A review of Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery

A review of Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery

swordssorcery1It isn’t often we see a new Sword & Sorcery anthology, especially one from a major publisher.

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery, edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders (Eos Books/Subterranean Press) is the first one to cross my desk in years and, with a new Elric tale by Michael Moorcock, a Black Company story by Glen Cook, a Majipoor piece from Robert Silverberg, a Cugel the Clever tale by Michael Shea, and contributions from Steven Erikson,  James Enge, Joe Abercrombie, Tanith Lee, Garth Nix, C.J. Cherryh, Greg Keyes, Gene Wolfe, Tim Lebbon, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and many others, it looks like the real deal.

But do Strahan and Anders deliver real Sword & Sorcery, or just a close approximation?

To answer that we recruited Jason M. Waltz, publisher of Rogue Blades Entertainment, editor of the acclaimed anthologies Rage of the Behemoth and Return of the Sword, and true expert in heroic adventure.

His 6,000-word analysis, liberally spiced with his own thoughts on the state of the genre, begins after the jump.

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery
Edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders
Trade Paperback (Eos Books, 544 pages, June 22, 2010, $15.99)
Limited hardcover (Subterranean Press, 424 pages, July 2010, $75.00)
Recommended for ages 18 and up
Reviewed by Jason M. Waltz

Sword and sorcery does not pit the good against the evil. It is not about redemption or world-saving quests, and rarely is anyone in an S&S tale innocent. Sword and sorcery puts those who are ‘good’ in danger of losing their souls to the sorcerous evil that threatens to overwhelm them—they are the fodder for such tales. Sword and sorcery puts the pragmatic, self-serving, barbarian sword between them and that evil, not to save their sorry asses, but simply because our beloved barbarian enjoys spitting in the eye of impossible odds. That, and relieving those same good people of their wealth and their virgins of their honor once he or she has won the day.

quesnblackcoast2In other words, sword and sorcery is about wine, wantons, wealth and war—look for no underlying themes. There is no concept of ‘greater good’ even when the good are greater upon story’s end. S&S is the most hedonistic of reading delights, glorying in violence and sex, the two most adrenaline-infused events of a lively existence. As Conan says in Robert E. Howard’s “The Queen of the Black Coast”

“I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

“When Jonathan Strahan and I set out to do Swords & Dark Magic, we wanted it to be a definitive look at today’s S&S, and we feel we’ve really succeeded,” says co-editor Lou Anders, in a June 1, 2010 interview at The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review. “With names like Abercrombie, Cherryh, Cook, Erikson, Keyes, Lee, Lynch, Moorcock, Silverberg, Wolfe, we feel like it really is a great mix of the masters and the new guard, and has every indication of being the book folks are expecting it to be.”

Lou again, in a Redstone Science Fiction June 1, 2010 interview: “Swords & Dark Magic (co-edited with Jonathan Strahan) is our attempt to examine, and if it isn’t hubris to say so, even help foster this aforementioned resurgence of S&S and S&S-informed fantasy.”

Respectable intentions. I’ve discussed this title with Lou (Editorial Director of Pyr Books), and I have no doubt as to his sincerity, to his goals for this anthology. Lou’s body of work—and abundant award nominations—provides ample evidence of his publishing acumen; Pyr’s brief existence is populated with successes, least of which is multiple appearances on my bookshelves. Jonathan Strahan has long been a respected editing name in speculative fiction. Yet these are bold statements, worthy of a quality S&S protagonist any day. Very worthy in fact, for they are too bold. A ‘definitive look at today’s S&S’? Monumental if true, to become the authority of a redefined genre. More believable—and admirable—is the ‘attempt to…help foster this…resurgence of…S&S-informed fantasy.” If accomplished, this, of course, would lead proportionately back to the tales and authors with strong S&S sensibilities, a winning proposition for the entire genre. Declaring the book definitive S&S, gathering recognized masters of S&S, even self-billing it The New Sword & Sorcery, doesn’t automatically make it so though. Rather, it automatically establishes a high threshold that demands toeing.

image002This is where Swords & Dark Magic falters. By proclaiming such to be its mandate, it immediately provides the criteria by which it should be judged. Its original subtitle—The New Adventure Fantasy—created no such standard; it simply promised to deliver thrills of action and adventure, much more attainable goals. ‘Adventure Fantasy’ covers such a wide spectrum of genres that declaring authority on the whole is unimaginable, while using ‘New’ here would simply hint at the freshness of the tales themselves, for ‘adventure’ is as old as man and nothing of it is new beneath this sun. Thus, readers of The New Adventure Fantasy could reasonably expect to find a range of fantasy adventure tales—from epic to historical to urban to sword and sorcery/sandal/planet, perhaps even to realism and myth—and reasonably rely upon the names of the editors and authors listed to deliver them. The readers of such an anthology would come from a broader base, drawn by an included author’s name as much as the adjective adventure, and be inclined to read only those authors of familiarity or recommendation. It’s been allowed throughout the history of the critique of anthologies that any anthology that delivers what it promises in over 50% of its contents is a successful anthology. Personally, I hold that standard to be too low, but if such a level were held to such an anthology of New Adventure Fantasy, again it would be reasonably expected to be a success.

However, readers of The New Sword & Sorcery could never settle for so low a return on their investment of time, money—and belief. Regardless of its recognized presence in mainstream media, sword and sorcery did not disappear. It has never been lost, only to now be found anew. Essentially relegated to reading obscurity by outrageous films and lurid book covers, sword and sorcery has resurfaced sans its label in blockbuster movies, role-playing and video games, television shows, even paranormal and romance literature. Throughout its neglected existence however, it has enjoyed an illustrious career of being continuously written, with a vibrant life among hundreds of authors writing for small press anthologies and magazines. It is only the general reading public—those of mass market’s mass consumption—for whom reacquaintance with material so labeled will seem to be rediscovery and revival of the genre. Unfortunately, despite my conviction that anthologies offer members of today’s fast paced lifestyles easy reading by delivery of short fiction from multiple names ideally packaged for convenient consumption, anthologies have never been mass consumed. And so the audience shrinks to believers of a name, be it of editor, author, or book.

Swords & Dark Magic places a few more hurdles in its path. By restricting itself to such a specific genre, it instantly promises only that genre; by describing itself as ‘New’ its implication is twofold: to the unversed, it implies the recent writing of its contents, the newness of now; to the learned, the redefining of the genre through them, the newness of change. Announcing itself as a book of sword and sorcery also potentially limits its audience to readers of S&S (though fans of particular authors will still be inclined to read at least those authors’ contributions), on the whole corralling an entirely more well-informed and discerning—though smaller—crowd. A more demanding crowd as well, for, as often is the case in niches of genre, its readers are collectors, historians, and writers of it. This crowd also will be much more inclined to read the anthology in its entirety—seeking to understand the billed ‘New,’ and rightfully curious whether the numerous acclaimed names not immediately associated with S&S deliver. This is the audience who will not accept 50% as justification of definitive. These are the ones to whom “every indication of being the book folks are expecting it to be” should apply, for they should be the ones who determine if Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery is a successful anthology.

Mindful of all the above, let us see what will be…

iliad2The editors’ introduction kicks things off on a high note. It is an exemplary history of the definition, chronology, and authors of sword and sorcery. From Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the current mega-zine Black Gate, from Norse mythology to the American West, they detail sword-and-sorcery’s focus on “personal battles…laced with a grim pessimism and an edge of violent realism.” As they succinctly put it, S&S is where “Action meets magic.” Yet that is not the whole of it.

The most famous lines of description in all of sword and sorcery—

“sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet”

—describe far more than the character of Howard’s Conan. It is the epitome of S&S. Nothing that does not deliver these same foundational attributes has the right to the title. Nothing that is not hard, fast, action of might and mind, exaggerated, over-the-top mano-a-mano swashbuckling entertainment can be deemed sword and sorcery.

The introduction delivers this attitude and more. It reaches into the past, addresses the present, and promotes the future promise of S&S. Moorcock, Wolfe, Lee, Cook, Shea, and Cherryh are marvelous inclusions, indication of the editors’ recognition of their import to the genre (though also including Charles R. Saunders would have been most impressive). Erikson, Abercrombie, Keyes, Willingham bring current popular descriptors ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘gritty,’ the S&S-sensibilities alluded to earlier (nabbing George R.R. Martin would have completed this round up of established professionals acknowledged for this writing style). Lynch and Enge tease us with what’s to come, hinting at the next generation of S&S authors (the preponderance of whom aren’t even remotely represented in this compendium of ‘New Sword and Sorcery’ despite their ubiquitous presence championing S&S in small press publications for years).

Glorious inclusions and glaring inconsistencies aside, it is a pleasure to read this tantalizing opening. It sets well the stage of expectations for exciting displays of S&S acts—those of the singular semi- and Byronic- (not anti-) hero committed, not so much on behalf of anyone, rather on behalf of self-interest, at times self-survival, amidst a localized conflict, militaristic-, opportunistic-, or punitive- based. It sets a hook taken to greedily.

In the evaluation of compiled short fiction, be it in collection, magazine, or anthology such as this, I have adopted a useful method of determining if the whole is worthy of my recommendation. Admittedly simplistic, though in my opinion practical, I have borrowed the win-loss-tie column commonly used in all sports leagues. If, upon completion of the whole, the percentage of ‘wins’ outweighs that of ‘losses,’ I can recommend the book, confidence in doing so directly proportional to that percentage. I do read every entry listed in the Table of Contents; I do read them in order, treating them as—to borrow another sports analogy—a batting lineup selected by the editor (manager) for particular reason. It is my subjective objective to rate each entry on its merits as a story… ultimately appealing to me.

Granted, this has the appearance of blatant bias, to which I can only reply that I do endeavor to apply the same standards I use in evaluating submissions to my own publications: Besides being what it purports to be, does the story grab my attention, keep my attention, and deliver a satisfactory reason for holding my attention for its duration. Obviously being well-written grammatically and stylistically are of import, but the true judgment of a story rests on its appeal—does it strike a chord either emotionally or intellectually with me, the reader. So while I do not currently accept hard science fiction submissions for publication, while I may prefer not to read urban fantasies in my personal reading time, I am confident that when read within a compilation I can be as neutral as possible for someone untrained in classical critique.

warriorsOne could still deem this problematic if I were offering review of a mixed-genre anthology (such as George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ Warriors…which I shall cover next). In this instance the argument is moot, for the Swords & Dark Magic anthology has labeled itself with a theme dear to my heart, one in which not only do I deem myself somewhat versed, but also one in which I hold vested interest. And so I have determined that a simple percentage of story quality is not enough to affect recommendation of this anthology; I shall also base said recommendation upon the quality of sword and sorcery present. In fact, my final assessment will rest entirely upon this percentage.

And why should I hold this title to such high standard? For the year preceding the Swords & Dark Magic release, I’ve argued upon its behalf. I’ve championed it before the dozens of small press sword and sorcery authors I interact with weekly who doubted its claim of being ‘new’ and ‘definitive’ and its editors’ intentions. The revelation of every new name added to the ToC was met with scrutiny, writing career examined—and worthiness judged—within hours. Most were met with jeers and fears. I’ve held to the hope that this anthology may buck the normal trends and be a success and so share its glow with my own small press’ anthologies of heroic action. So besides the detailed standard of S&S I’ve provided above, I’ll have my own standard of expectations and one question to answer: Has my persistent faith been justified? Keeping the following Lin Carter description of sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery—for in the end there is no other kind) in mind, let us see.

In the first place, Howard welded together three different kinds of story into one. He took the Clark Ashton Smith sort of yarn laid in fabulous, glimmering dawn kingdoms of magic and sorcery, and the Lovecraftian horror tale of prehuman, eldritch evil, and grafted them onto the swashbuckling heroica of Harold Lamb and Rafael Sabatini and the Talbot Mundy of Tros of Samothrace fame…serv[ing] up an equal share of the kind of thrills and fun we expect from each of these three very different kinds of fiction…
…one headlong, thrilling surge of narrative action that leaves [us] breathless and holds [us] spellbound…a pulse-pounding excitement, an utter realization of mood and atmosphere and scene…

— “The First Barbarian,” Savage Sword of Conan #3

“Goats of Glory” Steven Erikson—Allow me to admit this from the start: I am a brazen proponent of Steven Erikson’s work. In my opinion, The Malazan Book of the Fallen and accompanying series of novellas are the preeminent, most entertaining works of gardens_of_the_moon2fantasy fiction available. They are the writings that I most desire bore my name, containing the stylistic grace and punch and glory I can only aspire to. Erikson receives far less of the recognition and acclaim he deserves for such monumental work, so I hope that appearance in this anthology garners him more fans. I do not classify him as a sword and sorcery author. Neither do I label him epic fantasist or simply ‘fantasy writer.’ For me, Steven Erikson—unlike the other authors today recognized for grit and realism—writes sword and sorcery characters and scenes and places them within epic plots of vast scope. S&S has always been the genre of short form, better suited to the intense conservation of tight prose sans back story and internal introspection found in long fiction. Yet Erikson routinely delivers the unexpected by writing numerous S&S characters and placing them across the breadth and width of ten 700+ page volumes. His story here experiences no depreciation, meeting my expectations of author and anthology like a fist to the face. An enjoyable tale, with great S&S characters in a spot-on S&S situation, containing lots of attitude and action and blood. It occurs in a non-Malazan, ambiguous locale (though a few character names are reused). Filled with Erikson’s trademark wry war-camp humor (though not as powerful as the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas) and terrific soldierly personalities, it is an entertaining—and appropriate—start to the anthology. My only S&S nitpick: it is a group effort rather than that of solo or duo protagonist…though the surprising closing lines offer the potential for exactly that. In addition to being an excellent example of Erikson’s writing, “Goats of Glory” garners a double win, scoring top marks both as an adventure fantasy and sword and sorcery tale.

blackcompany1“Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company” Glen Cook—The Black Company famously turned the 1980’s fantasy genre on end, and it hasn’t been the same since. Thankfully, too, since Erikson often lists Glen Cook among those he acknowledges with influencing his writing career. The mercenaries of the Black Company brought realistic squad interactions to the forefront, delivering the same squabbles, loyalties, trespasses and motivations found in quality nonfiction recounts of war from World War II to Vietnam to the current war against terrorism. This series of stories delivered renowned characters like One-Eye, The Lady, Limper, Raven…and of course, Croaker. It was a pleasure to find many of them present. The reunification celebration was brief, unfortunately, as the story seemed a bit forced, too convoluted for its own good, making it far less enjoyable then it could have been. While it was wonderful to have the gang along and easy to slip into the comfortably familiar, they just didn’t mix well this time out. The mediocrity of the story merits just that as both adventure and S&S fantasy.

“Bloodsport” Gene Wolfe—Gene Wolfe is a marvelous author, a delightful storyteller in voice and print, a recognized master. To a friend of mine, he is the best there is. His name is an awesome addition to this Table of Contents, one of a few here automatically bestowing upon it an authority undeniable. The story he offers is perhaps the most beautiful tale in the anthology. A beautifully sad, forlorn tale, mystical and mysterious…but with only a trace of S&S. Presented in first person in an interesting though not unusual world, it is the first non-group tale of the anthology. A romance both of the original and current meanings, it is a tale to break the heart. And so it is a winning fantasy adventure; a loss as S&S.

crooked-way2“The Singing Spear” James Enge—Confession: I have published work by James Enge, and I’ve asked him for more. I have read of Morlock Ambrosius in numerous outlets, most recently Enge’s current novels. Morlock is a stimulating character in that, while most often found in stock (meaning unsurprising) S&S situations, he is rarely motivated by the stock (meaning anticipated) S&S causes, namely the four W’s of wine, wantons, wealth and war. In point of fact, he cares little for the latter three and is often nose-deep (or deeper) in the first, to the point that he’ll ignore and avoid any and every thing to remain so. This, for me, disqualifies Morlock as an S&S character—a stance I’ve had occasion to debate with Black Gate’s John O’Neill, who together with Howard Andrew Jones, first published the character. Enge is a thorough writer, never failing to deliver tales of intelligence and energy. Even without an abundance of action, this is a strong Morlock tale, one of Enge’s best. Well-written, with a strong heroic character and a well-thought out plot, it is a grand adventure fantasy that is actually the most S&S-oriented Morlock tale I’ve read yet.

“A Wizard in Wiscezan” C.J. Cherryh—Being from Wisconsin, I had to smile at this title, though I’ve no idea if the state can claim any influence whatsoever. This is another enjoyable tale elegantly delivered, moving and tense, consisting of an unassuming and somber youthful hero-to-be that simply does what must be done against fearful odds and despite self-doubt’s. Fantasy adventure for sure, but is it S&S? Tolerably.

“A Rich Full Week” K.J. Parker—With only two full unabashed S&S tales out of the first five, I was beginning to worry this wasn’t the definitive anthology of sword & sorcery I’d salivated for. Not familiar with Parker (and only vaguely aware of some Engineering trilogy released earlier this decade), I grew excited by the description of her work as “redefining swords and sorcery” for the past ten years. Here it was, I thought, the beginning of an S&S ride like none I had ever before experienced. The response this story elicited from me? A screaming WTF! Apologies for such coarse word choice; after all, many critics will use it to immediately dismiss all that I say here. It can not be helped, for that is the instantaneous reaction ripped from me before the last word of the story. This ain’t sword and sorcery at all folks. Sure, it began fun, though I instantly knew it was not going to be a tale of S&S. Then it steadily deteriorated into too long, too dull, too predictable. I’m baffled at its presence here. Fantasy? Yes. Adventure? New or not, barely. S&S? Not a lick of it to be seen.

“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet” Garth Nix—Another author I have yet to read; accordingly, this is my first exposure to this sorcerous duo. Combining aspects of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and those of King Arthur: Tales of the Round Table, it is a duo whose company I will continue. Ignoring its non-ending—strangely abrupt and leaving feelings of incompletion—it was a clever tale of sorcery and swords. Does that make it S&S? Yeesss…in this instance at least. While I am unsure of the duo’s motivations and previous escapades, the tale does fall mostly within the S&S camp. This is one of the few stories in the anthology whose quality I actually rate higher as a sword and sorcery story than overall adventure tale.

stormbringer2“Red Pearls: An Elric Story” Michael Moorcock—The last living member of the holy triumvirate of sword and sorcery—Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber completing the trinity, with the archangel Karl Edward Wagner clambering for ascension—Michael Moorcock’s inclusion in Swords & Dark Magic was a must. Moorcock and Elric need no introduction; both are as integral to the blood flow of heroic fantasy as Howard and Conan, not quite that fount from which S&S flows, yet most certainly exerting much control over its direction. Elric is a character to know, as are many of the concepts of Moorcock’s world(s), his magics and his dragons. Though his prose could be considered a bit dated by many of today’s readers familiar with a different style of writer, it is as it has always been—the purple romance of 1970’s fantasy. As for this story, it is an intriguing read, deceptively serene then bursting with violence—serving as good introduction for those unknown to Elric and the Phroons, and Stormbringer. In its way, as I’d imagine many Elric tales could be, it may be considered the original combination of epic and S&S fantasy I praise in Erikson’s work.

“The Deification of Dal Bamore: A Tale from Echo City” Tim Lebbon—There seems to be an unusual pattern to this anthology. Every two sword and sorcery tales—passable or praiseworthy—seems to be followed by a tale unworthy of the label. Here is another fantasy adventure, dark fantasy to boot, with sorcery more than evident, but is it S&S? No. What more to say? The difference is in the nuances. Yes, swords did fight sorcery, but in the name of epicness, god-level control of a citizenry. That’s not personal. That’s not motivated by gain. That’s not S&S.

majipoor2“Dark Times at the Midnight Market” Robert Silverberg—My temerity astounds me. In fact, it forced me to reexamine my thoughts, my belief and position on sword and sorcery. Yet I had not failed; I had not forgotten the criteria I’ve held all the previous tales to. And so I must decry the presence of a Grand Master—albeit one of science fiction, but a Grand Master nonetheless—in this anthology. I had not previously read any of Silverberg’s Majipoor series, and this story does not entice me to continue to. This actually is a major disservice to both author and series, as it is due more to the story’s presence in this anthology than any faults of its own. A passable fantasy tale in its own right, it could have drawn me into this world if it were not presented to me as S&S in a book promising great S&S things but continuously failing to do so. For me, Silverberg and Majipoor shall forever more be associated with my frustrations with this anthology. The story opened distressingly familiar to that most foolish of all foolish tales delivered in Flashing Swords! #1 as sword and sorcery (Jack Vance’s “Morreion”), almost bringing me to tears by doing so. How the hell is this S&S? With foppish names and characters, all the protagonists enchanters—and anti-heroes of the proper definition (a la Charlie Brown™)—sorcery and swords on the wrong sides, neither evil nor eldritch nor even ominous…it is a tale foolishly selected and it does not belong in this anthology.

“The Undefiled” Greg Keyes—Thankfully, the misery of back-to-back S&S disappointments was short lived, and I knew this after this first line:

Fool Wolf woke slicked in blood and surrounded by corpses. Again.

This qualifies as the best opening in Swords & Dark Magic, an S&S opener if I’ve ever read one. While Keyes is an author I have not yet experienced, there is a title or two bearing his name in my TBR stacks. His writing here has greatly increased his chances of being read sooner rather than later. This is definitely one of the better S&S tales present. Dark, brooding, bloody, with evil sorcery and a pragmatic tool of a warrior who was able to exert his will even under thrall to two gods. S&S goodness galore. Not a very endearing character, but who cares? Not I. I have read stronger tales of possession (several appearing in RBE’s own Demons: A Clash of Steel in fact), but this story bears one distinction they do not: it is harbinger of the powerful S&S yet (finally!) to come. Four of the remaining six stories are no-holds-barred S&S, and three of the six are among the best stories in the anthology—even if one doesn’t qualify as S&S!

quest-for-simbilis“Hew the Tint Master” Michael Shea—This one was dated S&S, the 1970’s kind again, with lots of flowery names and speech. Apparently it was also in direct homage to Jack Vance (a forte of Shea’s) and his character Cugel the Clever, whom I have had the misfortune to never come across [Shea’s first Cugel homage was his first novel, A Quest for Simbilis, in 1974 — Editor]. This I shall seek to remedy, as the story was an excellent inclusion, rewarding readers with rather awesome characters in Bront, and Hew, and again in the sorcerer Kadaster. Even though Bront’s barbarian sword played second—even third—fiddle to both magic-wielders (one of the customary, the other of the not-so-customary), his was the role of a lifetime, absolutely a pleasure to read. And the sorcerer, more manipulative than evil, more munificent than baleful, delivered numerous reading delights. An all-around enjoyable tale, though at times the purple text did benumb the mind.

“In the Stacks” Scott Lynch—The Gentleman Bastard himself (and fellow Wisconsinite) delivers one of the best tales of Swords & Dark Magic, on par with Erikson’s as tops thus far in the anthology. Still, it is not truly S&S. Grand adventure for sure, populated with great characters, sly tension, exciting action and devious foes amid clever events. Once again though, a story lacking personal, self-serving motivations and stakes. Adrenaline-infused for certain, though with magic users predominant, clear-cut sides of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and absolutely no appearance by the requisite foursome of wine, wantons, wealth and war. Enjoyable, this is my highest rated story with a minimal to nonexistent presence of sword and sorcery.

“Two Lions, A Witch, and the War-Robe” Tanith Lee—The names reveal all in this lark of a tale that for me actually works far better when judged as S&S versus adventure fantasy, an unusual twist to be sure. The story’s name boldly announces its comedic touches, while the author’s name…ah, the author’s name. A Tanith Lee short story is practically a given in an anthology such as this, for she has been nigh-omnipresent in the speculative fiction genre since, oh, since I’ve been reading. The range of her appearances is enormous, from small press to large, from professional magazine to e-zine and beyond, their quality and appeal equally running through the spectrum. This particular offering opens beautifully, faultless description nicely setting up scene and action. A wee bit delayed in the getting to, but quite possibly the best bit of opening action and character introduction yet. I thoroughly enjoyed both characters, meeting them and learning of their situations, their coming together. An absolutely ideal opening to an S&S tale. Then it diverged…wandered into fantastical whimsy which was interesting and fun and readable…just not enjoyable to the same extent as the initial sequences of the tale. A fine S&S duo whose story starts in S&S grandeur, travels briefly through passable S&S, and ends with a strong S&S riposte.

“The Sea Troll’s Daughter” Caitlín R. Kiernan—Yet another take on the timeless tale of Beowulf & Grendel—and the last of the tales to be tolerated herein. The potential was here, for a sword and sorcery winner, or even a fine tale of adventure and fantasy. It began with a good heroine in a good S&S tale. Then midway through, both story and character turn darker, which worked just fine for the story, less so for the character. Hard upon that came an abrupt departure of potential with meandering ending complete with poorly stranded character and rushed conclusion. It is a tale that holds the shape and consistency of S&S, but not the flavor. Better than some that have come before, but really not fitting for a definitive collection.

fables67a“Thieves of Daring” Bill Willingham—Gone are the doldrums! The presence of Bill Willingham—of art and comic fame, creator of the spectacular yet decidedly not-S&S Fables series—did not immediately inspire my confidence. Quite candidly, it didn’t really spark my interest either, my only emotion a mild curiosity. How wrong I was. This is a masterfully told tale, the best of the book whether judged as adventure fantasy or sword and sorcery. Willingham begins with an awesome opening, consistent across the board in scene, atmosphere, action, and introductions of all characters, protagonists and antagonists, all working smoothly together. He brings an impressive plot and great scene that…ends far too soon. Great S&S premise, great S&S hook; greatly addictive. I want more and as a reader I demand to know what happens next! Willingham scores bonus points by having his antagonist declare Sorcery is the foundation on which civilization is built—the perfect anti-thesis to Conan (& REH)’s opinion of civilization in the second most famous lines in all of S&S as expressed in “The Tower of the Elephant”:

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

“The Fool Jobs” Joe Abercrombie—My first taste of Abercrombie and I want seconds! He kicks off a good S&S start, with a nice touch of irreverence and the rough camaraderie of mercenary…friends. His style is reminiscent of Erikson’s, in namings and personalities, but his work is all his own. I’ve heard ‘gritty’ and ‘bloody’ applied to his novels, and this story certainly lacks of neither. Yes, another S&S group strikes again, but it’s a strong story and a clever idea to bookend the contents between two action-packed fighting unit romps. I’d read more of these guys and Joe’s writing any day. An awesome close, perfect cap to a rousing second half of the anthology.

And so we come to the close of Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery. A most curious title, in that it claimed an identity it could have avoided and suffered no loss for not doing so, but now…As it stands, a bit of colorful text from Abercrombie’s tale—Uglier than the child of a man and a sheep—serves as apt description of some of the supposed S&S stories found herein. Yet there are those powerful concluding stories! The last two are almost enough to wipe away memory of all that came before. Almost. Ultimately, I believe that the editors’ bit off more than they knew, more than they realized. The desire was there, the passion, the expertise even—but the scope changed at some point, narrowing from ‘adventure fantasy’ to ‘sword and sorcery’ and not everyone—editors and authors—caught on. There’s also the small matter, not so important to some but I can imagine it will be to others, of ‘new.’ Most authors seemed to deliver stories of their own just like they have always done—not a single hue of new to them other than being newly written. Upon completion, ‘new’ seems to refer more to the presence of newer authors mingling with the older and newer stories rather than styles. Not overly debilitating, but not so ‘definitive’ either.

Did Swords & Dark Magic succeed? My ratings:

  • Adventure Fantasy: 11-2-4, an inspiring 76% score that any anthologist would be thrilled to collect!
  • Sword and sorcery: 9-4-4, an impressive 65%, unexpected to say the least.

While still a fairly strong winning percentage, what concerns me is the eight combined losses and ties, signifying that there were almost as many unpalatable or mediocre S&S tales as there were winning examples of the genre. Judged on a purely won-loss record, that winning percentage drops to 53%—barely enough to be considered a successful anthology. Back cover text consisting of “Swords & Dark Magic is the most important new fantasy anthology to be published this decade” simply screamed challenge and dared smack-down. Again, not quite ‘definitive,’ yet quite possibly capable of fostering that “resurgence of S&S and S&S-informed fantasy.”

Will the adage ‘Even bad press is good press’ hold true within such a close-knit world as S&S? Delivering to genre adherents could have been a marketing coup…they would have praised the anthology on genre forums and discussion boards, would have picked up further works of other found authors, would have collected the anthology. I was distraught at first, and now perplexed, at the overall lack of premium material. If I had published such a title, adhering to the sword and sorcery described at the onset would have been the goal. Ultimately, publishing comes down to reputation, the promise in a name: Does [X] deliver?

Perhaps the largest surprise for me was at the story level though, with the singular-character driven tale almost non-existent. While S&S was written and written very well in several instances, the action primarily occurred at the squad level. There also seemed to be a profound lack of the S&S motivators—rarely was mentioned wealth or wine or wantons, lusty and busty or not! Fortunately wars and the waging of them—personal or populous—abounded.

I’m not sure why HarperCollins is recommending a reading age of 18+; outside some vulgarity (necessary and unnecessary) in the opening two and final stories, there’s nothing a 13 year old shouldn’t read in here. As for the cover art…the trade paperback cover is simply unpardonable, the Subterranean Press jacket marginally better. A book of as large a magnitude as billed should have deserved an expanded art budget. Malibu Barbie™ striking a pose in steel and fishnet just does not do it justice. While the limited edition cover does do a better job with color and action and displaying the contents, it reminds me of some of Erikson’s less-than-desirable American covers, almost juvenile in their overdone simplicity and stiffness. The sea god holds promise, but the crouching-tiger-floating-warrior-brandishing-his-Jedi-lightsaber™ somewhat distracts.

Do I recommend Swords & Dark Magic for your reading pleasure? Pursue it as what it once was—The New Adventure Fantasy—and you will not be dissatisfied; you’ll even find some dandy specimens of sword and sorcery. Purchase it, borrow it, steal it with anything else in mind, and you risk disappointment.

…there was an Age undreamed of…

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John R. Fultz

Wow…quite an expansive review. I salute Jason for giving such a thorough look to this collection. However, I must take issue with his extremely NARROW definition of “what is sword-and-sorcery.”

It’s obvious that in Jason’s mind Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser are the only “real” sword-and-sorcery heroes, and that the latter three only fit the category because they share certain plot and character aspects as the work of Robert E. Howard’s CONAN tales: “Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery—for in the end there is no other kind.” I respectfully beg to differ.

It is beyond me why anyone would want to read an entire GENRE of stories that are so narrowly defined! That would amount to repeating one’s self (or one’s betters) over and over and over.

If sword-and-sorcery is limited to the elements that Jason outlines in the first two or three paragraphs of this review, then it is truly a dead genre (or sub-genre) because these elements are so narrow as to actually PROHIBIT any innovative writing in this mode of fiction.

Sword-and-sorcery, in my humble opinion, is NOT limited to Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock clones–it is not limited by the characters’ motivations–it is not limited by the fact that some of its characters just MIGHT be heroes–these are arbitrary and ultimately confinining restrictions that would drive most writers as far from the genre as they could possibly get.

No disrespect intended, but why can’t sword-and-sorcery go new places, offer new types of characters, new sorts of motivations, new types of conflicts, worlds, and interpretations? Why can’t it offer new and expansive themes?
The answer is IT CAN. And it often has.

Ultimately the argument is moot because A GOOD STORY IS A GOOD STORY, and it’s marketers and publicists who create genre labels, NOT writers. And why create genre labels at all? To SELL BOOKS! I, for one, am so very glad that all “sword-and-sorcery” writers do not stick to such a narrow definition as the one given here. I certainly don’t want to read the same story over and over, a recycled mish-mash of “must-do’s” and “better-not’s”.

However, it strikes me that the reason the title of this PYR anthology was changed from “Adventure Fantasy” to “Sword-and-Sorcery” just might be because there is a resurgence in the popularity of sword-and-sorcery happening right now. And as someone who grew up reading Conan and Elric stories, that makes me smile.

In short: Damn the genre! Let’s write! (And read!)

John R. Fultz

>In fact, you could argue that there are
>few fields crying out for innovation as
>much as S&S is, given that the form was
>apparently perfected in the mid 1930s!

I agree, John! It seems to me that if we subscribe whole-heartedly to the “stricter definition” of S&S, then it truly is a dead genre. And I can’t accept that, which is why I promote the broader “less strict” definition. I mean, when writers cleave to the stricter definition, we get creations like Thongor the Barbarian (Lin Carter) and Brak the Barbarian (John Jakes) et. al…pale imitations of Conan. Whereas when writers embrace a broader interpretation of S&S we get Elric (Moorcock was breaking open the genre, make no mistake), The Flat Earth and Lionwolf (Tanith Lee), Sekenre (Schweitzer), The Prince of Nothing (Bakker), Song of Ice and Fire (Martin), the Riddle-Master trilogy (Patricia MacKillip), Book of the New Sun (Wolfe), Arthor (Attanasio), Nifft the Lean (Shea), Zothique (Clark Ashton Smith), Throne of Bones (McNaughton), and many, many more creations that spring from S&S inspirations but rise far above any strict set of precepts.

Which begs the question: IS Sword-and-Sorcery a dead genre?

If you hold it to 1930’s standards, then yes. Go read the magnificent Howard and Leiber tales and add in Elric for good measure and you’ll be happy. (And you’ll probably end up reading some Thongor and Brak as well.)

If you allow the genre to grow organically from the seeds that Howard planted…then it’s a genre that is still alive and well.

Remember that Tina Turner song from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, “We Don’t Need Another Hero?” My version would be: “We Don’t Need Another Barbarian.”

There will only ever be ONE Robert E. Howard. Same goes for Lieber and Moorcock.


[…] This review originally appeared at Black Gate Magazine. Rating 3.00 out of 5 [?] var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname=”Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery – Strahan & Anders”; a2a_config.linkurl=”http://www.jasonmwaltz.com/thoughts/2010/06/23/swords-dark-magic-the-new-sword-sorcery-strahan-anders/”; a2a_config.onclick=1; a2a_color_main=”ff6600″;a2a_color_border=”990000″;a2a_color_link_text=”333333″;a2a_color_link_text_hover=”333333″; […]

[…] also a long essay/review about Swords and Dark Magic here.  Not sure I agree necessarily with everything that’s said, […]

Thanks for the equally thorough reply John.

Narrow? Yes,I’ll grant that. Dead? No, not even close. Though I prefer the term strict to narrow, as in original. Just like I prefer the original NBA basketball, the original NFL football. Follow me on this:

Both sports are still played today, and I follow both, football predominately, not quite so fanatically as I once did. I played both too, again not so much these days. Point is, while they still call it ‘basketball’ and ‘football’ today’s versions have morphed into offense-centric entertainments that cater to the crowds of mass consumption based upon spectacularly talented characters upon their respective stages.

Let’s stick with b-ball. It’s still basketball–for what else will it be called?–but ask any street player, ask any old school player, ask any fan of the 80’s Pistons or Dennis Rodman, and this is far from the true sport. Hands off defense? Traveling? Carrying the ball? Come on! Give me the meat and potatoes, the blood and guts, the down and dirty of REAL ball.

Same goes for S&S. Lots of expanded versions of it out there, lots of folks saying or thinking they write it or read it or sell it–but then all of it falls under ‘heroic fantasy’ to begin with. There’s a wide spectrum of heroic, from JRRT to REH, and a dozen+ stops along the way. Here’s the secret: S&S is present in almost all of them: superhero fantasy, epic fantasy…shoot, in sci-fi and WWF and NASCAR and TV and gaming. It’s even in stupid movies like Crank & Crank 2 that I just watched.

Today S&S is almost eponymous with what is popular fantasy. ‘Gritty’? ‘Real’? ‘Dark’? ‘Bloody’? All that is S&S. Ari Marmell back in January over at Suvudu http://www.suvudu.com/2010/01/poniards-and-prestidigitation.html said something I like very much “…In short, as I see it, S&S stories tend to focus on individuals or smaller groups…tend toward a focus on action (often violent action)…tend toward personal or regional struggles…tend toward characters of moral grays…tend to pit said protagonists against even more potent and/or alien powers. Oh, and they’re dirty, focusing more on the gore and grime than on the heroic ideal of mythic adventure (metaphorically if not literally). That one’s almost not negotiable; if any trait is a must-have for S&S, I’d argue it’s this…”

‘Tend’ allows a lot more wiggle room then my write up did, I’ll admit, but again, if something wears all those traits, it’s most assuredly going to be lumped in with S&S – but is it automatically the true, original S&S? I don’t think so. Just as much as donning gym shoes and uniform, palming a basketball and stepping onto a court right now is REAL old-school bball.

As for the S&S look-and-sound-and-feel-alike, it can be real, it can be close to being real, and it can be a sheep in wolf’s clothes. That’s what I judged the stories on. And all because of a subtitle, yes. Give me every story that matches the intro, I’ll endorse the ‘New S&S’ wholeheartedly; Give me every story like those of Willingham, Erikson, Abercrombie, and Shea I’ll peddle the book as the new bible of S&S myself.

When I know and have read authors not bearing such illustrious names as those gathered in this book who write and have written stellar, enthralling, exciting, ball-breaking stories of action that meet, sometimes surpass, my listed criteria for S&S, I know it can be and is being done on a regular basis. So just because a bunch of big-name pros who all write successfully and many of whom are praised and read enthusiastically by me couldn’t pull it off, or weren’t pushed too hard to pull it off, doesn’t mean Robert E. Howard’s S&S can’t or isn’t being written right now.

There’s a wide range of heroic material being published, just as there’s always been, and an equally large field of adventure and action. Is it all going to be something specific? No. Yet if it chooses to use a specific name, it should live up to it.

John R. Fultz

Hi, Jason,

It’s all a matter of your own interpretation. A story that doesn’t live up to your “strict” definition of Sword-and-Sorcery may very well live up to mine (or someone else’s) whose definition is more “broad.”

Sword-and-Sorcery doesn’t have to limit itself to the set of specific precepts you set forth in your introduction. That’s my whole point…that the term “Sword-and-Sorcery” is open to a more expansive interpretation. This anthology from Eos Books is OBVIOUSLY using that broader interpretation.

In the end, I suspect that your personal definition of “Sword-and-Sorcery” and my personal definition of it are simply different, and will most likely stay that way.

But we can both be thankful that there is ficton for both of us to enjoy out there! Read on, sir! 🙂

“However, it strikes me that the reason the title of this PYR anthology was changed from “Adventure Fantasy” to “Sword-and-Sorcery” just might be because there is a resurgence in the popularity of sword-and-sorcery happening right now.”

And this actually scares me. Harry Potter initiated a ‘resurgence’ in reading fantasy – even though its author denied writing fantasy. And where did all these new fanatical readers of fantasy go when they had no HP to read? Who knows? They’ve disappeared. I do not know a single person (outside my daughters) who is still reading fantasy, either at all or with any where near the gusto that they consumed HP. Even scarier–they judge (judge!?!?!) anything that dares to label itself ‘fantasy’ by it.

Twilight has contributed to a ‘resurgence’ in reading vampires – even though its author denied knowing a thing about them and has tossed half a dozen and then some conventions aside. And where have all these new fanatical readers of vampires gone? To paranormal romance, to Vampire Diaries, The Historian, even Lestat. But to Dracula? Nosferatu? Again, while I am less versed in vampiric lore, I do not know a single person who has reached back to their bloody roots, either at all or with any where near the gusto that they have consumed Twilight. Even scarier–they judge (judge!?!?!) anything that dares to label itself ‘vampire’ by it.

That is why I fear a misguided ‘resurgence’ of S&S.

AH, yes, never fear John, thankful I am, for good stories and good commentary and good friends. 🙂


Jason, I’m flattered that you would reference my own recent column on S&S in your comments, since you obviously care a great deal about the genre. But I fear that you’ve only presented part of my intended meaning.

Specifically, you referenced my list of “tendencies” as a means to showcase how some stories that *look* like S&S aren’t *real* S&S. But you neglect to mention my corollary that a story can be S&S even while lacking or even contradicting many of the elements that such stories *tend* to have.

As such, while I agree that your definition of S&S is accurate to *many* S&S stories, I feel that it’s far too narrow to legitimately define the sub-genre as a whole. There are quite a few S&S stories that fall outside the parameters you gave at the start of your review. It’s true that *most* of them lack a “world-saving” scope–but by saying they *cannot*, you’re excluding several classics, including some of Moorcock’s Elric tales. By insisting that all S&S protagonists are self-serving, and not “good,” you remove Solomon Kane from the genre. (This leaving aside the fact that even Conan, the poster boy for S&S, *occasionally* undertook adventures/challenges because he felt they were the right thing to do. Not often, granted, but it did happen.)

Ultimately, I disagree with the notion that there are entire swathes of stories out there that *look like* S&S but aren’t really. We’re talking about words on the page, here. With very few exceptions, there’s no way to accurately judge what an author “meant” to say, and as such, a story can only be legitimately judged on its own merits. So while there are indeed a *few* exceptions, I maintain that if a story does indeed have most or all of the S&S tendencies, it probably *does* qualify as “real” S&S. And just because a story has a couple of traits that aren’t *common* to S&S doesn’t mean the story itself cannot be.

S&S is not, and cannot be, *strictly* or *narrowly* defined. As a theme and an aesthetic, its borders are fuzzy and quite malleable; any attempt to define it by more than tendencies and propensities does both the genre, and the stories that hover around the edges, a disservice.


Ari Marmell
–Rodent of the Dark

Hi Ari, thanks for dropping by.

Actually, with apologies if it seemed otherwise, I used your ‘tendencies’ description more to allow expansion within my own definition than to deny S&S status to any stories. 😉 I meant it to my advantage, without thought to disadvantage anyone.

Like I said, ‘tend’ automatically grants a leniency not present in my strict parameters. I used your words to agree to accept that there are more stories that fall within the S&S genre than I originally allowed — but not so many that I would just accept any old tale that wishes to claim membership. I agree with you that a story can lack some, even on occasion many, of these elements and still remain S&S. I’m not sure I agree the elements can be contradicted though, not entirely, definitely not even in a majority.

Motivation can’t be selectively applied I’m afraid. I am not that well-read in the Elric tales, so I cannot express with any confidence an opinion there. However, regarding REH’s characters, I would argue that Solomon Kane’s motivation is most certainly self-serving from the get-go – what better way to sate a bloody thirst than to don the guise of religious fervor and right? Fortunately for ‘us’ Kane wore a far more Christian hat than one of any other bent. He may have abstained as much as he could from wine, women, and wealth, but he ran to blood far more readily than Conan did. I’m willing to say he shed more than the big Cimmerian did, and not once for something so simple as gold or flesh. Nope, Solomon Kane killed for larger game – his sense of justice. Every vigilante has one too. As for Conan, while he grew to see a bigger picture, learned of ramifications and repercussions, his personal satisfactions were most often ‘the right thing to do.’

I think today we have a lot of characters similar to the X-Men’s Logan/Wolverine – a classic S&S character stuck in non-classic S&S stories – and folks (writers and advertisers and even readers) like to say they are S&S stories because of the character. Again, while I think the character(s) can define the story as such, it’s not always a guarantee.

You are correct in that “if a story does indeed have most or all of the S&S tendencies, it probably *does* qualify as “real” S&S.” I simply ask that the appellation of a label be held to mean something, and – if it is – that whatever that label brings with it be the criteria to define it.

Contrary to John’s kind (too-kind?) intro, I do not claim expertise at this heroic thing. It’s a process of exploration and learning, and, as with all societal/cultural ideals, it changes with time and circumstances. It’s why Lancelot (despite our early despair of him) quickly appealed as more our type of hero than Arthur, why Logan is held in higher esteem today, why The Batman, why Iron Man, hell, why The Punisher, appeal more. ‘Heroes’ are the best we got – and when we realize that (a) there are no ideals, no perfect heroes, and (b) we can’t be them anyway, then we ‘settle’ for what we do have – gray heroes, tarnished heroes, S&S heroes. And contrary to how many have described RBE’s publications, I have never claimed to be a publisher of S&S. That’s why the subtitles have been ‘An Anthology of Heroic Adventure’ – even the Clash of Steel series, while concentrating more upon the steel than the sorcery, won’t be subtitled as S&S anthologies. That would simply be too restrictive 🙂


“but not so many that I would just accept any old tale that wishes to claim membership. I agree with you that a story can lack some, even on occasion many, of these elements and still remain S&S.”

Well, I can *kind* of agree with that, in as much as some stories might generally appear to be S&S, but not actually fall into that category on closer examination. But I think that whether or not a story is S&S is defined by where it lies on a continuum, not on any specific binary questions.

That was unnecessarily unwieldy, wasn’t it? Let’s rephrase: I don’t believe that answering yes/no to any specific questions can necessarily invalidate a story’s claim to being S&S.

Going back to Solomon Kane, sure, he had some measure of bloodlust, and he was violent as all hell. Nobody could read the books and argue that. 😉 But that doesn’t change the fact that, in his behavior, he’s a “good guy.” He protects the innocent. He only slays the evil. He’s an S&S character who, if he were transplanted into an epic fantasy, would still be a *hero* (though admittedly, he wouldn’t fit in very well). Not even an anti-hero, but an actual hero, albeit a grim one. So like I said, any definition of S&S that excludes “good guys” would have to exclude him.

But that’s just debating specifics, and there’s enough of that on the internet without you and me trading counter-examples. 😉 I think, ultimately, where we differ is on our very definition of what S&S *is*. You say that you want the S&S “title” to come with an ingrained meaning, but I don’t think it does, or should. S&S, to me, is *descriptive*, not *proscriptive*. IOW, when a story claims to be S&S, to me, all that means, and all it should mean, is that the story has traits/tendencies/themes/aesthetics that are more or less in line with other S&S stories. It doesn’t guarantee me that any *specific* traits will line up, however, nor does it guarantee me that any specific details will be *absent* from the story.

Thus–again, in my mind–there’s no true “definition” of what a story must be (or must not be) to be S&S; no Platonic Ideal, as it were. If a story *seems* to fit, it very likely does. 🙂


Well, the brain’s nice and revved up now, so I think I’m going to expand on this a little further. 😉 I think I’ve figured out how to articulate the differences between where you’re coming from and where I am.

Back in my, I posted a column on Suvudu discussing genre. For those who are interested, you can find it here: http://www.suvudu.com/2010/05/genre-lized-anxiety.html

For those who *don’t* want to click through, here’s the abridged version: “Genre,” as a concept, is flawed, because it actually encompasses two different meanings. Sometimes it means one, sometimes it means the other, and sometimes it means both.

Genre can be “narrative” in nature. Mystery and Romance, for instance, a narrative genres; they tell you what *kind* of story you’re about to read. It doesn’t matter when or where they’re set, or what the trappings might be; you know, at least in a very general sense, what sort of story to expect.

Alternatively, genre can be “aesthetic” in nature. Sci-fi and Fantasy are perfect examples. They don’t tell you what sort of story they are; rather, they tell you about the trappings. A fantasy story might be adventure or mystery or romance or horror; dark or light; funny or serious. But you know it’ll have the trappings of *some* kind of magic.

The aesthetic genre encompasses more than just descriptive detail; it can sometimes also tell you about *how* the story is going to be written. Noir and pulp, for instance, might be different kinds of stories, but they tell you something about how the story’s going to be told.

Sword & Sorcery is one of those sub-genre definitions that can be both. It can be narrative, defining what kind of story is being told; and it can be aesthetic, defining what trappings the story has, and *how* it’s going to be told.

Ultimately, it seems to me that you’re coming from a position of considering the narrative possibilities of S&S to be dominant, whereas I’m coming from a position of considering the aesthetic (in both descriptive and methodological senses) qualities to be dominant.

“Let’s rephrase: I don’t believe that answering yes/no to any specific questions can necessarily invalidate a story’s claim to being S&S.”

On the surface I’ll agree with that. However, if a story can’t say ‘Yes, there’s a sword’ and ‘Yes, there’s sorcery’ then it ain’t S&S 😉

That’s why there’s so many versions of S&S. Change the flavor, change the name: replace swords with sixguns you get Weird Westerns…or sixguns and sorcery…S&S; swap out locales or eras, you get sword and planet or sword and sandal. All fall under the umbrella of the original S&S – but aren’t S&S.

“Going back to Solomon Kane…” Let’s. On a thread in a forum somewhere else I’ve stumbled across (I Google Alert ‘sword and sorcery’ so I read lots of mentions/discussions every week [RBE also got a mention in the thread]), they said something very true in my opinion: S&S characters are live-for-the moment, not long-term-goal-oriented heroes. The first point I’ve always accepted, as the S&S character’s drives I hold to be true (the 4 W’s) are all about instant gratification. I hadn’t considered the latter half of that observation before – and it’s really stuck with me. So if we consider Kane under that light, I’d argue that he is not a S&S character!

(that should stir up some more input, eh?)

I totally enjoyed your discussion on genre, Ari! And while it’s not that I’d want to argue, I can’t. You’ve excellently made the case for narrative and aesthetic aspects to genre, and explained how both can be independently ‘correct.’

I wholeheartedly agree that S&S encompasses both meanings…though I believe simultaneously rather than separately. That is why we can say “Sword & Planet” rather than simply calling it “S&S”. By changing the name label we more clearly identify it.

That’s all this is anyway. Like John Fultz said, a good story is a good story, I’ve no beef with that. The basis for my entire stance is this: my reading time is extremely limited these days. It’s not so much the money, it’s the time necessary to enjoy a good read. I refuse to waste it to be quite honest. So I want to know that what I’m granting any portion of that precious time to is what I really want to read. If something tells me it’s one of those titles/genres/authors that I want to read…well, it better pretty damn well be.

So while I can endorse every one of the points made throughout all of these comments to some degree or another, it still comes down to individual beliefs and tastes. I love ALL heroic adventure. Period. I no longer have the time to read all of it. So I must be selective. In this particular case, I was told this title was — not ‘A’ but ‘THE’ — collection of New S&S. Even applying your dual explanations of genre, I felt misled upon completing it. That said, with Steven Erikson in the ToC, I would have read the book anyway 🙂

John R. Fultz

“S&S, to me, is *descriptive*, not *proscriptive*.”

Ari, this pretty much says it all.


Well, I think we’re basically chasing our tails at this point–which may not be a terrible thing, since I need the exercise ;)–but I’ll leave it at this…

That definition is a perfect example of the sort of thing I personally refuse to accept, precisely because it’s entirely proscriptive. It’s taking a definition that is *often* true of S&S, and insisting that it be *always* true. It’s precisely what I don’t want to see for S&S–and honestly, any definition that excludes Kane from S&S is one that I can’t take seriously, precisely because he is, in fact, one of the sub-genre’s *defining* characters in my mind.

But if nothing else, this discussion has reminded me to put SWORDS & DARK MAGIC on my Amazon shopping list, so thanks for that. 😉


“Arbitrary”! That’s the word I was looking for earlier, but couldn’t find. (Gee, it’s a good thing I don’t work with words for a living or anything… ;-))

Every strict definition I’ve ever heard for S&S has always struck me as arbitrary, as though it’s basically just someone–even if a well-read and intelligent someone–saying “Here’s where I draw the line.” THIS kind of character can be S&S, but THAT kind cannot.

The problem is, S&S didn’t develop under strict guidelines. It grew organically out of early pulp fantasy. There *were* no rules, and any rule that people try to impose on it now will invariably omit certain stories, or certain characters, that shouldn’t necessarily be omitted. (I.e. Solomon Kane.)

But all these rules are being imposed by people generations after the work of the true creators of the sub-genre. They are, by definition, purely matters of opinion. Hence–in my view–arbitrary. And hence, I’d rather continue to see the title of “Sword & Sorcery” applies descriptively rather than proscriptively. 🙂

“But if nothing else, this discussion has reminded me to put SWORDS & DARK MAGIC on my Amazon shopping list, so thanks for that.”

You’re welcome! Don’t forget to tell Lou you owe it to me 😉


hey Jason… I’m Francisco from Spain, I have not read lots of s&s like you and the other people from Black gate but a think is clear for me I think more or less like you sword and sorcery should apply to the most howardian heroic fiction and for the rest of themes and works you can use epic fantasy…
in some webs in Spain they used sometimes the term sword and sorcery like a bad one and heroic fantasy like the good one, in a web dedicated to Robert E Howard!!!

Hi Francisco! I’m glad you’re still keeping up on things here at BG and with RBE.

Some people over here apply ‘sword and sorcery’ as a bad or derogatory term too. Some are simply snobbish toward all ‘unwashed heathen illiterates’ but some just think S&S is ‘escapism’ – a term they like to apply to belittle those who read it or elevate themselves.

Heroic fiction casts a wide net, and sometimes we readers like to be a bit more specific in what we’re looking for. REH may not have ‘known’ what he was writing was creating a genre to be called S&S, but what he did know is that he was writing life as powerfully as he could imagine living it as a man unrestrained by ‘civilizations’ fallacies and facades.

Let’s carry the fight to them! Swords crossed!

[…] on June 22, and is edited by Anders and Jonathan Strahan. Jason Waltz reviewed it for Black Gate here. Congratulations to Lou and Jonathan on the great press.  Good to see the new breed of sword […]

[…] Waltz’s excellent and comprehensive review of Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’ new anthology, Swords & Dark Magic, brought to mind […]

I must add that I have just read the gorgeous graphic novel ‘Conan and the Songs of the Dead’ from Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman–and it is the spitting colorized image (in art and text) of what I’m describing S&S as. A very enjoyable few hours spent with this GN. I can totally see REH doing one just like it.

[…] Flashing Swords e-zine. Morlock’s most recent appearance was in the new Eos anthology Swords and Dark Magic. You can learn more about the origin of Morlock in Howard’s lengthy Black Gate interview with […]

[…] stated in my last review (Swords & Dark Magic, June 23, 2010), when reading short story compilations, I employ a simple win-loss-tie ranking system similar to […]


Does Moorcock’s novella make the Elric series the longest-running sword and sorcery Series, written by only one author?

Think about it; the first Elric story appeared in magazine in 1961. This book with an Elric novella appeared in 2010. 49 years.

Would Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser serve as the closest competition?

[…] man Jason Waltz examined it in one of the longest and most detailed reviews we’ve ever […]

Martin Christopher

If I had seen this review earlier, I wouldn’t have needed to write my own. There were so many parts, particularly at the start of the article, that made me shout “yes, damn it!” All reminders of just the things that make Sword & Sorcery what it is, and that are lacking from this book.
I very much agree with the overall views, though I personally had a much lower oppinion of some of the stories.
I wouldn’t have bought “The New Adventure Fantasy” and got the book specifically for Sword & Sorcery. And it just failed rather badly at that.

[…] Another great review of the book can be found here at Black Gate. […]

[…] anymore. The only recent collections of original stories that spring to mind are the excellent Swords and Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, and Jason M. Waltz’s equally cool Return of the […]

[…] Another great review of the book can be found here at Black Gate. […]

[…] Another great review of the book can be found here at Black Gate. […]

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