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Posts Tagged ‘swords & sorcery’

That’s right — I have a new project in the works. The Weight of Their Souls, the swords and sorcery novelette that I podcast back in 2013, will soon be available as a 99-cent e-book. Cover art will be by Diana Harlan Stein. She’s an old acquaintance from Pern fandom, and I’m excited to bring her in on this project.

While Diana’s hard at work, I’m doing behind-the-scenes setup through Bowker, Draft 2 Digital and Kindle. Once art is complete I should be able to drop it in, and viola! My next book should be out around May 1st.

Here’s the blurb:  The epic war is over, the great Enemy destroyed. A ragtag band of survivors tries to make their way home, only to discover there were survivors on the other side, too. And even a lesser evil from that vicious host can still be lethal. It’s swords against sorcery with more than just their lives on the line. The travelers, who barely know each other, must summon the courage to face one more battle.

Those of you who’ve helped out with swapping reviews and blog appearances in the past, I hope you’ll support me again. Reviews, signal-boosting, it all helps.

And, don’t forget my other books!

Aunt Ursula’s Atlas, Lucy D. Ford’s short story collection

Masters of Air & Fire, Lucy D. Ford’s middle-grade novel

The Grimhold Wolf, my gothic werewolf fantasy, and my epic fantasy, The Seven Exalted Orders.

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More about the video game Dragon’s Dogma (Capcom, 2012).

As with most games any more, you have great freedom to choose what your character will look like. Characters can be male or female without penalty, and can appear of any race and age. So you could make your character look like a Tolkeinian dwarf or a small child or a grizzled old woman. You also get to design your main pawn to your liking. None of this affects gameplay.

Another feature that’s become common in fantasy games is that you can hire other pawns up to a total of four (including Arisen and main pawn). If you are online, you can use other people’s main pawns. I’ve found it very interesting how some people dress their pawns. (A fighter in a g-string. Really?) You can give equipment to your pawns and have them carry things for you. On the down side, they continually make inane comments like “Tis a grand fortress,” and there’s no way to turn off the repetitive chatter.

Although you can tailor your character’s appearance, there are only three character classes: Mage, Strider or Fighter. These can move up, if you wish, to Warrior, Sorcerer and Ranger. Each class has only a limited set of attack skills to choose from, and they don’t stack up. If you change classes, you select new attack skills from a new list.

There are no secondary skills. I missed being able to choose from a wide array of skills, the way you can in games like Oblivion. None of that “warrior with a bit of magic” in this game.

Allegedly, Dragon’s Dogma is an open world where you can wander anywhere, gather materials to craft items, and explore caves or ruins. I found the landscape pretty small compared to games like Skyrim. Most locations are related to various quests, so you can’t just wander around exploring ruins and such.

The story aspect is also fairly limited. You have one main quest and a number of side quests which you pick up at message boards in the inns and taverns. Characterization of the NPCs is cursory. More frustrating for me, there are no dialog options for my character to say all the snarky or heroic things I wanted to say. Perils of a novelist playing video games, I suppose.

That said, the main plot does have a payoff in a climactic scene where Grigori (the dragon) poses a really interesting, lady-or-tiger challenge for the Arisen. You make your choice and pick up the pieces. My decision led me to another big confrontation where my choice affected the direction of the game. Indeed, the first time I clicked the wrong button and ended up transforming my character into a dragon, which flew off to afflict the land. Not the ending I intended! I like this approach, since in so many fantasy games you just cut people down, take their stuff, and go on without a thought.

All the above may sound like I’m down on this game, but I’m not. Though it isn’t as good as Oblivion or Skyrim, I found myself planning my next character as I approached the end of the game. So it will have replay to keep me busy for a while, and I’ll pick up some of those quests I passed on the first time. I know there’s an expansion, called Dark Arisen, and I’ll probably pick that up at some point.

Dragon’s Dogma hasn’t been a bad way to spend my summer, all in all.

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The first of Moorcock’s Elric stories was published in 1961. Like many series of that era, it was not planned to be such. The stories were simply popular enough that editors asked for more, and Moorcock obliged. So the series unfolded as a sequence of novellas and novelettes in various genre magazines. These were stitched together into six novels and published in 1976-1977 by DAW Books. The books are Elric of Melnibone, Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Sleeping Sorceress (a.k.a. The Vanishing Tower), Bane of the Black Sword, and Stormbringer.

Moorcock had started writing these stories in his twenties, a stage of life when young people often begin to confront deep questions like the meaning of life, whether the world is basically evil or basically good, and how (or indeed, whether) a well-intentioned person can navigate life’s challenges when it seems that all men are only out for themselves. The result of his meditation is a strong and unique statement that, even decades later, I don’t want to spoil.

Regardless of the shortcomings, some of which I mentioned in my last post, Moorcock’s doomed hero left an indelible mark on the genre. Some of the now-familiar themes Moorcock gave us include: intelligent, malevolent swords; sorcery as a grueling and visceral process; travel through dimensions and time; Law and Chaos as two competing pantheons who strive against each other for control of the universe. Echoes of Moorcock’s dark vision can still be heard in corners as diverse as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, various incarnations of Dungeons and Dragons, and the anime series Full Metal Alchemist; Moorcock’s hero is likely the person Edward Elric is named after.

If you are a venturesome reader, someone who can tolerate a very different approach or appreciates the writing styles of a bygone era, give Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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This summer I’ve been revisiting some of the books I read when I was in high school. Works that blew me away and made an indelible mark on the whole genre. And the first of these is Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. These are the ultimate swords-and-sorcery novels, where a massively flawed hero strides a stunning (and sometimes bizarre) mythic landscape, battling both demons and humans who have given in to their baser natures.

The title character, Elric of Melnibone, is emperor of a mighty empire, founded on sorcery and the creed of seeking pleasure at any cost. (And preferably with others paying that cost.) He’s an albino, afflicted with weaknesses that leave him exhausted after modest physical effort unless he takes special drugs. Later editions have attempted to recast these as herbal remedies, but the edition I’ve been reading refers to them quite openly as drugs.

Elric is a misfit as emperor, not only because of his physical differences but because of his thoughtful nature. Most Melniboneans expect their emperor to rule with hideous cruelty; Elric actually studies tomes about how to rule with honor and compassion. Not surprisingly, one of his kinfolk decides he would make a better emperor — and the series takes flight from there.

Speaking of flight, dragons are part of the Melnibonean life and heritage. They were present on the island when the first Melniboneans arrived, 10,000 years before the saga’s opening. These mighty flyers had venom that caused everything it touched to burn. Yet the Melniboneans had entered into a pact with Arioch, Duke of Hell. In time they domesticated the dragons and used them as steeds to conquer the surrounding lands. In the first volume, Elric of Melnibone, one of Elric’s best friends is a dragon keeper. Flying on dragons is referred by as a popular pastime. Dragons are used in warfare, although they must rest in between battles. Also the crown Elric wears is in the shape of a black dragon, and his robes and armor at various times are decorated with dragon motifs.

It’s probably been 30 years since I first read these books. What surprises me, after so long, is how many things Moorcock does that writers today are told we should never, ever do. He opens the books with scenery. He talks directly to the audience. He tells instead of showing and uses really long sentences. Here’s the opening paragraph from the second novel, Sailor on the Seas of Fate:

“It was as if the man stood in a vast cavern whose walls and roof were comprised of gloomy, unstable colors which would occasionally break and admit rays of light from the moon. That these walls were mere clouds massed above mountains and ocean was hard to believe, for all that the moonlight pierced them, stained them, and revealed the black and turbulent sea washing the shore on which the man now stood.”

— See addendum below —

Wow, that’s a lot of words! In addition, racial and gender equality were not vital concerns. There are black characters, but mostly they’re brigands, and the few female characters are there only as bait or to be rescued. I say this not to chastise the writer — nobody in that era was worried about social justice — but because it seems jarring if you don’t expect it.

There’s a lot more to say about Elric… next time.

— Addendum —
As a comparison, here’s the opening paragraph from Jim Butcher’s Changes, a Harry Dresden novel published in 2010: “I answered the phone, and Susan Rodrigues said, ‘They’ve taken our daughter.'”

Totally different approach, isn’t it?

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Besides using various weapons and artifacts to slay dragons, there’s a time-honored tradition of heroes emerging victorious by some form of happenstance. For instance, someone (I can’t remember who, but I’ll let you take credit if you remind me nicely) commented that they were surprised by how Smaug was slain in The Hobbit. That is, while Bilbo was in Smaug’s lair he saw the sleeping dragon on its back, and there was a gap in the crusting of jewels that armored Smaug’s belly. Later he revealed this to Bard the Bowman, in Laketown. Bard was able to shoot an arrow into that exact spot, thus bringing down the dragon.

However, as is pretty well known, Tolkein was a scholar of Germanic myth, and who’s the most famous dragon of Germanic myth? Fafnir! Well, Fafnir was slain by Sigurd, who lay in a ditch and stabbed upward through his softer belly. I did a post on Fafnir about two years ago. You can read it again here, if you wish.

Actually, this “lucky shot” ploy comes into quite a few dragon adventures (and some non-dragonish ones). In the first episode of Record of Lodoss War, Woodchuck makes a dragon falter by throwing a dagger into its eye. Afterward Parn kills the dragon. In the first Wizard of Oz book, Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch by throwing water at her.

To me, it’s a little cheap for a hero to battle a dragon and succeed by accident. At the same time, I think we could all name a favorite legend or myth where the mightiest combatant has just one point of weakness. Achilles and his heel. The sorcerer who hid his heart in a box. Werewolves and silver. Vampires and garlic.

When it comes down to it, even the mightiest foe has to have some sort of weakness. A one-sided battle just isn’t a good story, not matter how logical the outcome. The reality is, most readers are not satisfied when the dragon kills the hero. We want our heroes to triumph in the face of great odds. Even if it comes off sort of random and feels like cheating.

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A separate category of tools/weapons used to successfully slay dragons are those magically created, blessed, etc., just for that purpose. Some examples include items in RPG and video games that do extra damage to dragons. Swords of Dragonslaying, if you will.

Many of you will recall the Dragonlance series, published by TSR starting in 1984. The titular weapon was magically blessed to kill dragons. Dragonlance was initially a campaign setting for D&D, but the writers hit upon the idea of also writing novels set in the land of Krynn. It became a shared world, similar to the anthology series Thieves World, which was highly influential in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Dragonlance introduced a couple of great writers, Tracy Weiss and Margaret Hickman. Many of their characters are beloved even today, like the tortured mage Raistlin. In addition, the series broke ground for the blossoming of secondary merchandise and story-telling attached to D&D. This kind of spinning-off is commonplace now, but it was an exciting development at the time.

If you want to know more, there’s a really good Dragonlance chronology here.

Another writer of the 1980s who dealt with dragonslaying is Barbara Hambly. In her 1985 novel Dragonsbane, a hedge witch (Jenny Waynest) and her fairly Scottish husband (John Aversin) bring a dragon (Morkeleb the Black) to the verge of death when Jenny treats John’s weapon with a virulent magical poison. However, John is also wounded by the same blade, and Jenny must heal Morkeleb in order to ensure John’s survival. Through this experience, Jenny’s minor magic is boosted considerably. For a time she assumes the shape of a dragon to travel the stars with Morkeleb. However, Jenny ultimately reclaims her humanity.

If you know of other books or movies incorporating special anti-dragon weapons, I’d love to hear about them!

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My last post was a picture of a sheet metal dragon sculpture at the local fair, but what I didn’t know was the book I’m currently reading also has a metal dragon in it. Interesting how life makes those little connections, isn’t it?

The book in question is Codex Born, by Jim C. Hines. This is the follow-up to Libriomancer, in my opinion the best book of 2012. I’m saddened and amazed that it wasn’t nominated for anything.

Hines is one of those writers nobody seems to have heard of, but you should. His specialty is skewering tropes such as dungeon adventuring (Jig the Dragonslayer series) and TV girl detective teams (Princess series). The books are silly and funny and touching in just the right measure. Unlike many writers, who seem to follow whatever bandwagon is going by, Hines does his own creative thinking. Better yet, he asks his readers to think.

Magic Ex Libris is his current series, urban fantasies where libriomancer magic is based on books. These magi can reach into books and pluck out any item as long as it will fit through a physical copy of the book. Queen Lucy’s healing cordial? Check. Lois McMaster Bujold’s truth serum? Check. Magic-detecting sunglasses? Enchanted swords? Ionic pistols? Check, check, check. The concept is especially brilliant because Hines nods to so many living authors who are sure to notice him and nod back.

The trope he skewers in this series is broader than ever before, and comprises the entire way female characters have been treated in entertainment. If you’ve been reading SF news and blogs in 2013, you know that sexual harassment and discrimination has been a huge topic. Hines manages to personify the problem in Lena Greenwood, a dryad accidentally brought forth from the pages of a trashy novel.

Lena is exactly like smany female comic and movie characters: beautiful, kicking ass, yet compelled to be the “pefect mate” of whoever she’s romantically involved with. Lena struggles in this book to figure out how she can have any control of her own life, while Isaac, the actual protagonist, tries to figure out how he can love her without preying on her.

Oh, and they’re both trying to keep a horde of magical Devourers from reaching Earth. The dragon — you knew I’d get back to the dragon — is not so much a personality as the magical construct of a dead libriomancer whose magic was stolen and warped. The dragon is put together of cast-off machine parts, but despite this is extremely impressive in its limited time on page. Look for it.

In fact, look for any book by Jim C. Hines. Jig the Dragonslayer and the Princess books are suitable for all ages. Magic Ex Libris contains more sex (it’s urban fantasy, but pretty tame compared to most of the genre) and some discussion of power in sexual relationships which is likely to lose younger readers. Parents should give it a read and decide if they want their kids under 16 to do the same.

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