Friday, August 06, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 184 (8/6) -- Swords & Dark Magic edited by Strahan and Anders

Just to warn you all up front: I know and like both of the co-editors of this book (Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders), and I've been hoping for a sword & sorcery revival for the past two decades -- so I'm not anything like an unbiased judge of this particular book. Your mileage may vary, but I found it deeply enjoyable; the only authors I would have wanted to see stories from that weren't represented were slightly handicapped on account of being dead.

Swords & Dark Magic proclaims itself a sword & sorcery anthology even before the subtitle (which spells that out) -- the title directly evokes Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories, collected in a series of books that all had the word "Swords" in them (most notably, Swords & Ice Magic). There's also an echo of Lin Carter's foundational Flashing Swords! anthologies from the 1970s, though this volume of Dark Magic is as long as two of Carter's books. The editors' introduction tries to define s&s, and does a pretty good job of it -- though the subgenre is more of a style or a sensibility than a cold list of necessities. Sword & sorcery is fantasy set in a secondary world -- except when it isn't -- focusing on tough, outcast sword-slingers -- except when they aren't -- in which the world is never in need of saving -- except when it is. Whizzer White would know it when he saw it, and Damon Knight would point at it and call it by its real name. And so can we.

This anthology contains seventeen brand-new s&s stories, both from the acknowledged masters of the form -- Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, Michael Shea -- newer writers whose sensibility is completely in line with s&s -- Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Steven Erikson, James Enge -- and writers who aren't known primarily for s&s but are more than capable of writing a great story in that mode -- Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, K.J. Parker, Garth Nix, Caitlin R. Kiernan. Of the seventeen, the only story that I'd complain even the least bit about is Bill Willingham's "Thieves of Daring," which is more of an anecdote (almost of the shaggy-dog variety) than a full-fledged story, and which ends at the point where the joke really should appear. Other than that, all of the stories are good -- Moorcock has his best Elric story in at least twenty years here, though that may be faint praise -- and a number of them (notably those from Kiernan, Parker, Lynch and Greg Keyes) are excellent.

As usual with s&s, none of these stories strain for deep meaning, and many have the gallows humor that has been an integral part of the subgenre since Leiber and Robert E. Howard -- so these stories may come across as frivolous and lacking in depth to readers weaned on a pure diet of portentous epic fantasy twaddle. That, though, is purely a defect in the reader rather than the material, and we can only hope that they grow out of it. For those of us who don't require that our heroes have a pearlescent glow, carry Weapons Of Destiny (and silly names), and anguish their way through eight long books of saving every last square inch of the map, Swords & Dark Magic is a fantastic breath of fresh air, and we can only hope that s&s will continue its miraculous comeback.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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