The Sword & Sorcery Anthology
Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.
Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)
If your age is about 30, then there’s a very good chance your favorite classic videogame was releases in 1998. I first noticed this strange high occurance of famous gaming classics when I learned that Metal Gear Solid was release in the same years as two of my other favorite games: Baldur’s Gate and Half-Life. Also StarCraft. And FreeSpace. What, Thief too? And Commandos?!
Just look at this!
- January 21: Resident Evil 2
- February 11: Xenogears
- February 28: Star Wars: Rebellion
- March 19: FreeSpace
- March 31: StarCraft
- May 22: Unreal
- July 31: Commandos
- August 5: Soulcalibur
- August 21: Rainbow Six
- September 3: Metal Gear Solid
- September 24: Anno 1602
- September 30: Fallout 2
- October 30: Grim Fandango
- November 19: Half-Life
- November 21: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- November 30: Baldur’s Gate
- November 30: Thief
- December 3: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
There might of course be some bias here. And given the huge amount of games that are released every year, this list of 18 famous titles may not be that impressive. But look at them! These aren’t just games that were simply “really quite good”, but a lot of them had a huge impact in the long run, that continues to this day. Nobody has to be told what Half-Life and StarCraft are. Baldur’s Gate is the granddaddy of Dragon Age and Mass Effect and made BioWare into the famous company it is today. Ocarina of Time is the first Zelda game as we know them today. Soulcalibur, Metal Gear Solid, and Thief are still getting new games. And while my memory might deceive me here, I think Rainbow Six pretty much invented the Modern Military Shoter with political backstory. Commandos and Anno 1602 may not be much remembered these days, but back then they made a really big splash and got lots of sequels and inspired many other games with similar mechanics.
I think this is much more than simply perception bias and nostalgia. 1998 was an amazing year for videogames, the like we probably havn’t seen again since.
I’ve been reading a lot of Sword & Sorcery books recently, both classic and (relatively) new, and I now got around to finish The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.
Spoiler for the end of this review: Oh boy, am I happy!
The Last Wish was released in Polish in 1993 and contains stories written both before and after the release of Miecz Przeznaczenia (no English translation) the previous year. The stories also take place earlier, which makes The Last Wish both the second and also first book in the series, depending on how you want to count it. The book consists of seven stories of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter from an old but fading orders of warriors who have acquired special powers through magic and alchemy. Six of the stories are conventional narratives with a beginning, middle, and end in the correct order, while with the seventh Sapkowski did something rather unconventional and quite clever. The Voice of Reason is about as long as all the other stories in the books, but split into seven different parts, between which the other six stories are inserted as flashbacks. It’s not like Geralt sitting down and telling another character a tale from his past, but instead we cut to those other stories so that Sapkowski can give us the necessary background info we need to understand the context of the next scene in The Voice of Reason. May sound strange, but in practice it flows very smoothly and works perfectly well.
Even though the book is kind of an anthology, I am not going to go into detail about each story individually, as they are all by the same author about the same character and they do form a single coherent, if very loosely connected work. In my previous Sword & Sorcery reviews there were always two things that really had me disappointed in a story: Lack of evocative descriptions and lack of thrilling action. While the former is mostly a personal preference, action, passion, and thrill is what I consider the most fundamental essence of Sword & Sorcery. You can change and experiment with all the common archetypes and conventions, but if there is no passion and fury, a story will always just be Heroic Fantasy. The Witcher has all the hallmarks of a Sword & Sorcery hero: An outsider who uses descisive action for selfish gains. And at least in the first two books, the tales of Geralt use the classic short story format as well. (The other six books don’t.) So I gave The Last Wish a try, hoping to find something for my Sword & Sorcery craving. And does it deliver?
Oh yes, and how!
It’s a webcomic about a mighty warrior and his brave steed. I really don’t have much more to say about it. ^^
Stealer of Flesh is a… well, I am not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a novel, nor quite a series of short stories, but something inbetween. Written by William King in 2011, Stealer of Flesh tells the first major adventure of Kormak, a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn who hunts the ancient creatures of the night. It consists of four stories that are very closely linked together but each have their own distinct character and take place in four very different locations. Calling them “episodes” feels very appropriate to me.
The story follows Kormaks hunt of a demon from the ancient past, who has returned to haunt the world, but is yet too weak to face a seasoned hunter of monsters and spirits all by himself. Several times does Kormak come face to face with the demon, but each time it manages to escape from him, keeping the hunt going for what seems like several weeks, though three of the stories all seem to take place within a single day.
King obviously is writing to capture the classic spirit of Sword & Sorcery. The stories are full with mentions of the Elder Sign and Old Ones, there is black lotus and Kormaks homeland is distant Aquilea, which surly doesn’t sound almost exactly like Aquilonia by coincidence. And to disperse any remaining uncertainty, King explicitly lists Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Smith as the people who inspired him in his introduction. You couldn’t make a stronger commitment to the genre than this. Which is why I think it entirely appropriate to not only judge Stealer of Flesh on its own merrits, but also on how well it manages to capture the spirit of the genre.
It is no secret that the classic character races in Dungeons & Dragons, consisting of human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, are taken from The Lord of the Rings, as well as the standard enemies of orcs and goblins. However, a huge number of other creatures from the many Monster Manuals are neither original creations, nor taken from various mythologies as well. A great number of monsters and critters has been lifted directly from literature, a method that was at least continued until 2000 with the first Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition. Which is a completely legitimate thing to do, and there are countless of appearances in videogames of creatures that are very clearly beholders, which are one of the most famous original creations of D&D.
However, as I’ve been reading some older fantasy stories this year, I had a number of “Hey, I know that thing!” moments, and I think it would be interesting to share those.
- The “Prehistoric Animals” Toys: These are probably the best known group by now. I don’t know who exactly is responsible for their creation, but the rust monster, bullete, and owlbear are all based on cheap plastic toy monsters from Hong Kong. Toni DiTerlizzi wrote a very good article about them last year. The carrion crawler is also based on a similar plastic monster from a different source.
- Grimlocks: I was actually quite surprised to learn that apparently grimlocks appear only in very few cases outside of D&D. I had been kind of asuming that they were based on some local legend somewhere in Europe, but apparently they are simply a slightly altered version of the morlocks from the 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.
- Thri-kreen: These are one of the iconic creatures of the Dark Sun setting, but actually they are based very closely on the tharks from the novel “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Burroughs, which was released in 1917. They are tall, green, have two legs and four arms, a pair of big tusks, big eyes, can jump very high and far, and are a nomadic people of the desert. The only major change in Dark Sun was to make them insectoid, while the tharks of Mars seem to be more reptilian, if anything.
- Girallon: These monsters first appeared in the Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition and are both relative newcomers and not particularly popular in D&D. However, they are also taken stright from “A Princess of Mars” as well, where they are simply called White Apes. Giant gorillas with white fur and four arms. There is really no room for ambiguity there.
- Purple Worm: Giant subterranean worms like these appear in H.P. Lovecrafts story “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” from 1929, where they are called dholes. A similar concept appears in the sand worms of Frank Herberts 1965 novel “Dune”.
- Yuan-ti: The resamblance of Yuan-ti to the naga of Southeast-Asia is easy to see, but the specific details of these creatures are very close matches to the Serpent Men, who appear in several stories by Robert Howard. They first seem to have appeared in the 1929 story “The Shadow Kingdom”, where they are a race of humanoids with snake heads, who have the ability to disguise themselves as humans and many magical powers, and worship the gods Set and the Great Serpent. The 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” also has what would be a yuan-ti pureblood.
- Elder Brain: The Elder Brains of the ilithids, though not the ilithids themselves, appear first in the 1930 novel “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon. In the book, they are the Fourth Men and control the Fifth Men, which are very much unlike mind flayers.
- Kuo-toa: While many of the specific abilites of the kuo-toa are unique to the creature from D&D, these creatures are very closely based on the Deep Ones, that first appeared in the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, which was written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1931.
- Gibbering Mouther: The creature that appears in D&D as the gibbering mouther is a severely downgraded version of the Shoggoth, another famous monster from Lovecrafts stories, which had its first appearance in “At the Mountains of Madness” from 1931.
- Grell: A creature looking pretty much identical to a grell except for the color appears on one edition of the “Legion of Space” by Jack Williamson, which was written in 1934. In the story, the creatures are called medusae.
- Worg: The creature, as it appears in D&D, is basically identical to the wargs from Tolkiens “The Hobbit”, which was published in 1937.
- Displacer Beast: These creatures are based on the ceurl from the 1950 sci-fi novel “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”. They also appear in many Final Fantasy games under their original name.
- Xill: The xill is a rather obscure monster in D&D, even though they have been around since the original Fiend Folio and reappeared both in Planescape and the 3rd edition Monster Manual. Like the displacer beast, they are taken from “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”, where their name is ixtl.
- Frost Worm: The frost worm first appeared under the name remora in the 1969 story “The Lair of the Ice Worm” by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It’s practically identical in every aspect.
- Lich: The classic undead wizard is not an original creation by any specific author, but is indeed a figure from slavic legend. Koshei the Deathless is a powerful sorcerer so ancient that his body has decayed to almost nothing but a starved skeleton, and who has gained immortality by hiding away his soul in a magical box which is safely secured in a secret place.
I was born in the mid-80s, and for a very long time I associated the culture of that time primarily with horrible hairsytles and an absolutely appaling sense of fashion. During the 90s everything was so much cooler, but looking back at those years now, I again have to ask “what where we thinking?!” Also, when I got older, I associated 80s movies primarily with dumb, ridiculous action movies. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Just stupid explosions and lame jokes, with poor excuses for a plot. At that time, I was still too young to watch them and when I finally got around to see them 10 years or so later, but my oppinion of them was not very high.
But now that I am older, and therefore wiser, I see things quite different. Part of it might be simply nostalgia. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and we always kind of like that, even if we were not big fans of it back then. Another factor is plain and simple, that we only remember the best things. Those that were outstanding and so influential that their legacy survived to this day. I am certain there probably hundreds of action movies that were actually really stupid and nothing but explosions and excuse plots. But there also were some really good ones, which now pretty much make up my favorite movies of all time.
- Alien (1979)
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Outland (1981)
- Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- Conan the Barbarian (1982)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
- The Thing (1982)
- Dune (1984)
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Enemy Mine (1985)
- Aliens (1986)
- Lethal Weapon (1987)
- Predator (1987)
- Die Hard (1988)
- Total Recall (1990)
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
I frequently see people complaining that they can’t get their novels to proper length and that their ideas don’t provide enough material for 200,000 words. Then why try to make them into novels in the first place? It’s not the only option fantasy writers have to chose their format. In the Sword & Sorcery genre, stories tend to be much shorter, instead you simply get more of them.
As references, here are the works of some of the great Sword & Sorcery writers and their lengths.
Conan by Robert Howard:
- The Phoenix on the Sword: 8,823
- The Scarlet Citadel: 15,446
- The Tower of the Elephant: 9,726
- Black Colossus: 14,346
- The Slithering Shadow: 12,897
- The Pool of the Black One: 11,252
- Rogues in the House: 9,676
- The Frost Giant’s Daughter: 3,284
- Iron Shadows in the Moon: 12,123
- Queen of the Black Coast: 11,334
- The Devil in Iron: 12,292
- The People of the Black Circle: 30,890
- A Witch Shall be Born: 16,337
- Jewels of Gwahlur: 17,167
- Beyond the Black River: 21,799
- Shadows in Zamboula: 12,146
- The Hour of the Dragon: 72,375
- Red Nails: 30,946
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber:
- The Jewels in the Forest: 14,215
- The Bleak Shore: 4,272
- The Howling Tower: 5,855
- The Sunken Land: 6,900
- Thieves’ House: 12,235
- Adept’s Gambit: 31,901
- Claws from the Night: 9,410
- The Seven Black Priests: 9,523
- Lean Times in Lankhmar: 15,400
- When the Sea-King’s away: 9,806
- The Cloud of Hate: 4,929
- Bazaar of the Bizarre: 9,653
- Their Mistress, the Sea: 1,316
- The Wrong Beach: 2,267
- The Circle Curse: 3,596
- The Price of Pain-Ease: 4,650
It seems to have become some kind of common wisdom that great villains are often much cooler and more interesting than the heroes of their stories because they have actual goals and plans, and working towards accomplishing something. In contrast, the heroes tend to simply try to prevent that plan from succeeding. This is true both in fiction and in roleplaying games, where people seem to frequently have trouble with coming up with adventures and campaigns in which the players can be more proactive.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and I think it’s essentially correct, but also missing some quite important things. The appearance that villains act while heroes react is to a great deal caused by an overuse of the Heroes Journey and typical action movie plots, where the action hero is called in to deal with a criminal in 120 minutes or less.
But I think if a story spends some time on characterizing the villain and giving him motives, he actually is also simply reacting and not actually that proactive at all. My claim here is, that all characters ary trying to “reastablish the status quo” or “return things to normal”. For heroes this seems obvious and easy to see: Something went really bad and the hero now has to fix it so everything can go back to the way it should be. A villain who has a motive other than some quick money usually seems to believe that he has been wronged in some way and that his actions only serve to give him what he believes to be deserving all along. To the villain, the current state of things seems unfair and he is denied something that should be rightfully his. There are countless great villains who believe that they have been robbed of their legacy if they come from a rich and powerful background; or that society has denied them their share of a good life if they come from poverty. Very rarely do you see villains who want to rule the world or the kingdom simply because they think that would be pretty sweet. Instead they feel that they have to. And heroes motivations are usually very similar. A hero isn’t normally looking for trouble, but ends up in a situation where he’s the only one who can do something, whether he likes it or not.
I came about a series of videos of a class Brandon Sanderson had been teaching two years ago on youtube. In which he has a great way of summing up the common genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy:
- Epic Fantasy: World’s at stake.
- Heroic Fantasy: Dudes with swords.
- Urban Fantasy: Chicks in leather kill demons.
- Military Sci-Fi: Space Marines! YEAAAH!!!
- Space Opera: Adventure in SPACE.
- Hard SF: Written by people with PhDs.