Worlds Of Their Own
featuring RA Salvatore, Michael A Stackpole, Nancy Virginia Varian, Greg Stolze, Jeff Grubb, Steven Savile, Richard E Dansky, William King, Ed Greenwood, J Robert King, Monte Cook, Lisa Smedman, Greg Stafford, Paul S Kemp, Elaine Cunningham, James Lowder, Will McDermott, and Gary Gygax; fantasy (2008)
Planet Stories, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-118-3

My first thought upon reading editor and contributor James Lowder's introduction The Last Word Matters is, "Why is this anthology published under the Planet Stories imprint again?" Planet Stories is supposed to be all about pulp fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, right?

It's odd because the oldest story in Worlds Of Their Own dates back to 1977, with the bulk of the stories initially showing up in magazines or other anthologies around a few years back. The stories here are not exactly pulp - they are actually works by authors that carved a career playing in "shared worlds" - worlds that are intellectual properties of game or entertainment companies such as Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, Blizzard, and LucasArts Entertainment Company. These stories are set in worlds that are entirely the authors' own creations.

In many ways, this anthology is an advertisement of sorts as to what these authors can do outside the rules and limitations laid down by editors and other people that control an IP. It's also a happy reunion of sorts, between Mr Lowder and the other contributors, given how incestuously close the fantasy writing-for-hire circle can be, and between me and these authors, as I've never studiously followed shared-world fantasy novels from Wizards of the Coast and the like since the late 1990s.

RA Salvatore starts the show with Mather's Blood, where a ranger, who is closed to retirement, finds himself on a final mission to defend the lives of people who won't even know of his efforts. This one is all about unsung heroism, but it's marred by Mr Salvatore's usual clumsy and often banal writing style. And really, in an anthology where many of the authors stretch their imagination and come up with something different and interesting, it's so "whatever" to see one of the biggest names headlining this anthology serving something that could have come from his reject drawer.

Michael A Stackpole's Keeping Score is about a group of soldiers in a futuristic setting finding themselves in an ambush and yet, stuck in some sort of Swiss Family Robinson situation, manage to find some peace and quiet like they always wanted. This one stands out as the only story that isn't all about pitched battles or human pathos; in fact, this one is more like a quiet stroll in the park compared to those other stories. Unfortunately, as this one is placed so early in the anthology, it's easily forgotten as I turn the page.

Nancy Virginia Varian - whom you may remember better as Nancy Varian Berberick if you followed those Dragonlance books back in those days - offers the first of several punch-in-the-gut stories in The Oaths Of Gods. Steeped in Norse mythology, this one tells of a dwarf and his adopted son, a human, attempting to secure the release of a soul wrongly condemned to Hel. Even Woden couldn't free his son Baldur from Hel, so what could two mortals do? Hel exacts a steep price from our two heroes, and it's a heartbreaking one. Still, even if this beautifully written story punches holes in my heart, it's a bittersweet exploration of a father's love for his son.

Jeff Grubb offers a nice respite from the previous story with the fun Catch Of The Day. Here, flying ships sail among the clouds as a cataclysmic event "sank" the world under the clouds, leaving people to live on mountaintops. The Antigiam is on a fishing trip... to catch the mythical dragon that may or may not lurk in the "depths" below. This one isn't deep, but it's a charming kind of frivolous diversion.

In Steven Savile's Ghosts Of Love, we have an old war-worn coming home, hoping that the wife he abandoned would be the balm he seeks to heal his wounded soul. He realizes that the past can't be fixed just because he decides that he wants to be a better person. This one has some poignant pathos, but it's ruined by the author having the abandoned wife offering forgiveness without even a middle finger at the man who abandoned her. I know, men wish their women would be this understanding, but seriously now. Next, Richard E Dansky's The Wisdom Of Nightingales combines the trapped princess in a tower with talking birds. It's readable, quite entertaining, but still, the whole thing reads like a proposal for a Pixar movie.

William King's The Guardian Of The Dawn is a bleak and desolate portrayal of how futile heroism could often be, as one of the last few members of an order devoted to keeping the peace and helping the weak attempts to do just that only to realize that the real enemies aren't the spooks in the woods but his fellow men. This one punches the gut hard, too, and it's good.

Ed Greenwood is next with How Fear Comes To Ornath. He still writes like a third-rate wannabe of Michael Moorcock, and like many of his works, this one is laced with the author's brand of crude sexism that never fails to make me wince. The story introduces a princess bent on vengeance, but she is ultimately impotent, her efforts culminating in her being stripped naked and chained in front of the real "hero": the ruthless man who offers her the choice of fighting alongside his men or being imprisoned in his cabin. It's probably a good thing that his personal harem playground for his author avatar Elminster found its way to more capable people, to develop into the Forgotten Realms, as his "legacy" would otherwise be limited to stories that seem suspiciously like badly-written vicarious fantasies of an author who is living out his ideas of the ultimate sex life through his writing.

J Robert King's The Admiral's Reckoning is all about what it means to lead as opposed to fight in a war, and it's a well-written and tautly paced story with a good twist. Only, it's ruined by an abruptly introduced "happy ending", when a better ending would have the protagonist in violent denial or something. Nobody experiences an epiphany that fast. Monte Cook's Memories And Ghosts could have been a good story of reluctant heroism and what not, if it hadn't felt like the middle part of a much longer story involving dragons and giants and creepy magical stone things.

Lisa Smedman's Three Impossible Things is a cute re-telling of that fairy tale where someone manages to pull off so-called impossible stunts set by the evil witch or wizard. Here, the bad guys are the goblins who tells our main character to do three big feats if that person wants their prisoner back. Greg Stafford's Near The End Of The World is not cute - it's a dark, exciting, gripping tale of a desperate struggle of our two heroes against the forces of Chaos who are slowly advancing to destroy the world. This one has a pulp fantasy feel to the whole thing, in a good way, as it's a very readable action-driven tale with appropriate amounts of desperate heroism and stoic nobility.

Paul S Kemp's Confession is dark too, but it's more like a twisted tale set in a fantasy Moroccan-like setting than a high fantasy tale of battling a great evil. Unfortunately, I can see the twist coming from a mile away. Still, a good read. I have a chuckle too over how readers apparently threw a fit over the use of the word "shit" in the opening line back when it was first published. The author used the word in a scene where the protagonist is wading through a sewer, so how the use of that word is inappropriate, I have no idea. And in a story featuring drug use, sex, violence, and demon summoning, that is the one thing readers found most offensive? Americans - what a strange lot.

Elaine Cunningham's Lorelei is another ouch-I'm-gutted story, as it's as much a look at how frail human determination could be as it is about a group of natives in the woods gathering for a big showdown with the invaders from the north. They are outnumbered, but the story isn't about winning a war as much as it is an examination into how easy it can be to corrupt the mind of the covetous.

I can tell just from reading it that James Lowder's The Unquiet Dreams Of Cingris The Stout is very obviously a reworked version of a story originally set in the Ravenloft setting. This one isn't deep and it isn't a study of pathos or human frailty. No, it's a quaint and charming tale of dark fantasy where good doesn't always win. I like it, it's well-paced and the build up leads to a twist that delights me to no end.

Will McDermott's On The Off-Ramp Of The Intergalactic Superhighway is an amusing story of our hero, who seems trapped in a dead end job when all he wanted to do is to see the stars, finally getting his wish when he stows away in a space craft that stops by the diner where he works. The result isn't exactly what he'd hoped. This one is on the roll until the abrupt ending comes down like the blade of the guillotine and ends the party prematurely.

Of course we have the late Gary Gygax to close the show, because the man that helped give birth to the Dungeons & Dragons first edition system is the man when it comes to fantasy tabletop games and the books that spawned from the popularity of those games. Unfortunately, Mr Gygax is never a good author, and the inclusion of Twistbuck's Game, a Gord the Rogue story, is a bit of a cheat as it's set in Greyhawk, a shared world where other authors are concerned. Still, Mr Gygax pretty much created Greyhawk, so technically, it's his own setting. Back to the story - it's a silly story written like it's a tabletop campaign script meant for teenage boys. Maybe that's what it is, but in an anthology full of better written and more sophisticated stories, this one doesn't measure up well at all.

Like most anthologies, Worlds Of Their Own is a mixed bag. All things considered, however, there are more entertaining stories than forgettable ones, and the better ones deliver very well, to the point that I never once regretted paying full cover price for this anthology. As reunions with a genre I used to read with disturbing dedication go, this one is a most enjoyable one.

Rating: 86

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