THE "FIFTH MILLENNIUM" series, of which Saber and Shadow is the seventh instalment, is actually the creation of a trio of authors: Karen Wehrstein, Shirley Meier, and S. M. Stirling, although to date only one book, (Shadow's Son) has been written by all three. Saber and Shadow is the creation of Meir and Stirling, although, oddly enough, it can be placed chronologically before at least three other series titles already published.
Inside and outside, from the typographical errors to the Nancy Drewmeets-Frank Frazetta cover, this swordand-sorcery epic is in most respects conventional and superficial. Despite claiming to possess the "qualities of dissonance and discontinuity reflective of real life" - as stated in the epilogue Saber and Shadow is set in that most common of fantasy cliches, the postapocalyptic world.
Megan Whitlock (Shadow) and Shkai'ra Mek Kermak's-kin (Saber), meet on a ship bound for Illizbuah, the capital of Fehinna. While caught in an uprising of Fehinna's poor against taxation, the two adventurers intercept an indecipherable message from a Fehinnan wizard. The message ultimately makes the two the target of wizards, priests and, most intriguingly, a band of aristocratic merchants and thieves who dress like current-day ninjas and call themselves "adderfangs."
The scenes that feature Megan shine like the Fehinnan "Sun-on-Earth." There is an exquisite attention to detail here, and an intriguing interest in the scatological:
She [Megan] licked dry lips, trying to
swallow, bracing herself as she was
flung on top of Jaipahl, both of them
sliding in the mush of shit and piss,
blood and vomit coating the boards.
By comparison, the passages that feature Shkai'ra are concerned with adventure rather than character. But the most distinctive aspect of the book is the lesbian relationship between Megan and Shkai'ra. Certainly, the traditionally male realm of fantasy literature has always had undercurrents of homoeroticism; male heroes normally disdain the company of women in favour of male companionship, this being a necessary consequence of the genre's young teenage male audience. However, the authors of Saber and Shadow have inverted that custom: although the love-making between Megan and Shkai'ra is not explicitly narrated, their relationship is consummated, and the last word of the book is love.
No such boldness is evident in Antony Swithin's The Winds of the Wastelands,book three in "The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse" series, whose value lies in its harking back to the Arthurian model that Saber and Shadow ignores. The protagonist of The Winds of the Wastelands, Simon Branthwaite, has lost touch with his father and brother, who have escaped a failed rebellion in 15th-century England. Simon believes them to be hiding on the island of Rockall where, according to legend, a utopian community called Lyonesse exists.
Swithin's series has sold well, particularly in the UK. Swithin, currently a professor of geology at the University of Saskatchewan, was born and raised in England, and in addition to the English setting, both the book's narration and dialogue have the clipped cadences of Britain, as well as the chivalric speeches one might find in T. H. White's The Once and Future King.
The Winds of the Wastelands is everything that Saber and Shadow is not. There are no gory scenes of battle, nor are there any overt references to sexuality. Simon Branthwaite is joined in his quest by a servant girl named Essa (who may or may not be of royal blood), but Swithin has no intention of redirecting the emphasis of the tale from adventure to romance. The Winds of the Wastelands is clearly intended for a younger audience than that of Saber and Shadow, and Swithin succeeds in maintaining a uniform world-view. If Meier and Stirling had concentrated on coherence as well as colour, they might also have been masters of their own universe.