The description of this fantasy anthology promises swordfighting and romance. Well, there is some of both in here, though not in every story; but that isn't the key to what gives the book unity. I realized part way through that many of the stories take place in settings where social dynamics involve strict, even ritualized codes of behavior. Actual duels may rarely feature, but the social meanings of forms of confilct are explored (and in some stories, conflict is prevented). More importantly, most of the authors here are extremely attentive to the dynamics of power: who has it, how it plays out, and the ways that people (especially those with less power) work within and against the codes of their society.
Heather Rose Jones has been expertly anatomizing Alpennian society (both like and unlike other 19th-century European countries) and the ways that her characters survive as independent women in a series of novels, and we here have a side story that is just as acute. In "Gifts Tell Truth," Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, is in the process of developing the skills for bringing people together she showed in The Mystic Marriage, and becomes involved in a case of espionage precisely because she understands Alpennian ways well; when she acts, she chooses to do so in a way that heads off violence.
"The Sharpest Cut," by Doranna Durgin, takes place in Denbarra, the most ritualized society in the book. I enjoyed the way that the author described the elaboration of clothing as symbols. The story concerns the fine line between the use of "honor" and propriety to smooth relations between people, and its use as weapons to shore up the power of people who have the upper hand. (It is stated that this is a very non-violent society, on the surface at least: they fight with disapproval not swords.) Abuse of power is a growing problem in Denbarra in this story and its main characters figure out how to act against it in a very Denbarran manner.
In "The Game of Lions," by Marella Sands, the main characters are the members of a women's team playing an international exhibition match of tikta (a game similar to cricket) in a quasi-African setting. Although the social mores described aren't wildly oppressive, still, as young women the players are disregarded and unimportant. They wind up using that very fact to their advantage when they need to be overlooked doing something daring to prevent a war. And their other advantage is their alliance with each other. The captain of the opposing team has some remarks to make about the relative importance of men's conflicts versus activities that bring people together, like tikta. And there's a sub-thread to the story about polygynous marriage and how women's alliances or conflicts work out in that setting.
"Hearts of Broken Glass," by Rosemary Edghill, is the bloodiest and most pessimistic story in the anthology. There is not the least disguise of the oppressive and violent use of power in this society, a European-type aristocracy. The main character is a well-born woman who's been fiercely schooled in disciplined obedience. Yet she may become desperate enough to break loose, even if she can't do much except run away to somewhere else (a difficult thing requiring toughness)--realizing that the game is unwinnable accompanies refusing to play the game.
Other themes that run throughout the anthology are justice, and choosing to act rightly when you have or win the power to act. "At the Sign of the Crow and Quill" by Marie Brennan is a particularly neat little story on this theme: its main character is truly heroic not because he wins a swordfight, but because of what he does after he wins: he makes a choice that splendidly turns his opponent's power-hungriness on its head, at the same time refusing to grasp for power himself.
"A Sword for Liberty" by Diana L. Paxson is set during the American Revolution and is fantasy only in that the goddess Libertas has a great deal of reality to its main character. I was suprised by how well the story worked. The difficulty of reconciling the grand ideals expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence with intolerent, racist, sexist, slave-owning reality is its theme. The ultimate affirmation of idealism can only be prevented from being facile if the idealist has been sufficiently faced by reasons to have reservations, and I believe the main character here was. The story's sitll sentimental, though, and making a (semi-repentent) slave-owner into a heroic character is a hard sell.
This is an imperfect anthology. I'm pretty sure there are no writers of color among the authors, which is a serious problem. There are a few stories that are poor stuff, and more that I forgot the instant I turned their last page. Even some of the better stories can be awkward. And the final story in the volume, while quite nice, doesn't seem to fit in thematically. Still, overall the combination of stories was a strong one, and they actually enhanced each other.