Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 1 - David A. Riley, ed.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of sword and sorcery fiction in recent months, and I’m still in the mood for it. So after finishing the new anthology NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD, I moved on to SWORDS & SORCERIES: TALES OF HEROIC FANTASY, VOLUME 1, which came out several years ago. Edited by David A. Riley and published by Parallel Universe Publications, it features eight stories, some by authors I’m familiar with and some by authors I’m encountering for the first time. The cover and interior illustrations are by Jim Pitts.

The book leads off with “The Mirror of Torjan Súl” by Steve Lines, a British writer and musician whose work I haven’t read before. It’s the story of an apprentice wizard sent by his necromancer master to an abandoned city in the desert to recover a mystical artifact of great power. Naturally, that abandoned city isn’t really abandoned at all. It’s full of dangerous creatures out for the protagonist’s blood, and he has to battle through them only to come face to face with an even worse menace as he tries to carry out his mission. To me, this story reads as if it were influenced quite a bit by the work of Clark Ashton Smith. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Smith’s stories, but I’m far from being any sort of expert on his work. “The Mirror of Torjan Súl” reminds me of it, anyway. And I found it to be a pretty enjoyable yarn, too, with plenty of action and a satisfying ending.

I’ve read several stories by Steve Dilks and enjoyed every one of them. His novella “The Horror From the Stars” is another tale of Bohun, the black warrior from Damzullah I first encountered in NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD. This story takes place before that one in Bohun’s adventurous life, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of it. Bohun’s search for his missing wife takes him to a sinister city in the desert, after he survives a deadly sandstorm, and what he finds there is even worse. Lots of bloody, eldritch action with an indomitable protagonist, told in a colorful style that races along. This is sword and sorcery in the classic mode and very well done.

I was aware of Susan Murrie Macdonald’s Western stories but didn’t know she also writes fantasy. Her short story in this volume, “Trolls Are Different”, is a very well-written, entertaining yarn about how a hearthwitch and a troll shaman deal with a threat to the land where they live. It’s light on the world-building but has plenty for the reader to understand what’s going on, and the characters are all likable. This is only borderline sword and sorcery—there’s a little sorcery (on-screen, so to speak) and a battle (off-screen)—but it’s a very enjoyable story no matter what you call it.

At first glance, “Chain of Command” by Geoff Hart is a gender-swapped Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser yarn, as female warriors Freya (big, good with a sword) and Mouse (little, quick, also good with a sword) are hired to accompany a couple of sorcerers to a lost city in a dangerous desert created by wizardry, on a quest to recover a mystical artifact. Geoff Hart, another writer new to me, readily acknowledges the Fritz Leiber influence in this yarn and spins his tale with such enthusiasm and skill that I had no trouble accepting Freya and Mouse as good characters and protagonists in their own right. This is another one in the classic sword and sorcery style, and a very good one, too.

Like “Trolls Are Different”, Gerri Leen’s story “Disruption of Destiny” doesn’t appear to be traditional sword and sorcery at first glance. It’s about a woman who’s a seer and sorcerer and her ability to take someone’s destiny and give it to someone else through a magical rite. In this story, that’s a soldier who’s fated to die in battle. So it technically fits the definition, although there’s no real action in the story. It is, however, superbly written, poignant, and very moving and satisfying. I know I’m burying the lede here, as they say, but this is a wonderful story. I’d never heard of Gerri Leen, but I’ll be on the lookout for her work.

Eric Ian Steele is another writer new to me. His story “The City of Silence” is about a former king who renounced his throne due to a terrible tragedy and now roams the land in silence as an adventurer. His only companion is the wizard who was his chief councilor. The two of them come to what seems at first to be an abandoned city. There are people living there, but they soon discover the population is under the heel of a supernatural menace. This is another terrific story with a couple of great protagonists, and I hope to find more by Steele.

This volume wraps up with two stories that didn’t really connect with me. “Red” by Chadwick Ginther is about a female warrior searching for her brother, who has been kidnapped for nefarious purposes by a sinister cult. “The Reconstructed God” by Adrian Cole (whose story in NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD I liked a lot) is about a magical familiar that has lost its master. Both are well-written with interesting characters, and I can’t tell you why they just didn’t resonate with me. It’s always possible that I just wasn’t in the right mood for them.

Overall, I found this volume to be really good, and if you’re a sword and sorcery fan, I think there’s a good chance you’d enjoy it quite a bit, too. I’m definitely planning to read others in the series. This one is available in paperback and e-book editions on Amazon.

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