Monday, July 12, 2010

Swords and Dark Magic

When I first saw the listing for this book—I can't recall where—I was enthused by the list of authors contributing to a new anthology of stories in the swords and sorcery genre. Names like Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and CJ Cherryh are generally enough for old-school readers to get a little excited (a new Majjipoor story…really??). But also of interest to me was the inclusion of hot new authors like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Steven Erikson, all of whom I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed on this site. This collection, and the idea behind it, held a great deal of promise.

Swords and Dark Magic more than delivers on that promise. Editors Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders have compiled some wonderful examples of sword and sorcery in this volume, a book I feel confident I will be returning to again and again. And by mixing the "old school" with the new, Strahan and Anders allow for thoughtful comparison of writing styles and points of view.

Out of the seventeen stories in the collection, only one or two was average while the rest succeeded quite well. The collection begins with one of the best stories in the collection, Steven Erikson's "Goats of Glory." "Glory" shows off the strengths of Erikson's novels, with crisply but deeply drawn settings and characters who the reader gets to know quickly and deeply, without little effort. In this case, battle-weary soldiers find themselves in a nearly deserted town and try to find some place to stay for the evening. Unknowingly, they stumble into the town's bloody tradition and struggle to survive. Again, as they battle, we get to know the characters very well up until the last, when one of the most haunting final lines I've ever read is uttered. Out of context, what is said means very little, but in the context of the world and the characters that Erikson establishes, it is tremendously chilling, starting up the adrenaline and revving the reader through more of the stories in the collection.

Perhaps my favorite from the old school is Robert Silverberg's "Dark Times at the Midnight Market." Silverberg carefully makes reference to earlier Majipoor stories, but the novice reader really doesn't need to know those stories; instead Silverberg sets up a classic tale of greed and misfortune, with an ending that the great Rod Serling would appreciate. Silverberg's touch is deft and light, and a truly attentive reader can guess what is going to happen by the conclusion of the story. However, this does not take away from the pleasure in getting to that conclusion.

It's also very good to see a new Black Company story from Glen Cook, "Tides Elba." The editors have carefully placed it beside the Erikson story, knowing full well that Erikson owes a great deal of credit to the earlier writings of Cook. Again, some knowledge of the background might help with some allusions or inside jokes amongst the characters, but it isn't necessary; if a reader doesn't get the thrust, it still remains as gruff banter between soldiers. Cook also the reader a lot of information about his characters through their interaction, and the reader very quickly finds himself immersed in their company. Unlike Erikson, Cook doesn't twist his story's ending, but the effect is much the same—the danger of a soldier's life quickly becomes tedium and a succession of events one after the other with little to mark their differences.

I was also quite pleased with how well Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie represented the new school with their respective entries, "Into the Stacks" and "The Fool jobs." Both stories epitomize what the two authors bring to their novels wit, usually pointed in two different directions, and strong characterization achieved quickly. The other "newer" writers in the collection, those I had not read before, also acquitted themselves well. Even Bill Willingham, he of Fables fame, has a nice little piece that shows off the talents he brings to bear in his comic series.

It was also pleasant to read the old school—to see C. J. Cherryh go back to the genre that got her started in the industry with "A Wizard in Wiscezan" and to offer up an fairly original take on both YA writing and how magic works was a pleasure. I'm not a big fan of Michael Moorcock, but the new Elric novella, "Red Pearls" didn't drift so far into the writerly as a lot of the Eternal Champions stories do, with the result of a fairly enjoyable Elric story that is not depressing or overly cynical (I suppose real fans of Moorcock could argue that the new story is thus a failure, but I liked it). Sadly, the weakest story is Gene Wolfe's "Bloodsport" which on the one had seemed clichéd—I've seen this framework of a story before—and yet still difficult to get through, if only because of the denseness of ideas and writing that Wolfe also displays in his novels. Such a style does not work so well in the short story, but at the same time, it does harken back somewhat to the great sword and sorcery stories of the 20s and 30s.

This leads me to perhaps the biggest strength of this collection: a tremendous introduction by the editors that sets the genre of sword and sorcery in its historical setting, tracing its history alongside epic fantasy, while simultaneously discussing the distinctions between the genres in a thoughtful way that I had not considered before. The introduction also lovingly sets out the editors' holy trinity of sword and sorcery: Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, giving some of their own backgrounds while also taking time to establish why they are the pantheon. This is not to say that Anders and Strahan give other writers short shrift, far from it; the result is an excellent starting point for readers new to the genre—offering more to be read beyond other works by the writers included n the anthology—and a thoughtful synopsis for experienced readers.

The result is a strong collection of solid writing that any genre would be proud of. That this collection represents some of the best that the often maligned sword and sorcery genre has to offer is a bonus to anyone who just likes good stories. I really can't recommend this collection enough: it is going to take a place of honor on my bookshelf, one where I can find it easily as I refer to it again in the future and as I show it to folks as a recommendation.

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