Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] eds Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, with Joy Abercrombie, C J Cherryh, Glan Cook, James Enge, Steven Erikson, Greg Keyes, Caitlín R Kiernan, Tim Lebbon, Tanith Lee, Scott Lynch, Michael Moorcock, Garth Nix, K J Parker, Michael Shea, Robert Silverberg, Bill Willingham, and Gene Wolfe.
I acquired this massive anthology of 21st-century sword and sorcery fiction primarily because it contained a new Elric story by Michael Moorcock, but also because I hoped to find some new authors whose work I would enjoy. With some disappointment, I realize that the Elric story was in fact the one I liked best in the book. The others that I found especially fine or memorable were almost all by authors with publication histories going well back into the 20th century, and often in settings that had already been composed and established back then. The editors’ introduction, while asserting the significance and innovation of newer authors, is more focused on the genealogy of the form and the work of its 20th-century creators.
I enjoyed the new Silverberg story of Majipoor (although it’s been so long since I read Lord Valentine’s Castle that it hardly had anything to do with my prior acquaintance with that world). Tanith Lee’s “Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe” was quite entertaining. The Gene Wolfe contribution was not one that I would class with his best work, but I liked it. Michael Shea’s “fully authorized” story in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth milieu had the audacity to change that world’s fundamental destiny.
Among the newer authors, the only story that made a marked impression on me was “The Sea-Troll’s Daughter” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, for the ways in which it twitted reader expectations regarding gender, sex, and conflict in this genre. Some of the newer material seemed sadly influenced by the lowest-common-denominator fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons, or — worse, but happily less often — the gimmicky magic and school fetishism of Harry Potter. None of them were awful, but none of them were really stories I can imagine myself referencing in the future.