Monday, April 30, 2018

The Horned Prow

When the ice closed in, the ships were caught. Thane Ranne’s wounded fleet lay close to a rocky shore, the ice too thick to force a way through. The half-dozen longships groaned as the ice locked them in and winter descended, coating their dragon prows with ice. The sky was low and heavy with snow, and the winds from the northern seas were bitter and hungry, seeking for blood.

Buran was a young hearthman, and this raid had not borne him the fruits he had hoped for. He huddled against the rail on watch, keeping his gaze on the ice. He could not see far in the dim light, and the haze of the low clouds made the world a place of shadow and darkness. This had been his first taste of war, and it had been bitter.

A dozen war craft had set out, planning a surprise attack on the shores of Hadrad. It was the closing days of autumn, and no one would expect a sudden attack in ill weather and cold seas. They had planned to fire King Arnan’s hall and then range along the shores and pillage settlements and the halls of lesser thanes. Then they would slip back north before the freeze and return home covered in glory and laden with plunder.

But the ice came early and slowed their passage southward. Arnan and his war-hound Crune had been warned, and when they went ashore they met a heavy force of steel-clad warriors that threw them back into the sea with a price of blood. Buran had taken a hard blow on the helm and been carried senseless back to the ships as they escaped. Two had been burned before they could put to sea, and the others were short of crew.

There had been other raids in the weeks since, ships going ashore to plunder for firewood and food, rather than gold. Ranne still dreamed of a rich strike to fill the ship holds with treasure, but there was nothing. The heavy autumn mists separated the longships and now they were only six, with many wounded and hungry men. Now the winter had come and trapped them, and they would have to remain here until the thaw came in spring. The men looked ahead to privation and hunger and long winter nights. Already there were bitter words and hidden anger.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Sword & Sorcery tales traditionally take place in a world that is either an earlier era of our own, or a fictionalized analog of that. There’s a reason why my site is called New Iron Age and not “New Atom Age”, because that would be a different kind of image conjured in your mind, a different feel. Feel is a nebulous term in fiction, but it has meaning, and carries weight. Feel is what tells you, without having to be told, what a story is about in its essence. What kind of world you are being told about.

We develop a shorthand for this that encompasses a lot of things: style, dialogue, image, diction. In fiction it can center around what kind of prose this is: is it elevated and/or archaic? That gives us clues about how we are supposed to relate to this story. What things are described in the first lines of the story? Are we being told about mountains and forests and a castle on a hillside? That tells us something, and we begin – even if unconsciously – to set our feet.

Titles are important as well. A story that says “dragon” or “sword” is sending us one kind of message about what is going on, while a title that says, say “divorce” or “football” is telling us something very different. When a reader comes to a new story, they have a lot of things that can begin to set the scene in their minds, and a good writer takes advantage of that.

These days, a reader will often come to a story after a lot of stage-setting has already been done. They have seen the movie or the show made from the book, they have seen the cover art and read the back cover copy, they have read reviews online. They know, before they read a word, what kind of story this is in at least a broad sense. They know it is a story about a king and a war, or a story about a ballet dancer and a hostage situation in a cab, or an earthquake.

Yet as the author you still have to consider your opening very carefully. You have to choose details that will form the unconscious background the reader is building in their mind. You have to set the scene. A lot of modern fiction does not so much do this. It is rather common to see a story – or even a novel – begin with a line of dialogue divorced from any context. The author thinks this will get our attention, when really, without knowing who is speaking or even roughly where they are, the line is meaningless and makes no impact on the story.

So in a Sword & Sorcery story, you have to start selling what kind of story this is right from the word go. You have to make sure every detail is not only dripping with mood and dark atmosphere, but that it grounds you in a physical place that is like a more primally dangerous version of whatever you are basing this off of. In S&S you never dwell on the mild or nice aspects of a place – you go for the throat.

A forest might be pretty, but you don’t say that. You talk about the dark shadows and the huge, towering trees. You suggest timelessness and the gulfs of history by saying how ancient the forest is, and how it doubtless stood for aeons before the rise of man. Mountains loom, sunlight burns, rain slashes, cold bites. Everything in an S&S world has to be the amped-up, dangerous, pulp version of itself.

And characters should be introduced in the act of doing something. There is a good pulp maxim that a character should always be entering a scene with information or leaving it with intent. Characters in a Sword & Sorcery tale do not stand looking into the mirror or lounge in the autumn sunlight. A character should be hunting, fleeing, fighting, or defying something. Everything should be described in concrete terms to make the world vivid: iron swords, mail armor, burnished helms, battered shields. The adjective is your friend in this kind of story.

And you should always reach for the primal. The characters should inhabit a stark, dangerous world that feels primitive and filled with hazards. They should do things that are archetypal, like characters from legend. A Sword & Sorcery character should be in action from the start, and that action should be something that has always been, something that people have always done and that can hark back to the older, harsher world the story is evoking. It should be primal, always primal.

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.”