Art of War is a fantasy anthology put together by the BOOKNEST.EU blog featuring short stories by 40 fantasy writers. And it’s an impressive line-up: while I’ve only read a few of the authors in this collection before, I knew of and was interested in reading the work of well over half of them, which makes it a great introduction to some of the current writers in the genre. Of course, reading a short story isn’t the same as reading a novel, and (to be honest) I tend to prefer the latter. I think particularly in fantasy, it can be hard to get a story going in a few thousand words. And these stories are generally on the short side (I don’t know how long, and no, I’m not counting the words for you). So, a writer’s short doesn’t necessarily tell you what their series are like. Also, when I got to reading, I actually enjoyed quite a few from authors I hadn’t come across before, which is even better. The other point worth making here is that profits from sales go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, which some readers may want to know.
So, on to the book itself. It’s well designed for a start, and after reading a lot of eBooks recently, it was nice to have a chunky book in my hands. The theme is obviously war. As a collection of writers, obviously the authors approached this from a number of angles. The most common was ‘war is hell’. This is something of a truism and therefore didn’t always spark my interest. Linked to this was a number of stories that were set in trenches, which I found slightly odd in a fantasy story. Given that despite the central truth of war is hell, humans are still engaged in war in the twenty first century, is a depressing fact, but still one that could be explored. War as a driver of social change is explored in Sebastian de Castell’s The Fox and The Bowman, one of the reasons that particular story stood out for me.
Clearly, with 40 stories, the reader is going to find some they liked better than others. There were a few I thought were pretty poor, but only one I didn’t finish, which isn’t a bad hit rate. When writers decide what to write they have to decide whether to build on their previous material or produce something new and self-contained. Obviously the former goes down well with existing fans but can be a barrier to new readers if dependent on prior knowledge of the author’s work.
I’ll give a mention to my top ten – these haven’t been chosen in a systematic way, but rather are the ones that stayed with me for some reason – I could remember the characters and their situation. In compiling this list I think it’s fair to say that the odds of being remembered are higher if the story comes at the beginning or end of the book rather than stuck in the middle. So, in the order they appear in the book:
The Breaking of the Sky by Ed McDonald – what’s in the box? Nothing nice, I fear.
The Last Arrow by Mitchell Hogan – captured the unpleasantness of war without becoming hyperbolic.
This War of Ours by Timandra Whitecastle – original, atmospheric, definitely made me want to read more from her.
The Fox and the Bowman by Sebastian de Castell – clever, almost like a fable, with some insight on war.
Violet by Mazarkis Williams – made me root for this character.
Sacred Semantics by Nicholas Eames – genuinely funny, and clever, and about war.
The Undying Lands by Michael R Fletcher – another strong female character, lighthearted feel to it.
The Storm by Miles Cameron – the world-building/setting was interesting.
Flesh and Coin by Anna Stephens – mercenary bands encounter, struck a chord with me because I’m currently writing something quite similar.
The Hero of Aral Pass by Mark Lawrence – my first introduction to Jalan Kendeth, already on my TBR pile.
As I say, nothing very systematic about this list and on another day no doubt the list would be slightly different. There are another twenty-odd quality short stories in this book, so would definitely recommend to fantasy fans, it’s a nice one to dip into in between longer reads.