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Swords & Dark Magic
edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders
HarperCollins Eos, 544 pages

Swords & Dark Magic
Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan was born in Belfast and moved to perth in 1968. He is the co-founder of Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently the reviews editor of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his family.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance
SF Site Review: Eclipse Two
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Reader
SF Site Review: Eclipse One
SF Site Review: The Starry Rift
SF Site Review: The New Space Opera
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2006
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2005
SF Site Review: The Locus Awards

Lou Anders
A 2009/2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2008 Philip K. Dick Award nominee, 2007 Chesley Award nominee, and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books' science fiction and fantasy imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies including Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008), Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008), Fast Forward 1(Pyr, February 2007), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, and Dreamwatch. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish, Greek, German, Italian and French.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fast Forward 2
SF Site Review: Fast Forward 1
SF Site Review: Projections: Science Fiction in Literature and Film

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

Now is definitely the right time for an anthology of new sword and sorcery stories. As they deftly sketch out a history of the subgenre in the introduction, editors Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders make clear that this is a movement that goes through cycles of boom and bust. Which may explain why their otherwise extremely useful history tails off somewhat after the 60s: no mention of Karl Edward Wagner, Glen Cook referenced only in passing and they really need to say more about Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games. It is hard to argue with the fact the subgenre has been fallow for a while though. But this just means the soil is now more fertile.

It is hard to over-estimate the influence it has had on the current generation of fantasy writers, those writing what is sometimes referred to as "new" or "gritty" fantasy but which I prefer to think of as Third Wave Fantasy. That is to say, fantasy written by authors who came of age at a time when fantasy was already established as a commercial genre. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings or Dragonlance novelisations, Robert E. Howard's Conan or Arnie's version, pulling old paperbacks off the shelf of the library or rolling a twelve-sided die in a friend's basement: it is all part of the same rich fountainhead. And that means they have been able to plunder the best bits from all available sources.

But what is sword and sorcery? There is a very enjoyable Mind Meld at SF Signal where the contributors to this volume talk about what it means to them. For me, it is about adventures, not quests; the erosion of idealism in favour of realism. As Strahan and Anders say in their introduction:

  If high fantasy is about vast armies divided along the lines of obvious good versus ultimate evil, epic struggles to vanquish dark lords bent on world domination, then sword and sorcery is its antithesis. Smaller-scale character pieces, often starring morally compromised, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils… If high fantasy is a child of The Iliad, then sword and sorcery is a product of The Odyssey.  

Swords & Dark Magic isn't a particularly inspired title for an anthology of sword and sorcery stories but then speaking plainly is one of the virtues of the subgenre. This is a collection that does exactly what it says on the tin. With one exception: Gene Wolfe is probably the last person to get to write a sword and sorcery story since the whole approach is antithetical to his way of working. The layered, cryptic "Bloodsport" is a fine example of a Wolfe story but desperately out of place here.

The rest of the stories stick to the brief and it is those who follow it to the letter -- the anthology is subtitled "The New Sword and Sorcery" -- that fare best. Or, to put it another way, the stories that represent continuations of existing sword and sorcery series generally disappoint. The intent is clearly to provide context and bring the work of older writers to the attention of a new generation. However, this was satisfactorily achieved by the introduction and, since none of these writers stirred themselves to produce new settings, they seem rather stale in comparison to the new blood.

For example, Michael Moorcock's new Elric novella, "Red Pearls" stands out, unfortunately for its length and its leisurely telling. As the pages turn Elric does rouse himself from his ennui but just as he has warmed himself up and given Stormbringer a bit of exercise along comes a deus ex machina to neatly (and abruptly) tie everything up. It gives the story an episodic feel which, although one of the hallmarks of sword and sorcery, needn't be so perfunctory. The same is true -- to an even greater degree -- of two other continuations. Robert Silverberg's "Dark Times At The Midnight Market," a dull and obvious Majipoor story about a love potion, is by far the worst in the collection in terms of both relevance and execution. "Tides Elba," Glen Cook's latest tale from the Black Company, on the other hand, is a perfect example of sword and sorcery but simply goes nowhere. Both stories have the unmistakable taste of filler; stories knocked up to order and slotted into existing authorial universes for minimum effort. (C.J. Cherryh has a much better take on a typical Black Company story with "A Wizard of Wiscezan" which shows how it should be done.)

Thankfully, "Hew the Tint Master" by Michael Shea shows it is possible to keep a familiar setting fresh. The story is a continuation of the Cugel The Clever series created by Jack Vance and, although it initially seems to be a Conan pastiche centred around a barbarian called Bront The Inexorable, it opens up into everything a sword and sorcery story should be. The magic is mysterious and little understood by the protagonist but has the potential to re-shape the world. The adventurers have their own agendas and are well aware of this, realpolitik is very much the order of the day. The worldbuilding does not linger on the mechanics or the baubles but still leaves the reader in no doubt that the protagonists live in a coherent, coloured and infinitely varied world. It is sly, it is fast-paced, it is, most of all, great fun.

And, happily, the rest of the stories are in a similar vein. For all that sword and sorcery is loved for its down and dirty realism, it is also an impish genre with a Loki-like sense of humour. As the editors say, "grim humor and gritty violence" are critical ingredients for the subgenre. So we get the ironic deconstruction of legend in "The Singing Spear" by James Enge and a knowing wink to "A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet" by Garth Nix that keeps it from being just an otherworldly Boy's Own adventure. The awful punning title of Tanith Lee's "Two Lions, A Witch And The War-Robe" conceals a story of infinitely more subtle humour.

But sword and sorcery is also a serious business; its protagonists frequently face life at the sharp end. K.J. Parker work is not renowned for its humour and, despite the sardonic title, the same is true of "A Rich Full Week" which paints jobbing sorcery as a life of drudgery and fear. Life is similarly hard won in "The Sea Troll's Daughter" by Caitlin R. Kiernan. In contrast, Greg Keyes initially seems to be working in the happy-go-lucky vein of adventure story like Nix but the incongruously breezy tone of "The Undefiled" masks a story that is even more horrific.

Finally, it is interesting to compare the opening story, "Goats Of Glory" by Steve Erikson, with the last, "The Fool Jobs" by Joe Abercrombie. These two writers must be two of the biggest draws on the table of contents and not only do they provide two of the best stories in the anthology but these stories also share some other similarities. Here is the opening paragraph from "Goats Of Glory":

  Five riders drew rein in the pass. Slumped in their saddles, they studied the valley sprawled out below them. A narrow river cut a jagged scar down the middle of a broad floodplain. A weathered wooden bridge sagged across the narrow span, and beyond it squatted a score of buildings, gray as the dust hovering above the dirt tracks wending between them.  

And here is the one from "The Fool Jobs":

  The village squatted in the fork of the river, a clutch of damp thatch roofs, scratty as an idiot's hair, a man-high fence of rough-cut logs ringing it. Round wattle huts and three long halls dumped in the muck, ends of the curving wooden uprights on the biggest badly carved like dragon's heads, or wolf's heads, or something that was meant to make men scared but only made Craw nostalgic for decent carpentry.  

My initial inclination was to judge Erikson's prose harshly. "Five riders drew rein in the pass" is awkward. The sprawling valley, the jagged scar of the river, the sagging bridge, the squatting buildings; these are all fairly generic images. And the less said about the title the better. Abercrombie's title, on the other hand, is pretty much a distillation of the pure essence of sword and sorcery. "Scratty as an idiot's hair" is a perfect example of the slangy, demotic prose that has breathed so much life into Third Wave Fantasy and that digressionary, piss-taking riff on the carved uprights is similarly emblematic of its rough humour.

Then, as I read on, I was forced to re-evaluate Erikson's story. The prose certainly isn't as distinctive as Abercrombie's but otherwise the story is his equal. They both feature a band of ne'er-do-wells who are at each others' throats but can be relied upon when the chips are down, a set of characters who are effortlessly and immediately distinctive. They both provide perfect biopsies of another world, a world beyond the characters themselves. And they both climax with bloody great fights; passages of writing that are simply exhilarating. Exhilarating but not mindlessly so, both are almost instantly undercut by the realisation you can win the battle but still lose the war (that dagger of realism again). I was already a fan of Abercrombie, I am now a fan of Erickson too and (once I've built up my stamina sufficiently) I hope to tackle his Malazan Book Of The Fallen decalogue.

So Swords & Dark Magic is an excellent showcase for both its contributors and the subgenre itself. If epic fantasy is generally considered to be most comfortable with a word count measured in the millions, sword and sorcery proves to be the perfect genre for the short story. Like their protagonists, the authors follow the adventurers' code: get in and get out. The result is an anthology with a remarkably high hit rate. In fact, Swords & Dark Magic is probably the single best original fantasy anthology I've read. More please.

Copyright © 2010 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. He is the reviews editor of Vector and also regularly reviews for Strange Horizons. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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