Crom help me, I should practice what I preach. But this book was a short story anthology, and I just kept pushing myself with the mantra "the next story has to be better. It has to be. Right?"
And to be fair, there were some very good stories in this collection - but for every jewel, there was probably five pieces of colored glass.
I do not want to dwell on the negatives here, but with the amount of negativity I found myself feeling towards this book, it's hard not to. This book actually made me angry to read through big swathes of it. There is precious little evidence of proof-reading to be found here, and several stories appear to not even have been run through spell-check, which contributes to an overall sense of laziness - that the book was slapped together and not so much released as excreted.
I don't even want to name the stories or authors that so irritated me, because all publicity is good publicity. Suffice to say that a pair of stories in this volume, both by the same author, felt less like sword-and-sorcery and more like a frustrated 14-year old's clumsily erotic fan-fiction based on a sword-and-sorcery cartoon. Those were the stand-outs among the stories I disliked; most of the rest were simply dull and written with little flair or energy; at least one, I'm convinced, is actually a transcribed Dungeons & Dragons session.
But instead, let me focus on a few stand-outs that I really enjoyed:
- "The Oath of an Umbrian" (Teel James Glenn): This was my absolute favorite story of the collection, and the story with which the book opens. A barbarian swordswoman is hired to escort a pair of bickering, hateful noblemen into the wilderness to claim their inheritance. The overall tone has more in common with the works of Jack Vance than Robert E. Howard, and I'm looking forward to stealing the plot of this story for use as a D&D game.
- "The Floating Island of Tauret Mok" (Kevin Henry): Blending fantasy with science fiction is something I really enjoy (as witnessed by my current D&D campaign), and this story handles that mash-up extremely well, working in an interesting element of fatalism that I think Howard would have been proud of.
- "One Night in the City-State of Shal-Hah-Vi" (Mark Finn): Mark Finn's a noted scholar in the field of Robert E. Howard studies, and this story is a surprisingly fun little tale of an iron-thewed barbarian pursuing the decadent nobleman who stole his woman. Of course, things are never so simple, and I really enjoyed Finn's playing with genre tropes here.
- "Chronicles of the Obsidian Crown" (Byron Roberts): Byron Roberts is the front-man of one of my favorite bands, the sword-and-sorcery infused symphonic black metal group Bal Sagoth; it's actually from his Facebook page that I first heard about this book. His story here ties in with one of the story arcs explored lyrically across Bal Sagoth's six albums, and the prose carries an almost lyrical flow to it; it's certainly one of the better stories I've seen dealing with the realities of being a mercenary swordsman.
- "The Other at the Threshold" (Jason Scott Aiken): Jason actually sold me my copy of this book at Pulpfest; his story here is a sequel to his tale "The Sword of Lomar," which I have in another anthology purchased from him that I'll get to sooner or later, and which he did a dramatic reading of at the convention. The story follows Nuja, last survivor of the destruction of the city of Lomar, as she struggles to fulfill a contract with a wizard for possession of an arcane sword. The writing is crisp, the action is well-choreographed, and Nuja's one of the better-written heroines I've encountered in fantasy literature. Thumbs up for warrior women who exist as something more than leather-clad cheesecake, even if all the men in her vicinity are still struck dumb by her beauty.
That's all I really have to say on the subject of Barbarian Crowns. I'm glad I found a few solid gems in the collection, but overall I'm more glad to have the book finished and can move on to better material.