Tuesday, 15 June 2010

‘Swords & Dark Magic’ – Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders (Eos)

‘Sword and Sorcery’ fiction is back! Hang on... I never thought that it really went away. To be fair, the way I see it is that ‘sword and sorcery’ is more a part of the whole fantasy literature experience these days rather than a sub-genre in it’s own right. It’s still there though, you just need to know what to look out for (those little nods and winks to a movement that has been hugely influential in the way fantasy literature has developed over the years).

As far as Anders and Strahan are concerned though this isn’t really the point. What they’re after is a celebration of the sub-genre that’s reminiscent of its successful earlier days as well as highlighting authors who are adding their own spin to it right now. This isn’t a book that seeks to redefine the genre, it’s more of a book that sets out to remind us that the genre never really went away and that there’s a lot of new stuff that we would all like. In this regard the anthology totally hits the spot, at least for people like me who are after entertaining slices of sword and sorcery where there’s a magical artefact/monster to be stolen or killed. There’s a good mixture here of new work from old hands and new work from those who haven’t been around for quite so long. It’s certainly fair to say that there’s something here for everyone but, at the same time, this can also mean that not everything hits that spot. This was the case for me. On the whole, ‘Swords & Dark Magic’ was a thoroughly entertaining read. When I got into individual stories however, not all of them did it for me...

I’m a fan of fast paced, swashbuckling sword and sorcery tales. I also enjoy the work of most of the authors in this book (which you might want to bear in mind when you read this review). I was very much looking forward to reading certain tales in the book and those particular authors did not disappoint.
Things kick off in style with Steven Erikson’s ‘Goats of Glory’, a tale of soldiers sheltering in a castle that is already well occupied... Erikson has already shown that he can do long rambling epics as well as shorter humorous pieces. In ‘Goats’, Erikson shows us that he’s also a dab hand at tighter, action packed pieces. The pace doesn’t let up (until Erikson decides otherwise) and the story is full of surprises. And what a way to end the tale! What could possibly be worse than what was in the castle? We will never know but you’ll be thinking about for a long time to come...
As a long time fan of the ‘Black Company’ it was a real treat to come across an all new story from Glen Cook in ‘Tides Elba’. Cook may not be doing anything new with his characters but this tale is more about getting reacquainted with old friends in any case (at least as far as I was concerned). Cook proves that he hasn’t lost his touch in showing his readers the life of a frontline soldier and the story itself serves to flesh out the world that he created. If that wasn’t enough, it’s a lot of fun as well.
No ‘Sword and Sorcery’ collection is complete without a tale from Michael Moorcock and he doesn’t disappoint here with his story ‘Red Pearls’. This is a new tale of Elric that fills in one of the gaps in his travels with Moonglum. Given that Elric’s tale came to an end some years ago, I found that this tale (entertaining as it was) was lacking in the tension that could have raised its game considerably. Still worth a look though.

Tim Lebbon has become a favourite of mine over the last couple of years so it was a welcome surprise to see a contribution from him in the book. ‘The Deification of Dal Bamore’ gives the reader an interesting spin in that it’s not so much ‘sword and sorcery’ as it is ‘sword and... sorcery?’ Here’s a tale where the ending could go either way and Lebbon isn’t dropping any hints as to what will eventually happen. If this is what we can expect from Lebbon’s forthcoming ‘Echo City’ then I for one will definitely be picking it up!
Scott Lynch has been off the radar for a little while but pops up with the goods in ‘In the Stacks’. Here’s what the Unseen University Library would look like if Terry Pratchett got out of bed on the wrong side and decided to tell something a little darker instead of comedic... It is comedic in places though and you can tell that Lynch is having a lot of fun here, I had a lot of fun as well.
Joe Abercrombie rounds the book off in much the same kind of style with which Erikson opened proceedings. ‘The Fool Jobs’ throws some names at us that you may have come across before if you’ve read Joe’s other books. It’s good to see that Joe is as equally at home writing shorter fiction as he is the longer stuff. Whirrun laughs out loud right at the end of the tale and I wasn’t far off joining him. You could tell how this one was going to turn out but this one is more about the journey itself, it’s worth the trip.

But what about all the other stories? Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten them...

I found myself dividing ‘Swords and Dark Magic’ into two sections. We’ve already been through the stories that I made a special effort to be around for, here’s the rest...

Gene Wolfe is one of those authors who is a giant in the genre but also one that I have never read anything of. I know, shame on me... ‘Bloodsport’ seemed as good a place as any to get started! Wolfe clearly knows how to tell a good story but I found myself to be not so clear on what story he was actually telling. What I thought was going on at the beginning didn’t appear to be what was going on by the end... or was it? I don’t know so I can’t say an awful lot more without a re-read first...
James Enge’s ‘The Singing Spear’ ended up being a lot more accessible than I thought it would be. I wasn’t too impressed with ‘The Blood of Ambrose’ and that led to my not even bothering with ‘This Crooked Way’. If only I’d read ‘The Singing Spear’ first... Fast paced, witty and with an ending that made me chuckle at Morlock’s ingenuity.

While other bloggers talk about how many books they’ve read I’m quite happy to go in the other direction and readily admit that there are loads of authors whom I’ve never read before. ‘Swords & Dark Magic’ threw up a few for me to cross off that list... A few days ago I mentioned that I had never read anything by C.J Cherryh. ‘A Wizard of Wiscezan’ was my first foray into her writing and it had a neat little spin on the whole ‘boy who is more powerful than he realises’ plotline. It didn’t really grab me though, possibly because I was coming in right off the back of ‘The Singing Spear’ and was looking for that momentum to continue (which it didn’t).
I have read some of Tanith Lee’s work but that was so many years ago now that it’s safe to say that it felt like I was approaching her work for the first time (I mean, if I can’t even remember the names of the books I read...) ‘Two Lions, a Witch and the War Robe’ was gently playful, in it’s language and plot, with just enough of a hint of darkness to lend proper credence to its fairy tale feel.
‘Dark Times at the Midnight Market’ was my first venture into Robert Silverberg’s ‘Majipoor’ and I picked the right time to make that trip. The misadventures of a certain potion maker had me hooked right up until an ending that you could see coming but was non the less apt.

Not all the stories worked for me though. Greg Keyes’ ‘The Undefiled’ felt like it had been taken out of a longer story and dumped on the page. The feeling of disjointedness, and the natural slow pace of the plot, was a real obstacle to my engaging with the story itself. Funnily enough, Bill Willingham’s ‘Thieves of Daring’ had that same kind of feel but worked a lot better, possibly because the pace was a lot faster and the ending was more definite.
Michael Shea’s ‘Dapple Hew the Tintmaster’ was another disappointment. A slow read where the promised ‘star turn’ was more of a cameo than anything else. I’m not sure that I’d give Shea’s other work a go on the strength of this...

And to round things off... K.J. Parker’s ‘A Rich Full Week’ did it’s job well enough but didn’t really grab me. Parker defines magic as a branch of science but doesn’t really make the definition particularly clear. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be but at times I wasn’t sure whether I was reading about magic or science... I liked the concept though and the ending was just right.
Garth Nix’ ‘A Suitable Present...’ made me laugh, both at the humour within and the way it all fitted together to achieve that affect. Caitlin Kiernan’s ‘The Sea Troll’s Daughter’ was a bit of a slow starter but became something gorgeous by its end. I enjoyed Kiernan’s gradual focusing upon the real hero of the piece and again, the ending was suitably vague...

Could this be the longest review I’ve ever posted here? Possibly, thanks for sticking around! The fact is though that there is plenty to talk about in this collection; a collection that may be a bit ‘hit and miss’ in places but achieves it’s aim with a more than solid batch of entertaining tales. Recommended reading as far as I’m concerned!

Nine out of Ten

1 comment:

lianemerciel said...

Well, you've sold me on it! I'll be hitting up my bookstore for a copy after work today.