Friday, February 25, 2022

In the house, with Rogues in the House

The latest episode of Rogues in the House is out, with me joining the crew for a panel session on the current state of sword-and-sorcery. Alongside stalwart S&S authors Howard Andrew Jones and Scott Oden, Matt and Deane and I discussed questions like:
  • What is the current state of sword-and-sorcery? Where is it strong, where is it not?
  • Sword-and-sorcery in gaming
  • Is the subgenre involved in a renaissance, and do we want it to be or are we better off staying off the beaten path?
  • What perception does the label have in publishing circles, and is it a help or hindrance to getting a work published?
  • Does it need a rebrand/new name to escape its past?
  • How does it differ from the more popular "grimdark" strain of hard-edged fantasy?
  • What do we hope to see in the future, and what does it need to continue to grow?
I had a lot of fun with this one, as always. The best part for me might have been seeing one of the co-hosts' legit armory pre-show. We're talking swords of all stripes, including replicas from The Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian (1982), working crossbows, halberds (bec-de-corbin!), handcrafted chain mail armor, WWII armament, on and on. As I mentioned to Deane, I know where I'm going if the zombie apocalypse breaks out, or if I start seeing parachutes coming down Red Dawn style

A few notes I jotted down prior to the show... sword-and-sorcery today is a very small niche in an incredibly popular broader fantasy genre. Below are some of the interesting things going on it, but added up, it’s still quite small.

· A few good but niche publishers (DMR Books, Rogue Blades Entertainment, Pulp Hero Press, etc.).

· A good magazine (Tales from the Magician’s Skull).

· A swelling number of amateur publishing outlets (Whetstone, Flashing Swords, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, etc.).

· Some watering holes (Whetstone Discord, a small Reddit group, various small groups on REH websites, Facebook, etc.).

· Some publicity on Black Gate, blogs like my own/Silver Key, DMR Books has a great blog, as is the blog of Tales from the Magician’s Skull.

· Some new anthologies. Swords and Sorceries (Parallel Universe Publications has 3 volumes), Savage Realms. Blood on the Blade (Flinch Books)

· It’s supported by one good podcast—Rogues in the House. Cromcast has at times supported S&S, occasional episodes from likes of Elder Sign. Oliver Brackenbury’s So I’m Writing a Novel explores S&S. Appendix N Book Club covers a fair bit of S&S.

· Some good authors—Scott Oden and Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge, Schuyler Hernstrom, Adrian Cole. Keith Taylor is still writing and Michael Moorcock is still with us, with an original Elric story due to publish next year and reportedly “definitive” Elric editions coming out.

· But, it’s still a widely misused and misunderstood term, which is what I tried to help repair with Flame and Crimson. Still used synonymously with “fantasy.”

· It’s not a genre that major publishers want to take a chance on, and therefore not commercially viable.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Robert E. Howard Foundation awards nominations announced

The Robert E. Howard Foundation recently published its list of nominees for the 2022 awards. I'm on there, twice, for the Hyrkanian--Outstanding Achievement, Essay, and for the Venarium--Emerging Scholar.

The Hyrkanian is for my essay "Myth Manifesting in the Present: Robert E. Howard's 'Marchers of Valhalla,'" which you can find over at the DMR Blog. I like that piece, as the subject matter pressed all my buttons (come on, Vikings and Howard, and myth intermingling with the present day?) I was gripped by a James Allison level of fevered possession while writing it. The Venarium is further specified for my work on various recent essays, as well as for writing Flame and Crimson

I have been at the writing/blogging game for some time, and will leave it to others for what qualifies as an emerging scholar. Flame and Crimson required of course an immense level of research. I don't know the other names on that list, save for the administrator of the fine The World of Robert E. Howard website. But it's really cool to see the breadth of scholarly work being done, both domestically and abroad.

There are many, many worthy entries on these lists. To be nominated is as always an incredible honor. Just as with the Atlantean for which I was nominated, and ultimately won last year, I don't know who nominated me for these categories, but ... thank you! I do hope to see Robert E. Howard Changed My Life win an award. I owe that fine book a review.

This announcement also serves as a reminder that I NEED to get to Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains and see the Howard homestead. Maybe this will be the year.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

War of the Gods!

I hadn't read War of the Gods for the better part of 20 years, and a recent re-read confirmed it's a pretty darned good book. My somewhat spoiler-ific review is up on the blog of DMR Books, here.

If you want the TL;DR version of the linked article, Poul Anderson is a damned good writer who channeled the Northern Thing in a way very few authors can. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Seventeen+year journey to a new career: Six takeaways

After spending the better part of 18 years with the same company, albeit one that has been purchased in that time, undergone many changes, and looks very little like the one I walked into on my first day back in June 2004, I recently made the momentous decision to change jobs. I landed at a new company, hired for a role that did not exist, which this company created exclusively for me, and they’re paying me well to do it.


It’s been a hell of a last few weeks, starting from accepting the offer on Thursday, Jan. 20, telling my boss and my colleagues on Friday Jan. 21st, then releasing the news to the broader healthcare community which I serve this past Thursday. Since then, messages of well-wishing and support (mixed with some of surprise and disbelief, and sadness), have been pouring in non-stop. It’s left me feeling exhausted, but also incredibly grateful, with a great sense of anticipation for this next chapter in my professional life. I’ll be working from home, permanently, as this new company—small and nimble—does not have a brick-and-mortar presence. I can’t wait.

What did I learn over the last 17 ½ years, and in particular this latest momentous turn in my career? What would I recommend to others looking to further their own career? Here’s my advice.

1. Get comfortable with discomfort. As someone who suffers from mild social anxiety, and has struggled with bouts of inferiority, imposter syndrome etc., giving opening conference addresses in front of crowds as large as 1,800 people, and leading teams through tough times, has not been easy, and resulted in considerable levels of personal discomfort. Playing football and lifting heavy weights has allowed me to work through pain, but never inured me to it. Discomfort never goes away. You have two choices when it confronts you—retreat, or press on. I choose the latter almost every time, and that has made a difference. Like tearing muscle fibers during a workout, and then allowing them to repair themselves and get stronger, you grow professionally in zones of discomfort. A hard lesson, but true.

2. Success mainly is a result of hard work. I don’t disregard luck, or privilege, but mainly, persistence and discipline make the difference, even more than talent. I have no special level of intelligence, or rare skill, but I do stick to things after others give up. I have a good attention span. I also communicate well. But most of all I’m a fairly disciplined individual. I like keeping busy and doing good work. I don’t kill myself with marathon days, and deeply value and make time for family life, but I don’t slack off. Stack several good days of work on top of each other, and you will have something good to show for it. Stack several good years together, and you’ve got a career and a resume that will make you stand out. There really aren’t shortcuts to this process.

3. Don’t blame others for your failures. One of the best books I’ve read in the last five years is ex-Navy Seal Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership. He describes a rule for self-conduct that is both incredibly simple, but very hard to rigorously follow—taking responsibility for everything in your life. Yeah, shit happens along the way, but we can choose how we react to it. We can choose to use failure as an opportunity to get better. If you experience failure, start not by looking for someone to blame, but asking yourself: What could I have done better? What will I do better next time? If you are a leader and someone on your team comes up short, instead of pointing the finger, recognize that it’s your responsibility to train that person better, and equip them with the tools they need to succeed. Victim mentality is a terrible mindset to adopt.

4. Kindness goes a long way. Treat people—especially your direct reports—as you would want to be treated. More than ever these days, there is no bossing people around (there never really was, unless we’re talking medieval lords/vassals relationship). In these days of labor shortages and “the great resignation,” employees more than ever hold the upper hand. Your colleagues will respond to being treated fairly, and with kindness, and will reciprocate with loyalty. You will find yourself surrounded by people willing to work hard and make you look better, because they care for you.

5. Networks are a thing, so cultivate them. Talk to people. Help them in their careers—invite them on a podcast if you have one, allow them to speak at your event, write articles about them, respond to their emails, link in on LinkedIn. Inevitably they will return the favor. This creates a network effect, where knowing a lot of people gives you acceptance, even authority, in your field. Congratulate others on their successes. Treat your competition as people, because that’s what they are, and all they are. Do this, and you will find doors open when you did not know they even existed.

6. Dip your toe in the water before taking the plunge. Putting in a few extra hours of work, after hours, is not easy, and will cut into your Netflix time, but it allows you to try the thing before you commit to it. In my case I started freelancing for this new company on my personal time, and they liked what I had to offer, which led to a conversation about coming on board full time. In short, see bullet point 2.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Richard Tierney, 1936-2022

Richard Tierney has died. I can't say much more than what is expressed in this fine post by Deuce Richardson over at DMR Books. Peace be with his friends and family.

Tierney was, as the article states, one of a thin line carrying on the sword-and-sorcery tradition with good new material in the 1970s, alongside the likes of Karl Edward Wagner and Charles Saunders. I very much enjoyed his Simon of Gitta stories, as found in the classic Swords Against Darkness anthologies, his pastiche work/posthumous REH collaborations in Tigers of the Sea, and his Red Sonja collaborations with David C. Smith. He was also highly regarded as a poet, and that bit of verse published on DMR confirms his skill.

It's sad to see these old S&S veterans go. But when you keep reading them, you keep the flame burning.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Harp and the Blade, a review

At 10 cents you get your money's worth
Someone recently asked me, Can sword-and-sorcery be written successfully at novel length? My answer was, of course: See Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone, or Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar.

But, after reading John Myers Myers’ The Harp and the Blade, I would now tell aspiring authors: Here’s a pretty solid template.


This book movesThe Harp and the Blade was originally published as a seven-part serial in the venerable magazine Argosy in 1940, and in paperback still bears some hallmarks of its pulp heritage. It needed to be swift, and grab readers from issue to issue. Each chapter is just 10 pages, and the entirety of the book is a mere 230 pages. No needless descriptions. No navel-gazing “world building” (it is set in 10th century Dark Ages France, on the cusp of the feudal era, so not a whole lot of that is needed). More to the point: Something important happens each chapter to advance the plot. 


S&S beefcake... 1985 style.

Now, is The Harp and the Blade sword-and-sorcery? Maybe, but probably not. It’s best classified as historical fiction. Although you could be forgiven for thinking it was S&S, so closely does it skirt that territory. Certainly it’s packaged that way. I have the 1985 edition as published by Ace. Look at that cover! Two overmuscled dudes, one a hip bard with 80s surfer hair, the other a classic Boris Vallejo style barbarian. This was definitely marketed to the same audience that devoured the Lancer Conans in the 60s and the DAW Elrics in the 70s. Publishers of the era were going to great lengths to ride the sword-and-sorcery wave, although by the mid-80s the subgenre was about to disappear from the shelves, almost overnight, with few exceptions (Keith Taylor’s Bard novels, for example). Morgan Holmes calls this “The great sword-and-sorcery extinction event.” 


Oh, and the “barbarian’s” name happens to be… Conan! Not the Conan you’re thinking of, and in fact other than being a resourceful, charismatic leader with some skill with a blade, bears no resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation. The name Conan has historical Gaelic/Celtic roots, although one might assume Myers Myers was at least familiar with Howard’s work.


Packaging alone is not enough, but what edges this book back into S&S territory is the geas our hero, the bard Finnian, is placed under. After callously watching a man get murdered in a tavern brawl when he may have intervened and saved a life, Finnian is shamed (and possibly, ensorcelled) by a druid in a wonderful scene atop a cromlech on a moonlit night. Thereafter his life is changed; he begins to accept responsibility, and act out of a sense of altruism. "From now on, as long as you stay in my land," here he swept an arm to include all directions," you will aid any man or woman in need of help," the old man declares. This is skillfully handled by Myers Myers, and it may just be shame, or the power of persuasion, that causes our hero to begin to take responsibility. But it may be magic.


This is the heart of the book, and the message that lies beneath the page-turning action. Finnian is, like many of the classic heroes of S&S, an outsider. He is literally that—an Irish bard in foreign lands, making his living with his songs and his poetry, never settling down but moving from modest payday to payday. Just living, untrammeled. Lacking any commitments, he has nothing to tie him down, but seemingly nothing to give his life meaning, either. He’s at a crossroads.


Make no mistake, this is THE struggle all men face. Do we drift through life, viewing others’ misfortunes as not our own (“not my circus, not my monkeys”—not a fan of that phrase), dreaming, noncommittal, childlike? Or, do we take a stand, find principles we can live by, put down roots, raise a family, and get to work on adulthood? Personally, I don’t think there is a choice, and if you fail to grow up it will bite you in the end, hard. Peter Pan is a cautionary tale, not an ideal, and the lost boys are just that. 


The book has an interesting, muted ending, where all does not turn out like we had thought, or hoped, or expected (and, which I had guessed due to some mild telegraphing from Myers Myers). I won’t spoil it here.


Despite what I’ve written above this is not a heavy book laden with psychoanalysis. It’s action-packed, with death defying rescues and escapes, violent combat, romance, wine, and song, set against a dangerous backdrop of lawless lands where outlaw bands carve out fiefdoms at the point of a sword, as Danes plunder from the North and Moslems threaten incursion from the South. There is drama, but it’s gritty, grounded, and the world does not hang in the balance. Just enough characterization to allow us to latch on to the main character. In short, good stuff. 


Sadly Myers Myers seems to have fallen into obscurity, but for a time had gained a level of popularity and critical respectability with Silverlock (1949), which I have not read. I can recommend The Harp and the Blade, however. Even if not S&S it follows the formula us fans want and appreciate.