Ink & Bourbon
Tilting at windmills. Because those windmills think they're better than us.

It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature

Saturday, October 24th, 2020

Recently I got a mediocre review of my pulp sword and sorcery book Broken Crossroads. In and of itself, that’s fine. I’ve survived worse, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and mediocre is better than scathing, so I’m not all that broken up.

But what did concern me was the problems the reader seemed to have. I always read the reviews, good and bad, and try to see what they had to say, and if that issue is something I want to work on. In this case, the things the reader didn’t like were staples of the old pulp sword and sorcery genre as it existed in the days of Leiber and Moorcock. The stories were episodic, the characters’ backgrounds didn’t invite big revelatory resolutions and complications later, opportunities for dramatic callbacks were missed.

I grew up reading the short, episodic tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric, Kane and Conan, and the formula was simple. Characters who can have an adventure, then another, without the need for callbacks or dramatic earth shattering changes to either the hero of the world. Adventures that can be read individually, out of order, with no single unifying thread, where the hero tends to reset between adventures, where jewels and riches won “slip through their fingers,” leaving them hungry and destitute for the next adventure, rather than buying a castle and retiring to the country. This is almost certainly the result of the fact that they began life in the old short fiction magazines, such as Weird Tales or Amazing Stories and not as full novels or even collected short stories, like they can be found today. Given the space restrictions and nature of the publication, it was necessary that a reader be able to jump into another adventure with their favorite swordsman or rogue or exiled sorcerer emperor outside an overarching narrative structure.

The closest modern analogy would be weekly detective procedurals, where our hero solves a new mystery every week, without the viewer needing to have seen last week’s episode. Sure there is generally a pilot that sets up the character, and occasional cliffhangers that will be resolved next season, but in general, you can catch and episode of Law & Order or Psych or Supernatural without really knowing or caring which season it’s from or what happened previously.

In fantasy literature today, that’s no longer the case. Even books and heroes which would seem to fit neatly into the old pulp genre, like Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, both of which clearly show the influence of and affection for Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker, have a clear story arc which transcends the individual novels, and the characters and world change with each installment. There is no reset to baseline in the old episodic tradition. Likewise Michael McClung’s Amra Thetys books, whose protagonist would be a clear descendant of the rogues of the pulps, quick of wit and of blade, ready to take on a corrupt city or a supernatural terror, follow a story arc.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read these books. You should. You just shouldn’t read them out of order. The concept of a continuing story, one where characters and setting change and grow by their experiences is valid, and probably makes more sense and may well be arguably better from a pure literary standpoint. But I still miss the old pulps. I have a soft spot in my heart for the lighthearted adventure, swashbuckling derring do, and the comfort that whatever happened, those heroes would be back again,

When I wrote Broken Crossroads or rather, the first story with the characters who would come to inhabit that world, I wanted to write a short story. I wanted to write a love letter to Fritz Leiber’s heroes of Lankhmar. I wanted to create my own team of buddy rogues, who would loot temples, steal treasures, fight supernatural foes and cause headaches to the city watch, then squander their riches off the page between adventures and be ready for the next escapade.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s a reaction to the rise of Grimdark, sweeping multi volume epic fantasy, maybe I’ve just had enough realism over the past few years and want to write something light and entertaining. I do know it was a conscious choice to work in that style. And I plan to continue that particular series as the episodic adventures of two platonic buddy rogues who will fail to wisely invest their loot and need to take a new contract whenever I feel the urge to write another adventure for them.

The old pulps might be literary comfort food, but there are times when you’re not in the mood for a seven course tasting menu, but a bowl of mom’s mac and cheese would really hit the spot.

I’m ok with that.

If you are too, please feel free to check out Broken Crossroads, which is cheap on Kindle or free on Kindle Unlimited. If you want something meatier, read Brust or McClung. I won’t complain about that. I’ll just be over here with my mac and cheese.


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