Swords and Dark Magic
Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:12 (#341) in December 2010.]
Not too far down the road from this year’s Mythcon site in Dallas, Texas, is Cross Plains, Texas, in farm country, which was the home of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Unusual and worldly folks could be observed at the grocery store there. Also living in the Dallas area is Michael Moorcock, the creator of maybe the second most famous Sword and Sorcery “hero”: Elric a sometimes servant of The Lords of Chaos. Ironically enough I visited this year’s Mythcon from San Francisco, the territorial home of Fritz Leiber. Swords and Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, is dedicated to all three of these fantasy titans, some of the surviving voices of Swords and Sorcery, but as attested here, the literary subgenre has changed. There is a connection with the god-fearing and god-serving heroes of Swords and Sorcery, and the theme of the recent Mythcon, War in Heaven, that is hard to ignore. Very evident in the tales of Conan and Elric are doings of the gods, but as the editors of this volume attest, the subgenre has changed roads again in modern times.
Swords and Dark Magic has a fascinating introduction – “Check Your Dark Lord at the Door” – which compares Epic Heroic Literature to Swords and Sorcery. The whole world is at stake in epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia; whereas, Swords and Sorcery, the editors write, is usually about smaller stakes. There are deadly battles nonetheless. Fantasy is now in a digital, post-cinematic Inklings and Harry Potter age. The Inklings have now made it to the big screen and Harry Potter has broken the old cinematic records. The task to collect stories here, which are now cleaner because of Harry Potter’s school-time fans; they still hearken to the past, but a careful reader will notice the difference.
Swords and Sorcery, with its thieves and sexual references, was always grey, as attested to in some of the stories in the new anthology, but the reader will probably not find many stories that a young reader would need parental guidance for. There is a great deal of violence (to be expected), but not many sexual references. For example “Bloodsport” by Gene Wolfe with its unusual narration is especially violent, but told with a cleanness nonetheless. There are also more medieval settings for these stories, suggesting the influence of Lewis and Tolkien on the new fantasy that postdates the pulps of Robert E. Howard’s time.
While reading, I found myself wanting to find a Conan story in the collection. I missed his references to his Hykranian sword, and the cold God Crom. I did find some similar stories near the end in “The Fools Jobs” by Joe Abercrombie and “Thieves of Daring” by Bill Willingham. Conan may no longer appeal to the highly informed Internet crowd. In the past Conan appealed to the young and unsavvy who might have liked to chop someone’s head off or vent his/her anger by breaking some bones. The gods of Swords and Sorcery would also sometimes like to do the same. Now people would rather study to be wizards. The Internet Age has superseded the prejudices and limitations of Conan the Barbarian. Conan found magic and the workings of the gods unsettling. In our Information Age most children have the option not to be brutes, especially when they can access all the info they would like with hand-held devices.
We also live in a more circumspect time, one not suited to the thieves of Conan’s Shadizar the Wicked, with its no longer romanticized Breaking and Entering. I did miss reading some of this, but the villains have changed. They are less likely to have demons at their command. There are some holdover’s here, like a sentient spear, similar to Moorcock’s Stormbringer, in the “Singing Spear” by James Enge. Fantasy is no longer just about the classics or just fun. One can find the heroes of their times in its blossoming pages. One may not be just reading for fun, but searching for people like themselves. Unfortunately they may not be able to learn magic, even if they are spending a lot of time in schools for wizards. There is also the audience to explore modern themes here.
As I said, these stories exhibit influences of the new fandom of Harry Potter, presenting the strident striving of the idealistic student. “In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch is about a search for a book in a magic library; it will remind one of the struggles and environment of our modern British fantasy superhero Harry Potter. The new Swords and Dark Magic also reflects another change: now, something one writes could be better translated into images on the big screen due to the new digital technologies. The new heroes may be grey, but they are not retrograde. Leave that for the villains. I also missed the world-building one finds in a collection of stories or novels by one author, but that is not necessarily the fault of the short story teller. It was hard to follow all the worlds presented in these 19 stories. One standout was “Red Pearls” by traditionalist Michael Moorcock, whose world I remembered well enough. The collection, however, will be fun for those who wish to enter many different worlds, if only briefly.
I have read somewhere that some consider all of fantasy with all its many archetypes one big “mega world”. For Inklings fans it may be hard to open their imaginations to all of them having been so thoroughly charmed by the concerns of Middle-earth and Narnia. The gods of Elric and Conan’s worlds, however, seem less contemporary and more mischievous. Inkling fans need not read the book for the slightly disappointing story by Tanith Lee, “Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe”, which is good fun but predictable. It does display some overlap between the weird and the epic, and is probably intended to bait readers, but it is less filling than some of the other stories.