I’ve come to this anthology late compared to some reviewers, but then again I wasn’t really planning on reviewing it in the first place. I picked it up while in Canada and though (as in so many other cases) that the opportunity was too good to pass. So here I am reviewing Lou Anders’ and Jonathan Strahan’s anthology that according to it’s very own subtitle should innovate the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Has it done that? Maybe not, but on the way it has certainly presented a strong offering of short stories from a slew of renowned authors of the genre. Below you will find a short review for the majority of the stories contained within the anthology.
Elric... the Black Company... Majipoor. For years, these have been some of the names that have captured the hearts of generations of readers and embodied tge sword and sorcery genre. And now some of the most beloved and bestselling fantasy writers working today deliver stunning all-new sword and sorcery stories in an anthology of small stakes but high action, grim humor mixed with gritty violence, fierce monsters and fabulous treasures, and, or course, swordplay. Don’t miss the adventure of the decade!
Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson
The first story from Malazan Book of the Fallen author Steven Erikson starts things off nicely. The story follows a group of soldiers, estranged by the inhabitants of a village, Glory, they are passing through on some unknown journey. Erikson gives us plenty of action, quirky, ugly beasts and a sufficiently intriguing plot. This isn’t the best story of the bunch, but it is one of the good ones.
Bloodsport by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe came across to me as unnecessarily formal in his story, utilizing the most common of sword and sorcery characters, knights. Wolfe’s story has wars, greediness and an attempt at a love story that just doesn’t seem to fit with a very distant point of storytelling that skims across many years of action that would have been more appreciable up close. Ultimately Bloodsport reads too impersonally to be thoroughly enjoyed, but it is not a bad entry per say.
The Singing Spear by James Enge
Enge delivers a story out of his Morlock Ambrosius universe featuring, of course, Morlock and his drunken-lazy, irresponsible adventures. The Singing Spear is my first foray into Enge’s writing, and it was not a bad one at that. The story finds Morlock spending much of his time in a bar and getting blamed for the actions of a thief wielding one of Morlock’s inventions - his subsequent actions make up the story. Not being accustomed with the mythology surrounding Ambrosius, The Singing Spear was not as approachable story as I might have liked, but it remained worthwhile nonetheless.
A Wizard in Wiscezan C.J. Cherryh
Cherryh contribution is one of the classical coming-of-age type, only in accelerated mode. Essentially it’s about a apprentice wizard who utterly believes he is useless but is called upon to save his city. This sort of story can still be passed off passably well in longer-form writing but here it doesn’t work very well at all. The concept isn’t original and the prose doesn’t make up for it. So a bit of a disappointing entry, but it’s a sad fact that some are needed if only so the others can shine out brighter.
A Rich Full Week by K.J. Parker
I’ve enjoyed Parker’s work before, but never in short story form and I must say that A Rich Full Week surprised me. Roughly in the same vein as Parker’s previous work, this is a comic and ironic tale that pulls you along for an unfortunately short journey. Though not the best entry in the anthology, this is a good one, disappointing only in the fact that we may not discover its intriguing world further.
A Suitable Present For a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix
Garth Nix, which I have previously enjoyed with his Sabriel series, brings us an odd entry. This (very) short story is not unentertaining, but neither is it the greatest of the bunch. In it are found demons, gods, priestesses and knights. Nix appears to build something quite large up but does not finish it up satisfyingly. So not bad, but not great either.
The Deification of Dal Bamore: A Tale from Echo City by Tim Lebbon
I admit to having skipped around this story for a bit because of its subtitle, A Tale from Echo City, and that didn’t attract me at all. When it did get around to it I found it not half-bad with an interesting concept. Lebbon’s tale takes more to the sorcery side of sword and sorcery with a rebel sorcerer who is attempting to deify himself. That’s a pretty good concept. The Deification of Dal Bamore is also the least linear of the stories found in Swords & Dark Magic, with a number of flashbacks detailing the events leading up to the present situation. Lebbon works in some action, intelligence and good characters. Though the ending isn’t quite up to one might expect, by and large Tim Lebbon’s contribution is a strong one.
The Undefiled by Greg Keyes
Greg Keyes makes a darker addition to Swords & Dark Magic, with an arresting yet somewhat confusing story of humanized gods and cursed characters. For its short length, The Undefiled is well developed but also suffers from its shortness as its complexity could have probably payed out better in a longer narrative. For what it is, though, The Undefiled is one of the more original entries, while still keeping to typical sword and sorcery tropes.
In the Stacks by Scott Lynch
The shining star of Swords & Dark Magic, In the Stacks is just what I’ve come to look for in writing from Scott Lynch. In a short length of time (it is a short story after all) Lynch creates characters worth reading about and a plot that feels complex and full. Not to mention he’s thought up a setting full of potential that I can only wish we could explore more. It was also nice to see Lynch try his hand at something more of your usual type of fantasy, which is to say something involving more magic and such. But then again, I suppose you would have to when writing a piece for an anthology with a title such as this one.
Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe by Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee’s Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe is, for me, the surprise of this collection. Having not been previously exposed to Lee (like with so many other collaborators in this anthology) I did not know quite what to expect, but I certainly did not foresee such a vivid and captivating read from this entry. The two characters, Zire and Bretilf, are what make this story a win, being comic, strong and realistic characters out on a classic tale full of potential pleasure for the reader. Truly one of the stories I can recommend, even if it means reading it out of a copy in a bookstore.
The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlìn R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s The Sea Troll’s Daughter is probably one of the best developed of the lot, finding the time to bring in some unexpected themes and ideas while still keeping a good amount of sword and sorcery badassery. Kiernan depicts an interesting setting and writes characters that carry the story well. Not one of the stand-outs of the collection, but certainly an entertaining one.
Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham
Possibly the shortest of them all, Bill Willingham’s entry is just that, short, with little sustenance, coming down as a hard-to-follow, action piece. Willingham isn’t a writer I’ve previously encountered, and this short story doesn’t do anything towards me going out to discover more of his work. It’s hard to hit on a short story for being short but really six pages is really not enough length to fill with a story that has to stand next to so many other great stories in this anthology. Thieves of Daring really only serves as a short respite before the finale of this book, Abercrombie’s The Fool Jobs.
The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie
What to say of a piece of writing by Joe Abercrombie? As I’ve come to expect from his long work, this short story by him is not bad at all. Let’s just say it isn’t exactly as good as what one my expect. As one of the most prized ‘new masters’ mentioned on the cover, Abercrombie’s story was one I highly anticipated, with good reason, and though it had a strong start, it’s ending came as somewhat anti-climactic. His staple gritty prose and strong, realistic characters are present, but it appears that Abercrombie’s format does not, at least in this case, adhere as well to a short form of writing as it does novel-sized work.
Not being a very short story king of guy, I’m surprised at how Swords & Dark Magic was able to offer a thoroughly enjoyable experience and even possibly kindling a further longing for more sword and sorcery material. The anthology is for the most part balanced in terms of quality though some clearly are better than others, Lynch’s, Kiernan’s, Lee’s and Parker’s entries being the true stand outs for me, but they are closely followed by the offerings from Abercrombie, Erikson and Enge not far behind. The rest can be read without issue, but are just not up to the level of the rest. Overall a very recommendable read, to be enjoyed at random or read straight through.
My Rating: 4.5 out 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
Lou Anders' Website: http://www.louanders.com/
Jonathan Strahan's Website: http://www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/
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