Swords Against Darkness V: A Fitting Send Off

So, here it is, the final Swords Against Darkness installment. #V. Sad. I wish Andrew Offutt had produced more. But how about that cover? I think it is terrific.

There is an advertisement just inside the book for a series called Ro-Lan by Mike Sirota. Anyone read those? Any good?

Andrew Offutt’s introduction states that he overbought — paying out of his own pocket, and this volume might be a gamble due to the number of neophyte contributors. I’ll admit that makes me curious and concerned. I like these anthologies for the comfort of seeing tales by known masters of the craft. At the same time, I don’t want to limit myself to the same dozen or so big names. I wonder how many of these writers made a go of it, or was this SAD contribution the lone hurrah?

The Mouths of Light. Ramsey Campbell. Another Ryre story. Those have been hit and miss for me. I’d say this one split the difference. Fitting, I suppose, for the final volume. Swords-and-Sorcery tends to contain a streak of horror. In the Ryre stories that streak has been wide. This one is no different. It is creepy and atmospheric. If you don’t try to make sense of it, it works well. Here, in the last volume of SAD, it pleases me to finally see Ryre come out ahead; that is, with more than just his skin. He’s had a rough go.

Perfidious Amber. Tanith Lee. A finely written, clever story; half-fantasy, half-mystery. As Offutt notes in his introduction, “This collection contains some barely-heroic fantasy, some very heroic fantasy, and some h.f./othertime fantasy…” There’s little of the heroic about this one. There is, however, a touch of Sherlockian superciliousness that I suppose can serve as a substitute.

Awake, Awake Ye Northern Winds. Simon Greene. Now there’s a writer who’s made a go of it. This is a solid freshman outing, comfortably in the S&S wheelhouse. It easily meets all the criteria I set to consider a yarn Swords-and-Sorcery. I liked this one; a ghost-pirate story anachronistically combining buccaneer stereotypes with pre-gunpowder technology in the grand tradition that stretches as far back as Conan.

Rats. Robert Fester. This reads more as an anecdote, or a chapter of a longer work, rather than as a story in its own right. We have an undeveloped, uninteresting main character going to an undesignated location for largely uncertain reasons, passing at night through a ruined city haunted by some undefined monster. There our heroine dispatches the monster by a method telegraphed early in the story. She rides on. The end. Robert Fester had a scene in mind to write, not a tale. It is competently enough written, but there’s just no substance or purpose to it.

The Forging. Robin Kincaid. Robin Kincaid? That name doesn’t ring a bell. Perhaps his writing career diverged from Smon Greene’s after this. Whatever, his contribution to SAD V is a well-written, engaging, even intriguing — what? The first chapter of a novel, perhaps? Or did Offutt run out of money, cutting Kincaid off in mid-story? Seriously, what the hell was that? I was enjoying it, interested to see how it ended. Did it end? Did I miss something?

Hungry Grass. Keith Taylor. We’ve encountered Keith Taylor in SAD before, writing as Dennis More (hat tip to Stan Wagenaar for pointing that out.) Good to see him back. I couldn’t help note something in Offutt’s intro to this story. 1979 doesn’t seem like that far back to me. Hell, it was almost the eighties. But, consider this paragraph in light of today’s nigh instantaneous communication: “In 1977 and 1978 Keith Taylor and I collaborated on two novels…As of today, 1st August 1979: Presumably Ace Books will publish the books someday; they did pay us. (Q: How do a Yank and an Aussie who’ve never met collaborate on two novels, with all the back-and-forth copy and correspondence? A: Expensively.)” As much as I may view my past through rose-colored shades, I have to admit in some ways things have vastly improved. Okay, end digression. This story hit the spot. As long as it needed to be and not one word longer. Action, a desperate break for freedom, and a perfectly placed, supernatural/horror element. Great stuff.

The Tale of the Cat, the Mouse, the Sorcerer, and the Children. Edward DeGeorge. I wanted to like this, I really did. Any story that commences by appreciating tales that begin in taverns, instantly earns my sympathy. But here is an example of Offut being — let’s say, overgenerous with the publisher’s money. This tale was not ready for the big leagues. Not even the semi-pro market. The style is rudimentary, giving to passive voice construction, and hampered by elementary grade vocabulary. The story also suffers from weaknesses that wizard-centric stories are prone to: arbitrary, inconsistent application of magic. Like watching episodes of Star Trek: Did you all just forget you had the ability to do this techno-thing last week? I’ll stop there. I’m not writing this to denigrate anyone’s craft. Glass houses and all that. Leave it at this one not working for me.

Golden Vanity. James Anderson. This is more like it. And written by a pupil or short-term protégé of Andrew Offutt. There is a bit too much backstory forced into the tale at the beginning, but it is hard to see how all the necessary exposition could have been more seamlessly introduced into such a short work. It is tolerably well written, showing evidence of the influence of old school S&S authors. Golden Vanity engagingly and atmospherically tells what befalls a tomb raider. Nice work. Satisfying, if simple.

The Castle of Kites and Crows. Darrel Schweitzer. I liked Sir Julian’s appearance in SAD III and I liked this just as much. A good story, well told, of a damned knight. S&S as a sort of latter-day, cynical chanson de geste. Atmospheric, even chilling at times.

The Scream of the Rose. Paul McGuire III. A beautifully elegiac tragedy, featuring vengeance, sword play, ninja, demons, and demon-blades. There is a finely calculated aspect of the exotic about its asian-flavored fantasy setting and the characters’ motivations and behavior. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Joni. Gordon Linzer. This story is…fine. I found getting through it rather a trudge, though the ending, despite not coming as any surprise, offered some payoff. Still, why use the present tense to write this? What did it add? What about the nature of the story required this awkward narrative construction? It came across as an affectation, becoming an irritant that constantly threatened to thrust me out of a story that barely engaged my interest in the first place.

Druin’s Heritage. Richard K. Lyon. Here is a grimly amusing story; one in which the only real good guy is himself possessed of a less than wholesome heritage. The revelations are carefully dribbled out, so that each no secret is both surprising and earned. Dark, but entertaining. Druin’s Heritage is a satisfactory conclusion to both SAD V and the series itself.

So, that wraps up the SAD anthology series. #V fits smoothly in with the previous volumes, containing as it does a few duds, but more than enough solid yarns to make it worth your reading time. I hope to have more out in 2021 that will also be worth your reading time. I’m waiting to sign the contract before I begin shooting my mouth off. In the meantime, if you’d like to sample some of my work, why not try Reunion? Or you can browse through my Amazon page, see if anything catches your eye.