The king must fall, yes. But as long as the king lives, they can blame him.” (Anna Smith Spark, “Glory to the King!”)”
I tend to enjoy short story collections built around a common theme, and the notion of The King Must Fall provides a compelling focal point for the anthology while allowing for a high degree of creativity from each of the nineteen authors. It is fascinating to see how different authors interpret the concept: some take “the king must fall” as a literal directive, even quoting the phrase in their stories, while others adopt a more liberal approach.
Every story here is a winner. The anthology opens with “What You Wish For” by Devin Madson, a dark fantasy in a classic medieval-style setting. Madson adopts a straightforward take on the theme of The King Must Fall. The dark elements of “What You Wish For” are especially well done, setting the tone for the rest of the anthology. The next story, “The Dark Son” by Luke Scull, fully embraces the spirit of grimdark fantasy, with plenty of brutality on both sides of an epic conflict that takes place in Scull’s Grim Company universe. Anna Smith Spark follows up with “Glory to the King!,” an Empires of Dust story depicting King Marith at the height of his powers yet beleaguered by his own insecurities. “Glory to the King!” is an intriguing psychological portrait of Anna Smith Spark’s most compelling character from her Empires of Dust trilogy.
At 62 pages, “The Book Burner’s Fall” by Anthony Ryan is the longest entry in The King Must Fall, qualifying as more of a novella than a short story. Anthony Ryan’s novella takes place in his world of Raven’s Shadow about 125 years prior to the events of Blood Song. The story focuses on the assassin Kestra Saero as she pursues vengeance in her blood-soaked grimdark world. “The King-Killing Queen” by Shawn Speakman is another novella-length contribution to the anthology. Speakman’s story has an Arthurian-inspired quality, giving it the feel of an instant classic. I was excited to learn that Shawn Speakman has a publishing deal to expand this novella into a full-length novel. A third novella-length story in the collection, “The Day the Gods Went Silent,” is provided by Justin T. Call and takes place in the author’s Silent Gods universe.
One of my favorite stories in The King Must Fall is Michael R. Fletcher’s “Mother Death,” a prequel of sorts to his City of Sacrifice series. A quintessential Michael R. Fletcher work, this story is grimdark to the core, and I lapped up every word of Mother Death’s first-person narration. Not to be outdone, Jeremy Szal’s “The Black Horse” might be the most grimdark entry in the anthology, featuring anthropomorphized horse-soldiers wreaking bloody vengeance on humans. I’m thoroughly impressed by how much raw brutality Jeremy Szal could pack into a single short story.
“Thrall” by Lee Murray, is a low fantasy that takes place somewhere around New Zealand and revolves around selkies, a type of seal people akin to mermaids, and their revenge against the human sailors who are exploiting them. A second low fantasy, “A Piece of Moveable Type,” is contributed by Peter Orullian and concerns the development of the printing press in medieval Germany, featuring the Holy Roman Emperor. Daniel Polansky’s “King for a Day,” also has an historical feel, detailing a cycle of lies and murder that envelops an apparently Mayan-inspired empire.
As one of the most creatively written pieces in The King Must Fall, the title monarch of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Face of the King” maintains a divine air of mystery by hiding his face behind a mask. The story features a morbid twist, which is made even more effective by Tchaikovsky’s use of second-person narration. Another unexpectedly dark twist comes from Trudi Canavan’s expertly narrated story, “Hand of the Artist,” which introduces the healing power of art to a morbidly sick king.
A new short story from Anna Stephens is always cause for celebration, and “The Blade-Queen and the Stoneheart” is no exception. Queen Alaya is a killer lead character and a perfect match for the author’s crisp writing style. Speaking of Anna Stephens, a proper grimdark anthology wouldn’t be complete without a tale of cannibalism. Here, the requisite cannibalistic tale is provided by Alex Marshall with “The Conspiracy Against the Twenty-Third Canton,” a bizarre short story set after the author’s original Crimson Empire trilogy.
The King Must Fall rounds out with “The Wizard in the Tower” by Kameron Hurley, “The Vârcolac” by Matthew Ward, “On Wings of Song” by Deborah A. Wolf, and “The Last Days of Old Sharakhai” by Bradley P. Beaulieu, all of which are excellent stories that grimdark readers are sure to enjoy.
Behind all these fallen monarchs is Adrian Collins, the currently unousted sovereign of Grimdark Magazine, who cooked up this literary feast for his ravenous readers. Much more than an attempt to placate his potentially mutinous grimdark horde, this stellar anthology is clearly a labor of love for Collins and everyone involved. The King Must Fall is a must-read for morally confused grimdark fans everywhere.