With Swords & Dark Magic editors Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan have amassed an all-original collection of Sword and Sorcery from both new and long established masters of the genre. Overall the volume doesn't disappoint. There are a few ruts which didn't take off for me, but for those that did work well made this a memorable volume. What surprised me most was the pacing of many of the stories. What I'd call the old school authors seem to go for more of a slow build-up while the newer entrants for the most part vie to grab you from the first page with action. Now on to some of the highlights.
“Goats of Glory” by Steven Erikson - A very slow moving story for the most part. I was getting bored until the magic part finally got introduced and at that point I was hooked. Demon hordes are a bunch of pushovers when a group of warriors comes out of the mountains. A very satisfying ending with good action in the last third.
“Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company” by Glen Cook - The Company is on a bit of a lull as they have been stationed in one city without anyone to battle for months. When all of a sudden they are again tossed into the machinations of their betters. Definitely one of the better Black Company shorts I've read as it shows they are more than just the brawn and have got brains to back it up. Croaker keeps his usual tone and aplomb as the company figures out away to solve the heart of the matter without getting their own throats cut.
“Bloodsport” by Gene Wolfe - In some ways this reminds me a lot of a GRRM Dunk & Egg story without Egg. A new Knight is made to play the games of their sovereign, but when the games are over and all else is lost they strive to better the world around them and give themselves a purpose. The world is left vague as Wolfe wants you to connect and care for the characters more, which he succeeds at adequately. Quite good, but felt unfinished.
“The Singing Spear” by James Enge - This was one of my favorites in the collection. It was over before I wanted it to end. Just the right amount of action and humor and wonderfully paced. You don't mess with a mad Wizard's bartender and live to tell the tale. I'll definitely have to get to the copy of Blood of Ambrose I bought a while back soon. Enge has created quite a memorable character I'd like to explore a bit more.
“A Rich Full Week” by K. J. Parker - A zombie Sword & Sorcery tale with a Priestly Philosopher cum Wizard. As with most Parker stories she goes for a different angle than most would as the Philosopher doubts himself yet is still able to project the persona he needs to to survive and get the job done and get the walking deadman. Very good inner dialogue.
“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet” by Garth Nix - The first Nix I've read and what an inventive world he has here which we just get a peek at. Sir Hereward a injured knight is recuperating as his puppet manservant is off exploring the area they are staying in. The knight wants to get a present for his puppet man Mister Fitz, which leads to a nice battle with a treacherous demon. I definitely want to check out some more Nix now. Nix also has a free story with the same characters available online, which precedes this one.
“Red Pearls: An Elric Story” by Michael Moorcock - Big literary confession time. I can't remember ever reading an Elric story before in novel or short form. That will be changing since "Red Pearls" introduced me to an amazingly weird world and leading character. I'm not sure where it falls in the pantheon of Elric stories and I have a feeling it fills in a gap that fans have wanted, but nonetheless it was easy to follow and certainly gave you a good flavor for what Moorcock is known for.
“In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch - Hands down the best story in the volume. Lynch's imagination is in top form as Wizards in training must venture into the bowels of an ancient magical library to return books to their proper stations. In some ways this is what we'd get if Jasper Fforde decided to go for more of a traditional Fantasy tale. Splendid and just plain fun. The prose and characters are as always well done and this shows the gentler side of Lynch.
“The Sea Troll’s Daughter” by Caitlin R Kiernan - For some reason this is one of the stories that is most staying in my mind and I'm having a hard time pinning down why that is. It is a story that shows heroes are not always the best people as the heroine in this case has a drinking and attitude problem. In a juxtaposition the Sea Troll's daughter comes off more humane than that of the heroine although it has a bit of a non-ending.
“The Fool Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie - As always Abercrombie does an amazing job at introducing an unusual cast of characters and putting them in a very awkward situation as they search for a magical something, but what that magical something is is not at all clear. This takes place in the North of the First Law world with Craw who some of you may remember unless you blinked. Great twist of an ending like only Abercrombie can do, but I do think his work is more suited to long form. Or it could just be "The Fool Job"s feel too much like a prelude of what is to come in The Heroes. Which in essence it is.
If you are a fan of old school Sword & Sorcery this is a collection not to be missed. It is filled with everything S & S lovers want: action, magic, grey characters, and evil baddies. A few key stories brings this up a few notches in the anthology pantheon with the Nix, Enge, and Lynch being the biggest standouts. As for the goal of being a definitive look at Sword & Sorcery it missed the mark, but not by much. A few of these deserve inclusion in one of the Years Best Anthologies at the least. I give Swords & Dark Magic 8 out of 10 hats. Overall, I'll have to throw some curses at Anders and Strahan for putting such a good anthology together and exposing me to so many authors I've been meaning to try, some for more than a decade, and by extension making me buy a few books by these authors. I'm definitely going to try a Nix and have to decide on what Elric book to start with. Any suggestions?
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