While I enjoyed William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, the 225,000 words of THE WELL AT THE WORLD’s END seems to exhaust his abilities (cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights with current holder). The story has a familiar set-up—a King’s son rides out into the world seeking adventure—and Morris still has a flair for mock-medieval prose, but Thomas Malory, Chretien and other genuine medieval writers packed their stories with duels, jousts, betrayals, sorcery, wars and other action (in some ways Morte D’Arthur is a summer movie blockbuster). Morris, by contrast, meanders along with descriptions of the pretty scenery and lots of talk, with the actual adventures scattered rather thinly (there’s way more talk about how dangerous various places are than actually spent dealing with danger). In the category of classics that don’t deserve their status, alas. However probably a strong influence on later admirers such as C.S. Lewis—I can’t look at Morris’s Dead Tree scene (one of the best) and not see a resemblance to Deathwater Island in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS Vol II has fewer, longer stories than the first collection including return appearances by Ramsey Campbell’s Ryre (a very good one) and Manly Wade Wellman’s Kardios of Atlantis (disappointing after the first story) plus entries by then-unknown Tanith Lee and a Witch World short by Andre Norton (a nice twist on the idea of gods depending on their worshippers’ belief in them). Unfortunately, David Harris’ “The Coming of Age in Zamora,” while not as hideous as the first book’s “Pride of the Fleet,” is heavily into rape humor. The protagonist is an aging Conanesque warrior-turned-king, trying to prove he’s as tough as he ever was; when a woman turns him down he decides to rape her, then realizes that because her family are politically well-connected, dang it, he can’t without repercussions! This sort of thing never happened when he was a wandering adventurer and could rape anyone he liked without consequence! And yes, this is meant as LOL boffo yoks stuff, and the protagonist is supposed to be sympathetic and likeable (we also get him telling the woman later that if she submits without resisting he won’t rape her, so presumably Harris thinks coerced sex isn’t rape if the rapist doesn’t actually use force). I do hope there’s no more of this in later collections.
THE BOOK: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan W. Watts, lost me in the first few paragraphs, when Watts zensplains that the reason nobody understands that we are all one with God is that questioning the illusion of the ego is a taboo comparable to discussions of sex in centuries past (the fact that most people don’t believe our oneness with the universe isn’t proof they’ve been brainwashed or the truth has been repressed). This continues in the same vein, adding up to one of the weakest books on Eastern mysticism I’ve run across.
THE BROKEN SWORD by Poul Anderson (cover by George Barr, rights with current holder)was one of his first two novels, appearing the same year as Brain Wave, then vanishing into obscurity until Ballantine Fantasy Books reprinted it in the 1970s. If you like grim fantasies, this doom-laden story should work: An elflord switches a human baby for a changeling, the baby growing up into the mighty warrior Skafloc, the changeling into a brutal berserker. When a witch sets out for revenge on Skafloc’s human family, both changeling and Skafloc are drawn into the web at the same time they’re caught up in a war between trolls and elves. Stylishly written, this was a great read.