Swords Against Darkness IV: Anything Goes

Andrew Offutt’s introduction to Swords Against Darkness IV mentions that some found volume III rather dark. (Looking back on my review of volume III I suppose it was rather dark. But S&S tends to have an element of the horrific. So, no complaints.) Offutt hints that volume IV will be rather more light-hearted and contain some non-traditional stories. Well, let’s see.

Mai-Kulala by Charles Saunders. The death of Charles Saunders this year raised awareness of his contributions to the genre. Funny how that works — funny as in sad that it often requires death to achieve recognition. But I cannot claim any highground here. While I’ve long been aware of Mr. Saunders and his Imaro stories, I”m woefully unacquainted with either. If Mai-Kalala is representative of Charles Saunders output, I’m keen to remedy that lack. This is impressive, atmospheric, soundly written Sword-and-Sorcery. Contrary to Offutt’s introductory promise, it is ot light-hearted in the least, instead partaking of a similar mood to some of REH’s darker Conan yarns. I like to see such a strong lead off. Here’s hoping it is a trend.

At the Sign of the Brass Breast. Jeff P. Swycaffer. It is chockablock with absurdities and over-the-top gags. I did smile frequently. It is, however, difficult to sustain this mood in fiction if your name isn’t P.G. Wodehouse, and I found that the story came close to wearing out its welcome. Close, but no explosive cigar.

The Reaping. Ardath Mayhar. So much for a Ha-Ha theme. Dark-ish quest for vengeance by the seventh-borne (whose revealed identity is not actually much of a surprise.) I wanted to like it more than I did. It lacked context, as if plucked without backstory from a tale with some real world-building. And, sadly, the action did not ring true. But there were elements to appreciate. It was…fine.

The Ballad of Borrell. Gordon Linzer. The aging hero seems to be a recurrent trope in the SAD series. Something of a murder mystery, this one still manages an air of light-heartedness, in a manner akin to the Nero Wolf stories. The subject matter is serious, but the characters and interactions contain elements of humor. A decent, interesting, and entertaining story. A step-up in quality from the prior entry. (I know, comparisons are odious. Sue me.)

Deux Amours D’une Sorciere. Tanith Lee. This is a beautiful, faceted jewel of a story, but not the sort of I’m interested in reading in a Sword-and-Sorcery anthology. I’m glad I read it. I’m must unsure what it is doing here.

Of Pigs and Men. Poul Anderson. Here again is the light-heartedness Offutt promise. Here is the humor. Anderson writes a laugh-out-loud parody of the academic cant employed by those of a certain political persuasion. I smiled, chuckled, even guffawed. But, again, what is it doing here?

Cryptically Yours. Bryan Lumley. At this point, I’ve realized that anything goes in this iteration of SAD. Again we have humor, albeit a dark humor couched in the form of a clever, epistolary story. A story of sorcerers; not a sword-slinger to be found. I was, however, amused. The contents don’t jibe with what is advertised on the cover of the volume, but I might as well roll with it.

Dedication. Heartfelt, I believe, and moving. I understand why Offutt placed it in the center of the book rather than at the beginning. It would clash with his introductory claim of light-heartedness.

The Dark Mother. DIana L. Paxson. Competently told story that I’ve previously encountered in another collection. All the pieces are there: a protagonist with some sort of backstory, a motivation, what appears to be a carefully considered secondary world, a mission, sword fighting, magic. I should like it. But instead, well…it’s fine.

Wooden Crate of Violent Death. Joey Froehlich. Poetry. Sigh. Anything goes though, right? Great-souled readers, those with a keener aesthetic appreciation than this pulp-addled scribbler, may well get more from this than I did. Perhaps it requires recitation with harp accompaniment. And mead. It was…okay.

The Fane of the Grey Rose. Charles de Lint. I’ve admired de Lint’s painterly style for decades, his ability to evoke otherworldliness. Here, in an early story, he adumbrates his future novelist’s niche with a tale that feels steeped in Tolkien’s or Dunsany’s requiems for Faerie. Befitting the recurrent theme in this anthology, the story runs counter to expectations. The cover art promised me something more primal than this fairytale romance. The thing reads like the highlights of an epic fantasy novel, stitched together by the scaffolding of the author’s outline. I think I would have liked that novel. Here, in this context, the story felt interminable. It had its moments, but pared down to meet a word count, frankly I didn’t care for it. I’d rather have read something less poetic and more grounded. Again, within the context of the anthology.

Sandmagic. Orson Scott Card. In the introduction to this story, Offutt writes “How to hate a person who is decent, human, gentle? Try harder!” If Offutt had stuck around awhile, he’d have had the opportunity to see frothing hordes try just that much harder. (Sorry about the tangent. Once I read that bit in the intro, I couldn’t resist quoting it. Haters, you go right ahead and hate. Talking people out of hate is a waste of time, and I’m busy.)

We’re temporarily out of light-heartedness. S&S is often grim, as this story demonstrates. Card provides a parable of vengeance, written in an almost Biblical cadence. It is a parable of vengeance taken to extremity. This anthology contains a number of stories driven by vengeance, but this story demonstrates the darkside of pursuing revenge at all costs; the avenger growing more monstrous than the initial villains ever were. It is a relatively simple tale, but masterfully executed, like an expert carpenter fashioning a common table and creating a work of art in the process.

As you might expect by this point, Sandmagic doesn’t conform to the expected S&S mold. But it’s good. And that seems to be about all I can hope to ask for in SAD IV: Anything Goes. Except…

The Edge of the World. Manley Wade Wellman. Ahh, Kardios. Welcome back, you silver-tongued rascal. This anthology needed you. Sex, action, monsters, chases. Yeah, I remember; this is why I slapped down my nickel. A proper adventure, perhaps a trifle simplistic, but none the worse for it. Manley Wade Wellman comes through again

So, did I like it? Sure, though I’d have appreciated it more if I knew what I was getting myself into. Worth it for the Charles Saunders story alone. If you don’t already have a copy, you could do worse than picking it up. And, while you’re buying reading material, why not check out something of mine? People seem to like Under Strange Suns, my sci-fi ERB homage.