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.
I’m waiting for my paperback copy of Mamelukes to arrive, sometime in May, so I can finish reading Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries series. I began reading these books in the 80s. I think I’ve waited about long enough. Sitting here and waiting I have mercenaries on the mind, given the premise of that series: human mercenaries sent off-planet to fight an alien conflict. (That’s not an entirely novel concept, now that I think about it.)
This anthology reads like the literary equivalent of hosting a costume party, but neglecting to mention that aspect to most of the guests.
Barbarians II has three, count them, three editors credited. I wonder what about this endeavor required so many hands on deck. Richard Adams’ introduction jokingly discusses the etymology and history of the word barbarian. I found this introduction — and the title — odd in a collection in which barbarians are few and far between. Though, in fairness, the intro did suggest that the word barbarian is, ultimately, meaningless. So, touché, Adams, I guess.
The important question is: are the stories any good? Let’s see, shall we?
The Toads of Grimmerdale. Andre Norton. I have written about this story before. It’s still good. Barbarian Quota: Only via reference to previous Witch World events.
Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth’s Core. George Alec Effinger. Jokey, genderswapped Pelucidar parody. Presumably, this is a sequel to Maureen Birnbaum on Mars, which I haven’t read. (I just researched this after writing the previous sentence. Seems I was basically correct.) The Jewish American Princess shtick is amusing, but the references are dated. Luckily, I’m old enough to appreciate them. This is fluff, fast food. The McRib of S&S. Goes okay with beer, though. Then again, doesn’t everything? Fun stuff if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Barbarian Quota: The only barbarians are the ape-men of the Earth’s core.
Trapped in the Shadowland. Fritz Leiber. The incomparable duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, once again cross paths with the Death of Newhon in this slight tale, more anecdote than story. Barbarian Quota: Fafhrd, of course, qualifies.
The Blacksmith. Raul Garcia Capella. When I first started these anthology posts (still primarily re-reading volumes picked from my shelves) I noted Ray (or Raul) Capella as an unknown. Yet he’s popped up frequently, and for good reason. He’s an excellent writer. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been deprived of some great, never produced Capella works. Blacksmith is a tale of arrogance and comeuppance, virtue and reward. It seems to be an origin tale of a unique S&S hero. I’m curious if any further tales of this new character ever saw print. Barbarian Quota: No barbarian in this one, though we do have a wizard, the eponymous blacksmith, and some sort of quasi-demon from a Valhalla lacking all the upsides. Perhaps he counts.
Demon of the Snows. Lin Carter. At last, a barbarian swordsman. A warrior of the cold north, broadswords strapped to his back, faces peril and mystery. Something like was promised on the cover. How about that? It is Thongor and LIn Carter, so you know what you’re getting. And that’s okay with me. Barbarian Quota: One Conan-clone.
The Dark Mother. Diana L. Paxson. I reviewed this one recently. Barbarian Quota: No barbarians here, except if they might be, metaphorically, the priestesses of the Dark Mother.
Misericorde. Karl Edward Wagner. KEW’s Kane is many things, but a barbarian is not one of them. Kane is, if anything, too civilized. Machiavellian, even. This is a jewel of a Kane story: a dark, vile jewel. If you need Kane encapsulated, here he is. Barbarian Quota: Zip.
The Warrior Race. L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp is reliably entertaining, so I’m always happy to see his name in an anthology. But Warrior Race is a science fiction story, not fantasy — heroic, S&S, epic, or otherwise. Are the Centaurans of the story barbarians? Well, in this historical analogy, yes. Corrupted and assimilated by the civilization they conquer. It’s a fine SF story. But I question it’s inclusion here. Barbarian Quota: See discussion above.
Fredeya. Charles Fontenay. A rather tedious slog through a post-apocalyptic setting to an end that is supposed to be some major surprise, but that is instead glaringly obvious about a third of the way through. It has its moments, and the author clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the setting. But it is undercooked. For example, the mutated monster that shows up out of the blue near the end comes without any set-up or foreshadowing. I’ve no problem with post-apocalyptic S&S (not that there is any sorcery in this) but after the straight up SF of the previous story and the ERB cutesy parody earlier, I”m growing rather disappointed with this supposedly themed S&S anthology. Barbarian Quota: There is a piratical atmosphere at the beginning of the story that was rather promising. I suppose freebooters might be considered as a type of barbarian.
A Logical Conclusion. Poul Anderson. Ahh, there we go. Leave it to Poul Anderson to right this listing ship. A man of our world exchanges minds with a Northern barbarian pirate in a fantasy world. This yarn is written as only Anderson could. A Logical Conclusion deserves recognition as part of the canon of S&S. Can’t recommend this highly enough. Barbarian Quota: You betcha.
The Winged Helmet. Fred Saberhagen. And…we’re back to science fiction. A time travelling Berserker story, to be exact. It’s entertaining enough, if overlong. Saberhagen knows what he’s doing. Still, I don’t think this is what I signed up for. Barbarian Quota: We’ve got a a barbarian in the form of a time-displaced cave-man type. (I think, so anyway. He seems to be a character from a previous story.)
The Changer of Names. Ramsey Campbell. Reviewed earlier. Barbarian Quota: Nope.
The Valley of the Worm. Robert E. Howard. The Ur-barbarian story. Anthologized many times, and for good reason. You all know this one. I need add nothing further. Barbarian Quota: Chockablock.
The Ghastly Pond. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. This is — fine. The setting lacks verisimilitude, like a hastily thrown together D&D campaign. I didn’t quite buy it. But the horror element of the second half add a compelling aspect, sufficient to carry me through. Barbarian Quota: Lacking barbarians, while at the same time portraying barbarity.
Verdict? Ignore the title and you’ve got yourself an excellent anthology. Only one or two didn’t work for me. Get yourself a copy.
And.or get yourself a copy of one of my books. How about this crime/S&S mashup?
Some things are true serendipity, others are more deliberately linked. I’m going with the latter in the case at hand. You see, I’m nearing completion of the sequel to Karl Thorson and the Jade Dagger, and the climax occurs at The Alamo. At about the time I commenced writing that chapter I needed to download a new audio book. Searching for this and that I came across a book I’d heard of before, but hadn’t read, by one of my favorite writers: The Alamo, by John Myers Myers.
Perhaps you are new to this planet, or have been living in a bomb shelter all your life with limited reading material. Maybe you recently stumbled upon a trove of Molly Hatchet album covers at a garage sale, with those paintings by Frank Frazetta and you start wondering what is all this about. Well, given those farfetched hypotheticals, or something similar, I’m here to offer the five writers you should familiarize yourself with to become conversant with the Swords and Sorcery genre.
Swords & Sorcery is one of those terms that defies precise definition. So, it is, I suppose, another one of those other concepts that can be encapsulated in the phrase “I know it when I see it.” And there is, I think, a certain prurience involved, without which S&S would fail to distinguish itself as a distinctive branch of Fantasy.
May is a busy month for me this year. What is going on, you ask? You’ve come to the right place for answers.
My short story “Brava – or – the Fire Demon” is out, published by the fine folks at Swords and Sorcery Magazine. If you like sword and sorcery fiction, if you like reading your fiction in digital editions, then this one is for you. This is the second of my ‘Cesar the Bravo’ stories. The first one, “Bravo,” is available at whichever on-line book seller you frequent.
Yes, self-serving promotion. How degrading. Let’s stick with it.