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)
- 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.
Sword & Mythos is anthology of stories released this year by Innsmouth Free Press. The ebook version had cost me only about 4€, which I consider fairly cheap. The introduction describes the concept behind the collection as “Lovecraft meets Howard and Moorcock” and there is an additional essay in the end of the book that shines some light on the relationship between Lovecraft and Howard and how they put occasional nods to each others works in their stories. The Primeval Thule RPG setting which I bought just a few weeks ago is based on the same premise of the works of these two great writers being set in the same world and the result works brilliantly. I am big fan of the short story format, especially in its pulp era incarnation (so much easier to digest with ADD than huge multi-volume novels that take you weeks to finish), with both Howard and Lovecraft being among my favorite writers. As a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery, the idea of S&S with lovecraftian horrors had me very excited. The Scarlet Citadel and Iron Shadows in the Moon are probably my two favorite fantasy stories.
So just the title of this collection had me excited and the cover looks really exciting and promising. Unfortunately, this cover lies. The Chinese warrior woman does not appear in any of the stories. Neither does the monster. Nor Sword, nor Mythos to tell the truth. If I simply had picked up the wrong book and misunderstood what I was buying, I might see things more lenient. But this book makes it very clear both in the introduction and the essays, that this is meant to be a collection of stories that blend the Sword & Sorcery of Howard with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft. And it just doesn’t deliver tahat at all!
Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg: This story is about the tiny Vroor magician Ghambivole Zwoll, a creature with a beak and tentacles, and his business partner Shostik-Willeron, a two-headed Su-Suheris, whose magic shop has fallen on hard times as the world has become so overcrowded by magic that there is simply no more profit in it. An opportunity arises when a nobleman comes to their shop to buy a love potion, which ends up getting them into deep trouble. Robert Silverberg can write, that much I have to give him, and he might do quite well in writing for his familiar genres. But this story does have absolutely nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery. That this one was even submitted as a contribution to this book already indicates a failure on the side of the publisher, who apparently wasn’t even able to set any clear submission guidelines.
The Undefiled by Greg Keyes: I was really hoping the stories would get better the longer I keep reading, but instead it is only getting worse. By absolutely any standard I can apply, this story is just shit! The protagonist is called Fool Wolf, and always in this full form, never shortened to either Fool or Wolf. Apparently he is possessed by his girlfriend, who he raped to death in a berserker rage or something. There is no context at all, not even the slightest indication that locations are shifting, and there, and nothing makes any sense. Later on it is revealed that one of the groups extends its life by raping little children, and then somehow they are dead and the story stops. This is shit! Please don’t write anything again.
Since I have given up hope on this book, I am going to wrap up this review by quickly summarising what the remaining stories are about:
A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix: This short story is about a knight who is in hospital with a broken foot who is looking for a presen for his bodyguard golems birthday. There is not a single good thing to say about it.
Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock: Finally! Finally we are getting someone who really knows what he is doing and who actually understands the genre of this book! The story is about Moorcocks famous character Elric, of whom I actually only know that he is some kind of superhuman with a really powerful sword. Elric is traveling with his companions to the underside of his world for reasons only he really knows and, what appears to be his typical fashion, doesn’t share with anyone else. As they reach the port at the end of the sea voyage, Elric is already awaited by a woman who shares his highly unusual physical appearance. Elric has come for a magic sword, but in exchange he has to find a pair of red pearls.
The Singing Spear by James Enge: One of the shortest stories in the book. It’s about a man calles Morlock Ambrosius. Really? Oh, well… Morlock is a maker of things and since he invented a still that could destill wine and gave it to a tavern owner, he is getting free alcohol and is permanently drunk. His hazy life gets disrupted when news come to him that someone recovered the Singing Spear, a magic spear he created a long time ago, which unfortunately is cursed. Now a madman is roaming the cuntry slaughtering everyone and everything he comes across, but Morlock doesn’t care. Not his problem. Until the tavernkeeper joins the refugees who are fleeing the country, which means no more free booze for Morlock! So he got to do something.
This is another really bad story. It’s short, nothing happens, and it overall feels like a draft written in two hours and phoned in. You don’t submit such a thing for publication. The common complaints apply here as well: The actual story really begins only in the last third and the author wasted not a single sentence on describing anything.
Swords and Dark Magic – The news Sword and Sorcery is an anthology released in 2010, consisting of 17 stories in the style of classic Sword & Sorcery. It got pretty decent reviews and ratings, and with most of the big names of the genre being quite old already (Conan even made it into public domain almost a decade ago), I was quite intrigued to see what current authors have to offer as their personal take on it. I have to say that my personal knowledge of contemporary fantasy writers is very superficial, but even I have certainly heard of such names as Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Abercrombie. Since each story is by a different writer and was created independent of the others, the only sensible way to review them in detail is to do them each separately. I will keep it mostly spoiler free, but still point out specific things that I consider worth special mentioning.
As a big fan of Robert Howards Conan and fantasy works with the common themes and features of Sword & Sorcery, I still never got around to read anything by Fritz Leiber. He was the man who introduced the term Sword & Sorcery for the already existing type of fantasy literature, that with the massive impact of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings needed to identify itself as its own distinctive niche. (In hindsight, Leibers attempt to define a fantasy subgenre might have been the only one that was actually successful.) He introduced the term of Sword & Sorcery referring to the type of his own stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but also considered Robert Howards Conan and Kull as prime examples of the genre he wanted to define.
So there really was no way I could push this out any further in my own explorations of the genre, and finally got around to get myself the (chronologically) first two collections of the series about these two famous heroes. Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death. It turned out to be a highly sobering experience.