Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way¬†conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

Setting up conflicts in worldbuilding

While I am revising my Ancient Lands setting, I’ve set down to once more give some deep thoughts to the underlying conflicts of the world. I make no secret about my oppinion that the Mass Effect series has the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not because there is a lot of lore on the locations and a long detailed history. In fact, there is barely anything in that regard, at least if you don’t read up on it in the ingame codex. Perhaps there is some, but I didn’t read any of it and I still think the worldbuilding is superb. The Mass Effect galaxy is incredible because it has lots of factions that are tightly interconnected with each other, forming a complex web of conflicts and alliances in which absolutely everyone is included in some way. And these groups are friends or enemies with each other not simply because the writers say so, but because they share a common past which can be sufficiently explained in three or four sentences but gives them good reason to feel what they feel, and in a way that perhaps doesn’t make you approve of, but at least understand their views. The same company that made the Mass Effect games also made the Dragon Age series at the same time, and while I am not as much a fan of that setting, it also excels at having lots of conflicts that affect everyone in some way and in which each side has some good points.

This made me realize that conflicts are really what makes a fictional setting tick. Cultures, landscapes, religion, and magic are all nice, but to get your audience invested in what is going on in the world and its people, underlying conflicts probably define the world more than anything else. This applies both to settings for roleplaying games, in which you usually want to give the players the option to chose the side their characters are taking, and to episodic fiction in which different parts and aspects of the world are explored in each story arc. So I’ve been looking at all the other fantasy and sci-fi worlds I think have great worldbuilding with interesting conflicts and dynamics between factions. From Star Wars to the Witcher, and from Halo to Forgotten Realms. And I made an important discovery when it comes to creating conflicts: Even if you have a conflict in which both sides have a point and you could easily get into the mind of a character of either group, the conflicts still always started because someone was a giant dick!

Back to Mass Effect, lots of nice sidestories with difficult moral descisions involve the alien Krogans and the human Cerberus group. In many cases you can sympathize with them, perhaps even support them, and actually very much like individual characters of these groups, even though many people consider them evil and villains. But the thing is that in the past their leaders made some descisions and ordered some actions that were really total dick moves. No questions about that; those things were wrong and they got what they deserved. But those past wrongs were not commited by the specific people you’re dealing with right now. These people can be really nice guys and they might not have done anything wrong. But for some reason or another, they are now part of this group that has a long and violent conflict with some other groups. The source of the conflict lies in the past, but it established some facts that still matter a lot right now. And I think that’s really the key when setting up some underlying conflicts for a setting rich with ambigous characters and descisions. Creating a conflict in which neither side is truly bad is really difficult, if not outright impossible. But that does not have to prevent the existence of conflicts in which neither side is truly bad now. If you want to set up a conflict that lasts for generations and affects whole peoples, make the conflict start with one terrible person making a really unfair descision. Doesn’t really matter if it’s too much black and white, because that person likely is long dead or may not appear in the story at all. What does matter is the people who are on opposing sides right now, and being sufficiently removed from the original source of the conflict, they can easily be as ambigous as you want. In Halo 2, some of the alien enemies quit the Covenant and start a civil war against their former masters, which put them on the same side as the humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had been the officers in charge of the Covenant army that had been leading a war of annihilation against humanity for the last 30 years. They hardly could be called friends by any stretch, but from that part in the story they have to work together and fight their common enemy, whether they like it or not. There still is great hostility between them and from a worldbuilding perspective you can still regard them as two opposing sides in conflict with each other. You can sympathize with characters on both sides, but also have no trouble at all understanding accepting that they won’t be nice to each other and getting into fights.

So this is my appeal and my advice: Conflicts neither have to be black and white, nor fairly balanced. You can have very good underlying conflicts built into a setting, which started out with one side being the villain, but by now has developed into a state of regular agression from both sides.

Things I still plan to review

This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Atlantis: The Second Age
  • Barbarians of Lemuria
  • Conan (Comic)
  • Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Gargoyles
  • Heavenly Sword
  • Hellboy
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Comic)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • No Salvation for Witches
  • Pitch Black
  • Primeval Thule
  • Red Tide
  • Riddick
  • Seirei no Moribito
  • The Savage Frontier
  • The Witcher 2
  • Thief: The Dark Project
  • Trawn Trilogy

This looks even worse that I thought. oO

Books I have not read yet

But plan to do so in the near future:

  • The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski. I am actually already two chapters into Blood of Elves, but for some reason haven’t really been any books these last couple of weeks.
  • Bloodstone by Karl Wagner.
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.
  • The Saga of King Kull by Robert Howard.
  • The Gods of Mars by Edgar Burroughs.
  • Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky.
  • Elric of Melnibon√© by Michael Moorcock.
  • The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan (when it’s out in July), because it has a knight on a dinosaur on the cover!
  • Imaro by Charles Saunders.

The Witcher finally fully translated to English

Overlord at Fantasy Faction shared the news that the deal for the translation of the rest of The Witcher series has come through.

The short story collection The Sword of Destiny will come out this May, and the two remaining books of the novel series The Swallow’s Tower and The Lady of the Lake in 2016 and 2017. The English translations seem to have a rather weird history, with a rather irregular schedule to put it mildly.

Collections

  • The Sword of Destiny (Pol. 1992/Engl. 2015)
  • The Last Wish (pol. 1993/Engl. 2007

Novel Series

  • Blood of the Elves (Pol. 1994/Engl. 2009)
  • Times of Contempt (Pol. 1995/Engl. 2013)
  • Baptism of Fire (Pol. 1996/Engl. 2014)
  • The Swallow’s Tower (Pol. 1997/Engl. 2016)
  • The Lady of the Lake (Pol. 1998/Engl. 2017)

Without any guarantee that the translations would ever be finished, I certainly wouldn’t have bothered with starting a five book series at all. Fortunately, I can also read the German translations, which had been completed four years ago. I don’t have the slightest clue why the English version was taking the longest. Even the Spanish, French, and Lithuanian translations had been finished years ago.

I reviewed The Last Wish last month, which I consider an excelent book and probably the best pick to get into the series. To me, it’s the best example of modern (post-80s) Sword & Sorcery and reaches even up to Conan in quality. I can’t recommend it enough.

I also happen to find the original announcement from the publishers site.

Book Review: The Last Wish

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!

Continue reading “Book Review: The Last Wish”

Keeping it brief: Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery

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

Continue reading “Keeping it brief: Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery”

New Witcher 3 Trailer

A new trailer for Witcher 3 has been released a few hours ago.

If you remember a bit about the kinds of games I’ve been describing in previous articles, it won’t come as any kind of surprise that I love the Witcher games. This trailer looks really good, though it’s also a strong reminder why I usually don’t watch trailers or read previous for games I am interested in. This one does give away some details of the story, that would have quite surprised me if I’d be playing the game for the first time without knowing anything about it. It’s nothing major and thinking about it, it was mostly just me being dense that I hadn’t seen them coming since the moment I finished Witcher 2. It does, however, do it’s job of making me really excited about seeing how everything will actually turn out in the final game.