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