The Sword & The Sorcerer

So, when you hear the words swords and sorcery, what do you think of? What’s the first image that comes to your mind?

It’s a Frazetta painting, isn’t it? Or is it Boris Vallejo instead? Go on, you can say it. It won’t hurt my brain too much.

Okay, I lied. It will and it did hurt my brain.

Not that Frazetta wasn’t a talented artist or anything, and Boris Vallejo certainly knows his stuff, but this is why the swords and sorcery genre is on life-support! What started out in the 1930s with Kull (NOT Kevin Sorbo) and Conan (NOT Arnold Schwarzeneggar) and Solomon Kane degenerated into a mess of beefcake and T&A. The imagery became associated with it, mediocre writers clambered aboard like so many rats aboard a ship, and slowly eroded its legitimacy until the phrase swords and sorcery became synonymous with crap fiction that resides at the bottom of a used bookstore’s 50-cent bin.

I’m sure my view of history is skewed. Maybe the crap writers got on board first and the imagery came later, but there is an undeniable curl of the lip and sneer that comes on the faces of even the most geeky fantasy readers when you say those three words.

I like swords and sorcery. I love the old Conan stories (you can find Howard’s novel, Red Nails, for free on Project Gutenberg), Moorcock’s Elric stuff is good, and my absolute favorite is the Kane books written by Karl Edward Wagner, who was a true disciple of the genre.

What makes swords and sorcery different from other fantasy fiction? Epic fantasy suffers from ‘farm-boy’ syndrome, where the son of a blacksmith or some other ‘lowly’ profession turns out to be a great hero and grows up to save the world. (Read the backs of some fantasy books the next time you’re at a bookstore. It’s almost sort of revolting how many of Book 1-s carry this description.) It’s full of sprawling plots, monstrous casts, world-wide travels, and world-changing conclusions.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with epic fantasy. I happen to love it a lot – well, the good stuff at least. (There’s not nearly enough good stuff.) I’m just trying to draw a contrast here.

S&S, on the other hand, is tightly-focused. The cast is smaller, the stage is smaller. If epic fantasy is a Broadway show, S&S is a quiet municipal theater putting on some stunning drama with actors you wouldn’t know from anyone else on the street. S&S focuses (usually) on one central character, the hero, who undergoes his trials and suffers but comes out on top because he’s the hero, dammit. Conan of Cimmeria became King of Aquilonia but quit when it got too boring. He killed dinosaurs, discovered the ruins of ancient civilizations, met disadvantaged deities and more. Wagner’s Kane, on the other hand, was cursed by an insane god to live forever, and live forever he did among forgotten civilizations, brewing wars and fighting the machinations of dark gods, all for his own gain in the end. Kane was a Chessmaster (WARNING! WARNING! THAT LINK GOES TO TVTROPES.COM – if you don’t know what it is, do NOT CLICK unless you’re prepared to spend several hours not accomplishing anything) in the most basic sense, twisting everything and everyone toward his own ultimate goals.

In the past year or two, I have seen the tiniest hints of a revival of the S&S genre. I read Andy Remic’s Clockwork Vampire Chronicles and those definitely have the flavor, and a few other books have been described that way as well, though I’ve yet to have the chance to read them. I hope to see more of it, because I see fiction drifting away from the hero. With the success of George Martin’s Ice & Fire we’re starting to see more muddled, political fantasy which doesn’t really have a hero. Now, I like Mr. Martin’s work a lot, but it still makes me long for a real hero. Unfortunately (SPOILERS, SPECULATION) I believe that hero was Rhaegar Targaryen, and he died at the Trident.

Now, to tie it all back to me like any good narcissistic blogger: The Arbiter Codex is not strictly swords & sorcery. Elegy could be classified as such, because it is solely D’Arden’s story. Others may not possess all of the necessary qualifiers, but one thing’s for sure, that heart of adventure – strange places, strange things, and the struggle of a hero against impossible odds – will continue to be there.

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Review: A Dance With Dragons

(NOTE: This will be a spoiler-free review.)

So, I have reached the end of the latest installment in A Song of Ice and Fire.

A Dance With Dragons is monstrous. Simply monstrous. I read the ebook version (guess it goes to show you that if you really want to read a book, you’ll still pay the “hardcover” early release price no matter what your principles are… ahem) which weighed in at a whopping four bloody megabytes. That’s 4000KB. If you’ve never looked closely, most ebooks weigh in at less than 1/8 of that.

I’m not ashamed to say that I am a fan of Mr. Martin’s work. I discovered them only after the 4th book was published, when I literally picked up the first one in my local Barnes & Noble, straight off the shelf, and thought “huh… this looks long. Maybe it will keep me entertained for a while.”

In case you missed the previous mention, I read fast. Like, really fast. Like, so fast that I polished off this 4000KB ebook in a matter of 2 1/2 days, and that wasn’t even reading non-stop.

Suffice to say that once I picked up A Game of Thrones and read it through, I was pretty well hooked.

As for Dance, despite the long lag time between it and its predecessor, Crows, it feels as though no time at all has elapsed. Martin’s prose is identical to his other works; highly polished at most points, with the occasional highlight of awkwardness and as close to zero romance (in all senses of the word) as possible. Most of the awkwardness comes at times when the reader is meant to feel awkward, so it works, just as it always has. It feels as though Crows and Dance could have been written simultaneously – which, of course, they partially were.

We at last get to see the points of view from the characters we missed in Crows: Jon Snow at the Wall, Daenerys in the east and Tyrion, most precisely. Each of them has several revelations throughout Dance, and important ones at that. However, for the vast length of the book, it doesn’t really feel like we’ve advanced all that much farther in the story by the end. I think these books are so long in part because they seem to move at the pace of life itself – glacially. I think there’s a fair amount of ground covered in this narrative that didn’t need to be, personally. It does all tie together fairly well toward the end, but during the middle at times it felt as if certain characters were being led around simply to give them more words in their chapters rather than for a driving plot purpose. It does not drag as much as Crows did at times, mostly because the POV characters are more interesting than the ones in the previous installment, but it does have times where it drags.

Despite this minor flaw, however – if you’ve liked Martin’s previous works, this one will not disappoint. If you didn’t like his earlier stuff, you won’t like this one either. This book is not going to cause anyone to change sides. For me, it did not take me out of my firm position in Martin’s camp, and ready to patiently wait for Book 6 of the series to arrive in the same solid, readable, and brilliantly casted and developed fantasy world that I’ve come to think may be simply the best example of world-building since Tolkien. He’s just that good, folks.

A Dance With Dragons is not perfect (I don’t think any work at this length could be perfect!), but it’s damn, damn good. 4 1/2 stars out of 5.