Chicks in Chainmail, edited by Esther Friesner

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Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

chainmailWhile the stereotypical image of the warrior in our culture tends to be male, warrior women were not unknown in the world of antiquity; they left their mark on classical, Celtic, and Norse-Teutonic legend, and found a literary prototype in the “lady knight” Britomartis, who rides through the pages of Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. The creators of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy tradition in the early pulps drew on this background to create a few sword-swinging heroines such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry and Conan’s comrade-in-arms Valeria in Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails.”

With the rise of women’s liberation, their ranks have been considerably swelled in contemporary fantasy, and two anthology series of original short stories have appeared to showcase them: the Sword and Sorceress collections begun by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Chicks in Chainmail series begun with this volume. Having read the first volumes of both, I’d say they’re both quality work; to the extent that they have a difference, it would be that the tone of the stories in this collection tends to be more on the lighthearted and humorous side than that of the stories in the Bradley collection –though there are exceptions in both groups. (It should be noted that the term “chicks” in the title here isn’t used in any disrespectful sense, any more than “gal” is in the parlance of an older generation.)

Twenty authors are represented with stories in this volume, some of them well-known in speculative fiction circles, such as Roger Zelazny, Harry Turtledove, Josepha Sherman, George Alec Effinger (who contributes a story featuring his series heroine, Muffy Birnbaum, “barbarian swordsperson”) and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The great majority of the stories are quite entertaining, and they not infrequently have good messages (like much of the fiction in this genre, they tend to extol heroic qualities of character). My personal favorite is “The New Britomart” by Eluki Bes Shahar (she also writes as Rosemary Edghill), set in England in 1819, where a country baronet, inspired by Ivanhoe, decides to stage a medieval-style tournament. (Toss in a powerful closeted sorceress with no scruples, a couple of visitors from Faerie, an Ivanhoe character brought to life by magic, a genuine dragon, a girl who wants to compete as a knight and a guy who wants to be a librarian, and anything may happen.)

Other especially good selections are Sherman’s “Teacher’s Pet,” Elizabeth Waters’ “Blood Calls to Blood” (I’d welcome seeing her heroine as a series character!), and David Vierling’s spoof of old-time pulp fantasies, “Armor/Amore.” Margaret Ball’s “Career Day,” despite its invidious portrayal of its only Christian character, manages to be a strong story about personal growth, where the heroine learns some worthwhile lessons. But almost all of the stories are well worth reading, not just these five. Any collection of 20 stories is likely to have one or two that not every reader cares for, and this one is no exception. IMO, Susan Schwartz’ bizarre “Exchange Program,” in which Hillary Clinton is killed in an Amtrak accident and winds up going to Valhalla (or a grotesque parody of Valhalla) is the weakest selection; it falls flat, in my estimation. But in the main, these tales are well worth a read.

Note: Bad language is absent or very rare in these stories, and there’s no explicit sex; most stories don’t have sexual content as such. The exception is Lawrence Watt- Evans’ “The Guardswoman,” whose heroine finally becomes “one of the boys” when she’s able to join her male colleagues in traipsing to the local brothel for sex (she falls into an affair with the male bouncer). But in general, the other sword-wielding ladies in this book display high morals — they respect themselves, and insist on being respected.

Editor: Esther Friesner
Publisher: Baen, available through Amazon, currently only as a print book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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