Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review - Swords & Dark Magic by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders

I often have mixed feelings on short story anthologies. I’ve been reading them forever – some covering a particular genre, some a collection by a particular author – so it’s not a case where I dislike these kinds of books. But more often than not, I come away from an anthology wanting more – which of course, would probably indicate that the book has succeeded in its purpose. So I view anthologies as a way to introduce myself to an author’s work, to see if their writing makes me want to go out and read a full length novel from them – because it’s ultimately the lack of depth that keeps me from fully enjoying or engaging with most short stories in these same anthologies. Which is not to say that’s the case with every story I read in Swords and Dark Magic, and I’ll go into more detail about the stories I read below. Having gotten that out of the way, I also must warn that I have not read every story in this anthology – I read 9 of the 17 presented within – though all but one author were completely new (for me), since I had never read anything from any of them before (though I had heard of most). So, I decided to focus on the authors I’ve heard the most about, just to see what I would think. Starting with the one author I have read before – one who’s work I enjoy very much. The Undefiled by Greg Keyes I’ve never read any Fool Wolf stories from Greg Keyes, though apparently it’s a character he’s used a few times in full length novels. Still, that didn’t prevent my enjoyment of this particular tale – even if I found the end to be somewhat unclear. Fool Wolf seems like a fantasy/native American hybrid character, a man who has been possessed by a goddess; a wrathful creature who would use his body to slaughter and torture those around him if he allows her to take control of his persona. So on the one hand, he’s an anti-hero – a man who doesn’t care about much of anyone or anything, but seems to be constantly in trouble, and it’s no different at the beginning of this tale. Fool Wolf and his current girlfriend have defiled an area just by stepping into it; but to avoid death at the hands of the townspeople he’s sent on a quest to retrieve a sword which was stolen by the nearby village. Not all is as it seems of course, since the girls of the nearby village stole the sword because the men of the first town believe they are blessed by their god only if they rape the virgins of the town nearby. But those same men are cursed to not be able to step on the land of these women without that sword in hand. But Fool Wolf doesn’t resolve this conflict in any way that your normal hero would, instead taking apart both villages and proving that neither one should have messed with him. I wouldn’t say that this story convinced me to seek out more Fool Wolf tales, but it reaffirmed my enjoyment of Greg Keyes writing abilities – I find his writing to be easy to read and it hits just the right spot for me in terms of comfort reading (even if, as I said, in this case I didn’t completely understand what Fool Wolf ultimately did with the virgins of the one town – though I suppose I could guess). Red Pearls: An Elric Story by Michael Moorcock I moved on to this story having recognized both the author and the title character, and it’s here that I get my first taste of trying out something new. This story finds Elric the albino warrior prince and his lover Nauha and his companion Moonglum on a sailing ship headed to the underworld as he seeks out a powerful weapon. It is in the possession of Elric’s shape-changing Aunt Fernrath, and her bargain will require Elric to go on a quest to face his uncle, a pirate whose ship is a living captive. Every character here was well developed (probably in part because these characters are taken from longer novels), but even for a novice like me it was easy to get up to speed and understand their motivations and personalities. The whole story had a nice momentum to it, from introducing the characters as they sail, to an early encounter with the pirates before later getting the quest from Fernrath, then beginning to reveal the mystery of why they’ve come to this place, finally building up to the quest itself. This story worked on all levels for me, a real pleasure to read, and convinced me I need to seek out the Elric books. Goats of Glory by Steven Erickson At this point I decided to go back to the beginning of the book and just start with the first story by an author I recognized, and see where that would take me. And luck stayed with me, because I loved this one – I have no idea if this could take place within the Malazan series (it seems to leave enough open that it could) but either way, there is something about Erikson’s writing that really appealed to me. Yes there was a grittiness to this story, though that doesn’t fully explain it (as you’ll see later in this review) – but in general I just felt like the characters were really fleshed out and well rounded, and the story was both intriguing and tightly paced. This was a great story to begin the anthology with, probably my favorite in the whole book. To sum up the story: a group of former soldiers (maybe mercenaries) are on the run, we know not from what (and the ending leaves it open for a continuation of that particular plot point) when they come to a run-down town and stop for the night. After catching up with the locals in the only watering hole, this group of warriors make camp in an abandoned garrison/fort – but it’s deserted for a reason; an imp and his demon horde have made this place their home, and they feed on anyone foolish enough to stay after sundown. And the townspeople know this too – they send unsuspecting fools to their deaths there, picking up their belongings the next sun-up; only this time, the surprise will likely be on them. Even with describing the plot, I haven’t done justice to the characters – there’s the various townspeople like the barkeep who barters with anything but coin, the gravedigger and his young apprentice who are in charge of cleaning up the bodies, even the old whore is well developed – and that’s to say nothing of the team of warriors, led by their female captain; each having their own personalities and quirks. I enjoyed spending time with all these characters, and hope to see them again – and as I’ve already said, I enjoyed the writing enough to know I’ll be looking into the Malazan series in the near future (as daunting as a 10 book series is). Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company by Glen Cook Unfortunately my luck couldn’t last. It was bound to happen sooner or later in this book, and this was the first story that I didn’t really engage with. The Black Company, a troop of soldiers, is on station in a town with very litter to do except play cards. But when they’re given orders to find a particular maiden – by any means necessary – they know that their two choices are find her using as much subterfuge as possible, or use brute force which will likely endanger the lives of many men. My first problem here was that unlike the previous stories I had read so far, I didn’t feel like this was very welcoming to a newcomer in terms of introducing these characters to me. The story also starts slow, and even when I thought it was finally going to move into a more action oriented direction – instead the characters choose the more secretive route – which all added up to a rather bland tale for me. Perhaps this is not a good indicator of what Glen Cook’s Black Company books are really like, but it did nothing to really convince me to seek them out either. A Wizard of Wiscezan by C.J. Cherryh At this point, I skipped ahead to another author whose name I recognized – but unfortunately this continued the trend of stories that didn’t work for me. I’ll be honest, I barely remember this one at this point – within the first few pages the reader is introduced to the world-building of this entire place, moving from one character to the next, until I was already dizzy from trying to follow what this was supposed to be about. There are a number of characters, who refer to lots more characters and events, as if there is a much larger story happening – which might be fine in a long story, but really distanced the whole thing from me here. There’s a young man who seems apprentices himself to a Wizard, but honestly by the end I just didn’t care what had happened in this story. Not an author whose work I’d choose to seek out again. The Deification of Dal Bamore (A Tale from Echo City) by Tim Lebbon Fortunately, things began to turn around for me with this story. Dal Bamore is a magic user and rebel rouser, and for that crime he is going to be crucified for all the town to see. Between flashbacks to his torture at the hands of Jan Ray, to the present as he’s on his way to die – there’s a very biblical vibe to the story at first, a martyr who’s done nothing wrong sentenced to die. But all that changes when his followers attack the caravan taking him to the wall to carry out his sentence – because these followers keep fighting long after they should be dead. Dark magic is afoot, and Dal Bamore must die. A very engaging story, this one starts right at the good stuff, and even when it flashes back – it still delivers plot that’s worth reading about. Lots of action, with a nice twist ending – another enjoyable story in a book mostly filled with enjoyable tales. In the Stacks by Scott Lynch I then moved on to what is probably my second favorite story in this collection – imagine Harry Potter, only more twisted and a little more adult. Here four wizards in training are taken into the library to return books, only this isn’t even close to as easy as it sounds. Led by a teacher and a librarian, they will have to navigate a library that has become this magic-infused thing, a creature of sorts with other magical creatures living within its walls – where their lives are in danger, and surviving means passing to the next grade, and failing means death. Among the students is the weaker magic user (a Neville type, if you know your Harry Potter), the lizard-boy, the strong female student, and the aloof magically powerful roommate. They’re well rounded, but even more than that – the library is a thing to behold, from the descriptions of the stacks and the sheer size of the place, to the many strange and dangerous creatures that dwell within it – it’s just a wonder to read about. Another twist ending here helped cement this as another favorite for me, and Scott Lynch is someone I’ll definitely be looking for more from in the future. Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham I love Fables, so I knew I’d be giving this story a try - I suppose this is the second author I’ve read in this book, though it was his comic work and not prose, which I found to be very different from each other. My problem with this story wasn’t really the writing itself, which I found to be fairly engaging – but more the fact that this story seems to have forgotten a few things – namely a beginning and an ending. It starts in the middle of a raid on a castle by a group of characters, one of whom is offed in the opening pages. Then immediately it’s revealed that another one of the characters had betrayed them – this was HIS castle, and they’ve been led to their doom! He reveals that the other character can never escape because the traps will only deactivate for him – and is promptly dispatched so the body can be used for that purpose. Except that doesn’t work, and now faced with the creatures inside or the boobytraps to get out – the story ends. It’s just odd. I don’t bother to mention character names, because they don’t matter. This story is a painfully short 6 pages long; it’s like the continuation of a previous episode, with a title coming up at the end “to be continued in our next episode”. And unfortunately, I don’t feel like this is a good representation of what Willingham has been doing with his fantastic Fables series, which is a shame for anyone reading this who might be exposed to his work for the first time. This wouldn’t have convinced me to seek out Fables, and I think that’s what he should have been going for here. The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie And finally, I read this story by an author whom I’ve heard a lot of great things about. I had high hopes, but unfortunately I didn’t walk away a fan. That’s not to say it was a bad story (I’ve mentioned ones I disliked above, I think you can figure out which ones), but again it didn’t convince me to seek out his books – something that prior to this I had thought of doing based on all the rave reviews. Here we’ve got a group of ruffians, all with terrible names like Craw and Never, hired to raid a town and find a ‘thing’ and bring it back to their quest-giver. I call it a thing because they call it a thing – many times, over and over as these characters discuss and discuss the purpose of the mission before getting on with it. They speak in Kevin Smith’s version of ‘real’ dialog, which is to say with many colorful expletives thrown in every other word to ensure we get the point that these people are normal, average folks. The “thing” in question is a glowing something-or-another, which they do find after a rather heated fight with the townsfolk – but a fire gets started and one of the gang picks up the wrong glowing “thing”, meaning the entire mission was a fools errand, as they leave behind the thing they were meant to grab in a town burning down. As I said, I didn’t hate this last story, but considering all the raves I’ve heard about Abercrombie I had honestly expected to really be blown away – and I wasn’t. But as you can see, there are more than enough excellent stories in this collection to make it a worthwhile read – and I haven’t even read them all to know for sure that there isn’t another gem hiding in there somewhere (though like last years New Space Opera, I plan to continue to read these stories as time permits). I still believe it’s a great way to introduce yourself to a bunch of authors you otherwise might not pick up, and I can easily recommend it.

5 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I will definitely pick this up. I loved Cook's black company books, although they were written in a way that made them somewhat tough at first to get into. I always read teh Elric stuff too, partly out of habit these days.

SQT said...

I'm like you in that I don't read a lot of anthologies. It's just not my thing. That said, this one has Scott Lynch (I love "The Lies of Locke Lamora) and Joe Abercrombie, Greg Keyes, Steven Erickson and Michael Moorcock. That's a pretty darned good lineup.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I like anthologies, but I think fantasy is a difficult one to compile. Maybe because one has to spend time introducing a fantastical world and its rules of engagement and realities. I admire authors who can do fantasy, especially high fantasy, in a shorter form.

Lisa Parkin said...

I think your view on anthologies is very interesting. I usually find myself shying away from them as well- usually because I'm in the mood for something meatier.

But, I appreciate your perspective that its a chance to get a glimpse into an author's story/writing style. I might pick this up now... :)

Thanks!

Simcha said...

I'm not much of an anthology reader as I don't particularly enjoy short stories but I have had my eye on this book because of the awesome list of authors who have stories included. I still do want to read it, especially for the Scott Lynch story, but at least my expectations won't be too high.