Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery may be the first anthology I've actually eagerly anticipated since... I'm not sure. Probably The Last Dangerous Visions. Not that I have any particular objection to short stories, I just very rarely find a collection of them that intrigues me enough to to offset the inevitable crap and/or poetry.
Swords and Dark Magic, however, pushed all the right buttons. Abercrombie, Lynch and Parker in one place? I'd crawl over broken glass to get there. And the theme - the stunning resurgence of Howardian pulp fiction? You could lace said glass with strychnine, and still get me a-crawling.
So, keeping my utterly reasonable expectations in mind, how did Swords and Dark Magic fare?
Well, not too badly. In a rare feat of anthologising, there wasn't a single story I skipped, and, possibly more importantly, there are several that I really look forward to revisiting. There were some pleasant surprises - and some unpleasant ones - as well as a few interesting themes that I'll get to later on.
Scott Lynch definitely stole the show with "In the Stacks". Four sorcerous students must return books to the university library - a surprisingly dangerous adventure. A brilliant concept, a demonstration that characters can be built in a small space and some delicious storytelling.
Neither of my other two favorites disappointed. Joe Abercrombie's "The Fool Jobs" introduces a few of the characters, a crew of Northern named-men, that later reappear in The Heroes. I enjoyed the story, but was a little disappointed that Abercrombie didn't take the opportunity to go foraging in a completely new world. Still, "The Fool Jobs" is an excellent addition to the canon of The First Law series, as the crew adventure into previously-unseen geography.
K.J. Parker explored much further afield than his/her usual books, and I think the experiment paid off nicely. Known for his/her commitment to detail-oriented, realistic settings, Parker actually included proper magic-magic in "A Rich Full Week", complete with wizarding and even a bit of zombie action. Wry, absorbing and provocative - the story was everything Parker normally does, but with a bonus topping of the supernatural. (Editor's note: another story, seemingly set in the same world, is available for free from Subterranean Press)
Of the other contributions, there were a few stand-outs. James Enge's "The Singing Spear" felt like a missing entry in Jack Vance's Overworld series - simultaneously dramatic and tongue-in-cheek. Tanith Lee wrote a sly fairytale with the unfortunately-cutesy name of "Two Lions, A Witch and The War-Robe". Lee is never someone I've particularly rated, but her story was very good - also balancing the humorous and the epic.
Two other authors - Steven Erikson and Gene Wolfe - were less surprising to me. I've never liked Erikson's work, but his contribution, "Goats of Glory" was remarkable in that I didn't like it for entirely different reasons. I found it slow, over-written and slightly goofy. (Yes, I find Erikson "slow" and Parker "absorbing" - I consider this evidence that just including violence doesn't dictate a story's pace). Wolfe's contribution was less remarkable. I always find his work cryptic and alienating. His "Bloodsport" was no exception.
Overall, there were a few recurring themes. Despite the editors' provocative claims that "sword-and-sorcery" is here in force, many of the stories were littered with tentative - even defensive - notes. Whether that took the form of a cutesy title (see Lee, above) or even a deliberately goofy concluding line (even Lynch failed on that count), there was a sense that the authors were often holding themselves back.
This particular sub-genre cites Robert E. Howard frequently. REH did a lot of experimentation with his fiction, but he never once ended a Conan story on a bad pun, or, worse yet, a lazy "...and then things got really bad!" joke (I'm looking at you, Erikson and Willingham!). Glen Cook and Michael Moorcock both had stories that, although they didn't personally resonate with me, stood out for being the most "serious" contributions to the book - efforts to show that "sword and sorcery", even in its short form, can still capture tension and moral conflict. Similarly, the predominance of authors writing in their own worlds, rather than stretching to something new, didn't alleviate this particular concern.
As a final note, the introduction, by the two editors, is a good read. Slightly more anecdotal than academic, it serves as a quick survey through the history of "sword and sorcery" fiction, including its new 'golden age'. Like any document that advances sweeping genre theories, it will prompt more discussion than immediate acceptance. My personal criticism is more tied in to pessimism. I'm incredibly fond of the new era in fantasy, but I still want more points in the line before I bring out the bucket of gilt.
Swords and Dark Magic, despite my wildly-inflated expectations, was worth the wait. It is less a timeless reference than a simple snapshot of where the genre is today. But, given where we are today, that's no bad thing at all.