Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery

Swords & Dark Magic edited by Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan
I like tales of swords and sorcery and the shelves of my library are full of them, so I was surprised, after taking delivery of this anthology, to find out that it was 'back' because I didn't realise it had ever been away. In reality, I think the introduction by Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan should actually say it's 'back in fashion' because, like all genre fiction and especially amongst the many sub-genres of fantasy, the popularity of swords and sorcery has waxed and waned in the past but has undergone something of a renaissance over the last three years or so with the latest crop of writers like Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch and Mark Charan Newton. Now while these writers, and others like them, seem to herald a new wave of 'darker', 'grittier' story-telling, I can't help thinking that the tales are no darker or grittier than they've ever been, but what actually separates them is the use of simpler language, shorter sentences, less ambiguity and - dare I say it - a more 'cinematic' style of writing that just appeal to a younger audience in a way that some of the more established writers no longer do.

And so to this latest anthology of the sub-genre, and the first thing to say is that if you're a fan then the contents page and list of authors will have you smacking your lips in anticipation straight away; Steven Erikson, Glen Cooke, K J Parker, Garth Nix, Tim Lebbon and more - it's a great list and, on the whole, it doesn't disappoint. The anthology starts with a nice introduction to swords and sorcery as a sub-genre by Anders and Strahan, recounting the history and background and then touching on what they believe sets it apart from the rest of fantasy; essentially the stories are smaller in scope than typical epic fantasy, centring around an individual or small group of characters that are neither all good nor all bad and who generally end up having to rescue themselves from a bleak situation that typically is of their own making, the focus generally being on the relationships between the characters rather than the bigger picture of the world they inhabit - I can't say I disagree with their take on it.

I'm not going to go over each short story in turn - go and buy the damned book, it's well worth it! - but I'll hit upon my highlights and lowlights and hopefully give a flavour of what to expect.

The opener is 'Goats of Glory' by Steven Erikson, the tale of a small band of battle weary soldiers who end up spending the night in a demon-infested castle on the outskirts of a village only marginally more inhabited than the Marie Celeste. Needless to say, violence and mayhem ensue with our heroes emerging from the carnage to something worse that we never get to know. It's terrific fun and a pitch-perfect example of what this anthology is all about. This is followed by 'Tides Elba' by Glen Cook, a Black Company tale that has the Company eking out the days of peace playing cards and drinking in perfect boredom until political wrangling brings them back to action. Now I have to say that I haven't read Glen Cook before but after reading this I will be reading his Black Company books in short order. The characters are immediately likeable and interesting and Cook's writing style and tone appealed to me right away.

Moving forward a bit we have 'A Rich Full Week' by K J Parker, a tale of a jobbing wizard - although he would refer to himself as a scientist - sent to investigate unnatural goings on in a small village and encountering a dead man rising from the grave and trying to figure out how to stay undead. As you would expect from K J Parker, of whom I've only recently become a fan, we get politics, status and hierarchy rather than a zombie call for 'brains' and the whole peppered with good humour and great dialogue. Garth Nix's 'A Suitable Present For A Sorcerous Puppet' is a smart little tale of demonic possession and the trouble with books featuring the injured Sir Hereward and his living puppet, Mr Fitz. A bit further on and we find Tim Lebbon's 'The Deification of Dal Balmore' about the torture and eventual transportation across the city for public execution of a suspected rebel leader, when the convoy escorting the prisoner is attacked by rebel sympathisers. There are twists and turns throughout and the ending is a real surprise making this short story an absolute highlight.

Towards the end we get 'In The Stacks' by Scott Lynch about a group of student wizards whose end-of-term exam consists of having to return a book back to the correct shelf within the magical library from which it came. Needless to say this is not as simple as it sounds and a good deal of armour and sword play are necessary to complete the task. This is another terrific little story, it has a touch of the Harry Potter's about it if J K Rowling had turned to the dark side but it is full of invention and good humour with a twist at the end which, while not altogether unexpected, still manages to delight. Finally the anthology wraps up with 'The Fool Jobs' by Joe Abercrombie, a nice tail to Erikson's top and typical of what we've come to expect of the new superstar of fantasy fiction. It features a motley band of mercenaries led by Curnden Craw who have been hired to steal a magical item. When it turns out the item in question is being held in a muddy, backwoods village hut it seems a simple task to liberate the thing and be gone but, as you'd expect, nothing is ever that simple for any of Abercrombie's characters and things turn bloody pretty quickly and the ending will make you laugh out loud, another undoubted highlight of the anthology.

So those for me are the highlights. There are other decent tales in there but 'Bloodsport' by Gene Wolfe, while a decent enough story, felt out of place in this company and Michael Moorcock's 'Red Pearls' was just too long and felt like it was building up to full novel before ending in too much of a hurry, as if he'd reached his word count and just decided to end it, something from which 'Dapple Hew the Tint Master' by Michael Shea also suffered. C J Cherryh's 'A Wizard of Wiscezan', James Enge's 'The Singing Spear' and Greg Keye's 'The Undefiled' were all good enough short stories but not really highlights and the same could be said for all of the rest - eminently readable and all well written but not quite at the level as those I've mentioned, in fact there is only one weak story in the bunch but I won't single it out because that would be unfair and you should make up your own mind.

But all in all an excellent anthology and one that is probably as well timed as it could possibly be given the recent upsurge in the genre. The writers here are amongst the best in the field and fans and newcomers alike will enjoy working their way through them, but it has to be said, there are a lot more writers out there that fit this mould and anthology number two should be just as exciting when it comes around. Lets hope it comes around soon.

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery is published by Eos in the USA and is available from Amazon, Blackwell and all good book stores.

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