Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Seas

Autumn’s grief was not long, and the cold came down early from the north, bringing the ice that gathered between the islands and ground like stones trapped between the hard shores. The night skies came alive with the northern fire, and the wind bit through fur cloak and leather jerkin. The winter would come early, and hungry, in this year of battles.

Vane made his way up the stony hillside to where the cave crouched like a yawning maw, as though he could go in and be devoured by the powers that lay enchained beneath the earth. The headland was heavy with grass just browning in the cold, and the winds whipped at him across the sea. When he looked northward he saw the trails of ice flowing down from the north, the clear water between it narrower every day. This would be a hard winter, and his task would be made simpler.

He was a sea-watcher, charged by King Arnan to watch the coasts, and when the summer season of trade and warfare died, he might put away his guardianship. When the straits and narrows lay locked in ice, there was nothing to watch for, and he would shut himself away within his earthen fort and wait for the thaw. He had one slender ship and twenty men to row her, if need be. He did not need much else.

But now Kamlath sent word to him, and he had sought a reason to ignore her, but a seer-woman could not be lightly disregarded. Even if she was no bane-witch, still he did not trust her powers. He was a man of steel and leather and wood, and he did not wish any contact with the great powers that flowed unseen through the world.

Yet his dreams had been dark. All summer he had watched for an invasion, for a counter-blow to come from the usurper Hror after the bloody invasion of his land. He watched for ships upon the dark sea, and waited, and nothing came. And now, as the year ended, he woke from twisting dreams, seeing iron ships upon a bloody sea, feeling them close.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Nature of the Beast: The Long and the Short

Sword and Sorcery started out as a form written for the short story, and something of that form and approach has remained with it to this day. After working in S&S for years I am given to wonder – is that something intrinsic to the genre? Plenty of long-form S&S works have been written since Howard invented it. My question now is: are longer Sword & Sorcery works hamstrung out of the gate? Do the ways the genre has to be adapted to make for a novel change it for the worse?

After all, short stories and novels are not just fictions with different lengths, they are fundamentally different modes of storytelling, with different requirements and demands, and in the end, different effects. Many genres work equally well, if in different ways, as different kinds of stories, but is there something embedded in the way S&S is constructed that makes it work better as a short form?

A short story, after all, is not a miniature novel, but rather a kind of snapshot. A good short story encapsulates a single event, a moment in a character’s life that may be a day, an hour, or just a few minutes. By focusing so closely, a short story can make even a brief episode into something dramatic and exciting. The emotional line of a short story is also simpler, usually focusing on a single arc of feeling from one state and then to a rising emotional moment at the climax, when the character’s understanding of their world and relationship to it are transformed. The character makes a choice that changes them, and that is really the entire point of the story.

This cuts away a lot of what you need for a good novel. A novel has many characters, many scenes, and usually covers the passage of a longer period of time. The story will have one climax, a novel may have many. As a result of the larger scope, a novel needs more worldbuilding, lots more detail and inclusion of explanations for things that a short story would simply elide past. In a short story you need focus, so you don’t tend to get bogged down too much in the details of the world. You evoke, rather than delineate.

I think this really tends to add something to the world of an S&S story, because fantasy is often better when it is sketched rather than detailed. You can mention far-off lands, name-drop cities and people and gods, use arcane terms for magical bullshit and weird rituals, and you don’t have to stop and explain all of it. For a story you just need what’s going to be in the story, and the whole thing moves too fast for people to stop in the middle and start puzzling over how politics works in your world and why there are no mines here or farmlands there.

Short stories, in this way, operate much more like movies than like novels. Movies also tend to have tighter stories with simpler emotional payloads than the more richly-woven fabric of a novel. Movies also count on you being caught up in the energy so you don’t stop to bother with plot holes and nitpicky details until after it is over.

I actually think this kind of looseness and focus on emotion works better for Sword & Sorcery. It’s a pulp genre, with a focus on action, drama, and mystery. The world of an S&S story – even a shared world used by multiple stories – is more suited to being sketched rather than completely filled in. The bigger world of a novel requires more fixed detail, and that means a more grounded world with more established rules, and that is not how S&S works best.

I’m not saying a Sword & Sorcery novel could not be done well, but I think the best works in the genre have been done in the short form. If there is a novel that does it as well as it has been done in short stories, then I would very much like to see it.

Monday, April 2, 2018


It was midsummer in the black islands, where the steel waves washed stony beaches like the clash of spears. The sky was low and hazy in the evening, and the hidden sun blazed across the jagged rocks and the ship that lay beached upon the long grass dunes. The longship had been weeks out of the water, or longer, and the reeds had begun to grow up along the hull. Heavy timbers braced it up so it lay level, and sails were stretched across the deck to make a shelter from rain and storms.

Daganhurre lay in the shade of the canopy, braced upon a bed made from spear-staves and draped with furs and blankets. The air was heavy and warm, but he was cold. A fire smoldered in a brazier beside him, and he breathed the smoke deeply, hoping it would season his traitorous lungs like oak beams.

Summer had not been kind to the one men named Kin-Killer. Wounds had weakened him, and as the summer warmed he took a sickness in his lungs. Some of his men deserted him, believing him cursed, and now he had only this single ship. A fever had stripped him pale and set him to seeing visions, and so he could no longer endure the motion of the sea. He caused this last ship to be set ashore with the dozen men who still followed him, and he would remain until he was stronger, or dead.

He tried to sit up as the sun lowered, feeling an unease creep through him. His breath wheezed, and he felt now the heavy pain that stabbed into his side whenever he breathed too deep. The sea-giants on the cursed island had broken his bones inside, and they had not healed properly. He felt the pain inside him when storms gathered or the winds were wild in the night. The breeze off the fallow sea was a harbinger, he felt it.

“Hathal,” he said, his voice so much less than it had been. “Bring me my sword.”