"Web of Pale Venom" by John C. Hocking
"The White Wyrm" by C. L. Werner
"The Covenant" by Christopher Stires
"Two Fools Make a Tragedy" by C. J. Burch
"The Demon War" by S. C. Bryce
"End of Duty" by Joe McCullough V
"Raven’s Eye" by Jay Caselberg
"The Catacombs of Dharwatagan" by Bruce Durham
In his editorial introducing this third issue of sword-and-sorcery fiction, editor Howard Andrew Jones sets forth the following guiding principles for the revival of this fantasy subgenre, a movement its partisans are calling the New Edge.
So what are those New Edge guiding principles? Briefly:
1. A hardboiled tone – as in terse and unsentimental
2. Exotic settings and/or settings that live – as in NOT faux Tolkien (if the settings echo Tolkien or other writers then they must be twisted or seen from some new perspective)
3. Evoking a sense of wonder – magic is never banal or easy, the fantastic should not be mundane
4. High energy storytelling – as in fast and without padding
. . .
And what does this mean for Flashing Swords, you ask? Not all of the fiction published here will meet all of the guidelines above, although I can’t see myself ever printing a story that fails to deliver on point number four. Stories can be grand fun without charting new courses or creating new worlds. I will, however, give preference to writers who can practice these guidelines while delivering a good tale with compelling characters.
These are certainly laudable goals. And having them upfront presents the reviewer with a clearly defined task: to consider how well the fiction in question has met the editors’ own criteria, or how far it may have fallen short of this standard.
The issue begins with "Web of Pale Venom," the second in John C. Hocking‘s series of stories featuring Kel the Archivist. In this installment, the first-person narration rewards us with a more detailed picture of the amusingly pedantic "I’m an archivist, not a librarian" Kel. The setting, likewise, is acquiring more depth and detail—seemingly a combination of the Roman Mediterranean with a touch of the American Southwest. Here we find Kel dragged into another reckless investigation by the soldier Lucella, who is becoming a good foil for the more prudent Kel, as well as a potential love interest. Given the nature of such a series, the reader has little fear that Kel and Lucella will not survive the perils of the episode, but Hocking nonetheless manages to keep the pacing and the tension at a high level, with a genuinely menacing horror giving the heroes some very uncomfortable moments. We might have done without the false mcguffin at the beginning of the story, and the unconvincing magic ray weapons that fortunately played little part in the events, but for the most part, this story meets the editorial criteria on all four points, and in particular it delivers on the crucial point of storytelling. So far, one pass.
With "The White Wyrm" by C. L. Werner, this reader was at first very pleased to encounter a tale of vikings! Unfortunately, the appalling number of errors in just the first few paragraphs of the text would have been enough to keep me from reading any further, had I not been undertaking this review. I suggest that if the proponents of the New Edge wish to avoid the mockery of the literary set, they might consider raising the standards of their prose to the level of basic literacy. [hint: a bearded viking may have yellow hair, but he is still not a blonde.]
Putting aside the issue of prose, however, it must be said that in this story Werner has indeed met many of the basic standards of the New Edge as set forth in the lead editorial. The tone, while neither hardboiled nor terse, evokes the spirit of the classic age of sword-and-sorcery fiction; no inappropriate sense of political correctness keeps the author from describing the hero’s opponents as brutes, beasts, and savages, based on their racial attributes and religious beliefs. There is little that is original here, but this is clearly Werner’s intent: not to break new ground, but to recreate the Golden Age in the style and manner of those bygone authors. His setting, a Toltec shore on which a viking captive has been shipwrecked, is certainly exotic and lushly detailed, as far as it is possible to trust the description. [However, when we find his vikings swearing on Odin’s axe instead of his spear, this trust does not go too far.] The story itself, of a sole castaway Christian knight opposing the savage, cannibalistic worshipers of the vile war god Huitzilopotchli, can not be said to be lacking in energy or action, although the hero does not really come alive as a character of more than two dimensions [in which he beats the villains by one]. This reader, at least, does applaud Werner for resisting the temptation of sentimentality when it comes to the fate of the obligatory Fair Maiden. Judging by the standards of the New Edge, then, the story can perhaps be regarded as a limited success, but this very fact suggests strongly that the standards of the New Edge are deficient.
On the other hand, Christopher Stires succeeds on both levels with "The Covenant." His prose is certainly anything but hardboiled or terse—indeed, there may be some who would consider it overblown—but this is a matter of the genre’s style, in which such over-the-top narration is appropriate and traditional, and Stires employs it well, producing such horrifically fantastic images as blisters raised on the hero’s flesh by the demon’s heat, then bursting into ice. The piece is quite short: a Crusader summons a demon to make a bargain for his soul, and it ends with a powerful twist. There are no sword fights, shipwrecks or grand adventures, but it has no need of them to evoke a strong sense of wondrous dark fantasy.
The editorial blurb introducing "Two Fools Make a Tragedy" suggests that C. J. Burch has created a pair of adventurers comparable to Leiber’s justly immortal Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This clearly overstates the case, but Burch’s Aduux and Kouer are a fairly well-realized pair, and their light, humorous dialogue does contribute depth to their respective characters. While the setting does not differ much from the generic sword-and-sorcery city, Burch adds a few colorful details, such as the lizard-thing who keeps watch over the sorcerers’ tavern. The sorcery itself is inventive; the fireplace poker that turns into a burning snake is a particularly nasty piece of work.
As for the story, it is as much mystery as swordplay. However, Burch fails to allow the reader to try to figure out the nature of the mysterious and deadly amulet; instead we must endure Aduux and Kouer explaining at length to each other how they have solved the mystery without us, and thus the story is less fun than it could have been. According to the New Edge criteria, then, this one must rate as a pass. Unfortunately, there is again the matter of the errors in the text. Some mistakes, perhaps, like dropped commas and the sentence which has lost its verb, might simply be a result of the zine’s failure to copyedit or proofread, but it makes this reader wish that perhaps the editor might spend more time on such mundane tasks instead of composing grand manifestos.
"The Demon War" by S. C. Bryce certainly supplies enough fast-paced, high energy adventure for the most action-starved reader. Dermanassian the elf warrior is tricked by a demon lord into joining her war, but he is soon whole-heartedly engaged in the battle against a horde of creatures far more deadly than demonkind. The presence of an elf warrior may remind the reader more of a D&D scenario than classic sword-and-sorcery, but D&D can certainly be considered a legitimate descendant of the older tradition, and Bryce’s settings are indeed exotic and well-detailed, while his demons have their own strange logic and motivation. Another successful tale by the New Edge criteria, and fortunately not ruined by the intrusion of gross errors in the text.
"End of Duty" by Joe McCullough V feels somewhat out of place in this zine full of sword-and-sorcery fiction. This is not simply because the characters bear muskets rather than swords, but also the absence of noticeable fantastic elements. Upon a moment’s reflection, we may recall many heroic adventures that likewise had none of the fantastic, yet somehow those tales of crusaders and vikings have an exotic tone to them, while this one is all muddy realism, more akin to modern military adventure fiction. Reflecting again, however, we conclude that this tale does seem to be set in an invented history, so that it can indeed be classed as fantasy.
Certainly as a story of military adventure, this one is well-told, with realistic details and rising tension as squad of soldiers climbs to a cliff top enemy fortress through rain and mud. However, this reader did have several questions about the setting, for a reference to snipers seems inconsistent with the soldiers’ muskets—muskets are ineffective for such work. When, exactly, or at what equivalent level of technology, is this tale supposed to be set? The soldiers’ language suggests the 19th century or later, but muskets and bombards are more primitive weapons. It is of course possible that such issues were addressed in prior episodes of this series of stories featuring the character Stevan. However, this only reminds us of the inherent problems with a series. This piece almost feels more like a scene from a longer work than a story complete in itself, and none of the characters here are developed; we barely meet Stevan before it is all over, and most of the others are just names.
In evaluating this piece, we find the standards established for New Edge fiction are partly inapplicable; the exotic, the fantastic are not present here, nor meant to be. As a military adventure, it does pass the test of storytelling, but only in part, for the characters are insufficiently fleshed-out to be as compelling as the narration of their exploit.
Coming to "Raven’s Eye," this reader began with high expectations, as I was aware of author Jay Caselberg as a professional writer. Such hopes were quickly extinguished. The level of the prose in this piece is quite frankly sub-professional; in one single sentence, Caselberg can not seem to find an alternative to employing the same phrase, "the old woman," three times. The setting is a generic medievaloid forest complete with a witch’s cottage. The plot: a swordswoman in pursuit of the cardboard evildoers who have attacked the old woman—a scenario seen so often in the MZB Sword and Sorceress series that the reader can only suspect this piece was rejected there before ending up in the Flashing Swords slushpile. The obligatory fantastic element takes the form of the title’s raven, which the reader recognizes at first glance as No Ordinary Bird, although the heroine is too dense to notice. And to top it off, the author gives us a moral lecture at the end.
On all counts, then, this one fails. If we are to have guidelines defining a good fantasy adventure, certainly the first ought to be: do not bore the reader. Do not make every event so predictable that there is no tension, because the reader knows exactly what will happen next. And if there absolutely must be a moral to the tale, then let it be implicit in the events, not delivered as a concluding sermon.
"The Catacombs of Dharwatagan" is another in Bruce Durham‘s series featuring the unfortunately-named mercenary Dalacroy. Again we encounter the usual inherent problems with such series, for Durham wastes our time with several scenes meant to bridge the space between this episode and the last, while the real story only begins at the gates of Dharwatagan. Alas, this series is beginning to look more and more like a D&D campaign; we already had the doughty swordsman and the spunky girl, now we find them adding the scholar/mage to their company. None of these characters are developed much beyond the point of these stereotypes, and the villains and spearcarriers are of course entirely one-dimensional.
So Dalacroy arrives in Dharwatagan, and immediately finds himself forced into an improbable task of seeking out some magical item stashed in the catacombs, and of course guarded by a species of monster. Yawn. We know, of course, that he will survive the ordeal, and the tension is diminished further by the fact that we don’t particularly care—Dalacroy is not a real person whom we can care for. The specific twists of the plot are not predictable, but this is because they are entirely arbitrary; we can see the hand of the d/u/n/g/e/o/n/m/a/s/t/e/r author behind the scenes, manipulating the events. So at the right moment, we learn that Dalacroy can kill the monster with his magic dagger; the mage knows he has a magic dagger because, well, he knows that sort of thing.
Durham’s prose is not riddled with errors, but it is occasionally jarring, as when one character asks another, "Are you okay?" Would Conan say, "okay?" The setting is generic and unoriginal, the wonders are stale and derivative, and the action fails to raise the reader’s pulse. Not a success—not because there is so much egregiously bad about this tale, but because there is nothing particularly good about it, to make it more than mediocre.
So by the explicit standards of the New Edge, perhaps two-thirds of the stories in this issue of Flashing Swords can be counted as fulfilling the requirements. What of the standards themselves?
In my opinion, the notion of a hardboiled tone for sword-and-sorcery fiction is wrong-headed. This is the genre of Conan, not Sam Spade. The classic tales were typically written in lush, colorful, and often antique prose; the tone is exotic and strange, not terse and direct. However, there was an unacceptably high level of errors in usage in the stories here, such that I am forced to wonder if the editors are capable of distinguishing good writing from bad. Surely, the minimum requirement for fiction in any genre ought to be literate prose.
I can not fault the other three criteria listed, except to say they are not enough. Exotic, original worldbuilding, settings that live, wonders to excite the imagination—these are qualities all fantasy should strive for. Likewise that requirement Jones considers most basic: "a good tale with compelling characters." To this end, it would be good if the plot were not entirely predictable. And in the matter of characters, a hero needs to be something more than an invincible warrior, he needs to be a complete person with weaknesses as well as strengths; we need to be able to fear that he might fail, and to care if he falls. Nor would it hurt if the villains were occasionally more than one-dimensional.
As a goal, the manifesto of the New Edge movement is one that I applaud. Few things would please me more than to see a revitalization of the genre, a newborn sense of wonder, the fantastic reawakened in fantasy. The real question is whether Flashing Swords can live up to these goals. Can it deliver the stories, consistently?
Judging by the current issue, the answer is: Sort of. Maybe. Sometimes.