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Sword Masters
Selina Rosen
Dragon Moon Press, 320 pages

Sword Masters
Selina Rosen
Selina Rosen lives in rural Arkansas with her partner, her parrot, Ricky, assorted fish and fowl -- both inside and out, several milk goats, an undetermined number of barn cats and her dog, Spud. Her short fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including Sword and Sorceress 16, Such A Pretty Face, Distant Journeys, and Anthology At the End of the Universe. Her novels include Queen of Denial, Recycled, Chains of Freedom, Chains of Destruction and The Host trilogy (Fire & Ice, Hammer Town, Reruns).

Selina Rosen Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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Though there are some who insist that the tradition of sword and sorcery stories extends back to Homer, the term "sword & sorcery" did not appear in print until the early 60s, and fan tradition has that it was coined by Fritz Leiber, whose own work in the subgenre is still highly regarded.

Most people understand sword & sorcery to mean derring-do with pointy weapons, set in a far-away kingdom where there may or may not be involvement with the supernatural and or magic. There is a distinct flavor of the Arabian Nights in most early twentieth century sword and sorcery, probably left over from the largely imaginary "travel" tales of the late 1600s and 1700s. The conflict in sword & sorcery tales is usually personal rather than ideological or political -- even when the enemies are two kingdoms. Most tales in the subgenre were written by men, so the female characters tended toward nubile but icy princesses to be rescued, wicked women trying to lure those manly heroes to their doom, and flirtatious or obliging servant girls.

Those who extend the genre back to Homer are aware of a key element similar to that of the comic book universe: the mythic understructure. The best sword and sorcery is peopled with colorful archetypes, resonating with the human desire to take action against various forms of evil and injustice-and to be successful at it.

Selina Rosen understands the mythic resonance and archetypes, while clothing them in characters that appeal to a contemporary audience. In Sword Masters, she gives us Tarius, who shows up to try out for the eponymous Sword Masters, elite fighting force of the Jethrik kingdom. Tarius stands out from the other candidates: tall, dark, wearing black leather. To Commander Darian's surprise and disbelief, Tarius claims to be a master with the sword already. When the scoffing commander puts Tarius up against a veteran, it takes very little time for the prospective trainee to prove to be as good as promised.

Early on, the reader is let in on the fact that Tarius is a female. But the Jethrik have strict rules about who may become a Sword Master. Women and shape-shifters called the Katabull are among the proscribed, and Tarius is both. She's determined to join, not because she needs the training so much as because her parents were killed by the evil Amalites, and she wants to get revenge by going after the Amalites. Joining the Sword Masters is the best way to do that.

Tarius's father, who trained her, once fought with the Sword Masters. She's way ahead of most, so she's easily elected, along with Tragon, whose high ranking family expects him to become a Sword Master. Tragon hates fighting, but what else can he do and still keep his honor? He discovers that sticking close by Tarius will keep him alive, so he becomes Tarius's partner, and in so doing, discovers her secret. He swears to keep it, and things would have been more or less fine, except that they both fall in love with the same girl, Commander Darian's daughter Jena.

Jena is restless, constantly trying to break out of the sedate, domestic role expected of Jethrik women. Surrounded by handsome, buff guys, she is only attracted to the slightly effeminate but ultra strong fighter Tarius. Tarius is great on the battlefield, but abashed at love, and is terrified that Jena will discover she is not a man. Darian, meanwhile, tired of trying to force his daughter to be proper so he can get her safely married off, all but pushes her into Tarius's arms -- and so they end up married just around the time the Sword Masters must go out to battle. Tarius veers between happiness and desperation in trying to keep her gender hidden, because Jena makes it clear she thinks she's married to a man.

Despite her prowess on the battlefield and her care with Jena, Tarius does not see that her biggest threat is right at home: Tragon is consumed with jealousy. But Harris, the handicapped stable boy whom Tarius befriended, is on the watch...

Rosen keeps the pace headlong as Tarius deals with ambition, greed, prejudice, royal whim, and the good and bad sides of love. The female characters are wonderful, with more complexity than one usually finds in sword and sorcery. Nor does Rosen stint the males. Everyone has motives, conflicts: some change, some don't. Tarius is a wonderful heroine -- she's brilliantly heroic without being pompous or stuffy. A vein of humor running through the book sharpens the characters' appeal, balancing the grief and anguish that war, and personal betrayal, cause.

The worldbuilding is painted in broad strokes. The Amalites are never anything but evil, driven by their distant, cynical and manipulative priests. The culture clashes examined in the book are between the egalitarian Karthik and the Jethrik, whose culture is more like traditional Europe in pre-industrial times. The focus stays on Tarius and those surrounding her, including the queen of the Karthik, Hestia, who comes in late but swiftly develops into a fascinating character, and the Jethrik king Persius, who probably makes the greatest changes over the course of the book.

I have always liked sword and sorcery, though even when a teen reader I was aware of making allowances for somewhat two-dimensional characters, especially female ones. Rosen gives me my sword-swinging panache while delivering character complexity and change, touching on a surprising number of contemporary social and emotional issues. My only complaint was that the copyediting could have used another pass -- there is a typo right on the title page, in the eco-friendly paragraph -- but that aside, I look forward to Rosen's next.

Copyright © 2008 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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