Unbound Worlds on a Century of Sword and Planet

Friday, February 2nd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

A Princess of Mars Penguin Classics-small Planet of Adventure Jack Vance-small Old Venus-small

Who doesn’t love Sword & Planet? No, don’t send me a bunch of declarative e-mail; it was a rhetorical question. Anyway, there’s only one kind of person who doesn’t love Sword & Planet: someone with no joy in their life.

But it’s perfectly okay to not know where to start. Despite celebrating its 100th birthday last year, Sword & Planet is not as popular as its sister genres (Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Six-Gun, Sword and Sandal, Sword & Sextant, Sword & Slupree….). And that’s okay, we love it just the same. But what is Sword & Planet? Matt Staggs does a fine job recapping the rich history of this venerable sub-genre at Unbound Worlds.

Mash together fantasy’s sword-swinging heroes, and the far-out alien civilizations of early science-fiction, and you’ve got Sword and Planet fiction. Arguably the brainchild of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sword and Planet tales usually features human protagonists adventuring on a planet teeming with life, intelligent or otherwise. Science takes a backseat to romance and derring-do… Where Sword and Planet can really be seen today is in the influence it has had on popular culture. The lightsabers, blasters, and planet-hopping heroics of Star Wars probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Sword and Planet. Neither would Avatar or Stargate.

Interested? Matt also recommends some classic titles by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Kenneth Bulmer, Chris Roberson, and others. Here’s a few of his recs.

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By Crom: Some Conans are More Equal Than Others…

Thursday, January 4th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Conan and the Emerald LotusI’ve been in a bit of a Robert. E. Howard mood lately, so I re-read some of his Solomon Kane stories (fine stuff). But, as always, I gravitated back to Conan. And that inevitably led me to the pastiches. A quick count of the shelves produced 42 non-Howard Conan tales, excluding the de Camp/Carter books, of which I’m missing two or three, I think.

I’ve read at least a third of those pastiches, I’d say, maybe close to half. Except for a few, they are part of the Tor line I wrote about here. And as I mentioned, they’re a mixed bag. I also wrote a post regarding how official those pastiches are considered, which generated a lot of good commentary.

The Tor line came to a halt in 1997, with one additional book in 2003 (I wouldn’t have minded if they’d skipped that last one). There have been no official Conan pastiches in fifteen years, though that’s going to change shortly.

Howard Andrew Jones, fantasy author and Black Gate‘s Managing Editor, had some thoughts similar to mine over at his blog a few years ago. Ryan Harvey’s Pastiches R Us looked at about a dozen of the Tor books: you can search Black Gate for them, but here’s one and here’s another. He also had Charles Saunders do a guest post for him.

A multitude of writers have penned a plethora of words about the Conan pastiches, but I’m keeping this post ‘in-house’ and will focus on musings from Howard, Ryan and myself.

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A Homecoming: Son of Mfumu by Milton J. Davis

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

DIhhmcBUQAAjNxv“…keep it old school. Don’t make it boring, pack it with action, don’t invert it, converge it, or subvert it. Have a hero even if he is a rascal. Have some gothic atmosphere and a touch of cosmicism. Give it technicolor and dream dust instead of shades of gray. Have the ending mean something.”  -Morgan Holmes, on writing a classic S&S story.

Milton Davis’ five volume series about the mighty and wily Changa Diop is swords & sorcery cast from a classic mold, the dimensions of which were first set down ninety years ago by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and C.L. Moore. Changa is a hero through and through. Even when he’s got one eye focused on making a profit, the other is on his own honor and courage. There are wonderful descriptions of a vibrant, exciting world designed perfectly as a stage for mighty adventures, but done so well it never impedes the action. Of action, there’s more than enough for any S&S fan, ranging from duels with pirates to epic battles with demonic conjurations. Heroes are bold and villains deadly. This is the root stuff of which good S&S is made.

Whenever you get bummed out about the current state of S&S, rest assured that there are authors hewing to something like Holmes’ cri-de-coeur. And they aren’t making copies of the tried and true, but crafting their own myths and legends, adding their rousing additions to this genre we love.

Starting with Changa’s Safari (2011), and continuing for four more books, Milton Davis has sent our titular hero to the ends of the earth in search of the means to avenge his father’s murder, and claim the throne of Kongo from the usurper and sorcerer, Usenge. Each comrade with whom he surrounds himself is skilled and memorable in his own way. Foremost, there is the blue-robed and silent swordsman known only as the Tuareg. Zakee is a young Yemeni prince rescued from a disastrous marriage, the irascible navigator Mikaili is an Ethiopian with plans to become an priest someday…just never today, and finally there is Panya, Yoruban sorceress and beloved of Changa.

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The Road of Azrael by Robert E. Howard

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

TRDOZRL1979I can remember when my dad brought home The Road of Azrael (1979) and Sowers of the Thunder (1980), collections of Robert E. Howard’s historical adventure tales. My reading tastes were so exclusively fantasy and science fiction then, I couldn’t imagine wasting any time on boring, mundane stories. No wizards, no demons? What the heck was anybody thinking?

I grew out of that attitude a few years later and read both volumes. I remember liking them, but if you asked me for details on either one, I couldn’t have told you a thing. I read them once and never again. In fact, until recently I hadn’t read any other historical adventure even though, theoretically at least, I was a fan. I mean, it’s one of the primary root sources of swords & sorcery. At a very basic level, Robert E. Howard took the historical adventures of writers like Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy and added magic and monsters.

It wasn’t until I started blogging about swords & sorcery and started getting all sorts of recommendations for the stuff that I looked into the genre again. With my review of Henry Treece’s The Great Captains four years ago, I started including some novels in my writing for Black Gate. I’ve been including a taste every month or so (most recently Purity of Blood by Arturo Pérez-Reverte), and it’s gone over well.

One of the pledges I made to myself at the start of my Black Gate tenure four years ago, was to avoid the big names of swords & sorcery. No one, I felt, needed another article about Michael Moorcock, or Fritz Leiber, or especially Robert E. Howard. Considering I wrote about Karl Edward Wagner’s Night Winds for my very first full review, THAT promise didn’t last very long, but I have tried to keep my focus on lesser-known or forgotten authors in my reviews of older works. Since then, I’ve reviewed a Moorcock book, a new one by Charles Saunders, and several more Wagner books, but until now I’ve steered clear of REH (especially because Bob Byrne has done a terrific job writing about him here at BG in his ongoing Discovering Robert E. Howard columns). It’s too hard to completely avoid the foundational figures of swords & sorcery when writing as often as I do, but I try to keep it to a minimum.

All this is a complicated way to say I’m reviewing The Road of Azrael by Robert E. Howard, and feel fully justified in doing so. It collects five historical tales of varying quality.

The paperback edition I read has execrable cover art, which did nothing to add appeal for me. Fortunately, the first thing in the book is a laudatory introduction by Gordon Dickson, no slouch of a storyteller himself, praising REH’s storytelling talents. Not that I need reminding of just how good Howard could be, but it’s always nice to see him get the praise he deserves. Unfortunately, I did not like the opening story, “Hawks Over Egypt.”

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In the Hot Seat: The Reviewer Gets Grilled: An Interview with Fletcher Vredenburgh

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Fletcher Vredenburgh-small

Fletcher is no stranger to the readers and fans of Black Gate. His articles and reviews are not only well-written, insightful and entertaining, they are extremely popular, as well. He is the “reviewer extraordinaire,” and his reviews have led me to read many books. I trust his opinion and his taste in what makes for a good novel. Fletcher is also one of the most voracious readers I have ever met; even in my prime, when I was reading about 2 books a week, I couldn’t top him. Tireless and energetic, Fletcher amazes me with his wonderful reviews, which are also very well written. He is not a “book critic,” however, as you’ll find out when you read my interview with him. He is a reviewer of books. A Master Review Writer. I’m happy I met him through social media, proud to call him my friend, and grateful to him for his great reviews of my books.

So let’s begin, shall we? Let’s see if we can find out what makes him tick, what he likes to read and his whole process for reviewing a book.

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Horror and Swords & Sorcery

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

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by Virgil Finlay

The air has turned crisp, the sun is dipping below the horizon earlier each evening, and the supermarket candy section seems to have grown exponentially. Halloween is just around the corner and, like many of you, my mind has turned to haunts and frights.

Horror is one of the primary elements dividing swords & sorcery from epic fantasy. To quote the Horror Writers Association’s site, horror fiction is that which “elicits an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” Horror has been intrinsic to the genre from its earliest days. Robert E. Howard’s heroes, Kull, Conan, Bran, and Solomon Kane all face off against supernatural horror. In general, the worlds of S&S are dark and dangerous. The protagonists, mostly loners, find themselves pitted against an inimical universe populated with carnivorous forces of darkness that sate their hunger on humanity.

Epic fantasy is concerned with things like the fate of the world, the battle between Light and Darkness, or big dynastic squabbles. There may be moments of terror in epic fantasy (e.g. LotR’s Watcher in the Water; A Song of Ice and Fire’s wights), but it’s rarely the main event. Not in every story, but in most of their S&S work, writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, and C. L. Moore, created tales that were horror first and foremost. They spun nightmares and darkness into thread and, along with strands of adventure and mystery, wove from it something moodier than Prof. Tolkien or his successors.

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Noise About Xignals

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Xignals September 1988-smallI took a break from cutting the grass around the house. It was a hot day, and the chore always took a while. “Look what I found,” my aunt greeted me, as I went indoors and dropped into a chair. She’d been cleaning up, preparing to move into the cottage, and she’d been discovering things tucked away and forgotten long before, as one does. She handed me a copy of Xignals.

Years ago, back in the twentieth century, Xignals had been the in-house newsletter of Waldenbooks’ Otherworlds Club, a buyers’ club program for science fiction and fantasy readers. I was never a member, but I’d pick up a copy of Xignals when I’d go with my aunt and grandparents over the border from their summer cottage in Philipsburg, Quebec, to have dinner in Burlington, Vermont. There was a Waldenbooks in one of the shopping malls in Burlington, where we’d stop after eating, and I’d take an inexcusably long time browsing the science fiction section before buying a book to take back to Philipsburg. And, often, grab a copy of Xignals with it.

In 2016 I sat and read this copy of Xignals for perhaps the first time in over twenty-five years. It was dated August/September 1988, which means it had come out as I was turning 15. It was a 16-page booklet, 8 sheets of 11-by-17-inch paper folded over, black and white with greyscale images and green lines and fills. I was fascinated by the thing, its edges nibbled by field mice seeking a home during some winter between 1988 and 2016. It brought to my mind not a rush of Proustian reminiscence, but a sense of significance in difference. I was made conscious of the way the future was conceived then, based on the way the world then operated, and the way the world operates differently now.

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Read the Best of Matthew David Surridge in Once Only Imagined: Collected Reviews, Vol II

Sunday, June 5th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

Once Only Imagined Matthew David Surridge-smallMatthew David Surridge is Black Gate‘s most successful blogger, both in terms of critical and popular success (his post “A Detailed Explanation,” on why he declined a Hugo nomination last year, is the most popular article in our history). He’s also one of our most prolific, with 270 articles to his credit, and he’s had more reprinted than anyone else on our staff. Of course, that’s mostly due to last year’s Reading Strange Matters, which collected 24 of his posts, chiefly focusing on 21st Century writers.

Reading Strange Matters was successful enough to encourage his publishers to produce a second volume, Once Only Imagined, released last week. It collects another 30 articles, with a slightly different focus than last year’s book. Matthew is our sure-footed guide to the true origins of modern fantasy, tracing them through the twisted maze of late 20th Century publishing to the nearly-forgotten fantasy masters of the era. Here’s Matthew, from his introduction.

My first collection of essays about fantasy fiction, Reading Strange Matters, looked at books from the twenty-first century. This second one moves back in time, to the second half of the twentieth… There was a revival of sword-and-sorcery adventure fiction at about this time, relatively short novels focused on plot, action, and violence. And Ballantine Books reprinted several pre-Tolkien fantasies under the editorship of writer and fan Lin Carter. But many of the fantasy novels published in the 1960s and 1970s had a veneer of science fiction about them — their setting explained as another planet (as in the case of Andre Norton’s Witch World and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series), or their magic explained as pseudo-scientific psionic powers (as in Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni series).

1977 is usually cited as the year when everything changed, with the publication of Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane ushering in a new age of commercial fantasy fiction. This ignores several important predecessors, I feel, not only Norton, McCaffrey, and Kurtz, but also Patricia McKillip, whose The Riddle-Master of Hed came out in 1976. I think the form that eventually developed for commercial fantasy was shaped in part by these books… Writers like Raymond Feist and David and Leigh Eddings (the first few of whose books were published under David Eddings’ name alone) soon had popular series as well…

Still, it’d be wrong to think of the fantasy genre of the 1980s as populated entirely by Tolkien knock-offs. Some writers were trying to do new things, and some idiosyncratic books were published as the genre developed. Writers like Glen Cook, with his Black Company series, challenged the new conventions with gritty stories set in a pseudo-medieval world but told in a very modern tone.

Matthew’s knowledge of fantasy is breathtaking, and his deep insights into the evolution of the genre — and many of its greatest and most neglected works — are profoundly illuminating. At $3 for the digital edition, it’s the best purchase you’ll make all year.

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The January Fantasy Magazine Rack

Thursday, January 14th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

Analog-January-February-2016-rack Apex-Magazine-Issue-79-rack Beneath-Ceaseless-Skies-189-rack Clarkesworld-112-rack
Nightmare-Magazine-December-2015-rack Black-Static-49-rack Entertainment-Weekly-Dr-Strange-rack Swords-and-Sorcery-Magazine-November-2015-rack

In his December Short Story Roundup, Fletcher Vredenburgh gives as eloquent a summary as I’ve seen for the vital importance of short fiction to fantasy, and in particular to sword & sorcery:

Before I get into the reviews, I thought I’d say a little about why I’ve made it a major part of my writing to review and publicize S&S short stories. While there have been good S&S novels… the beating heart of the genre has always been short stories. From that opening blast of thunder in REH’s “The Shadow Kingdom” — and through the decades in the works of authors as diverse as C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Charles Saunders — it’s been in short stories that the genre’s been best displayed.

The hallmarks of swords & sorcery are adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and a narrow focus on only a few characters, bound together in a narrative that reads like a shot of mainlined adrenaline. In the very best stories — KEW’s “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul,” for example — they’re all present. Not that there can’t be structural complexity, finely detailed characters, or exquisitely tooled prose, but it must be exciting. Detours into side-plots, passages meticulously describing feasts, too many secondary and tertiary characters all put brakes on the action. Limited to fifteen or thirty pages, the focus is on the protagonist and his or her immediate situation…

The very best stories I have read in my years of reviewing S&S are the ones that come closest to meeting the demands I’ve put out above. There are dozens of authors working like mad to create stories that will thrill and chill you, and grab you out of the safety of your comfy chair for a little while. It’s those tellers of tales I’m on constant watch for and hoping to hip readers to. I want S&S to continue as a living, breathing genre, not one content to exist as a museum for forty- or seventy-year-old stories.

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December Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1234817JcS2DZHcIt’s time for the last roundup of stories from 2015. The year went out in fine fashion. For the second time in only a few months Beneath Ceaseless Skies published a batch of good heroic fantasy. And while we’re in that interim between new issues of of both Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Grimdark Magazine, genre stalwart Swords and Sorcery Magazine made its regular monthly appearance bearing a pair of new tales.

Before I get into the reviews, I thought I’d say a little about why I’ve made it a major part of my writing to review and publicize S&S short stories. While there have been good S&S novels (REH’s The Hour of the Dragon), okay ones (KEW’s Darkness Weaves), and bad ones (Lin Carter’s Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria), the beating heart of the genre has always been short stories. From that opening blast of thunder in REH’s “The Shadow Kingdom” — and through the decades in the works of authors as diverse as C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Charles Saunders — it’s been in short stories that the genre’s been best displayed.

The hallmarks of swords & sorcery are adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and a narrow focus on only a few characters, bound together in a narrative that reads like a shot of mainlined adrenaline. In the very best stories — KEW’s “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul,” for example — they’re all present. Not that there can’t be structural complexity, finely detailed characters, or exquisitely tooled prose, but it must be exciting. Detours into side-plots, passages meticulously describing feasts, too many secondary and tertiary characters all put brakes on the action. Limited to fifteen or thirty pages, the focus is on the protagonist and his or her immediate situation.

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