Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ex Libris: Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders' Swords and Dark Magic

A sharp sword is as reliable as a good friend.

You have to hand it to upcoming editors Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, who've made separate names for themselves as anthologists, editors and publishers. Both had evinced great love for that darker subgenre of fantasy, sword and sorcery, and so had decided to see how today's S&S would look like.

And darker it is, given how the triumvirate of S&S then-- grandmasters Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard-- had managed to craft the ultimate anti-heroes that only fought evil and impossible odds (like devils and gods) because these were in their way to a greater prize. In a sense, this was grim-and-gritty fantasy before there was even grim-and-gritty fantasy. So it's not surprising that Anders and Strahan have called on some of the well-known "grim" epic fantasy writers to also write S&S fantasy, or the "new S&S fantasy."

To quote Anders in an interview, "When Jonathan Strahan and I set out to do Swords & Dark Magic, we wanted it to be a definitive look at today's S&S, and we feel we've really succeeded. With names like (Joe) Abercrombie, (CJ) Cherryh, (Glen) Cook, (Steven) Erikson, (Greg) Keyes, (Tanith) Lee, (Scott) Lynch, (Michael) Moorcock, (Robert) Silverberg, (Gene) Wolfe, we feel like it really is a great mix of the masters and the new guard, and has every indication of being the book folks are expecting it to be."

But if one were to go through this anthology, one may not find heroes (or anti-heroes) of the caliber of Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Elric-- except for a few exceptions. Thus, with the publication of Swords and Dark Magic (subtitled "The New Sword and Sorcery"), this is the chance of the two editors to get up to look from atop a high tower and say, "This. This is the new sword and sorcery," with all the implications of such declarations.

Whether or not they intended this by saying such at all, they do: they're telling old and new readers what "the new S&S" is. In this case, if previous S&S heroes were only a shade lighter of the black hats, today's purported S&S are a tad bit more gray. This leads to a few questions: can S&S change for the new generation of readers? Should it? Moreover, will an older generation of readers accept this change?

Personally, I do think it's useless of present writers to try to do the Lords of Swords & Sorcery better. Those who've tried have been tagged as writing pastiche or copycats, with only a few (like Karl Edward Wagner and his penultimate warrior Kane, and Charles Saunders and his dark giant Imaro) barely even registering in the newest generation of fantasy readers, which is a damn shame. So maybe it's for the best that this anthology isn't filled with muscle-thewed barbarians, white-eyed albino sorcerer-kings or wisecracking wiry thieves at all and giving other writers a chance to show the new face of S&S.

So how's the view of the change from up here, one might ask? Well, it's actually pretty good. By mixing the new with the old writers, Anders and Strahan manage show what could be the new facets or different perspectives of "the new S&S" is. For example, highly recommended are the group effort stories by Steve Erikson's random rogues in "Goats of Glory", Joe Abercrombie's snarling misfits in "The Fool Jobs" and the godfather of these kinds of tales, Glen Cook with his iconic Black Company in "Tides Elba".

Of course there are also the individual almost-heroic warrior-franchises, "almost-heroic" in the sense that these characters stand on their own against their enemies and "franchise" because their creators have written a number of stories about their characters. These range from newbie James Enge's Merlin Ambrosius in "The Singing Spear" (which made me want to go checkout his Ambrose books), veteran Greg Keyes's Fool Wolf from the world of The Waterborn in "The Undefiled", to grandmaster Michael Moorcock's classic creation Elric of Melnibone in "Red Pearls: An Elric Story." Want your buddy stories? There's Garth Nix's Sir Hereward the knight and his puppet Mister Fitz in "A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet," which is damn good.

Unfortunately, Erikson, Michael Shea ("Hew the Tint Master"), CJ Cherry ("Two Lions, a Witch and the War-robe") and Scott Lynch ("In the Stacks") don't feature their more-recognizable characters, e.g. the Malazans, shrewd Nifft the Lean, the pseudo-SF Morgaine and the con man Locke Lamora respectively. In a sense, these writers showed how they could write S&S but not necessarily what the new face of S&S is. Likewise, I can somewhat understand the direction behind Gene Wolfe's "Bloodsport" inclusion given his recent spate of metafictional stories and novels of knights and pirates; maybe this is the a new kind of S&S, after all? (But still...)

Sadly, Anders and Strahan didn't recruit other new writers who are currently writing S&S, like Matthew Stover who writes the action-packed Acts of Caine or Simon Green with his pulpish fantasy and SF stories like the Blades of Haven and Deathstalker respectively.

Still, this is a good collection of stories and Anders and Strahan have done an excellent job in showing us the possible futures of what was/is/could be sword & sorcery. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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