Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery

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Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery

Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders

“Goats of Glory” by Steven Erikson
“Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company” by Glen Cook
“Bloodsport” by Gene Wolfe
“The Singing Spear” by James Enge
“A Wizard of Wiscezan” by C.J. Cherryh
“A Rich Full Week” by K.J. Parker
“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet” by Garth Nix
“Red Pearls: An Elric Story” by Michael Moorcock
“The Deification of Dal Bamore” by Tim Lebbon
“Dark Times at the Midnight Market” by Robert Silverberg
“The Undefiled” by Greg Keyes
“Dapple Hew the Tint Master” by Micheal Shea
“In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch
“Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe” by Tanith Lee
“The Sea Troll’s Daughter” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
“Thieves of Daring” by Bill Willingham
“The Fool Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

When I first picked it up Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’s new sword and sorcery anthology Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery put me in mind of another anthology series coedited by Strahan-2007’s The New Space Opera (to which a second volume was added last year).

Like NSO, Swords & Dark Magic is devoted to original writing by Big Names in a traditionally disreputable subgenre originating in the pulp magazines that with the passing of the years has not only acquired a nostalgic glow, but attracted some more serious attention. It is also of a similar length-a bit over five hundred pages, divided among a little fewer than twenty contributors. (The numbers here are 517 pages, filled by seventeen authors.) Again as with the NSO volumes, the list of Big Names represented varies from long-established Grand Masters like Robert Silverberg, to newer stars like New York Times bestseller Garth Nix (both of whom also published in that other series), and their contributions include a good many stories based on characters and worlds they have established elsewhere, often in a lengthy series of novels.

I also found myself comparing Swords & Dark Magic to the New Space Opera in another, more problematic way. Noted science fiction critic Paul Kincaid suggested in his review of that book that the title was something of a misnomer, enough of the stories “divorced from the theme of the anthology” that there was not much actual, “unapologetic” space opera in it (a criticism that caught my eye because I found myself thinking the same thing).

The boundaries of sword and sorcery are more accommodating, and readers of Swords are unlikely to actually doubt that they are actually reading sword and sorcery (though a purist can quibble about a story here or there). Yet, whether the volume lives up to the promises of the subtitle and the dedication is open to question. After all, what, apart from the year of their composition, is really new about these stories? In their introduction, “Check Your Dark Lord At The Door,” Strahan and Anders point to the new writers’ gritty realism, moral ambiguity and political savvy. To be frank, these attributes would not make this take on the genre all that new. Part of the definition of sword and sorcery Strahan and Anders give in their introduction, after all, is its focus on “morally compromised protagonists, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils.”

Certainly there is plenty of realism, ambiguity and political savvy in the writing of the “great literary swordsmen” to whom Swords is dedicated-Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock-among others.

Additionally, the dedication can appear like a promise Strahan and Anders’s book does not (and perhaps cannot) make good on. The prose here is more polished than that of the old pulp stories, but the polish may have come at the expense of the wonderful vibrancy and vividness that shone through their roughness. The rollicking pace and spectacle of those early swashbucklers is less evident as well, the worlds on display for the most part appearing smaller, less colorful, more stereotyped places than Conan’s Hyperborean Age, let alone the multi-verse of the Eternal Champion. (The innovative blends of cultural influences, or of science with magic, that distinguish so much of the most exciting recent speculative fiction-or for that matter, the output of the genre’s founding authors-are also largely absent.) If Howard and Moorcock painted their word-pictures with fire, all too often these writers paint theirs in the bland browns and grays of earth, which may be taken for “gritty realism,” but comes at the expense of the escapist fun that one can only worry the genre has become too “serious” for. (Kincaid expressed just such a concern regarding space opera in his NSO review, and furthermore, I have found myself wondering if the shift of both these subgenres from audience-pleasing pulps where space was at a premium to series’ of novels often given to the ponderous has not cost them some of their sparkle.)

Despite these reservations, however, the weakest of the stories included in Swords & Dark Magic are still adequate, and most of them provide solid (if only occasionally stellar) entertainment.

The first piece, Steven Erikson‘s “Goats of Glory” gets off to a slow (and even meandering) start detailing the journey of a party of rough-and-tumble veteran soldiers who opt to pass the night in a ruined fortress that proves to be rather less secure a shelter than they hoped. While the last third of the story offers a well-wrought bit of action, the build-up to it is too long, and the whole less an adventure than an uneven (if at its best, arresting) episode.

The next story, Glen Cook‘s “Tides Elba,” likewise spends a great deal of time on a novelistic portrayal of soldiers in a relatively quiet backwater far from home. Part of Cook’s long-running series about the soldiers of the Black Company, narrated by the unit annalist (known to us by his nickname, Croaker), the troops are presently on garrison duty in Aloe, a city-state on the fringe of the Empire of the Lady. The time and attention lavished on the ways they fill their time frequently give the story the feel of an S & S version of Jarhead, but the Company eventually gets its mission, the capture of the mysterious “Tides Elba.” The events that follow are a bit muddled, by the ambiguity surrounding Elba’s significance, the unit’s politics, and the burial of the mission inside the broader picture of the unit’s life, but it all gets cleared up by the end.

In Gene Wolfe‘s “Bloodsport” a one-time knight of “The Game” tells the reader his life story. It is often the case that Wolfe’s fiction is difficult to review in substantive ways, not least because of his well-known penchant for playing games with the reader. (Indeed, Jonathan McCalmont discusses the problem extensively in his excellent reappraisal of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.) Wolfe’s contribution to Swords is in line with that pattern, and I expect that the reader’s response to it will depend on their fondness for his approach to fiction, especially given the thinness of the plot and world-development in this case. (As for myself, I must admit that while I respect Wolfe’s stylistic command and knack for generating ambience, and have enjoyed some of his pieces–“Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” comes to mind–I have little patience for this narrative approach.)

James Enge‘s “The Singing Spear” is Enge’s latest story about Morlock Ambrosius, a cowardly, drunken, dishonest ex-hero of a wizard and warrior who this time out learns that the titular spear-actually his creation-has come into the possession of the murderous pirate and robber Viklorn. The story is a brief and simple one, but Ambrosius’s flaws make him a compelling character, and Enge’s brisk pacing and sense of humor help make the piece one of the volume’s more engaging ones.

C.J. Cherryh‘s “A Wizard of Wiscezan” centers on Willem Asusse, a journeyman wizard to a once-great mage who gets caught up in a political power struggle in the city of Wiscezan. The start is slow, and surprises are few, but Willem’s adventure is suitably robust when it gets going.

K.J. Parker‘s “A Rich Full Week” also has a young wizard as a protagonist, albeit one quick to tell the reader he should actually be regarded as a “student of natural philosophy, specializing in mental energies, telepathy, telekinesis, indirect vision.” His present duty has him in a provincial village where a “restless” dead man has escaped his grave to attack farm animals and people. The presentation of a wizard as scientist is perhaps a touch underdeveloped, but Parker’s voice and pacing help to maintain a smooth flow despite an awkward structure.

As those familiar with Garth Nix‘s recent short fiction might guess from the title, his contribution, “A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet” is a new tale of the knight Sir Hereward and the enchanted, living puppet, Mister Fitz. (The previous two, both of which have been anthologized, are 2007’s “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again”-available online at the web site of Jim Baen’s Universe-and 2008’s “Beyond the Sea-Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe.”) By contrast with the preceding novelette-length adventures, the shorter “Suitable Present” is more an episode than a quest, one in which Sir Hereward is recovering from his injuries in the care of the Cloister of Narhalet-Narhalit. Hereward nonetheless manages to get into trouble of a supernatural sort. Nicely paced, the piece is carried by the humor and charm of Nix’s duo and of the telling, helped along by a few clever touches.

“Red Pearls” by Michael Moorcock is a new Elric of Melnibone story which at fifty-four pages is the longest in the anthology. Given that Moorcock has been writing about Elric for almost a half century now, and that he penned the conclusion to them quite early on (in the full-length novel Stormbringer in 1965), there is little room for really fundamental changes in the character’s arc. Still, as might be hoped, this story of Elric journeying with his sidekick Moonglum (and Princess Nauhadaur of Uyt) to the “underside of the world” on a mysterious errand is a solid addition to that larger body of work, both as an exploration of an interesting wrinkle in the history of Elric and his world, and a robust sword-and-sorcery adventure that more than any other in this anthology, captures the feel of the pulps in which the genre was born.

Tim Lebbon‘s “The Deification of Dal Bamore” tells the story of Jan Ray Marcellan, priestess of the god Hanrahan, who ends up overseeing the torture and execution of the titular character, believed to be the leader of the rebellious Wreckers. At first Bamore appears to be a secular Christ figure, but the story quickly moves in a different direction as the crisis surrounding his capture gets out of control. Bamore and the Wreckers both prove to be something quite different than what they had initially appeared to be to Jan (and the reader), and the same also goes of her own beliefs, making for a series of strong plot twists, and a satisfying conclusion.

Robert Silverberg‘s “Dark Times at the Midnight Market” is rooted in the Majipoor series Silverberg has been writing since 1980’s Lord Valentine’s Castle, centering on the magic shop of the octopoid Ghambivole Zwoll and two-headed Shostik-Willerton. Business having been bad for a long time, Ghambivole ends up selling a potion to a foppish aristocrat against his better judgment, and soon regrets it in a reasonably diverting bit of light comedy.

Greg Keyes‘s “The Undefiled,” perhaps the darkest of the stories in the collection, focuses on Fool Wolf, a young warrior whose body is inhabited by Chugaachik, a vicious supernatural entity he barely keeps in check-and problematically finds useful to release from time to time. As might be expected Wolf has sought to expunge her from himself, traveling far and wide in search of a way to do so, and as the story opens that search has embroiled him in a complex affair of gods, curses and virgin sacrifices. While many of the stories in the volume give the impression of being a fragment of something larger, the dense but somewhat disjointed (though readable) “The Undefiled” is the one that I imagine might have benefited most from a fuller treatment.

Michael Shea‘s “Dapple Hew the Tint Master” begins with Bront the Inexorable, a Northern barbarian out of place in the bright southern city of Helix, roaming the streets on an unusual errand that soon enough sets him on a quest in company with Dapple Hew after their farcical first meeting. The narrative is enlivened by Shea’s humorous touches and an abundance of charming imaginative bits. The whole unfortunately struck me as less than the sum of its parts, but I enjoyed the overall story.

Scott Lynch‘s “In The Stacks” has for its setting the High University of Hazar, where wizards go for their schooling. Enter fifth-year student Laszlo Jazera, who is required to return a book to the library (like every other student at the University at this point in his education), an apparently innocuous task that is in fact deadly dangerous. After all, the Living Library contains millions of wizards’ grimoires, each “‘a mote of quasi-intelligence'” that when brought together create a “jungle that dreams . . . currents of deadly strangeness'” that is barely contained by the structure’s thick walls and the “rough Librarians” who act as its guards. Lynch’s Library, easily among the cleverest creations in the collection, affords a compelling milieu for Laszlo’s big adventure, which has its bits of comedy, and some nasty surprises as well for young Laszlo.

Tanith Lee‘s “Two Lions, A Witch, and the War-Robe” has its hero Zire coming upon the city of Cashloria. He promptly gets into a bar fight that ends with his arrest, and an audience with the city’s Prince, who offers him as his sole chance of reprieve from punishment an errand-the acquisition of a “Garment of Winning” that alone can legitimate his hold on the throne. While the plot bears little resemblance to the work the title alludes to, the elements listed in that title add up to quite an engaging latter half, and Lee manages to make an uneasy mix of sword-and-sorcery roughness with fairy tale magic work in the end.

Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s “The Sea-Troll’s Daughter” reverses the situation in Shea’s earlier tale, sending a southern warrior (the woman-warrior Malmury) to a northern, sub-Arctic setting. When the story begins, Malmury has already slain the titular sea-troll, which has been menacing the village in which she arrives. Kiernan instead uses the classic sword-and-sorcery stuff of a monster-slaying as a setup for something quite different, a series of related dramas-of a daughter estranged from her father, conniving village elders not above cheating an outsider, a pair of lovers, and the creature’s odd but logical revenge. These different elements never quite come together in a satisfactory narrative arc, but the story does manage to offer something different from the rest in the anthology.

Bill Willingham‘s seven-pager “Thieves of Daring” features a pack of warriors intent on “looting the vacant winter palace of Ulmore, the legendary lost Atlantean sorcerer”-with the intent of making themselves famous “among a select underworld set.” Predictably, the line between “daring” and “stupid” is nonexistent in this particular adventure, and at the start of the story things are already going badly, and bloodily, for the thieves. What follows is less a fully-written adventure than just the Big Twist of that adventure as protagonist and narrator Septavian of the Waterhouse Brotherhood learns exactly how far in over his head he is, which works because Willingham manages to make Septavian sympathetic, and to make good use of the brief space the story uses.

Similar in theme is the last story in the collection, Joe Abercrombie‘s “The Fool Jobs,” which depicts a colorful band of rogues led by Curnden Craw (who can also be found in Abercrombie’s recent The Heroes) hired to steal a vaguely described (but presumably magical) item-not from a grand palace, imposing temple, or a trap-filled labyrinth, but a hall inside a muddy backwater village. The results are about what one would expect from a title like “The Fool Jobs,” but even if the final twist is hardly a shocker, the story is quite readable, and the theme of Abercrombie’s story makes its placement at the end of the volume appropriate.

Swords & Dark Magic:  The New Sword and Sorcery
Edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders
Eos, June 22, 2010
Trade paperback, $15.99