Okay, first things first… this volume’s obscure. You’re not likely to get it on the cheap the way that you can with some other Appendix N books. Grognardia doesn’t appear to cover anything except the essay. I can’t find “serious” reviews of this thing, either. That leaves me and Tor.com picking over the finer points of the stories here. Given how significant this book is, I am surprised that so few people have taking a stab a nailing down what’s interesting about it.
So here goes:
- When you look back at something like this, there is a powerful urge to pivot to “things are better now and getting better.” My piece and one at Black Gate both take that tack. The reason is, this book really captures a watershed moment in fantasy fiction and gaming. You can’t really read it without reflecting on how things got to that point, what’s happened since, and where we’re headed now.
- James Maliszewski’s “opinion that it’s no mistake Dungeons & Dragons was published when it was” is the real kicker here. Offutt’s collection more than any other item on the Appendix N list hammers this point home. A great many classic works were looted to get the game off the ground… but the chassis that stuff got bolted onto was pure seventies heroic fantasy.
- I haven’t read all of the fiction in early issues of The Dragon, but my impression is this collection represents the sort of thing that TSR was looking for back then.Those magazine stories always struck me as kind of odd… but they were consistent with the times.
- Tor.com makes a nod towards Offut’s disdain for the whole “male gaze” thing. But there is also an indication that he was aware of sff’s “weird” side. Based on what was going on with Marion Zimmer Bradley at the time, this kinky stuff is far less cute that it might otherwise be taken as.
- Finally… as far as all around gaming inspiration goes, this is the one book that will equip you to actually stock up that wilderness map you’ve been dreading working on. I know I usually have no idea what to do with that sort of thing when I have a map in front of me. But this is the stuff. A hundred short stories and short novels are a far better resource for game masters running wide open games than just about anything else. Not having this sort of thing imprinted on your brain affects both how you run games and how you design adventures!
Based on all of that… I’ve gotta say, that this book is easily one of the most significant works on the Appendix N list.
RETROSPECTIVE: Swords Against Darkness III edited by Andrew J. Offutt
Grognardia — “Of course, given the sheer volume of new fantasies being written during the ’70s, it was inevitable that a significant portion of them would be, at best, mediocre and, at worst, execrable. This was particularly the case with regards to ‘heroic fantasy,’ the term then used to refer to what we nowadays call sword-and-sorcery tales — the genre Robert E. Howard pioneered in the 1930s.”
Tor.com — “I bet this article blew Gary—can I call him just Gary? After reading his book selections I feel like I’ve gotten to know him better, gotten to a first name basis?—Gygax’s mind. These days, you’d expect to read an essay like this…in the middle of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It is Poul Anderson, Golden Age giant, telling people that if they want their fantasy story to make sense, you have to put in sensible worldbuilding elements.”
Black Gate — “It has sometimes been said that we are now witnessing the Golden Age of fantasy — and, with so many series out there varying from the extremely sophisticated to the utterly banal, it’s hard to disagree with the statement at least from the standpoint of quantity. It seems to me fantasy has had to change from it’s sword and sorcery roots in order to generate the mass appeal that it now holds; it had to get away from many of the flaws Anderson is drawing attention to. In some ways it’s a shame that the pendulum has swung so far away from the rollicking good action tale, but it does show signs of swinging back and, perhaps, ushering in a new crop of tales at once sophisticated and viscerally paced. I don’t know if this really is the Golden Age, and I can’t claim that I like all the changes I see in the genre, but I do believe fantasy has improved with time — and I fully expect it to get even better.”
The New York Times Magazine — “In the mid-1960s, Dad purchased several porn novels through the mail. My mother recalls him reading them with disgust — not because of the content, but because of how poorly they were written. He hurled a book across the room and told her he could do better. Mom suggested he do so. According to her, the tipping point for Dad’s full commitment to porn, five years later, was my orthodontic needs.”