There was a certain class of writing that flourished in the early twentieth century, predominantly in North America. Pulp Fiction was so called because of the cheap nature of the paper used by the magazines that were its publishers. Topics ranged from western, true crime, romance to the first sword and sorcery epics.
It was on these pages that Philip Marlow first appeared from the pen of Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard brought Conan the Barbarian to life, and a variety of well-known authors and lesser lights toiled for pennies a word. While the majority of the stuff written on that cheap paper was highly forgettable, they did give birth to significant genres of popular literature.
Without those magazines we would probably not see shelves lined with Harlequin Romances, Westerns, Mystery Novels, or the majority of today’s Science Fiction titles. Writers like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and others all got their starts writing for these pages. In fact, even with the heyday of magazine fiction long gone there still persists a good market for Science Fiction stories in that format.
Of all the subcategories of Science Fiction/Fantasy out there, the one that probably owes the biggest debt to the magazines is “Sword and Sorcery”. Home to the indomitable Conan The Barbarian series, this genre is characterized by its straightforward plot lines, two-dimensional characters, and simplistic themes. Action, Action, Action, is what thy are all about.
There is usually a stalwart hero, more often then not an outsider, who is possessed of the characteristics of Rousseau’s noble savage. While the soft, corrupt, civilized men fail around him, he is able to overcome obstacles and defeat impossible odds. At some point in his adventures he will have to overcome a monster or two, and defeat some sort of sorcery. If he’s lucky there will be a lithesome woman or two along the way to be freed, who will show their undying gratitude.
Now before the storm of protest starts blowing out server lines I know that was a highly pejorative assessment of the style. In recent years authors have been able to elevate these basic elements into stories that are both gripping and intelligent. Far removed from the simplistic formula of yesterday, they offer a far less guilt-ridden pleasure than their predecessors.
In a nod to women’s liberation, gone are the days of scantily clad temple girls waiting to be rescued and ravaged. Plots have evolved beyond man kills monster, slays evil wizard, and steals gold, and characters are more than one-dimensional. But the basic premise of action, action and more action still remains.
One does not go to Sword and Sorcery looking for deep intellectual meanings. You go for the pleasure of reading a well-written story, interesting characters, and for fun. Recently I have had the good fortune to come across a series of books that exemplifies all that can be good about this genre.
British author James Barclay’s series of books about a mercenary band called The Raven is divided into two parts, with each part comprised of three books. The Chronicles of the Raven is made up of Dawnthief, Noonshade, and Nightchild.
At the outset of the Chronicles, when we first meet the Raven, they have been together for ten years as a unit, working for whomever will pay their way. In the midst of a battle, they are about to encounter two beings who bring about a change in both their lives and their world, Balaia. One is a 120 foot-long dragon and the other a mage. The first is in possession of an amulet that the second desires in order to piece together an ancient spell.
After using the Raven to ensure his successful securing of the amulet, the mage reveals the threat their world is under that requires this spell to be cast. Thus the adventure begins. At first it seems simple enough, recover the elements needed, go into the heart of the enemy’s stronghold, cast a spell which has never been done before, because it risks destroying the world, and hope to survive. But this turns out to be the easy bit.
The three books of the Chronicles deals with the events surrounding the casting of the Dawntheif spell and establishing the Raven as the doers of the impossible. By the end of Nightchild they have been through so much that they are ready to give it all up and retire. But the world has other plans for them.
Legends Of The Raven’s three books, Elfsorrow, Shadowheart, and Demonstorm has them being forced out of retirement on three separate occasions in order to attempt rescues of either one of their own or the world. They are older and injured now, with more to lose in the way of families and loved ones. But there is no one else who can do what they do.
But everything begins with the casting of the Dawnthief spell. It sets in motion the series of events that will see The Raven criss-cross two continents, befriend dragons, betrayed by allies, befriend enemies, overcome a plague that threatens to wipe out the elves, (the majority of elves who live on a separate continent are like a cross between ninjas and Greenpeace) and cross dimensional boundaries in an attempt to save their world’s soul from the grasp of demons.
It will also see the birth of an ancient magic which combines the elements of the four disparate teachings in their world, but has the unfortunate side effect of being almost too strong for any mage to handle without their mind being fried. Sound exciting? Well it is, but it’s more then just simple sword and sorcery, although there’s plenty of that too.
Mr. Barclay manages to elevate a rather bored genre into something new. His characters far exceed the usual cookie-cutter types we meet in these books, real moral dilemmas are examined. Villains aren’t what they seem (neither are allies) and things are never just black and white. It’s sword and sorcery set in a world similar to ours, with the difference being that the consequences of your actions end up biting you in the nose a lot quicker there then they do here.
When they attempted to save the world with the Dawnthief spell, the boundaries between all dimensions were changed. First a rift between the dragons’ world and Balaia is opened and has to be closed before they are destroyed by an invasion of dragons. Then The Raven must deal with aftermath of the barbarian invasion that necessitated Dawnthief.
Finally there is one inter-dimensional spell cast too many. Demons who have been lurking in the wings awaiting their chance to invade take advantage of a new rip to threaten dominance so supreme that it will even encompass the realm of the dead. Phew! That sure sounds like a lot of story.
But spaced over six books, it’s perfect. Characters develop, friendships grow, hatreds are nourished, and never once does Mr. Barclay strike a wrong note. Emotions are never manipulated, but nurtured through the development of people we care for and respect. His characters aren’t perfect, but just do the best they can in the situations they are in. In others words they are human (well as human as a 120 ft dragon can get, although watching him trying to learn to be funny is a hoot).
If you’re looking for good exciting adventure that are not just escapist fun, than this series of books is for you. To me the fact that I’ve already been able to read them through twice in the short time that I’ve owned them, coupled with feeling compelled to buy them one after another, speaks volumes about their value.
How many books have a 120ft long dragon as a hero? Don’t miss out on the adventures of The Raven and their friends.