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Topics - Yora

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Links, Competitions and 'Stuff' / Review: Sword & Dark Magic
« on: September 29, 2014, 07:21:12 PM »
I've read the Sword & Sorcery anthology Swords & Dark Magic and made a review giving my thoughts on each of the stories.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

A few days ago I saw a comment somwhere that modern settings are inherently more grittier and morally ambivalent than fantasy worlds set in premodern settings because in the later everyone can swing around weapons and kill people without any real consequences. While I don't think that this is an inherent trait of premodern settings (many stories of "uncivilized" tribal societies revolve around murder trials, characters being on the run from their mistakes, and of course blood feuds), I can very much agree that the vast majority of fantasy fiction is indeed guilty of this.
A characters whole family being murdered is usually worth only a single sentence and then never mentioned again, enemy minions only have the possible fates of running away or being dead, most characters being instantly dead once they make contact with a blade, villains always need to be killed, and very often characters are completely fine with just killing every guard they encounter while sneaking into a castle. While there is always a tendency to dehumanize the enemy when you are fighting for your life, enemies in fantasy simply are not people. Even in big cities where there is an official town guard, the heroes can simply walk into any place and kill everyone. If they are ever confronted by the authorities at all, it usually comes down to "they were evil men" and they are free to go. Infamous example would be Star Wars, which spaceships nonwithstanding, otherwise works precisely along all the lines of fantasy. An entire planet gets annihilated, and apparently quite a major one, and one of the main characters loses almost everyone she had ever known. And 5 minutes later the whole incident is never mentioned again or appears to have any impact on anything. Nobody cares.
Outside of literature and movies, videogames are of course particularly bad, since the limitations of the medium don't allow for enemies to flee or the taking of prisoners. But also in roleplaying games, where the gamemaster could easily handle that, the default assumption is to just kill everyone. When you come up with a scenario and didn't think what would happen if the guards were to try to arrest the heroes, the natural instinct is to simply go "it's all fine" and let the players be on their way, rather than dealing with a whole side story of being arrested, put on trial, and possibly never getting back to the main story.

Sometimes killing without hesitation fits the character. In the world inside the head of Conan, there isn't anything that would make a man halt his hand and spare a life. For him, it's kill or be killed, no questions asked. Though even with such a hyperviolent and super-manly character, Howard made it quite clear that this is not normal. Pretty much everyone else is scared shitless of Conan because they know he kills first and doesn't ask questions at all. And unless he's cutting a path through freedom for himself, individual killings are often not glossed over. Conan always wins of course, but he is still struggling with his opponent. There are actual injuries and blood and Conan has to work for his victory. While it's still glorifying battle and killing, two men fighting to the death is treated as a major event. Conan enjoys the killing, but he is seeing his enemies as people like himself. They are not just a moving suit of armor. But that somehow seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

I don't really have a major point to make here, but I think it's an interesting observation that in a genre with such a high potential for violence, it is generally treated as something completely trivial. Yes, life may be harsh, nasty, and short in the middle ages, but not that nasty. People should still get upset about people they know getting killed and they should be affected by killing other people, at least in some way. But it's almost never mentioned at all. I don't think that's a conscious descison by most writer, but simply how it's always been done, so almost everyone keeps doing it. But does that excuse the issue, or is it maybe not even an issue at all?

Over the last two or three years, I've come to develop a great interest in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Located somewhere between what's now often reffered to as Heroic Fantasy and Dark Fantasy, it seems to have been fading into the background since a short boom of mostly rather trashy  movies in the early 80s. (Conan the Barbarian being the one noticable exception, and even that one is probably only really good if you know what you're looking for.) Interestingly, it seems to have made a recent comback in videogames. The Witcher, Dark Souls, Dragon Age 2, Skyrim, Bound by Flame and Heavenly Sword, just to name a few. Only after being familair with these did I discover that there's a really good comic series about Conan running since 2003 and still continuing. Four years ago, there was the anthology Swords and Dark Magic, but other than that there seems to be not much current literature that tries to aim at the genre, at least as far as I am aware.

Unlike most fantasy subgenres, Sword & Sorcery is relatively well defined. Fritz Leiber introduced it to refer to his own stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and included the stories of Robert Howards Conan as another great example of the genre, as he was staking it out. I think there's a really good article on what constitutes Sword & Sorcery as a genre here, and I agree with the three main points made there.
  • The protagonists are highly capable and qualified to deal with the threats they encounter and rely on a combination of offensive action and cunning trickery to defeat their foes.
  • The protagonists in some way exist and live outside of normal society. They may have fame, power, and connections, but they are always different from normal and respectable folk, even when among their own people. They may be wanderers or outcasts, or simply following an occuptation that is not part of normal social life.
  • The protagonists are motivated by their own benefit and do what they want to achieve their own goals. In the most basic form it might be for gold and for glory, but it might also be the simple drive to survive and the desire to save someone they care for. They almost never do anything out of a sense of duty and their loyalties shift depending on who they consider the best ally to get what they want for themselves.
There seems to be a popular notion that Sword & Sorcery needs to be dark, violent, with protagonists who are overall terrible people, but I think in most works this is not actually the case. There tends to be a general abscence of idealism and situations often get quite uncomfortable, but the hero can still be a hero, doing good things and directing his wrath at the actually guilty. Some call it nihilistic, but I think it is rather something quite existentialistic and postmodern. The world is not black and white, try to make the best of it as you can.

I've only read a couple of Sword & Sorcery books and always looking for new recommendations. I think I read all of the original Conan stories by Robert Howard, and while some of them are stronger than others, I think not a single one of them could be called weak. Both the description of the scenes and the pacing, which I consider very important in a story, are very well done and the plots are generally quite interesting as well.
I also read the two collections Swords and Deviltry and Swords against Death of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, and these ones I can not recommend at all. Descriptions are noticably lacking, pacing is poor, and the actual stories usually not interesting in any way. It's only two books, but from other people have told me about the others in reply to my criticisms, the other ones are not substentially different in this regard.

I am currently reading Sword and Dark Magic, which is much newer than the others that I mentioned, but I'm still not very far in, so I can't say too much about it yet.

Do you have other recommendations for the genre?

Writers' Corner / Little Point of View problem
« on: September 24, 2014, 04:57:23 PM »
I got some ideas for a couple of connected stories, and doing some preliminary planning, got two idea for approaching the issue of the narrative point of view, which unfortunately don't quite fit together completely.

Since I get a lot of my inspirations for storytelling from TV shows and videogames, I think I would be doing best to approach the narrative style from a similar perspective. The narrator simply describes what an outsider observer is seeing. The reader is basically watching everything happen while always looking right above the characters shoulder. The story does not go inside the mind of any character and the reader only sees and hears what the characters sees and hears. Communicating emotions by describing expressions could be a challenge in itself, but otherwise I quit like this approach.
The other thing I want to do is giving the reader only the information that the character has. General information about the greater world around the story, which is known to all the characters, is provided by the narrator, everything else is to be either spoken aloud or written down and the reader looks at it together with the character who finds the piece of text. I want to avoid the technique of jumping into other characters and especially the antagonists, to allow the reader to get a complete picture. If the protagonist is clueless and confused, than the reader is as well.

Now here is the problem I am already seeing. Since the view is always third person, there is no clear definition who is actually the protagonist if the story follows a group of two or three characters. And what happens when they are separated?

On the one hand, I want the reader to only have the same information as the character the story is currently following. But on the other hand, I don't want to be stuck with always following the same character. Do you have any ideas what I could do to make this still work?
One nice piece of advice I just read was that the point of view in a scene should usually be from the point of view of the character who has the most at stake. In this particular case, one solution would be to have both characters have their own stories while they are separated, but only telling the one that is the most interesting, or will have the most relevance later in the story. I've seen that done a couple of times and while it works, the effect was usually not that fantastic. If you have any ideas how to do something more creative with the situation, I would love to hear it.

Writers' Corner / A Dictionary of Magic
« on: September 24, 2014, 01:27:51 PM »
I don't recall it ever being a huge problem in any book I've read, but I think it's nice to know the original meaning of a word to better be able to chose which one is appropriate for a given situation. This is still very short, but please add any term you think would be a good addition to it and improve existing ones.

Arcane: from Latin arcanus; hidden, secret.

Astrology: from Greek aster and logia; "concerning the stars".

Augury: Interpreting the will of the gods by interpreting the flight of birds.

Conjuration: from Latin com- and jurare; taking an oath together, conspiring, making a pact.

Divination: from Latin divinatio; making a prophecy.

Esoteric: from Greek esotero; deeper inside, beloning to an inner circle.

Evocation: from Latin ex- and voco; "to call".

Incantation: from Latin in- and cantare, to sing; casting a spell through singing or recitation.

Mage, Magician: from Old Persian magus; a zoroastrian priest.

Mystic: from Greek mustikos (secret) and mustes (initiate); someone initiated into the secrets.

Necromancy: from Greek necros and manteia; devination involving the dead.

Occult: from Latin occulto; hidden, secret.

Wizard: from Middle English wys; a wise one.

Writers' Corner / So you got yourself a wizard. What does he do?
« on: September 23, 2014, 02:15:30 PM »
When writing fantasy, it's almost a given that there are wizard, mages, witches, sorcerers, and arcanists around somewhere. Often they are powerful advisors to kings, mighty rulers in their own right, or great villains with plans to conquer the world or send it into darkness. But mose cases of wizards actually "doing magic" that I've read don't really have much to do with these things. They shot lightning, kill with a touch, or turn into a giant bird and fly away. Which are all fine and cool, but that doesn't make them good at advising, ruling, or conquering. At least in my perception, such spells are treated more as a by-product of their arcane research; hand tricks they picked up along the way. But what do they actually do as their primary occupation?

While I was working out what abilities and limitations mages should have in my stories, I ended up with a lot of such tricks, but still pulling a blank on what would be the purpose of the study of magic, other than being able to shot lightning. Making magic a kind of mysticism, in which the mages try to learn more about themselves and achive harmony with the world as a whole does work quite well for my purposes, but I am wondering if there might be a lot more of untapped potential for what magic can contribute to a story.

What other uses for magic have you used in your stories or read in other works, than conjuring fire and lightning?

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