Shadow, Light, & Steel (2016) is a thoughtful, evocative collection of short fantasy, including six short stories, two essays, and twenty character sketches, glimpses into the hearts and lives of vividly imagined people in other worlds and times. Rob Rhodes’ fiction in this collection is in the heroic fantasy genre, with a visible (and acknowledged) debt to Dungeons and Dragons lore. The main characters in these works are spirited individuals who are challenged, but not beaten, by their circumstances. Whether or not they prevail against adversity, their spirits are undaunted. These are people I would like to read more about, to get to know better, to share an evening’s conversation with by the fire.
Some of the longer stories that I found most memorable:
“To Be a Man:” In an alternate version of medieval Russia, the thief Vasili is chained in a forest glade, naked and bedaubed with blood, and abandoned to the dubious mercies of the approaching wolves. He’s rescued by Titania, a brutal, larger-than-life outlaw who is his partner in crime and in bed, but it soon becomes apparent that Vasili is still bound by chains of a sort. Titania rides a magnificent black stallion that she humorously named “A Man” (as in, isn’t it good to have a Man between your legs?), and Vasili feels a kinship to this warhorse, mastered by a heartless woman. Burdened with guilt and sick of this life, he plans and hopes for a different future.
“Devotion:” Piran, a mercenary swordsman, tangles with a witch on a mountainside, striking her down with his sword. But when he looks around to get his bearings, his companion Ferris and his lover Amara have disappeared without a trace. Worse, when he leaves the mountain and returns to the city, it is unrecognizable … almost. This story gains its depth from a relationship that originally seemed a minor subplot. It’s touching and a little bit heartbreaking.
“The Dead Travel Silently:” Nadia deliberately drowns herself in a river, sending her soul to the world below to confront Lady Giltine, the Baltic goddess of death. What purpose could be compelling enough to send her on a quest from which her soul may very well not return?
“The Hero of Hawk’s Field:” Artemir knows there is evil afoot: he comes to himself dressed in a peasant’s homespun clothes, his sword Volbrin missing, and a donkey replacing his steed Gorhaun. Nothing daunted, he hefts the axe he finds and sets off to confront the bandits who stole his belongings. When he finds the bandits, who are led by a disgraced nobleman accused of conspiracy against the king, they’re confused by his accusations but happy to take him on in a deadly fight. The twist in this story was a complete surprise to me, but deeply satisfying.
There are two non-fictional essays in this collection. The first, “Servants of the Secret Fire,” is an interlude in the middle of the collection, in which Rhodes thoughtfully explores the reasons that fantasy and science fiction are important.
We become servants of the Secret Fire, with the power to bring truth and hope into the dark places around us. We remember that words and stories, even of those who are distant or dead, contain the power to unite and encourage, heal and transform. … For each of us, there is a bridge between who we are and who we should be, and we do not have forever to cross it.
In the second essay, an afterword, Rhodes traces the influences in his life and in his writing, and offers some additional insights into some of the stories in this collection.
The remainder of Shadow, Light, & Steel is a set of twenty brief character sketches, flash fiction of about three pages each. These are brief slice-of-life portraits of fantasy “heroes.” Rhodes wrote these as a series that he called “twenty heroes” and published on Fantasy Literature in 2010, when he was a reviewer with this site. When originally published on this site, these pieces included portraits, artwork found by Rhodes that he often used as inspiration for these stories. Unfortunately these artworks are not in the book, but you can see them by clicking the Fantasy Literature link above to see the original posts of these short pieces.
They’re a diverse set of characters, ranging from a swordsman who’s been unfairly imprisoned, finally released again after ten years of hard labor (“Andreas val Dhari”), to a shepherd girl trying to save her childhood friend from a cold-hearted wizard (“Love & Winter” ― which is actually a full short story, and contains two of our twenty heroes, with a third quietly staking his claim as well), to a monk in a secluded citadel, teaching a young boy to read and helping to save his country in his own unobtrusive way (“Torsten”), and many more. I only wish Rhodes would write more about many of these characters.
Ideals of courage and endurance shine through in almost every tale in this collection, along with the conviction that we need to overcome our fears and doubts, and live. It’s an impressive and lyrically written collection, well worth the time for any fan of heroic fantasy.