A Paean to the Outsider: A Review of Neither Beg Nor Yield, edited by Jason M. Waltz

A Paean to the Outsider: A Review of Neither Beg Nor Yield, edited by Jason M. Waltz

Neither Beg Nor Yield (Rogue Blades Entertainment, April 2024)

I can’t say if Jason M. Waltz and his Rogue Blades Entertainment’s swansong is the largest collection of Sword & Sorcery ever published, but it’s damn close.

It’s also the most metal. From this over-the-top, blood-splash cover featuring an axe headed toward the reader’s face to the powerful black & white line art that runs throughout. there’s a Savage Sword of Conan-meets-Heavy Metal vibe to the layout that tells you exactly the feel of the prose within.

With all respect to my friend Dave Ritzlin at DMR Books (and the most metal *publisher* of S&S), who literally launched his press by bringing S&S-loving metalhead musicians together to create anthologies of tales, I don’t mean erudite, I can tell you the difference between symphonic metal, thrash metal, Viking metal, dark metal, and the White Christ help us, Troll Metal (which I just learned a few months ago is actually a thing): I mean working out with your buddies in your dad’s garage gym with the Judas Priest-cranked between rewatches on VHS of Conan (the Barbarian, we don’t talk about the sequel), and Beastmaster, or cackling to yourself while working on your killer dungeon to spring on your friends at Friday night’s game with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden wailing metal.

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Do you get more sword & sorcery than this?

That raw, new, still forming and for the ages metal — yet maybe with a small dash of the “yeah and sometimes you need to take a piss at the ridiculousness of yourself” Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister taking lead vocals, just to keep you honest.  Jason himself, explains this in his introduction:

Sword and Sorcery is flush with Life!

It is exciting, violent, and personal… It is absurdist survivalism twined with dashes of hedonism and stoicism.

What follows is nearly 400 pages of exactly that. But if you think that mean you’re about to sit through 150k words of barbarians with axes fighting monsters, you are in for a decided surprise. Indeed, what follow may have a few of those, but contains everything from demon-hunting samurai to demon-hunting… er… bikers; from vengeance seeking monkeys to death-defiant Vikings; from origin stories to farewell tales to old characters: and one story that might be both. Some of these stories are so far removed from the casual definition of “sword & sorcery” that you may finish and ask yourself what you just read. If so, go back and reread everything in this review prior to this paragraph.

Did it have the right attitude? Did you hear Bruce Dickinson’s unmistakable voice singing The Duelist as you read? You’re good, it belonged there. Carry on.

And so will this review. Fletcher Vredenburgh has already written an extensive review of the entire contents for Black Gate, and I mostly agree. So instead, I’ll present some highlights, and use them to explain what makes the anthology — any good anthology — special, which is the editorial vision of the anthologist. By delving into Waltz’s intro and first four tales we see what makes Neither Beg Nor Yield ground familiar and new in the S&S world.

Hunter and Prey ~ C. L. Warner

Shintaro Oba the Demon Hunting Ronin is a recurring character, who first appeared in RBE anthologies and has been seen most recently in nearly every issue of Tales from the Magician’s Skull. This story, involving a Spider Demon, is particularly effective, not so much because of the demon — although its “poppets” it makes to interact and speak to mortals will long stay with me (no more said lest I give it away) but because the real plot involves a secondary character, a fallen samurai turned bounty-hunter, who is one of the five assassins responsible for killing Oba’s lord and destroying the Sekigahara clan. The story is tight and self-contained with a lot of meta-plot for those who have been following the saga, with no need for past knowledge.

I’ve always had mixed feelings on the Oba cycle.  There are some fun, though oddly incongruous nods to the wider world of S&S: Oba’s kingdom is Mu Thulan, which should leap out to any Clark Ashton Smith fans, though the connection to Hyperborea seems to end there. The historian in me rolls my eyes at some of the elements. (Examples: Really? The clan is named Sekigahara — after the battle that unified Japan?) In this story we have star-shaped shuriken and straight ninja-to swords: weapon that never-existed except in 1980s martial arts studios and movies. But then… cue the Iron Maiden remember that the story as a story delivers the goods, and this isn’t Japan — apparently in Mu Thulan they do indeed have ninja-jo and star-shaped shuriken. Author’s world, author’s rules.

The Dragon Prince ~ William King

I have a personal rule about sword & sorcery: if a world has elves, dwarves, orcs and Tolkieny things running around, it ain’t S&S. S&S is a world of *men* and the old races are hidden, dying, obscured or at least alien.

The one exception I’ve made, perhaps because I started reading their adventures in high school, were the stories of Felix and Gotrek in the Warhammer shared universe. Warhammer is pretty much the weird Frankenstein of Tolkien and Moorcock overlayed on 16th century Earth anyway, and I felt like King, constrained by the requirements of spec work, was just sneakily writing old-school S&S in this high fantasy setting under everyone’s noses. Yet, I never picked up his Kormak novels, which felt like he’d just ported the same ideas to a slightly tweaked world of his own, so this story — an origin tale for the character — was also an introduction for me.

I probably have to a) be more tolerant in my S&S definitions and b) go buy the Kormak omnibuses. This story hits on every level and shows you how an experienced author can use tropes — in this case flashbacks and present tense — to brilliant effect. There is so much world-building, character creation and action packed into what’s probably only 10k words, I was envious. The very end is a titch abrupt and a bit of a cliffhanger but seems appropriate. If you don’t know Kormak or his world, as I didn’t, this story will be perfect; if you do, I suspect it will do even more.

Suspension in Silver ~ Eric Turowski

Hyboria, Nehwon, the Young Kingdoms… Fargo. Yeah, Fargo. Not post-apocalyptic Fargo (although if you’ve ever been there)… but our Fargo, in a tattoo parlor… with demonic biker werewolves.

My definition of S&S is pretty traditionalist, so if I don’t normally allow for orcs and elves, you can imagine I wasn’t expecting a biker named Irons whose weapon is a bike chain. Mr. Waltz knows better and I feel a little foolish, having conveniently forgotten that no less a S&S icon than Kane himself has wandered through to the modern era — and Irons feels much like he is in Kane’s mold.

This is a short, fast, take-no-prisoners tale that brings is in-media-res to the hero’s dilemma, and is told through a secondary character’s PoV. It’s slick narration, high-energy and manages to establish world, backstory and set-up for why our character is in this mess (and it’s about what you’d expect from a biker counterpart to Kane who hangs with sexy werewolves), all in a few sentences and then we’re to the matter at hand.

It turns out Turowski has been writing for decades, and Irons is a recurring character. I did not know that, but will seek out his compilations. Is this S&S? If S&S = pre-modern fantasy, no. If it is equivalent to that moniker of Heroic Fantasy; is defined by attitude, as Waltz articulates, then this is one of the most “S&S” stories in the entire collection. For nerds of the genre, a fun intellectual challenge; for readers, just a fun story to enjoy.

Soldier, Seeker, Slayer ~ John C. Hocking

Hocking is one of the greats, that no one realizes is one of the greats, because fate was cruel: one Conan pastiche novel (Conan and the Emerald Lotus), widely hailed as the best of the Tor novels, and the second canceled; his follow-on career has largely been in short-stories, and he is a slow writer. But his tales are always worth waiting for (even if with Titan at long last publishing the two Conan novels together, that means 30+ years of wait), his heroes always complex, and there’s often an emotional nuance that you might miss at first.

This is a tale of a new character, Creon, a mortal warrior captured in a failed rebelling and turned into an assassin, complete with implanted magical weaponry and blurred memories. This is a tragic story of lost family and lost years, and the end will hit hard, especially for those who’ve lost family or have old, unfinished business with family now left as regrets. Creon’s tale could continue from here and quite nicely be one-and-done.

This first quartology of tales gives you all you need to know about Jason Waltz’s vision of S&S, and also sums up the driving trait of the sword & sorcery hero: he, she or they are the Outsider. It doesn’t matter if that is the barbarian from afar, the fallen prince of a decayed empire, a ronin, a failed general of a fallen city, a magical construct, a demon-possessed hunter, the first killer, or yes, a biker, somehow, some way, they exist outside the safe constraints of orderly society and thus do not play by its rules, do not profit from its protection, nor suffer its fools.  This is where one usually inserts the obligatory Conan quote from “Queen of the Black Coast” (“I live, I love,” etc.), but I instead will quote Valeria, REH’s, but John Milius’ from the 1982 film.

All my life I’ve been alone. Many times I’ve faced death with no one to know. I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding each other in the night, but I always passed by. You and I have warmth, that is so hard to find in this world. Please let someone else pass by in the night. Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.

We can debate if the film is a good Conan film, but it is decidedly good sword & sorcery, and Valeria’s lines again and again hit what makes the sword & sorcery hero/heroine. They are the fantastical equivalent of the Noir detective, the lone traveler of Westerns, etc., and like them there is always a restlessness and a tension with orderly society they can’t resolve, either through antisocial traits or a personal sense of morality/honor that will not let them bend a knee to hypocrisy and unworthy kings. (One might say, neither beg nor yield…) And often, they are haunted by moments they would it was different — but they are, who they are.

Remember this theme of the Outsider as we take a glimpse at a few of the stories I found worthy of special mention.

Golden Devils of the Crypt ~ Phil Emery

This is what you get if you sat a literary fiction/creative writing professor down in front of the old Thundarr The Barbarian cartoon and told them to create more of the same. A post-apocalyptic tale science-fantasy tale of barbarians, sorcery and super-science, with splashes of alternate realities… but written in a very poetic, literary style. I single it out here as examples of how rich and far you can take the genre.

In a world whose sky is still blackened by the nuclear havoc called the Voul, Thundarr… er Corlagh… joins with Norad, a female thief he knows he has killed, in a strange pair of towers peopled by golden beings neither dead nor alive, seeking jewels, but the sorcerer they find introduces them to a third kind of magic, astromancy, and promises them an even greater fortune if they will accompany him to a demon haunted city where white science and black magic are at war… which tell you almost nothing about what you’ll experience in this story, least of all what actually happens in the final act.

At times, this was like early Moorcock at his dreamiest, at others, more obtuse than the ramblings of the Mad Irishman Joyce who listened to the twittering of faeries and penned the forbidden tome, Ulysses. There’s a lot in here, and this isn’t an easy tale, requiring attention and perhaps a reread. Did I like it? I’m going to do the reread, so that tells you something, eh?

(Emery, btw, has been at this for as long as I have been alive — half a century, and was interviewed by Seth Lindberg, discussing poetic beauty and literary structure.)

The Undead of Sul-Atet ~ David C. Smith

Here’s the thing… everything Emery sets out to do is done better, stronger, cleaner and more clearly in this unrelentingly dark tale by one of the giants of the last wave of S&S before it became quiescent. Dave Smith broke into the scene with Oron, which was a barbarian fantasy that asked big questions and had sweeping ideas… as only a college-age man could envision them. But as his work went on, it turned out that Smith’s great creation wasn’t Oron, but his world, the Atlantis-like Attluma, whom he would chronicle across centuries, through many epochs, including its demon-ridden fall and eventual total destruction. The Attluma tales are some of the best in contemporary S&S, and the recent short story collection Tales Of Attluma from DMR Books belongs on your shelf besides Smith’s masterwork, Sometimes Lofty Towers.

One of the characters of those final days, when demon lords strode the land, is Engor, a character dark as any in contemporary fantasy, whose only tale is the chapbook Engor’s Swordarm, decidedly hard to find, and worth the effort. In this story, we meet a young Engor, in service to a warlord named Etain, who has come to the worst realization a leader can make: no matter what he does. Therefore, when your enemy is the literal devil, what Faustian bargain can you make to achieve peace for *your* loved ones, for now… to “achieve peace in our time”?

This is the terrible quest Etain drags Engor on — no grand heroics, no secret path to victory, only to hold back the darkness from their one corner of the world for a generation or two, by making a bargain with the forces of evil themselves. I won’t give it away other than to say that Etain must become the ultimate Outsider to succeed in this quest. There is a lot of powerful, disturbing imagery in this tale, and the contrast between the enraged, defiant young Engor and resigned Etain puts the reader in the position of asking themselves not who do they WANT to be right, but who IS right and why?

This is by far the darkest, most tragic tale of the collection and one of the finest.

Reflection From a Tarnished Mirror ~ Howard Andrew Jones

This is part of Jones’ Hanuvar-cycle, a love song to the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, in an alternate world where the Roman analog is already an Empire and aided by a magical secret police akin to the SS and Gestapo. Carthage, he called Valuntas, has long since fallen, and Hanuvar is believed dead. In reality, he is on a quest to free his people from slavery, one by one.

Jones is without doubt one of, if not the foremost, torchbearers of sword & sorcery in the current generation, and Hanuvar is character by which he and his contribution to the fantasy genre will remain known. Unlike so many S&S characters, Hanuvar is not ambiguous: he is a man of morals, honor, and clear purpose that is larger than himself, and from which he cannot be distracted.

It’s nice to see someone actually write a hero for a change. This particular story involves a faux Hanuvar… a magical twin, and to say more is to give away the plot. I will leave it at this: this is the moral and emotional mirror image to Dave Smith’s Engor story, and Hanuvar the bright image to Etain’s shadow, and rarely is a title to a story more apt. After reading Sul-Atet, you may want to jump forward and read this to have some sense of hope.

The Barbarian’s Lawyer ~ Lawerence A Weinstein

I saw a shirt once that said, “if you are going to have a man-bun, ask yourself: am I Toshiro Mifune?” I feel that way about humorous fantasy: ask yourself, am I Terry Pratchett?

I felt doubly that way going into this story about, well, a lawyer appointed to defend a barbarian who was involved in a caper that is easily equal parts “Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House,” because… Weinstein and I were both in the running for a spot in this collection and you’ll note his name appears and mine doesn’t. But you know what, this story was spot on. Not only does it manage to homage at least three different Robert E. Howard stories, but there’s a dash of Tex Avery cartoons in the way it ends. This was clever, witty, on-point and actually made me laugh out-loud. (Am I still jealous? Well, duh, but Weinstein’s story belongs in here and gives a nice twist to the collection.)

Maiden Flight ~ Adrian Cole

Cole is a writing machine; he seems to produce prose on command, and it’s always good. This tale, about a Norse warrior marked for death by a Valkyrie, and his refusal to be chosen, is the capstone story because it is the literal embodiment of “neither beg, nor yield” — when you pit your will against no less a force than the All-Father, how more metal can you get? This story is an entire concert in 8,000 words and the launch of a new series based on a very interesting premise that I won’t give away as it is only revealed on the last page.

These were the standouts, many others were excellent, though that isn’t to say all hit the mark *for me*. Joe R. Landsdale will be best known for his horror, but he has a long history of gonzo weird fiction and “The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey” is something that Danny Elfman might have dreamt up while smoking a bong in the late ’80s… but for me, I wish it had stayed there. The great Steve Erickson pens a conceptually brilliant story with a fantastic third act, but with such an implausible first-person narrator — a cook whose degree of knowledge of history, anthropology, language, rivals most modern college graduates — that the historian in me was constantly distracted from the actual story at hand and frustrated by its decidedly (and intentionally) abrupt resolution.

Likewise, those less history-minded may better enjoy Jeff Stewart’s “Bona Na Croin,” a story that seems to think it is contemporary to the early Irish Fianna of the second or third century CE, yet has female druids, an Irish kingdom named for the Gaelic word for Scandinavia, a 9th century Scottish king (at a time when there were no “Scots”), and so forth. The somewhat Lovecraftian finale is cleverly linked to Irish myth, but overall, the inability to decide if this is historical fantasy, a parallel world, etc., made it a messy read for this Celtophile, especially in a collection with Keith Taylor, who never misses a beat when writing about Erin.

All those tales might resonate with others, and if they didn’t, so massive is this book, that’s not even 10% of the collection missing the mark; a hard task for any anthology to pull off.

Jason M. Waltz: Madman or anthologist? Is there a difference?

Conclusion: The Two Edges of Sword & Sorcery in One Book

It’s hard for me to capstone this review in a way the explains its importance. It’s fun? Sure. Look at those story summaries. That’s 400+ pages of escapist goodness. In fact, it says a lot when Keith Taylor, who produced some of the best Howard pastiche with Cormac mac Art, then created not one, but three fantastic series characters with Felimid the Bard, Nasach the Firbolg and Kamose the High Priest of Anubis has a story in here and doesn’t make my highlights reel. (It’s a very good story, but this collection is just that good.)

Sword & Sorcery matters because it is a subgenre that helped created the entire modern fantasy genre; the twin pillar to High Fantasy built by Tolkien/Dunsany/Morris across the sea in nearly the same years, and each invaded the other’s homelands sometime after the WWII. Whereas High Fantasy has always thrived in the realm of the novel, S&S’s realm has traditionally been the short story and novelette, and the anthology has held a beloved place with fans, who warmly recall Flashing Swords, Swords Against Darkness, and other series anthologies that filled shelves in the 60s – 80s.

That nostalgia has inspired a new boom of in the last few years by small presses, largely led by Rogue Blades, DMR Books, Parallel Universe, and others. While some of these new anthologies are outstanding,  nothing stands besides Neither Beg Nor Yield, which is truly a towering opus of the sword & sorcery subgenre as it stands right now; of authors like Cole, Smith and Taylor, who reach back to the last boom of the 70s are producing work that is as imaginative, challenging and original as they did decades ago, beside those like Fultz and Jones who grew up reading their work, and others who are just honing their craft.

Drawing in a Steve Erickson, who used the techniques of S&S to take epic fantasy in new directions, and Glen Cook, whose stylings of S&S created Grimdark long before it had any such name, shows the long reach the subgenre has had — and continue to have. Besides such giant names are indie writers — the staple of the genre from its long decades of survival in nothing but fanzines. The breadth and width of the current genre is here, and the few that aren’t are missing only because of untimely passing (one wishes for one last Saunders or Tierney tale) or a need to back out of the project due to other commitments.

This massive book is the true “new edge” of sword & sorcery Howard Andrew Jones spoke of when he coined the term: a genre that despite all odds, refuses to die, and the circle of adherents who, working in the shadows like the postulants of Skelos, fanned that flame alas into new life. Sword & Sorcery exists for everyone, because, as Waltz says in his introduction, it simply exists to defy death.

Perhaps that’s why I read — and wrote — so much of it during the pandemic, as did many others. In a time when the real world seems beset by constant crisis: political, climatic, viral, etc., and so many of our institutions feel hidebound or slow to respond, the idea of a defiant outsider who refuses to bend or bow, whose own sense of right and wrong guides them, speaks to us and gives distraction, if not comfort, for a short time. My congratulations to Jason M. Waltz on his vision and ambition on this project, lighting his and Rouge Blades’ retirement pyre with an anthology that will be talked about for long years to come.

To bring this review back to its start, Sword & Sorcery is the genre that the defiant fist raised high, flashing the horns, guitars screaming loud, Metallica’s Unforgiven your theme song.

If that is the new edge of this old sword, then Neither Beg Nor Yield, is its whetstone.

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Matthew

One of the things S&S has in common with Heavy Metal is that it refuses to die despite what some people wish. It is never a mainstream genre but it always has an audience and will probably last longer than trendy sub-genres. At least, I hope it lasts longer than “cozy” fantasy. (I haven’t read a lot of cozy fantasy so some of it might be good, but I tend to recoil with anything being “cozy.”)

K. Jespersen

X) Whether “cozy” anything strikes one as “good” is definitely heavily dependent on the particular author, and one’s own expectations of the general genre. Since the cozies have the same appeals that draw people to read romance and satirical comedy, they’re probably not going anywhere any faster than S&S. May neither ever die, but simply dissolve into the same multitudes of sub-genres that adventure became!

Greg

Dude! I reviewed this book as well, but I wish I had written your review!
Niether Beg Nor Yield is the perfect New Edge S&S book and your review perfectly describes it.
Rock on!! \m/

Recently I’ve found myself pondering what it is about S&S that just speaks to us head-bangers, and think you nailed it.

Last edited 14 days ago by Greg
John Hocking

Man, this review is so passionate when I finished reading it, I leapt up from my chair and threw the horns hard enough to dislocate my shoulder.
An extraordinary job of telling the reader exactly how and why the reviewer found value in a book and its genre.

Gregory D Mele

I think that’s the highest praise I could possibly get John! Rock on!

Jason M Waltz

Super passionate and awesome review, Greg! Thanks for singling out key aspects of some stories within the theme.

I look forward to reading your NBNY submission published soon – it is a terrific story.


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