The Book of Swords is an anthology of sixteen “sword and sorcery” (or maybe “epic”) fantasy short stories (novelettes, really) edited by Gardner Dozois. What is “sword and sorcery”? The genre that consists of stories with swords and magic and kingdoms set in an alternative-kind-of-medieval land. That’s pretty much all that the stories of this collection have in common. The book does a terrific job representing the wide variety of styles and types of tales that can be told in that genre. Some are funny. Some are sad. Most of them are violent. Some of the stories are written by hot new writers in the fantasy genre, others are written by seasoned veterans that have been around for decades.
I’ll just cut to the chase – you should buy this book if any of the following applies to you:
- You liked previous books edited by Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin, books like Rogues, Dangerous Women, and Warriors. Even though Martin did not co-edit this anthology, it has the same style and is of equal (or greater) quality than those collections.
- You really freaking love fantasy literature and want as much good stuff as possible.
- You have read Lord of the Rings and Ice and Fire and would like to explore a wider variety of fantasy authors without shelling out big bucks.
- You couldn’t really get into the Lord of the Rings books because they seemed more like an exercise in language creation, and you couldn’t really get into A Song of Ice and Fire because the style was too “faux-Romantic” for your tastes. But you think you’d like stories about swords and dragons and quests and stuff if they were written in a more straight-forward fashion. You’d like to explore more fantasy authors but you don’t know where to start.
- You are a fan of any of the authors in the collection.
- You like complicated, conflicted anti-heroes. And vikings.
If any of the above applies to you, you should buy this book.
A full review of each story would result in a 5000 word review that no one would want to read, so I have instead provided a quick description of the stories contained in the collection along with my brief thoughts on them. If you want to discuss any of the stories further (or tell me how I’m an idiot), feel free to do so in the comments section or twitter.
The stories do not share a common storyline or universe. They are all independent of one another, so you do not have to read them in any particular order.
The Best Man Wins ~ KJ Parker. A military veteran-turned-swordmaker crafts a sword for a nobleman wishing to avenge the death of the nobleman’s father. Dark, grim, and nuanced, this story is a great beginning to the collection.
Her Father’s Sword ~ Robin Hobb. Set in the same universe as Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, a village recovers from an attack by raiders. Will their previously captured family members return? Will they return…changed? The actions of the protagonist confused me and felt forced by plot rather than character. Nevertheless, this is an effective, unnerving short story set in an interesting universe.
The Hidden Girl ~ Ken Liu. Kind of like a mix of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings, in which really cool supernatural Asian assassins do really cool supernatural Asian assassin things.
The Sword of Destiny ~ Matthew Hughes. One of the goofier, lighthearted stories in this anthology that involves a wizard’s assistant and his quest to obtain The Sword of Destiny. Fans of Terry Pratchett will appreciate it.
“I Am a Handsome Man,” Said Apollo Crow ~ Kate Elliott. I did not like this story, mostly because it did not feel like a story so much as a rough draft of a description of a watercolor painting of some birds. If my description of this story is weird and confusing…well…that’s the feeling I had after reading the whole thing, so we’re in the same boat.
The Triumph of Virtue ~ Walter Jon Williams. An aspiring lawyer attempts to solve an attempted murder. This is set in the author’s Quillifer universe, and it is my understanding that this short story may be the first few chapters of that longer novel. Or maybe it serves as a kind of prelude. I don’t know, I haven’t read Quillifer yet. But I bought that novel based upon this story, and I’m very excited about it.
The Mocking Tower ~ Daniel Abraham. A young man visits an enchanted realm to obtain a valuable object. I loved the world-building, but the action and overrall narrative itself were uninteresting.
Hrunting ~ C.J. Cherryh. The sequel to Beowulf that you didn’t know you needed. Loved it.
A Long, Cold Trail ~ Garth Nix. A Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz tale about a kind of demon hunter knight and his kind of super magical assistant/mentor (that’s in a puppet thingy) who are trying to stop a possessed person from wiping out a city. It’s funny and exciting. The setting is also interesting. I am planning on checking out more adventures of Sir Hereward.
When I Was a Highwayman ~ Ellen Kushner. A master fencer becomes a highwayman. I did not like this story. It somehow felt both too long and too short, with an inconsistent tone.
The Smoke of Gold is Glory ~ Scott Lynch. A small party of famous adventurers attempts to slay a dragon. Classic.
The Colgrid Conundrum ~ Rich Larson. Set in a more urban, darker fantasy world – reminiscent of that of Six of Crows – two murdering thieves work to obtain justice for someone else. It becomes complicated.
The King’s Evil ~ Elizabeth Bear. Set in her Stone in the Skull world, a party of adventurers is on an island to recover some treasure. They fight stuff. This book was like a noble gas; I had no reaction to it. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. It’s just…ya know…fine.
Waterfalling ~ Lavie Tidhar. I freaking hated this so much. I DNRed it after a couple of pages. It is written with old-fashioned prose, so already I didn’t like it. To compound that issue, this story did not feel like a stand-alone but as a continuation of a longer-running series of adventures. If someone were to plop you down to watch Game of Thrones for the first time but instead of starting with episode one, season one, they started with season five, episode 4, I imagine that would be similar to the experience of trying to read this thing.
The Sword Tyraste ~ Cecelia Holland. Vikings. I mean, if that doesn’t get you psyched, nothing else I say is gonna do it. VIKINGS!
The Sons of the Dragon ~ George RR Martin. Another one of Martin’s historical-type stories set in Westeros. If you are thinking of buying this book just to obtain more information of Westeros, don’t bother. Buy a World of Ice and Fire and wait for Fire and Blood. I don’t think very much new information is included that is not already present in World of Ice and Fire. Most of the negative reviews that I’ve seen on amazon or goodreads for the book are because people bought it solely for this Martin story and are disappointed.
I rate short story collections by a sort of subjective average of all of the stories contained in it.
Rating: 4 stars.