sword and sorceress cover

Rediscovering Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies

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Nov 6, 2018

All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.

Back in the 1980s, things weren’t so hot for women in fantasy. If they weren’t getting kidnapped and held for ransom, they were a gift for the hero of the story. Slay a dragon? Oh, here’s my daughter’s hand in marriage. Yes, I know she’s sobbing and doesn’t know you at all. No biggie. You earned her, buddy! One author tried to change that. Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of Mists of Avalon and the Darkover series. Her history is very, very problematic to say the least, but the Sword and Sorceress anthology she created brought a number of prominent authors to light and spotlighted female characters who could save themselves. 

The Sword and Sorceress anthology first appeared in the US in 1984. The guidelines for submitting to the series were that the main characters had to be magic users or warriors, and they had to be women. There are currently more than 30 volumes in the series. Bradley died while editing the 18th, with enough material for three more. After her death, the series was taken over by Diana L. Paxton and then Elizabeth Waters. 

The Sword and Sorceress volumes introduced thousands and thousands of readers to new authors and marked the first appearance of characters that went on to have their own series. For instance, prolific author Mercedes Lackey introduced her Tarma and Kethry characters from the Vows and Honor series in Sword and Sorceress III. You can get some of the volumes online, but if you want the earlier ones, you’re probably going to have to go digging through your local used bookstore. If you find them, pick them up. They usually go fast.

In addition to Lackey, the series introduced authors like Laurell K. Hamilton, Charles de Lint, Diana L. Paxson, Emma Bull, and Jennifer Roberson. For a young girl back in the years of women-as-prizes — Bradley called them “bad conduct prizes” — these stories were a revelation. There were female friendships highlighted here. Women saved themselves from trouble. A prophetess wasn’t just there to point the male hero in the right direction. She was there to solve a problem herself. We don’t see a male protagonist visit a sorceress for the next step in their journey and maybe a little hook up behind the crystal ball. She’s battling the demons herself. 

What’s even more fascinating sometimes is the introduction that we see before each story. In some of them, we get a bit of info on the author, but often enough, there are writing tips and information on submission. For instance, in Sword and Sorceress VIII from back in 1991, there is a story called “She Who Shields” by Gary W. Herring. Bradley mentions that this is the second part of a series that started in Sword and Sorceress VII, and about how it’s time to just write that series you want to do instead of just talking about it. In later volumes, we hear more from the editor, and see the progression of some of the authors. Many of them sold their very first story to the anthology, and later we learn of their published works, where their life has gone, or see the progression of a series like the Cynthia stories by Dorothy J. Heydt.

One of the guidelines was that these books couldn’t be set in a modern setting. Still, guidelines were thrown out here and there if the story was good enough. If you’re into modern fantasy, you can check out “Little Rogue Riding Hood” by Rosemary Edghill in Sword and Sorceress XVIII. Bradley was willing to allow a change in the guidelines, though, as the introduction by Waters says, her editors begged her not to say it in public, lest they get dozens more modern fantasy stories for the slush pile. Edghill had been published in the anthology before, and this story ended up as a novel called, Vixen the Warslayer.

It’s odd to think nowadays that this was even necessary. OK, maybe it’s not, but we do have hundreds and hundreds of books about powerful women who slay their own dragons, run warrior schools or travel the lands, selling their swords, like Del from the Tiger and Del series by anthology author Jennifer Robertson. Back in the 1980s, it was still difficult to be taken seriously as a fantasy author if you were a woman. 

In honor of November being Warrior Women Month, it’s worth a trip to your local used bookstore to hunt for the Sword and Sorceress anthologies. You’ll find some new authors, read some pretty fantastic stories, some of which aren’t published anywhere else. (It’s pretty much the only place you can find the beginning of the Vows and Honor series and the story of how Tarma and Kethry become Goddess-sworn sisters.) Plus, even the cover art is worth a second look. Make sure you read until the end because the final story is usually a zinger.

Give these a shot and tell us your favorite author from Sword and Sorceress in the comments. If you find the books, tell us which used bookstore they’re in as well! 

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