Sometimes, what is best in life is not to crush your enemies, to drive them before you, and to hear the lamentations of their life partners. It is instead to read about someone else doing the crushing, driving, etc., and that’s exactly what The Sword and Sorcery Anthology from Tachyon provides. A big, meaty collection of genre highlights that runs the gamut from old-school classics to new interpretations, it serves as an excellent introduction and primer in one.
The stories in the book are organized roughly chronologically, and they span roughly eight decades. Up first are two undisputed classics of the genre, starting with Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”, which shows a more thoughtful and generous Conan than those raised on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cinematic exploits might expect. It’s paired with C. L. Moore’s sinister “Black God’s Kiss”, a more mature and nuanced piece than Howard’s. Having Moore’s piece up so early also manifests one of the themes of the anthology, namely, that sword & sorcery isn’t just a boy’s club. In its worst (Gorean) manifestations, it can certainly come across as juvenile and testosterone-laden, but the lineup here makes a convincing case that there’s far more to swordslinging than boys’ own stories.
From Moore, the table of contents jumps to the Sixties with Fritz Leiber’s “The Unholy Grail”, which introduces one of the most iconic S&S characters of all time: The Grey Mouser. Here, the Mouser is just known as Mouse, a young, overemotional apprentice seeking revenge on his master’s murderer. The path to vengeance is a long and dangerous one, and along the way, we can see the Mouser acquiring the moral slipperiness and strength of purpose that will someday make him a fitting partner for the barbarian Fafhrd.
Michael Moorcock also represents the same decade with an Elric story, “The Caravan of Broken Dreams”. Taken from relatively early in Elric’s bloodstained career, it shows him simultaneously attempting to be the noble defender of his adopted city and, of course, unleashing his soul-drinking blade Stormbringer to wreak untold havoc among his foes. The story ends tragically, as Elric stories are wont to do; much more positive is Joanna Russ’s “The Adventuress”, from a mere five years later.
Of the stories from the Seventies, the standout is David Drake’s chilling “The Barrow Troll”, which combines sword and sorcery tropes with a potent morality play. Other entries include another Norse-themed tale, Poul Anderson’s “The Tale of Houk”, and an entry featuring S&S hall-of-famer Karl Edward Wagner’s sorcerer-king Kane. “Undertow”, the latter, feels a bit constricted in its early pages, but Wagner masterfully develops the story’s central conceit of obsessive, immortal love and the price one might be willing to pay to escape it.
Moving on, Charles R. Saunders’ African-themed “Gimmile’s Songs” kicks down another wall of preconception, namely that S&S is confined to European-derived fantasy worlds. Rachel Pollack’s “The Red Guild” is another highlight, and Glen Cook contributes a chunk of his Dread Empire series with “Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted With Defeat”. Here, the addition of a new element – a soldier on the run from his past – kicks over the fragile balance of a remote colony, with tragic consequences all the way around.
From here, the book accelerates rapidly into the new millennium, with nods to George R.R. Martin and Jane Yolen, among others. This is where the only real disappointment of the book, Jeffrey Ford’s “The Coral Heart” comes in, but it also features the two stories that stretch the genre the most. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” gloriously subverts all of the standard S&S tropes, from the wenching, boozing hero to the antagonist who lives for an ancestral blood feud. And Michael Swanwick’s “The Year of Three Monarchs” echoes Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories in its bemused detachment and clever plotting.
Die-hard fans of sword and sorcery may have quibbles here and there with the story selection – the absence of Clark Ashton Smith and David Gemmell in particular may excite debate. On the other hand, for the newcomer looking for an introduction to S&S or a reader looking to explore the boundaries of the genre, it’s an excellent and broad survey.