Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery

fantasy anthology review Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery fantasy anthology review Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery is a book I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since it was first announced in 2009. I was particularly excited about the anthology’s impressive list of contributors which includes several authors I enjoy reading like Glen Cook, Greg Keyes, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Garth Nix, Tim Lebbon, Caitlin R. Kiernan, James Enge, and personal favorite, Steven Erikson. And with highly respected editors Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders behind the wheel, I knew the book wouldn’t disappoint.

From start to finish, Swords & Dark Magic is an entertaining anthology that will please anyone who is a fan of sword & sorcery. It certainly did the trick for me, kicking off with an exciting one-two combo of Steven Erikson and a new Black Company tale by Glen Cook, and ending on a high note with Joe Abercrombie’s “The Fool Jobs” — basically a preview of the author’s next book, The Heroes, which is set in the same world as The First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold.

As well as the anthology started and ended though, it was the stories found in between that really shined with Scott Lynch’s tale of the Living Library (“In the Stacks”) and Garth Nix’s humorous Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz adventure (“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet”) two of my favorites. Other notable entries included a new Fool Wolf story by Greg Keyes, a Morlock tale by James Enge, Tanith Lee’s “Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe,” and “The Deification of Dal Bamore” which offers a tantalizing glimpse at Tim Lebbon’s forthcoming new fantasy novel, Echo City. The best stories though were those that I didn’t expect to enjoy, namely K.J. Parker’s “A Rich Full Week” and Michael Moorcock’s “Red Pearls.” In the past, I tried reading Parker’s Scavenger trilogy and Moorcock’s famous creation Elric, but both left a bad taste in the mouth. So I was quite surprised by how much I ended up loving “A Rich Full Week” and the new Elric story.

Negatively, there were a few rocky bumps along the way — which is not unexpected with an anthology — but even the weaker stories had something worthwhile to offer. For instance, Gene Wolfe’s “Bloodsport” provided an enticing taste of what I’ve been missing from never having read anything by Mr. Wolfe before; Robert Silverberg’s “Dark Times at the Midnight Market” left me wanting to visit the world of Majipoor; Michael Shea’s “Hew the Tint Master” was imaginative and elicited a chuckle or two out of me; and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” does a good job of twisting a few fantasy conventions.

Apart from these weaker entries, I felt that some of the short stories provided by authors I like reading (Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Greg Keyes, James Enge, etc.) were somewhat lacking compared to their previous efforts, even if I still had fun with them. I also thought most of the stories found in the anthology were largely formulaic, but then again, sword & sorcery is not exactly a genre known for its originality.

All in all, reading Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery was time well spent, and I can’t thank Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan enough for making this anthology happen. Enthusiastically recommended to anybody who reads fantasy.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy anthology review Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery 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.

~Stefan Raets

fantasy anthology review Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery As the title suggests, Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders have gathered seventeen new and original sword & sorcery tales in this anthology. The stories are written by a variety of successful authors, bringing to play a broad range of styles and themes. I’m a huge fan of sword & sorcery (it’s what got me into fantasy). So I was extremely eager to get my hands on this book.

I did find Swords and Dark Magic to be heavier on the “sorcery” than the “sword,” more so than is my preference. (Like the greatest S&S hero, Conan the Cimmerian, I subscribe to the belief that when the gods breathed life into mankind, we were given the gift of strength and the secret of steel. So, there is no sorcerer or demonspawn that cannot be beaten by brute strength or a sharp blade.) Regardless, my enjoyment was no less for it. I was absolutely thrilled when I read the dedication, which pays homage to the masters:

For Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, the great literary swordsmen who made it all possible

I believe that an anthology is only as good as its introduction, and the one in this book proves my point. The editors detail the birth of S&S and pay respect to the authors noted in the dedication along with the very few others, C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith, who were there at the beginning. This is followed by shout-outs to Lin Carter, L. Sprague deCamp, Andre Norton, and Charles Saunders, who picked up the torch decades after. These authors, especially Howard, have been too long overlooked for their role in creating the genre that was practically the whole of fantasy before Tolkien.

Due to sheer laziness, I usually opt not to review each story of an anthology individually. But since I’ve been belly-aching about the lack of sword & sorcery in mainstream publishing for years, I feel obligated to make an exception. Well.., somewhat of an exception. Instead of a synopsis, I briefly note my take on each. (I don’t want to overdo things.) Not every tale is a winner, but those that are make up for the others and then some.

  • Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson — I had to flip pages back and forth a few times to keep track of who is who, but the grittiness and action are pure Erikson; a great choice to get things rolling.
  • Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company by Glen Cook — This story is all “plotting-n-scheming” without the action one expects in S&S. Still, Cook’s dialog, which is what always stood out in his BLACK COMPANY tales, is as clever as ever, making for a fun read.
  • Bloodsport by Gene Wolfe — I hadn’t read Wolfe before, but with his reputation I expected more than this mediocre story. I’d venture to say this is far from Wolfe’s best.
  • The Singing Spear by James Enge — This story features Enge’s hero, MORLOCK AMBROSE a.k.a. Morlock the Maker. About a page in and I knew this would be one of my favorites. I immediately purchased the first book in Enge’s series about Morlock, Blood of Ambrose, when I finished this story. Need I say more?
  • A Wizard in Wiscezan by C.J. Cherryh — I’m not a fan of Cherryh, but she created charismatic characters here that brought the story to life.
  • A Rich Full Week by K.J. Parker — This is a tale about a wizard –or a student of natural philosophy, specializing in mental energies, telepathy, telekinesis, indirect vision or science not yet figured out. Parker seemed to pattern his brotherhood of “wizards” after the medieval Catholic Church to create a very captivating story.
  • A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix — This is a whimsical and comedic tale that proved entertaining despite not really being something I’d pick to read as a whole book on its own…
  • Red Pearls: An Elric Story by Michael Moorcock — This book wouldn’t have been complete without a story by the only living author mentioned in the dedication. However, the last half of this story tends to drag. That aside, Elric still proves to be as interesting a character as he’s always been.
  • The Deification of Dal Bamore: A Tale from Echo City by Tim Lebbon — The only book I’ve read by Lebbon was Dusk and I didn’t really like it. So I never gave him a try again. This dark and gripping story in the setting of his upcoming new series has got me re-thinking that decision.
  • Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg — This is a tale from the world of MAJIPOOR which is the setting for Silverberg’s popular series. I never read those stories because they have too many bizarre creatures for my taste. So I was amazed when this tale, weird creatures and all, proved to be such a good time.
  • The Undefiled by Greg Keyes — Keyes’ THE KINGDOMS OF THORN AND BONE series is high on my to-be-read-list but, unfortunately, this story just didn’t do it for me. Maybe a re-read is in order because I just didn’t quite follow it all.
  • Hew the Tintmaster by Michael Shea — This is the much-anticipated tale that features Cugel the Clever, the infamous character from Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH. Vance fans will be very pleased. It was my introduction to this world and if Shea writes it like Vance does, the DYING EARTH books just got moved up on my TBR list.
  • In the Stacks by Scott Lynch — I’m sure many will like this one, but I was disappointed. I’m tired of the whole enchanted school for wizards, or whatever, thing, and it’s been a long wait for another GENTLEMAN BASTARD story. So I was hoping for something more like that series.
  • Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-robe by Tanith Lee — Not a bad addition, but the first half of it was much better than the second.
  • The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlin R. Kiernan — I had no idea this would be another one of my favorites until the very end, which blew me away.
  • Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham — It’s more along the lines of traditional S&S. Sadly, it fell flat.
  • The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie — If you’re a fan of Abercrombie like I am, I’m betting this will be your very favorite too. It’s raw, gritty, dark, and funny; straight-up Abercrombie.

Swords and Dark Magic is a must-have for fellow sword & sorcery fans and just the thing to support our cause. For readers new to S&S, you won’t find a better introduction and it’s the perfect book to round out your fantasy collection.

~Greg Hersom

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery — (2010) With Lou Anders. Publisher: Seventeen original tales of sword and sorcery penned by masters old and new. Elric… the Black Company… Majipoor. For years, these have been some of the names that have captured the hearts of generations of readers and embodied the sword and sorcery genre. And now some of the most beloved and bestselling fantasy writers working today deliver stunning all-new sword and sorcery stories in an anthology of small stakes but high action, grim humor mixed with gritty violence, fierce monsters and fabulous treasures, and, of course, swordplay. Don’t miss the adventure of the decade!

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

View all posts by Robert Thompson (RETIRED)


  1. I want this book really badly. :) I have been loving reading anthologies lately, and well…mixed with fantasy, you can’t go wrong. Not with the names in this book. Thanks for the review! I am waiting as patiently as possible for this book to be in the stores.

  2. SWEET!!! Nice reveiw Rob. I’ve got this on pre-order for my Kindle. Supposed to be delivered 6/22. Judging from your review, it looks to be what I’d expect in a solid anthology. I’m looking forward to it even more now.

  3. Melissa & Greg, I had a blast reviewing “Sword & Dark Magic”, but I have to admit that the review wasn’t as comprehensive as I would have liked. Normally when I review an anthology I like to review each story individually, but I wasn’t able to do that this time because of the baby. Anyway, I hope you both enjoy reading the book as much as I did!

  4. I feel ya, Rob T. I gave-up trying reviewing anthologies per each story, a long time ago. The only thing is, if you’re not doing that anymore, I won’t be able to defer to your reviews from mine…
    It’s getting to be hard-work for me to live the life of a slacker…:dunce:

  5. I actually enjoy reviewing anthos story-by-story, but it’s a lot of work. I’m hoping that when the baby gets older I’ll be able to return to that format, but in the meantime my reviews will probably be less comprehensive and more on the short side :eyebrows:

  6. Robert T. The review was great. I love hearing on this book. It just makes me want it even more. Hope the baby is doing well. :) Best of luck to you.

  7. Well I’m glad you liked the review Melissa :-)) As far as the baby, she’s doing really well. Just had her four-month check-up and while her weight/height are about average, her motors skills are apparently advanced according to the doctor. Most importantly though, she’s healthy and happy :D

  8. I’d pre-ordered the Kindle edition a few weeks ago and it downloaded yesterday. I’m reading another book -Amortals- right now, but I was too excited to wait. So I peeked at the introduction, and now I’m even more excited.
    It gives me hope that my favorite fantasy sub-genre, Sword & Sorcery, might just be making a come-back.

  9. Cugel the Clever? Say no more!!
    Where’s my Kindle?

  10. I’ll be very interested in seeing your thoughts, Greg. Mine are up at Black Gate Magazine.

  11. Well, we seem to have agreed on the introduction and a few of the stories, but I’m not sure I’m with you on the ‘must-have’ status of this book. I recommend a library visit before deciding to purchase. Good overall review though Greg!

  12. It’s funny that we have three reviews of this anthology so far, and everyone seems to have different favorite and least favorite stories.

  13. RBE- I really appreciate that you liked my review but why do you think the book is not worth purchasing?

    This is the first S&S anthology that I know of in about 20 years with new stories and a line-up of popular, successfully established authors. Amazon is selling it right now for less than $11 and it’s available on Amazon Kindle –which I bought and that’s a little cheaper and no shipping. That’s a bargain for the big names involved.

    I’m not in the know like you guys at RBE or Black Gate are; is there even another anthology in recent years out there of new S&S besides your own Return of the Sword (which as good as it was, did not feature as well-known authors, -except for maybe a couple, that Swords and Dark Magic does)?

    I really hope sales are successful for this one. The norm in fantasy right now consists mainly of the enormous-many-volume epics, sexy-vampire series, or YA books. That’s not always a bad thing. Those type of books have their good and their bad, but a come-back of S&S would be much needed, refreshing alternative for the genre.

  14. Stefan- You mentioned one of the things I love about these kind of books, there’s something for most everyone.

  15. Hi Greg –

    Thanks for the kind words re: Return of the Sword, though I’ll readily admit it does not have near the name power. I don’t bill RotS as S&S though, and that’s my distinct issue with S&DM–its subtitle.

    Is it a great anthology filled with great fantasy tales? Yes and Yes. No dispute.
    Is it a great anthology of S&S filled with great S&S tales? No and tolerably. Since it’s billed as ‘The New S&S’ and promoted as such, that’s just not enough for me to recommend spending money on it. I covered that in my extensive review over on the Black Gate site back in June. I’ve no problem recommending reading it, exposing oneself to new authors and such, and I do hope that the anthology does well, for the authors’ sakes and the sake of anthologies as a whole. I’m just disappointed I guess, and fearful, that the next generation of readers who find this will use it as the barometer for S&S similar to today’s newest reading generation using HP to judge fantasy and Twilight to judge vampires by. The ‘newness’ there hasn’t done the forefathers of either much good. I agree that a comeback of S&S appreciation would be much applauded, but I’m not sure this is it.

    P.S. my emails to you and comments here at FanLit trying to nab your attention for my review and RBE’s latest title must not be getting through.

  16. RBE-I can see your point about the subtitle of new S&S. I had somewhat of a problem with that too, thus my comment about, “heavier on the sorcery then the sword”. I guess it all comes down to how you define the sub-genre.
    It seems to me that the editors went strictly with the idea of small scale plots based on individual characters vs. large scale ones centered around kingdoms which is more what is thought to be Epic fantasy, to define S&S.
    I guess, my frustrations with the lack of these kinds of stories, leaves me taking what I can get. Still, $11 is well-worth a book that has authors like Abercrombie, Cook, Lynch, Silverberg, etc..

    In regards to your emails about your new books, I may be missing them. (I did notice the newest title RBE, Demons, looks interesting.)I thought I had replied to you about, Behemoths. My reading-list has been rather daunting for the last year or so, which is a good thing, but it makes it easy to loose things in the shuffle. I’ll email you later to start the communications. You guys are doing great work!

  17. It is hard to dispute paying $11 for 17 stories and a great historical intro. I’ll meet you half way :thumb: I’ll recommend purchase to those comfortable with their relationship with S&S, library reading and a whole lot more outside reading of older true S&S authors to S&S newbies. How’s that? :thumb:

  18. Fair enough. :-))

  19. Greg, put a helmet on and you could interchange those 2 heads in your post :laugh:

  20. Dude..That does look like me doesn’t it. :-)) LOL!

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