The Steel Remains

The Steel Remains coverHere I am back at the start, in a sense: it was Morgan’s acknowledgement of Elric and The Broken Sword as influences on The Steel Remains that made me seek them out. So the review that follows has a slightly tortured history, having been first composed back in June (or thereabouts), then revised both in light of having read the other books I’ve discussed this week, and having read Graham Sleight’s review, my reaction to which helped me to pin down how I wanted to say some of the things I wanted to say. And then, earlier this week, an interview with Richard Morgan was posted at io9, in which (among much, much else) apropos of some of the reactions to The Steel Remains he says:

In genre — and this seems to be the case more in science fiction — we cursed with a template-based form of appreciation. They always read in the context of what they’re already read. A book will be assessed on how much it seems to be like something else in the same … which seems to be a really old way to read to me. I don’t think it happens in mainstream fiction. […] an awful lot of reviews of The Steel Remains were measuring it against a fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin, a fantasy novel by Steven Erickson. I find that really strange. I am not George R.R. Martin and I am not Steven Erickson, and who’s to say that the book I’ve written is anything like those? There’s a constant blind impulse to find similarity and contrast.

I can understand his frustration; the tendency of some sf fans to dismiss new book X because author Y did the same thing in his book Z, twenty years ago drives me up the wall. (For a recent example, substitute “Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels” for X, “Michael Kube-McDowell” for Y and “Alternities” for Z.) It’s irritating because it’s usually a way of shutting down discussion – and even if it’s true, the fact that it’s true is not interesting, how and why it might be true is what’s interesting – and because it’s often a form of avoidance, a route to cheap, deceptive understanding. That said, I think Morgan is also being more than a little disingenuous. No two books are identical, but no book exists in a vacuum, either. How X is like (and unlike, of course) Z might well be useful information for someone reading a review: and done well, such comparison is another tool with which a reviewer can illuminate the specifics of X.

So I don’t feel any guilt about saying that, now that I’ve read some Anderson and Moorcock, their influence on The Steel Remains seems obvious. (There’s no danger of me making a similar claim for either George RR Martin or Steven Erickson, largely because I haven’t read the relevant books by either of them, but also because – from what I know about their work – such comparisons do seem to fall more towards the deceptive than the illuminating end of the spectrum.) From Anderson, I see a deliberate and forthright refusal of anything resembling a rose-tinted view of pre-industrial life; from Moorcock, a healthy dose of emo. The combination manifests as a worldview steeped in weary frustration: there are three main characters, all of them heroes who have outlived their war, and one of the strongest emotions afflicting each of them is a sense of waste, a sense that it could have been different. It’s not surprising that when the time finally comes to draw a line in the sand, one character does so because “I watched men like you piss it away again, the civilisation we’d saved […] And I will not watch it happen again” (370).

When the Scaled Folk invaded, Egar (called Dragonbane for a reason, now a clanmaster on the Northern plains), Archeth (dark-skinned half-breed, engineer, now advisor to the Yhelteth emperor), and Ringil (scion of a well-to-do family, leader of a last stand, now living in largely self-imposed exile) were in the front lines, but afterwards either they lost their way, or the world did. They all chafe at the situations they now find themselves in. Either there is no place for them (Archeth’s people have left the world; Ringil’s sexuality is illegal), or the place they’ve found is not enough (Ringil gets by as a hero-mascot for a tavern in small settlement, but resents it; Egar finds nomadic, tribal life unfulfilling after the intensity of urban civilization). All of them want to get back, into the world and what they do best, and on one level The Steel Remains is, straightforwardly, the story of them doing just that. Each of them needs a different shove to get going — Archeth is given a chance to put her expertise to use when she’s sent to examine the aftermath an attack on a Yhelteth port; Egar becomes a pawn in a godgame; Ringil is recruited by his (formidable) mother to track down his cousin, who has been (legally) sold into slavery by her husband — but thereafter their momentum carries them through their various investigations.

That plot structure is one important difference to the other books I’ve been discussing — Our Heroes don’t form a Quest Party, although of course eventually the threads do collide, and events reach a climax – but there are others. Apart from anything else, The Steel Remains is a modern novel, constructed as a novel from the ground up; there is none of the compression that marks out the Elric stories, for example. Other differences are obvious because I know some of Morgan’s previous work, in a way that’s not true with most of the other writers I’ve been talking about; for instance, where The Broken Sword is fairly relentless in its intensity, like Morgan’s other books The Steel Remains adopts what Adam Roberts aptly described as a sort of post-rock aesthetic, interspersing moments of quiet with moments of thundering loud.

The most familiar loudness in Morgan’s work is, of course, anger, which sometimes leads to the argument that there is a contradiction at the heart of his novels between style and subject that undermines their coherence. But it strikes me that such an argument is based on a slight misreading. There’s no doubt that Morgan’s books frame their physical, verbal, and moral engagements in high-stakes, high-contrast terms, but they shout with a purpose. Violence, for example, is as costly and terrible as it can be useful, or even necessary; above all, it is (rightly) seen as part of being human, or at the very least part of being human for the people Morgan is interested in writing about. Ultimately Morgan’s characters, for all their individual vigour, tend to be victims of a system. Black Man was venemously explicit about this towards its end – as one character sardonically put it, “Don’t ask, don’t ever ask who’s really making all this happen” – and while there’s no single comparable crystallizing moment in The Steel Remains, the anger at misplaced prejudice, the architects of injustice, and the mechanisms that encourage both frequently rings through.

The angriest character in The Steel Remains, and the axis around which the rest of the book is organised, is Ringil. (With three protagonists, and three books planned in the series, it will be interesting to see whether Egar and Archeth get their turn in the spotlight.) In a number of ways, Ringil resembles Black Man‘s Carl Marsalis: both are soldiers who appear to have lived longer than they were needed; both have an ironic sense of humour; both have a high sex drive; and of course, both attract hate and fear simply by being who they are. In other ways, they’re different. For all that Ringil is a veteran, he is younger than Marsalis, with less sense of himself, and all the hot-headedness and arrogance that condition brings; he thrills in battle in a way that would probably cause Marsalis to snort and shake his head. (It has that effect on the reader a couple of times, at least.) But ultimately the two of them complement each other as points on a spectrum of what men are allowed to be. Marsalis, allegedly a genetic throwback to the sort of Real Men who existed before wussy stuff like agriculture came along, was seen as too much man; Ringil, whose homosexuality marks him as a deviant, is seen as not manly enough. Which of course is nonsense; he’s in a Richard Morgan novel, so even while straining (and shouting) against the boxes his cultures put him in, Ringil is possessed of the sort of earth-shattering maleness that usually indicates a Lucius Shepard protagonist (although I can’t, offhand, recall any gay Shepard protagonists, or indeed any who are quite as nifty with edged weapons).

Because of his sexuality, from a distance Ringil looks like the same sort of intervention into the expectations of heroic fantasy as Alyx. In fact Morgan accepts more of the terms of engagement than Russ, in that Ringil’s personality is closer to that of Scafloc and Elric; but certainly Morgan is no less frank about Ringil’s fucking than he is about Ringil’s fighting (or indeed than he is about his straight characters fucking, both here and in earlier novels). Put another way, passion is another source of loudness in the book; and when it gets mixed up with anger, as it often does because of the way Ringil’s society treats his sexuality, you get passages like this:

[H]e couldn’t cloak it any longer, the leaking sense of loss, more fucking loss, soaking through into the same old general, swirling sense of betrayal, years upon pissed away years of it, made bitter and particular on his tongue now, as if Grace-of-Heaven [a lover] had come wormwood into his mouth in those final clenched, pulsing seconds. Pleasure into loss, lust into regret and there, suddenly, the same sick spiral of fucked up guilt they sold down at the temples and all through the po-faced schooling and lineage values and Gingren’s lectures and the new-recruit rituals of bullying and sterile manhood at the academy and every fucking thing ever lied and pontificated about by men in robes or uniform and– (59)

It’s the sort of anger that would in other hands be mere bluster: the sort rooted in frustration, that grabs you and becomes all-eclipsing while it lasts; the sort that often leads to violence, in this world and in Morgan’s, and then ebbs as quickly as it rose. (Or doesn’t: the rage at the execution of one particular gay youth remains undimmed throughout the book.) There’s a lot for Ringil to be angry at; his world is medieval in all the worst ways, thinned with no sign of recognition or recovery. In addition to the condemnation of homosexuality (it is punishable by execution), the post-war economy is in the toilet, and as a part-consequence slavery has been legalized; and religious fundamentalism is on the rise. In fact, about the only thing Ringil has going for him is that he’s not a woman. Reviewing Scott Lynch’s most recent novel — a writer whose mix of formal and informal language bears some comparison to Morgan — for Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis objected to the way in which (as he saw it) gender and other inequalities had been largely airbrushed away. Lewis was subsequently taken to task by some commenters for a lack of imagination, but if such it is then a similar lack attends The Steel Remains, in which prejudice and discrimination are endemic; Ringil’s only advantage is that he can hide his assumed inferiority (and in some cases, his fighting prowess might persuade people to look the other way). I’d say it’s something that elevates Morgan’s book above Lynch’s: better, to my mind, to engage with something than to sidestep it.

Part of that engagement is that, as much as any of the Elric stories, The Steel Remains is about the difficulty of claiming a new identity when the old one is taken from you by force or time. With a sense of waste, inevitably comes a sense of what was lost, and how loss leaves you adrift. It’s probably Archeth – for all that she gets relatively little action until late in the book, and spends relatively more time infodumping or being infodumped at for our benefit – who anchors this theme. She has the advantage of being close to the seat of power; she can see all too clearly how badly the empire she serves matches up to her dreams for society after the war. She has lost her heritage, and we eventually learn that her dark-skinned people left because they felt diminished by contact with human society. And, as an engineer with some access to technologies far beyond those of the people she lives among, she is the only one of the three protagonists equipped to argue with the world by any means other than force (though she is no slouch with her knives): to most people, science and sorcery are one and the same. But Ringil, too, is troubled by loss, or not so much troubled by it as assaulted by his memories — they sneak up on him, and once even literally stop him in his tracks. Nor is memory the only way the past breaks loudly into the present; there’s unfinished business of various kinds, returning enemies, several corpses that appear to have risen from the dead and one that actually does.

Such eruptions of the creepy and wonderful and strange are handled as confidently as good fantasy requires. They’re a different kind of loud for Morgan (as Graham noted in his review) but one that seems to me to sit comfortably, perhaps surprisingly so, with the more familiar elements of his aesthetic. Indeed, the final third of The Steel Remains is exhilaratingly full of discovery, without ever sacrificing either emotional intensity or the plot’s forward motion, and highlight another interesting link to Moorcock, Anderson and Russ, if not Leiber: there are several heavy hints dropped that Ringil’s world is in some way connected to our own. (Which brings me back to a question I raised in the comments earlier this week and didn’t get an answer to: when did full, separate secondary worlds become de rigeur in genre fantasy? I’ve heard it attributed to Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy (1976-9), but I really have no idea.) There are characters in The Steel Remains – Archeth is one – who know, for instance, that their world is part of a solar system that’s part of a galaxy; that the “band” that illuminates the night sky was probably once a moon; that their world has probably been visited by more than one near-human species. And Morgan’s fairies are to all intents and purposes worldwalkers, beings who can see and navigate through “a malestrom of alternatives” (and thus see the possibilities that are not; more loss, more weariness).

As in The Broken Sword and Stormbringer, in The Steel Remains, there is no guarantee in any of this that Ringil’s world can be saved, or that its future will be better than its past. But there is perhaps a little more optimism. If, you think, if Morgan’s heroes could see through their loss, if they could use their anger — if they could shout loud enough — then maybe they’d actually have a shot at healing some wounds. But it seems a pretty slim if. More likely they’ll keep fighting, because that’s what they do, because that’s what there is, because the system can’t be beat; and when they cry out, it will be with Egar’s battle-cry, in an “awful, no-way-back call for death, and company in the dying” (22). There are two more books to come, and I reckon that’s the way it will go; but if so, it’ll be a story worth telling, anyway. And reading.

The Adventures of Alyx

Adventures of Alyx coverIf, like me before I read it, the only things you know about The Adventures of Alyx are that it’s Joanna Russ’s response to heroic fantasy, and one of the canonical examples (along with CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry) of introducing a female character into a role perceived (or at least assumed to be perceived) as basically male, what do you expect? I think I expected Xena, or Kitiara; what I found is conspicuously different, and rather elegantly set up. Although the world in which Alyx operates is still, in many ways, hostile to women, the world’s creation myth, in which women were created before men, and men were created from an extraneous body part, creates a space for a hero like Alyx to exist. But more than that, it seems to me that thinking about Alyx as a woman is a red herring. What really differentiates Alyx from the other protagonists I’ve been talking about — at least when reading these stories in 2008 — is not her sex, but her character. Unlike Fafhrd, Alyx is not callow; unlike Elric, there is no doubt Alyx is a hero: tough, smart, practical, competent, brave. (And, notably, explicitly not conventionally beautiful, unlike most contemporary tough, smart, etc, female leads.) And unlike Scafloc, her heroism is not doomed; she wins, convincingly, every time. Nor does she suffer much internal anguish in these tales. In short, unlike her male counterparts, Alyx is not only someone you can root for, but someone you might actually be able to stand being.

The Adventures of Alyx collects four short stories and one short novel, all but one of which revolve around Alyx in the way that the Elric stories revolve around Elric — though it’s worth noting that they are tidily-structured short stories, rather than the overstuffed mini-epics of the thin white duke – and none of which are as memorable as the character they showcase. The first tale (published in 1967; originally “The Adventuress”, and here “Bluestocking”), establishes Alyx as a “pick-lock” and general adventurer-for-hire, although — again, a difference to the men — not an heir to a kingdom, or a noble line. The descriptions of her are in many ways simply descriptions of an average 30-year-old working woman. She is short, with gray eyes, black hair, and freckles. She has an intellectual bent, but has found that her chosen profession “gratified her sense of subtlety” (9). Not that she’s unambitious; she has visions of becoming a Destiny, although what that means is never completely clear. The plot that Russ constructs for her seems inadequate. Ostensibly, it involves Alyx recruited to escort a young lady (never referred to as a girl, though she is only 17 and acts, at least to start with, like a spoiled brat) who wishes to run away from an arranged marriage to a rich boor whose previous wives, the narrator heavily insinuates, died in dubious circumstances; in practice, it’s a story that exists primarily to provide a series of trials which Alyx can overcome, demonstrating her toughness, smarts, practicality, competence and bravery in the process. It is not, in other words, a particularly high-stakes story — a distinguishing factor that persists throughout the book; the fate of the world is never in the balance — and nor is it particularly spectacular. An encounter with a sea-monster is typical:

Then she saw the sea monster.

Opinion concerning sea monsters varies in Ourdh and the surrounding hills, the citizens holding monsters to be the souls of the wicked dead forever ranging the pastureless waves of the ocean to waylay the living and force them into watery graves, and the hill people scouting this blasphemous view and maintaining that sea monsters are legitimate creations of the great god Yp, sent to murder travelers as an illustration of the majesty, the might, and the unpredictability of that most inexplicable of deities. But the end result is the same. Alyx had seen the bulbous face and coarse whiskers of the creature in a drawing hanging in the Silver Eel on the waterfront of Ourdh (the original — stuffed — had been stolen in some prehistoric time, according to the proprietor), and she had shuddered. She had thought, Perhaps it is just an animal, but even so it was not pleasant. Now in the moonlight that turned the ocean to a ball of silver waters in the midst of which bobbed the tiny ship, very very far from anyone or anything, she saw the surface part in a rain of sparkling drops and the huge, wicked, twisted face of the creature, so like and unlike a man’s, rise like a shadowy demon from the dark, bright water. It held its baby to its breast, a nauseating parody of human-kind. (16-7)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is bad, even if some of the tricks used (an extremely long sentence followed directly by a short, abrupt one, for instance) crop up a bit too frequently throughout the book. But it’s not exciting. First, the forward action of the scene is paused to tell us some stuff about what is believed about sea monsters; and most of the description is vague generalities — “huge, wicked, twisted”. Although we’re told that final image, of a distorted tableau of motherhood, is “nauseating”, the emotion isn’t evoked in us, particularly, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the image is more important for its symbolic qualities, particularly when Alyx goes on to kill it in short order.

This is not to say that Anderson and Moorcock’s stories were lacking in symbolism — hardly — but that I think Russ’s goals are somewhat different than theirs. What The Adventures of Alyx has going for it, largely, is voice. I’ve already mentioned the alternate mythology, and the narrator of “Bluestocking” clearly takes some fun in poking at conventional roles, such as the (I presume) heavily ironic comments that Alyx is “among the wisest of a sex that is surpassingly wise”, and that women’s “natural weapons” are “deceit, surprise and speed” (19). But there is also a laconic, even mocking element to the voice — and the story construction; although lip service is paid to the idea of Alyx’s charge, Edarra, growing up during their journey together, in fact what happens is that the major part of the journey is elided, and Edarra is suddenly and magically grown up, almost between paragraphs — and a sense that the tone has been chosen not to create a world out of whole cloth, but to subvert one (ours). It’s at odds with the innocent expectation of belief that marks The Broken Sword and the Elric stories, and makes for businesslike, even brusque storytelling.

Russ is also far more impatient even than Moorcock with the boundaries of the type of story she is telling. “Bluestocking”, with its nod to Fritz Leiber and all, is actually the only story in the book that could be called straightforward heroic fantasy. Tale two, “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (also 1967, original title “I Gave Her Sack and Sherry”), is an origin story for Alyx that doesn’t mention her by name until the final page — or looked at another way, until Alyx chooses to claim her name. Before then, she is an oppressed wife who escapes from (and, not incidentally, kills) her abusive husband before going out to make her way in the world and train as a fighter. Although she travels for a while with a captain called Blackbeard, and learns some things from him, the narrative is careful to insist that at no time does she need him. “The Barbarian” (1968) looks at first like a return to the format of “Bluestocking”. Alyx is approached by a fat man who patronisingly claims to know a lot about her — “‘And now,’ (he pronounced the ‘now’ with peculiar relish) ‘you are getting old […] You’re thinking of settling down'” (50) — and who wishes to recruit her to assist him with a series of break-ins. We can tell he’s a bad guy because he’s stupid (the defects of those Russ wishes us to dislike are usually framed as a kind of stupidity, and in this case we are explicitly told his stupidity offends Alyx) and sure enough, on one break-in he tells Alyx to kill a baby, on the grounds that he claims to know she will grow up to be a cruel queen. Alyx refuses — although as much on the grounds that the man should do his own dirty work as anything else; her first reaction is not “no!” but “What on earth for?” — and subsequently tracks the man to his lair, where it is revealed, for anyone who doubted it, that he is a time-traveller, given to tinkering with history. “My hobby is world-making” (63), he says to Alyx, who kills him, and then smashes his machines.

And Picnic on Paradise, originally published in 1968 as Russ’s first novel, appears to be even more straightforwardly science-fictional. It picks up on the time-travel theme, revealing that Alyx has been brought forward 4,000 years in a sort of temporal archaeology accident, and recruited as an Agent. As the novel opens she’s been dispatched to the planet Paradise, a popular tourist destination caught in a “commercial war”. In an echo of the plot of “Bluestocking”, she’s recruited to escort a group of civilians, of varying degrees of uselessness, from A to B — quite literally, from station A to station B, in an example of Russ’s dry humour. Of course, B turns out to have been destroyed when they get there, necessitating a longer and increasingly dangerous journey through cold, mountainous, treacherous terrain to the next-nearest station, at the planet’s pole. In other words, it’s the sort of story that could comfortably be told in a fantasy setting (indeed, the level of sfnal invention on display, with humans having interbred sufficiently so that everyone is a pleasing shade of light brown, and treatments such as “Re-Juve” on offer, is in all honesty not far above what you’ll get in a middling episode of Doctor Who), which perhaps is intended as a comment on the separability (or not) of the two genres. You could even argue that the imposition of the mission on Alyx from higher up the chain of command is The Adventure of Alyx‘s equivalent of the sort of godgames that make Scafloc and Elric’s lives so miserable.

In some ways, Picnic on Paradise is not actually very good. For an adventure story it’s baggy, featuring a crowded party of sketchily-differentiated characters, and perhaps a little too much commitment to conveying the mind-numbing tedium that polar expeditions probably come with in real life. Predictably, members of Alyx’s group start falling by the wayside one by one, and equally predictably Alyx grows from being more than a little frustrated with her charges, thinking of herself as a teacher saddled with a class of small children, to considering them to be “her people”. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the most interesting element of the novel to be the relationship that develops between Alyx and one of the male civilians, known as “Machine” and initially introduced as “an idiotic adolescent rebel” (74) – and not just for the contrast it presents to the relationships in the other books. “Bluestocking” (very weirdly) ends with Alyx and Edarra finding some men, and the one that Alyx pairs off with may be the new husband we get a glimpse of at the end of “The Barbarian”; but of the nuts and bolts of Alyx in a relationship, this is our only sight. Like Scafloc and Elric, she is older than her partner; unlike them, thankfully, there is no suggestion that her attraction to Machine stems from his youth per se, although they do start calling each other “dear” and “darling” with alarming speed, and it’s not actually entirely clear what the attraction does stem from, other than, perhaps, the fact that he’s the only not-entirely-obnoxious, vaguely competent man within several hundred miles. But the scenes of them together are largely thorny and convincing. This is particularly true when Russ is dealing with the collision between Machine’s serious attitude to sex — who has what can only be described as a mechanical dedication to making sure his partner enjoys herself — and Alyx’s rather more passion-led approach. Interestingly, in this Russ positions Alyx as the child: “When you do something, you do it right, don’t you?” asks Machine, trying to explain his approach, to which Alyx promptly says “No,” before explaining that the only reason to do it is “because you want to”, as “any five-year-old child” should know. It’s an interesting exchange, because Alyx’s temper frequently gets the best of her elsewhere in these stories — not always, in fact rarely, for the worst, but not entirely admirably, either.

The collection’s final story, “The Second Inquisition” (1970) changes setting, tone and style yet again — in the process making clear exactly how much control Russ has over those elements of her writing — relocating to 1925, and the narrative of a young woman still living with her parents. She describes an unusually confident visitor who is staying with them, who seems fairly clearly to be one of the tall, indefinably mixed-race people of Picnic on Paradise‘s time, and who sure enough turns out to be a time traveller, one of a number of agents trained by Alyx and engaged in a temporal conflict. It’s a story that picks up on one of the most moving exchanges in Picnic in Paradise, when Alyx is trying to convey to one of the civilians what the world she comes from is like, and what time travel feels like to her:

“Think of that, you thirty-three-year-old adolescent! Twenty-six and dead at fifty. Dead! There’s a whole world of people who live like that. We don’t eat the way you do, we don’t have whatever it is the doctors give you, we work like hell, we get sick, we lose arms or legs or eyes and nobody gives us new ones, we die in the plague, one-third of our babies die before they’re a year old and one time out of five the mother dies, too, in giving them birth.”

“But it’s so long ago!” wailed little Iris.

“Oh not it’s not,” said Alyx. “It’s right now. It’s going on right now. I lived in it and I came here. It’s in the next room. I was in that room and now I’m in this one. There are people still in that other room. They are living now. They are suffering now. And they always live and always suffer because everything keeps on happening. (127-8)

This works on several levels: it conveys the shock of transition which Alyx experienced, moving between times; it is metafictionally true, in that just before and just after this exchange we are indeed reading about the people in those other rooms; and of course it’s a reminder that geographical inequality in the real world, today, is as significant as the temporal inequality Alyx is describing. This last is, I think, reinforced by the collection’s overall trajectory from stories about a world that is remote and separate from ours, to stories about a world that is directly and intimately linked to us.

The first four Alyx stories all end with the same line, or a variation on it: “But that’s another story.” “The Second Inquisition” ends with the narrator isolated, having witnessed extraordinary events and a glimpse of a world from which she is excluded, in favour of having to live in reality. “No more stories,” she says, echoing the finality of Stormbringer rather than the ongoing tapestry of The Broken Sword. The sadness of it contrasts with the upbeat expansiveness of all the other endings, but it works better. And there is a sense, too, that the stories say all that Russ wanted them to say. Others — Mary Gentle, Samuel Delany – may have found other routes into the same seams of ore, but I think Russ got the gold she wanted from this mine, and was ready to move on to others.


Elric US cover At the start of “The Dreaming City” (1961), the first Elric story, a group of armoured men, soon revealed to be soldiers, are sitting around discussing an upcoming battle. We should attack now, says one; no, cautions another, we must wait for Elric, for it is his knowledge that will ensure our success. It’s a classic, if obvious, ploy to build anticipation for the main character’s entrance, and when Elric finally appears, Moorcock does not stint on the description:

Elric was tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and, for an obscure reason, affected the dress of a southern barbarian. He had long, knee-length boots of soft doe-leather, a breastplate of strangely wrought silver, a jerkin of chequered blue and white linen, britches of scarlet wool and a cloak of rustling green velvet. At his hip rested his runesword of black iron — the feared Stormbringer, forged by ancient and alien sorcery.

His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company — that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear — for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him.

Elric, Last Lord of Melnibone, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source. (14-15)

As character introductions go, they don’t come much more heavy-handed than this: detailed and desperately self-conscious about the outlandish proto-goth-ness of the person it’s describing. (And, indeed, slightly too pleased with itself as a reaction to older works, as the mighty god-king’s re-titling suggests.) But it serves its purpose, and at least makes clear that these are not stories where we need to be worrying about nuance.

The next thirty pages are a condensed epic in which Elric leads the sealords against Imrryr, his home city and the last remnant of a great empire, in order to settle a personal score. Moorcock whips through the various confrontations leading up to the climax with little poetry but — for anyone used to the pace of modern genre fantasy novels — astonishing speed and vigour, and fills the story with wild and scary and shrieking magic, obscene agonies and evil laughs. (“Yyrkoon laughed then — laughed like a gibbering demon from the foulest depths of hell”, 34). It is all more flamboyant and fantastic than anything in Swords Against Deviltry or The Broken Sword, but perhaps the most notable thing about “The Dreaming City”, beyond its historical significance, is the committed bitterness of its ending: Elric betrays just about everyone, usually in such a way as to lead to their death, and swims off into the sunset. The only relationship that endures beyond the final page is that between Elric and Stormbringer. At one point in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, Fafhrd insists that “all weapons are in a fashion alive, civilized and nameworthy”; Stormbringer may be alive and nameworthy, but it is anything but civilized. It is the “secret and terrible source” mentioned above, a demonic soul-drinking blade not without its own will. “We must be bound to one another then,” Elric states, “two of a kind — produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!” (42)

Elric UK coverThe currently available UK and US editions of the early Elric stories differ somewhat; as the cover picture at the top of this post indicates, I read the Del Rey edition of these stories, which is the first in a series of books that present the Elric tales in the order they were written, rather than (as Lankhmar does) the order of their internal chronology. This edition has one big advantage, for my purposes, over the current UK edition, which, though prettier (left) and also presented in publication order, contains only the stories, whereas the Del Rey edition includes a generous supply of ancillary materials, including cover art, introductions, and letters from old fanzines, which help to fill in (a version of?) the historical context. Moorcock’s introduction, for example, tells us that on these stories’ first appearance, “some readers seemed to be uncomfortable” with the “ironic tone” of the Elric stories, which were “probably the first ‘intervention’ into the fantasy canon, such as it was” (xxi), noting Stephen Donaldson and Scott Bakker as later examples. Later, he confides that “It is a little strange for me to accept that Elric has become part of the pantheon of epic fantasy” (xxxiii). Reading these stories for the first time in 2008 it’s a little strange to imagine a time when Elric wasn’t canonical – Steph Swainston’s Jant is but one prominent descendent of Elric. It’s not just that it’s odd to read about a world in which this sort of fantasy isn’t a huge market segment (“These days,” Moorcock notes in one fanzine letter dated to 1963, “people seem to want information of some kind with their escapism — and sword and sorcery doesn’t strictly supply information of the type required”, going on to contrast it with the success of James Bond. How the pendulum swings …). It’s also odd to read Moorcock’s comments about canonicity and irony because, over forty years after their initial publication, the irony in some of the stories is, for me at least, barely discernible. This is not so much because the scenery of these books has become familiar through over-use, as it has for books like The Lord of the Rings or Neuromancer, although there is some of that — I first encountered the idea of Chaos as a bad guy playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle as a teenager, and although I knew academically that the Warhammer world was intensely derivative, I had no idea how specific some of the borrowing was, down to (it turns out) the multi-headed arrow as the chaos symbol. No, it’s more in attitude and story-shape that I think Moorcock’s influence feels pervasive: the spin he puts on the idea of the magic sword, and the lost empire, and the tortured hero, and the ultimate conflict.

The idea of balance between the forces of Chaos and Law is in fact introduced in the second, equally direct, story, “While the Gods Laugh” (1961), in which Elric is recruited to seek the Dead God’s Book, in which is recorded “a holy and mighty wisdom” (47). The ending might be a surprise if you’ve never read a quest for ultimate knowledge before — hint: the bitterness of the end of “The Dreaming City” isn’t a one-off, although it is slightly tempered this time — but the journey provides an excuse for Moorcock to let Elric discourse on cosmology and on his philosophy of life with Shaarilla, the woman who enlists him. (And who is the only female character in this book with significant amounts of independence and agency; but more about that later.) “My only comfort is to accept anarchy,” he tells her. This way, I can revel in chaos and know, without fear, that we are all doomed from the start — that our brief existence is both meaningless and damned” (51). The book is guarded by a giant in the service of the Lords of Chaos, who admits to Elric that he is disturbed by the idea that the Book could give either side in the eternal struggle the upper hand; as he puts it, “We exist only to fight — not to win, but to preserve the eternal struggle” (78). It sets the terms for the stories to follow.

And those stories are, in purely pyrotechnic terms, a blast. In his introduction, Moorcock freely admits that the stories are entertainments, not works of art (though he argues that they contain the seeds of much of what followed) but it doesn’t really prepare you for the density of imagination which follows. In part that’s because the length of each tale is also a shock, though a welcome one: the best of these stories are distilled essence of epic. On the downside, the remaining stories that were originally published in book form as The Stealer of Souls — which make up the first half of the present volume — are filled with transparently convenient plotting, a moderately bad case of Fan’t’asy N’a’ming D’sease, some atrocious dialogue (“I had hoped never to have to make use of that hell-forged blade again. She’s a treacherous sword at best” / “Aye — but I think you’ll need her in this business”, 166; although some of the dialogue demonstrates more self-awareness, such as when Elric responds to a speech about the awesome power of a warlord’s fully operational army with an offhand “thanks”), and mysterious and beautiful women. As I hinted yesterday, there is a parallel with The Broken Sword here in that the most childlike of the women, disturbingly, is handwaved into a marriage with Elric that seems to be largely based on his love of her innocence. (In one of the fanzine letters appended to the body of this edition, Moorcock acknowledges the problems with the representation of women, and implies it stems from personal circumstances at the time.) But on the upside, these are tales filled with battles and emotional torment and exotic landscapes and marvels: elementals fighting above a city, drugs, an undead-king (“His heart did not beat, for he had none; he drew no breath, for his lungs had been eaten by the creatures which feasted on such things. But, horribly, he lived …” 156, and it’s the ellipsis that makes it), cat-people from another dimension and, at the end, a dragon-riding set-piece. It also ends with Elric insisting that he is “tired of swords and sorcery” (194) — although significantly, when he tries, he is unable to properly throw Stormbringer away.

Which brings me to the second half of Elric: Stormbringer, your classic fix-up, published as stories in 1963 and 64, and in book form in 1965. As a novel-length inevitably had to do, Stormbringer raises the stakes. To this point, Elric has mostly been wandering around one continent; now he becomes aware of a great army massing across the ocean, that may pose a threat to the safety of the Young Kingdoms. (Intriguingly, the first map of Elric’s world, reproduced along with a number of magazine covers, is dated 1967, suggesting it was retrofitted to the stories. That would at least explain why the forces of darkness seem to insist on travelling East across the ocean, rather than making what one assumes would be a land voyage Westwards …) The army in question hails from the island of Pan Tang (Moorcock’s sensitivity to racial issues in these stories is on a par with his sensitivity to gender issues), and has allied itself with Chaos: which makes them more despicable than Elric’s people, for all that the Melnibonians are nominally chaotic themselves, because, says Elric, “These newcomers, more human than we, have peverted their humanity whereas we never possessed it in the same degree” (232). By the end of the first story — Stormbringer is climax on climax — we have learned that (no surprise) Elric’s sword, and he with it, have a greater destiny than he previously realised; and in a conversation with a Dead God, Moorcock confirms what has been implied since the beginning of the series, that Elric is living in our remote past. “The Earth’s history has not even begun,” a Dead God tells Elric. “You, your ancestors, these men of the new races even, you are nothing but a prelude to history. You will all be forgotten if the real history of the world begins” (264).

It’s the original magazine versions of the four stories that make up Stormbringer which appear here, which leads to some redundancy in the text, but increases the book’s value as a historical resource. Something those repetitions also help to make clear is that the evolution of Elric and the cosmology of his world was not a natural and inevitable progression; rather it was one of improvisation. Even as the forces of chaos advance — “iron and fire beat across nations like an unholy storm”, 247; one of the things Stormbringer does very well is develop an atmosphere of gathering darkness — Moorcock is building his world as fast as he’s tearing it down. We learn more about the past of Elric, and of Melnibone, and more about the geography of the world, than we ever needed in the earlier stories. And yet Moorcock picks up pieces of continuity from the earlier stories — a character here, a magic item there — and weaves them into his tapestry.

The extravagant visions of Chaos seem to bring out the best in Moorcock, too. Our first sight of the Dukes of Chaos is all abstractions, “suddenly ragged colour, shrill sound, and disordered matter” (308). And here’s a portrait of the Camp of Chaos, set in a landscape that is itself becoming unstable and messy:

No mortal nightmare could encompass such a terrible vision. The towering Ships of Hell dominated the place as they observed it from a distance, utterly horrified by the sight. Shooting flames of all colours seemed to flicker everywhere over the camp, fiends of all kinds mingled with the men, hell’s evilly beautiful nobles conferred with the gaunt-faced kings who had allied themselves to Jagreen Lern and perhaps now regretted it. Every so often the ground heaved and erupted and any human beings unfortunate enough to be in the area were either engulfed and totally transformed, or else had their bodies warped in indescribable ways. The noise was a dreadful blending of human voices and roaring Chaos sounds, devils’ wailing laughter and, quite often, the tortured shout of a human soul who had perhaps regretted his choice of loyalty and now suffered madness. The stench was disgusting, of corruption, of blood and of evil. The Ships of Hell moved slowly about through the horde which stretched for miles, dotted with great pavilions of kings, their silk banners fluttering; hollow pride compared to the might of Chaos. (377)

There’s plenty that’s bad about this paragraph — the imprecision about who’s doing the observing in the second sentence; the proximity of “perhaps now regretted” and “perhaps regretted”; the fairly pedestrian way it proceeds through the senses and describes each in turn. Nevertheless, for me at least, it has enough energy and cumulative power to overcome such flaws. Moorcock notes that “the landscapes of my stories are metaphysical, not physical” (438), something that becomes unavoidable towards the end of Stormbringer and, by all accounts, the later-written stories.

The structure of Stormbringer presents the relationship between Elric and his sword with a series of tests: Stormbringer weighed against the life of Elric’s wife, Stormbringer weighed against Elric’s devotion to his patron demon, Stormbringer weighed against Elric’s friend. Moorcock is explicit about the nature of the relationship: Elric calls for Stormbringer “as a lover calls for his betrothed” (318). That Moorcock takes this relationship as far as it can possibly go is to his credit, undeniably ironic, and perhaps the one aspect of the stories in this book that still seems truly transgressive. After all, you can’t get much more contrary in fantasy than to give your series an ultimate, unbreakable, unsequelable ending. (Even if you go on to find other ways to write about the character…)

The Broken Sword

The Broken Sword cover In an introduction to D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths [pdf link], reprinted in his essay collection Maps and Legends earlier this year, Michael Chabon describes the appeal of Norse mythology: “it begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches.” This is presumably the sense in which the back-cover blurb of the “ultimate fantasy” edition of The Broken Sword — “a superb dark fantasy of the highest, and most Norse, order” — should be read. While Poul Anderson’s novel borrows most heavily from the details of Norse mythology to construct its plot, there are also significant elements drawn from Christian and English lore, not to mention references to traditions existing elsewhere in the world, and in an afterword Anderson goes to some lengths to argue that his depiction of the historical (as opposed to fantastical) parts of his setting are true to our understanding of them. (Although the non-Norse mythological elements are apparently downplayed in the 1971 reissue, relative to the original 1954 text which I read.) But the manner of the story’s expression, throughout, is pure Norse. The Broken Sword is, to borrow Chabon’s phrases again, structured by “veins of calamity and violence … like the forking of a fire or of the plot of a story”. As with Swords Against Deviltry, the ground state of the world is harsh and cruel, but Anderson provides no gloss; his tale is relentless. In the opening chapter, a Jutlander called Orm leaves home to seek his fortune in the world. He sails to England, where he claims land by burning down its inhabitants’ house in the middle of the night – with them in it — and claims a woman by threatening her father with a similar fate. And he is, relatively speaking, on the side of the angels.

In The Broken Sword, that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy so much as it means he’s a valuable piece to those gods who aren’t actively working towards the dissolution of all creation, or the corruption of men’s souls. More than in any of the other books I’m discussing this week, The Broken Sword justifies Moorcock’s attempt to label the category as epic; although there is less at stake than there is in, say, Stormbringer, the manner in which the stakes are treated gives them something approaching equal weight. There is a much powerful sense that the world is a canvas, or chessboard on which grand dramas are played out.

And they play out, predominantly, around Orm’s son, who exists as an agent of prophecy. A witch, whose family is killed by Orm, places a curse on the Jutlander that his firstborn will be raised beyond the world of men, while Orm will in turn foster “a wolf that [will] one day rend him” (2). The Broken Sword is in part the story of these things coming to pass. An elf-earl abducts Orm’s son, names him Scafloc, and replaces him with a changeling (who is, rather horribly, created via the earl’s rape of a captive troll). At a feast in Elfhiem, in honour of Scafloc’s naming, a new prophecy is offered: a messenger for the gods turns up with what appears to be the titular weapon, saying that it is a gift for a time when Scafloc will need “a good blade” (15). (Although it is reforged in the course of the book, The Broken Sword does not tell the sword’s story; it might be better to take the title as a reference to Scafloc and his changeling counterpart, Valgard, who are in many respects two halves of one whole.) And there are yet more markers of destiny, albeit not directly acknowledged as such: when Scafloc boasts that the three things he has never known are “fear, and defeat, and love-sickness” (28) it’s fairly obvious where the story is heading.

Or perhaps that should be stories, plural, because The Broken Sword is also epic in the sense that it subsumes just about every category of narrative you can think of. There is some abbreviated coming of age; there is a revenge tragedy, in which Valgard is manipulated by the witch into killing most of Orm’s family; there is a war, between the elves of England and the trolls of Finland, in which both Scafloc and Valgard are caught up, on opposing sides; there is a romance; and there is a quest to re-forge the sword into a weapon capable of turning the tide in the war. The style throughout is formal without being ornate; economic and serious, unafraid to elide periods of no relevance to the main narrative, or to usher in huge changes, or changes in fortune, without warning. (Something about the flow of narrative time within the book put me in mind of Geoff Ryman’s first novel, The Warrior Who Carried Life, which could also be fairly described as epic, despite focusing on a very few individuals.) It is the sort of story in which a king can speak “quietly” to his foe in the midst of a raging battle (187).

The characters are broad enough to match the great deeds they must undertake. Scafloc is the best of elf and human, carefree and mischevious, honorable, fast enough to chase down a stag on foot, but able to handle metals — and therefore weapons — that would burn his adoptive father. Valgard is his mirror, or shadow, growing up “strange, aloof, silent” (33) and before long painfully aware of what he is and is not. He oscillates between terrifying beserker rages and ragged fits of melancholy: “Night closes on me, the sorry game of my life is played out … I was but a shadow cast by the mighty Powers who now blow out the candle” (47). Around Scafloc and Valgard constellate a variety of other characters, mostly related to them in some way; for all that it ostensibly tells of great, world-changing events, The Broken Sword is a deeply personal book, in the sense that a blood feud is personal: the heroes and villains all know each other. Female characters in general get a raw deal (witch; weepy queen; kidnapped trophy), but probably the single most interesting character beyond the central duo is Scafloc’s nature-sister, Valgard’s nurture-sister, Freda. She is kidnapped by Valgard, to be delivered to the troll king as proof of his renunciation of his human heritage, but rescued by a raiding Scafloc. Subsequently the two fall into a relationship, even fighting alongside each other at one point, which necessitates some rather desperate attempts on Anderson’s part to justify why Scafloc never thinks too deeply about the fact that Valgard’s brother looks exactly like him (“Imric, to break his fosterling’s human ties, had brought him up not to be curious about his parentage”, 74), or why Freda never notices (“Eyes and lips and play of features, manner and touch and thought, were so different in them that she scarce noticed the sameness of height and bone structure and cast of face”, 74). To be honest I found the incest less disturbing than the near-fetishization of Freda’s youth (“His troubled mien vanished at sight of her — young, slim, lithe and long-legged, still more girl than woman”, 84-5), though this can perhaps be attributed to historical fidelity, and is certainly more nuanced than a comparable relationship in the Elric stories.

The reason the characters cannot notice the truth of their situation, of course, is that the story remains all; it’s also the reason I didn’t mind the contrivance. It strikes me that fantasy in the style Anderson chose here assumes a distance from the human not unlike that found in scientific romance. Both seek to portray a broad sweep of events, over and above the nuances of strictly believable human response. When a young Scafloc encounters an exiled faun, driven from his land by missionaries of the Christian god, it tells him, “I fled north … but I wonder if those of my ancient comrades who stayed and fought and were slain with exorcisms were not wiser … The nymphs and the fauns and the very gods are dead, dust blowing on desolate winds. The temples stand empty, white under the sky, and slowly they topple to ruin” (17) – giving us a glimpse of a changing land, and of a depth to time, that would not be out of place in a scientific romance. The not-infrequent and entirely unironic quothing — and the early passing note that Scafloc “learned the skaldic arts so well that he spoke in verses as easily as in ordinary speech” (20-1), which in a fantasy novel is the sort of thing that strikes fear into a reader’s heart — serve a similar end, even though it is hard to imagine an actual human behind it.

If you like, these strategies create a space in which heroics of the sort in which Scafloc and Valgard engage can plausibly happen; but to put it this way might downplay the importance of The Broken Sword’s landscapes, which achieve the same task literally, rather than metaphorically. The world in The Broken Sword is primal, empty, often stark, and often seen at night:

A moon newly risen cast silver and shadow on the crag and scaurs of the elf-hills, on the beach from which they rose, on the clouds racing eastward on a great gale which seemed to fill the sky with its clamor. The moonlight ran in shards and ripples over the waves, which tumbled and roared, white-maned and angry, on the rocks. (61)

I have nothing more in-depth to say about this quote; I just like it.

Michael Moorcock, in a review for The Guardian, suggested that The Broken Sword spoiled him for The Lord of the Rings, which was published contemporaneously with Anderson’s book. “I couldn’t take Tolkien seriously. Aside from his nursery-room tone, I was unhappy with his infidelities of time, place and character, unconvinced by his female characters and quasi-juvenile protagonists,” Moorcock wrote. “Anderson’s human characters belonged to the 11th century and were often brutal, fearful and superstitious. Their lives were short. Their understanding of the future was a little bleak, with the prospect of Ragnarok just around the corner.” Once again, that valorization of darkness; and while I don’t agree that said darkness is an a priori good in fantasy, there’s no denying that in The Broken Sword it works. As the manner of Valgard’s creation suggests, although the novel contains noble actions and moments of joy, the joy is always fleeting and there are few noble people — which perhaps explains the freshness that attends many elements of the book which are now cliché, and indeed which have been reacted against by later work: everything is pared down. Elves may be beautiful, but it is a severe beauty — “White and ageless, of thin-carved, high-boned features, with beast ears and eyes of blind mystery, they were a sight of terror to mortal gaze” (61) — they are as guilty of using Scafloc as the gods (changelings are useful to elves), and their society is built, as surely as any of the others in the novel, on a slavery which is never questioned. But it seems to me that the two writers, Anderson and Tolkien, have a similarity that outweighs their differences: a confidence to go back to the root essence of fantasy, and use it as the grist for their tales. Both works have a compelling coherence, a sense that all their different elements fit together; and both feel as though they have always been told, and will always be told.

Putting A Tag On It, 2008 Style

I’ve been reading some books recently, and over the next few days I’m going to talk about them, but I’m not sure what to call them. I started reading these books thanks to a confluence of factors, of which the most important are probably, one, enjoying Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and being interested in his stated influences, and two, having my lingering guilt about my relative lack of familiarity with the masterworks of genre fantasy given a prod by the appearance of Gollancz’s “ultimate fantasy” series earlier this year. It’s not as though – despite what you may think from the predominant focus of my posts here – that I don’t like genre fantasy. I read as many TSR novels as anyone when I was a teenager, plus the really obvious stuff like Tolkien, not to mention collecting several large armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which is about as generic as you can get — though it’s true that I didn’t go the whole Eddings/Feist/Jordan route, and that until recently I was never seduced by D&D role-playing (and that as a result innumerable role-playing-related jokes have gone over my head over the years). On the other hand, for whatever reason, I was never sucked into the history of the genre in the way that I was for sf. I know enough about the adventurers-with-swords subgenre to be aware of Conan, Jirel, Elric, and Kane; to know of L. Sprague de Camp’s Sword and Sorcery anthologies and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies; David Gemmel’s Legend, and Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon books. (Not to mention Drizzt Do’Urden, of course – or Gotrek and Felix.) But I’ve had little first-hand experience, so this week’s posts are about me dipping a toe into that history. The books I read were determined by what I had to hand, although most of them also fall onto that ethereal list of Things I Should Read Some Day that floats around in the back of my head: some of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx. Deciding what to call them seems a helpful first step.

In 1961, in a piece written for George Scithers’ fanzine AMRA, Moorcock posed a question:

I feel we should have another general name to include the sub-genre of books which deal with Middle Earths and lands and worlds based on this planet, worlds which exist only in some author’s vivid imagination. In this sub-genre I would classify books like The Worm Ouroboros, Jurgen, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, the Gray Mouser/Fafhrd series, the Conan series, The Broken Sword, The Well of the Unicorn, etc. […] stories of high adventure, generally featuring a central hero very easy to identify oneself with. For the most part they are works of escapism, anything else usually being secondary (exceptions, I would agree, are Jurgen and The Once and Future King. But all of them are tales told for the tale’s sake, and the authors have obviously thoroughly enjoyed the telling. (reprinted in The Stealer of Souls, Del Rey 2008, p.5)

This was, I believe, before the full emergence of fantasy as the commercial behemoth that it is today. Indeed. Even in a 1971 issue of Vector recently sent to me by Mark Plummer, a review of Andre Norton’s Witch World novels feels able to state that “Fantasy fiction has never had a wide following”, and that it’s only recently that significant amounts of original fantasy have started to be published in paperback form. (Which also leads the reviewer to state some cautionary notes about the potential weaknesses of fantasy series …) Moorcock’s suggestion for “the best name for the sub-genre, considering its general form and roots” is still with us — although I’m not sure how many contemporary readers would consider all of the works he lists as “epic fantasy”, which to me implies a certain amount of sprawl in both cast and geography. Indeed, the entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for that category argues that by the mid-nineties “epic fantasy” had been muddied to the point of uselessness by publisher over-use and other factors, and today it seems to indicate the Tolkienian tradition above all others. Certainly the two attempts to define the term that have crossed my radar recently, one by Rose Fox and one by Michael M. Jones, both pretty much take Tolkien alone as epic fantasy’s starting point.

Meanwhile, back in the sixties, in response to Moorcock’s request Fritz Leiber suggested “Sword and Sorcery”:

I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, AMRA, July 1961)

Helped along by a series of reprint anthologies edited by L. Sprague de Camp starting in 1963, this has also stuck around. More or less. In truth it’s a term I see used more often by critics than by readers or publishers (though of course there may be an observer bias in that); the Encyclopedia notes the term’s “garishness”, and that may have something to do with it, but it also seems like an odd fit for what it’s used to describe. Certainly it was a surprise to me to see the Encyclopedia assert that “There may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, but no-one has yet made it” (some commenters on the Wikipedia heroic fantasy talk page seem similarly surprised; and the Gemmel Award uses heroic fantasy unashamedly, although they don’t exactly give a clear definition of it), because if you’d asked me as a relatively naive reader, “heroic fantasy” sounds like exactly the right label for most of what I’ve read recently. I risk extrapolating too far from limited data here, but sword and sorcery sounds larksome; heroic fantasy conveys to me something more serious, as well as identifying the focus of most of these stories as tales about identity (if not character) and heroism.

Lankhmar cover Among the authors I read, the one whose work does strike me as sword and sorcery is the canonical example: Fritz Leiber. The “ultimate fantasy” edition of Lankhmar I had to hand comprises the first four collections of stories about the barbarian Fafhrd and the ex-wizard’s apprentice, the Gray Mouser although — and I didn’t realise this at first, since publication credits are conspicuously absent from the book — the stories are presented in order of internal chronology, not publication. This means that, for instance, the knowing first sentence of Swords and Deviltry (1970) — “Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries” (3) — was written well after the term became accepted. It also means the stories may have been written to fit an idea of the subgenre that already had some shape to it. Certainly the shape of them felt more immediately comfortable to me, with my modern-reader expectations, than some of the other books I’m going to discuss; moreover Leiber’s stories are more concerned with conveying the excitement of adventure, almost for adventure’s own sake, than any of the others. The world in which the stories take place is not a whitewashed fantasyland (rape and other such unpleasantnesses are mentioned in casual conversation), but the stories themselves are filled with humour of incident and observation. This leads to an at-times odd, but also effective, tension between exuberance and sobriety, one particularly literal manifestation of which is Fafhrd’s reaction on overhearing that a woman he’s just rescued is to be sold as a slave — the revelation “filled him with a mixed feeling he’d never known before: an overmastering rage and also a desire to laugh hugely” (35).

This is not to say, sadly, that I think these stories are much good. I enjoyed what I read more than my only previous encounter with Leiber (reading The Big Time as one of the nominees for the BSFA 50th retro award earlier this year), but in the end conceded defeat at the end of Swords Against Deviltry. So I didn’t actually read any of the earliest Fafhrd/Mouser stories, which seem mostly to be collected in the second book, Swords Against Death (also 1970, revised from Two Sought Adventure). If anyone tells me those tales are dramatically better, I may be tempted to continue. Part of the problem with Swords Against Deviltry, after all, is that it’s all origin stories: a vignette (“Induction”, 1970) introducing the world and the characters; an overlong novella introducing Fafhrd (“The Snow Women”, 1970); an incredibly generic novellette introducing Mouse (“The Unholy Grail”, 1962); and a better, though despite its Hugo-winning status still only average, novella detailing the first meeting of the two (“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, 1970). It would be hard for me to deny that I haven’t experienced the partnership in full flow.

However, it seems that Leiber’s style is simply not to my taste. In between the passages I admired (these were often the passages that used omniscient perspective to best effect; the final one-sentence paragraph that closes “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, describing Our Heroes’ disgusted exodus from the city, is pretty fine) there was much that fell flat. There was, for example, what to my ear is a wearying over-reliance on adverbs to underline the tone of conversation; by the end of their first page of conversation in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, either Fafhrd or the Mouser or both has commented, answered, explained, demanded, suggested, rapped out, directed, remarked, or mused. There is a tendency to deaden action scenes with laboured, move-by-move descriptions. And while some of the humour is slyly subversive, the more deliberate absurdisms — when one character manages to shrug while jumping from a high place down to a low place, it’s surely deliberately absurd, as must be a daring escape via rocket-powered ski jump – fell flat. It may be deliberately farcical that Fafhrd spends most of “The Snow Women” running back and forth between different groups, but in the reading it felt like a formulaic, repetitive plot. And, as a final insult, the turn of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” depends on the embarrassingly thorough fridging of both Fafhrd and Mouser’s partners, at least one of whom had been a fairly satisfactory character to that point.

Perhaps the most interesting thread running through Swords Against Deviltry is an argument – overplayed in “The Snow Women”, underplayed in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” – about the nature of civilization, and the place of characters like Fafhrd and Mouser within it. Fafhrd in “The Snow Women” finds civilization totemic, representing an escape from everything he dislikes about his barbarian life, though plenty of people are ready to warn him that it is unworthy of such adoration. His mother describes it as a “putrid festering”, while others warn him that civilization will darken his soul. And it does: there is much of the country boy going to the big city in Fafhrd’s trajectory, and in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” the character is a less certain, more troubled man (although still somewhat more upstanding than Mouser, whose heart seems more easily darkened by events). But where in, say, the Elric stories I read the analogous struggles going on in Elric’s heart are central, here the focus never wavers from the plot; Leiber’s work seems to flow best when it is in motion, rather than self-considering repose. I don’t know if this is a sustainable difference between sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy, but I’m going to call the rest of the books I’m going to discuss heroic fantasy and be damned: because the most interesting thing about each of them is what they do with their heroes.