Swords and Dark Magic
Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders
Published by Eos/Harper Collins
Review by Mark Yon
When the back of the cover says ‘Seventeen Original Tales of Sword and Sorcery penned by Masters Old and New’ and then goes on to mention Glen Cook and the Black Company, Michael Moorcock and Elric, Steven Erikson and Malazan, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg and Majipoor, KJ Parker, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and others, most readers at SFFWorld would need little persuading to pick this one up.
Furthermore, when the two editors are known as a couple of the best in the business currently, you would expect a healthy selection of the best tales from the best.
Consequently, the beginning boded well. Their introduction to Sword and Sorcery is well written and informative, pointing out the origins of the subgenre and the current re-emergence of interest in it.
So far, so good. However, having eagerly sat down to read the actual stories, it was a different reaction. The first three stories in the collection – by Erikson, Cook and Wolfe respectively – were extremely disappointing, to the point where I seriously thought I had made a major mistake in reading it.
However, the fourth, by James Enge, was an improvement and the next by stalwart CJ Cherryh began to make me feel happier. Things started to look better. KJ Parker’s tale was a joy and Moorcock’s Elric was a triumph. Halfway through the book I was feeling much happier, though there were still stories that left me unimpressed. By the end I was glad I had read it, though it was not the triumph of the genre I had hoped it was going to be when I started.
The nature of story collections is that there are bound to be stories that you like better than others. Usually though I can say whether I liked the collection or not. Silverberg’s Legends, for example, published in 1998, and its sequel Legends II (2003) had the same intent as this, to showcase the best Fantasy and had some unusual yet interesting choices that made me read more of some authors I had not read.
Here, with the same aim, there were no authors I had not encountered before and all of whom previously I would’ve said were good, but the overriding cumulative impression in the end here is much less positive.
What worried me most is that this book was not the book I had hoped would be definitive. I was hoping that this was the one that would allow me to say to others, ‘Here you are. This is the book that tells you why I read Fantasy. It is a collection of great stories from some of the best writers in the field today. Read it and you will want to read more.’ It should’ve been, but isn’t.
There are stories there I liked, for a variety of reasons. It was wonderful to revisit old favourites such as Elric and Majipoor, it was also great to read tales from some of the new – Scott Lynch’s tale of a magical library gone awry was great, so too Joe Abercrombie’s The Fool Jobs (which augurs well for the new book soon) – but there were far too many that, despite me wanting to like them, left me feeling at the end that I had wasted my time.
A curate’s egg then, and, for me, a disappointingly uneven read. There is a lot to like, but you may not find the journey totally acceptable.
Having said that, Rob Bedford reviewing for the Sacramento/ San Francisco Book Review liked it.
Think this may be one that divides readers. I’m going to be interested in reading what others think.
Mark Yon, July 2010