Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Friday, January 18, 2013

What the crap is Sword and Sorcery?

It's time for another what the crap post! All right! This time I'll be telling you about the bastard brother of epic fantasy--sword and sorcery. It is a sub-genre that is on the rise, my friends, and so it is a good idea to know what it is, read examples of it, and see if it's the type of stuff you're interested in writing. So here we go.

There are a few things that separate sword and sorcery from epic fantasy. First, a lot of people refer to s&s and low fantasy, whereas epic is high fantasy. What does this mean? Well, high fantasy concerns itself with big issues, like the world is going to end, or the fight between ultimate good and evil, or the movement of kingdoms and great men. High fantasy is your Lord of the Rings, or The Wheel of Time. Big problems, big solutions, big characters, big. Any bets as to what low fantasy is, then? You got it. Low fantasy is about small issues, like a town in danger, a church infested with demons, a fight between kind of evil and kind of more evil. Low fantasy is where you can have gray characters--protagonists that aren't exactly walking the straight line along the moral high ground. Low fantasy is dirty, it deals with every day things (in a fantasy world, anyway). It is often times crass, blunt, and unafraid of rutting around in the mud. Low fantasy is, well... low.

Some other differences between sword and sorcery and epic are magic systems and uses. Epic fantasy usually relies a lot on the use of magic. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series the point-of-view characters are powerful magic users. They use magic in their every-day lives. In sword and sorcery magic can be (but doesn't have to be) less prevalent. Magic in these types of stories is usually mysterious and unknown to most people. Your protagonist will likely not be a magic user in s&s, but that isn't always the case. An example of modern sword and sorcery is Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes. In this book there is a tiny, tiny glimpse of magic. The rest of the story is about a battle between two nations--neither of which are particularly noble. It is bloody, it is filthy, and it is honest about the horrors of war.

So why do writers want to tell sword and sorcery stories? Aren't they a bit insignificant? This all depends on what you as a reader are looking for, of course, but I actually find sword and sorcery to be the style I lean toward in my own writing and reading tastes. I think it is because low fantasy feels more real to me. I can understand smaller issues--relate to them somewhat better. Also, I think characters are usually developed better in s&s... usually because the author has to make readers like their bastard characters, and it takes digging deeper into a character's head to do this.

The grandfather of sword and sorcery is considered to be Robert E. Howard. (J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the grandfather of epic fantasy.) If you're wondering who Howard is, ever heard of a barbarian named Conan? Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and David Gemmell are some of the genre's best-known writers. Sword and sorcery was huge in the 80's, and it has been back in vogue these past five years or so.

Today fantasy seems to be blending high and low. Writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch--to name a few--are doing it brilliantly. I suggest starting with them to get a taste of sword and sorcery, and then work you way backward through some of the greats.

That's all!

P.S. sword and sorcery is where we get chicks in chain mail bikinis. Gotta love it!


  1. thank you for this post! I could never really differentiate them...

  2. Ah, yes! Couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you for posting these. They're super informative. :)

  3. I think I lean more towards S&S too. It's just more real. I like a good epic fantasy, but sword and sorcery just feels like it gets down to business quicker.