Book Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 2)

The Singing Spear by James Enge

One of the shortest stories in the book. It’s about a man calles Morlock Ambrosius. Really? Oh, well… Morlock is a maker of things and since he invented a still that could destill wine and gave it to a tavern owner, he is getting free alcohol and is permanently drunk. His hazy life gets disrupted when news come to him that someone recovered the Singing Spear, a magic spear he created a long time ago, which unfortunately is cursed. Now a madman is roaming the cuntry slaughtering everyone and everything he comes across, but Morlock doesn’t care. Not his problem. Until the tavernkeeper joins the refugees who are fleeing the country, which means no more free booze for Morlock! So he got to do something.

This is another really bad story. It’s short, nothing happens, and it overall feels like a draft written in two hours and phoned in. You don’t submit such a thing for publication. The common complaints apply here as well: The actual story really begins only in the last third and the author wasted not a single sentence on describing anything.

A Wizard in Wiscezan by C. J. Cherryh

Now we are finally getting somewhere! The city if Wiscezan has fallen under control of an evil warlord and his dark court magician, which forced an old local wizard to send his apprentices out of the city and go into hiding in the slums with only three young apprentices who have nowhere to go. The protagonist of the story is the eldest of the apprentices, who is gifted in illusions and increasingly in charge of their little group, as the dark magicians influence over the city is taking its toll on the masters health and mind. Things are changing when one day a stranger shows up at their magically hidden home, requesting the masters aid to do something about the warlord. But in no condition to leave the house and join an attack on the castle, he sends his oldest apprentice with him instead.

Finally I am getting my wish: Evocative descriptions! Nothing anywhere near the lavish sceneries of Tolkien, but this story does make an effort to set the scene that compares favorably to what Robert Howard did in his Conan stories. I am quite pleased with it. The pacing is a bit frantic, but that seems the be the authors intention, telling the story from the perspective of a young illusionist who is very much above his head with his situation while trying to maintain his carefully crafted spells. Since it’s just a single story and not a whole novel written in this style, I think it serves the story quite well. You also get a swordsman and a sorcerer on the good side as well as on the evil side, which is another thing I’ve so far been missing in this Sword & Sorcery collection.

A Rich Full Week by K. J. Parker

This is a decent story, but I kind of feel it ended up in the wrong book. It’s a nice ghost story with a slight dusting of sorcery, but not a single sword to be anywhere in sight. The protagonists calls himself a philosopher, as there are no such things as wizards or magic. However, there are forces at work in the world that are beyond the ordinary, and the good man is on a mission to a village that seems to be plagued by a vampire or ghoul, or similar creature of the undead kind. As an expert on these things, he is to consult the locals on how to find the creature and neutralize it. What I really like about the story that the others (as well as the two books of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser I’ve just been reading) had been lacking, is that the story begins with telling the reader what the story is about. It does not spend more than half of the pages on setting the scene, but goes straight to the point. The actual monster hunt also begins very quickly, just after he reaches the village and introductions with the locals have been made. Nice, this is how you make good use of the format. The encounter with the creature turns out to go into a quite unexpected direction, and things are getting continually more complex as the story goes on. I’m not 100% sure what happened at the end, but there is also some intentional ambiguity, which I really quite like.

The pacing is nice and once more we are getting some evocative descriptions of the scene that not only explain the layout of the place, but also provide an impression of the feel and atmosphere these places have. It wouldn’t have hurt the first four story to occasionally mention that getting down the stairs is a bit cramped or that a mans face is not too well to see since the moon is shining from behind it. Small touches that add so much. However, as much as I can get upset about Ye fake Olde Englishe, I think this one goes a bit overboard with using a very modern language. Some of it is probably intentional as the protagonist, who narrates the story, is a modern man of science, but as the story is written it could also take place in a rural area somewhere in the 1920s, except that there is no mention of guns or trains. Like I just mentioned earlier, this is more a case of the story being a bit out of place in this book, rather than the story having any internal shortcomings.

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