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.
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.