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Sword, Stone, Table: Old Legends, New Voices edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington


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Sword Stone Table

by Swapna Krishna
July 13, 2021 · Vintage
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Sword, Stone, Table is an anthology of Arthurian retellings, that, according to the blurb, features…

…stories by a bestselling, cross-genre assortment of the most exciting writers working today, [in] an anthology of gender-bent, race-bent, LGBTQIA+, and inclusive retellings from the vast lore surrounding King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table.

It’s a good anthology, with a range of stories in a variety of genres, but I must admit, I’d assumed from that blurb that it would be mostly queer retellings. I enjoyed the anthology a lot more once I reframed it in my head as ‘diverse Arthuriana’. I also found it interesting seeing which characters tended to appear in stories. Arthur, of course, appeared in almost all of them, but Merlin and Morgana appeared in nearly as many. Lancelot was popular, and Guinevere and Elaine also turned up a lot. The Lady of the Lake, Uther, and Mordred also appeared fairly frequently, but few of the other knights were seen more than in passing, and the quest for the Holy Grail was missing entirely.

The anthology is divided into three sections: Past, Present and Future. Past was retellings set in the medieval era; Present was retellings set any time from the late 19th century to the modern era; and Future was futuristic sci-fi Arthuriana. I had quite different feelings about each section.

PAST

This was my favourite section of the anthology, and I could have happily read an entire anthology of retellings like these! I loved almost everything in it.

In ‘The Once and Future Qadi’ by Ausma Zehanat Khan, we see a high medieval setting of the Arthurian story, in which the Crusades are playing out in the background as Arthur summons Qadi Yusuf to his court to pass judgment on Guinevere’s guilt or innocence in the matter of Lancelot. Both Qadi and Guinevere both recognise this insult to Guinevere; Arthur and Lancelot appear oblivious. I really liked this story, which had a strong sense of atmosphere and sharp, quick dialogue. The motivations and faults of Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot in the matter are all patiently examined and explained, and the conclusion was clever and made emotional sense.

‘Passing Fair and Young’, by Rohani Chokshi, is the first of the Elaine retellings, and it is both a sweet love story and a reflection on fate, destiny, and choice. In this world, many people carry ‘myth marks’ that determine their fate – but the catch is that while women can choose between two fates, men have no choice. This is an interesting and satisfying reversal in a world where temporal power is held by men, though the choices women make are not precisely free either.

‘How, after long fighting, Galehaut was overcome by Lancelot yet was not slain and made great speed to yield to friendship; or Galehaut, the knight of the forfeit’, by Daniel M. Lavery, was not really to my taste. He plays around with the idea that true knighthood yearns for humiliation and defeat, and that true love yearns even more for these things. The narrative style is completely, often hilariously, over the top, and full of masochistic fervour.

‘I being young and foolish’ by Nisi Shawl is a lovely, occasionally creepy story in which Nimue, or Nia as she is here, travels from Nakasongola to learn from, and teach, Merlin. Time and fate are strong themes here, too.

‘The Bladesmith Queen’ by Sarah MacLean was a really fun Lady of the Lake story, in which she is a woman swordsmith who is (maybe) under a curse and makes magical swords that (maybe) render their users undefeatable in battle. And then a warrior arrives who has defeated a villain who bore one of her swords, and heroism and romance ensues. This was a favourite of mine.

The final story in this section was ‘Do, by all due means’, by Sive Doyle, and it’s a gorgeous, sweet coming of age story for Britomart, the lady knight from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen. And – finally! – the adorable queer romance I was looking for, when Britomart rescues a damsel in distress. I especially enjoyed the way the villains were dealt with in this story.

PRESENT:

This was my least favourite section of the anthology. There is no mythic glow here – indeed, this section comes with all the trigger warnings. If you know your Arthuriana, you’ll be aware that incest and rape by deception are fairly major themes. There is also infanticide and child abandonment and First Nations children being put into boarding schools and orphanages. Also, I am never going to be the right audience for a Baseball AU! But there were three stories here that I enjoyed very much.

‘Heartbeat’ by Waubgeshig Rice was perhaps my favourite story in this section. Art lives on a reservation where most of the parents and grandparents were shipped off to boarding schools at a young age and forced to assimilate. But Art is curious about his nation’s past and culture, and likes to sneak off to visit Merle, a community elder who tells him the old stories. This was a lovely story that envisioned what a contemporary Arthur could do for his community in the modern era.

‘Flat White’ by Jessica Plummer is a coffee shop AU and I was there for it! In this world, Elaine works at the coffee shop and develops a crush on Lance, one of her customers. Alas, while he does eventually invite her on a date, it is crashed by his friends Gwen and Arthur, and it’s pretty clear he has a crush on both of them. This was very, very cleverly done, and the ending was brilliant.

‘Once (Them) & Future (Us)’ by Preeti Chhibber is a rather eerie story in which Merlin, Morgana and Arthur have been reincarnated in the modern era. Arthur is now Arjun, and Morgana his adopted sister who grew up with him and is, apparently, loyal to him. Morgana remembers everything; Arjun nothing. And Merlin remembers everything except that somehow, when Merlin touches Arjun, Merlin becomes Emrys, with no magic or memory of the past. The story is told from Merlin’s point of view which made it uncomfortably immersive to read. I began to feel as though my own memory couldn’t be trusted.

FUTURE

Only three stories in this section, and, wow, were they a mixed bag.

‘A Shadow in Amber’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another Elaine story in which she is a futuristic Lady of Shallot, living in a tower and immersing herself in recordings of opera and virtual reality memories recorded by others. This story was clever, disturbing, and ultimately tragic, though not in the manner I had expected.

‘White Hempen Sleeves’ by Ken Liu is dark, futuristic and deeply weird. Think dystopian future technocracy in which people can split off parts of their psyche into ‘skins’ and experience parts of the world that they could not experience as humans, then graft these memories back into themselves. And then add a protagonist with a desire for extreme sensation and no ethics.

‘Little Green Men’ by Alexander Chee is the gay Gawain and the Green Knight story that I had been waiting for ever since I heard of this anthology! This takes place on a Mars Colony that is largely funded by reality TV empires, with Arthur being one of the stars of the show. I loved the worldbuilding here, but to me it felt more like the first chapter of a story than a complete tale in its own right. The interpersonal dynamics were just starting to get interesting when suddenly I turned a page and the story was over.

While the individual stories in Sword, Stone, Table didn’t all appeal to me, I did appreciate the variety and the way the stories were set against each other. An anthology is more than the sum of its parts, and out of seventeen stories, there were six I loved, four I liked, three that were perfectly fine, two that were interesting but a bit too experimental for my taste, and only two that I disliked. That’s a very good average for an anthology!

If you like twists on the King Arthur stories, if you enjoy fantasy and science fiction, and if you like more POC and queer people in your stories, I think you will enjoy Sword, Stone, Table. But if you are coming into this as a romance reader, please do be aware that while there are plenty of happy endings in this book, there are quite a few tragedies as well. Which, after all, reflects the source material.

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