At Howard Days 2023 I picked up a copy of Lin Carter Presents The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 4. I have the first volume, so the two make a nice pair on my shelf. Carter’s introduction is, characteristically, informative and interesting. He demonstrates once again the astonishing depth and volume of his reading. “But how are the stories?” you ask, brilliant and perspicacious Reader. Excellent question.
The Tale of Hauk. Poul Anderson. I wonder in how many different publications this story has appeared. See, for example, Swords Against Darkness 1, which I have already reviewed. I don’t have anything more to say about it, other than to reiterate that it is good.
A Farmer in the Clyde. Grail Undwin. A short, simple, and charming fairy tale. There is a hint of Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword about it, as well as Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Nice.
Prince Alcouz and the Magician. Clark Ashton Smith. An Arabian Nights style fairy tale by CAS. It is a trifle, but a CAS trifle and thus worth reading.
Nekht Semerkeht. Robert E. Howard, with an assist from Andrew J. Offutt. Carter seems to be going to the Swords Against Darkness well for this anthology. I reviewed this story before, as you can see if you follow the link in the Hauk paragraph. I suppose it would be churlish to complain that two different editors liked the same stories. They are good. But a bit of variety wouldn’t go amiss either.
The Pillars of Hell. Lin Carter. A workmanlike homage to REH. Whether or not it belongs in a “best of” anthology I will leave to individual judgment. I suppose editorship comes with certain privileges.
Lok the Depressor. Philip Coakley. A delightful bit of Dying Earth-esque mimicry. I can’t say it any better than Carter himself wrote in in the intro to the tale: “…Phil Coakley…comes as close to writing like Jack Vance as anyone I have ever read…And that, to my taste, is very high praise indeed.”
Hark! Was That the Squeal of an Angry Thoat? Avram Davidson. Relax. Go with it. Read parts aloud, with appropriate accents. This is a light piece of wit and drollery — or is that droll wittery? — by that nonpareil Avram Davidson. It might be best appreciated by long time New Yorkers (I couldn’t judge, not having set foot in that metropolis) of a certain age. In any case, I dug it. A bagatelle, perhaps, a non-sequitur in story form, even. I don’t care. It made me smile.
The Cloak of Dreams. Pat McIntosh. There is a nagging familiarity about the opening section of this story, suggesting I’m about to read a variation on a theme I’ve read more than once before. The tale (thankfully?) goes in a different direction than the beginning led me to assume. It became, however, a remarkably domestic story that I found rather a slog. It might appeal more to others.
The Land of Sorrow. Phyllis Eisenstein. An ultimately unsatisfying story, despite the early promise and a premise that could have led to something more. Nonetheless, this is the story the author wanted to tell, so I can’t argue with the ending. I could wish she’d tightened it ups some. The middle dragged. Comparisons are, I’m informed, odious. But since this tale’s protagonist is a minstrel, I can’t help but wonder what Manly Wade Wellman would have written had this been a Kardios story.
Odds Agains the Gods. Tanith Lee. Another Swords Against Darkness reprint, this from volume two, which I reviewed here. Carter is leaning heavily on Offutt for this anthology. For instance:
The Changer of Names. Ramsey Campbell. I reviewed this one in SAD II as well (see the link above.) Thus we’ve got four out of eleven stories selected from the SAD anthology series, for whatever can be gleaned from that statistic.
I suppose the source of stories doesn’t much matter. The point of the anthology is, naturally, assembling them in one place. And I’d say Carter largely succeeded. I enjoyed the bulk of the stories. I could recommend this for the obscure titbit from CAS alone. Happily there is plenty more meat here.
If you want to sink your teeth into some fantasy action adventure, why not give my Semi-Autos and Sorcery series a try? The first volume, Blood and Jade, is available from Aethon Books.
Moving on, here is the next update from Magnus Stoneslayer.
People too often view the world in terms of opposition, dear diary; things must be either one thing or another. People employ phrases like “you’re either a sheep or a wolf” as if hybridization were magically rendered impossible by this recitation, as if there couldn’t ever be a literal wolf in sheep’s clothing. Foolishness. For a barbarian life is simple and yet the intelligent savage is fully cognizant that no discrete person or thing is simple. There is no contradiction here. Things are complex, multi-faceted. Opting for choice A isn’t necessarily a negation of option B. Despite this, a barbarian’s decisions remain simple.
For example, consider a sea fight. There we were, running before the wind in my pirate galley, being slowly overhauled by a Zantian warship. Do I don armor? Armor certainly provides the solution to immediate concerns such a stray arrows, or – should a boarding action commence – sword or axe blows. On the other hand, armor is heavy and a ship in battle faces the none too unlikely hazard of sinking. A man in armor will plummet through dark waters as if he’d an anchor chain wrapped around his ankles. Armor does not float and it does not come equipped with a quick release mechanism. It is a struggle to get into and a struggle to get out of.
So what to do? The answer is to not see the question as requiring that either the one or the other be the answer. While my sailors labor at sail and oars, and the wizard Vetrius mumbles, gesticulates, and makes mystic passes over a portable brazier emitting multicolored smokes, I clap an ironcap on my head and drop a breast and back plate over my shoulders. The trick is to avoid fastening it and to skip armoring the extremities. It is a compromise: the risk of injury increases, and the in the exertion of a lethal donnybrook the loose armor beats against the torso which is both painful and awkward, but in the event of a dunking the protection can be ducked out of with relative ease.
In the end I had to put neither aspect of my compromise to the test. The duration of the sea chase afforded Vetrius sufficient time to complete his ritual. As the Zantian vessel reached bow shot, the waters boiled and up rose a horror from the depths or some demon from beyond (Vetrius didn’t deign to explain.) The monstrosity fell upon the Zantian ship and dragged it down beneath the waves.
I shuddered inwardly. I’ve made no secret of my fear and dislike of the supernatural. But at the same time I’ve little objection to turning it to my advantage. See, dear diary? That is steering a simple route through a sea of complexity. Barbarian, thy name is pragmatist.