Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery is an excellent new anthology of original short fantasy fiction, featuring an impressive mixture of established genre masters and newer, highly talented authors. The book’s introduction, by editors Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan, does an excellent job defining the sword & sorcery sub-genre and placing it in its historical context. This is an interesting read for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the genre and doesn’t have a copy of John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy handy, but the main value of any anthology lies in the stories, and in that area it doesn’t disappoint in the slightest.
Most of the stories in Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery are good, several are great, and even the few less successful entries are still interesting and well worth the time spent to read them, often because they are less impressive stories by otherwise very impressive and famous authors, such as Steven Erikson, Glen Cook and Gene Wolfe. If those authors had brought their top game to the table here, this anthology would be nothing less than a must-own, but as it is, it’s still an excellent collection.
Here are a few of my favorite stories, in order of their appearance in the anthology:
- K.J. Parker’s “ A Rich Full Week” has to be one of the strangest zombie tales ever, and definitely features the most reasonable undead you’ll ever find. I enjoyed the way this story put a new, metaphorical twist on the traditional “zombies eating brains,” as well as its smart-alec main character.
- Michael Moorcock’s “Red Pearls”. Put plainly and simply, if you are a fan of the seminal ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ series, you must read this story. It adds an (as far as I know) entirely new side to the novels’ world, and even though it’s not the strongest story in the anthology, for that reason alone it’s a must-read for fans.
- Tim Lebbon’s “The Deification of Dal Bamore” is a dark and disturbing story of religion and magic. It’s is an excellent teaser for the author’s forthcoming novel, Echo City, which shares its setting.
- Robert Silverberg’s “Dark Times at the Midnight Market” (set in the MAJIPOOR universe) is an old-fashioned and utterly charming tale about the effects of a love potion. The ending is a bit predictable, but what comes before has a Jack Vance-like charm I really enjoyed.
- Greg Keyes’ “The Undefiled” offers a dark, mysterious view on godhood and possession, and is one of the most intriguing stories in the anthology.
- Michael Shea’s “Hew the Tintmaster” is listed as a “fully authorized new Cugel the Clever adventure,” and if you’re at all familiar with Cugel, that’s probably enough to get you very excited. When Michael Shea describes his main character (Bront the Inexorable) as having “shoulders as muscled as a titanoplod’s thigh,” and has Cugel introduce himself as an “itinerant entrepreneur,” you know that Jack Vance’s famous character is in very good hands here. This is probably my favorite story in the anthology, although…
- … Scott Lynch’s “In the Stacks” is a very close competitor. If (like me) you were hoping for Locke Lamora, you’ll be disappointed, but fortunately “In the Stacks” is just as entertaining as the author’s GENTLEMAN BASTARDS novels. This story, about students venturing into a magical library that resembles a significantly less friendly version of Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University library, is simply a blast to read.
- Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” is a beautifully told story and maybe the purest actual “sword & sorcery” tale in the anthology.
- Joe Abercrombie’s “The Fool Jobs” is a perfectly entertaining, smoothly told story that ends the anthology on a high note. If (like me) you haven’t had the chance to try the author’s novels yet, you’ll probably feel very motivated to do so, especially after this story’s hilarious ending.
If you happen to have any friends who are under the impression that all fantasy is elfy-welfy, gauzy, long-winded fluff, this showcase of tight, gritty, hard-edged and occasionally very funny fantasy fiction is a great way to rectify their misapprehensions. It’s also a great anthology to get started with some of the genre’s major authors and find out about newer, noteworthy writers. Despite a few disappointing entries by otherwise excellent authors, the overall quality of Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery is very high. Recommended.