Swords can grow dull. They can lose their edges through age, through misuse, through simple neglect. They can rust; their hilts can rot and fall off, leaving only a tang of metal for hands to grasp. A sword like that — if you permit me the extended metaphor — is a bit like old genres of fiction.
A genre can grow dull. The accretion of old social mores — the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of bygone eras — can oxidize a genre, making it seem as graceless as a barnacle-encrusted hunk of metal drawn from the sea. A genre’s founders can (and will) die, leaving less-invested imitators to tease out only the surface tropes while its deeper meanings are lost to the ages. And, over time, that genre starts to become irrelevant to the world at large.
In today’s fiction market, this is largely the fate of sword-and-sorcery. Mainstream publishers are loath to market a work as S&S because they consider it a dead end market. Readers less concerned with genre labels use the term nowadays to describe any book with swordplay and magic, from Tolkien to Pratchett — and they’re unaware that it has (or had) a very specific meaning. In short, the term sword-and-sorcery has lost its edge. It has rusted, and is stuck in a very old and problematic scabbard.
There is, however, a nascent movement that has started in the small press sphere to remove that blade from its sheath, to clean the rust from it, sharpen it on a grinding wheel, and fashion a new scabbard — one free from the old problems of the genre. That movement is called the NEW EDGE of S&S.
Over a decade ago, when the Internet was younger and less jaded, Howard Andrew Jones (author of the Dabir and Asim tales, the Ringsworn Trilogy, and editor-in-chief at Tales From The Magician’s Skull) launched the New Edge initiative in the forums of the old Flashing Swords e-zine. He carried it over into his stewardship of Black Gate, and has beat the drum of renaissance and revitalization in the Skull’s eldritch shadows. He remains in the vanguard of the New Edge.
But, what is this New Edge you speak of?
In Howard’s own words: “We can find inspiration from the old tales without slavishly duplicating every aspect of them. Specifically I mean setting aside the sexism and racism and the suspect politics but embracing the virtues of great pulp storytelling: The color. The pace. The headlong thrill and sense of wonder. The celebration not of the everyday and the petty, but of those who dare to fight on when the odds are against them. We can create new characters. Not homages, or ironic send-ups. We can craft fascinating, living settings rather than faux REH or generic game fiction backdrop number 9. We need to make our own worlds and look past the seemingly unbreakable molds set in place by the big names and gaming manuals. We must restore the sense of fantastic. Once magic is banal or easy, once magic rings can be found at the corner market and wizards are everywhere, sense of wonder goes straight out the window.”
Howard goes on to write: “Great sword-and-sorcery is usually moving at a fast clip. It takes you somewhere interesting in the company of fascinating characters, exposing you along the way to scenes of dread and wonder. There are great action set pieces that actually count for something, entertaining side characters and villains, surprises and sometimes twists, and a conclusion that satisfies.
“If a sword-and-sorcery tale has a message, it doesn’t smack you over the head with it. Most times it may seem to lack a message entirely, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing redeeming in a story where characters are shown overcoming terrible challenges with wit and brawn. Sword-and-sorcery is part and parcel of the mythic cycles we’ve been sharing around the campfire since the earliest days of our species. We’d hear how our ancestors chased down the elusive stag, or fended off the clawed thing in the dark, or guided the tribe to safety through a land of enemies. In listening, we were inspired to emulate courageous action and to not stand idle when times were dark and our people were in danger.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the New Edge of S&S. It’s a vision shared by a handful, myself included, but one that we hope will spread. We want new voices to come to S&S: diverse, non-traditional; voices that might have felt put off by the genre in the past. We want to move beyond the tired tropes of fur-clad barbarians and imperiled harem girls while keeping “the fast-paced story telling, sense of wonder, lack of irony, more Weird sense of magic and less scientific approach” (J. Thomas Howard, Whetstone Discord).
There will be more in the days to come, as more creators get involved and the movement gets organized. But, for now, seek out some of the diverse voices already in S&S, classics such as Charles Saunders or CL Moore, or newer voices such as Remco van Straten and Angeline Adams, Milton Davis, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, JM Clarke, Cora Buhlert, or Dariel Quiogue, and enjoy the New Edge of S&S . . .
Well, this kind of blew up. Welcome, one and all! There is something I need to make abundantly clear: this isn’t my movement. I didn’t start the New Edge. This is a movement that has been underway FOR YEARS, folks. Since at least 2007, or even earlier (I wasn’t there when the first discussions were held about this, on old message boards and at cons). But here, in 2022, it’s a movement that is picking up steam, thanks to outlets like Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Whetstone Amateur S&S, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and myriad others.
Whether anyone likes it or not, the term “sword-and-sorcery” is tainted by the general public’s belief that anything with a sword and magic fits under the S&S banner. Joe Abercrombie is not S&S, though some of his short stories are S&S. GRRM is not S&S, though he, too, has doubtless written some short stories that fit. S&S should never be construed as generic fantasy, and that’s the impetus for the new label. Whether the label takes hold is another matter. Regardless, there are still creators of all stripes out there working on the New Edge of S&S, pushing the boundaries and hearkening back to the glory days with new tales and new spins on old tales. This post is to let them know we see them; we appreciate them, and we’d like to buy more of their work.