I grew up reading fantasy. More than that, even, I had fantasy read to me before I could read for myself (clearly, I never had a chance). There was a point, though, in adolescence, where I stopped reading epic, heroic, sword-wielding fantasy because it all seemed so…endlessly the same. The irony of my timing (the mid-1990s) is that my giving up on the most mainstream part of the genre came at about the same time as the first glimmerings of a turning point into a darker and grimier place—the Martins and the Eriksons and so on.
But I didn’t hear about these “gritty” series until a few years ago, after coming back to fantasy thanks mostly to Scott Lynch (because of his intriguing title) and Joe Abercrombie (because I have a friend by the same name).
When I saw that those particular new(er) writers were paired together in an anthology exploring the current state of the sword and sorcery subgenre, I had to acquire it. Honestly, I may not be the best reviewer for this book for the true followers of this subgenre, as I’ve read only a handful of the authors involved (by “handful” I mean 4 of 17). But for someone who is either new to fantasy or has been crouched in a corner of their own, or for someone who won’t mind if I can’t contextualize the Erikson story…or the Moorcock…or almost any of the others, I present my honest opinion of the collection.
Bottom line: it’s a good group of stories. Maybe really good, if you consider that most of the time anthologies don’t actually present a strong collection. You can check out the contents at Lou Anders’ website for the full list of names, if you like, and the stories for the most part live up to the reputations of their writers. There was only one story that I thought about not finishing, and only one or two that made me say, “Huh, that was dumb/cliché/predictable” ending. The stories range from being light-hearted adventure to world-rattling catastrophe-aversions to small quotidian struggles of both the light-hearted and coldly cynical varieties. Below are my favorites, which may or may not be the best stories—these were just the ones that appealed the most to me either as I was reading them or after I finished the collection and had time to let all the stories percolate through my critical filters.
“Goats of Glory” by Steven Erikson is a Malazan story. Can’t put it anywhere in his time frame or continents for you, but the story itself is equal parts gore and dramatic irony. It’s a chuckling kind of funny and a smirking sort of satisfaction as you read it, and as full of monsters and sword-swinging as the opening story to a collection like this should be.
“Tides Elba” by Glen Cook (a story of the Black Company). I think I liked this story so much because of the perspective Cook had about the army company his characters belong to: per his bio he was in the Navy, and I have a brother who’s an officer and has told me many stories about the atmosphere of command. So for me, this story was hilarious for the pokes it takes at military bureaucracy and nonsensicality. It is also an interesting story about saving the world by ending the problem before it becomes a problem, and how that can make a man feel less of a hero than perhaps he should.
“In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch features the coolest library ever written about. A collection of sorcerous tomes whose magic has blended and compounded until the whole is drenched in rogue magic and bibliofauna—yes, you understood that right, animals whose native habitat is books. And it is the task of four young magicians to return four books to their proper places. Simple enough? It isn’t….Personally I think the story would have been stronger as simply a vignette piece about the students returning books to the library rather than having another layer of story going on—but, really, would it be a Scott Lynch story if it didn’t?
“Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe” by Tanith Lee is not quite as silly as the title suggests. There is an element of whimsy, for sure, but the story is really a tract on the limitations of human perception. In a lot of different ways, actually, from the propensity of people not to notice a cage if they have grown up in it, to the human distrust of traps or the unknown that can make them turn away from good help, to the power our own preconceptions give to the things we fight in the world.
“The Undefiled” by Greg Keyes took what felt to me more of a Native (Central or South) American feel in the setting and legend-come-to-life. It’s an area and cultures that haven’t been as overexploited as medieval Europe…yet…so it was an interesting departure from the setting and feel of most of the other stories. The scenario revealed is chilling, and the ending fully satisfying.
“The Singing Spear” by James Enge has one of the best (and by best I mean funniest) deceptions of all time about the fate of a magical relic. It makes you take a cynical step back and wonder why, exactly, all those sorcerers do put spells and enchantments around magical items no one should ever touch again, because that really is like a giant neon challenge to anyone with bravado to spare. Also a wonderful take on what happens to heroes (or the infamous) after they fade into obscurity.
“The Fool Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie is, well, a Joe Abercrombie story, set in his usual world. It’s dirty. It’s full of curse words. It makes you laugh out loud. It makes you smack your forehead at the end and say “D’oh!” because, of course, just when you think things have turned out for the best they turn out to be anything but. It also introduces characters who I sincerely hope turn up in one of his novels and revisits an old friend who’s come down (and down further still) in the world since we saw him last. The funniest story of the collection—which, since it doesn’t sacrifice action to accomplish, puts it in the running for best, at least for me. An excellent book-end to close the collection, against Erikson’s opening.
I enjoyed reading the variety of authors and stories here. Even if I didn’t love all the stories, I didn’t feel like any of them were a waste of my time to have read. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of “new” sword and sorcery here, so much as there is simply “current”—encompassing both the past and what’s being done now, versus only the most current and cutting-edge of styles and authors. But the title provides what it advertises, swords and dark magic, so if you like those two things this is definitely a collection worth picking up.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.