Andrew J. Offutt – Swords Against Darkness 1-5

The five Swords Against Darkness anthologies edited by Andrew Offutt between 1977 and 1979 have gained a special, almost legendary status among fantasy readers: and they do deserve their spot in the light, because they collect several great stories by renowned writers in the genre. These books are both a result of the sword and sorcery revival of the Sixties and Seventies and an inspiration to the fantasy movies galore that flooded theaters in the Eighties: as such, they can be deemed as the high point of the fantasy renaissance that had started twenty years earlier.
And yet there’s something tricky in these anthologies: they’re not what they say they are, nor what you’d expect them to be.

Not the kind of fantasy you would expect
Most likely, you started reading these collections expecting a variety of sword and sorcery stories: at least, that’s what Offutt himself, the editor, promises in the very first lines of volume one.
Precisely in that book’s foreword, Offutt cites Howard, the man who – as he states – «created a new sub-genre of fantasy», which Offutt also defines promptly: «Some of us call it heroic fantasy. Some call it epic fantasy, although the two aren’t always synonymous. Some call it sword and sorcery, a phrase invented by a practitioner named Fritz Leiber».
So, this is an anthology of heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery stories, two labels that often overlap but always refer to a specific kind of fantasy: which isn’t the high-fantasy, high-magic, Good versus Evil medievalistic mishmash that is now commonplace because of aberrations like The Lord of the Rings movies (I haven’t watched the recent TV series but I’m confident it qualifies as well) or the countless videogames published in the last decades.
Sword and sorcery is completely unlike that. Just take a look at the Wikipedia page describing it: as a genre, it overlaps with heroic fantasy and is more concerned with the smaller struggles of a lone hero or a smallish group of adventurers who are in search of a personal gain first and foremost, and only incidentally might also do some good. Magic exists in these settings but isn’t an everyday occurrence: on the contrary it’s something darker, ominous, so powerful that it can smash mountains and make wonders; and it has downsides too, as magic corrupts its practitioners, hence it isn’t to be cast lightly.
Hence, because of Offutt’s deceiving foreword, when opening these anthologies you would expect contents that aren’t actually included: you’re led to think you’ll find sword and sorcery stories here but volume one is more of an anthology exploring the whole range of fantasy; and the following books get even worse, as they marginalize sword and sorcery bit by bit while favoring other subgenres of fantasy: thus, soon the series turns into the usual collection of (high) fantasy stories with no character of its own. Nonetheless, there are still several good tales in these anthologies, mixed with others that don’t even deserve your time.
Anyhow, I’m the first to acknowledge that this series has been very influential on the genre: and this is why I decided to review it (the whole five volumes) all the same, as comprehensive reviews are lacking. But I couldn’t force myself to read some of these stories nor to evaluate them any better than I actually think of them: so I had to reach a compromise in order to review these anthologies.

A very personal review
What follows is a very personal review: I love both heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery but they come in a variety of flavors and I don’t enjoy them all; and still I enjoy high fantasy even less. I know I’m somewhat picky but I firmly believe there’s no reason to waste time forcing yourself to read something you don’t like, or that doesn’t fully persuade you, because you’d put that time to a better use by reading anything else you actually enjoy.
Thus, I was between rock and a hard place (actually, due to the genre, let me tell that the Italian variant of this saying fits better as it sounds more thematically appropriate: I was between hammer and anvil) because on the one hand I wanted to comment on this anthologies and the handful of great stories they include but on the other hand I’ve skimmed through or completely skipped a good chunk of their contents for a variety of reasons.
So I found a compromise: I’ll only write about what I’ve actually read and won’t pretend to comment on stories I didn’t, and I will openly state what story is what. Which is still better than nothing at all.

The five anthologies
The quality of these anthologies is impressive: they all include either stories by well known and established authors like Poul Anderson, Manly Wade Wellman, David Drake, Orson Scott Card, Andre Norton, Tanith Lee (I don’t like these last two but I’m aware they’re respected authors with a large following) or stories and characters that have become relevant, like Ryre by Ramsey Campbell (that I already reviewed here), Simon of Gitta by Richard Tierney, Bard by Keith Taylor, Kardios by Wellman himself, several of whom had their debut stories published in these anthologies indeed. Mixed with these, there’s a number of stories that belong in neither group and range from very good to simply bad: however, there’s enough for any fantasy fan to enjoy a few stories in each volume, maybe even a good half of each book.
Volume three is somewhat the most relevant of the series especially for role-players, as it was cited explicitly by Gary Gygax, the father of the Dungeons and Dragons RPG, in the renowned Appendix N, a list of sources of inspiration for AD&D compiled in 1979, which is also a good starting point for all players to help them envision their fantasy worlds and get into the right mood.
The stories can be divided into four groups: 1) regular sword and sorcery stories; 2) historical fiction; 3) generic fantasy stories; 4) fantasy extravaganzas, which includes articles and essays. Group three gathers the most stories; groups one and two are approximately equal in number; group four is the smallest and only collects a handful of stories, and of varying quality, from very good to very bad.

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Swords Against Darkness 1 (1977)
The original anthology is probably one of the weakest in the series from my point of view: only two of the nine stories, «Nekht Semerkeht» by Andrew Offutt (a rework of an unfinished manuscript by Robert E. Howard) and «Straggler from Atlantis» by Manly Wade Wellman (debut story of Kardios of Atlantis), are worth reading; a third story, «Largarut’s Bane» by Raul Garcia Capella, isn’t that bad either.
I found all the remaining stories lacking: three of them are historical fiction and I don’t like historical fiction (I’ll explain why in the comment on «At the Sign of the Brass Breast» by Jefferson P. Swycaffer in volume four), while the other three simply didn’t spark any reaction when I tried to read them. One of these – «Pride of the Fleet» by Bruce Jones – is probably the worst story in the whole series: as a matter of fact it is the worst of the ones I’ve read.

– Robert E. Howard and Andrew J. Offutt – Nekht Semerkeht
Hadn’t it been left unfinished, this story would have been one of Howard’s best: grim and pessimistic, it’s both typically ruminative and brutal when action starts, with short, quick fights that the protagonist wins in a very cinematic flavor. It also blends successfully two different genres and distant settings like ancient Egypt and the Spanish Conquistadores and has them meet on the neutral turf of the American prairies: it’s Howard experimenting with something new again and it works smooth as glass.
A straggled Spanish Conquistador, Hernando de Guzman, stumbles into a walled city: it’s ruled by one Nekht Semerkeht, a sorcerer who fled his homeland and sailed to America in an age past, when pharaohs still dominated Egypt. Blinded by gold and beauty, the seasoned Conquistador accepts to help Nezahualca, a young princess turned slave, in her overthrowing the sorcerer and install her on the throne: of course things don’t go as planned but in the end Guzman kills Nekht Semerkeht by falling him into the rattlesnakes pit, since sticking a pellet from his flintlock pistol in the sorcerer’s chest didn’t work the first time.
Nezahualca is immediately crowned queen but Guzman is the de facto ruler as her viceroy: expecting the Spaniards might one day come and attack the city, he trains the natives in the use of fireguns. But before long, one night the Conquistador dreams of Nekht Semerkeht who stirs the hostile tribes living in the area and sends them to raze the city after tearing down the walls with his magic: to his astonishment, finally Guzman realizes this isn’t a dream. When at last he breaks the spell paralyzing him, Guzman joins the fight bravely but is killed by the invaders: at this point, the sorcerer summons a deadly cloud over the city that chokes everyone still alive.
Offutt does a good job of completing Howard’s manuscript although you can almost feel the point where he comes in since Howard’s dry style is replaced by Offutt’s cornier: and some threads are left behind, like the giant vampiric flyers and the «children of darkness», whatever these unnatural things are, that appear shortly and then are forgotten. Nonetheless, this is a pretty solid story, one of the best in the whole series, mostly thanks to Howard’s original section.

– Poul Anderson – The Tale of Hauk
I skipped this one completely: I don’t like Vikings and couldn’t have stood a whole story about them.

– Geo. W. Proctor – The Smile of Oisia
First of two Nalcon stories in the series. Not bad per se but it feels out of place: its flavor is more of a standard fantasy story than a sword and sorcery story, so reminiscent of the Thieves’ World setting as it is. So I gave up after reading about one fourth.

– Bruce Jones – Pride of the Fleet
A hodgepodge of several unrelated subgenres served in a feminist sauce: in a handful of pitiful pages there’s a pinch of Burroughs’ Barsoom, James Bond, space opera, planetary romance, cosplaying and even a hint of sword and sorcery, but just a hint.
I was wondering what I was actually reading until the very end, when I realized it was nothing short of poorly written fan fiction. Learn from my mistakes: skip it and save your time!

– Manly Wade Wellman – Straggler from Atlantis
Debut story of the poet-warrior Kardios of Atlantis, one of the better «clonans» of the Sixties and Seventies together with Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes (whose stories I’m reviewing in Italian starting here).
When the story opens, Kardios has already set a world record that is bound to last forever: he’s the single one individual guilty of the destruction of the magnificent Atlantis, which he condemned to a sudden sinking as soon as he kissed its immortal queen. As the mandatory prophecy went, Atlantis would prosper and prevail «until her sweet lips in a love-kiss are given»: now enter the charming Kardios.
So the greatest city ever sank and our hero became the only survivor, by grasping a floating door that brought him and his harp to the land of giants, a peaceful people of shepherds with a huge problem: months earlier, something fell from the sky, made a huge hole in the ground and brought something horrific that now dwells therein. It’s kind of a spacefaring blob they call «Fith» that has already killed and eaten – that is, absorbed – one of their kind and now is kept at bay with daily offerings of cattle: but the herds are almost depleted and soon their chieftain will volunteer for the first free slot as a human sacrifice.
The giants are unable to settle the problem themselves as the hole is too narrow for them to slip into and Fith only comes out at night: so Kardios will solve the problem for them. He finds a suitable sword – «an icy-blue blade, not of bronze, not of silver» – made of a metal that fell from the sky with the blob-thing, climbs down the hole and kills Fith not without effort. When he’s done, he comes back to the giants who celebrate his success and then leaves to explore the land further: five more Kardios stories will appear over the next years, three of which will be included in the following volumes of Swords Against Darkness.
Pretty straightforward but enjoyable, the story also displays a few poems that the hero, a farmer and woodcutter who’s as skilled at playing the harp as he is at wielding a sword, is always pleased to recite.

– Richard L. Tierney – The Ring of Set
I can’t stand historical romances, that is fantasy stories set in the real world, so I lasted only one fourth of this one: it’s the debut story of Simon of Gitta, a wizard slash detective slash swordsman who investigates on magical items and takes the dangerous ones into his custody. Here he confronts the Roman emperor Tiberius himself to acquire a ring shaped as a coiled snake which is told both to have been forged in the dawn of time by the Egyptian god Set and to be cursed: should a ruler put it into his finger, the world would be doomed. Not my cup of tea.

– Raul Garcia Capella – Largarut’s Bane
Not exactly sword and sorcery, and undoubtedly not heroic: nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable short story about a fisherman who consults a witch in order to save his twelve-year-old daughter from a demon who has started to appear in his own dreams next to her bed for the last few months.
The help offered by the witch is just an expedient to keep the man away from home at night so that, when the demon finally appears in person, he’s too far to help his daughter: so it’s up to her to take care of herself. And she kills the demon aptly and swiftly with the (magic?) arrow the witch gave the man and had him put under his daughter’s pillow.

– David Drake – Dragons’ Teeth
Another story set in ancient history: and Romans, too. As with Simon of Gitta’s story, I skipped this one as soon as I realized its setting. It should be a solid story though, if you have a taste for historical fiction.

– Ramsey Campbell – The Sustenance of Hoak
Another debut story, the third one in this anthology after Kardios’ and Simon of Gitta’s: this time it’s Ryre the mercenary’s turn, whose career spans four stories, all of them published on as many different volumes of Swords Against Darkness, and then collected in the «Far Away & Never» anthology, which I reviewed recently.
I didn’t enjoy any of these stories as they’re more of the horror genre than sword and sorcery: as such, they don’t even aim at telling a story but try to create suggestions and build on emotions instead.
I won’t comment on this one as it would be even more wasted time: dull, slow and boring, it’s just a tale of atmosphere and very little – if any – action. As for the plot, Ryre deals with evil face-like trees that enslaved a whole village.

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Swords Against Darkness 2 (1977)
Possibly the worst volume in the series: generic/high fantasy is already gaining the upper hand to the detriment of proper sword and sorcery. This is also the leanest volume, with only eight stories, and only one of them enjoyable: that is «The Dweller in the Temple» by Manly Wade Wellman, in which Kardios of Atlantis appears again. Everything else is forgettable.
But I was confident the series would improve with the following volumes and so I bit the bullet.

– Andre Norton – Sword of Unbelief
I’ve read the original «Witch World», back when I was younger: and I didn’t like it as it’s just a boring and unoriginal novel with a feminist twist. The story in this anthology uses the same setting and doesn’t feel any different, so I had to give up after the first dozen pages or so: nothing happens, and I couldn’t feel any interest for the protagonist or her story.

– Ramsey Campbell – The Changer of Names
As I noted in my comment on Ryre’s debut and in the review I wrote recently, these stories are out of place in this anthology: dull, slow and boring, they’re more of the horror genre than sword and sorcery. Anyhow, despite the frustrating, unheroic finale, this is probably the better of the Ryre stories as it’s the more «sword and sorcery-ish» of the lot: Ryre fights for both his life and name, against a shapeshifting monster.
Whilst not a memorable read on itself, it features a solid opponent with a plausible motivation of his own.

– Manly Wade Wellman – The Dweller in the Temple
A good story at last. Kardios is a convincing sword and sorcery character, with a knack for getting into trouble but also brilliantly escaping it: after all, he’s still the one who single-handedly managed to sink the whole of Atlantis. Here he’s unwittingly chosen as the next king of a city whose population already adores him at first sight: all he has to do is only to pay a visit once to the temple and greet the local god, who never killed any citizen before…
As expected, there’s deception at work; and, as expected too, Kardios is a couple of steps ahead of anyone else and resolves the situation before it turns into troubles, especially for him. Very enjoyable.

– David M. Harris – The Coming of Age in Zamora
I had to dump this story when I was about halfway: even though it sounds like a fun concept at first, actually the narration drags from the start along the lines of a barbarian-turned-ruler’s mid-life crisis, with a series of vignettes that fail at being even remotely fun.
It’s just a Flintstones-like story where the protagonist does the same things a modern individual struggling with his getting old would but in such a fashion as his actions might look like in a fantasy or non-technological world: the protagonist, a barbarian, even keeps a journal he used to bring along all his life in which the took notes on his moods, battles, strategies and even state affairs. So it all boils down to that forced-laugh-track kind of stories where the author smirks at you because he thinks he’s funny and knows a thing or two.
The issue with «too modern a language» Offutt talks about in the introduction may be not an issue in the printed story anymore but that editorial review should have included other forms of modernity bursting out here and there as well, such as the protagonist’s modern attitude and way of doing things.

– Richard L. Tierney – The Scroll of Thoth
Another Simon of Gitta appearance, another story skipped because of historical fiction.

– Tanith Lee – Odds Against the Gods
Tanith Lee is a name that makes me shun any form of writing it’s printed on, on trust.

– Dennis More (Keith Taylor) – On Skellig Michael
Bards are my favorite class in role-playing games, so I had great expectations from this story as it marks the debut of a character who’s a «Bard» even in name: but after the first handful of pages I felt compelled to skip the remaining as the story pretends to be set in the real world and, hence, is another piece of that historical fiction that plagues these anthologies, and I’m not exactly fond of.

– Andrew J. Offutt – Last Quest
A promising story that is just too long for what it is: like other works by Offutt – namely, «The Chieftain of Andor», that I reviewed in Italian last year – it looks like it is part of a series (events that happened before are mentioned and the characters have strong connections with each other) but actually it is a standalone story. Despite the appealing setting it becomes boring soon so I had to give up.

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Swords Against Darkness 3 (1978)
Somehow this one should be regarded as the peak volume in the series, due to it being explicitly cited in the legendary AD&D’s Appendix N by Gary Gygax: the most committed RPG enthusiasts are still racking their brains, trying to understand why this volume was singled out whilst the previous two, also edited by Offutt, were ignored; but they haven’t found unanimous consent so far.
A possible motive is, this is the one anthology in the series that Gygax happened to read, or simply the most recently published when he compiled the document. But another explanation suggests it is cited there because of the final article by Poul Anderson, «On Thud and Blunder», in which Anderson offers free advice to hopeful writers and sketches both ideas to be developed and a few guiding lines on how to tell good fantasy stories: needless to say, this article can be helpful to novice DMs as well who plan to write their own adventures. And I can’t help to think that the Ryre story by Ramsey Campbell, «The Pit Of Wings», also is somewhat responsible for the explicit acknowledgement, since it introduces a flying monster that not much later would be included into D&D’s bestiary as the «gloomwing», with little modifications: undoubtedly it struck Gygax imagination.
This is also the richest volume in the series with as many as fifteen stories, Anderson’s article and a short poem included: nonetheless, besides the third – but weakest – appearance of the likable Kardios, there’s only one more good story, namely «Tower of Darkness» by the promising David Madison, who sadly would commit suicide shortly after as we’re told in volume four.
Although mediocre, three more stories are still worth reading, all of them written by non professionals (at the time): these are «Servitude» by Wayne Hooks, «Descales’ Skull» by David C. Smith and «The Mating Web» by Robert E. Vardeman. All the remaining can be easily ignored.
Sword and sorcery is still scarce in this anthology but not as much as in volume two: anyhow, for a series that debuted as a collection dedicated to this genre, the lack of sword and sorcery sounds like apostasy.

– Ramsey Campbell – The Pit of Wings
Another Ryre story, and the weakest of the lot, even though it may have inspired the AD&D monster called «gloomwing». As I wrote in a recent review, these stories may be attracting scores of readers but I still think they don’t fit the purpose of the series: they’re dull, slow and boring, more of the horror genre than sword and sorcery. They just happen to be set in a fantasy world, with a sword-wielding character that wields his sword parsimoniously: none of the usual sword and sorcery quirks – especially briskness and brutality – are preeminent here but are supplanted by endless and repetitive descriptions, a slow plot and an interest in simply building up the atmosphere rather than bringing action to life.
Actually, inaction rather than action is Ryre’s deepest belief.

– Richard L. Tierney – The Sword of Spartacus
Another Simon of Gitta appearance, another story skipped because of historical fiction.

– Wayne Hooks – Servitude
It kind of feels like fan fiction, but surprisingly this is a convincing story too: Offutt’s introduction aroused my curiosity when he observed it is set in the same world as his novel «Chieftain of Andor», which I appreciated so much that I also wrote a review (in Italian) last year. Yet, honestly, I haven’t found anything in the plot that connects explicitly to that novel: nonetheless, the story is solid on its own, with a painful twist in the end.
A man is slave to his mysterious mistress and must feed powerful souls to her: the first twist, predictable, is she’s not a real person but a bauble that he wears on his left wrist and dominates him, by making him invulnerable in combat. The second twist, which also was in the air, is the way the story ends: never forget that magic items in a sword and sorcery world are as dangerous and unreliable – if not utterly cursed – as magic itself and always include downsides, sometimes more onerous than the benefits.

– David C. Smith – Descales’ Skull
A grim fantasy variation of the classical three-wishes fulfillment by a bottled djinn which backfires. Descales was a sorcerer and after his untimely demise his soul was trapped in hell: now three blokes have reassembled his skull and thus brought him back to life in the hope for personal gains; but Descales is still pretty malevolent and he isn’t long in showing all of his wickedness. There’s no sword-wielding hero here nor other sword and sorcery themes: it’s all about magic, which is utterly evil and corrupts those who use it, or try to gain advantage from it.
Which actually is a very sword and sorcery-ish concept.

– Tanith Lee – In the Balance
A mage apprentice’s final test or, as it is called in the story, his initiation, after nine years of study at the academy of magic: the story drips with teenage angst and insecurities. But it doesn’t spare a single drop of ink for anything even remotely resembling sword and sorcery: it’s rather generic fantasy, as not only does the existence of an academy of magic suggest but it being governed by good-natured teachers with rightful principles also confirms. No big deal, really.

– David Madison – Tower of Darkness
Almost a debut story, and sadly the only appearance of Marcus and Diana in these anthologies: the young author killed himself before the next anthology was published. In volume four Offutt explains that another story of the twain would have appeared therein but, after the author’s suicide, he chose to scrap it and replace it with another story by another budding writer.
Marcus and Diana are two adventurers (a man and a woman, as their names suggest) who also happen to be lovers: she’s somewhat a masculine woman, burly and rough, more of a warrior but not a virago since she still retains some of her femininity; he’s more of a thief, smaller and a little effete, as the mascara on his eyes and a butterfly painted of his cheek suggest, but he’s not effeminate or worse.
Despite the role reversal, they’re not circus freaks but an enjoyable pair and come out as credible characters: they’re both hardened and capable fighters but also very human, as they feel emotions, are afraid and even…cry when they think their hour has come, just a moment before attempting homicide-suicide to escape a fate worse than death; that is undeath. If not for the interesting characters, the story wouldn’t be much: sure, it qualifies for a sword and sorcery story, and the style it’s told with is fitting to the genre; but it’s an annoying vampire tale and it gets obvious as soon as the first undead, not yet revealed as such, shows up.
Anyhow, there’s enough here to make me wish to read more about these characters: and yet the handful of their other stories appeared only on hard-to-find fanzines of the Seventies and have never been published or collected again. What a shame.

– David Drake – The Mantichore
Another piece of historical fiction that I skipped.

– Kathleen Resch – Revenant
Please spare us cheap poetry.

– Jon DeCles – Rite of Kings
A pretty senseless story about the trials the protagonist, a king, overcame in the past: I stopped reading when I was about one third in as the story is crippled by illusions and that dream-like atmosphere that I can’t stand. Yes, I know, I’m a difficult man.

– Robert E. Vardeman – The Mating Web
Nothing more than a filler: it doesn’t even feel like a sword and sorcery story but rather like a generic (high) fantasy story. It’s enjoyable, and this is all that can be said about it: nonetheless, its biggest feat is turning a spider into a likable character despite being, well, a spider; and even a giant spider, for that.

– Manly Wade Wellman – The Guest of Dzinganji
A lackluster Kardios adventure, who deals with a vampire without even spelling the word «vampire» once: bloodsuckers are cheap and boring and this anthology is getting pretty crowded with their ilk. The reader has the first clue on the titular Dzinganji’s nature when the hero passingly says he got his meat with bits of garlic poked in; then starts wondering if Dzinganji is actually a vampire when the latter is said to waken at sunset; and finally has the certainty the villain is one of them when Dzinganji’s physical description is given.
This vampire seems pretty reasonable, as he only keeps humans as thralls to feed on them now and then: he’s also unusual in that he’s kind of the king of a deserted underground city made of gold, and dabbles with constructing perfect mechanical automatons.
The way Kardios defeats him is risible but efficient and involves the garlic poked in the meat: it’s enjoyable but not the best Kardios story by far.

– Darrell Schweitzer – The Hag
Another cheap high fantasy story: the titular hag lures a gullible knight, Sir Julian, into breaking her curse but conveniently forgets to tell him that he’s to take her place. Pretty forgettable.
Sir Julian will make a comeback in an even worse story in volume five.

– Geo. W. Proctor – A Kingdom Won
I’m not loath to avoid anything based on previous negative experiences: there’s no reason to waste time for something that I already know will be unrewarding when I can put it to better use. I hadn’t enjoyed the previous Nalcon story – published in the first Swords Against Darkness anthology – so I skipped this one on trust: I only read the finale and then patted on my back, because it is what I imagined it was. Garbage. Generic fantasy garbage, with a shapeshifting siren.

– M. A. Wahil – Swordslinger
More filler: a middle-aged warrior looks for troubles and finds them as he engages an old comrade of his who’s turned king in a duel. Not a bad story per se but kind of insubstantial.

– Poul Anderson – On Thud and Blunder
A three-page letter to Offutt that later Anderson expanded into a thitrteen-page essay on writing fantasy stories that are credible, following Offutt’s request. It offers good pieces of advice and ideas that can be summed up as follows: document, take examples from history and use a lot of common sense. It’s not the article that solves every problem but can surely be helpful to anyone struggling with writing a good story, GMs included.

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Swords Against Darkness 4 (1979)
Volume after volume, the series has dropped its initial focus on sword and sorcery to fall into generic fantasy territory and include high fantasy stories for the most part: thus it lost its identity and what really made it shine.
Out of the thirteen stories in this book, none is memorable and only four are somewhat passable: the peak of volume four is an average Kardios story by Manly Wade Wellman, «The Edge of the World», which marks the last appearance of the Atlantean hero in these books.
The remaining three readable stories in this anthology are «Mai-Kulala» by Charles R. Saunders, «The Ballad of Borrell» by Gordon Linzner, and «Sandmagic» by Orson Scott Card, although none of them makes you scream «masterwork».
Everything else is forgettable.

– Charles R. Saunders – Mai-Kulala
Pretty typical sword and sorcery in an atypical setting: Africa. The protagonist, Imaro, is the eponymous hero of a long-standing series of adventures that started in the Seventies: he’s an African Conan doing Hyborian Conan things, hence his stories are teeming with African folklore.
In this episode, as he walks through a dark forest he’s enraptured by a beautiful girl who rules over this jungle: they live a happy month together but when the next full moon appears she turns into a furry vampire (oh no, more vampires again!). When she was a child she loved this forest so much that she made a pact with a dark god: in return for giving her the power over it, the demon would take possession of her body every full moon and do evil things, like sucking blood from children. The feeling is, her plan from the start was to force Imaro’s hand and have him kill her to end this curse: which he does indeed.
You have to love the atypical setting to really enjoy this story, that isn’t bad at all but relies on the setting too much to come across.

– Jefferson P. Swycaffer – At the Sign of the Brass Breast
Despite its brisk pace and convincing style I had to skip this story after a few pages: as I have already stated before, I don’t like historical fiction or stories set in the real world, even when the only references are the names of a handful of cities as in this story.
The reason is, historical fiction breaks the immersion and the distancing necessary to accept or rather enjoy a world with a different timeline and different laws of physics than our own: and yet on the one hand you need believe this is a fantasy story, set in a fantasy world with its own magic and physics and weirdness; but on the other hand, by mentioning places or people or events from the real world, the plot itself breaks any attempt at imagination by forcing forays of and references to the real world on the reader.
Hence you have to blend two different but clashing realities into a new made-up setting that feels partially familiar though: and no matter how hard you try to swallow this, you still know that those things cannot happen, because this is our world, and magic doesn’t exist in our world.
So the setting ensuing is somewhat in balance between two contrasting realities and feels dirty, a convenient setup by a writer lacking in imagination that tries to get the best of the two worlds (the familiarity with our own, to build an accessible setting upon it; and the freedom allowed by a fantasy world) without making an effort, which instead falls upon the reader.
This is why historical fiction smells of sloth and sloppiness to me.
Coming back to this story, it feels cheap, and even has an atmosphere of forced humor about it that feels even faker than the world it’s set in.

– Ardath Mayhar – The Reaping
A piece of garbage: a smartass girl does what her six older brothers couldn’t (free their father, taken captive by an incompetent necromancer) thanks to a wide range of magic spells and overpowered magical items her mother gave to her that do the job for her: and all along she keeps lecturing everyone about this and that in a show of false modesty.
This story hasn’t even a hint of sword and sorcery flavor: it’s high fantasy at its worst, coming straight from a bad D&D adventure.

– Gordon Linzner – The Ballad of Borrell
Sword and sorcery stories should be about the small things: there’s no need to save the world when you can be dragged in a local triviality, and make it personal. Which is what this story does: a minstrel is beheaded in the night because the titular ballad he just sang in the tavern wasn’t appreciated by a particular patron.
So on the next morning the eponymous drunkard hero, Borell, who was carousing in the tavern as the bard sang, is compelled to find the murderer and avenge the ministrel: but complications interpose which lead the chase to a deadlock with a disappointing finale.
Anyhow, the main characters – the pot-bellied middle-aged hero and his young and capable apprentice – are likable, all too human in the short descriptions given, like the hero’s bulging belly impeding him, or his failing sight which needs to be aided by the apprentice’s better vision: this is the third story in the series dealing with middle-aged heroes but is the only one developing the subject in an entertaining way instead of overplaying it.

– Tanith Lee – Deux Amours d’une Sorcière
Feminism is better left where it belongs: the trash bin. Skipped after reading the first half or so.

– Poul Anderson – Of PIGS and MEN
A somewhat humorous history of the German tribes that became America’s first English-speaking dwellers: that is, the PIGS, as in People Inhabiting Germanic Settlements (whereas MEN stands for Mediterranean Ethnic Neighbors).

– Brian Lumley – Cryptically Yours…
Surprisingly good: it’s a series of letters that two wizards write to each other, as a streak of strange demises has been affecting their wizardly acquaintances. You can breathe betrayal ever since the first line of the first epistle, and as a matter of fact all suspicions are confirmed ere the end. There’s nothing heroic in this story though: simply, the setting and part of the atmosphere suggest the usual sword and sorcery world with an exotic flavor, especially in the Clark Ashton Smith’s mood.

– Diana L. Paxson – The Dark Mother
Another high fantasy story disguised as heroic fantasy. Nothing to see here.

– Joey Froehlich – Wooden Crate of Violent Death
A story of violence and retaliation told in the form of an epic poem: the plot is weak and uninteresting, the choice of narrating it as a poem brave. Take it as an half-successful experiment.

– Charles de Lint – The Fane of the Grey Rose
Unbearable. I had to skip it after several pages due to boredom: it’s another high fantasy story, with the typical zero-to-hero young protagonist, that I find so clumsy to read. The perfect teenage story that has nothing to do with sword and sorcery.

– Orson Scott Card – Sandmagic
A great story but, like the former, out of place: it’s high fantasy, and has nothing heroic. I love when authors stick to unpleasant protagonists, force the readers to justify their actions somehow and then – wham! – show them for what they are: the actual bad guys.

– Manly Wade Wellman – The Edge of the World
A weak but charmingly entertaining Kardios story: this character is undoubtedly one of the best things that can be found in these anthologies, and the most genuine example of what light-hearted sword and sorcery can be. Here Kardios reaches a city built on a mountainside which, the ruling elite says so, is the world’s end: of course the hero proves the opposite, after bringing a little turmoil to the city.
A peculiarity that struck me while reading this story is that Kardios, despite being a skilled swordsman and often fighting for his own life, never kills humans: all his victims are monsters, constructs and, well, gods.

= = = O = = =

Swords Against Darkness 5 (1979)
If anything, the level of the Swords Against Darkness anthologies remained constant over the five volumes: they are all quite poor on sword and sorcery territory but include one or two good stories.
The final book in the series is no exception, as only three out of twelve stories are passable or better: but one, «Awake, Awake, Ye Northern Winds» by Simon R. Green, is one of the very best of the whole series, au pair with Howard/Offutt’s opening story in volume one.
Also «Golden Vanity» by James Arthur Anderson is pretty good and feels very sword-and-sorcery-ish whilst «Joni» by Gordon Linzner is typically high fantasy but an enjoyable read all the same.

– Ramsey Campbell – The Mouths of Light
Fourth and final Ryre story: as I wrote in a recent review, I didn’t enjoy any of them as stylistically they belong more in the horror genre than sword and sorcery. This one is loosely connected with the previous story (the one appearing in volume three) but is set in a web of caves nearby: I found it somewhat amusing because it deals with kind of a mimics infestation, a type of monster my greedy characters fell prey of so often when I still played AD&D back in the day.

– Tanith Lee – Perfidious Amber
I’ve already stated what I think of Tanith Lee’s themes, so I skipped this story altogether.

– Simon R. Green – Awake, Awake, Ye Northern Winds
One of the best stories in the whole series: it blends pirates, magic, curses, ruins, undead and a fascinating setup into a story that isn’t properly sword and sorcery but feels like proper sword and sorcery. It also doubles as a source of inspiration for a great RPG adventure, one of those your players will remember for a long time.

– Robert Fester – Rats
Random acts of kindness save your life: as for the plot, it’s a run-of-the-mill generic fantasy story that reads like a chapter from a teenage novel and feels pretty dull as a standalone story.

– Robin Kincaid – The Forging
Skipped after a while: the two main characters (an aging barbarian and a childlike sorcerer) are obnoxious, even more so as the story keeps trying to be humorous.

– Keith Taylor – Hungry Grass
A pretty standard piece of quasi-historical fiction: in ancient Scotland, a slave flees after killing his master and can rely only on his wits and muscles. Forgettable.

– Edward DeGeorge – The Tale of the Cat, the Mouse, the Sorcerer, and the Children
Another lukewarm generic fantasy story that feels out of place. Mages don’t make good sword and sorcery heroes: they’re rather the villains, the rivals, or maybe the brawny hero’s sidekick; surely not the main characters. Moreover, a sword and sorcery hero needs a character of his own: and the evanescent catman (or, rather, the cattish-like-man) wizardly protagonist doesn’t have any.

– James Arthur Anderson – Golden Vanity
This a very enjoyable story, with a creative finale: it’s a piece of pseudo-historical fiction that has nothing historical but reads like a bronze-age story set in a fantasy world similar to our own. You can root for the protagonist and even his motivations are credible: all in all, this is a good sword and sorcery story.

– Darrell Schweitzer – The Castle of Kites and Crows
A bad story on the brink of blasphemy. The protagonist, Sir Julian, is the same gullible knight who was so easily cheated by the namesake hag in volume three: here he meets another kind of witch, who offers him to join her and the forces of hell against God, whom she accuses of being mad. Weren’t this enough to raise your eyebrows, the story also asserts that this witch is the virgin Mary, now a militant metoo feminist, who wouldn’t have been raised to the heavens but stayed on or rather below earth, hence adhering to the protestant doctrine.
All of this is a bit too much to bear, even more so from an anthology of fantasy stories, which should be a form of escapism: I understand and appreciate dark fantasy but this one definitely overplays its hand.

– Paul McGuire III – The Scream of the Rose
Very little happens in this Far-East-ninja-flavored story and this little doesn’t build up neither expectation nor atmosphere: the plot is flat and the characters dull, acting like puppets. The story closes with generous doses of drama.

– Gordon Linzner – Joni
A good fantasy story that, again, has nothing to do with sword and sorcery but still flows smoothly nonetheless: the setting is typical but creative enough, the characters likable, the plot linear with a credible final twist, as a priest of a god of death discovers the meaning of love.
It’s obvious from the start that the events will take a turn in the end: the real surprise is finding what this turn of events will be, as while reading the story several possible twists emerge, all of them equally plausible.

– Richard K. Lyon – Druin’s Heritage
The poor man’s Game of Thrones: it’s just an embarrassing story, with cardboard villains, dummies as supporting cast, an obnoxious protagonist (the titular Druin) who seems to have been copied from some weak fan fiction, and a «shocking» finale that makes you laugh instead and turns the story into a farce.
The heritage the title hints at is as dark as it could be: not only was Druin’s grandfather a necromancer but at one point his uncle – a dweller of otherworldly realms – is also introduced out of the blue to help take the protagonist out of trouble, since Druin is unfit to deal with the situation himself.
This is another story that clashes with the series’ theme: sword and sorcery has been replaced by generic fantasy in most of the published stories.

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