Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
Brother Gaven, the youngest acolyte of Lundarin's East Borough Mission, held four fingers up to the man behind the betting table. At least, he thought it was four. Gaven's vision was still a little blurry. That, and the blasted room was still spinning. He leaned heavily on the table for support, hearing it creak under his weight, and hoped the bookmaker wouldn't notice how horrendously drunk he was.
The bookmaker, a man Gaven had dealt with almost weekly, but whose name escaped him at the moment, pulled down his reading glasses and stared at him over the rims.
"Four royals? What, on yourself?"
"That's right," Gaven said, reasonably sure he wasn't slurring.
Standing six feet, five inches tall, the young priest had wide shoulders and long, powerful limbs. These were paired with an almost too-lean physique, giving him the wiry build of a natural fighter. The flattened, many-times broken nose marked him as an experienced one.
The bookmaker leaned forward, sniffing. He made a face. "Ugh. Are you even going to be standing up when the fight begins?"
That was actually a good question. Gaven turned to look behind him, squinting to bring the scene into focus. The old slurry pit—this week's fighting ring—was no more than twenty paces away. As long as the abandoned factory didn't start pitching like a ship in a storm again, Gaven thought he'd probably make it.
He turned back to the bookmaker and raised his lucky fist. Or one of them, anyway. He smiled wide. "The other guy's going to have to be the one who worries about me not standing."
The bookmaker shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense, boy."
Gaven burped, clamping his mouth shut as he felt the sacramental wine coming back up. Once he was sure he wasn't going to vomit on the bookmaker's ledger, he repeated his bet. "Four royals. To win by knockout."
The bookmaker started when Gaven said the second part. "Knockout? You're mad, boy. Jagget's never been knocked out."
It took Gaven three tries to successfully get his hand into his pocket, eventually managing to wrap his meaty fingers around the four silver coins. He slapped them on top of the ledger.
"Four royals," he repeated. "Win by knockout. Just you watch."
"If you say so, boy." The bookmaker politely cleared his throat. He pointed at the collar Gaven wore. "You going to fight while wearing that?"
Gaven reached up, feeling the black and white clerical collar. The bookmaker had a point. It wouldn't do for a servant of the Redeemer to be seen in the fighting pit. He reached behind his head to unfasten the hook. He did pretty good with that, managing it on the second try. He pulled it off and dropped it on top of the coins.
"Watch that for me. I'll be back for it. And don't touch it. It's sacre... It's sacre... It's holy."
The young priest turned, letting go of the table. The factory floor immediately lurched sideways. Gaven's big, wiry frame swayed to keep up. He wind milled his arms, somehow managing to keep his feet under him, and staggered his way to the small ladder propped at the edge of the slurry pit.
The factory had once been a textile mill, and the concrete slurry pit—one of seven sunken into the ground around the old production floor—was where the workers used to mix the dyes. Eight feet deep and ten feet across, it served as a perfect fighting ring for the bloody-minded spectators gathered around its rim. There was little room to maneuver and no room to run, especially for a man of Gaven’s size. Fights in the slurry pits were always short and brutal; but, with money to be won, there was never any shortage of challengers to fill the card.
Gaven carefully made his way down into the pit. The walls were permanently stained a dark blue, and the concrete still smelled of old ammonia. Gaven's stomach violently protested. He found a low stool along one edge of the pit, sat down heavily, grabbed the bucket nearby, and threw up into it. As soon as he did, his head felt clearer. He set the bucket aside and stared down at his hands.
Old, white scars crisscrossed the knuckles. Though he was barely twenty years old, the skin over them had already calloused and hardened. The last two knuckles on his right hand were enlarged and crooked, the result of going four extra rounds with a bad fracture two years earlier. He didn't win that fight. He prayed to the Redeemer he'd win this one.
Prayer. That probably wasn't a bad idea. He clumsily worked his way off the stool and down to a kneeling position, his head still spinning. He bowed his head and clasped his hands.
"Oh, humble Redeemer, Father of us all. Hear me, your Great servant, as I lift my voice." Damn it. That's not how it goes.He started again. "Great Redeemer, Father of us all. I lift my voice so that you can hear me." Or, wait... Did I have it right the first time?
Gaven let out a heavy sigh. Maybe he should go informal. Just this once. "Listen. I need your help. The mission needs clothes. And food. And medicine. Help me get it. Please. Amen."
Gaven made a token attempt to get back on the stool. But, the slurry pit spun so violently he decided to stay where he was.
The plan was devilishly simple. Gaven had watched Jagget fight in previous weeks. He was smaller than Gaven. Then again, most men were. Size wasn't the issue, though. The issue was Jagget's skill. The man picked his shots, and he hit like a pile driver. He never went more than a single round against another fighter, and it was rare for him to go more than half a round.
But, it had occurred to Gaven that, if he could just take the beating Jagget delivered, he could wait for the man to get tired. Then he could go on the attack when he was too exhausted to defend himself. It was definitely possible, Gaven realized. All he needed to do was not feel it. With that in mind, the young priest had "borrowed" three bottles of the sacramental wine from the mission and headed for the old textile mill.
Now, on his knees in the slurry pit and unable to climb back on the stool, Gaven was beginning to see some of the holes in his plan. He was still wondering what to do about it when he heard the barker's voice above the rim of the pit.
"Well, well! Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we have a challenger!"
A mix of cheers and jeers rose up from the gathered crowd. Someone threw something wet and slimy at him. Gaven ignored it, and focused on climbing to his feet. The slurry pit bobbed, shifted, and weaved. Gaven steadied himself against the side.
"On this side of the arena, we have the defending champion. You know him! The Ripper! The Gripper! JAGGET!"
The jeers disappeared, leaving only the cheers. The crowd's applause and appreciation reached a rapid crescendo before falling off.
"And on this side, if you can believe it, we have a man of the cloth. If you spent any time watching the low stakes fights, you saw him smiting the big-talkers and the wannabes. Now he's taking a run at the big time. The holy roller, Brother Gaven!"
The jeers returned, with some shouting profane insults at him. A pair of ring attendants dropped into the slurry pit to gather up the stools, buckets, and rags. They handed them over the rim and quickly scrambled out, pulling the ladders after them. The barker leaned down, speaking directly to the fighters.
"Try to give them their money's worth, eh?" Then he struck the old iron pipe that served as the bell.
Gaven raised his fists, just in time to completely miss an incoming punch from Jagget. His head snapped back, bouncing off the concrete wall. He felt himself fold as Jagget drove two more punches into his mid-section. His head went down directly into a savage uppercut, and Gaven felt the skin split between his upper lip and his cheek.
Gaven countered with a wild, looping haymaker that sailed over Jagget's head. The fighter bobbed up and cannoned a shot into the side of Gaven's face. He saw stars.
Unsteady on his feet, Gaven felt the other man grab him in a front bear hug. Before Jagget could lift and throw him, the priest spread his legs and dropped his center of gravity. At the same time, he managed to catch Jagget with a head-butt that flattened his nose. Jagget grunted, letting go and backing off.
Gaven followed, not so much "advancing" as stumbling and falling in the right direction. He drove a straight right at the other man with all of his considerable weight behind it. It connected somewhere on the bony part of Jagget's head.
Jagget rolled with the impact, slipping around behind Gaven and hitting him in the kidney. Gaven spun to face him, but the slurry pit kept spinning. A moment later, everything tilted sideways. Gaven reached out to steady himself against the wall.
This is not going well, Gaven thought.
Jagget shuffled in and threw a hard shot to Gaven's jaw. It was enough to drive him to his knees, and the crowd gathered around the rim let out a wild cheer.
Gaven let go of the wall, raised both hands to cover his head, and ate four rapid-succession punches on his forearms, shoulders, and beneath the ribs. When the fifth one landed, he noticed there was less power behind it.
Gaven risked lowering his arms just long enough to get a look. He took a solid punch above the eye for his trouble, but he saw what he'd been hoping for. Jagget was breathing heavily, his guard was sloppy, his fists hanging too low to protect his face.
Gaven planted both hands into the man's hips and shoved him away, buying just enough time to get to his feet. The next punch came in, and Gaven let it graze his cheek. Then he spun and caught Jagget under the sternum with a right hook.
The other man folded around the blow, and Gaven drove a knee up into his face. Gaven tried two more punches, both missed. He was in the process of launching his third when he stumbled over Jagget's prone body. Gaven fell forward, catching himself on the slurry pit wall.
When the hell did he fall over? Gaven wondered. The priest managed to turn himself around, bring both hands in front of him, and assume something like a fighting stance. By then, he realized two things.
The first was that Jagget was unconscious. The second was that he hadn't heard the bell. He squinted up at the crowd above the slurry pit. No one was paying any attention to him. The screams and cheers he should have heard weren't happening. This was largely because of the pushing, the shoving, and the overall panic as the spectators tried to break away and run. Over the noise, he heard the shouts and the shrill, tin whistles of the Homeguardsmen.
Two thoughts hit him simultaneously, with a third catching up on their heels a moment later. The first was that he needed to find the bookmaker—Stiles! That was his name. Redeemer's Mercy, that had been bothering him—and get his money. The second was that he needed to get out of the textile mill before he was arrested.
The third thought, the one arriving late to the proceedings, was that he was still standing in the bottom of an eight foot deep pit, and none of those panicky fools had bothered to throw down the ladder.
Gaven gripped the ledge and tried to pull himself out, but a running spectator stepped on his fingers. He swore and fell back down, landing in a crooked heap. He made a second try, with similar results.
If it happens again, he decided, I'm pulling the next one down with me.
Gaven leaped to the rim a third time. Another passerby stepped on his hands, and Gaven seized the man's ankles. The man fell, and Gaven dragged him down into the pit. They both landed heavily on the concrete floor, the other accompanied by a strange clattering noise.
Gaven sat, and saw the other man scrambling to his feet. He was also scrambling to draw a curved saber from its scabbard. It took Gaven an extra second to process the man's long, grey uniform coat, gold-colored epaulets, and wide leather belt.
Gaven quickly stood, stumbling in close. He drove a massive fist into the corner of the guardsman's jaw before the man could finish drawing his weapon. The guardsman crumpled, and Gaven seized him by the collar of his uniform coat. He pivoted and threw the man against the wall of the slurry pit. The man went down; but, he immediately began to struggle to his feet, making it as far as his hands and knees.
As soon as he did, Gaven planted a foot in the middle of the guardsman's back, using him as a step-stool to vault out of the pit. Gaven bowled into several running people, tripping them up and knocking them all over. He didn't waste time trying to sort friend from enemy. Most of them were enemy. And, at best, he figured anyone else was more "indifferent" than "friend."
Gaven spun around, looking for the table Stiles had set up. Naturally, the man was long gone, meaning he'd taken Gaven's money with him. He tried to think where he would have run to.
"You there! Get down on the ground!"
Gaven spun and hit a guardsman between the eyes. He pushed the flailing man away, and made for one of the exits. He'd made it four good strides—most of them in a straight line, even—before someone tackled him from behind. He collapsed to the concrete floor, feeling the weight of at least one man pinning his legs in place. He struggled to get up. Then he felt the edge of a cold steel saber press against his neck. He looked up.
The guardsman from the pit was glaring down at him, sword in hand, and a murderous rage in his eyes.
One of the soldiers pinning his legs spoke up. "Shall we cuff him, Captain Kean, sir?"
"No," said Kean. "No need to waste cuffs on an unconscious man."
Then the bell-guard of the saber rose and fell, crashing down on the side of Gaven's head, and dropping him into darkness.
If you travel in pulp sword and sorcery circles long enough, sooner or later you're going to run into the name Schuyler Hernstrom. And with good reason. Few writers working today have grasped the pulp S&S aesthetic as throughly as Hernstrom. The stories in this collection deliver old-school action, weird fantasy, and hard-hitting heroes.
Originally appearing in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, "The Challenger's Garland" is the only reprint. The story follows Molok, a ringwraith-like servant of the Death God, on his journey to challenge yet another champion in his lord's name. The tale is short, and there aren't any real surprises here. Especially not after we're introduced to Lobon, the champion. Even so, Hernstrom's telling is immensely satisfying. Rather than feeling predictable, the linear nature of the story gives the events a sense of finality, and portrays the characters as slaves to an inescapable fate.
"Athan and the Priestess" is the story that gives this collection its title. Athan, warlord of the steppes, receives a vision from Thune, the tribe's dying wizard. Athan is tasked with crossing the magic wall separating the steppe from the lands to their ancient enemies, the Ullin. There, he is to lay with the Ullin High Priestess and father a mighty son. The following adventure is a fantasy in the classic Weird Tales mode, with strange sorcery, wicked goddesses, and ancient towers.
"Movements of the Ige" is almost a science fantasy. The story details a ritualistic battle between the primitive, lizard-like denizens of an unnamed planet. The proceedings are interrupted when an otherworldly "egg" drops from the sky, bringing with it some alien explorers. Once again, there are few surprises here. But Hernstrom paints an exceptionally vivid and well-realized culture among the lizard-like Ige in this short tale.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is more-or-less a Vance pastiche. While not explicitly set on Vance's Dying Earth, Hernstrom's work here recalls the earlier, loosely-linked shorts that made up the first Dying Earth collection, especially "Turjan of Miir" and "Mazirian the Magician." The plot is simple enough: the wizard Malathiksos seeks immortality, demanding the help of a captive fae creature named Rutu. The flourishes are what make this story stand out, and the flourishes are pure Vance. In other hands, this one would be a complete misfire, but Hernstrom pulls it off admirably. The ironic twist ending is a hat-tip the master himself would have probably enjoyed.
The longest story in the collection, and probably my favorite, is "Adalwolf's Saga." In a pseudo-Norse/Germanic culture, Adalwolf must avenge his father's death against a rival warlord. The initial battle goes poorly, with only Adalwolf and his brother, Gasto, escaping the field. At first believing himself cursed, Adalwolf soon gains the favor of the All-Father. But his righteous quest for vengeance gradually twists into self-serving ambition, and Gasto questions whether or not the All-Father will be pleased.
It's incredibly rare for me to buy a single-author collection and enjoy every story. Thune's Vision was an exception.
If you enjoy reading the pulp greats of yesteryear, particularly Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, then I highly recommend this collection. It might not be up to the lofty standards of those two masters, but it scratches that old-school itch in a way that most modern fantasy doesn't.
Thune's Vision is available on Kindle for $2.99. There's also a paperback edition available for $5.00.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.