Short Reviews – Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians

I’m going to do something a little bit differently today. This won’t be a standard Short Review, because I’ll be taking on an entire collection in a single post. Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians, edited by Lin Carter, is a collection of short fiction by S.A.G.A. members was published in 1977.

The Bagful of Dreams – Jack Vance

This is the first Cugel the Clever story I’ve read, and will certainly not be the last. I don’t know that I’ll try to summarize it here, because last night I found myself unable to summarize it to my girlfriend in any sensible manner. It may be kind of a cop-out to say that Cugel is a great example of the Trickster character, but he is, and in a way that evokes a very folkish and mythic feel, as though this were one of many stories told about the great fire long ago.

One of my issues with Vance is that he often gives us wild names of various monsters without any concrete descriptions to help form them in my mind. While it was a bit annoying in The Dragon Masters as a work of Science Fantasy, it works in Cugel, because it makes sense for a mythic trickster to face assorted jabberwocks and jubjub birds as he schemes and tricks his way out of one predicament to another.

Jack Vance is the Voltaire of SF/F:

“…may I inquire your opinion of Cuirnif? What reception may I expect? Are the folk notably eccentric?”
“To some extent,” replied Erwig. “They use no whitewash in their hair; and they are slack in their religious observances, making obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand on the abdomen, instead of upon the left buttock, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What is your opinion?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method caries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views, coming as it does from you, an expert traveler!”

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Portable holes, for one. Much of the story revolves around a magically created portable hole to another universe from which a tentacle of an extra-planar monster emerges.

Also, Vancian magic: not as a system, per se, but as flavor of the implied setting of your typical low-level fantasy game. The lord is endlessly fascinated by magic and will fete any wizard who knows one or two spells because magic is so damn cool, in part because there’s so little of it. Magic doesn’t have to be useful, only neat.

The Tupilak – Poul Anderson
Mermaid adventures can be awesome too, if Poul Anderson is writing them. I like to think of this as a distant sequel to Anya Seton’s Avalon wherein things have started going to crap for the descendants of Ketil the Viking in Greenland. By the time the Merfolk show up asking about their displaced seakin, things are looking pretty grim. The Viking lord wants vengeance on the Inuit with whom his daughter is now living; his daughter wants to be left alone and for the vikings to leave Greenland because they’re doomed if they stay there. She does what any Viking daughter in the same situation would do: convince the Inuit shaman to lash together a chimeric sea-beast and magically animate it to wreak havoc on the Vikings.

Though we get teased with the prospect of incest and Mermaid sex (Anya Seton probably would’ve gone into naughty detail before a priest showed up to admonish everyone and preach repentance before the lord), Anderson gives you just enough to consider the implications of the soul, such as when a viking lad is chastised by his father for having pawed at the captive Mermaid, before diving (quite literally!) into action. We get a bloody battle in the icy sea against an undead/construct that eats men, but can’t digest them, so is full of rotting waterlogged corpses of its victims. We get pathos and tragedy of Vikings dying out in Greenland and love so suffocating that has brought death incarnate upon a people. We get sexy forbidden merfolk (“She’s the fairest sight I’ve ever seen, and brazenly clad.” “A vessel of hell.”)!

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The Tupilak itself, obviously. It’s weird monster made of wood, bones and skins all lashed together into a hideous form so that it has something like the body of a small whale, the jaws of a shark and the claws of a bear. It’s animated through magic that causes it to be possessed by the spirits of the ocean. The only way it can be destroyed is if the skins can be cut off so that its stuffings fall out. Naturally, it’s very resistant to the sorts of piercing weapons that boatmen would have, and you can’t get close enough to it to slash it without it capsizing your boat and eating your crew.

We also get a little bit on Fey alignment here. Merfolk are not of the mortal world (though these are half-human), and therefore are regarded as not having souls. So, why are Fey “non-lawful”? Well, they don’t have souls, therefore they cannot swear oaths upon them. Unable to swear by God, the Saints or their soul, they cannot be trusted to be bound by strictures of man’s laws, natch.

Storm in a Bottle – John Jakes
I was ready to hate this one, because Brak seems like such a knockoff of Conan (or at least pop-culture Conan) or any sort of generic Barbarian protagonist. But damnit, it was a fun story! Any story in which a barbarian has to kill an evil wizard has some merit to it, and this was just so well done that by the end, I didn’t mind that a generic Barbarian had done it.

The plot could’ve been pulled from a Sword & Sorcery rollodex: barbarian is captured, evil overlord gives him challenge to end a magical crisis plaguing his land, barbarian solves the crisis by killing the overlord’s court wizard, evil overlord is all “I said I’d let you live, I didn’t say I’d set you free, bwahaha!” But complaining about the unoriginality here feels like complaining about seeing trees, rolling hills, and pastures full of horses on a Sunday drive through the country.

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The wizard in this is pretty powerful, but all of his best stuff comes from the school of illusion. Use of illusion magic to create mass public hysteria and a fighter’s ability to break illusions by breaking things and disbelieving is Fantasy 101, but fun to see in action.

The titular Storm in a Bottle is literally a storm in a bottle; the evil wizard has imprisoned all of the rain in the region in a magic vessel. Great magic item with a lot of fun potential.

Swords Against the Marluk – Katherine Kurtz
From the intro, it’s pretty obvious that Lin Carter is hotted out by Katherine Kurtz. She’s a lady. And a blonde!

This was the only story in this collection I just couldn’t get into. Apparently it was written as a prequel to her (then) trilogy about the Deryni, a fictional race of, I don’t know, Welsh Elves or something? It was obviously one of those stories where it would’ve helped to have some context from having read the other books, but it was, to me, just a parade of names while the king and elf-liege prepared for a big fight against some guy. They do a ritual thing, everyone is all “Oh, golly, gosh, the king!”, and they fight the guy. The guy’s daughter gets away to become the main badguy of the previous books or something?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – For me, nothing. If you’re into stuff like Pendragon, or other quasi-Arthurian stuff, you might get more out of it than I did.

The Lands Beyond the World – Michael Moorcock
Like Storm in a Bottle, I was prepared to hate this. This was part of the collection of novelettes that made up Sailor on the Seas of Fate. While it was The Vanishing Tower where I finally burned out and said “no more”, it had been The Sailor on the Seas of Fate that crushed any enthusiasm that had carried over from Elric of Melnibone. In fact, out of the four Elric collections I read, the only story I remembered after the first book, apparently, was the first one from SotSoF, and only that because of how much I hated it. It was some latter day eternal champion nonesuch which I may have enjoyed more if I had been a fan of more of Moorcock’s franchises, but did not make a good impression as the second Elric story I read. Regarding that tale, I agree with Elric’s sentiments: “I’ll be glad, Captain, if you would cease such vapid mystification. I’m weary of it.”

I was expecting the worst, because the first chapter was there to wrap up the Gagak and Agak story before dumping Elric off on his next adventure. But it was a pretty solid adventure. Elric’s stranded on a magic island and kills a bunch of pirates with a new companion who happened to be in the right place at the right time and also hated pirates. Evil wizard wants a girl who is the reincarnation of the love he foresook, who happened to be a passenger on the new Elric-buddy’s ship. Elric eventually puts together the legend of the girl’s betrothed with the mystery of ghost horse and summons the horse’s rider from limbo to get its revenge on the evil wizard. The story was decent enough to remind me that I told myself I’d give Elric another go one of these days.

Still, during the fights where Elric is going up against over a dozen guys, I’m reminded of Fafhrd remembering tales of great swordsmen able to fight against 4 men at once and how those tales were all lies. Oh, well. Magic sword, right?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Well, the Planar Sea, for one thing. Given this sort of stuff, it’s not surprising that the Brits stuffed the Fiend Folio with Planar Pirates.

I’ve got my reading and work on Short Reviews cut out for me.  Over the weekend, I grabbed another handful of pulps and some old paperbacks.  I now have a lot of Vance, a lot of Leiber and a lot of Brackett on my list, plus an impressive growing collection of vintage pulp mags from the 40s and 50s.  I don’t know how many novels I’ll do posts on, but I’ll try to cover anything out of pulp or collection of short stories.  And after finishing The Falling Torch, I can say that Algis Budrys writes Sci-Fi as well as he writes about it.

Minor addendum: A thought occurs…  Or maybe just an observation.  I keep seeing bits about how Kurtz wrote sword and sorcery as though it were historical fiction.  On the other hand, Anya Seton wrote historical fiction as though it were sword and sorcery.

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4 responses to “Short Reviews – Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians

  1. The Anderson story was developed into the novel “The merman’s children” — far and away one of my favorite historical/fantasy novels.
    Jakes is always surprising me. I always think of him as the guy who wrote endless family sagas about US history but his fantasy stuff is really entertaining.
    I think the Deryni are *psionic* Welsh elves … I should give Kurtz a chance but so far everything I know about that series sounds pretty uninteresting to me.
    That aside, this is a pretty amazing colleciton. Somehow Carter managed not to include one of his own stories in an anthology he edited! It might be the only time that ever happened.

    • It was a really great collection! Lin mentions that Anderson was going to collect the stories once he’d written enough of them, and thanks to commenters here, I know what book to look for. I’ve probably got half a dozen other PA stories to get to first in that huge stack of Astounding I got a few weeks back, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

      And yeah, I don’t think I’d’ve ever given Brak the Barbarian a chance on its own, but I’m probably going to snatch up any John Jakes books I see from now on.

      I’m willing to Kurtz the benefit of the doubt for one more story. Even though this was the first story in chronological order, it was one of those cases where you just felt like you were dropped into something that you had no idea what was going on. I think it’s just one of the big challenges of episodic fantasy; you have do just enough re-introducing so that the story stands on its own but if you do too much re-introducing, every story comes across as samey and bad, especially when being read as a collection.

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