Sword Stone Table is an anthology based on Arthurian legends. Editors Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington have consciously taken an approach to diversify this very traditional European corpus with the help of a fantastic roster of authors. The anthology contains sixteen stories written by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Roshani Chokshi, Daniel M. Lavery, Nisi Shawl, Sarah MacLean, Sive Doyle, Maria Dahvana Headley, Waubgeshig Rice, Anthony Rapp, Zainab Williams, Alex Segura, Jessica Plummer, Preeti Chhibber, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Ken Liu and Alexander Chee. So, a pretty impressive line-up to begin with. The book is split into three parts, Past, Present, and Future. This is based on the setting of the stories, though it’s not always a useful distinction in my opinion – some of the stories switch timelines and I felt like the split seemed more artificial than useful for my own reading enjoyment.
As a whole, this anthology is something that is close to my heart. I am passionate about diversifying the perception of the Middle Ages, to move away from the Victorian-inspired belief that especially the English Middle Ages, where Arthurian legends originate, was an isolated community of white and straight people, filled with adherents to traditional gender roles. In Sword Stone Table, the authors and editors really manage to show the breadth of the spectrum that can be included in these stories, that there is space for everyone in Arthuriana. So, the concept and impression of the anthology as a whole are brilliant. I really enjoyed getting stuck into the different stories and worlds.
However, not all the stories worked equally well for me. I noticed that I tended to prefer stories in the Past section, as those really took the familiar stories and changed them into something unfamiliar – Khan’s “The Once and Future Qadi” turns the well-known event of Guinevere’s infidelity into an investigation, when a visiting Qadi is asked to look into the rumours. MacLean’s “The Bladesmith Queen”, one of my favourites in the anthology, features a girl, whose kisses are cursed to kill their recipient – so she becomes a blacksmith and makes weapons instead. That story features some amazing banter and a wonderful ending. Chokshi’s “Passing Fair and Young”, a reimagining of the tale of the Lady of Shallot, is probably the most beautiful story in the collection. Her writing is haunting and lyrical and fits the heartbreaking story perfectly.
The Present section of Sword Stone Table has less magical vibes than the stories set in the past. Most of the stories in this section transpose characters and elements from the known stories into a modern setting, into a culture foreign to Arthurian legend. I felt like these stories were less free with the source material as if the change of setting stifled the stories. I didn’t dislike any of them, but only one of my favourite stories is found in this part of the collection. One that didn’t work for me, but deserves a special mention because it is innovative and objectively great – I think many will really like this one – is Headley’s “Mayday”, which imagines Arthur as part of an industrialist dynasty in 19th century America, told through items significant to the story. I particularly enjoyed Plummer’s “Flat White”, which has elements of the popular fanfiction trope of the ‘coffee shop AU’. It takes Arthurian characters – Elaine is a barista, and Lance, Arthur, and Gwen are regulars in her coffee shop, and she gets to observe all the DRAMA. It is a very fun story.
The last section, Future, is very short. It contains only three stories, of which I found Chee’s “Little Green Men” the standout. This is a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight. But set on Mars. And Gay. So, wonderful. All in all, I really enjoyed Sword Stone Table and recommend it to fans of Arthurian stories, both those who come from SFF and those that are more interested in literary fiction. Certainly a book well worth reading, and one I’m personally very glad exists.