8 Great Resources for Writing Medieval Fantasy

I’ve had an epic fantasy series brewing in the back of my head for over a decade now.  I’ve got about 70,000 of a first draft of the first novel written, and though I’ve put it aside temporarily, I plan on returning to it after I’ve completed a few other projects I’m working on (three current works in progress, and counting).

I originally imagined it as a fairly straightforward “medieval”-style fantasy–knights on horseback, lords and ladies, etc.  While over the years it evolved into something much more unique (or so I like to think), much of the world’s social and political dynamics are rooted in my understanding of our world’s Middle Ages.

Much of that understanding can be attributed to two distinct but related sources: my wife, who studied the Middle Ages in college, and her substantial library of books on the subject, to which we have both added over the years.

As I’ve often seen writers and aspiring writers seeking guidance online for good research materials on this subject, I thought I’d share some of my own go-to resources.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1.  European Arms & Armour, by Charles Henry Ashdown

IG29969-1New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1967.

Sadly out of print, European Arms & Armour is an excellent survey of the subject of Western armament, ranging from the prehistoric to the advent of gunpowder (and slightly beyond).  It spends most of its time, though, discussing the Middle Ages proper and the weapons and armor that served the fighting men and women of Europe during this often-tumultuous period.  The New York Times, in 1967, called the book a “magnificent volume” with “much of the charge which belongs to historical romances[.]”

I was lucky enough to come across this tome, quite well preserved, in a second-hand book shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  It looks and smells like it may have spent the intervening decades between its publication and now in a dry but dusty basement, before falling into the hands of the bookshop owner from whom I happily acquired it.

Ashdown’s discussion of the development of arms and armor is simply and expertly presented, giving the reader a sense of the organic evolution from leather and bronze to mail and plate.  But perhaps most useful are the hundreds of engravings and photographs (black and white, unfortunately), complete with labels and terminology, that litter almost every other page of the book.

You should be able to find it used on Amazon, or perhaps in your local independent bookstore.

2.  The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Ewart Oakeshott

910q5zw1TNSRochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

Whereas Ashdown attempts to give a history of all European arms and armor, Oakeshott focuses on the most famous and pervasive of medieval weapons: the sword.

Originally published contemporarily with Ashdown in 1964, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry has found new life in digital printing and is still readily available through Amazon.

With photographs and hundreds of detailed illustrations by the author, this is the quintessential reference on the Western sword.  Indeed, Albion Swords uses Oakeshott as their primary reference guide for their functional, museum-quality recreations.  Invaluable for those who love the art of it, and want to make the sword a part of their story.

If you’re wondering what type of sword a person from a particular place and time might have used, this is the book for you.

3.  The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, by Shulamith Shahar

0415308518New York: Routledge, 1994.

A thorough and scholarly investigation into a subject much ignored in the study of the period, Shahar’s book is the first to look specifically at the role of women in medieval society.  She does so with a view toward a general and comprehensive discussion of all women, and in fact deliberately avoids discussing the ones that may spring immediately to mind: Joan of Arc, Matilda, etc.

She does so not only because, as she explains in the introduction, much has already been said of these singular and exceptional women, but because her intention was to shed light on women whose lives and positions had not been discussed.

Shahar herself is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Tel Aviv.  The book was translated into English by Chaya Galai.  The narrative approaches the subject rigorously, making no assumptions, and as such uncovers a wealth of contributions by, realities of, and life choices for women in the Middle Ages that is rivaled only by the insidiousness of their persecution by the Church as the centuries progressed.

An absolute must for anyone trying to write women in a medieval society (or its fantasy analog).

4.  Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, by Nichola Fletcher

9781466864405New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Nichola Fletcher, a goldsmith, deer farmer, and food writer, bookends her history of feasting with an anecdote about Charlemagne.  He had an asbestos tablecloth, or so the story (almost certainly apocryphal) goes, which he would dramatically throw into the fire at the end of a feast.  The fire would burn off the crumbs, leaving the impervious asbestos intact, a magic trick sure to impress the majesty of the Emperor upon his guests.

What this book does quite well, with a joyful, engaged tone, is describe the food and festivities involved in history’s most extravagant and legendary meals.  The “golden age” of feasting, as she calls it, is of course the Middle Ages, and Fletcher’s description of dishes and entertainments from this age would make even George R. R. Martin blush.  Great fodder for descriptive passages and general scene setting.

5.  The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, by Stephen O’Shea

314653New York: Walker & Company, 2000.

The history of the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a history of Christian heresies, the greatest of which was the Cathar heresy, which led to a series of crusades called by Pope Innocent III.

The Cathars were an ascetic heretical sect most active in Northern Italy and Southern France.  They were dualists and Gnostic revivalists, believing in a binary godhead with good and evil gods.  The good god, the god of the New Testament, created the spiritual realm, while the evil god of the Old Testament created the physical.  Hence, physical was bad.  Hence ascetism.  The Catholic Church didn’t like this, so much, particularly the part about the evil force–who they interpreted as Satan–being equal in power to God.  You can guess where this is going.

O’Shea makes it riveting, however, and by focusing on this central conflict within Christendom, identifies a defining theme of the Middle Ages: dogmatic strife.

6.  The First Crusade: A New History, by Thomas Asbridge

81YzsRePgnLNew York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

No conflict–perhaps no event–encapsulates the medieval mind so well as the First Crusade.  Those who took up the cross, a diverse and only tentatively allied force led by five great princes, did so in response to a call by Urban II that stood in the face of a thousand years of Christian dogma: to launch an unprovoked war to reclaim the Holy Land by blood.

The First Crusade has always been the most interesting to me, and I particularly enjoy Asbridge’s discussion of the philosophies and cultural and religious values that led to what amounted to a craze among the nobility of Europe: to take penitent vows and seek their fortune in the foreign east.

Combining a loose interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory and the incitement of racial and religious hatred of Muslims who held the Holy City of Jerusalem in their “unclean” hands, Urban ushered in an era of Church-sanctified violence that would not end for centuries.  This book is a fascinating exploration of medieval thought and the desperation with which the Latins pursued their salvation–both physical and spiritual.

7.  The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

a1eobexixl-_sl1500_New York: Viking Penguin, 2009.

The subtitle says it all: illuminating the dark ages.

Referring to the years between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne as the “dark ages” has long been frowned upon by medieval scholars, and Wickham’s thesis runs with that idea.  Rather than a long period of barbarity and intellectual darkness, the early middle ages were “critical to the formation of the European identity.”

This one is a particularly relevant read for fantasy authors, I think, because it deals with the real world history behind one of the more common fantasy tropes: life in the aftermath of empire; people living in the ruins, physical and societal, of a greater, more accomplished civilization.

Wickham’s thesis goes a long way toward demonstrating that rather than the abrupt, dramatic cataclysm that exists in the public imagination, the fall of the Western Empire and the underrated survival of Byzantium were in fact part of a more gradual shift from a purely Roman identity to the beginnings of what would eventually become modern Europe.

8.  The Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman

9780816030217-usNew York: Fall River Press, 2007.

This is a fun one: a glossary of words of medieval origin and/or importance.  Etymology nerds won’t be pleased by the lack of sources or derivation, but given that Ms. Cosman was a professor and director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College of New York, I think we can trust her.

I’ve found this one useful for general inspiration and worldbuilding.  A great coffee table book just to pick up and read at random, the subjects range from the quotidian to the serious to the downright lascivious.

Here are a few favorites (with cross-references in small caps):

fabliaux
Lewd tales depicting ebullient philanderers, bed-hopping with exuberance.  Stock characters in dramatic situations include the senex amans (old lover) cuckolded by his lusty young wife and her sexually athletic lover; the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) whose boasting undoes him; lascivious clerical lovers with willing women congregants; and bold bawdy wives of sexually senescent men. fabliaux women oppose the idealized domna of the eva-ave antithesis.

stew
A fishpond, bath, spa, or whorehouse.  “The Stews” was a name for fourteenth-century London’s red light district, coexisting with the title cock’s lane.

yale
A mythic heraldic beast, gracing the coat of arms of England and many a bestiary.  An animal the size of a horse with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jowls, each of the yale’s extravagantly long horns can adjust as battle requires; at need, one horn can point forward, the other behind.

These are only a few of the books my wife and I have on our Middle Ages shelves, and for everyone I selected to talk about here there were three I considered in its stead.  But these eight are books that have proved helpful and enlightening to me.  I hope you find them so.


TDS New 3My current novel, The Doktor’s Spyglass, is a fantasy noir adventure being serialized for free on Wattpad.  Check it out and vote if you like what you read!

Comments Now Open On ‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’

I’m not sure how many people are reading The Doktor’s Spyglass here on my website, as opposed to on Wattpad, but I noticed recently that for some reason I hadn’t enabled comments on the individual chapter pages here.

That has now been fixed.  If you’re reading the book here on jamesdcormier.com, comments are now open on all parts of The Doktor’s Spyglass.  

Wherever you’re reading it, I want to know what you think!

Anatomy of a Book Cover

I mentioned in a post yesterday that some book covers require several attempts before the design is right.  One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you have complete control over your book cover, where it is sold, and the ability to change that cover if you so desire.  With ebooks and print-on-demand publishing, there are stockpiles of unsold copies to contend with, so there’s no real reason not to change something immediately if you need to.  In some cases, you can even have Amazon update copies of your books after they’re sold.

That said, some self-publishing platforms are more formal than others, and people who pay money to buy your book on Amazon expect professional quality.  While we should always strive for that level of finished quality, there’s definitely a place, and a market, for a more transparent writing process.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re aware that I’m currently publishing a new novel serially on Wattpad.  It’s called The Doktor’s Spyglass, and it’s (hopefully) an entertaining mixture of epic fantasy, steampunk, and detective noir.  I’ve often referred to it as Locke Lamora meets Sherlock Holmes.  (You can judge for yourself whether I’m making good on these promises by reading it, for free, at Wattpad.com.  All you have to do to read anything on the site is create a login.)

Wattpad’s a fun venue for a number of reasons, but it excels as a proving ground.  Things are a little more informal, and reader interaction on each new section or chapter is an important part of the experience.  Whether you’re there solely to use it as a tried and true platform to publish your story episodically or are looking for beta readers to give you feedback on your writing, Wattpad is a good place to be.

While you absolutely still need a head-turning cover to do well on Wattpad, the informality and iterative nature of the website mean that it’s far more acceptable to experiment.  Which is why I didn’t hesitate to test a few different covers for The Doktor’s Spyglass.  Rather than keep the process a secret, I decided to try different covers as inspiration struck and see what, if any, response the got from readers.

The first version of the cover was deliberately minimalist.  The novel is a detective story at heart, and I wanted readers to think of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett when they looked at the cover.

The Doktors Spyglass

The design deliberately borrows from the stylish, serviceable covers of classic noir paperbacks.  The artwork is monotone and merely hints at what the story might be about.  The text is the real focus of this cover.  Since the novel features a steampunk-like setting, I chose a Victorian typeface for the titles.  I thought the opposing justification of the title and my name gave it an informal touch, the kind of thing that says, “pulp.”

The top margin is deliberately larger than the bottom, to prevent the title from obscuring the burning tower at the top of the illustration.

The image itself is composed of a couple of heavily modified licensed stock images.  The amber color scheme, as you’ll see, is the one thing that runs through all versions of the cover.  The orange hue of amber has a specific connection to the story.

The Doktor’s Spyglass is still only starting to attract readers, but I was never certain that this was the right direction to go with the cover, particularly on Wattpad.  After the story had been running for a few weeks, I decided it was time to revisit the cover.

It occurred to me that the cover I had was possibly too dull or “literary,” for lack of a better term, for the book’s intended audience.  It looks a little like a paperback you’d pick up on one of those “Summer Reading List” tables at Barnes & Noble.  At the end of the day, I write to entertain, not to craft literary scripture.

I wanted the second version of the cover to make the book look like something you want to read, the type of eye-catching cover you’d see on an end-cap and just have to pick up.

TDS New 2

As you can see, this one’s a bit more engaging.  The layout is centered, and the addition of Captain Steampunk Goggles Man and the unmistakable silhouette of a 1940s-ish detective definitely make clear that this is genre fiction.  Overall, it looks a lot more like a science fiction or fantasy novel, and a lot less like Penguin Classic.

I kept the font and the underlying background image, because I thought they still captured the essence of the setting.  The city of Oridos is an ancient city that has seen better days.  In the distant past it was the site of famous battles and fantastical ordeals, but these days it’s a foggy, gaslit mess that belches toxins into the atmosphere and keeps the rich and the poor nice and separated.  I always meant The Doktor’s Spyglass to be one of those stories where the setting, the city, was almost as much of a character as the characters themselves, and I felt it was important to give some sense of that on the cover.  I liked the bleak look of this painting.

I did see a noticeable uptick in reads after changing the cover.  I have no way of knowing if that was directly related to the cover image or not, but given that Wattpad uses your book cover to represent your book all over the website, without any immediate synopsis or other information, I think it’s safe to say it had something to do with it.

That being said, there were some things that bugged me about this cover.  I always felt like I left it a little unfinished; that it was a bit amateur.  Captain Steampunk struck me as being a bit too on the nose, and the silhouette of Irik Thijis, the main character, never looked exactly right.  There was too much contrast; it looks pasted onto the background (which it is), not like it’s a part of it.  The original idea was to make it look like Thijis was cut out of the city itself, like he was as much a mystery as anything else, but I don’t think I accomplished that.

So the other night I gave it another shot, using some of the same elements but starting from scratch with most of it.  Version 3.0 is the best yet, and the only one I’ve yet felt completely happy with.

TDS New 3

Version 2.0 had obscured the burning tower part of the background image, which I didn’t like.  Thinking back, I realized that of the original background, that eerily burning citadel is the only thing that really stands out as being fantasy in any way, and it also evoked the feel of the book more than any other part of the cover.  Like any good noir story, The Doktor’s Spyglass features its fair share of tragedy, destruction, and death, and the burning tower represents that in a dramatic way.

The only parts of the original cover that remain are the tower and the silhouette of Thijis, which has been fleshed out and detailed a bit to help it blend into its surroundings.  The ragged edge to his coat also indicates that he’s been through some shit.  The object in his hand is, I think, more clearly a gun (if perhaps a slightly alien silhouette–this is a fantasy realm, after all.  They don’t have Glocks).

A significant portion of the book takes place underground, in the Oridosi Undercity, and it occurred to me that the cover ought to convey that somehow.  I liked the chthonic feeling the surrounding arches gave the scene, and they certainly convey “fantasy” to the reader.  Another new element is the amber sea and the spots of abstract light at the bottom of the image, which look like they’re flooding the chamber.  This is a direct reference to the main magical element of the novel, a magical plane called the Phiros, which is often described as an “amber sea.”

Finally, I chose a new font.  While still clearly Victorian, its dramatic design, particularly when coupled with the amber stone pattern overlay and a little embossing, definitely has a more “fantasy” feel to it.

Every cover I design is a learning process, just as every day I spend writing is.  I’m happy with what I’ve done with the latest version of this cover, but who knows how I’ll feel a month from now?  The great thing about a service like Wattpad and the people that use it is that they’re all about trying new things.

Let me know what you think about any or all of these covers in the comments.  Which one do you like the best?  Or do they all suck?

7 Out of 10 #SPFBO Bloggers Have a Positive Opinion of Self-Publishing

Fantasy Faction asked the other nine book bloggers participating in Mark Lawrence’s Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off whether the competition had changed their opinion on self-publishing, and the answers were somewhat surprising.

Seven out of the nine websites to whom Fantasy Faction’s G.R. Matthews (himself a competitor in the contest with his novel The Stone Road) posed the question said that their opinion had either changed for the positive or not changed at all, because they always appreciated self-published fiction.  The tenth participating website is Fantasy Faction itself, managed and edited by Marc Aplin, who has historically been skeptical of self-publishing.  In a blog post October 2, Aplin wrote that while self-published fiction did appear to have gotten better in the five years since he first read any, the field still seemed dominated by amateurish, unpolished work.  He left open the question of whether there was any self-published fantasy out there that could hold its own with the titans of the genre, one presumably to be answered by the final phase of the contest.

Of the other two bloggers whose conclusions about self-publishing were negative, one, Ria from Bibliotropic, took a stance similar to Fantasy Faction’s.  Ria explained that while she did find some decent work, the glut of poor work outweighed it, and she did not intend on seeking out more self-published work in the near future.

The other negative response came from Steve from Elitist Book Reviews, who said that his initial impression of self-published books–that they were “made up in large part by garbage”–was only confirmed by the SPFBO.

I found two things surprisingly encouraging about these responses.  First and foremost: more than two-thirds of the participating reviewers either already appreciated or came to appreciate the place of self-published fiction in the book market because of the SPFBO.  That’s a big number.  In Congress, that’s called a supermajority.  That’s most of the people involved.

Second, of the three websites that were negative (overall) on self-publishing, only one (Elitist Book Reviews) was outright dismissive of it.  Both Bibliotropic and Fantasy Faction felt that while self-published fiction was mostly bad, there were decent books to be found and that the ratio of good to bad may be changing.

It’s also important to note that all three of the bloggers whose reaction was negative on the whole said that they expected to find some good work out there, which is an encouraging thought.

Thanks to G.R. Matthews for putting this poll together, and to all the hard-working bloggers for their time and participation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Fantasy Faction founder Marc Aplin as the author of the article in question, “Has the SPFBO Changed Your Opinion of Self-Pubbed Books.”  The article was in fact written by G.R. Matthews, author of The Stone Road and contributor at Fantasy Faction.

‘The Doktor’s Spyglass’ Is Now Available on Jamesdcormier.com

I’ve updated the book page for The Doktor’s Spyglass so that you can now read it natively right on this website, in addition to being able to read it on Wattpad.

I’ll upload each new chapter to jamesdcormier.com at the same time I post them to Wattpad, so that readers will now have a choice of formats.

Wattpad is free to use, but you have to create a login first, and I figured there might be some potential readers out there who’d rather not have to figure out a new app.  So now you can get it right here!

The Broken Empire

3cover2

Mark Lawrence writes grimdark epic fantasy the way Wes Anderson writes dialogue: with a wink and a nod.  The wink is intense and the nod grave, bespeaking a hideous sense of irony underlying the story.  It keeps you turning pages.  This isn’t to say that he can’t be deadly serious–the three novels of The Broken Empire trilogy are some of the darkest, goriest fantasy I’ve read–or that he takes his subject matter lightly–his work questions the very nature of humanity and its tendency toward violence, drags its characters through the latrine pits of the human condition, and brings them out with all the baggage you’d expect.  The horror might be knowing and darkly funny, but it’s never absurd.  Absurdity connotes uselessness, and everything that happens in these books is useful to someone, if only someone’s inner demon.  But for every horrific act his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, commits, there’s an unspoken meta-textual question.  Dare I? the author asks.  (He dares.)  Do you want me to, dear reader? (NO!  Don’t!  Yes yes yes yes yes do it, please do it.)

The first two books of the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns, end with explicit challenges from the narrator, who tells the story in the first person: you want reasons, come take them.  You don’t like what I’m doing, come stop me.  It’s a powerful bit of dialogue, almost Socratic in its directness.  Jorg Ancrath is the ultimate antihero–the villain, set not only on revenge but on acquiring power for its own sake, whom you root for even when he’s committing atrocities.  For every person that stopped reading one of Lawrence’s books because they were too graphic or shocking, there were three others who found themselves inevitably drawn in by the sheer, bold humanity of Jorg’s voice.  Evil is much more challenging to us when it’s self-aware: Jorg knows he’s a sinner, knows he’ll always take blood and chaos over peace and order whenever the choice is presented to him, sometimes because it’s necessary and sometimes simply because it’s his nature.

One thing that makes it all so much fun is the fact that Lawrence’s prose proves more than equal to the task at hand: these are some of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent memory.  How can you not love a man who can write “The biggest lies we save for ourselves,” or:

“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.”

The fact that the Hundred Kingdoms are presented as a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of future Europe, set a thousand years after a massive nuclear war, only serves to underline the point Lawrence seems to be making.  Men are violent, apt to destroy themselves.  Destruction comes in cycles.  Sometimes it takes a violent man to end a destructive cycle.

To focus too much on the violence of the story would be to miss the point, however: the final choice Jorg makes in Emperor of Thorns, however violent in its own way, is fundamentally different from all of the others.  It’s just as self-aware, but entirely unselfish.  And it’s what ultimately makes him a hero, despite his tarnished soul.

I loved these books, loved the twisted future they portray, loved the extremity of the characters and the surprising magics they wield, loved the ghosts that haunt them and unchanging humanity at the heart of it all.  Read them.  I dare you.

Alternate Historical Accuracy

Writing a post over on Evil Toad Press about historical accuracy in genre fiction got me thinking: when it comes to historical accuracy in my own writing, I tend to research what’s accurate in any relevant, given time or society for the sole purpose of deviating from it.  I find this practice somewhat curious.  Why make things harder?  Why pull apart the guts of something if you don’t have to?  I suppose the answer is, because it turns me on.

By way of example, I’ve got an epic fantasy series on the back burner.  I’ve written about 70,000 words of the first book.  In planning out the world and its people, I did a lot of thinking about the nature of technology, how it emerges, how it evolves, and how it affects society.  The world of Children of the Taking is approximately equivalent in terms of general technology level to the Renaissance in general and the 15th Century in particular, with one major exception: this world has not, as of yet, discovered gunpowder.  Unlike so many other fantasy authors, however, who eschew firearms for their perceived inapplicability to the common reader’s notion of what constitutes a “medieval” or “high fantasy” setting, the people of my world don’t lack gunpowder because it’s stylistically inconvenient.  They lack gunpowder because the components of gunpowder simply don’t exist on their world.  What does exist is an element of equivalent or greater power that they are only beginning to discover how to use as a weapon when the series opens, a weapon that will change their world for better or worse.

The consequences of that are potentially enormous, and thinking through the logic of it has been difficult.  It involves a lot of storytelling and worldbuilding–why haven’t they discovered it yet?  Who made the discovery, and how?  How is it used, how is it monetized, and how does its introduction affect the warfare and economies of the nations of the world?  Some of my answers to these questions are shortcuts, I’ll admit: they haven’t discovered it because the age they characters live in is essentially postapocalyptic.  Their ancestors knew of it, though their use of it was different; only now, after a long dark age of intellectual stagnation, have a few luminaries started tinkering again.

So maybe it’s more accurate to say I’m interested in the bones of history, the dynamics of it, more than the actual account of history itself.  As fascinating as the real world history of firearms in combat is to research, for some reason it’s more fun for me to take the concept and play with it in my own sandbox.  Which is just another way of saying: making everything a lot harder for myself than it has to be.  Which is kind of the story of my life.  But that’s another story.

Don’t Drown the Meat: Worldbuilding and Mark Lawrence

Fantasy writers (and science fiction writers, to a lesser extent, since they are less often in the position of starting entirely from scratch) worry a lot about worldbuilding.  It’s really the most unique thing about writing in this genre.  In addition to crafting character, plot, theme, and all of the other various parts that make up a novel, you’re in the position of actually creating an entirely new world.

The problem lies in building your world while also preserving the quality of your story and your prose–introducing the reader to the exotic while still focusing on what’s really important: character.  In the end, the world must serve the characters, or you’re doing it wrong.  As much as we’d all like to self-indulgently nerd out over the details of our world’s history or the intricacies of our super-creative, ultra-unique new magic system, ultimately it’s all for naught if the story and the characters that drive it get lost in the confusion.

I just finished reading Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, the first novel of a fantasy trilogy in which the author accomplishes the task of balancing worldbuilding with character and story quite well–which is to say, the former is used quite conservatively, and only when it adds flavor to the latter.

By necessity, I’m going to have to go into some spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here.  Otherwise, see you after the jump.

Continue reading

What is Swordpunk?

This guy looked pretty swordpunk to me.
This guy looked pretty swordpunk to me.

So I sat down to write this post, thinking that, aside from a few scattered references found in the darker corners of the Internet (such as somebody’s reading list on Goodreads), I had pretty much invented the term “Swordpunk.”  Or at least, was the first writer to consciously and self-proclaimedly apply it to any of my work.  I was wrong.  Fantasy author G. Derek Adams, author of Spell/Sword, beat me to the punch almost two years ago. His inaugural post on the topic is funny, and it rambles a bit, but I think the core point he makes is this:

I think the fear that fantasy writers have is that if they don’t reinvent the wheel, they won’t be taken seriously. Like Tad Williams is going to roll up and revoke their Fantasy License. [I’m imagining him in a lime green golf cart and wearing a jaunty scarf. Are you imagining it that way? Just me? Okay.]

[…]

When I have a hero step forth and raise his sword, I don’t want to try to sell you on how he’s different than the inumerable sword-slingers in the genre. I want you to think of them. I want you to think of Sturm Bright-blade, Simon Mooncalf, Logen the Bloody-Nine, Brienne of Tarth, Lancelot, Garet Jax, Neville Longbottom, Reepicheep, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter and Conan the Barbarian, himself. I want you to think of them all. I want to connect to that resonance, that legacy of character.

I recently finished the first draft of the YA post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel I’ve been working on, and during the break between finishing the draft and doing my first edit, I went back to an earlier project I had started a few years ago.  The story started out as nothing more than an entertaining diversion for myself.  I was working on my epic fantasy at the time (which is still in progress), which is my attempt to do just what Adams is rebelling against in the article: to reinvent the wheel a bit, to write something that’s different from everything else.  It’s a project that’s close to my heart and which I take as seriously as anything I’ve written.  Sometimes too seriously.  That being said, after getting around 30,000 words into the first book, I needed a break.  So I sat down, opened up a new Word document, and started writing.

It was a freewriting exercise, essentially, and I did it according to two arbitrarily imposed rules: (1) I would write a fantasy story that was entirely self-indulgent, i.e., was about what I found cool and nothing else and wasn’t trying to be original; and (2), I would consciously try to avoid editing myself in any way as I wrote.  The result was The Akkian Mass, the first chapter of which is available for free on this site.

It was probably the most straight up fun writing I’ve ever done.  It taught me a lesson about writing in general, too, one that others had tried to impress upon me but that I only fully learned on my own: you can’t censor yourself, at least on your first draft.  You need to put what’s in your head on the page without thinking about how anyone else will respond to it.  So I sat there and geeked out, and enjoyed the hell out of it.

Swordpunk definitely has boob armor, historical accuracy, sexism, and effectiveness be damned.
Swordpunk definitely has boob armor, historical accuracy, sexism, and effectiveness be damned.

Coming back to it recently, I immediately got excited about it again, for similar reasons.  Why shouldn’t I just finish this, I asked myself?  Turn it into a stand alone sword and sorcery novel and just publish it and see if anyone shares my sick, nerdy glee in the masturbatory quality of it?  So that’s my plan, as of now.  Since I wrote it, and more so lately, the question of how to market it has been percolating in the back of my mind.  The word that kept reappearing was “Swordpunk.”

The tradition of adding “-punk” to the end of a word to create a new subgenre of SFF started, obviously, with cyberpunk.  Wikipedia has a great summary of the subgenres or “derivatives” that sprang from it here.

It’s hard to define cyberpunk and its subgenres explicitly, particularly since they don’t all have a lot in common.  To synthesize as best I can, however, in my experience cyberpunk, steampunk, clockpunk, etc., all share two primary things: (1) a focus on some form of technology or magic; and (2), a generally contrarian, “punk” point of view.

Lawrence Person noted this in a now-famous quote: “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”

So what, then, is swordpunk?  Here’s my definition:

swordpunk
noun

A subgenre of fantasy that combines established tropes of the traditional Sword & Sorcery subgenre and the newly established “grimdark” movement with a self-aware focus on indulging the existing passions of established fantasy fans, particularly in regard to character, action, magic, weaponry, and setting.

This would be fine, too, though.
This would be fine, too, though.

In other words, swordpunk is meta as fuck.  It’s writing that is going to appeal to readers in two different, but complementary ways: first, to new readers, as indulgent, light story-telling that focuses more on entertaining the reader than on literary merit, and (2), for established fans of the genre, as self-aware quasi-satire that deliberately has fun with the fact that it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.

Swordpunk is about badass adventurers, powerful wizards, scantily clad people, sick fantasy swords and armor, quippy sidekicks, scary, evil enemies, and profitable dungeon-crawling.

Which is definitively not to say that it should be in any way backwards in terms of gender roles, sexual orientation, etc.  The swordpunk I want to write and to read will have as many badass women as men, and the characters won’t care who they’re fucking as long as they’re fucking somebody. 

Above all, however, swordpunk should be fun.

What do you think?  What would you include in your definition of swordpunk?  What does the term mean to you, if anything?