I enjoy fantasy, and I enjoy short stories, but I rarely tend to read things that combine the two – one of the things that I’m very attached to in fantasy is detailed and consistent world-building, which short stories generally don’t have the space or the scope to include. As a result, I nearly passed on these, which would have been regrettable.
By Sword, Stave or Stylus is a set of thirteen discrete short stories – they take place in different fictional worlds, there is no required reading order, et cetera. There are two pairs of stories which carry elements over (recurring characters), but even these are not dependent on each other; you could read either first.
The variety on display is refreshing – the author describes the collection as “eclectic”, a term that is so often misused, but here it seems appropriate. Settings range from Ancient Rome to hell itself, and the stories don’t all have the same mood – some of them aim for pathos, some for tension, and some successfully (always a rarity) manage to be humorous.
What does carry across from story to story, however, is neatness – the stories wrap up nicely, with appropriate climaxes and twists, ending on strong notes. Some of the twists are visible from a distance, but they’re well-executed, so I really don’t mind. The writing is clear, successfully evoking different atmospheres in different stories, but always with the same clarity that keeps them interesting.
As mentioned above, the world-building that short stories are capable of is limited – the narrative has to take the foreground, and the specific details of the world is pushed to allusions and conjecture. What background we get to the stories though, is decent – some stories take quite traditional settings, which saves time and words, but others manage to create and people the scene quickly and interestingly. “Leprosaria” and “The Hunter in the Stacks” are of particular note for this – the world is effectively established, and I’d happily read more in those veins.
It is difficult to choose a favourite – many of the stories have much to recommend them, but in the end I will pick “The Wizard’s Stairs”, because it manages to be both an epic and bathetic in a very short space of time. It wasn’t the most compelling, but it is one of the neatest, and wrapping things up nicely is something that Andrew Knighton does well. Novels that trail off weakly are tedious, and short stories that do so are unforgivable – he does not make that mistake.
Though it almost goes without saying, these are short stories, in a very short book, just over half an hour of reading time. Frankly, some of the stories are more vignettes around a single idea than more typical short stories. Brevity is to be expected with short stories, and I enjoy vignettes, but it would have been nice to have had more of them.
I’m glad I bought the book – the stories are interesting and engaging, and it is refreshing sometimes to be immersed in fantasy ideas and characters without having to plow through a seven-book cycle. The author has a couple of other collections, though not focused on fantasy – one set of Steampunk short stories, for example. Though not as directly to my taste, I’ll definitely check them out at some point.