Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 2)

Part 2 of my review:

I want to say it here again, that I really love Sword & Sorcery and hope that I will be reading something great every time I begin a new story. And when it doesn’t start well, I keep on reading hoping it gets better and I am really looking for things to like about it and that I could recommend favorably. I was really hoping this second part of the review would be much more positive and make the book at least a decent anthology overall. But my reaction turned out to be something else.

It’s just going to get a lot worse.

    • Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat by Glen Cook (1980): When the story began with a centurion of the Demon Guard of the Dread Empire, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for it. But it turned out to be good. Really good. I think it’s a rather odd pick for this collection, being three times as long as the other stories in the book and not having a lot of action or magic. There are a couple of spells, but the whole story could have been told entirely without them, and the action scenes would have to be called hyper-minimalistic. At some points I wasn’t sure if there even had been an implied at all, and at the end I didn’t know if the last enemy was killed or spared. It usually goes like “his blade flashed forward” and four sentences later “he spotted a vulture circling above” and that is all indication you get that there had been a fight at all. Bit weird to read, but otherwise the story is really quite good. Even though it’s not a magic about either action or magic. And I totally did not see the big twist at the end coming! How often does that still happen with this cliche-ridden genre? I am quite reminded by this story of Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, which so far is the only Sword & Sorcery book I like as much as Conan. Not only is the mood quite similar as well as the protagonist, there are also several plot elements that reminded me of The Lesser Evil and The Edge of the World. It actually would surprise me if Sapkowski hadn’t read this story before writing his own. Though it’s nothing like plagiarism, only very loosely inspired by it and then done something quite different with them. Great story, a joy to read.
    • Epistle from Lebanoi by Michael Shea (2012): I really hate this one. Convoluted sentences crammed with as many rare, antiquated, and made up words as possible make this a tedious chore to struggle through. And the plot isn’t anything good either. The first half is rambling monologues of infodumps that don’t make any sense, and the second half a big chaotic battle full of weird shit happening that doesn’t make any sense. The protagonist and narrator is only a bystander who doesn’t actually do anything and the entire time I hadn’t had a clue what’s going on. Nor did I actually care.
    • Become a Warrior by Jane Yolen (1998): Blargh! This is awful. It’s incredibly cheesy, sappy, really boring, but thankfully short. For the plot, I really have no words. I hate it! It offends me. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t have any action or magic, so I don’t have even the slightest clue how anyone in his right mind could have even considered this for a Sword & Sorcery anthology. I think this is the worst entry in a Sword & Sorcery anthology I’ve seen so far, and that includes everything in Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos. No, just no!
    • The Red Guild by Rachel Pollack (1985): This one is about an aloof girl assassin with mysterious powers and a dark and troubled past. This is about as interesting as it sounds and uses the cheap old trick of deliberately withholding critical information that all the characters know, to create a fake sense of mystery and depth. The second half has some supernatural element that is noticably lacking in most of the other stories, but all of that is overshadowed by the sappy drama.
    • Six from Atlantis by Gene Wolfe (2006): Well, this was unpleasant. No plot, no context, no reason, no sense.
    • The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlin Kiernan (2010): I already reviewed this one as part of Swords & Dark Magic last year. It’s a story I really enjoy, even though it deals more with the rather unheroic aftermath of an adventure than the actual adventure itself and it’s clearly written as comedy. But it’s a story of foolhardy carousing and entertaining chaos, which is consider the true essence of Sword & Sorcery that makes it special, and which is lacking in many more recent stories. And I think it was genuinly funny. I like this story.
    • The Coral Heart by Jeffrey Ford (2009): This story has a mighty warrior with a magic sword and there’s some real action and sorcery there. But the first three quarters of this story only bored me. The ending was just really stupid.
    • Path of the Dragon by George Martin (2000): I know that Daenerys is character from the Song of Ice and Fire series, so that apparently makes this story part of it. If it’s something supplementary he wrote to the books or a couple of chapters from one of the books I can not say, could be either. He knows how to write, I give him that. He constructs solid sentences and effective dialogues and arranges them in a way that is smooth to read, without being pretentiously elaborate. This is a lot more than can be said for most of the writers in this book. But I have not read the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I have no idea what the context of this text fragment is and who all those people or places are and what kind of campaign this might be they talk about the whole time. The first third of it is some people I don’t know, talking about other people I don’t know, some tournament 30 years ago, and politics I don’t know anything about. In the meantime they occasionally play with baby dragons. The rest of the book is a quick stop in some slave port in which the protagonist is appalled about the condition and treatment of the slaves. There is no action and no sorcery here. Really, it’s all one really big chunk of exposition. Quite well presented exposition that avoids turning into a too obvious infodump, but still exposition about a nove I don’t know anything about and that isn’t the subject of this book. And yet it is by far the longest entry in this book. As good as the man writes, this really shouldn’t have gone into this anthology. Had they put it at the very back of the book as a preview, that might perhaps have been okay, but something like this really shouldn’t happen.
    • The Year of the Three Monarchs by Michael Swanwick (2012): “When the castle guards burst upon her, Slythe triumphantly exclaimed, “The tyrant is dead and I have killed him. I am now your ruler.” But, “Our loyalty is not to the man but the office,” the captain of the guard said. “You do not wear the Diamond Crown of Ilyssia. Therefore you must die.”

So, yay or nay?

Well what do you think? FUCK, NAY!!!

You will very often hear that Sword & Sorcery has a bad reputation for being infantile and badly written with a strong leaning towards trash. And reading anthologies like this, I really can no longer make any arguments to refute this claim. If this book is indeed representative of Sword & Sorcery, then the genre is indeed dominated by shit! And I don’t mean unrefined writing and cliched plots with too much dumb violence that is only good for an immature chuckle. To call it trash would be misleading, as there are always people with a certain affectionate enjoyment for trashy art. But this? This is indeed just shit!

There were some exceptions, of course. The Tower of the Elephant, Black God’s Kiss, Gimmile‚Äôs Songs, Undertow, Soldier of an Empire, and The Sea Trolls Daughter are all very nice stories, but the majority of this book is just terrible and completely out of place here.

So what about that pretentious title “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology”? It’s not “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery” and not “The Best of Sword & Sorcery”. If you want to know how the Sword & Sorcery genre got it’s reputation for being terrible crap, this is indeed the book you are looking for. After you read it, you’ll probably agree with all the detractors.

And that is a shame. Sword & Sorcery can be such a wonderful genre of daring adventure, larger than life heroes, magical places, and mystical creatures. Which you barely get to see in this book. Or this one, or this one. I am done with this crap. I am really very much tempted to simply stick with a few famous authors and read everything that they have written, by ignoring all the junk on the fringes. Because what new writers have I discovered reading these shitty anthologies? C. L. Moore, C. J. Cherryh, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. (Which happen to have a funny naming pattern. ^^) Sorry Ladies, but as much as I enjoyed your stories and looking for more, that’s not enough to have made this ordeal worth it.

To anyone interested in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, I very much recommend against picking up anthologies, at least any that have been released after the 80s. Instead take a look around for the most famous writers of the genre and pick up books from those who specifically strike you as interesting. I can very much recommend Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapowski, who I consider the best in the field, and what I’ve read from Glen Gook and Charles Saunders were also not quite bad. And if you feel you really have to, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock at least knew how the genre works and how to make it work for them, even if I don’t consider them good writers. But at least they are fun! Fun! That’s what Sword & Sorcery is all about.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

– Robert Howard: The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 1)

Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.

Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)

    • The Tower of the Elephant by Robert Howard (1933): If you do a collection of the works of Sword & Sorcery writers both current and past, there really is no way you could not include Robert Howards Conan. The Tower of the Elephant is widely considered a classic and iconic story, but I think personally it’s one of the weaker ones and painfully simply structured. I think there could have been much better choices than this.
    • Black God’s Kiss by C.L. Moore (1934): Jiriel of Jory is another character regarded as one of the classic Sword & Sorcery heroes, though a relatively unknown one these days. I hadn’t read any of her stories yet, and it certainly is interesting. However, I think I am being generous when saying that this story was “heavily inspired by” Robert Howards Worms of the Earth. Yes, it’s not a bad story, but a strong candidate for the Vanilla Ice Test: “If you remove the parts that were taken from another artists work, is the rest still good?” (The only good part of Ice Ice Baby was the sample from Queen.) And I have to say, not very much. There are some original ideas, but they really don’t shine out that much in a story that already isn’t that stellar to begin with. I am not judging Moore on this single text, but to present her work to a new audience, I think this wasn’t a good pick.
    • The Unholy Grail by Fritz Leiber (1962): Oh dear. I think I admitted before that I have a rather complicated relationship with Leibers stories. I think they range from not very good to pretty bad, but almost always they are still fun to read. Not only did he come up with the name Sword & Sorcery for swashbuckling heroic fantasy with darker undertones, he also was able to bring the best parts of this genre to shine even though his plots were not that great and his characters and dialogs generally quite bad. He may not have been a good writer, but he knew what made this strain of heroic fantasy tick and codified it, which very much earns him the reputation as one of the three grand masters of Sword & Sorcery. But, oh boy! The Unholy Grail would be his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story which I consider to be by far the worst! Fafhrd doesn’t actually appear in this one, and the Mouser is a completely different person from his usual self. Since it’s an origin story Leiber may have had reasons for that, but as a sample of the iconic duo of Sword & Sorcery, this is probably the worst possible pick ever!
    • The Tale of Hauk by Poul Anderson (1977): I’ve heard that mans name before and I think he has some big fans, but I never read anything of his or even know what kind of works he is known for. If there is one ultimate rule of writing other than avoiding Deus Ex Machina, then it’s not starting a story with an infodump. The full first quarter of the story is nothing but a single big infodump, which actually doesn’t matter to the plot at all. And even after that, the actual plot only begins around the halfway mark of the story. Unfortunately, the actual story itself isn’t very interesting. I hate to bring this up in seemingly every review I do, but this story isn’t really Sword & Sorcery at all. Yes, the story of Jiriel of Jory also takes place in France, but once she goes down the rabbit hole (which happens just a fifth into the story), she clearly isn’t in Aquitaine anymore. The Tale of Hauk is just a simple Nordic ghost story. And not even an interesting one. The story takes a lot of time to show off lots of minor and subtle elements of Germanic culture, of which I think most will only have any meaning to people who are as familiar with them as Anderson himself. At the same time, he is forgetting that there needs to be an actual plot for the story. It’s not a completely horrible story, and I’ve come across those in the past, but not something I would include in any Best Of anthology. And in a Sword & Sorcery collection, it really is quite out of place.
    • The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams by Michael Moorcock (1962): Like Howard and Leiber, ou can’t really make a Best Of Sword & Sorcery collection without Moorcock. When Leiber proposed the name Sword & Sorcery for the genre that had not yet been defined, but already quite clear in the mind of several people, he was actually replying directly to Moorcock who had called for a catchy title they could be using. The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams is a strange name for this story, as there aren’t any caravans in it, nor was I aware of any lost lore or visions of a better future. Before this one, I’ve only read a single one of Moorcocks Elric stories, but I think it was much better than this one. The dialog is clunky, as the two characters mostly talk to give information to the reader that they both already know, and there really isn’t any effective buildup or context given. A huge army destroying every country it comes through and now it reaches the city where Elric lives, so he and his sidekick sneak into the camp to take out the hordes sorcerer. They run into a dozen warriors who try to kill them, but given that the story is just starting, they are just a dozen unnamed ruffians, and they are going against what I assume to be the most terrifying sorcerer-knight in the world, the whole encounter is pretty pointless. Of course the heroes will butcher them without breaking a sweat. There’s an interesting part in the middle, where they have joined the horde and are still trying to work out a plan, and the horde is raiding another town. Elric and his sidekick feel bad about it, but they can’t do anything to stop thousands of warriors by themselves. That part could have been interesting, but is rushed through just as fast as everything else in this story and nothing comes out of it. In the end, the story is wrapped up with two Deus Ex Machina right after the other and the story is over. This wasn’t great, and I am sure Moorcock didn’t get famous because of this particular story.
    • The Adventuress by Joanna Russ (1967): This story is not fit for publication. I don’t have the faintest trace of an idea how this one ended up in a collection of the greatest Sword & Sorcery tales. Not only does it has nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery, it is also remarkably poorly written. There is no real discernable plot, the scenes are confusing and erratic, and the whole time I had no idea what’s going on. It’s about two unlikable women who do nothing but bitching at each other, one being constantly hysterical and screaming, the other lazily passive agressive. On the last few pages there is some kind of development of the two characters starting to respect each other, and while that may be a decent theme to write about, the story doesn’t have anything to do with Sword & Sorcery. As I said, this text is not fit for publishing.
    • Gimmile’s Songs by Charles Saunders (1984): I hadn’t read anything by Saunders before, but heard quite a lot about him. And based on this one short sample, he seems to be clearly one of the better authors who write for this genre. The story deals with sorcery, which is nice for a change, but lacking in any daring adventuring. It’s a decent story, but I didn’t find it exciting.
    • Undertow by Karl Edward Wagner (1977): On okay story. I think the twist at the end was too strongly telegraphed and predictable halfway through the story, and the mystery is mostly created through putting the scenes out of order and deliberately witholding important information from the reader, which usually are very cheap tricks. But there’s still a nice eerieness to it, and Wagners famous character Kane as a secondary character in the background work actually quite well and is genuinely creepy, which makes the story worth a read.
    • The Stages of God by Ramsey Campbell (1974): A disposed king stumbling through the wilds and nothing much happens. There’s an encounter with a giant monster and two magical battles, but each of them gets covered in just two sentences and it’s all very boring.
    • The Barrow Troll by David Drake (1975): This one isn’t terrible, but mediocre at best. One of the two characters is very bland, the other so unspeakably reprehensible that you almost immediately figure out what will happen at the end. This is not an anti-hero but a guy specifically written for damnation.