Anthologies of sword-and-sorcery stories have always been thin on the ground. Credit must be given to L. Sprague de Camp for getting things rolling with collections like The Spell of Seven. In the ’70s, Lin Carter moved the concept forward with his “The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories” (DAW) anthologies. One can argue that ol’ Linwood was not much of a writer, but I would categorically state that the man had taste as an editor. He gave authors like Charles R. Saunders and Adrian Cole some of their first breaks. I recommend picking up every volume in the series edited by Carter. Don’t bother with the Saha-edited books.
Coincident with the closing days of Lin’s run, Zebra Books fired up a rival series called “Swords Against Darkness”, edited by Andrew J. Offutt. Like Carter, Offutt could be viewed as no great shakes in the authorial department, but his editorial acumen was similarly keen. David Drake, [redacted] and other worthies made the jump to paperbacks (and greater things) in the several volumes of the “SAD” series. In addition, Manly Wade Wellman’s “Kardios” series finally saw print. Once again, highly recommended. The quality was satisfactorily high from book to book.
The rest of the 1980s and 1990s deserve little mention and slight regard when it comes to S&S anthologies that published rising talents. One notable exception was Asprin’s “Thieves’ World” series. Robert Adams’ “Barbarians” books contained a few new gems. Wagner’s “Echoes of Valor” series was dedicated exclusively to republishing lost treasures from the pulp era, most notably the first ever printing of “The Black Stranger.”
Once we found out (some more pleased than others) that the “Y2K” thing wasn’t going to send us all into the depths of a “new Dark Age” (as HPL might say), the odds for fresh S&S anthologies seemed as grim as ever. Then the Robert E. Howard Del Reys hit the stands and sword-and-sorcery looked to have a fighting chance in the book marketplace. Pitch Black Books jumped into the fray with Lords of Swords and Sages and Swords, both worthy collections. However, general (and shameful) indifference on the part of sword-and-sorcery fans seems to have sounded the death knell for that particular series.
Which brings us to Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Featuring a stirring cover from Johnney Perkins and edited by Jason M. Waltz, this trade paperback is the newest claimant to enter the battle-circle once dominated in days of yore by DAW and Zebra.
The tales within Return of the Sword are a bit uneven. Let’s start with the ones I rate as “worth reading”:
“Altar of the Moon” from Stacy Berg is well-written and quite short, being concerned with a cursed weapon. Fantasy fiction nowadays has come to be so bloated that short, sweet (but grim) tales such as this one are welcome.
“The Battle of Raven Kill” is a last-stand story from Jeff Draper that, despite some weak points background-wise, ends with some satisfyingly defiant bloody glory reminiscient of “The Valley of the Worm” and “The Children of the Night.”
“Fatefist at Torkas Nahl” by David Pitchford (late of Pitch Black Books) is a tale of another last stand and another cursed blade with a satisfyingly twistful ending.
Ty Johnston’s, “Deep in the Land of the Ice and Snow,” (gotta love the title) is a yarn of defiance (of the gods), wolves and (self-made) destiny.
“The Red Worm’s Way” from James Enge begins with a quotation from Swinburne. REH would approve. This tale features Enge’s protagonist, Morlock, and draws on the author’s knowledge of Classical lore.
“An Uneasy Truce in Ulam-Bator: A Tale of Gerhard and Ez-Arod” by Lloyd and Clunie borrows nomenclature wholesale (and poorly, in my opinion) from various sources, but is a (basically) well-wrought and amusing tale in the Leiber tradition.
On to the “well worth reading” category:
Bill Ward’s, “The Wyrd of War,” is a short tale that manages to encapsulate all of armegeddon on Ward’s world of Toth. Exceedingly grim, this story reminded me of Karl Edward Wagner in a very good way. One of my favorites from this volume.
“What Heroes Leave Behind” is a fine story of sacrifice and courage by Nicholas Ian Hawkins.
Jeff Stewart’s, “Mountain Scarab: A Tale of Sigurd Grimbow,” is a sweet little story about the aforementioned Sigurd, bandits and (dis)honor amongst thieves. Sigurd (despite his less-than-unique name) is a solid, bad-ass S&S hero.
“Storytelling” from EE Knight is an essay on how (and how not) to write a fantasy story (especially one set firmly within the sword-and-sorcery sub-genre). I thoroughly enjoyed this particular piece.
SC Bryce’s, “The Dawn Tree,” is perhaps a bit more “high fantasy” than some of the other selections in this volume, but I found her plot and execution quite rousing.
“The Mask Oath” from Steve Goble features oath-fastness, carnage and true love in equal measures. I ended up liking this tale far more than expected.
Bruce Durham’s “The Valley of Bones” is a simple, but very well-wrought, story of one tough soldier (Mortlock) caught in a battle of swords (and pikes and gunpowder) versus sorcery. There are echoes of REH, Gemmell and Drake. It features undead mammoths. What ain’t there to love?
“Red Hands” from Harold Lamb. If nothing else, this rarity from one of the fundamental influences upon Robert E. Howard should persuade any S&S/historical adventure fan to purchase this volume.
There you have it. This SEK boy’s views and reviews concerning the contents of Return of the Sword. Rage of the Behemoth, a companion volume, is forthcoming from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Robert E. Howard laid the template for short story S&S, such as these collections contain. If S&S fans do not support such publications, who will?