Following up on the success of his two Meji novels, Milton J. Davis has published a new Sword-and-Soul adventure titled Changa’s Safari. Always innovative, Milton breaks new ground with this novel, with the action and intrigue unfolding within the context of the fourteenth-century mercantile network that included East Africa, Arabia, India and China. As in the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, magic works in the Eastern world of the black merchant-warrior Changa Diop.
Full disclosure before I go on … in only a few years’ time, Milton and I have become very good friends — Sword-and-Soul brothers, in fact. I read Changa’s Safari and the two Mejinovels in manuscript, well before the books were published. I was impressed to the point where I volunteered to write introductions to Changa’s Safari and Meji Book I (Linda Addison wrote the introduction to Meji Book II. Also, Milton and I have co-edited Griots, a Sword-and Soul anthology that will be published later this year.
So yes, this is more of a shout-out than a review. I give shout-outs when I feel they are deserved, which is assuredly the case here — not only for Milton’s prose, but also for the excellent cover and interior art by Winston Blakely.
Jason Waltz’s excellent and comprehensive review of Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’ new anthology, Swords & Dark Magic, brought to mind another collection that I encountered during bygone times.
That earlier volume was titled Swordsmen in the Sky, and it was edited by Donald A. Wollheim. Swordsmen was published by Ace Books in 1964.
Whereas Swords & Dark Magic is subtitled “The New Sword and Sorcery,” the cover of Swordsmen in the Sky promised “Great Stories of Interplanetary Adventure.” That’s somewhat misleading, for two of the five yarns in Swordsmen take place on our own planet, though not exactly the Earth we know.
Another difference between the two books is that Swordsmen reprinted stories first published during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, while Swords & Dark Magic showcases brand-new work.
Finally, Swordsmen is nominally science fiction, with putatively rational underpinnings for its stories’ fantastical elements.
Even so, its publication was something of a harbinger of the sword-and-sorcery boom that was only a few years away from beginning.
The cover, by the recently departed Frank Frazetta, could easily have adorned a Conan, Thongor, or Brak novel. The crimson cape swirling around the sword-swinging central figure anticipated the similar garment that shrouded the man-ape Thak on Frazetta’s iconic Conan cover. As well, the battling men’s unusual-looking helmets, and the moons and dragons in the background, provide a hint of the exotic narratives within the book.
Ryan Harvey has graciously allowed me to make a foray into his “Pastiches R Us” with some thoughts on Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Hero, which was published by Tor Books in 1989. Amazon.com reviewer “raif10” characterizes the novel as “Conan in Vietnam,” hence the title of this post. To anyone familiar with the United States’ involvement with the Vietnam War, the allegory is abundantly — and sometimes painfully — clear.
But the Vietnam connection wasn’t what initially attracted me to this novel. Instead, it was the inclusion of Juma, a Kushite who is a fellow recruit with Conan in the Turanian army.
It should be noted that Juma is not a Robert E. Howard-created character. The Kushite was the product of the imaginations of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Juma first appeared in “The City of Skulls,” a de Camp-Carter story in Lancer Books’ Conan. Conan and Juma bond because they are both outsiders: physically powerful barbarians at odds with, yet attracted to, the opulent civilization they serve with their swords. Although Conan is a white man from the northern land of Cimmeria and Juma a black man from the tropics of Kush, that difference in background is of no consequence to their friendship. …
When I first encountered the work of Robert E. Howard, I was not aware that I was encountering the work of Robert E. Howard. I know, I know … that statement needs clarification.
To be technical about it, that first brush was actually with a television adaptation of one of REH’s short stories. The story was “Pigeons from Hell,” which was also the title of a Thriller TV series episode I watched as a wide-eyed teenager back in 1961. The episode scared me — and I wasn’t alone. Some consider “Pigeons from Hell” to be the best episode in Thriller‘s three-year run.
If Howard received story recognition in the credits roll at the end of the episode, I don’t recall seeing it. Even if it had, his name would not have meant anything to me back then.
Five years later, Howard’s name recognition skyrocketed with the release of the first Lancer Books editions of his Conan stories. Frank Frazetta’s dynamic cover paintings of the barbaric Cimmerian immediately caught my eye amid numerous other offerings on the paperback racks. And when I started reading the stories, I became hooked like an alcoholic or a junkie.
But the link between the creator of Conan and the Thriller episode remained elusive. I didn’t make the connection until the mid-1970s, when I began writing stories about my Conan-inspired hero, Imaro. During that time, I saw a Zebra Books collection of Howard stories with the title Pigeons from Hell on its cover. Immediately, my memory of the Thriller episode kicked in. I bought the book and dove right into the title story.
Howard’s original story affected me far more than the TV adaptation, which was far from a slouch. The TV version scared me. Howard’s version skeered me. Trust me; there’s a difference.
And so, on the 104th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, I take my hat off to a writer who knew how to skeer people.
When you search for my novel, Imaro, on Amazon.com, the “Customers Also Bought” and “Frequently Bought Together” categories on its page include a novel called Wind Follower, by Carole McDonnell. As you will see, there is good reason for that connection.
When I first became aware of Wind Follower through Amazon, I was so intrigued I bought the book right away. As I began to read it, I quickly realized that it was, like Imaro and Milton Davis’ Meji novels, part of the sword-and-soul subgenre. Carole did not know that at the time, as I coined the term “sword-and-soul” to describe African-oriented fantasy fiction only a few years ago.
Actually, a better description of Carole’s debut novel would be soul-and-sword. It is a literary equivalent of soul music, which combines rhythm-and-blues with a strong measure of the gospel sound.
Like my stories and Milton’s, Wind Follower is set in an alternate version of Africa — one in which spirits are real and magic works, for both good and ill. However, Carole’s story and setting are different from just about anything else that has been based on the so-called Dark Continent, going all the way back to the “jungle stories” of pulp-fiction times.
Indeed, it stands to reason that once the “jungle stories” template is broken, different writers can conjure a variety of other-world versions of Africa. Look at the hundreds of re-tellings of a single European legend: the Saga of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Africa is a place of numerous cultures, which have spawned a plethora of myths and folktales. Those source-stories can easily inspire infinite successor tales. Wind Follower is one of those new tales. …
Sword-and-soul is the name I’ve given to the type of fiction I’ve been writing for nearly 40 years. The best definition I can think of for the term is; African-inspired heroic fantasy.” Its roots are in sword-and-sorcery, but its scope is likely to expand as time passes.
To the best of my knowledge, I was the first fantasy writer to utilize in a positive way settings and themes drawn from the abundance of information available on the real Africa, rather than the “Dark Continent” that lives on in the minds of those who are satisfied with stereotypes.
These days, however, I am no longer the only writer of sword-and-soul.
Two years ago, Brother Uraeus, the man behind Sword & Soul Media, publisher of my latest books Dossouye and Imaro: The Trail of Bohu, introduced me over the Internet to a writer from the Atlanta area named Milton J. Davis. As it turns out, Milton’s African dreams were similar to mine. Before he had ever heard of me or Imaro, he envisioned his own alternate-Africa — the continent of “Uhuru,” which is conceptually different from Imaro’s setting, Nyumbani.
Uhuru forms a vivid backdrop for Meji, Milton’s sweeping story of the lives of a pair of portentous twins. Appropriately enough, the Meji saga is told in two volumes.
Soon after getting in contact with Milton, I read the entire Meji epic in manuscript. I was so impressed that I volunteered to write the introduction to the first volume (award-winning author Linda Addison wrote the intro to Meji II). In the interest of full disclosure, what I have to say about the books should be viewed in that context. …
So, could a sword-and-sorcery icon like Robert E. Howard’s Conan ever tread the pages of modern mainstream fiction beneath his sandalled feet?
The answer is: for sure.
The Conan of today’s best-seller/mystery/thriller genre is a hulking former U.S. military police officer named Jack Reacher, the protagonist of a series of novels by Lee Child.
Over the past 12 years, Child — a native of England who now lives near New York City — has published a lucky 13 Reacher novels, with the fourteenth coming out early next year. The first, Killing Floor, won both the Anthony and Barry awards for best first mystery novel. Since then, Child hasn’t looked back. Neither has Reacher.
The Reacher novels are, indeed, excellent mystery yarns replete with enough twists, turns and feats of ratiocination to do Sherlock Holmes proud. But there’s an added dimension to the Reacher ouevre. Not only is the protagonist smart as a whip — he’s also harder than nails. Think Robert B. Parker’s Spenser on steroids.