It 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.
In 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.
This 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…
The 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.
One 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 fantasy 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!
“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.
“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…