Flashing Swords! #5: Demons and Daggers. A Transitional Anthology.

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.

Tower of Ice. Roger Zelazny. Zelazny and Dilvish the Damned! Hell yeah. (Joke intended. Own your wordplay. Don’t weasel out of responsibility.) This opens FS#5 with a bang. Zelazny is a master. He defies conventions, but not in a snotty, double-bird-salute to the squares sort of way. He seems more concerned with clever, novel story telling than in displaying disdain for the stylistic approaches of his predecessors. Just when you think he’s about to zig, he zags. He doesn’t hold your hand or provide a helpful info dump right up front. But the storytelling is so intriguing that you’re willing to go along, confident that you’ll learn what you need to when you need to. A fun story. And on including both demons and daggers.

 A Thief in Korianth. C.J. Cherryh. She is a well known and respected fantasist now. In 1981? That must have been relatively early in her career, I suppose. I admit some uncertainty as to her S&S chops. Please let me know if I’m missing out on something. The intro to Thief, a slow, expository bit describing the city in which the action would take place, did not fill me with confidence. Starting with an urban travelogue is tough to pull off while simultaneously holding the interest of the reader. Avram Davidson can pull it off like a champ (viz. Flashing Swords! #3.) Cherry did as well as could be expected. She maintained my interest, though it waned. Then she introduced her protagonist — a thief — and her kid sister, and I was worried. Standard fantasy fare, I feared. I was wrong. When Cherryh finally kicked the plot into gear, she did it like a boss. This is definitely S&S — S&S of the sort found in Thieves World, sure, but still the genuine article. This story was more than fine. It was actually good. Plus, the main character did flash knives and razors from time-to-time, so I’d say we can score daggers. No demons, however.

Parting Gifts. Diane Duane. My criticisms are not criticisms of the story qua story, but rather comments on the story in the context of a Swords-and-Sorcery anthology. Duane writes beautifully. Up front, I”ll acknowledge this is a good story. I admire it, even like it. But…This came out in 1981. Embodied in this tale are elements of the Tolkien Boom that in my middle-age I find somewhat irksome. (Doubtless it felt natural and expected in my youth, when I was picking up something new to read at one of the three or four bookstores in the mall, spending a week’s allowance on paperbacks, the arcade, and maybe a sandwich at the Arbys in the food court. Thus I supplemented my immersion in the older material I picked up at the library with the then current mainstream of speculative fiction.) Can I be more specific? I’ll try. There is the twee aspect, exemplified in Gifts by the talking kitten. There is the unconventional protagonist in the form of the jovial old sorceress heroin. Her joints ache and she employs her powers to cleanse the jolly innkeepers still. There’s the whole sanitized, progressive view of the middle ages, with everyone clean and prosperous, educated and happy. I don’t mind her playing with conventions, the deliberate twisting of the traditional Christian narrative. That’s old hat, barely worthy of an eye roll, it’s become so stale. (Though I imagine I would have squirmed a bit, reading this as a twelve-year old.) The point is, this isn’t S&S. It is capital F fantasy, epitomizing the genre trends evident from the Tolkien Boom up to Grimdark. So, not a criticism, merely an acknowledgment. Daggers? No. Demons? Well, there is an analogue of the Devil himself. So, I suppose it gets a pass on a technicality.

A Dealing With Demons. Craig Shaw Gardner. A certain wry wit is not unheard of or unwelcome in S&S. Think Jack VAnce, or even L. Sprague de Camp’s tongue-in-cheek drollery. But with CSG I expect broad, slapstick humor. Humor has a well-earned place in Fantasy (capital F again, such as that written by Diane Duane.) Think Robert Asprin. Or Terry Pratchett. But while I enjoy comedy, and wring every drop of entertainment from it, it isn’t S&S. (Despite Pratchett referencing Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the very first DiscWorld novel, if I recall it correctly, and despite Cohen the Barbarian being an epic bit of parody and characterization in his own right.) Again, this isn’t a criticism of the story or CSG. His stuff occupies space on my shelves. It is merely contextual. Dealing is a light-weight, fluffy bit of comedy. Okay for what it is. No daggers worth noting. But Brax, the enchanted weapons sales-demon popped up intermittently. So, that’s a yes on demons.

The Dry Season. Tanith Lee. Tanith Lee writes in no style or genre but her own. Her stuff is hit or miss with me, but even the misses are superbly written. Roger Zelazny wrote the best S&S story in this anthology, with C.J. Cherryh coming in a respectable second. But Lee wrote the best story in this volume. Period. Is it S&S? I’d have to say no. Despite my objections to the inclusion of the prior two stories, this one is just so damned good I don’t care. I thought Zelazny’s Tower of Ice was worth the price of the book alone, now I see I get Dilvish the Damned as Lagniappe. Not a bad deal. Dry Season is layered, nuanced, thoughtful, hopeful and full of despondency. It is set in a fantasy Roman Empire analogue, on the easter frontier. A newly appointed commander must deal with the local religion, duty, desire, and his own past. No daggers, I’m afraid, and no demons, unless the commander meets some in the hell he creates for himself. Brutal.

FS#5 is, I think, a transitional work. Look at the clues. The cover price, for example, moves from $.95 for each of the first two, bumps to $1.25 for the third, $1.50 for the fourth, then jumps to $2.50 for this one. Then there is the leap from the 1970s to the 1980s. The zeitgeist is shifting and that includes a change from the slim ‘60s and ‘70s cheap paperbacks to the fatter ones of the ‘80s that seemed to accompany the Tolkien Boom. Look at the writers. By number 5, gone are de Camp, Vance, and Davidson. Already in the number 4 we get Katherine Kurtz, a precursor to the Duanes and Gardners yet to come, transitioning from sleeker, more earthy S&S to the more fulsome, almost wistfully yearning fantasy that followed.Anyways, while I think FS#5 is a somewhat disappointing swansong for the series, the stories it contains are worth the cost of purchase and the reading time involved. You know what else I consider worth the cost of purchase? Boss: Falchion’s Company Book One, still only $.99 cents. The other two books in the series cost more, because that’s how this works.