Monday, March 26, 2012

Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure

   I meant to review this way back last summer when I bought it.  Something made me think I'd actually read it in a couple of days and then write about it. Because of my usual laziness it didn't happen. I blew through two thirds of the book, then stopped.
   Which meant I missed out on some of an excellent anthology's best stories for seven months. Ah, the price of sloth.
   One of the inspirations for this site was the death of Dale Rippke's awesome "Heroes of Dark Fantasy" site. Through it I discovered Charles Saunders and David Gemmell (for which I am eternally grateful) and decided to finally give John Jakes a chance (for which I am, well, ... whatever).  When it went offline I wanted to replicate it or inspire folks to go out rediscover the behemoths of swords & sorcery.  Something, anything.
   Eventually my thoughts stopped jumping around I made some choices and this site was born.  One of the first things I did was to start building up the S&S section of my library.  Getting my hands on all those Lin Carter Flashing Swords! and Andrew Offutt Swords Against Darkness anthologies was the first big step to immersing myself into the depths and history of the genre.  Reading Ryre and Kardios for the first time made the money spent on those books worth it.
   The next step was seeing what was going on out in the modern world.  I'd already been reading some of the abundance of epic fantasy that veered close to swords & sorcery by folks like Steven Erikson but it tended to come in great honking big doorstopper books.  I wanted to know if there was something that had the short, sharp shock of the best of the pulp era or the 60's and 70's.  It took me time, but I found out about places like Black Gate that were promoting just that sort of thing.  A review there led me straight to Jason M. Waltz and Rogue Blades.
   Return of the Sword was released in October, 2010, and I know I'm late in writing about it, but here goes.  First off, it's at least an equal to any of the Carter's or Offutt's collections. Filled mostly with newish authors rather than long time genre fixtures it's more like the latter series. Waltz' introductory essay provides an interesting take on why we need and seek out tales of the heroic. His tastes as an editor are broad and he selected a stories from across the spectrum of S&S. We get ferocious barbarians, brave champions, wily thieves and many others. There're tales of violence, clever thinking and humor both broad and sly.
   Looking back at the collection's twenty-one stories I count eight of the first rank, meaning that either they blew me away or came darn close. I consider that a pretty good ratio. The ones that most made the book worth the price were;
The Wyrd of War - Bill Ward - a brutal last stand against the warped hordes of chaos
The Battle of Raven Kill - Jeff Draper - one warrior on a bridge against to give his tribe time enough to escape
The Red Worm's Way - James Enge - Morlock Ambrosius and corpse eating monsters, enough said
To Destroy All Flesh - Michael Ehart - the servant of the man eating Manthycore struggles in ancient Anatolia to free her beloved and herself from bondage
The Guardian of Rage - Thomas MacKay - a man fights his way through the sewers against demonically powered enemies
An Uneasy Truce in Ulam-Bator - Allen B. Lloyd and William Clunie - conniving second son and thieving barbarian run humorously afoul of misdirected schemes and magic
The Mask of the Oath - Steve Goble - tale of honor, powerful oaths bold fighting
Red Hands - Harold Lamb - historical fiction set along the Volga River in 17th cent Russia among the Cossacks and pirates - My first taste of one of REH's major influences

      The rest all had their interesting points. "Mountain Scarab" by Jeff Stewart and "Lair of the Cherufe" by Angeline Hawkes are both solid adventures tales. "Altar of the Moon" by Stacey Berg provides an interesting look at what happens after the hero's saved the kingdom.  The only story's inclusion I had an issue with was "The Dawn Tree" by S. C. Bryce. It's not really S&S and there's a little too much of a D&D vibe to it for my tastes. Still, I plan to reread it and give it another go.  There's just a lot of well written, great additions to the genre in this book there's no reason not to check it out.
   Other than James Enge this was my first exposure to these authors. I would check out any story by any of them based on what I've found in "Return of the Sword". At five bucks as a digital download there's no reason not to have this book. If this is the state of S&S right now, from an artistic perspective if not a commercial one (and I say that only because I just don't know anything about that), it's damn exciting.

NOTE: Dale Rippke's "Heroes of Dark Fantasy" might be gone but it lives in the Wayback Machine. Also, he's got a new blog called "The Darkstorm Files" where he's republishing parts of the HoDF and other essays. Highly recommended.

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