What is Sword and Sorcery? With recommendations!

mouse1_sInspired by a thread on Reddit, I thought I’d write down my thoughts on some of the things that I think define sword and sorcery.  Probably lots of folks have done this, but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.

So Paul, tell us in a paragraph what you think characterizes sword and sorcery?

Let me first take  a moment to point out that this all just my opinion and isn’t necessarily meant to be an exhaustive list.  I’ll also point out that genre and subgenre labels are notoriously fuzzy.  So, with that out of the way…

Sword and sorcery tends to focus more on personal stakes, as opposed to kingdom or conanworld-sized threats.  The cast of characters tends to be small, often focusing on a pair or a trio.  The stories tend to be self-contained, as opposed to trilogies or longer (and that’s one of the reasons S&S is so well-suited to the short story format).  The stories feature a lot of action, and that action is often, but not always, combined with rapid-fire dialog. World building is often spare, relying more on tone and a few evocative hooks to establish setting, then inviting the reader to fill in the details  (I actually prefer this as a reader, in that for me it increases the mystery/sensawunda associated with the world).  Very often the world is gritty/dirty/vice-ridden, and civilization has a sense of being in decline, or at least decadent.  Typically magic (if present at all) is rare, less-systematized than you see in epic fantasy, and is usually a baleful, or at least a very mysterious and hard to control, force.

So that’s about it.  I could spend a couple more paragraphs telling you how I think Sword and Sorcery differs from Heroic Fantasy (sometimes they’re considered more or less the same thing), but that hardly seems worthwhile.  And it’s all just speculation and taste anyway.  I mentioned that subgenre labels are fuzzy, yes?  Instead, let’s go to the recommendations.  And if you have any S&S recommendations that I don’t mention, please offer them in the comments.

Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan.

Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Leigh Brackett’s Skaith series (technically sword and planet, but still awesome).

Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series (again, sword and planet technically)

The Thieves’ World Anthologies edited by Lynn Abbey and Robert Asprin.

William King’s Felix and Gotrek stories.

Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories (though these are, by my personal definition, as close to heroic fantasy as they are to S&S).

Jon Sprunk’s Shadow series.

Doug Hulick’s Among Thieves.

Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations.

Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade series.

My own Tales of Egil and Nix.

So if you’re in the mood for an S&S flavored story, these are great places to look.  Have at it!

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36 Comments

  1. I would add:

    C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry series.
    Steven Brust: Vlad Taltos series

  2. I second the recommendation of C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. I also recommend:

    The Kane series by Karl Edward Wagner.

    The Dying Earth and its sequels by Jack Vance.

    The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, both by Poul Anderson.

    The Incomplete Enchanter and its sequels by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.

    The Amber novels by Roger Zelazny.

    Nifft the Lean by Michael Shea.

    The Dabir and Asim stories by Howard Andrew Jones.

    My own The Plague Knight and Other Stories, a collection of sword and sorcery stories I’ve written over the years. (Hey, if Paul can plug his own stuff…)

  3. The Crimson Shadow series and the Spearwielder’s Tale, both by R.A. Salvatore, may fit your description – the latter more than the former.

  4. Fine selections all. Taking a glance at my own collection I’d add:
    “The Ship of Ishtar” A. Merritt
    “The Tower of Fear” Glen Cook
    The “Kothar” books of Gardner Fox
    “Tritonian Ring” L. Sprague De Camp
    I disqualified a lot of books that didn’t meet your criteria.

  5. Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane” novels…particularly “Darkness Weaves”

  6. Simon R. Green

    “Swords of Haven” and “Guards of Haven” definitely have all the hallmarks of S&S.

    • And he just came out with a new one! “Once in a Blue Moon” is a Hawk & Fisher book that answers all those nagging questions you might have about Our Heroes after reading the short stories. It’s really wonderful and I wish I could give a better sense of how much I loved it- I should mention that of the list above it is more for those of us who prefer Hulick and Sullivan to some of the others on the list.

  7. The Morlock stories of James Enge. The work of Saladin Ahmed, Chris Willrich, and Howard Andrew Jones.

  8. Hi Paul.

    Stakes are absolutely *Essential* to Sword and Sorcery.

    Egil and Nix aren’t trying to save the world, but they are trying to save their own skins. Or the well being of two women they care about. Or a “damsel in distress”. Small stakes, small ball, on the street action and adventure.

    You and commenters have named some good ones.
    Enge, Wilrich, Jones, Ahmed (and you) are among the new crop of sword and sorcery writers I read

    • “Stakes are absolutely *Essential* to Sword and Sorcery.”

      Agree entirely. :-)

      “Small stakes, small ball, on the street action and adventure.”

      I like that. Nicely put.

  9. It occurs to me that The Goblin Corps (Marmell) sits on the S&S and Kingdom border. It mainly focuses on the lives of its horrible protagonists, although they are working to save their (evil) kingdom).

  10. One thing I’ve noticed is that a good amount of fantasy stories/novels what have you may begin as Sword and Sorcery and as the series progresses, evolves(?) into more of a Kingdom/Epic Tale.

    In that sense, I would suggest Rachel Aaron’s ELI MONPRESS novels. We are introduced to the titular character as a thief and the first couple of books begin to move towards what Paul W. is calling Kingdom fantasy and finally the scope/stakes are raised to a global level and the tale becomes epic.

    Either way you cut them, the ELI books are fun.

    I would also suggest that Matthew Stover’s CAINE/OVERWORLD novels, though not fully S&S, have a strong hint/flavor of S&S among other flavors like Heroic Fantasy.

    • That’s a great suggestion, Rob. I’ve heard good things about the Eli Monpress stories.

      And I agree too, on the escalation to Kingdom/Epic. I think it’s a bit of a natural tendency if the author is thinking in terms of a multi-book series, in that she/he would want a story grand enough in scope to carry through multiple books.

  11. …and Sword & Sorcery works best, though not exclusively, if the novels are more episodic and can be read independent of each other. Much like the above-mentioned TALTOS novels from Brust.

  12. My reading list just exploded. Thanks. A. Lot.

    no, really, I mean it! this article, and the comments are brilliant.

  13. How about Ari Marmell’s Widdershins books (Thief’s Covenant, etc.) or Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books? (Although both of those might start heading in the kingdom/epic direction as the series progress.)

  14. What about Malus Dark Blade by Dan A & Mike L & Or
    Blackhearts by Nathan L ? Much like Billy Joel calls all good music rock & roll, I refer to all good fantasy as Sword & Sorcery even though its epic or high or a couple other names followed by fantasy? Brand me a literary philistine……

    • They are just labels and I don’t get too hung up on them. That said, the labels are a useful sorting tool that can help readers and potential readers find books they’re likely to enjoy.

  15. The Half-Orcs and The Paladin Series from David Dalglish

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  18. “World building is often spare, relying more on tone and a few evocative hooks to establish setting, then inviting the reader to fill in the details.”

    This is key for me. With S+S settings I feel that the worlds have expanded naturally to contain the stories told, rather than created out of thin air RPG-style and then visited by the characters.

    Not true of all authors and worlds, but I think in the modern buzz for world creation sometimes the simple truth that the world exists to tell a good story gets lost amongst all the other nonsense.

    • “Not true of all authors and worlds, but I think in the modern buzz for world creation sometimes the simple truth that the world exists to tell a good story gets lost amongst all the other nonsense.”

      I agree (but, as you say, definitely not true of all authors and stories).

  19. I am reading Kevin Hearne’s third book in the Iron Druid Chronicles. I have realized these books have much more in common with Sword and Sorcery than with the Urban Fantasy genre that they are tagged with.

  20. As mentioned above: Brust, Hearne, and some of Poul Anderson’s works.

    I’d also add:
    C. Dean Andersson’s Bloodsong Saga (first released under his pen name, Asa Drake).

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