Swords & Dark Magic – Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders

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!

Normally I’m not much of an anthology reader, I own the Legends collection published around 2000 and I have all the Valdemar anthologies, but that’s pretty much it. Why? I don’t know really. I had so many full-length novels I wanted to read, that I never really made an effort to explore anthologies and short stories. But when I read about Swords & Dark Magic edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders and its star-studded line up of authors, I knew I wanted to read it. With some of my favourite authors such as Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch, it was also an opportunity to get myself acquainted with some authors I’ve been meaning to read, such as Joe Abercrombie and Glen Cook.
Curse you, Messrs Strahan and Anders; you just exploded my wish list in one sitting!
Just kidding! But seriously, there are at least four authors I’d never read before, who’s work I now want to check out. This collection of stories is a great way to explore the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre or, in my case, learn what it’s all about.

One thing I really liked about this anthology was the introduction by Strahan and Anders, which gave a quick and interesting run-down of the history and development of the Sword and Sorcery genre. For someone like me, who wasn’t familiar with said genre, it was a good way to better understand what it is and what to expect. Basically, it was a nice warm up for the meat of the book, the stories. The book contains seventeen stories of varying length. While there were none I really didn’t like, there were some I liked better than the others.

My absolute favourite was Scott Lynch’s In the Stacks. With a blog entitled A Fantastical Librarian, had you expected any different? But it’s not just the fact that it was placed in a library or that it was written by Scott Lynch, which made me love it, but the sense of fun that it oozed. From the idea of the Living Library of Hazar, to the weather, the vocabuvores and the surprise twist at the end, this story had me grinning all the while.

Other favourites were the stories by Erikson, Cook, Parker and Abercrombie. With the exception of Parker the theme seems to be army life for me. And each of the three does it differently, but captivatingly. But what all three have in common that they capture that sense of camaraderie and the trust you need in a unit very well. It’s shown in the banter between the characters and in the way they seem to only need half a word to know the plan. Parker’s A Rich Full Week is of a different ilk altogether, more focused on the magic part of the Sword and Sorcery. It’s a mind game, both literally and figuratively speaking and I really enjoyed it.

The story I liked least was Gene Wolfe’s Bloodsport. I didn’t get it. Well, I didn’t get the last third of it to be precise. This rather disappointed me, because I actually loved the beginning of the story and Wolfe’s prose. It was slow and stately and fit that part of the story really well. But once the story hit the mountains I got lost and stayed that way, unfortunately. However this might be more due to me being pretty unfamiliar with short stories and the way they’re structured, than anything else.

It was hard to pick a best line from so many stories, but I decided upon a line from Glen Cook’s Tides Elba: “I’m a bad man. I need to understand the past. It illuminates the present.” It’s not just a funny line in the story, but it’s also something it would be good for more people to take note of, the latter part of the line that is.

Swords & Dark Magic ended up being a wonderful introduction into Sword and Sorcery and re-introduction to the short story form. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Strahan and Anders put together an amazing set of stories, which lovers of fantasy and/or the short story won’t want to miss.

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