SPFBO 6: Finalist Review Black Stone Heart

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Multi-Book Review


Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders

Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders
Book Name: Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery
Author: Jonathan Strahan (Editor) & Lou Anders (Editor)
Publisher(s): EOS
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Sword & Sorcery
Release Date: June 22, 2010

“Here, then, are seventeen original tales of sword and sorcery, penned by masters old and new. What follows are stories of small stakes but high action, grim humor mixed with gritty violence, dry fatalism in the face of strange magics, fierce monsters and fabulous treasures, and, as ever, lots and lots of swordplay. Enjoy!”

Swords-And-Dark-MagicAnd so ends the excellent introduction by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders to their anthology from 2010, and it succinctly sums up just what the collection offers. Here we have fantasy legends like Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Glenn Cook, Gene Wolfe and Michael Shea rubbing shoulders with the new kids on the block such as Steven Eriksson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, James Enge and K. J. Parker, all delivering us sword and sorcery tales. But in truth, as Strahan and Anders themselves note, sword and sorcery is a genre that has fallen very much out of fashion, finally killed off it seemed in the 1980s by the stream of awful sequels to the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Conan the Barbarian, and replaced instead by the epic fantasies of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.

It’s pressing the case a bit to describe say Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch as a sword and sorcery writer (though Logen ‘Ninefingers’ the barbarian could have stepped right out of a sword and sorcery tale). Instead Strahan and Anders argue that this new generation of writers are carrying on the work of the grandfather of sword and sorcery fantasy, Robert Howard, by pioneering a new style, “one that blends epic struggles with a gritty realism, where good and evil mixes into realistic characters fraught with moral ambiguities, and struggles between nations are not so one-sided as they are colored by a new politically savvy understanding.” And the differences between the two styles of writing are illustrated perfectly by this anthology. So much so in fact, that I would ignore the chronology of the book, and instead recommend that readers read the older style swords and sorcery tales first, before reading those written by the new generation, just to really a feel for how fantasy has evolved through the years.

So where to start? Well with a short story by the king of sword and sorcery, Michal Moorcock. Red Pearls is his first Elric tale in quite a while, and it’s a goody. Elric and companions travel by ship to the end of the world and beyond for an encounter with pirates and a weredragon. It seems the king has lost none of his magic, and let’s be quite blunt, a swords and sorcery anthology without a tale of either Elric or Conan, should be sued for violation of the trades description act.

Michal Shea delivers us a tale of Cugel the Clever (though Cugel is reduced to a mere cameo appearance). But again in less than 40 pages illustrates just what a classic swords and sorcery tale should have (primarily lots of unusual words and juxtapostions of words – plangent paean, doorways undadoed and unpilastered, bandolier of tints, batrachians, ocular tentacle and so on….).

Gene Wolfe a clever tale of chess pieces in revolution, and Glen Cook an all new Black Company story. I have to admit that I am not that familiar with Glen Cook or the Black Company, but I can see how he brought gritty realism into the genre and influenced later writers like Joe Abercormbie. His characters speak in the monosyllabic guttural voices of soldiers and are driven by baser desires; these are not the heroes of ‘heroic’ fantasy, but are real and believable characters.

And because it is written in law that every fantasy anthology must feature a tale by Robert Silverberg, the wily old goat is here. He does seem to have slightly misread the brief though, as while his Majipoor tale does feature sorcery, there is a distinct lack of swords, and sadly the twist in the end is so predictable that even M. Night Shyamalan would have been embarrassed to have used it.

Having read the tales of the old ‘masters’ of the field, we have another group of writers, Garth Nixx, C. J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Greg Keyes, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and Bill Willingham, who would probably be insulted to be referred to as either an ‘old master’ or as a ‘new kid on the block.’ Interestingly they illustrate alongside Glen Cook how sword and sorcery has evolved from its origins as serialized tales or pulp paperbacks written by the likes of Howard and Moorcock, to the gritty realistic fantasy we have today.

Garth Nixx certainly has never been known as a sword and sorcery writer, but instead as one of the leading writers of YA fantasy, but A Suitable Present For A Sorcerous Puppet is playful tale that works effectively as a homage to the genre. Tanith Lee is similarly playful in her tale Two Lions, a Witch and the War-Robe. Her tale is also very much an affectionate spoof of the genre.

Caitlin Kiernan brings gender politics into play, her hero is not only a female and a lesbian, but also an alcoholic who is rescued just in the nick of time by the practical bar maid she has taken on as a lover. C. J. Cherryh has a tale of a flawed hero (how familiar does that sound now?), a young illusionist, who seems to have a disorder such as aspergers, bringing down a despotic tyrant (echoes of the recent Arab Spring). Greg Keyes takes it a bit more seriously with his tale of a hero who is reminiscent of Elric in that he lives with a power which is as more of a curse than a blessing, but is able to use it to bring to horrific justice to a group who have done something beyond the pale.

The only sour note is in Bill Willingham’s tale, which just feels unfinished rather than having the open ending that he intended it to have.

Swords-And-Dark-Magic-AnthologyThe writers though that are probably going to sell this collection, are the much hyped up ‘new kids on the block.’ Steven Erikson might or might not have written a short story set in the Malzan Book of the Fallen world. But he has certainly delivered a dark gritty tale, where the shocking twist is not that our heroes have been tricked into staying in a haunted castle, but that they realize it and are prepared, much to the shock of the demons who live there!

Joe Abercrombie’s tale left me a little underwhelmed, featuring one of my least favourite of his characters, Craw (a rehash of the character of Dogman from The First Law Trilogy in my opinion). And for anyone who has read much Abercrombie, the ending is sadly a little predictable. A story that focused more on Whirrun of Bligh would have suited this anthology better for me.

K. J. Parker does better with his sorcery tale, which really illustrates how the genre has evolved. No longer is magic left unexplained, but writers takes us through how it is cast and the rules that apply to it, step by step. Parker does it well here in a story of a wizard who is not a wizard but a philosopher, who doesn’t practice magic, just science that we haven’t quite figured out how it works yet. And Tim Lebbon takes this concept a step further in the tale of a wizard who faces execution for even daring to practice something so preposterous.

I would recommend leaving the best two tales to last, The Singing Spear by James Enge and In the Stacks by Scott Lynch. I honestly had never even heard of James Enge, but I was in love with his writing after just two sentences.

“To drink until you vomit and then drink again is dull work. It requires no talent and won’t gain you fame or fortune. It’s usually followed by a deep dark stretch of unconsciousness though so it had become Morlock Ambrosius’ favorite pastime.”

What follows is an old school sword and sorcery fantasy tale but told in a non reverential and highly comical manner.

And from now on, instead of using the tired old cliché of ‘to knock it out the park’, I am going to use ‘to pull a Scott Lynch’* to describe anyone who does a stellar job, as with In the Stacks. Here we have a modern short sword and sorcery story, which is just superb. Our hero Lazlo and his companions have to take on a quest more dangerous than any other undertaken in this anthology; they have to return a library book. And honestly there is simply nothing more to say, than just read the story, its combines all the classic elements of a sword and sorcery tale, but told in an exciting and modern voice, with some typically Scott Lynchian* characters.

*‘to pull a Scott Lynch’ and the use of Scott Lynch’s name as an adjective are now trademarked by myself.



  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    In the stacks was even better than I thought it would be, and I was expecting quite a lot. That story alone is worth the cost of the anthology, but there are so many other good ones crammed in too!

  2. I’ll have to check it out – right now I much prefer the short story sword and sorcery style of writing than the over-long, over-wrought door-stoppers.

  3. I read the book and it was, unfortunately, a huge disappoinment. The two most important things that are missing from this book are swords and dark magic. I was expecting some new takes on the style of Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock, but only the three stories by Erikson, Cherryh, and Moorcock are what I would describe Sword & Sorcery. Bill Willinghams story hits the nail but really is painfully short, consisting only of a single scene.
    The stories by K.J. Parker, Tim Lebbon, and Caitlin Kiernan are good, but only very barely apply to the genre with both eyes squinting. The rest simply fails for me.

    It’s an okay book, but just doesn’t live up to expectation if you are looking for some classic Sword & Sorcery.

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