Swords, Sorcery and the She-Wolf
In the age of corporate epic fantasy has pulp-era sword and sorcery become more appealing than ever? Wondering where the genre stands as I discover a forgotten fantasy heroine from the Marvel vaults
Sword and Sorcery (or Heroic Fantasy) has long cast a spell over me as unbreakable as the riddle of steel. I love the absorbing worlds, powerplays and sagas of Epic Fantasy. But sometimes I just wanna see a barbarian dude shove a yard of rune-etched Cimmerian steel through a bad guy’s face.
The pleasures of Sword and Sorcery are primal and undeniable, their tales descended from those of Gilgamesh, Māui, Anansi and Odin, violent, pioneer ‘culture heroes’ who tamed the monster-filled wilderness of newly-forged creation before fading into legend. In the same sense, it’s the bulldozer heroes of Sword and Sorcery – Conan and Red Sonja – who pave the way for the ‘civilised’ epic worlds of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. But if you’ve read Robert E. Howard, the godfather of 20th century Sword and Sorcery, you’ll know he felt civilisation was just another – even worse – form of savagery.
My love for tales of swashbuckling and monster-bashing was rekindled in earnest with my writing Black Beth, a thoroughly obscure Sword and Sorcery heroine from British comics, whom I revived for Rebellion with the sensational Greek artist Dani. I wanted to write exactly the kind of continuity-free heroic tales I don’t see much of these days.
I harked back to my youth devouring Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and watching Hawk the Slayer on repeat. I grabbed missing back issues of vintage White Dwarf and Warlockon eBay, losing myself in those grimdark illustrations that had so hypnotised me as a kid. But nostalgia becomes poison when one drinks too deeply, and I want to see what the genre is doing right now...
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Image is key to success for writers today. But is the drive to fictionalise ourselves a good thing or a toxic necessity? What does it say to incoming talent?
A few years ago, I took a stab at telling the truth.
I’d just been commissioned to write a novella for the good people at Games Workshop’s Black Library, part of a Sisters of Battle triptych called The Book of Martyrs. My story would feature alongside two other stories, one by the mighty Danie Ware and the other by Warhammer loremaster Phil Kelly. I considered myself an old pro when it came to comics, but still felt like a noob when it came to prose, and this was my longest word count for Black Library to date. I’d only written Warhammer audios and short stories until now and most of those had ended up way longer and taken twice as long to complete than anticipated.
I knew I had a solid story, a turbo-charged thriller about Sister Ishani – a Hospitaller of the Argent Shroud with her faithful servo-cherub Borvo – who must survive a xenos invasion long enough to warn a neighbouring agri-station before they too are slaughtered. I also knew that I could do this, though it certainly didn’t feel like it while I was writing.
The only thing stopping me getting the job done was my worrying about getting the job done.
So I decided to keep a journal. Just ten minutes at the end of each working day and I’d barf out everything with which I’d been struggling during that session. No holding back. No uplifting lesson at the end. Just a bite-sized stream of consciousness. You’d be lucky if you got punctuation! I’d worry about scenes not working, too-subtle character arcs, over-description, the persistent possibility that the whole thing might be running away from me, soaring over the word count and demanding several extra weeks I didn’t have in order to cut it all back.
Bloody Dan Abnett (my stable-mate over at 2000 AD) made this look so easy in First and Only. What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard? What the hell was wrong with me?
Who knew? Just get it down and get it out there.
I figured I’d wait until Book of Martyrs had been out for a while, then publish a few spoiler-free journal entries on my blog every week. I’d gotten a surprisingly good bit of traction on the craft essays I’d posted, so reckoned there might be a few young writers hooked into my RSS feed who might appreciate the honesty. After all, this was exactly the sort of equalising confessional that I craved back when I was making my first steps into the business of writing. Here was my chance to maybe let a few rookies coming after me know that they probably weren’t doing things quite as ‘wrong’ as they thought.
I managed about two entries in that journal before realising I could never publish it...
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