When Lou Anders first revealed the lineup for his forthcoming Swords & Dark Magic anthology last year, my curiosity was piqued. With the emergence of epic fantasy in the 90s, the sword and sorcery subgenre and I had a falling out back then. But to be honest, like many fans in my age group, it's sword and sorcery tales which made me fall in love with fantasy in my early teens. What better way to gain a new appreciation of this subgenre than by sampling short fiction by a number of acclaimed fantasy authors? With talented editors such as Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan at the helm; with big-name contributors, both old and new; could this anthology help put sword and sorcery back into favor?
As I mentioned in my review of the Warriors anthology, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, the problem with most SFF anthologies is that they contain a few very good short stories. But more often than not, those quality reads get lost amidst uninspired and lackluster pieces of short fiction, which somewhat takes a lot away from the overall reading experience. Sadly, Swords & Dark Magic suffers from that particular problem. Regardless of the talent involved and the impressive list of contributors, very few short stories really stand out.
Moreover, I feel that instead of injecting sword and sorcery with new blood and new ideas, the tropes of the subgenre seemed to impose limits upon the immense potential of a number of authors, thus robbing them of what habitually makes them so good and fun to read. Most notably Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch, whose stories lacked that little something which makes them the writers we have come to appreciate to such a degree. Hence, I feel that what was meant to be "the new sword and sorcery" is more a case of same old, same old. With a bit more grit and obscenities, true, but little else in terms of innovations.
The anthology begins with an introduction from the editors titled "Check your Dark Lord at the Door" which chronicles the history of sword and sorcery. The intro is particularly well-done and it did bring back a lot of fond memories from my youth. Heck, it almost made me want to reread old stuff by Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more! It also reminded me of the Michael Moorcock Elric omnibuses I have waiting on my shelves.
Swords & Dark Magic begins with Steven Erikson's "Goats of Glory." It's not supposed to take place in the Malazan universe, yet there is a mention of Aren steal. It's a fun enough read, no question, but it's little more than a bunch of warrior kicking some demon butt. As such, it's a far cry from Erikson's better known short fiction found in the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach stories.
Black Company fans will relish the opportunity to read a new tale about Croaker, One-Eye, and the rest of the gang. Glen Cook's "Tides Elba" is certainly one of the highlights of this book. Although readers unfamiliar with the Black Company might not get much out of this one. . .
"Blood Sport" by Gene Wolfe just might be the most disappointing short story in this anthology. Given the author's talent, this lame tale of a knight is lackluster at best. . .
"The Singing Spear" by James Enge features his popular character Morlock Ambrosius. The drunken wizard must decide whether or not to act before Viklorn uses the Singing Spear to conquer all. An engaging, if light, read.
C. J. Cherryh's "A Wizard of Wiscezan" is about a magician compelled to let one of his students help a man from his past remove a threat to the kingdom. Okay, but nothing special.
In K. J. Parker's "A Rich Full Week," a Brother is sent to deal with a dead man terrorizing an entire town. Written in the author's usual witty style, this is one of the best short stories found in this anthology.
Garth Nix's "A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet" is another extremely light tale in which the injured Sir Hereward tries to find an appropriate gift for his companion, Mister Fitz.
Michael Moorcock's "Red Pearls" is an Elric novella. Along with a number of companions, the former emperor of Melniboné is on a ship bound for the edge of the world. Though this is doubtless one of the best pieces in Sword & Dark Magic, the ending left a lot to be desired.
Tim Lebbon's "The Deification of Dal Bamore" is the tale of a martyr trying to achieve godhood. Definitely one of the anthology's best short stories.
Robert Silverberg's "Dark Times at the Midnight Market" recounts the woes of Ghambivole Zwoll, licensed dealer in potions and spells. As was the case with the Wolfe piece, an uninspired story by a master. One of the weakest stories of the anthology, with an ending you see coming from a mile away. . .
"The Undefiled" by Greg Keyes recounts the tale of Fool Wolf, a powerful warrior sent on a strange quest. A bit predictable, it's another "fantasy lite" tale which doesn't stand out.
"Hew the Tintmaster" by Michael Shae recounts the tale of the warrior Brent the Inexorable and Hew the Tintmaster (a painter), an unlikely duo sent on a quest by a wizard. Sadly, I grew so bored with this one that I gave up before even reaching the halfway point of the story.
"In the Stacks" by Scott Lynch is a fun-filled tale about a group of aspirant wizards who must risk their lives to return books to the university's library. Though it features Lynch's humor and his witty writing style, something is missing to make this short fiction piece as memorable as his Gentleman Bastard material.
I was looking forward to Tanith Lee's "Two Lions, One Witch, and the War-Robe." Unfortunately, this tale of two warriors sent on a quest to retrieve the Robe Which Wins All Wars by an evil prince is more or less forgettable.
Caitlin R. Kiernan's renowned for her short fiction, and I was hoping that "The Sea Troll's Daughter" would be something special. But yet again, the story about a foreigner ridding a village of a dangerous troll fails to stand out from the rest of the pack.
"Thieves of Daring" by Bill Willingham is a very short tale about a group of greedy adventurers lured by the promises of riches found inside the winter residence of Wizard Ulmore. A quick and fun read.
"The Fool Jobs" by Joe Abercrombie is the anthology's pièce de résistance. It's a story about Craw and a group of Northmen screwing up an assignment and kicking some serious butt. Likely the best short story of the lot.
I think that my main problem with Swords & Dark Magic is the fact that, in the end, it did not reinvent the subgenre as advertized. It's more a case of revisiting sword and sorcery, not bringing anything new to the table. Which is all good if you are already a fan of sword and sorcery. But for people who prefer epic fantasy or other subgenres, those who are thinking of buying the anthology because it contains short stories by some of their favorite SFF writers but are not necessarily familiar with sword and sorcery, it might cause more than a little bit of disappointment.
All in all, only the Abercrombie, Cook, Lebbon, and Parker pieces truly stand out from the rest. Moreover, with both Abercrombie and Cook it's because the short stories were written the way both authors always write. They didn't have to alter their style so it could fit in the sword and sorcery subgenre the way Erikson, Lynch, and Keyes were forced to.
Unless you're a big sword and sorcery fan, I suggest you sit down and flip through Swords & Dark Magic before deciding whether or not to purchase the anthology. Most short stories are "fantasy lite" tales that might not appeal to everyone. However, those of you who have always loved the subgenre could be in for a treat.