Flashing Swords #2: A Craftsman’s Showcase, or You Win Some, You Lose Some
The cover of Flashing Swords #2 promises four original stories. New S&S stories! Of course, since it was published in 1974, only five years after I was born, it turns out only two were new to me. But, I’ll take it.
The Rug and the Bull. L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp offers up a signature de Campian story featuring one of his gallery of rogues, conmen, and scoundrels. This time, instead of flying solo, the rapscallion is accompanied by his family; a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense wife and multiple precocious children. Last time I encountered Gezrun — the bounder in question — was in The Spell of Seven. He’s now a couple of decades older; more experienced, perhaps, but not wiser as he’s still a wandering adventurer, looking for the big score — with his family in tow. De Camp takes a shot at bullfighting, and — presumably — a fling at Hemingway. But this isn’t gratuitous. It pays off later.
This is typical de Camp: droll, never entirely serious even when characters are in peril. And, above all, it is fun. De Camp demonstrates what I think we all know: Sword-and-Sorcery is an admirable vehicle for tales of mountebanks and schemers.
The Jade Man’s Eyes. Michael Moorcock. Eyes is a story that begins with promise. A promise that, is, that Moocock will dispense with the aspects of his tale-telling that leave me dismissive or actively disengaged. With a few hiccups here and there, the promise holds true — up until a bit past the midway point. Then we are treated to a bit of that sixties-era, avant garde psychedelia I despise, followed by gloom and doom, woe-is-me, cruel-hand-of-fate histrionics. When I was a teen, this feature of the Elric canon hinted at the revelation of hidden truths. At my more — staid — age, it reads as angsty, existential clap-trap. But, as the automobile advertisements will have it, your mileage may vary. I speak only for myself, and sincerely have no intention of disparaging Mr. Moorcock nor the taste of any of his legion of fans. I mean, I don’t like avocados either. That doesn’t mean I think you’re wrong for dipping your chip in guacamole.
Thinking more objectively, I wonder if S&S is a viable vehicle for tragedy as a brand. That is, as a genre from which readers should necessarily expect tragedy. Not that it can’t by its nature, convey a tragic story. Beyond the Black River, for example, would give the lie to such an absurd overstatement. But doesn’t epic fantasy fit tragedy more comfortably? A Tale of Ice and Fire; The Malazan Book of the Fallen; even, arguably, The Lord of the Rings, are all tragedies. Maybe that’s why the Eternal Champion cycle doesn’t resonate with me when I sit down to read S&S.
Or, maybe I should just relax and have a beer. Look; Jade Man’s Eyes is Elric. It’s Moocock, and an experienced, journeyman Moorcock. You know what you’re getting, and if that’s what you want, you get your money’s worth.
Toads of Grimmerdale. Andre Norton. I’ve been forthcoming about Witch World’s failure to, ah, enchant me. However, unlike with my preceding comments on the Elric story, I’m not going to pan this one. Toads is my favorite Witch World story, perhaps my favorite Norton story. I’ve read it before in at least one other anthology and was glad to encounter it again here. Despite a somewhat pokey pace, it hits most of the right notes for me.
Speaking of notes: This is a story of conjoined motives, two sides of a coin — protection and vengeance. One is pure, one tends to lead to unsavory compromises. There is a scene of psychic battle, one of Norton’s calling cards that I generally find off-putting. But in this case it does not come across as a dramatic crutch. The action is engaging. The denouement runs a trifle long, but is ultimately worthwhile. I specifically want to call out this bit: “To cling to this wrong or that, keep it festering in mind and heart, is to cripple one.” A story of forgiveness. Nice. If more Witch World was like Toads, I’d be a fan.
Ghoul’s Garden. John Jakes. Up front: I like Brak the Barbarian. I dig him, like I dig Thongor, Kyrik, and Kothar. Jakes makes no bones about writing “in the Conan Tradition.” In the case of Garden, it is Conan with a touch of Jirel of Joirey. At least, it is supposed to be Conan-esque. Most Brak tales are so, fairly successfully. But in this escapade, Brak comes across as Conan’s incompetent cousin, lacking Conan’s intelligence, physical prowess, and primal will to live. The setup is fine, properly S&S. A chance encounter finds Brak saving a voluptuous woman and an insufferable, splenetic priest from a monster. He then becomes entangled with a wizard who is enamored with the woman. All good, so far. But Brak turns into an utter bungler, needing at one point to be saved by the woman. There is nothing wrong with being saved by a woman — infinitely preferable to the alternative of not being saved. But last I checked, the series was branded Brak the Barbarian, not Shana the Strumpet. Still, this is a John Jakes story. No writer that successful lacks basic craftsmanship. This story may be — is — sub-Conan, and is, for that matter, lesser-Brak, but it is still moderately entertaining, competently written, and reaches a satisfactory conclusion.
So, two out of four ain’t bad. And the two I didn’t care for are still well-crafted and provided me some enjoyable moments. I’m comfortable recommending FS #2. And if you’re still looking for something to read, browse through some of these. (Though, if you’re interested in picking up a copy of Thick as Thieves, may I please request you get this edition, since the other is from a defunct publisher and the only one who benefits (other than you, the reader, of course) is Amazon.)