Monday, January 30, 2017

Star Fire

Druan rode the border in the twilight gray at the edge of winter. It was the deep, cold abyss before the faint spring that crept into the northlands, when the sun rose to the horizon and cast a glow over the hillsides and turned the snow to silver. The sky was endless overhead, filled with stars like scattered shards of ice, and always the fitful glow of the sky fires gleamed and shimmered at the far north. There, in the darkness that ebbed but never faded, dwelled their enemy.

Two years gone, since the slaughter at the Pass of Bones, and Druan was grown into a warrior. Now he knew how to ride a horse and wield a sword and a spear. He wore his own iron scale armor and bore a shield of oaken planks and dark hide. He was harder as well, his long limbs filled in with muscle and his face drawn into grim lines. He was no boy any longer; his cold gray eyes had seen too much death.

He rode to the top of a hill and looked north, always north. Soon he would turn south and ride for home, for even the weak day was enough to keep the enemy at bay. Only in the dark they came, the wind always with them to snuff out the flames they feared. Now the race of men had been driven out of their homes by the scourge of the winter wraiths, and they lived in fortified villages, protected by earthworks and by wooden palisades, but most of all by men. Riders ever patrolled the highlands, into the hills, seeking the signs of an attack.

Six times they had come, on the coldest nights. Six times the walls had flamed with fire and cold steel, leaving death in the wake of war. Each time the enemy took away their slain, and the people of the valleys had learned bitterly to guard their own dead. The dead, as well as the living who were dragged screaming into the dark, were never seen again.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Blood & Steel

Obviously, the subject of violence is kind of a big one in Sword & Sorcery fiction. The very roots of the genre are set it adventure fiction, with its swordfights, gun battles, narrow escapes, and chases, and the mold of the genre were set early by Howard and his rough-hewn, quintessentially violent heroes. S&S characters don’t solve their problems by talking them out, they solve them by hacking them up with axes and swords.

Howard was a product of the Texas borderlands, only a generation removed from the frontier days when men habitually went armed and real violence was a fact of everyday life. He also grew up during the oil boom, and saw up close how rough, lawless men handled disputes. As the son of a doctor he probably saw his share of blood and wounds, and he maintained a fascination with boxing and personal combat all his life. Violence was definitely in his blood, so to speak, and it found its way into the stories he told.

All subsequent S&S authors have included violence as an element in their stories, and it’s not like you can get away from it. Creators differ in how much they include, and in how they treat it. Leiber’s swordfights are much more in the tradition of theatrical duels, with a lot of technique and not a lot of blood. He often pitted his heroes against inhuman opponents, so their deaths would not be as gruesome. Several of his tales, feature very little express violence at all.

Moorcock was more liberal with his swordplay, but he always highlighted the essentially tragic nature of his worlds with it. The greatest incidents of violence in the Elric stories are always leavened with some kind of regret. Either this was violence the hero did not want to engage in, or it had some unintended effect that was only apparent afterward. Violence is never cathartic in a Moorcock story.

If you study Howard’s works, you often see how he employed violence with a deliberate precision at odds with his reputation. For a lot of his narratives, the violence is implied. It is spoken of, or the evidence of it is seen, but we don’t see it ourselves. But when he finally gets to it, he really goes after it with a zeal very few modern writers have ever matched. He didn’t candy-coat his fight scenes, and heads fly and entrails are spilled with no flinch from the author.

Some of the luridness of his approach was because he wrote characters that did not fear violence, but sought it out. Howard’s heroes are never reluctant combatants. They are barbarians, wanderers, outlaws, berserkers, and pirates, who all lust for action and never flinch from the clash of steel. It is, in part, this distinctly primitive attitude that makes his stories so vital and so vivid.

This invitation to violence in the genre has led to a lot of second-rate authors misunderstanding the place of violence and gore in their imitations of the masters. I have read plenty of stories that are eager to spill blood or engage in sometimes uncomfortable levels of torture or mutilation without considering what purpose the elements serve in the narrative. Like any other tool, violence must be used for a reason, and for a specific effect. Adding excitement is a perfectly valid reason to use it, but too often, this fails as well.

Because a fight scene has to have its own narrative, pacing, and story beats. You are telling, in effect, a smaller story inside the larger one. There has to be threat, rising action, escalating stakes, climax – all of it. A good fight scene does not just stop the story dead while we wait to see who won, it tells us more about the characters as they do battle. The label “Sword & Sorcery” is not a free pass to engage in pornographic gore and violence. Because you are dealing with such strong elements, they have to be handled with care, and ironically a very fine sense of taste, otherwise works are produced with bring down the entire genre.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Pass of Bones

In the night of the year, by torchlight and the cold glare of the skyfires, men gathered for war. They came from many villages and hollows, from vales and riverside camps. They left their earthen longhouses, and they bore with them what weapons they had. Many carried the long bows of the northland hunters; others bore spears with iron heads etched with killing runes. The few true warriors among them wore their scaled armor and their iron swords. Shaggy horses bore them through the night under the burning stars to where the army gathered.

Druan was among them, here in the ancient meeting place called the Hada, where the fire of the goddess Ajahe was kindled and sacrifices made. The valley was strewn with the stone monuments of a vanished age of giants, and here stood the pillars that marked the turning of the year. The great chieftain Kaldun had set his tent here, and sent forth the call for men of war to come for a great purging, for the purpose of striking into the dark valley and destroying the heart of the evil that came from it.

Druan camped there among the few men of his old village who remained. Only six of them were unwounded and fit for battle; the others were too old or too young, or they still lay crippled from the attack. Bagan was one of them, and he was near death. Druan remained with him, tended his fire and kept him warm against the cold. It was plain he would not live much longer, as his wound was angry and eating him from within. He lay wrapped in furs, trying not to touch the hole in his belly packed with moss.

“How many have gathered?” the old man said, his voice weak. He could not eat any longer, only sip a little broth from a copper bowl.

“More than three hundred,” Druan said. He added more wood to the fire, wishing it was seasoned. The green wood gave off so much bitter smoke. “Perhaps fifty true warriors with armor and with swords. The rest are men like us.”

“I was a warrior, in my youth,” Bagan said. “I fought in blood feuds and for gold in raids. Those were the old times, not peaceful, when all men were against one another. I went south, into warmer lands, and fought wars for pay. It is a bitter life, to kill as a trade. I do not regret giving it up.” He took a heavy breath, put his hand down and touched the old bronze sword sheathed at his side. “You are a warrior as well, Druan. You fought and killed and took your wounds. You carry a weapon taken from the hand of a slain enemy. That is no small thing.”

Monday, January 9, 2017


Atmosphere is a very important component in Sword & Sorcery, and some of the greatest practitioners of the form were also really good at building the mood of their stories and the imaginary places where they were set. I do not think that is a coincidence. Howard was a storyteller of intense action and brutal violence, but a perusal of his tales reveals a knack for vibrant description and the clean evocation of both wilderness and decadent civilization. Moorcock was (and is) gifted at creating a powerful aura around his stories, when he wants to, and even Leiber as his most waggish created places that live and breathe with a strange feel and magic of their own.

One of the foremost elements of the atmosphere of the best S&S stories is a pervasive and often inescapable sensation of doom. That is – the idea that the characters, and perhaps their entire world – cannot escape a grim fate. Howard first to establish this, and he definitely drew somewhat on the Norse ideas of Ragnarok as well as his cataclysmic imaginary history to infuse his tales with a feeling of ultimate foreboding. There is always the sense that whatever is accomplished by his heroes will inevitably be destroyed someday. A parade of fallen empires and ruined cities attests that what men create will always fade.

It may be said – and has – that a man who shot himself at the age of thirty would have an outlook that tended toward the bleak, and Howard was certainly no optimist. Much of the suspicion and disdain for settled, civilized life on the part of Conan and Kull was his own, and he regarded the decline and fall of civilization – often at the red hands of barbarian invaders – to be an unavoidable future. That is not a common sort of attitude for an American, who at the time were prone to boosterism and hopes for progress. You might say it was a result of the Depression, but Howard’s outlook was in place long before the crash confirmed some of his more pessimistic ideas.

Other influential writers were just as prone to this fatalistic worldview. Moorcock’s Elric tales were textbook workouts in the Doomed Champion archetype, and his heroes all struggle mightily against their fates but cannot avoid them, no matter how they struggle. At most his characters can buy a few years of peace and happiness, before the world comes crashing down around them. Leiber’s characters struggled to find their way, only to end up as the pawns of gods or wizards, and things never ended up the way they wanted. For all his whimsy, Leiber’s Nehwon was pretty grim and unfriendly. Wagner’s worlds were even blacker, and needless to say Lovecraft’s own worldview was that we are all doomed to madness and death no matter what we do.

This all grows out of the roots of S&S in Noire fiction, with characters depicted as deeply flawed and trapped in a corrupt, unfriendly world where friendship leads to betrayal and love is fleeting at best. There are not many happily ever afters in this kind of story, and when you add the fantasy element to this, the whole thing can easily become woven into the worldbuilding as a fact: civilizations will crumble, empires will fall, cities will lie in ruins, races will die and vanish, and even the world itself may be brought down into destruction.

All of this does two things. For one, it creates an operatic aura of doom over all the stories and characters, because we see everywhere the evidence that everything dies and falls into ruin, so that even great struggles are placed against a longer perspective. And a big part of the evidence is the presence of ruined cities and temples and other remnants of things that have gone before. This creates a mood of antiquity that gives depth to the worlds, and also creates cool locations for treasure hunts and sword fights. A death duel in some ruined city is both a thematic element, and also more epic than if it happened somewhere else.

So it forms a kind of loop: atmosphere creating more worldbuilding which creates more atmosphere, and all of it adds a sense of time and the passing of ages to what could otherwise be quite plain action stories about mercenaries and barbarians. The pervasive sense of impending doom makes the worlds richer, and therefore makes the stories resonate more powerfully.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Howling God is here!

And it's here!  The collection of every story from the first year of the New Iron Age, plus "The Dead Moon's Harvest", a new story exclusive to the collection and the conclusion of the Nitocris cycle.  I put a lot of work into these stories, and now you can have them all.  Just go over to the Smashwords page and get any format you want.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Men From The Night

In the lands of the cold north, night went on forever, across the deep snow-cloaked vales and the thick forests of evergreen under the starlight. When the moon was gone, there was a light in the far northern mountains, a glow beyond the ridgeline, and on some nights a scintillant fire rose up from the unseen places and spread across the hungry sky in trails of light.

Druan hunted alone in the dark. Deep in winter there was no day, and a man must hunt whenever he could. It was deeply cold, and he wished to be back home, within the warm sod walls covered in boughs, lit by roaring fires and heavy with the smell of smoke and meat. The snow was deep here, and he walked in the footsteps he had made yesterday to make his path easier until he reached the eaves of the forest. He was wrapped in heavy furs, only the upper part of his face uncovered, and the bow in his hands was his only weapon besides an iron hatchet on his belt.

He was a tall boy, even if he was yet young. He had long limbs and a rangy strength, with the endurance born of a harsh world. He could walk all night, could run long hours without tiring and with little food, even in the bottomless cold. In his quiver were ten arrows with hammered iron points, and they were as precious to him as gold.

Under the trees the snow was less, and he could move more easily. It was dark, but his eyes soon adjusted, and he moved as surely as any night predator. He looked in the smooth expanses of the fresh snowfall for the footprints of game. He saw rabbits, but he would not hunt them unless he was unable to find what he really sought. It was deer he was after, and he imagined the smiles on the faces of his mother and his sisters when he returned with a heavy kill. Meat and hide and sinew and bones would all be of use.

He veered to the west, where he knew he would not encounter any others. The other hunters from his hollow did not come this way. In the next valley there had been another village, just a few years gone, but then in a night they all vanished, and nothing was found but blood and charred remains. The older men whispered to each other and would not name what they feared.