to step into another world when you’re fed up of this one, and if you happen to look like their princess, then you can by royalty! Which also comes with associated peasants, court politics, assassination attempts… and bodyguards, who can come in handy when trying to both foil a plot against your life and perform some much-needed political reformation. “Positively Medieval” by Kaitlyn Zivanovich mixes a scarily-near vision of the future (ruining someone’s credit with no-star reviews!) with a wonderful fantasy twist, and I really enjoyed the digs at modern life and fantasy tropes, as well as the trolls-eye view of strange humans. And “The Parnassian Courante” by Claire Bartlett is a story of courtly manners mixed with action as the lowly scribe struggles with her place in Court, and the Princess struggles with her assigned future and the rules that bind her – and I loved the ending to this one.

“Princess, Shieldmaiden, Witch and Wolf” by Neon Yang is a lovely change of pace and tone to the other stories; a princess’ bodyguard, trying to find their place in the world – and the princess struggling too. It’s a lovely twist on the fairytales, and I adored the ending. “The Sweet Tooth of Angwar Bec” by Ellen Kushner is a lovely, short story, and as sweet as the titular tooth! And “The Epic Fifth Wedding Anniversary of Zaynne the Barbarian and Tikka the Accountant” by Elizabeth Davies is another wonderful short; the wedding anniversary always gets interrupted, and this time Tikka has been kidnapped by something evil – and what a wonderful treat for Zaynne to get to rescue her! I loved the sly jabs at classic fantasy tropes, too.

“Plan Z” by Django Wexler is action-packed, with an eternal hope that Plan A might work this time… or possibly Plan B… but actually, when you get right down to it, Plan Z (“shoot your way out”) is really more fun! “Chicago Iron” by Chris Wolfgang was one of two slight off-notes for me in the book; I just couldn’t get into the characters, but the world was fun – roaring 20’s and prohibition era, except not everything is as it seems… and “The Commander and the Mirage Master’s Mate” by Elaine McIonyn was the second off-note, as I just found it a little too long. But again, the world was fantastic, and the mix of Napoleonic-era action with magic thrown in works very well. “Book and Hammer, Blade and Bone” by Ann LeBlanc is a slightly darker (but still cute!) story, but it’s also about belonging, and love… and libraries, knowledge and librarians. So that’s a definite win! “What Finds You In The Deep” by K A Doore is another action-packed one, with a couple exploring an ancient – and cursed – crypt while trying to figure out their relationship… and “In The Salt Crypts of Ghiarelle” by Jennifer Mace is a horror-tinged story about body-snatchers, threats to an isolated kingdom, and a guard just trying to do the right thing.

There are some longer, heart-tugging stories scattered throughout: the beautiful “Little Birds” by Cara Patterson is likewise both heart-aching and heart-tugging – it’s a brutal world, with the ‘Little Birds’ being flying soldiers, knowing that they are unlikely to survive long in the battles and also knowing that they will be cast aside once they are injured. But Court life is no less brutal, and when romance blossoms between a soldier and a servant, the hope of escape grows… I love the mix of court life and war, and the tiny moments between the two hopefuls as their hope grows. Yoon Ha Lee’s “The City Unbreachable” is a story of subtle intricacies, politics and duels on a hiding ship-city; and “The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute” by Aliette de Bodard, the final story in the anthology, mixes mythology and wonder with magic, and demonstrates the price of getting exactly what you asked for – and the price of getting what someone else needs.

The whole anthology is filled with queer and joyous fun, and is absolutely, definitely worth a read.