It's basically about what the blog author, tansyrr, looks for in anthologies. Of course, it has a few things that... perplex me.
I can’t think of much classic short fiction, in fact, that I have read without the aid of meta text in some way. I read Robert E Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in the Fantasy Masterworks editions, with essays attached. When it came to Conan in particular I know I found the essay a lot more interesting than the fiction itself… my, that stuff is hard work to get through.
Now, she was eager to point out there was nothing wrong with Leiber, but it's just Conan she had a problem with:
Nothing unreadable about Leiber, I didn’t mean to imply that there was! The Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stories were fascinating to me and I enjoyed them greatly – even coming to them, as I did, post-Pratchett.
Conan is another matter. The prose was readable enough (if on the purple side) but I found the stories incredibly dull and hard to identify with. I was reading it for the sake of historical reference but I struggled to get through the whole (first?) volume. On the whole I find reading about Conan & his creator far more interesting than the stories themselves.
I should add I think Conan is an essential read for any fantasist – it’s important to know about where we come from, and in particular to know that fantasy isn’t just what comes out of the Tolkien tradition – but after a couple of hours of jewels and pale-skinned maidens and muscle flexing and having to provide all the irony MYSELF I was dying for something a bit more… civilised.
I guess all I can do is sigh. (Why the hell would you need irony anyway? Does Sword-and-Sorcery have to be ironic?)
One problem, I think, is that she only read the Fantasy Masterworks collection The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle. I loved Fantasy Masterworks - they were my gateway to Conan - but in retrospect, I do see a big problem with setting the stories in a chronological order - it leads to stretches of similar adventures happening in quick succession, which might be a bit repetitive for some.
"The Hyborian Age"
"The Tower of the Elephant"
"The Hall of the Dead" (synopsis)
"The God in the Bowl"
"Rogues in the House"
"The Hand of Nergal" (fragment)
"The Frost-Giant’s Daughter"
"Queen of the Black Coast"
"The Vale of Lost Women"
"The Snout in the Dark" (draft)
"Shadows in the Moonlight"
"A Witch Shall Be Born"
"Shadows in Zamboula"
"The Devil in Iron"
"The People of the Black Circle"
"The Slithering Shadow"
"Drums of Tombalku" (draft)
"The Pool of the Black One"
As you can see, Volume 1 has nearly all the mediocre Conan stories - and crucially, it ends on one. Seven excellent stories against seven mediocre stories, the very dry "The Hyborian Age," and four incomplete fragments, drafts or synopses. Virtually half of the stories in the volume are "the bad ones," and they're mostly in the second half. This is a problematic ratio.
We start off well with "The Tower of the Elephant," "The God in the Bowl," "Rogues in the House," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast." Then we get the extremely difficult "Vale of Lost Women," followed by "Black Colossus." But after that, we go through no less than four mediocre Conan stories before emerging to find "The People of the Black Circle," and after that, we end on another two mediocre ones. "The Pool on the Black One" is an average Conan, but it's not a great way to end a volume.
Having "Shadows in the Moonlight," "A Witch Shall Be Born," "Shadows in Zamboula," "The Devil in Iron,"
"The Slithering Shadow," and "The Pool of the Black One" in such close proximity can give the impression that the Conan stories were getting more and more repetitive and formulaic - a very bad impression to make
In contrast, here's The Conan Chronicles: Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon:
Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age"Red Nails"
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
"Beyond the Black River"
"The Black Stranger"
"Wolves Beyond the Border" (Draft)
"The Phoenix on the Sword"
"The Scarlet Citadel"
"The Hour of the Dragon" (poem)
"The Hour of the Dragon"
Barring "Jewels of Gwahlur" and the unfinished "Wolves Beyond the Border," every single one of those stories is a great Conan tale. But even then, there are problems: having THotD follow TSC and TPotS so soon might be a bit much. I never found it insurmountable, though, and it's certainly better than having to go through four mediocre Conan stories. Curiously, The Conan Chronicles ends with the beginning: "Cimmeria" was written before the Conan stories, yet it is used as the end of the Conan saga here. Interesting.
The Del Reys alleviate this problem in many ways. There are at least four stories separating TPotS from TSC, for one thing. Unfortunately, it also suffers the problem of having more than a few mediocre Conan stories, and it too ends on a mediocre note. Eight excellent stories to five mediocre stories is a lot better, though. The Bloody Crown of Conan has two excellent and one mediocre (which it ends on), while The Conquering Sword of Conan has two for three (finally ending on a high note).
Yet after all this, I think tansyrr is just too affected by the glut of modern fantasy to be able to appreciate past giants. This post was most telling:
I worried about Joanna Russ’ The Adventures of Alyx for some time before I read it. I was expecting a Jirel of Joiry type thing, and Jirel of Joiry (the first real swordnsorcery character created by a woman) had been a crushing disappointment to me – having read about Henna the Henna-haired Harridan and watched my body weight in Xena, I found the original warrior woman by C.L. Moore quite dull and pointless, much like the original Conan the Barbarian fiction.
I guess the greatest Sword-and-Sorcery writer of them all just isn't so great any more - simply because so many people have been inspired by him and elaborated or riffed on his work. That's kind of like saying the Marx Brothers aren't funny just because so many people have aped them. I never got that, myself. I've never had the problem of being "spoiled" by later authors: in fact, most of my favourite fantasy authors are the old classics. But then, I didn't read a lot of the generic fantasy that glutted the shelves of Borders and Waterstones, so perhaps I'm not as bombarded with Conan clones and xerox Jirels to have their magic ruined for me.
Seriously, how can you call the first Sword-and-Sorcery heroine dull and pointless... when she was the first. Even having read a lot of Sword-and-Sorcery heroines, there's something to Jirel that's utterly different from modern heroines: perhaps it's Moore's touch, perhaps it's the sense of breaking boundaries even within the prose, but even discounting the fact that she's the first, there's a lot to her that I haven't encountered in any other fantasy heroines. It's difficult to define, I guess, perhaps food for another post... but to be crushingly disappointed?
Poor tansyrr. But then, I guess she's right in one thing: context is everything.