Unfettered: Tales by Masters of Fantasy edited by Shawn Speakman

Fantasy fiction meets health care reality

Books Reviews
Unfettered: Tales by Masters of Fantasy edited by Shawn Speakman

In a world where music becomes a magic weapon and emotion seasons the very wood of instruments with strange powers, Belamae stands on a frost-hardened battlefield and sings.

The warrior vocalizes in grotesque modes attaining “absolute sound,” a necromantic music that not only inspires his enemies’ darkest feelings, but materializes them into a violence that kills from the inside out. His tortured voice produces tortured results, a bloody deed that leaves the singer feeling nearly as broken as his audience.

Broken, too, lies a rare viola, smashed by Belamae in his impatience to leave music school and go to war. Back in the city, Divad, the maestro tasked with teaching Belamae the Song of Suffering, bends over the shattered instrument, rebuilding pegboard and bridge with precious woods and exotic oils. Despite the ruin and toil, Divad smiles at a private thought: “Living would mean nothing without burden.”

One of two-dozen fantasy tales collected in Unfettered, “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” offers a theme of rebuilding our broken selves. It resonates perfectly…not just in the world of fairy tales, but also in the harsh real world of modern health care.

If Unfettered arrived simply as a fantasy fiction anthology, it would be praiseworthy enough simply for living up to its title—these stories really do unchain our minds from the dreary mundane. The two-dozen tales include fresh offerings from such superstars as Terry Brooks and gems from emerging fantasy authors. It’s a treasure chest for any genre fan.

But Unfettered also happens to be a fundraising project. It marks the start of an extraordinary effort to unshackle authors and artists from medical bills that ruin lives and careers.

The authors of the stories collected here all donated their stories for free to create a book that could cover a $200,000 medical bill—the fee left to their friend and the book’s editor, fantasy author Shawn Speakman, after he beat cancer. Speakman now plans a nonprofit to be funded by an annual anthology like Unfettered. The anthology will offer similar help to ill artists not lucky enough to have such famous friends.

The jacket art of Unfettered depicts Speakman as a cowled prisoner, surrounded by dragons and demons. He breaks his chains in a dramatic sine curve. And so it should be—his own story reads like an adventure tale.

“The American health care system has a big hole in it,” Speakman warns in a phone interview from his Seattle home, explaining how it often leaves self-employed authors and artists with inadequate health insurance…if they can get any at all.

“Somebody should never have to worry about health payments when they’re fighting for their life.”

Speakman wields a lot of influence behind the scenes in fantasy and sci-fi author fandom. He serves as webmaster and press secretary for Terry Brooks, a frequent guest on the New York Times best-seller list with the epic-fantasy Shannara series. Speakman also operates the Signed Page, a 12-year-old business that sells signed editions of works in the speculative fiction genre.

Excellent health insurance through a day job got Speakman cured of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 25. Five cancer-free years later, at a time he itched to become a fantasy author himself, he resigned.

“I decided to make the leap and try my dream of being a writer,” he recalls.

Like many creative people in America, Speakman literally risked his life to make art. Leaving his job meant losing his health insurance, and no company would sell him a new plan because he previously had cancer.

His writing dream looked to be over in 2011. Doctors diagnosed Speakman with a different cancer—Hodgkin’s lymphoma this time.

“You are very aware you don’t have health insurance,” he says, “when the doctor sitting across from you says, ‘You have cancer.’”

Speakman knew the treatments would be brutal, sapping his ability to write. If he survived, he would still face medical bankruptcy and financial ruin. Desperate, he brainstormed the idea of asking Brooks to donate a short story that he could publish as a fundraiser. Brooks not only said yes, but came up with the anthology concept that became Unfettered.

Speakman believes the Affordable Care Act will help him and other uninsured artists. Even so, the plan doesn’t cover everything, and deductibles can be big. For authors or their families, the holes could be devastating.

So Speakman forges ahead with plans for his own medical-bill assistance self-help organization. He won’t divulge the name he has in mind (for now, call it Tolkeincare). He draws inspiration from the Haven Foundation, a similar fund started by Stephen King that provided minor but valuable financial aid to Speakman.

He hopes to have the organization and the new anthology ready for a dual debut at the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Wash.

Meanwhile, Speakman remains cancer-free, and it looks as if Unfettered will successfully retire his medical debt. He already shared a little extra Unfettered money, in fact, with another author whose son required hospitalization.

“I’ve had a lot of help,” Speakman notes. “I’m definitely the kind of person who believes in paying it forward.”

So do the authors who donated their stories. Though the quality varies from outstanding to meh, no one did a cheap recycling job. Some contributors crafted new pieces based on the “unfettered” theme. Others offer the literary version of DVD extras—prequels, non-canonical adventures, and deleted chapters that will thrill fans of such popular series as Temeraire and Wheel of Time.

In keeping with the unchained theme, Speakman let contributors do whatever they wanted. Some stories leave the fantasy realm for neighboring lands of horror, children’s lit and Márquez-style magical realism.

Giant names in fantasy fiction pitched into Speakman’s collection plate: Brooks; the best-selling Dungeons & Dragons novelist R.A. Salvatore; Lev Grossman, Time book critic and author of The Magicians.

As often proves the case with anthologies, however, the biggest names didn’t turn in the best work. Browsing rewards a reader with new friends.

Best known for epic tales about an elf with a pet panther and twin magic swords, Salvatore unexpectedly, and disappointingly, turns in a story about baseball. Not even elven baseball. “The Coach with Big Teeth” recounts a Little League game in excruciating detail before striking out with a blandly obvious horror scene of a mean coach sprouting fangs.

Grossman’s slapstick comedy vignette “The Duel”—about a battle with one “Vile Father”—exemplifies the genre’s unfortunate tendency to meta in-joking. Namechecking everything from The Matrix to Klingon and written in a profane, slangy email style, it grates like a comic-book shop worker who won’t quit with nerd-humor jokes we’ve already heard.

Leave it to a little-known author and musician named Peter Orullian to produce the collection’s standout, the aforementioned “The Sound of Broken Absolutes.” A close friend to Speakman, Orullian pours love and dread into his rich novella about art, loss and reconstruction.

The circumstance of friendship could lead a lesser writer into something maudlin. Not Orullian—his tale disturbs and ultimately uplifts with the authenticity only possible from a writer who looked life’s hardship in the eye and shook its bony hand.

Todd Lockwood, who contributed a story as well as the book’s ceaselessly handsome illustrations, establishes himself as the collection’s major discovery.

Already famed as an artist for Dungeons & Dragons game materials, Magic cards, and Salvatore’s book jackets, Lockwood can also write. He had a rollicking adventure tale in last year’s Kickstarter-funded anthology Tales of the Emerald Serpent, and here he proves adept in a totally different mode with his haunting ghost story “Keeper of Memory.” Now working on his debut novel, Lockwood looks to be a rising star fans should read here first.

Jacqueline Carey dazzles with “The Martyr of the Roses,” a highly stylized tale of religious dogma battling spiritual truth. Courtly intrigues unfold around a shrine where a martyr’s footprints remain miraculously burned into stone. Pilgrims fail to replicate the intricate choreography of her steps—until desperation and faith spur one visitor to history-altering success. While a lovely freestanding sculpture, the tale will further fascinate Carey fans as a prototype of her Kushiel’s Legacy series.

Other contributors include Speakman himself, along with Daniel Abraham, Jennifer Bosworth, Naomi Novik, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson and nearly a dozen others.

Successful or unsuccessful, these stories remind readers that modern fantasy fiction rests firmly on Beowulf. In that ancient monster-slaying tale, generosity and fellowship prove the hallmarks of a king, and braving indescribable horrors and pains defines a hero.

Speakman’s book, in style and substance, in community and bravery, stands as a worthy heir to the Beowulf tradition.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. He has contributed to the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, Details, and other publications.

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