Unsheathed: An Epic Fantasy Collection is high quality Sword & Sorcery by nine contemporary authors. The anthology is varied in tone and style, and will delight new fans (who may like lit-RPG fare) as well as aged veterans looking for weird pulp. I picked this up as part of a S&S Groupread on Goodreads which had the theme of "New vs 'N'" (N being the infamous Appendix N list from Gary Gygax.
All were fun, but two of these resonated with me. The first was by Charles Allen Gramlich, whose writing lured me to this collection (having read his Harvest of War and Bitter Steel: Tales and Poems of Epic Fantasy and others). The second was by Jay Erickson whose Lydia/Gwendolyn Locke stood out in design & delivery.
1. Hanging at Crosbhothar Austin Worley: “Corpses hung from the ancient maple like leaves” is a great opener. The story follows the female Arlise, Watcher of the Order, who trails the corrupted Eoghan and his sorceress lover Katrin. A few abrupt saved-by-the-last-minute incidents and rpg-rapid-healing keeps this decent tale from a 5-star.
2. Retribution by Night Chad Vincent: This 4-star tale introduces Captain Brennan who is caught in an outpost drama between the oppressed, local named Aodhan ( a nature lover, and demon lover too?) who is hounded by surly knights, like Sergeant Armstrong. Not sure who to root for in this gray tale, though Brennan is ostensibly on the knights side. Nice undead battles here. Would have enjoyed experiencing Aodhan's past to appreciate his motivations.
3. Where All the Souls are Hollow by Charles Allen Gramlich: a 5 star Sword-n-Planet with the technology being more implicit than explicit. We join Krieg (German for "War") as his adventures mid-mission. Krieg’s purpose is slowly revealed as he battles automatons, sinister alien forces, and evil "children." A beautiful blend of horror and adventure; pacing is spot on.
4. Switch Blade by Scott Simerlein: I am not into humorous stories, but this hilarious farce was well placed in the collection. It was slightly confusing, but was meant to be. 4 star.
5. King’s Road by G. Dean Manuel: This melodrama unfolds faster than the characters can deliver their lines; it felt like a fan fiction tribute of LOTR's Rohan Gondor play between a prince-son usurping his worn-king-father’s rule. 3 star
6. The Artefact by Ross Baxter: lit-RPG readers would like this one. Three heroes with desires to collect as many types of loot (books/knowledge, a weapon, and something mechanical/crafty like a timepiece) adventure in ruins. It feels like part of larger universe, but for a short story the story arc was not contained enough to be a clear stand alone adventure. The character Jud stood out. 3+ star.
7. Under Locke and Key by Jay Erickson: a 5 star tale with female leads and blood magic. Gwendolyne is an enslaved adolescent girl, whose parents died by the Red Tears plague. The same sickness affects the countryside and criminals wishing to profit off of orphaned girls and a possible cure. The flow of the tale was very smooth and engaging.
8. Ransom for a Prince by Liam Hogan: this is saturated with fighting, and was more real/historical than fantasy. Expect lots of medieval duels with a female lead. The premise is a reason for the author to show off the art of sword play, which is described well. 4+.
9. Only an Elf by Stuart Thaman : There is a lot going on here in this 4-star tale of slavery. Overall the plot is very engaging, but the bloody climax seemed inconsistent with the lead up. Certain scenes between the female elf slave Enessana and her master, the blacksmith dwarf Kimiko, worked separately, but did not flow with other events. Perhaps too much was packed within a short span of pages, throwing the pacing off. This would expand into a great novel.