You can, of course, wing it when it comes to descriptive writing. In fantasy and science-fiction that purely imaginative approach is unavoidable. No one has actually seen a dragon, for example, or a slime monster from Alpha Ceti. But if you are attempting to achieve a certain realism, it helps to have some experience with the subject matter you are describing.
Perhaps Idaho doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a summer vacation destination. But I had been getting a touch of cabin fever, I’d heard good things about Coeur d’alene, and it is only about a six hour drive from home. So I packed up, got MBW and the HA in the car, and we headed northeast for a mini-vacation.
When we think of a sword in a swords-and-sorcery yarn, most often we think of a barbarian swinging a broadsword. We know what that means. We can visualize it. No matter that “broadsword” is not a term of art, and that in fact a broadsword, properly speaking, is far from the heavy spatha or arming sword we associate with our barbarian hero. And that’s fine. Secondary world fantasy or fantastic fictionalizations of our world don’t demand technical accuracy.
Sing it like Aretha Franklin or scream it like Ted Nugent: Freedom!
Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans. And a pleasant July 4th to the rest of you. If I may, like everyone else, quote John Adams on this day of celebration, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
No battle plan, or so it is said, survives first contact with the enemy. Life comes at you fast. Shit happens. Etc. The point is, you cannot expect matters to run smoothly and according to a predetermined schedule. Things change, even as you’re walking out the door on the way to whatever is appointed. Don’t be surprised.
It really shouldn’t come as a pleasant surprise to open a book and find exactly what the title describes. But, such is my life. I picked up Isaac Asimov’s Magical Worlds of Fantasy 5: Giants based on the strength of the names Manly Wade Wellman and Clark Ashton Smith. Seeing David Drake’s name in the credits didn’t hurt. I had a pretty good idea, given the inclusion of Pohl, Asimov, and Knight — among others — that this would not be a purely S&S/Weird Tales affair. But I expected mostly strong stories, be they science fiction, fantasy, or some hybrid thereof.
I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Heroic Visions. Nice title. And take a look at that cover. No, really, we’re going to come back to that. Take a good look. Okay, moving on to the Introduction: The editor, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, seems embarrassed to be doing this, as if editing an anthology of heroic fantasy was more a paycheck than a labor of love, and she wants you to know she is above such trash. In fact, she’s damn well going to do something about it, you Philistine, you knuckle-dragging S&S fan. I think I will avoid engaging with the introduction (from 1983, though rather au courant in content.) Let me merely state that I do not concur. But, to provide an example of JAS’s thinking, I’ll quote part of a paragraph.
Glen Cook’s bibliography indicates he’s been publishing fiction since the early 1970s. So 1982’s The Swordbearer shows the work of a writer with a good decade of craft under his belt. Ten years isn’t really that long in the scribbling biz, but even at this early stage in his career, some of the stylistic quirks of Cook are apparent: the naming conventions, the fast pace, the glossing over of detail, and the complex interlocking of backstabbers that makes figuring out who shot Nice Guy Eddie seem child’s play.
Anyway, Swordbearer is relatively early Cook, but nonetheless solid. How to pigeonhole the genre? Tough. A synopsis would suggest that there are enough quests, continent spanning wars, battles, and deep time backstory to easily qualify Swordbearer as epic fantasy. But the book isn’t even 240 pages long. It is told with Cook’s typical economy, sometimes reading more like Sword and Sorcery, even though the opening chapters suggest more of a YA, coming of age tale.
As usual with Cook, the characters are almost all morally complex. If Cook were a digital photographer, he’d be baffled by the chromatic spectrum, working only in grayscale. Even the big bad emperor assaulting the West is, ultimately, a sympathetic character. Some of the foul, murderous, nigh-immortal beings are portrayed as possibly redeemable, their actions understandable. But don’t trust any of the characters in Swordbearer. Keep spinning in a tight circle, because if you ever come to a stop, you’ll find a knife between your shoulderblades.
Sounds a bit like The Black Company, doesn’t it?
The hero of the tale is a likeable kid, forced to grow up fast, and selected/compelled to take up a cursed sword. A sword that has an evil will of its own. Swordbearer is fundamentally a tragedy, going over ground you’re already familiar with if you’ve read the doings of Elric and Stormblade and/or Túrin Turambar and Gurthang. But for fans of S&S, familiar ground isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If I had to summarize Swordbearer, I’d call it preliminary concept work for The Black Company, combined with Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer and Mournblade, along with a special guest appearance from Tolkien’s Nazgul. I’m an admitted fan of Cook, so take this recommendation for what it’s worth: pick up a copy of The Swordbearer, crack open a beer, enjoy.
It almost feels as if a gap in my life has been filled. The saga of Rick Galloway and his mercenaries, whisked away by a flying saucer from a hilltop in Africa just before being overrun by Cubans, is complete at last. Maybe, anyways.
I’ve been reading the Janissaries books since I was a teen. Unfortunately, after publication of the third book, Storms of Victory, in 1987 (the year I graduated highschool), the series appeared defunct, ending on, if not a cliffhanger, at least with uncertainty. Once nigh instantaneous access to information came along, some years later, I began to check every now and then for rumors of another volume. When I learned that Jerry Pournelle was working on it, I was happy. I seem to recall even reading a few pages at his website of the work in progress. But, alas, years continued to pass. And then, tragically, he went the way of all flesh. I thought that was it.
I was very pleased to learn that David Weber, and Jerry Pournelle’s son, had completed the book. Having waited so long, I was willing to stick it out longer for the paperback, so it would fit better with the first three books. (OCD? Maybe.)
Perhaps I could have dragged out the reading of it, savoring the experience longer, but I tore through it nearly as fast as I would have as a younger man with fewer responsibilities. Now I’ve finished, and I have a few thoughts.
I liked it. It can serve as a conclusion to the series. The plot is far from wrapped up, but the book ended with an indication of how the surviving characters might proceed. I’d like more, of course. Ideally I’d be able to read how Pournelle intended to resolve the issues involving galactic politics. I’d learn if Rick ever managed a quiet retirement with Tylara. Who ends up running the show on Tran. What happens to Gwen and Les. Etc., etc. But, we learned enough that I can make some guesses. All at the end of a massive battle that occupied about the last two hundred pages.
Bringing me to another point. The hand of David Weber is clear. None of the first three books exceeded 383 pages (and those were illustrated.) Mamelukes weighs in at 822 pages. Lengthy battle planning sessions and exacting descriptions of the mechanics of sailing suggest the influence of Weber’s exhaustive style. I’m fine with it. All interesting stuff, and well done. Never dull. But I couldn’t help but wish for an alternate future in which Pournelle had been able to take those 800+ pages and produce two books, carrying the story farther.
We meet new characters. In the book chronology, at the commencement of events, it has been thirteen years since Galloway left earth. So it is interesting to introduce characters who experienced the eighties and early nineties. What are laptops? We are introduced to a highschool professor, an ex-soldier, and an ex-SF policewoman. (The policewoman is one of the plot threads left dangling at the end. Was she plotting something? Was she an agent of an alien faction?) And we meet the leaders of a British Gurkha unit, bringing along a welcome complement of 60 deadly Gurkhas.
I noted in an earlier post on Janissaries, that I believed Rick’s mercs were armed with H&K battle rifles. In the later books I raised an eyebrow on reading mention of M-16s. Mamelukes clears it up by mentioning that they were primarily armed with H&Ks, along with a few M-16s. Good enough. The Ghurkas bring the British variant of the FN FAL. They also bring along one of the bits of news that seems to shock Galloway’s men as much as word of the fall of the Soviet Union: that the US Army adopted the 9mm Beretta in place of the .45. I chuckled at that.
Will there be more? Messrs. Pournelle and Webber leave the door open for continuing the series. If they do, I’ll certainly check out the first. If not, I’m content. My imagination has been provided enough information to devise a satisfactory fate for Rick Gallowy, et al.