Unbound II: New Tales by Masters of Fantasy – various

It feels a little churlish to be less than glowing in my praise of this book, given it comes from both personal and worthy aims. Editor, Shawn Speakman, intends this to be a companion piece to both Unbound, and Unfettered II. As well as profits going to help pay medical bills for authors in need, these commemorate his late parents, and indeed the cover image is of his father in fantasy settings.

That concept is the core of Speakman’s own short story in this collection, The Last Arrow of the Autumn Huntsman, which rounds out this anthology. It’s also one of the weaker entries and I feel I have to apologise for that statement. I feel like a terrible person for taking something so poignant, and labelling it ‘a bit mawkish’, but there you go. If I hadn’t read the book’s introduction, I might have just dismissed it as so-so fantasy fare, but those personal elements made me cringe just a little. Sorry 😦

It’s unfortunate that we top and tail the book with – in my opinion – weak stories. The opening is a Dune prequel short, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. In fairness, the story isn’t much worse than the books the duo have added to the Dune universe, so ymmv. It’s a gleefully nasty tale of the Harkonnens and Atreides back in the early days of the Empire. I found some of it rather pointless and the characters flat, which detracted from what could have been a fun little tale with better editing.

However, it’s not all bad! My favourite of the selection was the longest, Moonflower Alchemy, by Jordan Ross. The slightly longer form really allows for better world-building, as we enter a tale of alchemy and soul-bound soldiers, and the power of loving.

I also really liked Adrian Tchaikovsky’s contribution, Sandra and Me. This is a really imaginative ‘what if’ sliver of story, not connected to anything else. It’s a perfect little short with just enough to build to that final punch.

Other stories tie in to the relevant author’s more established series, and perhaps I would have liked them more if I’d read those. Mark Lawrence’s Solomon, for example, was a fun story even with no background knowledge, but I imagine it would have meant more if I even knew who Jorg was, let alone followed many of his adventures already!

Likewise, Kevin Hearne’s introduction to his Gladys and the Whale made the series, Ink & Sigil, sound like a lot of fun. However, without any reference, I was less impressed with the story than I felt I could have been learning where “Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite” got that unique moniker.

I don’t want to talk about every story, but as a whole there just wasn’t enough here to really grab me. Most of it was a bit forgettable for me, if I’m honest. Part of that is the short-story format, which is always going to bring limitations. It’s a rare skill to be able to conjure a whole world in the reader’s imagination in so few pages, and then even if that is achieved to have a story that feels complete, and on top of THAT that the reader actually enjoys?! It’s a miracle that ever works! And any one of those elements not quite hitting makes the whole thing a bit of a ‘shrug’ for me. Kristen Britain’s tale of an impossibly large basement full of horror, for instance, in the house sitter’s summer gig, had a lot going for it – but, it just didn’t have enough (something) to lift it from ‘yup, okay’ for me.

So, yes. I appreciate the good intentions behind this volume, but overall more of the stories did nothing for me – or, I outright disliked (Anna Smith Spark’s penultimate tale, for example, was very well crafted but I just took an instant ‘nope’ to her writing style) – than the few I enjoyed. There were some seeds of intriguing ideas – Peter Orullian’s take on devilish machinations, for example – that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me overall. So, not one I’d go out of my way to recommend as a whole, with all due apologies again for all of those worthy intentions behind it.

Each story comes with an introduction by the author, adding a bit of background – I do like that a lot. The list of stories is:

  • Imperial Court – Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
  • A Poor Reflection – Peter Orullian
  • Shadhavar – Saara El-Arifi
  • Gladys and the Whale – Kevin Hearne
  • Business in Great Waters – Ken Scholes
  • Moonflower Alchemy – Jordan Ross
  • The True Adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu – Dyrk Ashton
  • Samantha vs. the Shadows in the Basement of the Captain Riddle House – Kristen Britain
  • Last of the Red Riders – Django Wexler
  • Heart-Eater – Anna Stephens
  • Sandra and Me – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Shadow’s Daughter – Jon Sprunk
  • Homecoming – Patrick Swenson
  • The Sheriff’s Daughter – Tamora Pierce
  • Solomon – Mark Lawerence
  • A Knight Was Once Sent on a Quest by Her Master – Anna Smith Spark
  • The Last Arrow of the Autumn Hunstman – Shawn Speakman

Unbound II book coverNetGalley eARC: 400 pages / 17 short stories
First published: 2023
Series: Unbound book 2
Read from 15th-26th January 2023

My rating: 6/10

4 thoughts on “Unbound II: New Tales by Masters of Fantasy – various

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