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?
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.
Spider Eater: This monster is strongly based on the sith from the Barsoom novel “The Warlord of Mars”.
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 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.
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.
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 that 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.
It’s really obvious that Moorcock has writing stories like this for a long time and both understands what is expected and what he has doing. Pacing is good and he’s making the effort of actually describing things and not leaving the characters and the reader in a blank vacuum. This is the first story since the very first in the book that has actual action scenes and even incorporates sorcery at the same time. Which I had expected from all the previous seven stories as well! The presentation of this story is very well done. Unfortunately, the actual plot isn’t that interesting either.
The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon: This story is about a priestess of an all-powerful church who is transporting a rebell leader to his public execution when the procession is attacked by his supporters. While the style of the story is really quite effective at creating tension and a rich atmosphere, the author made the unusual descision to write everything in present tense, which feels particularly strange as half the story is told in flashbacks, which just feels like a very odd combination. A major element of the story is that the priestess believes the prisoner must be kept alive until his execution under any circumstances, but only until the very end do we get kind of an explaination why that would be important. Her soldiers don’t understand either and I think it’s not a great device to keep important details secret from the reader even though the entire story is narrated from inside the priestesses thoughts, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s actually going on. Despite its shortcomings, I think this is still actually one of the most exciting stories in the book and even though it barely checks any of the boxes of the genre, it seem still like a worthy contribution to this collection. (And far more so than mosy of the other ones.)
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.