Fantasy Literature: That Conan Thing & The Sword of the Lady, Part 1

Fantasy Literature: That Conan Thing & The Sword of the Lady, Part 1

The Sword of the Lady-smallAs the treasure map says, here there be spoilers. This isn’t exactly a review, and besides this is just Part 1 of my look at The Sword of the Lady, of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. As the novel begins, the CUT are determined to kill Rudi McKenzie no matter the political cost of attacking him and the leader of Iowa, a powerful post-change entity. After the attack fails (naturally), Iowa becomes a Good Guy, Rudi & Co. head off to Wisconsin, Major Graber & Co. regroup with some new allies, and the quest continues.

But enough plot. Let’s talk Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Let’s talk S. M. Stirling’s Rudi McKenzie. Let’s talk the hard-eyed desert of the real making it with the saucy romantic.

In Fantasy Literature: The Scourge of God & “I See You” I referred to Conan/Rudi as a way of highlighting how Stirling manages, in a somewhat realistic way, to portray the ultimate warrior at work. Able to reach down and tap deep bodily resources at will, in a tall, well-muscled frame, with a lifetime of martial training (from the very best instructors), and equipped with the best that can be made, Rudi is indeed like Conan himself, a practically unstoppable killing machine. Yet Stirling keeps it real, or a reasonable facsimile of real, making the danger to Rudi palpable. For example, Odin foretells Rudi shall not live so long as to see his hair go gray with age. Better yet, Rudi will die with a blade in his hand.

Conan himself could wish for no better end. Indeed, as mercenary, thief, pirate, and eventually king, Conan risked far worse during his career. Of course, when it comes to career path, Rudi McKenzie, Artos, Ard Ri of Montival, owes more to Aragorn than to Conan, but for now a comparison of how melee is portrayed serves us better than mere kingly politics.

Let us first enjoy some Conan, dug from the very roots of Sword & Sorcery (for this IS Black Gate, isn’t it?).

From “Queen of the Black Coast” by Robert E. Howard, we see Conan fighting off a pack of were-creatures:

In his berserk fury he did not miss; the air was filled with feathered destruction. The havoc wrought among the onrushing pack was breathtaking. Less than half of them reached the foot of the pyramid. Others dropped upon the broad steps. Glaring down into the blazing eyes, Conan knew these creatures were not beasts; it was not merely in their unnatural size that he sensed a blasphemous difference. They exuded an aura tangible as the black mist rising from a corpse-littered swamp. By what godless alchemy these beings had been brought into existence, he could not guess; but he knew he faced diabolism blacker than the Well of Skelos.

Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last shaft point blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat. The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but a blur in its course, but the were-beast plunged convulsively in midair and crashed headlong, shot through and through.

Then the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder; then the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a narrow skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter and blood and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword, useless at such deadly close quarters, he caught at the throats of the two horrors which were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury. A foul acrid scent almost stifled him, his own sweat blinded him. Only his mail saved him from being ripped to ribbons in an instant. The next, his naked right hand locked on a hairy throat and tore it open. His left hand, missing the throat of the other beast, caught and broke its foreleg. A short yelp, the only cry in that grim battle, and hideously humanlike, burst from the maimed beast.

frank frazetta Conan-smallThe difference between writing styles aside, the comparison in how literarily romantic the text appears is obvious. Yet as we shall see, where Howard privileges the physical to a cartoonish degree (and there isn’t anything wrong with that!), Stirling’s romanticism focuses elsewhere. Compare Conan bisecting were-creatures with a single blow to Rudi holding off assassins intent on killing not only himself but also the Bossman of Iowa:

The Crow Goddess had sent Raven to him long ago; not in dream and vision, but in the light of common day. He bore the mark of the bird′s flint-hard beak in the small scar between his brows. That pain had been brief. It flared again for an instant. Then what filled him was agony and fire, ecstasy beyond bearing, joy and horror at once. The world vanished and reappeared with jeweled clarity, and he understood. Every beat of his heart linked him to all that was, and he saw those threads.

He dropped the buckler and his hand closed on the bill′s shaft behind the head, wrenched it free, slammed it back so that the butt cap cracked a skull. His sword thrust back and forth like the needle in a treadle-worked sewing machine. There was no rage behind the strokes, only a love that encompassed even the snarling faces behind the weapons that reached for him, a vast piteous determination.

Dark wings beat above his head, their drumbeat the death of suns, the wind of their passage a surge of fire like surf on a shore whose sand was stars. Flames circled a single Eye. The sword moved, and men died; others crowded forward, blades lashing at him and weapons beating at the hinges of the door. Planes of black light shattered. He screamed, and the cry was the soul of grief from the Mother of All at the pain of Her children, a boiling ocean of sorrow and rage.

In both cases it is one against many. In both cases, the many suffer greatly, and the one is victorious. But old school Conan is all about the blood, the combat. Perhaps a better direct comparison can be found in Fantasy Literature: The Scourge of God & “I…See…You,” in the scene where Rudi kills at every other step. Here, there is crisp action eclipsed by the mystical aspect, for one of the foes is a CUT high seeker. In this example, the gritty realism Stirling enforces in his fiction — Rudi’s actions are not the broad strokes of Conan but the most effective thing one can do fighting opponents on the other side of a hole in a door — is buttressed by the fantastic element, a view into the essential magic of the Emberverse. Howard, meanwhile, provides a ripping good yarn, but no hifalutin’ mystical nonsense.

In essence, Stirling manages to amplify the literarily romantic element of his prose — remember Abrams? — while still keeping the action grounded in the real. This hybrid prose is thoroughly contemporary, and represents this author’s strongest contribution to the genre of fantasy literature so far. Indeed, if readers wonder why so many Fantasy Literature (the blog) entries focus on Stirling, consider Stirling’s place in the field. His commercial success is not matched with critical success. No major awards, despite obvious appeal to readers.

But Stirling, in his sixties as of this writing, has time. So let’s restate this a different way: No major awards… yet.

Next week, The Sword of the Lady, Part 2.

Stirling The Sunrise Lands-smallNote: What about the scheming Baron Odard Liu? He joined the quest with questionable motives; he had an eye on the throne of the PPA, and Mathilda Arminger represented his path to the top. Accordingly, he’s the guy everyone has doubts about; something “not quite right,” and so on. But in Idaho, when Martin Thurston does his father in and in so doing lets CUT cavalry hunt down the questers, it is the Baron’s servant who betrays the Baron and Mathilda, leading to their capture at the end of The Sunrise Lands.

Odard manages to conceal his shifty intentions, unlike, say, Boromir. Yet like Boromir the Baron changes his nature and comes to the light; his companions notice a change in him during the many months of the quest. Thinking he was about to sell his life fighting to the last against the CUT cavalry that captured him, he confessed his love to Mathilda. By living the chivalric ideal, Odard quests honestly and heroically until he meets a foe that overmatches him. Like Boromir, he dies with grace, redeemed in the eyes of the man he has hailed as High King:

The fifth was Baron Odard Liu de Gervais. He lay limp, his head propped up against a sack of something someone had dropped, with two trails of blood leaking out of the corners of his mouth. Battered shield and broken sword were near his limp hands. He opened his slanted blue eyes as they approached and smiled slightly.

Father Ignatius went down on his knees beside the fallen man; Rudi signed quickly, and the others dragged the bodies aside and helped the Southsiders. For a moment he was chiefly aware of relief; he′d nearly sent Edain on this errand. That brought a stab of shame, and he moved forward to kneel.

″I need you, Father, but not for that,″ Odard said, in a breathy whisper as the cleric started to reach for the latches of his armor.

The priest examined him through the gear instead; the injured man bit back a gasp at one gentle touch. Ignatius looked up at Rudi and Mathilda, and shook his head very slightly. Odard saw it and nodded a little.

″I can… feel the bones grating. The big one… caught me full-on. Please. Things to say… first. Taking off the hauberk would… do it quick. Got to… keep still.″

″No,″ Mathilda whispered. ″Not after we′ve come so far!″

″Dice… don′t fall sixes… forever. Had to be… someone,″ Odard said. ″Mathilda… I do love you. Didn′t at first. Then I really did. Sorry I ever lied… to you.″

She took one of his hands. Tears fell on it, but she raised it to her lips. ″I love you like a brother, Odard. Like the brother I never had. I always will.″

Rudi could see how hard Odard tried not to laugh, and felt a sudden upwelling of emotion in himself he recognized as close to love indeed.

May I face the Huntsman as boldly, he thought. And to be sure I′ve never yet met a woman who understood why saying that drives men crazed.

Thus passes Baron Odard Liu. The questers now form the nucleus of a warband of about 30, so the loss of Odard does not present a substantial loss in fighting power. Stirling, playing his fingers upon the tropes and themes burned into the hind brain of every reader of fantasy literature, probably felt obliged to sacrifice the (now good) Baron in order to emphasize the threat of death to other more liked characters.

So far Mary Havel (now Vogeler) has lost an eye. No one knows what happened to Odard’s tricksy servant (yet). Rudi took a bad wound but recovered. Edain killed a Mormon woman in a (overly contrived) William Tell scene, then spends the rest of the quest redeeming thoroughly redeeming himself and earning his father’s title, Aylward the Archer. Father Ignatius experiences a vision of Mary and is given his marching orders, to protect Mathilda and to fight the good fight against the evil of the CUT. Ingolf meditated to overcome the evils done to his mind while he was prisoner of the CUT prior to his arriving in Clan McKenzie lands. Ritva Havel fought a CUT high seeker and won. And there are things yet to do: Ritva, while she slew the high seeker who took her sister’s eye, has yet to shine in the sun. Stirling keeps the secondary characters busy with their own arcs, and many of these arcs continue on in the books of the Emberverse.

But Odard’s story is done. He dies well, survives to make confession, and ends his part of the quest with honor. Conveniens vitae mors fuit ista suae, which the interweb tells me is Ovid. His death conformed to his life — at least his later life. Will Stirling do away with more of the questers, maybe even Rudi himself? Only time will tell the reader. RIP, Baron Odard Liu!

So far we’ve covered the following S. M. Stirling novels in this series:

Island in the Sea of TimeAgainst the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity
Dies the Fire
The Protector’s War
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 1
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 2
The Peshawar Lancers and Conquistador
The Sunrise Lands 
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady, Part 1
The Sword of the Lady, Part 2
The High King of Montival
The Tears of the Sun
Lord of Mountains
The Given Sacrifice and The Golden Princess

Join us next week for The Sword of the Lady, Part 2.

Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.

A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at

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