The Best of Sword-and-Sorcery from The Bride of Cyclops Con Panel Discussion
Back in October Goodman Games held a weekend-long virtual convention, The Bride of Cyclops Con! Tales From the Magician’s Skull was of course in attendance, taking part in several round table discussions from writers, editors, critics, and fans that ran the gamut of topics in fantasy fiction and publishing. And, thanks to the Skull’s potent command of certain eldritch technologies, we bring you The Best of Sword-and-Sorcery, a panel featuring Jason Ray Carney, Jeff Goad, Howard Andrew Jones, Brian Murphy, and Bill Ward:
And that’s just the tip of the blade when it comes to sword-and-sorcery related discussions. For more from Bride of Cyclops Con you should have a look at Getting Sword-and-Sorcery into Your RPGs as well as Finding the New Edge for Fiction Writers. And definitely don’t overlook the Sword-and-Sorcery of Appendix N discussion from back in June.
Now, as with any freewheeling conversation condensing the entire history of a literary sub-genre into two and a half hours, things may have gotten slightly tricky to follow for those of you playing along at home. Which is why the infinitely-just-and-keenly-perspicacious Skull has commanded that a reading list of all the books and stories mentioned in this discussion be compiled and offered for your edification. Furthermore, on pain of even-more-pain, our panelists have been induced to give their top three reading recommendations, based on whatever criteria they choose, out of the many tales brought up over the course of the evening.
Jason Ray Carney’s Recommendations
I think Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls needs to be mentioned because Howard is not just an expert on sword and sorcery literature but also one of its great practitioners. This first novel of Asim and Dabir takes place in a Arabian Nights version of Medieval Baghdad and evokes some of the similar sword and sorcery duo dynamics of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The prose is crystal clear, the plotting is tight, and the action scenes are enthralling. Finally, the villain, the Sorcerer Firouz, is quite memorable, a true archetype for the genre.
Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson is a gift, a long needed history of the genre that gives cohesive shape to the tradition: it begins with its origins, proceeds through its development in pulp fiction, analyzes its codification in 1960s fanzines, and relates its renaissance and decline in the 1970s and 80s. It really is a “must read” for every fan of the genre and the new sword and sorcery work being written. I’ve read it three times and have learned more each time.
David C. Smith’s Oron. I consider Smith one of the great 1970s and 80s sword and sorcery writers alongside Karl Edward Wagner and Charles Saunders. Smith’s sword and sorcery is so distinct in its unapologetic sincerity and artistic ambition: it is a gothic fantasy tale of an unambitious warrior who is thrust into historical centrality. Moreover, it is deeply philosophical, a dark and sometimes cynical meditation on the nature of history, time, violence, and the extent to which peace is precious but always ephemeral.
Jeff Goad’s Recommendations
Gardner Fox’s Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman is both a loving homage to, and a gentle ribbing of, the sword and sorcery genre. It does not take itself too seriously and still tells an exciting and entertaining story (and the satirical introduction is one of the funniest things I’ve read).
Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer. Don’t worry about reading the Elric books in order. This collection has a stunning set of adventures that explores the dark side of the human (or Melnibonean) psyche and updates the sword and sorcery genre for a new era
Margaret St. Claire’s The Shadow People. Looking for something truly bonkers? Then look no further than this. Imagine sword and sorcery in the underdark beneath hippie-era San Francisco with evil elves, hallucinogens, and flying robots.”
Howard Andrew Jones’ Recommendations
Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon. A vivid whirlwind of a tale set when Bracket’s dying Mars was young and sea-girt. A sword-and-planet masterpiece and a wonderful introduction to Brackett’s astonishingly powerful prose.
Gardner Fox’s The Borgia Blade. One of Gardner Fox’s best, a fast-paced historical with intrigue, action, romance, and great cameos by famous Renaissance figures – not to mention some sterling sword fights. Top notch.
Harold Lamb’s Wolf of the Steppes. These stories are the opening salvos of the grandfather of sword-and-sorcery. After the first few decent stories in the collection, the rest are top notch and can stand fearlessly shoulder to shoulder with classics like “The Tower of the Elephant.” Any true fan of sword-and-sorcery ought to read and love this interlinked cycle of adventures, as well as much of the rest of Lamb’s swashbuckling historical output.
Brian Murphy’s Recommendations
Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom.” The story that started it all. Kull, an outsider barbarian on the throne, battling serpent men; Lovecraftian elder beings in a pre-cataclysmic Hyborian Age. Get the Del Rey edition and read the wonderful intro by Steve Tompkins.
Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. Best sword-and-sorcery long form story ever. Skillful use of Norse and Celtic mythology. Incredibly influential, published the same year as The Lord of the Rings but very opposite in tone and outlook. Dark and tragic. Both versions are good but I prefer the 1954 original.
Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. I’ve described this story of the immortal Kane as the Rosetta Stone for understanding sword-and-sorcery. Sword and sorcery unite to fight science. This sentence alone makes it worth reading: “Steel against alien bronze! Steaming human gore clotted with cool bufanoid blood in spreading stigmata across the torn earth.”
Bill Ward’s Recommendations
One of the best introductions to sword-and-sorcery is Robert E. Howard’s only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (also published as Conan the Conqueror). Howard specifically wrote the book to introduce new audiences to his Cimmerian, and over the course of the novel Conan revisits his past as a mercenary, pirate, and wandering adventurer in a quest to regain his kingdom and foil the plot of an evil sorcerer.
Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death features wall-to-wall classic stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, with a couple of connecting tales to round them out. From the twain’s first real adventure “The Jewels in the Forest,” to absolutely legendary tales like “The Seven Black Priests’ and “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” this is probably the best single volume introduction to the series, featuring some of its strongest stories.
Charles Saunder’s Imaro, the first book in a sadly overlooked series with a publishing history almost as perilous as the adventures it describes. Saunders stands out as one of the best ‘third wave’ sword-and-sorcery authors, shining the pulp and fantasy traditions in American publishing through the lens of African history and legend to create a fresh classic of the genre.
Bride of Cyclops Con Sword & Sorcery Panel Reading List
- The Broken Sword
- “The Willows”
- The Sword of Rhiannon
- Jhereg (Vlad Taltos Series)
Chambers, Robert W.
- The King in Yellow
DeCamp, L. Sprague
- Lest Darkness Fall
- The Tritonian Ring
- “The Barrow Troll”
- The Borgia Blade
- Kothar (series)
Haggard, H. Rider
- Eric Brigtheyes
- King Solomon’s Mines
Hodgson, William Hope
- The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”
Howard, Robert E.
- The Hour of the Dragon (aka Conan the Conqueror)
- “Black Colossus”
- “The Shadow Kingdom”
- “The Tower of the Elephant”
- “The Valley of the Worm”
Jones, Howard Andrew
- The Desert of Souls
- Elak of Atlantis
- Swords From the Desert
- Swords From the West
- Wolf of the Steppes
- Swords Against Death
- “Ill Met in Lankhmar”
- “Bazaar of the Bizarre” (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series)
- Gods of Pegana
- The Ship of Ishtar
- The Knight of Swords (Corum series)
- The Stealer of Souls
- Stormbringer (Elric series)
- “Black God’s Kiss”
- Imaro (series)
- Dossouye (series)
- The Mask of the Sorcerer
Smith, Clark Ashton
- “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”
- “The Last Incantation”
Smith, David C.
- Oron (series)
St. Claire, Margaret
- The Shadow People
- Bard (series)
Wagner, Karl Edward
- “Cold Light” (Kane series)
Carney, Jason Ray
- Weird Tales of Modernity
Lovecraft, H.P. and Robert E. Howard
- A Means to Freedom, (2 volumes of correspondence)
- Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery