Last Updated on February 12, 2024
Unbound II is Shawn Speakman’s collection of seventeen all-original short stories from eighteen of the most exciting authors in contemporary fantasy and speculative fiction. Speakman plays several roles here, serving as the editor and publisher, as well as the author of the final story in the collection.
Unbound II is clearly a labor of love for Shawn Speakman, who created this book as a tribute to his late father, Richard Speakman, after his untimely passing in 2018 at the age of 72. That’s an image of Richard Speakman on the beautifully illustrated cover by Todd Lockwood. Unbound II serves as a companion volume to Shawn Speakman’s previous anthology, Unfettered II, which is dedicated to his late mother, Kathy Speakman, likewise featuring her on the cover.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Unbound II anthology. For the purposes of this review, I’d like to highlight several of my favorite stories to give you a taste for what’s inside this collection.
Let us begin at the end, with Shawn Speakman’s own contribution, “The Last Arrow of the Autumn Huntsman.” Speakman wrote this story to commemorate his father, who suffered from severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in the Vietnam War. One of the protagonists of this haunting story, Ryk Oldten, shares this same dark affliction, unable to shake away terrible memories from his past. Speakman provides an authentic representation of PTSD and its impact on family members, who are trying to do their best to understand this affliction and help their loved one. “The Last Arrow of the Autumn Huntsman” is a magnificently heartfelt story that will linger with me for years to come.
The reigning queen of grimdark, Anna Smith Spark, has contributed “A Knight was Once Sent on a Quest by her Master” to Unbound II. Anna Smith Spark has crafted a touching fantasy about a knight, Erenan, with a physical disability that limits the use of her legs. I especially appreciated the loving relationship between Erenan and her horse: as she mounts the horse, they come together to make one unified being. Anna Smith Spark writes with a melancholic beauty and ends on a hopeful note that left me craving more.
As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed watching Mark Lawrence’s new video series on YouTube, “Perfecting the First Page,” it is a joy to see the master at work with his new story, “Solomon.” This is only the fourth short story that Mark Lawrence has published from the point of view of Jorg Ancrath from his Broken Empire series. “Solomon” takes place between the events of Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. Jorg’s dark humor is in peak form as he is presented with a baby purported to be his own illegitimate child. As usual for Mark Lawrence, “Solomon” is a perfectly crafted story, poetic in its style with a balance between levity and darkness. It is always a thrill to return to the Broken Empire, and I hope Mark Lawrence will follow up with more Jorg stories in the future.
Another standout story is “Shadow’s Daughter” by Jon Sprunk. “Shadow’s Daughter” is set in the same world as his Shadow Saga trilogy and tells the story of Cassie, the daughter of Caim and the Empress Josephine. Cassie loves to sneak out at night to run across the rooftops of the city. As a reader, it is a lot of fun to follow her nighttime adventures. Jon Sprunk has created a great character with Cassie, and I feel like this could be the start of a new series building upon his Shadow Saga trilogy.
Relationships take center stage in “Sandra and Me,” a delightfully weird story by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky considers the personal and social impact of relationships if they became more inclusive rather than exclusive. “Sandra and Me” is a charmingly quirky and thought-provoking story.
Anna Stephens teaches us a lesson in moral relativism with “Heart-Eater.” I love the world that Anna Stephens has created here in such a small space. But her character work truly stands out, particularly in the relationship between the two main characters, Chen and K’un. “Heart-Eater” is a unique and masterfully crafted short story that will keep you guessing until the end.
On a lighter note, Dyrk Ashton’s contribution, “The True Adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu,” is a comedic retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ashton’s story is fast-paced with many laugh- out-loud moments. My favorite part was his introduction of the Tuckerization Brothers. You’ll need to read the story to find out who has been tuckerized in this fractured version of the ancient Mesopotamian epic.
To my delight, the first story of Unbound II, “Imperial Court” by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, takes place in the world of Dune, a favorite series of Richard Speakman. It is especially touching that this story is cowritten by Brian Herbert, the son of Frank Herbert, who carries on his father’s legacy the same way that Shawn Speakman carries on his own father’s legacy with Unbound II. “Imperial Court” focuses on the age-old feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, here represented by Willem Atreides and Danvis Harkonnen. The story takes place well before the events of Frank Herbert’s original Dune novel, shortly after the forming of the Spacing Guild as humanity attempts to establish a stable government. There is much to love for Dune fans with the publication of this new short story.
All of the stories in Unbound II are excellent. The other contributors include Saara El-Arifi (“The Shadhavar”), Ken Scholes (“Business in Great Waters”), Jordan Ross (“Moonflower Alchemy”), Peter Orullian (“A Poor Reflection”), Kristen Britain (“Samantha vs. the Shadows in the Basement of the Captain Riddle House”), Kevin Hearne (“Gladys and the Whale”), Django Wexler (“Last of the Red Riders”), Patrick Swenson (“Homecoming”), and Tamora Pierce (“The Sheriff’s Daughter”). Every story here is a winner.
Taken as a whole, Unbound II is both a heartfelt tribute to Shawn Speakman’s father and a showcase for some of the finest talent working in fantasy and speculative fiction today.