What I found in these tales were a blend of adventure, events grounded around strong and sometimes morally ambiguous characters, and swift-moving plots that sometimes contained surprising levels of depth. Most of these tales rarely approached 100 pages (I believe 50 would be more representative, come and think of it), and yet a full adventure full of magic, excitement, wit, and bravado could be contained within. The best S&S tales rarely felt over-indulgent, as the subgenre's conventions led writers to write fast-paced, hard-hitting tales that could appear in groups of 2 or 3 in the monthly pulps of the 1920s through the 1960s.
As editors Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders note in their introduction to the just-released original anthology of S&S fiction, Swords & Dark Magic, S&S adventures have declined somewhat in popularity ever since the rise of the Tolkien-influenced trilogy model in the late 1970s. However, there are several writers writing today that are influenced by these above-mentioned masters and one, Moorcock, is still writing the occasional Elric adventure even up to the present time. Now most of the newer writers are not writing straightforward S&S fiction in the style of their predecessors. Rather, there are elements of S&S that can be found in fictions such as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where the barbaric Karsa Orlong can be read as a complex reinterpretation of Conan and what thematic elements underlay Conan and his adventures. So it was with some interest that I pre-ordered this book, curious to see how each author would approach the S&S template.
For the most part, the stories were solid if not exactly the sort that would make me scribble down their names for possible "best of year" nominations. Rare is the original anthology that contains only exceptional work. However, what I discovered is that for the most part, the stories in this collection were enjoyable, a few had some interesting twists on the S&S tropes, and a couple were generally outstanding works. I want to devote a bit of time to these two stories, especially since they have received little to no mention in the few pre-release reviews that I have read.
The first is Gene Wolfe's "Bloodsport." Although a couple of comments I had read elsewhere declared this story to be underwhelming, for me it was one of Wolfe's better short fictions. The story is told from a first-person PoV, with the narrator concealing as much as he reveals. Take for instance these paragraphs that open his story:
Sit down and I'll tell you.At first glance, minus mysterious allusions to this "Game," Wolfe's tale seems to be that of an old warrior reminiscing about his youth, his experiences, and hinting at the hard life of war and privation that made up part of his life. However, as the story unfolds and the narrator reveals just what the "Game" truly is, the reader perhaps can piece together elements of a much larger narrative that is unfolding. Although Wolfe has a reputation in some quarters for being a bit too playful with his words and being too opaque for certain readers who want a more plain-spoken narrative, the puzzle elements in this story are not hard to figure out. There is an awful manipulation that occurs to this Knight, when he has to deal with other participants in the Game, leading up to the Queen. Although the conceit is rather transparent, Wolfe manages to overlay a sense of mystery behind an aspirant to the Game and how the Knight interacts with her. On the whole, it was the most enjoyable story in this anthology.
I was but a youth when I was offered for the Game. I would have refused had that been possible; it was not - those offered were made to play. As I was already large and strong, I became a knight. Our training was arduous; two of my fellows died as a result, and one was crippled for life. I had known and liked him, drank with him, and fought him once. Seeing him leave the school in a little cart drawn by his brothers, I did not envy him.
After two yeard, I was knighted. I had feared that I would rank no higher than bowman; so it was a glad day for me. Later that same day I was given three stallions, the finest horses ever seen - swift golden chargers with manes and tails dark as the darkest shadows. Many an hour I spent tending and training them; and I stalled them apart, never letting them graze in the same meadow or even an adjoining meadow, lest they war. If I were refused that many meadows on a given day, one remained in his stall while the other two grazed; but I was never refused after my first Game. (p. 80)
Close in appeal to Wolfe's tale is Caitlín Kiernan's "The Sea Troll's Daughter." Kiernan has been a favorite of mine for about a year now and in this story, she has set up a well-written, subversive tale involving glory, greed, and fate. Kiernan's writing is beautiful and she stages the events of the story quite well, which can be seen in the opening two paragraphs:
It had been three days since the stranger returned to Invergó, there on the muddy shores of the milky blue-green bay where the glacier met the sea. Bruised and bleeding, she'd walked out of the freezing water. Much of her armor and clothing were torn or missing, but she still had her spear and her dagger, and claimed to have slain the demon troll that had for so long plagued the people of the tiny village.Kiernan's story, told throughout in such a conversational fashion, has a different feel to it than most of the other stories in this anthology. Not only has the "heroic" deed been accomplished before the story begins, but the consequences and layers of greed and duplicity are slowly revealed through the third-person omniscient PoV. "The Sea Troll's Daughter," in which the titular character figures only fleetingly until the conclusion, is as much a commentary on how small-minded, fearful, and greedy people can be as it is a take on the adventure novel. Kiernan's choice of having a drunken female adventurer being the killer of the Sea Troll is interesting, not just in how it subverts the notion of the masculine, Conan-esque Hero kicking ass and taking names, but in how that female Hero, Malmury, is viewed by the villagers and ultimately, by the Sea Troll's Daughter. Kiernan's prose is beautiful and the narrative unfolded at a crisp pace, making this a very enjoyable story, even upon a second reading.
Yet, she returned to them with no proof of this mighty deed, except her word and her wounds. Many were quick to point out that the former could be lies, and that she could have come by the latter in any number of ways that did not actually involve killing the troll - or anything else, for that matter. She might have been foolhardy and wandered up onto the wide splay of the glacier, then taken a bad tumble on the ice. It might have happened just that way. Or she might have only slain a bear, or a wild boar or auroch, or a walrus, having mistaken one of these beasts for the demon. Some even suggested it may have been an honest mistake, for bears and walrus, and even boars and aurochs, can be quite fearsome when angered, and if encountered unexpectedly in the night, may have easily been confused with the troll. (pp. 450-451)
The other stories in this anthology on the whole did not approach the level of these two. However, I did find quite a bit of enjoyment of reading Steven Erikson's "The Goats of Glory," as the characters and their exploits, especially in the dialogue, reminded me favorably of his best juxtapositions of farce and sober realism in his Malazan series. Tanith Lee's send-up of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, "Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe," worked for the most part, but yet it did not contain the powerful prose or tricky superstructure found in Kiernan or Wolfe's stories. It was also nice to read new stories by Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Glen Cook set respectfully in the Elric, Majipoor, and Black Company settings, although I must note that for those who are unfamiliar with their works, it might be best to start with the older stories before reading these, as there were several references to material already explained elsewhere. But regardless of this, it was a pleasure revisiting those settings and characters that I enjoyed reading years ago.
There were no real stinkers, although I suppose I could note that Michael Shea's authorized use of Jack Vance's Cugel character reminded me just how I never really had a positive connection with that character. The story was not actively bad, but rather I just did not connect with it. This occurred in a few other stories, where I found the authors' treatment of S&S themes to be respectful and well-done, but with stories that just did not stick with me as much as the ones mentioned above. On the whole, I would have to say that Swords & Dark Magic is a solid and occasionally brilliant anthology of stories that reminded me of how much pleasure I have had over the years reading the masters in that subgenre.