Swords & Sorcery is L. Sprague de Camp’s first entry in his four-volume series that spanned seven years. His introduction — an early sample of the short essay he’d return to with variations on the theme often enough — is a decent explication concerning what heroic fantasy consists of. (I found myself nodding in agreement at a portion of his opinion of William Morris.) With a promising introduction and a list of authors printed on the cover, I”m ready to dive in. But let me first make note of the gorgeous Virgil Finlay illustrations.
It is Valentine’s Day as I write this. Today means, I imagine, different things to different people. For some it is a romantic, Christmas-tier holiday, with all the Madison Avenue approved trimmings: dressed up, romantic, candlelit dinner, flowers and heart-shaped box of candy. Others, perhaps, are content with the candy, consuming the entire box alone, wearing a bathrobe and binge-watching Netflix. Some hardly note the day’s passing. There are any of a myriad possibilities.
The important question is, of course, how would famous fantasy characters react to Valentine’s Day? What sort of Valentine’s Day card would — for example — Elric pen in flowing runes for his one and only? Let’s find out, shall we.
The Fantastic Swordsmen is the third entry in L. Sprague de Camp’s swords-and-sorcery anthology series. De Camp’s introduction is solid, but after a few of these apologias for S&S they all begin to read much the same. Don’t worry, the stories are better.
I can’t always be reviewing anthologies, you know. I do have other matters to occupy my attention. Here’s a snapshot of some of those matters.
What I’m reading:
Lin Carter is back with another volume and more alliteration. Flashing Swords! #5: Demons and Daggers. The cover is drab and uninspiring, a tepid fantasy scene with a dull background, far from the evocative Sword-and-Sorcery covers of the previous volumes. The intro is equally unpromising. Carter writes that he is doing “something a little different” and is soliciting “stories for #5 from writers who have not yet become members of [SAGA].” The names of the contributors — with the notable exception of Roger Zelazny do not inspire confidence in those hoping for the raw fire of S&S. No slight is intended to the others, all fine fantasists in their own right. But, I don’t read the FS anthologies for the larger, inclusive category of Fantasy. Well, I’ll keep a more-or-less open mind. Come with me.
Lin Carter presents yet another anthology in his stellar Swords-and-Sorcery series. This one is Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians. Is there more than alliteration fueling the subtitle? He’s certainly doubled the thematic possibilities. Let’s see.
Completing a manuscript and typing “The End” is always a great feeling. It’s an accomplishment, the culmination of endless invested hours. But “The End” isn’t really the end. Not even close.
Once you find a home for the book a host of new tasks descend upon you. We’re assuming for the purposes of this post that the book has a publisher, and is not being self-published. That option carries with related, but divergent necessities. Where to start?
The tide of Yule is ebbing this annus horribilis. (Has the near match between annus and anus ever been more appropriate?) Good riddance, I suppose. Still, I’ve made the best of it. I hope you have as well, dear reader.
This anthology reads like the literary equivalent of hosting a costume party, but neglecting to mention that aspect to most of the guests.
Barbarians II has three, count them, three editors credited. I wonder what about this endeavor required so many hands on deck. Richard Adams’ introduction jokingly discusses the etymology and history of the word barbarian. I found this introduction — and the title — odd in a collection in which barbarians are few and far between. Though, in fairness, the intro did suggest that the word barbarian is, ultimately, meaningless. So, touché, Adams, I guess.
The important question is: are the stories any good? Let’s see, shall we?
The Toads of Grimmerdale. Andre Norton. I have written about this story before. It’s still good. Barbarian Quota: Only via reference to previous Witch World events.
Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth’s Core. George Alec Effinger. Jokey, genderswapped Pelucidar parody. Presumably, this is a sequel to Maureen Birnbaum on Mars, which I haven’t read. (I just researched this after writing the previous sentence. Seems I was basically correct.) The Jewish American Princess shtick is amusing, but the references are dated. Luckily, I’m old enough to appreciate them. This is fluff, fast food. The McRib of S&S. Goes okay with beer, though. Then again, doesn’t everything? Fun stuff if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Barbarian Quota: The only barbarians are the ape-men of the Earth’s core.
Trapped in the Shadowland. Fritz Leiber. The incomparable duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, once again cross paths with the Death of Newhon in this slight tale, more anecdote than story. Barbarian Quota: Fafhrd, of course, qualifies.
The Blacksmith. Raul Garcia Capella. When I first started these anthology posts (still primarily re-reading volumes picked from my shelves) I noted Ray (or Raul) Capella as an unknown. Yet he’s popped up frequently, and for good reason. He’s an excellent writer. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been deprived of some great, never produced Capella works. Blacksmith is a tale of arrogance and comeuppance, virtue and reward. It seems to be an origin tale of a unique S&S hero. I’m curious if any further tales of this new character ever saw print. Barbarian Quota: No barbarian in this one, though we do have a wizard, the eponymous blacksmith, and some sort of quasi-demon from a Valhalla lacking all the upsides. Perhaps he counts.
Demon of the Snows. Lin Carter. At last, a barbarian swordsman. A warrior of the cold north, broadswords strapped to his back, faces peril and mystery. Something like was promised on the cover. How about that? It is Thongor and LIn Carter, so you know what you’re getting. And that’s okay with me. Barbarian Quota: One Conan-clone.
The Dark Mother. Diana L. Paxson. I reviewed this one recently. Barbarian Quota: No barbarians here, except if they might be, metaphorically, the priestesses of the Dark Mother.
Misericorde. Karl Edward Wagner. KEW’s Kane is many things, but a barbarian is not one of them. Kane is, if anything, too civilized. Machiavellian, even. This is a jewel of a Kane story: a dark, vile jewel. If you need Kane encapsulated, here he is. Barbarian Quota: Zip.
The Warrior Race. L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp is reliably entertaining, so I’m always happy to see his name in an anthology. But Warrior Race is a science fiction story, not fantasy — heroic, S&S, epic, or otherwise. Are the Centaurans of the story barbarians? Well, in this historical analogy, yes. Corrupted and assimilated by the civilization they conquer. It’s a fine SF story. But I question it’s inclusion here. Barbarian Quota: See discussion above.
Fredeya. Charles Fontenay. A rather tedious slog through a post-apocalyptic setting to an end that is supposed to be some major surprise, but that is instead glaringly obvious about a third of the way through. It has its moments, and the author clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the setting. But it is undercooked. For example, the mutated monster that shows up out of the blue near the end comes without any set-up or foreshadowing. I’ve no problem with post-apocalyptic S&S (not that there is any sorcery in this) but after the straight up SF of the previous story and the ERB cutesy parody earlier, I”m growing rather disappointed with this supposedly themed S&S anthology. Barbarian Quota: There is a piratical atmosphere at the beginning of the story that was rather promising. I suppose freebooters might be considered as a type of barbarian.
A Logical Conclusion. Poul Anderson. Ahh, there we go. Leave it to Poul Anderson to right this listing ship. A man of our world exchanges minds with a Northern barbarian pirate in a fantasy world. This yarn is written as only Anderson could. A Logical Conclusion deserves recognition as part of the canon of S&S. Can’t recommend this highly enough. Barbarian Quota: You betcha.
The Winged Helmet. Fred Saberhagen. And…we’re back to science fiction. A time travelling Berserker story, to be exact. It’s entertaining enough, if overlong. Saberhagen knows what he’s doing. Still, I don’t think this is what I signed up for. Barbarian Quota: We’ve got a a barbarian in the form of a time-displaced cave-man type. (I think, so anyway. He seems to be a character from a previous story.)
The Changer of Names. Ramsey Campbell. Reviewed earlier. Barbarian Quota: Nope.
The Valley of the Worm. Robert E. Howard. The Ur-barbarian story. Anthologized many times, and for good reason. You all know this one. I need add nothing further. Barbarian Quota: Chockablock.
The Ghastly Pond. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. This is — fine. The setting lacks verisimilitude, like a hastily thrown together D&D campaign. I didn’t quite buy it. But the horror element of the second half add a compelling aspect, sufficient to carry me through. Barbarian Quota: Lacking barbarians, while at the same time portraying barbarity.
Verdict? Ignore the title and you’ve got yourself an excellent anthology. Only one or two didn’t work for me. Get yourself a copy.
And.or get yourself a copy of one of my books. How about this crime/S&S mashup?