Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery
Edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders
Review by Benjamin Wald
Eos Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061723810
Date: 01 July 2010 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Sword and sorcery has a rich history in the fantasy genre. It is clear that the editors of Swords and Dark Magic, an original anthology of brand new sword and sorcery short stories, are aware of this history. The volume is dedicated to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Michael Moorcock, the holy trinity of sword and sorcery fiction. The only name missing from this dedication is Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth stories provide another clear influence on many of the stories, particularly evident in the ironic, satirical sense of humor that runs through several of the tales. This volume is an impressive showcase of the modern state of the subgenre, providing a heaping helping of sword-play, sorcery, bloodshed, and even occasional laughs.
At over 500 pages, this anthology manages to both include a variety of authors and also sample longer works that give space to develop the exotic settings and heroic characters so central to the appeal of sword and sorcery fiction. The table of contents reads like a who's-who of leading lights in the sword and sorcery subfield, including Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and even Michael Moorcock with a new Elric story. There are also a few surprises. I never thought of Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, or Tanith Lee as sword and sorcery authors. Not that I'm complaining! By and large, the stories themselves live up to the expectations, providing a truly enjoyable reading experience.
I particularly enjoyed "A Rich Full Week" by K.J. Parker, that gives us a refreshingly original take on the traveling wizard trope. It's also memorably creepy, with some subtle characterization to boot.
"The Fool Jobs" by Joe Abercrombie is an entertaining example of the new hard-boiled approach to fantasy, that doesn't flinch from, or sugar-coat, the blood and death of fantasy's traditional subject matter. The plot isn't that important here, it's the way the fairly traditional plot is executed that makes the story work.
Another favorite of mine was "The Sea Troll's Daughter" by Caitlin R Kiernan. This story manages to slyly second-guess the focus on heroics in traditional sword and sorcery. There is a hero in this story, but she is a drunk and a liar, and her heroics actually bring disaster on the small village she comes to help. Rich with literary allusions, this story is a real treat, throwing the heroic exploits of the books other characters into a new light.
Some of the big name authors' stories didn't quite live up to my expectations, however. Gene Wolfe's story was interesting, but it felt like it was sticking pretty close to ideas and themes that Wolfe has explored before. It lacked the startling originality that has always drawn me to Wolfe. Moorcock's story too was not all that I had expected. While it is always a pleasure to see Elric in action again, seeking once again to free himself of the black sword that is his power and his curse, the story felt very much like a thing of the past. It felt like Moorcock could have written it at any point in last five decades. It's very much a classic sword and sorcery story, unaffected by the changes in fantasy since Elric's inception, a fact that stands out clearly in comparison with the other stories in this volume. Still, even if they fall short of my hopes, both the Moorcock and the Wolfe stories are still very good reading.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the stories owe as much to the wit and whimsy of Jack Vance as to Howard's hulking barbarian hero. Unfortunately, these stories are the weaker ones in the collection. Vance's influence is most clear in "Hew the Tint Master" by Michael Shea, which actually includes one of Vance's signature characters, Cugel the Clever. This inclusion is probably a mistake on Shea's part. Cugel plays little role in the story, and he displays none of his trademark wit or immorality; it feels as if he is thrown in mostly as a name check. The story as a whole starts well enough, and the writing is very reminiscent of Vance, but the plot fizzles about halfway through, leading the characters to stumble to an unsatisfying conclusion. "Two Lions, A Witch, and the War-Robe" by Tanith Lee also owes a debt to Vance, particularly in the breezy, wise-cracking nature of its pair of heroes. However, said heroes are so breezy in the face of peril that there is never any real sense of danger, and they are not quite witty enough to carry the plot.
While those seeking a continuation of Vance's legacy might be disappointed, those who are more interested in the more action oriented legacy of Moorcock and Howard will find everything they are looking for. Swords and Dark Magic showcases both the strength and the breadth of sword and sorcery fiction. The stories have a clear thematic unity, but range over enough styles and variations that it never feels repetitive or overdone. For anyone who is a fan of the old pulp magazines, or who has been introduced to sword and sorcery through more recent works and found it to their taste, this is a must have collection, and I wouldn’t be at all surprise if it found lasting appeal and influence.