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Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices
edited by Swapna Krishna & Jenn Northington
Vintage, $17.00, 480pp
Published: July 2021

This is a made-to-order anthology for this Arthurian legends fan.  And very timely for this year as the stories are “gender-bent, race-bent, LGBTQIA…”  The book is divided in three sections:  Once, Present and Future.  As you can imagine, the stories relate to those sections.

In Once:

The first story has for a title, a very appropriate one:  “The Once and Future Qadi” by Ausma Zehanat Khan.  This is an improbable reimagining of how King Arthur contended with his court’s accusations that his Queen has been unfaithful; improbable but relevant.  The Qadi Yusuf had a well-known reputation for intelligent and impartial judgement and Arthur has requested a visit to ask the Qadi to evaluate his Queen’s fidelity.  A delicate process, to be sure; especially since the Queen refuses to dignify the accusations with an explanation.  The source of the accusation was…unexpected.

The next story came from Roshani Chokshi.  It actually involves secondary characters in the Arthurian legend and magic.  It questions whether anyone can actually control their own destiny even when provided two clearly defined paths from which to choose.  It was a tolerable little story.

Nisi Shawl produced an engrossing story of Merlin’s machinations in bringing together Guinevere, named Nia in this tale, and Arthur despite Nia’s true nature and the true love of her heart.  In “The Bladesmith Queen” Sarah MacLean provides a strong female protagonist who, aware of her own substantial power, yet suffers a man to rescue her and make her Queen. Well-written but I didn’t care for the content.

Sive Doyle gave us a delightful coming-of-age story of gay love. But, other than invoking Merlin as a supporting character, I don’t see any other references either by name or deed that identifies any other Arthurian character.

In Present:

The first story was absolutely fascinating more for its style than content; although that, too, was interesting. The story is presented in bits gained from various items being offered for auction: newspaper clippings, artifacts, poetry, personal manuscripts, photographs and letters.  It is a telling of the original Arthurian story: how Merlin helped Uther Pendragon take Arthur’s mother in disguise, what happened to Arthur’s half-sisters, Merlin’s attempts to put Arthur on the throne (remember this section is the Present), how Arthur found his Guinevere, and how Mordred was birthed and what became of him.  This was awfully fun.

The next one from Waubgeshig Rice turns the sword-in-the-stone tale on its head when it takes place on a Native American reservation.  Anthony Rapp placed Merlin at the scene of a hospital room of a young beloved man dying of AIDS.  It was sweet but didn’t have much of a point to make.  “The Quay Stone” by S. Zainab Williams is a strange story; I think it’s supposed to be a horror take on the Lady of the Lake but it could easily have been a siren, a mermaid, or a silkie.  Didn’t impress.

Alex Segura set his Arthur in a contemporary dugout swinging a bat – his Excalibur.  It was very well-written and greatly entertaining.  But Preeti Chhibber provided the best in this section – a story of Merlin awakening from his long sleep and determined to find his Arthur and continue what he began: make Arthur in a King for all the ages.  But in a rare twist, Merlin finds that he must share a body with a young man named Emrys (aficionados should recognize that reference) and his goals may be a bit outdated; he’ll need to figure out what Arthur needs more than what Merlin wants.

In Future:

Silvia Moreno-Garcia works her velvety magical prose in a strange story reminiscent of a Howard Hughes living in seclusion from an increasingly hostile outside environment.  A very rich and eccentric woman lives vicariously by purchasing illegal memories until she buys one of a beautiful young man tortured by an elusive love; she becomes consumed by this one person and demands more and more of his memories…until there are no more.  Ken Liu provides a strange and, to me, repulsive story that trades on the concept of clones experiencing different things and then reuniting their memories.  And, finally, Alexander Chee gave us a more traditionally-staged SF story using secondary characters of the legend.

Overall, I was impressed with this collection.  To take such a well-trod theme and give it a contemporary twist had to be challenging; but I think, for the most part, they succeeded.  And I enjoyed the fact that the roster of writers were mostly unknown to me; giving me the opportunity to see their work.  ~~ Catherine Book

For other titles by Swapna Krishna click here
For other titles by Jenn Northington click here

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