Swords & Dark Magic (Eos/Harper Collins, 2010). Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders.
This was a book that I read over eight years ago and came across this review while looking for an old file. This was a sword-and-sorcery fiction anthology of original fiction from a mainstream publisher. I really enjoyed Andrew Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness and Page & Reinhardt’s Heroic Fantasy back in the day and was hoping this would be the start of a new era.
The first warning sign was the cover. At the time, I thought the cover painting horrible. The past seven years have had plenty of static photoshopped covers that make this fine art in comparison. The second warning was “The New Sword and Sorcery” phrase under the title. Whenever something is called “new,” watch out.
The introduction is entitled “Check Your Dark Lord at the Door,” which will infuriate some Tolkien fans. The editors think that sword-and-sorcery is smaller scale than high fantasy. I could argue against that citing Hour of the Dragon as an example. There is a very fast mini-history of the sub-genre where Karl Edward Wagner is not mentioned while Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley are.
“Steven Erikson” has written humongous doorstop fantasy novels that I have not read. I don’t like never ending series and I generally don’t like novels that go over the 100,000 word mark. This is the first Erickson that I have read. “Goats of Glory” has a small group of soldiers wandering into a village off the beaten track. Glenn Cook’s “Black Company” series has had its influence and impact. I would describe Cook and also this Erikson story as “military fantasy” more than “sword and sorcery.” Just like if you read enough science fiction, you can subtly differentiate between space opera and military science fiction, military fantasy has split off and become a separate animal from sword and sorcery. I would present that we now have a new sub-genre that could be called “military fantasy” that is unique and different enough from sword and sorcery to warrant its own designation. Some of Erikson’s soldiers are women. I have a problem with this. Destroy our modern world and women are going to be back to what they did before the industrial revolution. “Erikson” is supposedly has a background in archaeology and anthropology, but he presents very up to date correct gender attitudes. Characters have names such as Snotty, Dullbreath, and Swillman. Here is some typical Erikson prose: “The place stank of pig shit and the flies buzzed thick as black smoke.”
The soldiers are lured to spend the night in an abandoned fortress. Turns out, the fortress is infested with demons. A great idea but–less would have been more. The characters wipe out hundreds of demons in the fighting. The horror effect is markedly diminished. I think a more suspenseful story could have been written.
Glen Cook has been a very influential writer for about the past 25 years. It all started with the story “Raker” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1982), where he introduced the Black Company. Cook expanded “Raker” into The Black Company, the story of a motley group of mercenaries amidst a huge sorcerous war in a fantasy world. It is no coincidence that Cook served in the navy. The Navy does provide corpmen and I knew one naval officer who manned artillery in Vietnam in suppot of the Marines. I do not know if Cook served in that capacity. Cook’s prose for this series is very stripped down with little in the way of adjectives being used. He reminds me of the way that “Paul Cain” attempted to take the hard-boiled crime story to sparse extreme in the mid-1930s. The Black Company books are rather dialogue driven for my tastes.
“Tides Elba” is an episode wherein the Black Company has to track down a descendant of the Dominator who about to mate with another of his descendants. The resulting child would have been a vessel into which the Dominator could project his soul. The story is disturbing with the revelation at the end while getting there is a chore.
Cook is in many ways the godfather for many of the authors for this anthology.
The inclusion of Gene Wolfe does raise the level of attention for this book. Wolfe is considered a writer’s writer. Wolfe never jumped to my A list. I read his Book of the New Sun years back and my response was I had read this before by Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance. I did like Wolfe’s story in Cross Plains Universe though. “Bloodsport” is in the first person. The story starts out relating the participation in something called The Game, which is sort of like real-life chess with people. After one game, the town is attacked by “Hunas” who are described just like the historical Huns. Valorius, the narrating knight, and a female pawn escape, and organize a band of fugitives into a small resistance force. That section ends abruptly, Valorius and Lurn the pawn travel to the mountains where the Game originated. An enchanted mountain meadow is found where Lurn is armed and crowned as a queen. Valorius then kills her in a fight and that is how the story ends.
James Enge was a relative newcomer when this book came out. He got his start with a series in Black Gate magazine about Morlock Ambrosius the Maker. Enge has said Roger Zelazny and Jack Vance were big influences I also see Michael Moorcock in the mix. There is a spear with a demon trapped within it. Enge’s prose on one hand attempts the urbanity of Fritz Leiber or Jack Vance but juxtaposed is anachronistic sounding dialogue such as “You killed my bartender!” The character shows a Jack Vance influence, the plot coupons are from Michael Moorcock. There is a certain vibe of older sword and sorcery to give a sense of déjà vu all over again.
C. J. Cherryh’s “A Wizard in Wiscezan” uses the same world that she used for “A Thief in Korianth” way back in 1981 for Flashing Swords #5. Cherryh is an old pro going back 35 years with D.A.W. Books. She has produced a competent if not overly engrossing tale of infiltration into the keep and assassination of a usurper and his wizard by means of an illusionist.
“A Rich Full Week” by K. J. Parker is written in first person and is a good case of what I think is so wrong with fantasy of the past 20 years. The story is dialogue driven. With a few minor changes, the story could be set in suburbia. The dialogue is mostly inane, takes up space, and does little to propel the story. Read some Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler if you are going to write a first person story with mostly dialogue.
Garth Nix is an Australian writer of young adult novels whom I am unfamiliar with. “A Suitable Present For a Sorcerous Puppet” is a story that has an interesting idea if not high octane in execution. It is clever with a recuperating knight accidentally coming across an ancient curse.
To put things in context, a book containing a Michael Moorcock story in 2010 would be like having a new C. L. Moore Jirel story in 1982. Moorcock’s “Red Pearls” is the keystone story or rather novella for this book. Moorcock brings nothing particularly new in this Elric story but then again, there has been little really new about Elric since the original ten stories in Science Fantasy 1961-1964. There is more multi-dimensional hokum but I have to say this is one of the better Elric stories of the past 20+ years.
I can remember about six years ago, John Pelan of Midnight House Press telling me of some horror writers who wanted to write sword and sorcery. I remember Tim Lebbon’s name from that conversation. Lebbon has been writing some novels with a fantasy setting. “The Deification of Dal Bamore” is in the same world as Echo City Falls (2010). To set the tone, here is some Lebbon prose:
“Bamore is hanging upside down from the ceiling. He is streaked with blood and feces. Beneath him, there is a large bowl collecting all fluids that leak from him.”
There is torture and then a prolonged street fight while on the way for a crucifixion. Something I have noted, Echo City is not described at all. I have no idea what it looks like as there was no description given.
Robert Silverberg has written some of my favorite space opera and adventure science fiction. He has a story “Dark Times At the Midnight Market” set on his planet of Majipoor. It is a “cute” story that elicits a chuckle. The story is nothing major, but competently done and in contrast in tone to most of the other stories in this book.
Sooner or later, a serial killer sword and sorcery story was bound to happen. Greg Keyes’ “The Undefiled” has Fool Wolf possessed by a spirit or godlet who makes him do very bad things. The same idea in Robert Bloch’s classic “Enoch.” Keyes’ has a habit of not explaining things very well in portions of the story. He also jumps a scene before it is finished using innuendo for the reader to fill in. The problem is the innuendo is rather nebulous.
I have been reading Michael Shea since Nifft the Lean came out in the early 80s. He is one of those writers that you must concentrate in order to get everything. You will miss something if you don’t. “Hew the Tintmaster” is starts out in the world of Nifft. Bront the Inexorable teams up with Hew the Tintmaster (i.e. house painter) on a quest for a wizard who is paying handsomely. They are sent to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and then meet Cugel the Clever. Remember that Shea got his start with A Quest for Simbalis featuring Cugel. In some ways, Bront and Hew are the most conventional sword and sorcery characters up to now in this book. They are also the most heroic in their own way.
I was waiting for a Harry Potter sword and sorcery story to happen and Scott Lynch’s “In the Stacks” is that story. If you like Harry Potter, you will like this story. Set in a library with a wizard pupil who decides to go mega maniacal.
Tanith Lee has been in Swords Against Darkness, Heroic Fantasy, and the paperback Weird Tales. A friend of mine thinks of her as closest thing to a modern Clark Ashton Smith. “Two Lions, A Witch, And the War-Robe” is typical Tanith Lee. The story is very fantastic as is often typical with Lee. This story would not be out of place in one of her old collections such as The Gorgon.
Caitlin R. Kiernan is another horror writer now moving into sword and sorcery. “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” is probably the worst story in this anthology. The story begins after the action is over. The dialogue is top-notch:
“Why, you ungrateful, two-faced gaggle of sheep-fuckers.”
A sword woman amazon kills a sea-troll terrorizing the town. The story starts with her after the fight. The narrative is about drinking and lesbian seduction of a bar-maid.
Bill Willingham’s “Thieves of Daring” reads as sort of homage to Fritz Leiber. It is an entertaining enough vignette. He keeps up the suspense and the reader interested. I hope Willingham keeps it up and writes longer works of fiction.
Joe Abercrombie has been getting a fair amount of press. I have known people who like him, others hate him. This was my first introduction. “The Fool Jobs” has a sort of Dirty Dozen meets Deliverance with swords plot. The characters are all unlikable, which is probably the point. The writing is matter of fact with a little description to paint a depressing landscape. Get Abercrombie a thesaurus as “fucking” seems to be every tenth word he uses.
“Cause it’s my fucking job to fucking tell you to the fucking thing is why, Yon fucking Cumber,” or “Use your cock as a spoon.”
Somebody has a potty mouth. I will say that Abercrombie can write an action scene. I just can’t say reading him is the most pleasurable experience.
So there you have it, the first sword and sorcery anthology in a while. The last anthology I can think of is Swords Against the Millennium from the turn of the century.
First impression– disappointment. My own name for the book is Swords and Excrement. If this is the new sword and sorcery, I want no part of it. I can remember reading Page & Reinhardt’s Heroic Fantasy and the enjoyment and entertainment I got during a rather bad time in my life. I actually dreaded reading this book each night before too long. I couldn’t wait to be done.
The editors have no background in sword and sorcery that I know of. Lou Anders seems to have the most background in Star Trek and Star Wars books and magazines. Jonathan Strahan has edited (new) space opera anthologies. They might have ideas brought in from other sub-genres.
You can divide the book into three categories– the D.A.W. Fantasy Reader (Shea, Cherryh, Lee, and Moorcock), uninteresting writing (Nix), and the scatological.
If you are going to write sword and sorcery, you must engage in landscaping. Landscaping is a term used in conjunction to Zane Gray’s description of the West. The author must do some background painting with words. Sword and sorcery is not a modern day thriller with swords. One of my gripes with Glenn Cook’s Black Company series is the utter lack of any detail. There are too many stories where you have no idea of regarding the architecture, clothing or costumes, weapons etc. Describe the kind of swords used for example. You don’t have to do an info dump, but some detail goes a long way. My own opinion is dialogue driven stories don’t work in sword and sorcery. This isn’t a T.V. show.
The better sword and sorcery writers who came out of the 1970s got their start in the small press. They started out writing short stories, then novelettes. A few then made the jump to mass market paperbacks that were generally 80,000 words long. Now it is backwards, the writers of the past ten to twenty years start out writing 700 page novels for seemingly never ending series. They have no concept of economy. You can stretch out a novel with lots of dialogue. In a 15,000 word story, you have to move it along and talking is not the way to do it.
Readers in the past have been attracted to the glitter, pageantry, and Technicolor of sword and sorcery. Replacing it with mud, feces, and urine is not a good business plan for growing the genre. I was telling John C. Hocking (Conan and the Emerald Lotus) about this anthology. He thinks that maybe our lives are so easy now that getting covered in excrement is about as horrible as some writers can imagine. As one friend of mine said, just because someone takes a dump does not mean it has to be shown. There was not one conventional heroic story in this book.
If you are going to write about a barbarian serial killer, have the gonadal fortitude to channel a little Brett Easton Ellis and show a serial killer in action.
Horror writers– sword and sorcery is not horror. Changing the scene from cars to horses and from guns to swords does not make for automatically a good sword and sorcery story. The gothic element is key in classic sword and sorcery over horror. There is a difference.
When I wrote this review in 2012, there was unease out there by friends of mine. The increasing scatological obsession was one issue. Nihilism and lack of heroism is another. Literary moral relativism and realism creeping in from the mainstream as a source of contamination were others. At the time, I was not sure if these were separate issues or all facets of the same thing. I now see it as all part of a cultural change that has accelerated the past ten or so years. I bought Swords & Dark Magic at the local Barnes & Noble store and then felt burned when a few months later it was offered at Edward R. Hamilton online for about 1/6 of the original price. Now I wait.