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[BOOK REVIEW] The Sword and Sorcery Anthology edited by David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman

Genre: Sword and Sorcery
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: June 1, 2012
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616960698
ISBN-13: 978-1616960698
Author Website: David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman

Sword and Sorcery (S&S), while distinctive, has never been a large subgenre, at least in comparison to epic fantasy or steampunk, though it has a steadfast readership and a diverse authorship. Pick up an average non-subgenre specific anthology, and at least one story in it could be categorized as sword and sorcery. Adding to the smaller scale of the subgenre is its age, which reaches all the way back to the 1930s Conan the Barbarian stories of Robert E. Howard and Jiriel of Joiry tales by C. L. Moore. Any one who enjoys the genre might have difficulty following its changes over time and knowing which authors have written extensively in the genre.

That is, I think, why David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman’s new anthology, aptly (and perhaps a bit presumptuously?) titled The Sword and Sorcery and Anthology has been published by Tachyon. The editors want to, I believe, provide the reader a cross-section of the story types, tropes, and tellings that fall under the S&S brand. Whatever presumption exists in the article the of the title is more than fulfilled by the content of this far-reaching anthology. From the basics of Robert Howard, the grittiness of Glen Cook, to the seemingly un-S&S work of Caitlin R. Kiernan the anthology encompasses a myriad of permutations of the subgenre, clearly highlighting that S&S is can be more than hack and slash while also undeniably reveling in the blade and magic aspects that give the subgenre its name.

After an introduction/memoir by David Drake that promises more than it delivers because it rambles more than it guides, the anthology begins in the most logical of places, with Robert E. Howard. “The Tower of the Elephant” is the quintessential S&S narrative. In it, a young Conan of Cimmeria teams up with the thief Taurus to infiltrate the Tower of the Elephant, the citadel of a powerful sorcerer. As you might expect, the wily Cimmerian uses feats of strength and wit to overcome surprising and difficult obstacles. While this story is certainly an excellent example of Howard’s work, it reminds me just why I have rarely enjoyed Howard, for all that he birthed one of my favorite subgenres. Howard’s crisp and cool writing style, so detached from the internal mechanisms of the characters, makes it difficult for me to care about the fate of Conan for all that I enjoy the caper. That being said, this is the archetype on which all S&S is based, and for that it is worth a read.

C. L. Moore was the pseudonym of a female contemporary of Howard whose stories of Jirel of Joiry portrayed a female character in much the same situations of Conan. In “Black God’s Kiss” Jirel, defeated by a rival ruler, heads deep underground to a secret cave that opens out onto another world. But no soft Narnian fantasy this. Jirel encounters a demonic landscape and must confront an evil deity to find the solution to regaining her realm from the usurper. This was the first time I had read Moore’s work, and the horrific vista and character depth she describes so well lead me to think that I may want to try out a few more of Moore’s tales of Jirel.

In Fritz Leiber’s “The Unholy Grail” the Gray Mouser (half of Leiber’s classic sword and sorcery duo whose other half is the warrior Fafhrd) goes by another name and is wizard’s apprentice to Glavas Rho, an illegal magic user in the lands of Duke Janarl. When the morally wavering Mouser returns from a pilgrimage to find his master dead and is then made captive of Duke Janarl, he uses black magic to confuse his enemies and curse Duke Janarl to a slow but inevitable death. Near death himself, the Gray Mouser is found by Ivrian, the Duke’s daughter, and nursed back to health through her secret knowledge. Then, apparently betrayed by his healer he is re-captured by the Duke. The Gray Mouser, betrayed, stands on a cusp, and muyst decide to commit himself to black or white magic, life and death. “The Unholy Grail” describes the transition of a character that must choose between evil and good. I believe the anthologists placed this story here in partly because it fits with the timeline, but partly also because it is the first story where sorcery is used on the behalf of the protagonist. Additionally, the story shows that unlike the more clearly delineated good vs. evil of epic fantasy, S&S likes to explore a moral gray in its protagonists.

Poul Anderson borrows heavily from Beowulf and Norse mythology for “The Tale of Hauk.” I am an unabashed fan of all Anderson’s writing, so I loved this story, which I had not read before. When a warrior will not rest softly in his grave, his son must confront the zombie and put the drow to rest. Like much S&S, this story is connected to some historical, potentially mythic period of history in which swords drive war and magic is real or at least believed to be real. Anderson’s story is more solidly placed in a historical reality than most. Hauk, a warrior merchant, uses a feat of strength to overcome powers beyond humanity’s ken sure, but he is also part of a culture and place, a family man who kills the past to realize the future.

Michael Moorcock’s albino hero Elric is often pointed to as the source for the idea of the anti-hero. However, in “The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams,” Elric is all hero as he confronts an invading army and the barbarian leader’s captive sorcerer. Through cleverness and a wielding of the fabled words Stormbringer, he saves his adopted city from the ravages of the horde. I find that with Moorcock’s stories, I like some and dislike others. This is one of the ones I enjoyed, because Elric’s battles are so very epic and his wily freeing of the captive sorcerer turns seeming tragedy into victory by a hair’s breadth.

Joanna Russ’ “The Adventuress” is an odd tale, mostly for its open-ended conclusion. When the thief Alyx takes employ with the Lady Edarra they purchase a sloop and head without help towards distant lands. The two encounter various sea dangers together, with Edarra becoming more and more like the redoubtable and resourceful Alyx everyday. I’m not sure I “get” this story, as I thought it might be commenting on the nature of femininity or feminine companionship. Being male, that may be why I don’t “get” the story, or perhaps there is nothing here to “get” at all, and “The Adventuress” is merely a series of encounters shared by two companions that changes Edarra through the mentoring relationship of the worldly-wise Alyx.

Doussoye the exiled Amazon meets, loves and frees a singer cursed centuries ago for his vengeful desires in “Gimmile’s Songs” by Charles R. Saunders. Quickly born love is the key to this story, and much of it is about the wooing of Doussoye by Gimmile and the heartbreaking realization that their night of passion is but a whisper of a song. This story is the first of the anthology to contain the hot and heavy sexual passion sometimes pointed to as the “baseness” of the subgenre of S&S, but at least in this case the sex does reach for something more than mere titillation. Abiding sadness, unrealized potential, squandered opportunities are all that is left to Doussoye after her brief encounter with passion.

“Undertow” at first reads like it is going to be a straightforward S&S mystery when its opening scene places us in the mortuary. Then Karl Edward Wagner changes scenes and presents the reader with a story of a captive princess and an evil sorcerer. But there is always an undercurrent of oddity as the scenes switch back and forth to two different potential rescuers of the captive Dessylyn. Wagner’s story pulls the reader to and fro so as to leave the ending quite a surprise. From the basics of Howard, Wagner develops a complex story that contains many of the S&S tropes but spins them into a new and excellent presentation.

In “The Stages of God” the fugitive king Topops desire to regain his kingdom from usurpers. Pursued by agents of his enemies, Topops comes upon a shrine. Here he finds tremendous power. However, Ramsey Campbell does not take the story the expected direction, with Topops regain his kingdom, but rather turns inward onto Topops, whose sees weakness within himself as the cause of his kingdom’s loss and so turns to the perfecting of his mind as necessary before he can regain his kingdom. Campbell’s narrative, while still action-adventure, is really about the birth of a legend, of potential future chaos to be wreaked by a powerful man bent on vengeance for a long-dead wrong.

David Drake contributes the story of “The Barrow Troll.” Like Anderson’s story, this one is also based in Norse myth. Ulf Womanslayer, an adventurer, has captured a priest because he believes that the presence of the priest will help him overcome a troll reputed to posses much treasure. But getting what you want may be more curse than blessing, as Ulf is to discover. Drake’s story is a dark fairy tale that borrows heavily from Tolkien’s origin of Gollum. But though its themes are not original, the build-up to the reveal is well written, and the inversion of expectations in regards to the troll came as a pleasant surprise.

Perhaps my favorite story of the collection, “Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat” by Glen Cook is set in his Dread Empire world and relates the story of Tain, an elite warrior convicted by conscience to save the lives of rural community from a powerful hedge witch. The witch, who has ingratiated herself with the local lord, has been wantonly destroying the livelihoods and lives of this isolated community. At first not wishing to get involved, Tain puts on his centurion’s armor when a young child is murdered. The lengthiest story of the anthology, it is arguably the best. Tain’s internal conflict and the core twist of the story set it apart from mere hack and slash, and as is typical of Cook’s work, the divided soul of the soldier drives the plot.

A completely original story first published in this anthology, “Epistle from Lebanoi” by Michael Shea follows a scribe as he tells the story of how an ancient war between demons and undead is reawakened and an ancient rivalry between married archwizards is brought to its final conclusion. Shea’s story has lots of awesome sorcery, a few bits of poetry scattered in the prose, and even a bit of humor hiding in the wings. It’s a great story that revels in being a part of S&S.

Jane Yolen’s “Become a Warrior” divides itself up through a series of aphorisms like “Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” Each saying relates to a stage of life of a young nobleman’s daughter, driven from her home, who takes to the wild. There, she becomes self-sufficient and more animalistic till a young prince discovers her. Yolen then inverts the Disney fairy tale with violent consequences. The way Yolen tells the story, you just think she is going the sweetness and light route, but she totally upends expectations with her ending, and in so doing places the story squarely into the realms of sword and sorcery as well as showcasing feminine power.

A female assassin must destroy a dragon in “The Red Guild” by Rachel Pollack. Pollack wonderfully inverts sword and sorcery expectations with this story. At first it seems like it will be a traditional hero vs. monster tale, but the monster is not clear, and the assassin finds romance even though her membership in the red guild precludes it. This sword and sorcery contains sexuality, but of a more sensuous nature, a shared love rather than a brutal overpowering of a woman by a man. Fine writing leaves the surprise of the story deeply hidden as well, making this one of the best of the anthology.

Gene Wolfe’s “Six from Atlantis” was originally written for a Robert E. Howard celebration anthology and so intentionally reads much like the Howard’s story included in this anthology. Thane of Ophir confronts an ape-king. A feat of strength ensues. A straightforward story that still makes you wonder at the levels the revealed plot, given the author and his well-known skill at writing multi-layered texts.

In Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Sea Troll’s Daughter,” a female warrior arrives in sleepy village bent on destroying a local sea troll. Malmury befriends and loves a local barmaid named Dota and between the two of them, they manage to wreak havoc in the insulated, pharisaical town. The story becomes about leaving the past behind, about destroying the old to find the new.

“The Coral Heart” is both a man and a sword. When the sword strikes, it turns its opponents in to coral. Jeffrey Ford’s hero finds out the results of a battle left undone, and the damage that misplaced mercy can bring. Ford’s story is classic S&S written in a fine style. The mixture of adventure and intrigue is just right, dosed with a little romance gone wrong.

“Path of the Dragon” by George R. R. Martin is a tale of Daenerys Targaryen set in the world of Game of Thrones. It is the story of how Daenerys gained, through intelligence, sympathy and guile, her fighting force of Unsullied eunuchs. For GRRM fans, this is a must read for A Song of Ice and Fire completeness, and for those unfamiliar with his written work, the story serves as a good introduction. Here the reader discovers that S&S can contain court intrigue as well and that the localized stories of S&S are really parts of greater epics.

Michael Swanwick closes the anthology with a short tale of “The Year of the Three Monarchs” that parodies some of the tropes of S&S. An evil magician is overthrown, only to be replaced by a paranoiac warrior, who in turn is assailed by a clever thief who also gets her comeuppance. It is a funny story that excellently ends the anthology on a high note.

Though pretentious in title, The Sword and Sorcery Anthology lives up to its pretensions. From the basics of Howard to the complexities of Martin, women and men have acted out our wildest dreams and our deepest nightmares throughout the stories of sword and sorcery. Hartwell and Weisman’s choices are top-notch, and provide both an excellent introduction to the subgenre for new readers, and exciting reading for long-time fans.