Some of you may have seen advertisements in Cirsova for an anthology series called Swords of Steel. Well, if you enjoy Cirsova, I strongly recommend checking them out, and I’m not just saying that because they’ve advertised with us (but disclaimer, they have advertised with us; I was sent digital review copies of volumes 1 & 2, but also bought a physical copy of 1 and now intend to buy a physical copy of volume 2. Also, Howie K. Bentley is a Cirsova contributor with a short story, …Where There is No Sanctuary, in Cirsova #4.)
The anthology specifically invokes Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness anthologies, as well as other Appendix N authors, in the introduction. Does it stack up? Well, to be honest, I haven’t gotten around to reading SAD yet, but I would say that this anthology is well worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of Cirsova’s Sword & Sorcery pieces.
I realized that I said SoS was “the real deal” in no less than 4 separate tweets. Sounds kinda canned, but no, this is really good. If you’re wary of promises of sword & sorcery goodness that have let you down in the past, fear not, because this anthology delivers.
Some of it is a bit darker and more grisly than what you’d typically find in Cirsova, but most of the stories are of the caliber and quality I’d be more than happy to have in my anthologies. Dave Ritzlin has done a fantastic job with this. It’s an annual anthology, so you should have no trouble keeping up.
The concept behind the anthology series is short fiction by extreme metal musicians, so I have tried to accompany each piece with a sample track from the associated band when I could find it.
Note that I’m excluding the poetry selections not because they aren’t good poems but because I don’t feel qualified to comment on them beyond saying “Yeah, that was pretty metal”, and poetry is such a subjective thing that folks who don’t like it will not be swayed and those who do like it may for certain particulars I would not be able to convey in brief.
Into the Dawn of Storms – Byron A. Roberts
The first piece is actually the first chapter of novel/novella. I have mixed feelings about chapters and excerpts either presented as a standalone story or as a serial, and this piece does not really stand on its own – it’s setting and atmosphere framing a prose poem which points in the direction that the story will eventually go. That said, I enjoyed it well enough that I would like to eventually read the book in its entirety, either serialized in Swords of Steel or as a standalone volume.
The Riddle Master – E.C. Hellwell
The Riddle Master was kind of the odd story out in this collection, as more of a gothic horror than a Sword and Sorcery story. It tells a time-worn tale of the devil’s promise to grant earthly desires to cocky and overconfident artist, but it does so in such a wonderfully atmospheric manner that it’s fun to see it hit each beat as you see them coming. This was probably one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
Also, prog rock doom metal? How freaking awesome is that! Of the bands, this guy’s is probably my favorite as well.
The Mirror Beguiling – James Ashbey
Sometimes if you can add enough flourish and weird, even a story about a simple fetch-quest going awry with some twists and turns can be a lot of fun. I’d happily read more adventures of Ruga Hawkshand if there are any more of them.
All Will Be Righted on Samhain – Howie K. Bentley and David C. Smith
One of the longer pieces in Swords of Steel, this tells the story of Boadicea’s daughter seeking revenge on the Romans and summoning the Rune incarnate Thorn to punish those who raped her and defeated her mother. Incorporating a lot of pagan mysticism and the Wild Hunt, this was a very colorful story but also marked heavily by Bentley’s penchant for carnage and gore. If you can stomach it, it’s fascinating, but a bit extreme for my taste. Pretty sure it gave me nightmares.
Headbanging Warriors – M Harold Page
Interesting little non-fiction/essay/prose poem piece about the rhythm of battle.
Journey in Somnamblia – Jean-Pierre Abboud
Rogue magicians near a city powered by magic try to do something magical. This one showed some promise, but I feel like it did not really have a payoff.
Eve’s Grave – Scott Waldrop
There’s some beautiful and haunting imagery in this, but I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it. I ended up skimming and skipping a bit in this lengthy prose poem which was vaguely reminiscent of Nick Cave and The Dirty Three’s Time Jesum Transeuntum et Non Riverentum.
Blue Mistress – Jeffrey Black
A guy on a ship fishes out a mermaid; the ship is attacked by a giant squid monster. While by most accounts, this was just an “okay” story, Black really captured the “weird” aspect of the mermaid queen in a way that you don’t see often.
Vengeance of the Insane God – Jason Tarpey
A wandering warrior arrives at a city founded by his ancestors to learn the art of smithing only to find that the king has gone mad and sold out the inhabitants to deep ones. While imperfect, this is one of the stories that I hope is part of an ongoing series or uses a recurring character. Plus, if next time I run a D&D game, I’m totally using the idea of forging swords using the ashes of ones ancestors; not only was it your father’s and your grandfather’s blade, but the carbon in the steel is their ashes, so the blade IS your father and grandfather!
This story is an expansion of this track. This is probably my favorite of the bands after Hellwell.