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WesternSFA
Tales of Sand and Sorcery
by Marsheila Rockwell
Musa, $10.95
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
I took far too long to get round to reading Marsheila Rockwell's 'Legacy of Wolves', probably because of personal snobbery about modern shared universe stories. However, get round to it I did and I found myself mightily impressed. It and Al Ewing's 'Gods of Manhattan' currently reside at the back of my brain where they chip away at my idiocy and gradually persuade me that there are such creatures worth the effort.

So I didn't hesitate when I saw this one. This slim but still substantial volume contains seven short stories which fall firmly into the old school sword-and-sorcery genre, though I was surprised to discover that Rockwell's chief inspiration was far from literary. Instead she was inspired by a martial dance, which tradition decrees can only be performed by men. Needless to say, she promptly redressed that gender imbalance by conjuring up a female character to dance that dance; she found that sword and sorcery was a natural fit.

This lead is no musclebound barbarian with sinews of iron; instead she's a sultan's daughter who disobeyed her father and was cursed for her trouble. While legend tells that she was literally turned into a stone fountain, in truth she was cast out and stripped of her ability to feel either pain or pleasure, along with a few syllables from her name. In this world the length of a name signifies its owner's status, so our warrior princess lost much with her descent from Shaalaraharrah, Sultan's Daughter, to merely Shaala, Made of Stone.

Now she wanders the desert searching for a way to lift her curse and, naturally, running into an adventure or three in the process. Each of these adventures works well as a standalone story but also functions as a jigsaw piece. Put together, they show a number of bigger pictures, not all of Shaala herself but none divert far from her. Another thread follows Kij, a fascinating character in her own right who also suffers a fall in stature and searches for her own release. Naturally the two gravitate together and become travelling's companions.

The world they enliven is a character in itself with Rockwell's world-building talents put to frequent use. We discover a host of characters, cities and cultures, each unique and interesting but all the more so because of how they interlock with each other. As we follow the separate but entwined story arcs of Shaala and Kij, key locations flit in and out of our focus and we find ourselves watching them grow in our minds as well. For instance, the city of Samarkesh is introduced in the tangential tale, 'The Jade and Honey Harlot', but our leads find themselves paying it a visit in 'Shaala and the Harlot Queen of Sumarkesh'.

Rockwell is a writer of many strengths but three stand supreme. She creates gloriously three-dimensional characters, who come alive for us quickly but grow continually. She's able to bring her stories to life too, creating new ones but somehow making them seem as old as the hills, part of the collective culture of the new worlds she creates. Finally, but perhaps most notably, her use of language is without parallel in the Arizona writing community; her prose is enough to tell us that she's a poet at heart.

Put together, a growing set of linked stories is the perfect format for each of those talents to shine brightest. I enjoyed 'Legacy of Wolves' but far more for her writing than for the world in which it was set; I felt no draw at all towards the rest of that shared world. Here I immediately wanted more; turning the last page carried the acute pain of loss because there was no further adventure to visit.

Or at least not yet. There's plenty of growth room for Rockwell to continue to visit the world of Shaala and Kij and I hope she does so often, turning out more short stories in and amongst the grander projects she's finding herself part of.

Given the sheer breadth of approaches that she takes here, from straight up action oriented adventure to accidental forays into folklore, from explorations of cultural traditions to fireside stories seemingly narrated onto the page, it would seem to be a given that Shaala and/or Kij will appear in anthologies to come because they're flexible enough to fit in a fistful of places. I look forward to visiting all of them. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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