Sneak Preview of ‘Karthanas the Lesser’

Here’s a free preview of Karthanas the Lesser, the swordpunk novel I’m working on right now.  Comments and criticisms more than welcome!


The morning they took ship across the channel to Mesende Yor, Louvhena came to him in his rooms at the capital.  House Kinnd kept a residence in Lansium, a small palace on the mouth of the Renna, where it led out into Lansium Bay.  He had slept surprisingly well the night before and was enjoying his breakfast with a savor that he should have known was too good to last.

He hadn’t spoken to her since that night in her chambers: not the following morning, not over the next three days, not during the ensuing two weeks of travel between Vinerran and Lansium.  Louvhena had ridden closed up in a carriage.  Karth had been happy to ride with the house guard.  He ignored her during the welcome feast at the forum, and she cut him dead when Kantel made his address to the Provost and the gathered Senat.  It was an impressive game, on both their parts, he thought, though Louvhena would never have admitted she was involved in anything so petty.

The look on her face was mild, almost contrite—or so one less familiar with her might have believed.  Karth suddenly lost interest in his eggs and sausage and poured himself a glass of wine.  He did not add water.

“Karthanas,” she said.  He swallowed some wine and wondered, for what felt like the thousandth time, just what the hell he was doing here.

“Still here,” he said, the wine around in his glass.  He didn’t invite her to sit down.

“You leave today,” she said.

“I’d remembered, thanks.”

She made a harsh, cutting sound with her mouth and the mask fell away.  Louvhena was known for many things.  Patience was not one of them.

“That was short-lived,” said Karth.

“What was?” asked Louvhena.

“For a moment, I thought you might have come here to wish me well.”

“I did,” she said.  “Your insolence brings out the worst in me, Karth.”  She so rarely used his nickname that the statement took him by surprise.  Was it unintentionally honest?  Insolence was a trait he cultivated like grapes: he thought making wine with them was enough, but he never thought of the hangover.

“I’ve come to expect no better of you.  The worst in me seems to be your favorite side, though I’ve offered you the best.  Many times.”

Her words shattered his line of thought.  Whatever inclination he’d had to reconsider his own part in their relationship, such as it was, withered on the vine.  He looked at her, stern and cold, and clenched his teeth.  She’d worn a gown that managed to be both imperious and alluring, a soft creamy material draped over her breasts and hips and strapped with ribbon to cling in all the right places.

Anger, Karth found, was a destroyer of obstacles.  Under the cool influence of reason he felt only disgust for his mother and the response she expected from him.  The fact that she sometimes successfully inspired that response, the heavy-breathing lust that drove his mind into his cock and made him want to own her perfect body, normally kindled a shame so deep that he wanted to scourge himself with thorns.

But Louvhena inspired rage, also.  And under its spell, at times like these, that stifled, shameful desire broke free of its enclosure and flared to life.  Fueled, maybe, by the heat behind his eyes, he saw an image of himself tearing her dress to shreds and bending her over the balustrade on the balcony outside his window.  He felt could feel the soft white flesh of her breasts in his rough hands, felt himself twisting them cruelly, looking down as he parted her buttocks with—

Karthanas stood up quickly, shading his eyes with a shaking hand.  His boot caught the edge of his chair and almost toppled it, but the back of it hit the wall and sent its gilt wooden legs slamming back down onto the tiled floor.

“I hate what you do to me,” he said, swallowing.  His eyes never left the remains of his breakfast.  “I hate it.”

“I love you, Karth.  I’ve only ever wanted love in return.”

“No.  You want worship.”  Louvhena shook her head and turned slightly to look out the window.

“Love is worship, Karthanas,” she said at last.  “Hate is worship, too.  If I cannot have your love, I will accept your hate.  It will bring us closer, whether you want it or not.”  Karth gritted his teeth, but stopped himself from responding.

She looked at him for a long moment, then clapped her hands slightly.  The door to his chamber opened, and Karth narrowed his eyes in sudden concern, but only Sevensin entered, carrying a long parcel wrapped in black cloth.  Closing the door behind him, he nodded once to Karth and then presented the parcel to Louvhena, bowing over it.

She unfolded the black fabric delicately, as if some long, fragile infant lay inside.  Karth couldn’t see what it was, at first, but then she lifted it free and Sevensin stepped away.

Kindavyr gleamed in the soft morning light, its blade the polished silver of a mountain lake beneath a winter sunrise.

The sword was unsheathed, and Karth was tempted to make a crack about his mother bringing a naked blade into his room, but kept his mouth shut.  The blade had that effect.  Not for nothing was it the sword of their house, of House Kinnd, the peerage his mother held.  There were a lot of things caught up in that weapon that Karth would have preferred to let alone.  When Kullarno died he was happy to see it returned to its box in the family vault; a tangible relief almost overwhelmed him when he realized Louvhena wasn’t going to immediately offer it to him.

But there was disappointment, as well, which had undoubtedly been her intention all along.  Desire.  Just as the desire for her body was supposed to overwhelm his sense, his desire for the glory of a sword and the power of title that came with it was supposed to make him kneel before her and accept her blessing, accepting with it the burden of loving Louvhena el’Kinnd and being party to continuing her line into the wider world.

He wanted it.  He’d always wanted it.  Since he’d first seen it as a child, since Kullarno and he had first snuck into the vault to gaze at it as teens, and especially since their mother presented it to his brother, the gift of her trust, her belief, the gift she had never even deigned to give their father.  He wanted it and hated himself for wanting it.  And now she was offering it to him.

You are a demon witch, mother.  The lord of the underworld himself could learn a thing or two from Louvhena, daughter of Kinnd.

She walked toward him, across the open space of his chamber to where he stood by the window, and presented it to him hilt first.  She held the blade in her hands in such a way that if he wanted to he could take it and slash through her fingers and breast in one mighty swipe, slashing all of the confusing tangle of emotions she inspired in one stroke.  The message was clear, but she spoke anyway, to remove any shadow of doubt.

“Accept it, or kill me,” said Louvhena.  “The choice is yours.  But it is a choice that you will have to make, my son.  I grow tired of this game of ours.  I suspect you are tired as well.  Take it.  There is nothing easier than to take it.”  She tilted it slightly, and the pommel caught the light.

His hand found it and he took it from her, careful not to cut the delicate skin of her palms.  He held it up before him, the impressive length of it gleaming and perfect.  The grip felt like it was made to fill his hand, the curling quillons elegant in their utility.  Then he saw his face in its mirrored blade, the fuller marking a shadowed line that split the vision in two.  His breath caught, and time seemed to stop.

Then reality returned to him and he threw the sword to the floor with a loud clatter.  Sevensin gasped dramatically, and Karth had the passing satisfaction of seeing genuine surprise on his mother’s beautiful, deadly face before he stepped over Kindavyr and walked out.

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?