Operation Arcana

Sunday , 23, April 2017 13 Comments

Last year, I speculated if military fantasy had enough good writers to make it a viable sub-genre. Operation Arcana is another Baen Books anthology offering of military fantasy. Baen Books published the trade paperback in March 2015. The mass market paperback came out in September 2016 at $7.99. John Joseph Adams is the editor. The book comes to 429 pages.

Editor John Joseph Adams has this to say in the introduction:

“When you think of that term, you might initially picture big epic fantasy battles like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Battle of Helm’s Deep or George R. R. Martin’s Battle of Blackwater. “

David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell’s “Rules of Enchantment” has an interesting premise. A high fantasy type world has impinged on our own with spill over. A U.S. Marine recon squad is tasked with escorting an elf lady to headquarters. You have very big trolls vs. marines as part of the combat. Not a bad start.

“The Damned One Hundred” is more in the sword and sorcery territory with a remnant of a military order attempting to enlist the aid of female vampires against a horde of destructive nomads coming this way. The abrupt ending is a sort I am not fond of though it makes sense with background story.

Female Soviet pilots in WW2 is the basis of Genevieve Valentine’s “Blood, Ash, Braids.” A turn off for me is the first person, present tense writing style. The fantastic element is slight and revealed at the end of the story.

I had higher hopes for Elizabeth Moon’s “Mercenary’s Honor.” Moon is one of three writers who were present in Shattered Shields. Set in the world Paksenarrion, it is the tale of two mercenary company commanders who work out how to get out of a contract honorably from a dishonorable employer. It is not a bad story, just nothing special.

Django Wexler’s “The Guns of the Wastes” is more sword & planet and science fiction than fantasy. Land ships battle robots who scavenge old cities. The story certainly has plenty of action.

The spirit of Unknown lives on in Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Graphology of Hemorrhage.” This story is heavy on the spell side of things used in warfare.

Modern day warfare is the setting for Weston Ochse “American Golem.” I take it the name is a play on American Sniper. Ochse is a veteran of the U.S. military. The U.S. Army is using golems now and one slips the leash.

Goblins are the subject of Myke Cole’s “Weapons in the Earth.” A clan of goblins is captured by their enemies. I lost interest in this one. The story went on and on.

The influence of Unknown is felt again with Ari Marmell’s “Heavy Sulfur.” Set in an alternate WW1 where sorcery is used. Didn’t work for me.

Tanya Huff’s “Steel Ships” is an attempt to retrofit modern military jargon with a commando attack of the Royal Navy Special Forces against an enemy called the Navreen. Lots of vaguely Celtic sounding names and items mentioned. I could not make out the background of this story. It was rather vague.

Carrie Vaughn had a memorably bad story for the ages, “Strife Lingers in Memory” in The Mammoth Book of Warriors and Wizardy. She’s back with “Sealskin.” A guy figures out his father was a selkie from Ireland. The story was just getting started when it ended. There is nothing military about the story but it had the potential to be great.

The Korean War is the background for “Pathfinder” by T. C. McCarthy. Another story set in present tense which distracted me. I didn’t care for it.

I have made it known that I am a non-fan of Glen Cook’s Black Company. “The Bone Eaters” is the title of this story. Cook’s near description free prose does little for me though others just about orgasm to it. More names like Darling and Silent. I am rather tired of adjectives used as names. I simply have too many preconceived prejudices against the Black Company to fairly review the story.

Simon Green goes back a few decades. He was in Swords Against Darkness V in 1979. “Bomber’s Moon” is another of these alternate scenarios with supernatural elements. Hitler made a deal with Hell when he realized he was losing. The Allies have accepted help from the other side. Angels help move airplanes without engines to bomb Dresden.

I disliked Seanan McGuire’s story in Shattered Shields and I only read a few pages of “In Skeleton Leaves.” McGuire makes use of Peter Pan with an update of the Lost Children fighting the pirates. Not my cup of tea.

An army patrol gets transported from Iraq to some sort of hell in “The Way Home” by Linda Nagata. They have battle a sort of demon. Every time they kill a demon, a brief doorway back to our world opens allowing one to return. The story is suspenseful as you count down to the last soldier battling every increasing and powerful demons.

And there you have it. I give this book about a 2 out of 5. There were a few decent stories but the majority failed to hold my attention. This paperback got beat up as I did not blow through it in a few days to a week. In fact, I viewed it as a chore to tackle the next story. I would throw it in the car with the intent of reading it at lunch. The book just bogged down for me after the first two stories.

The question remains: Will military fantasy achieve critical mass to be a viable genre? Glen Cook and Elizabeth Moon go back to the 1980s (Cook even earlier). There appears to be a real problem getting together one anthology with a successful melding of the military with the fantastic. Going down the Unknown path is not going to work. I said it before that any potential writer is going to have to do some serious research on military history if this potential sub-genre is going to flourish or be the occasional oddity.

  • Xavier Basora says:


    Thanks for the forthright review.
    A few questions besides delving into military history would it be more productive to reread the primary fantasy/mythological sources?

    I’m thinking about the medieval and early modern knight errant stories like Roland Aristotle Furioso El Cid etc? They combined imaginative over the top fantasy with down to earth military life.

    That’s the conclusion I pick up. That the writers appear not to have fully immersed themselves in the folktales that define us.

    • Morgan says:

      It certainly would not hurt to read medieval romances. Heck, even get Lin Carter’s DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES and GOLDEN CITIES, FAR as a start. I had some posts last year on military history books that would come in handy for research.

  • Scott Cole says:

    Curious if the title with Aracana in it came from Thane’s Arcana game and universe?


    Don’t see an indication of that in the anthology but Arcana is not really a common name.

  • Nathan says:

    I’ve not been able to figure out Baen’s short fiction strategy over the last couple years. It’s been SFWA heavy, and in the case of this particular set of military fantays, the absence of Kratman, Ringo, Weber, and Correia is felt. Ochse is a bit of a draw as the writer of Seal Team 666, but not enough to overcome the reluctance caused by the appearance of Cole, McGuire, and Buckell on the list.

    • Xavier Basora says:


      What’s your take? Is that that fantasy military is such a new genre that it’s difficult to know what it entails?

      • I think he’s wondering why Baen is using a SJW cuck like John Joseph Adams and his crew for a military anthology. I automatically say fuck no to anything related to Lightspeed.

      • Nathan says:

        Hardly. Cook, Ringo, and Warhammer exist, after all. But the genre’s going to better served by the indies and the fringes than by the names of mainstream SFF, just like it’s big brother, mil-SF.

  • maniacprovost says:

    Meanwhile, in Japan…

    The Saga of Tanya the Evil just finished a 12 episode season- WW1 alternate history with wizards, gods and reincarnation. Awesome.

    I didn’t really like Shattered Shields, and I don’t think I got far into the Baen space opera anthology I bought… the stories are mostly just uninteresting.

  • H.P. says:

    I enjoyed Cole’s first trilogy, especially the action sequences, but his prequel series has gotten pretty dull.

    Nagata’s The Red trilogy is pretty awesome, but military SF, not military fantasy.

    I enjoyed the first book in Wexler’s flintlock fantasy series but haven’t gotten around to reading the rest.

  • caleb says:

    Interesting that they mostly went for that “crossover” approach, with modern armed forces fighting supernatural adversary.
    I suppose that is a thing of familiarity when writing “authentic” mil fiction – writers write about that they know – but I can imagine some readers expecting, say, detailed portrayal of medieval warfare with the inclusion of fantastic variables and thus being disappointed with the bulk of this collection.

    • deuce says:

      “Portal” MilFan has been around at least since Daley’s Coramonde novels, which preceded the more “straight” MilFan series from Cook and Turtledove by several years.

      My main disappointment with MilFan almost always comes when the author projects back practices and attitudes that simply wouldn’t fly in the milieu presented. Instant reestablishment of disbelief.

  • Sam says:

    I quite liked “blood, ash, braids”. I thought it worked well as a sort of a WW1 iteration of the “urban fantasy” or whatchamaycallit, wherein folkloric magic exists in the real world, but is secret and hidden.

    And I liked the horror elements of “Pathfinder”, if I remember it correctly.

    “Weapons in the Earth” really stretched out too long. The story is intended to be stoic, but one needed to be stoic just to finish it.

    All in all I thought the anthology was OK, but lacked stories with the wit, brevity or creative outlandishness that one hopes to encounter in short form fiction.

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