New Edge S&S Guest Post: Oliver Brackenbury

I put out the call, a few days ago, for a few guest posts relating to the New Edge of Sword & Sorcery. And here is our first victim . . . er, participant. Oliver is a podcaster, a screenwriter, and a novelist; he’s also one of the organizers of the whole New Edge movement. Oliver, you have the floor . . .

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New Edge Sword & Sorcery Profile: So I’m Writing a Novel…
by Oliver Brackenbury

Scott invited me to guest on his blog and I figured I’d be a fool to turn down the opportunity! I’m going to share a little about my role in this burgeoning thing called New Edge Sword & Sorcery, what I’ve been doing in the spirit of New Edge even before I knew the term, and some of what I think is exciting about the possibilities of the genre.

What I’ve Been Doing Lately
Mostly talking and organizing. There’s a kind of cyclical conversation in sword & sorcery circles, I’ve noticed, understandably bemoaning how it isn’t more popular and how difficult it can be to change that. The same few points float up every time. The solutions proposed tend to be very difficult to make real (“S&S needs a hit movie!”) or prescriptive (“S&S needs to be just X, nothing else!”).

I’ve been in conversations like that before, in other scenes and settings, and I thought “Wouldn’t be nice if all this energy was directed at really changing the situation?”. So I proposed an open, yet specific question – “What could we do to get more young people into this genre we all love?”.

Now, I can take credit for asking the question, but I cannot take credit for the incredible amount of energy I unwittingly tapped into by asking it. The conversation that took off was galloping and enthusiastic and good-natured and productive and WOW!

Since then I’ve been talking with various and sundry in the #new-edge-project channel on the Whetstone Discord server, really hashing out what New Edge Sword & Sorcery is…and could be. We’ll see what manifests, but there may be a focal point for all this energy brewing, something for folk who feel the same about this genre and not just it’s rich history, but all its powerful & varied potential for the future.

What I Was Doing Before I Even Knew the Term
It’s possible you may have read Scott’s blog post on New Edge S&S and thought “Hey, I’d like to get in on this!” or even “I…think I’ve already been doing this, just without a name for it.” I’m in the latter camp, and hope relaying what I’ve been up to may inspire those in the former.

Last June I launched the podcast So I’m Writing a Novel…, where I both learn from the sword & sorcery which came before, and sharpen that New Edge by trying to push the genre forward in how I’m writing my novel. Still untitled, it’s a sword & sorcery short story cycle, telling seventeen stories across the adventuring career of my warhammer-wielding protagonist, Voe.

You can listen to me breaking down how I created her, how I outline each of her stories, which works I’ve drawn direct influence from, and so much more just by going to the website or entering “So I’m Writing a Novel” into the search bar of your favorite place to download podcasts.

I’ve also been promoting new voices in S&S by interviewing them on the show, interviewing experts on the classic stories, interviewing publishers of S&S magazines, as well as fellow S&S podcasters, and even editing (did I mention I’m an editor for hire?) S&S works-in-progress on the show while in conversation with their authors. Feeling a little unsure of where to start? Don’t worry, there’s a guide for new listeners.

So yes, I’ve been doing what I can in my own little corner to spread awareness of what the genre is (I’m most fond of the flexible definition given in Brian Murphy’s excellent book), it’s history, and what exciting things are happening in the scene right now.

This is all done with an eye to inclusiveness, which is no rub against my fellow white, straight, cisgender men over thirty-five. It’s just my firm belief that any scene will slowly but surely wither and die without new blood (& fresh thunder?), so we gotta reach out to more people, which means making this scene welcoming to every demographic out there, not just our own.

This attitude is key to what I consider New Edge Sword & Sorcery, and it’s not a zero sum game, either. There’s room for so much. Which brings me to…

What I Think is Exciting About New Edge Sword & Sorcery
Oh man, where do I begin? Well…

It’s flexible. There is incredible room to play and experiment within the elastic edges of this genre, something strongly encouraged by the New Edge movement.

Second wave Sword & Sorcery author Michael Moorcock created one of the greatest S&S protagonists of all time, Elric, by intentionally turning the genre’s most famous original character, Conan the Cimmerian, inside out. A mightily strong, magic-fearing, self-assured, bronze-skinned barbarian who would one day become king of the most civilized nation in the land led to an albino emperor dependent on drugs and magic to function, often miserable & conflicted, whose own adventures would destroy his kingdom, setting him adrift. Both of these characters fit comfortably within the genre.

Sword & sorcery was often used like a cloak by Robert E. Howard himself, placing it around the shoulders of other genres like pirate stories, the locked-room mystery, and frontier western tales. What other genres might it adorn?

S&S can be a lot of things and still be S&S.

Just think about the incredible variation in automobiles since they were invented. There are cars powered by electricity, cars you can drive into a lake like launching a boat, cars of all shapes and sizes and colors, to say nothing of trucks, buses, RVs etc…but we recognize them all as automobiles.

S&S is a great place for characters from marginalized backgrounds. With its focus on outsider protagonists who succeed because, not in spite, of who they are, I think S&S is ripe for more stories centered on people who haven’t had a great deal of representation in popular fiction until quite recently. I’m dying to read an S&S story with a trans protagonist.

A chance to take a break from reading, or stand out as an author, from the dominant trends of 600+ page fantasy tomes, not that there’s anything wrong with them, by reading or crafting swift, short stories and novels.

S&S protagonists pretty much always punch up. Though they often are motivated more by greed, glory, or other forms of self-interest, S&S protagonists are forever stealing from, fighting, and otherwise striking back at the cruel, corrupt people who fancy themselves masters of the universe.

It’s also almost entirely lacking Chosen One narratives, or a “muggle” style device teaching readers you literally have to be separate from & above the rest of us puny humans in order to be special. On the author side, it’s also a very inclusive genre across lines of income and education, welcoming blue collar and blue blood creators alike.

That said, no doubt, in many of the older works you find outdated racial attitudes which are best left behind. Luckily you can…

Build on a long tradition without being chained to it. There’s a rich body of work going back to the 1930’s pulp magazines, and plenty of already existing fans who’ll enthusiastically share with you titles & authors to check out, as well as how to find them.

Writers can take all kinds of inspiration, and readers can enjoy all kinds of new-to-them stories, while discovering how their influence has affected contemporary works. Writers can also have fun remixing and building on this canon. Like I say above, it’s flexible. Meanwhile, if you’re a table-top role-playing gamer, you’ll also find more inspiration for your games then you’ll know what to do with!

And the outdated attitudes you sometimes encounter?

Creators can – and should, imho – just leave those on the cutting room floor, borrowing only the virtues of the old works, like their quick pacing, or lack of restrictions to the imagination such as D&D style codification of the uncanny or publisher stigma against mixing genre elements.

The way I see it is, we still study, build on, and remix artistic inspiration from the Ancient Greeks, and we do this without continuing their practice of only letting men participate in the Olympics, trying to predict the future by sacrificing animals, or wiping our butts with flat stones.

Now you might have read all my points and found yourself thinking “What’s New Edge about that? It just sounds like sword & sorcery”.

Well there’s the trick, it isn’t a huge leap to make if you’re already an S&S fan.

To me, the New Edge difference is a dedication to inclusiveness, enriching the whole scene with new readers & authors, and an equal focus on creation & promotion of new works, as well as curation & promotion of past ones.

It’s that simple.

Add in a community dedicated to uplifting each other, rather than endlessly fighting over how many Carbon Copy Conans you can fit on the head of a pin, and I think we just might be able to build to a resurgence in popularity of S&S not seen since the 60’s and 70’s, the heyday of Leiber, Moorcock, and others.

I find that all bloody exciting. Scott, back to you . . .

That was Oliver Brackenbury, folks. Be sure to follow the relevant links above and check out his work. And if you have any questions, drop me a comment below and I’ll pass it on to Oliver.


8 thoughts on “New Edge S&S Guest Post: Oliver Brackenbury

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  1. I believe that the real strength of S&S lays into the fact that it can easily be converted into a game-script. The novel then works as a manual that lays out the fundamentals while the game itself allows a more active participation. Young people aspire for more than to be reduced to “readers”.

  2. Ahem. Me confused. There is already a famous trans sword and sorcery protagonist, Dark Agnes de Chastillon, sword woman. Also, have you read Goodman Games sword and sorcery magazine, Tales from the Skull. There are several inclusive and diverse sword and sorcery writers alreast in the Skull’s pages (they have published 5 issues and did a successful Kickstarter. There is also Milton J. Davis’s MVMedia that has spearheads a sword and soul movement of black sword and sorcery writers. Methinks this movement needs not be organized by a leader leader when poc are already engaged in it. Why not just supporr them? My cynicism is showing. Also, you mention we should leave racial attitudes of the 1930s behind. O.k.. But that is a straw. Besides a few wingnuts who seriously utilize those 1930s in characterization. I am old and have seen things come and go but this seems similar to when rockers stole black musicians artistic energy. There is the long histry of the Beatles stealing black music.

    1. Heya!

      I confess I’m unsure what you are referring to specifically with Dark Agnes. I suppose there may be trans subtext one could read into how she expresses her frustrations with the social limitations of being a woman in her place and time. Happy to be wrong, though, in which case I’d rephrase my statement to “I’m drying for more…”.

      Meanwhile I’ve interviewed Milton for my show, great guy, as well as the editor of the Skull, who I’m in regular contact with (as well as being an avid reader of said magazine). I can’t stress enough that I don’t seek to become, or to nominate, a leader of anything. To me this is about trying to move S&S past some unfortunate perceptions of the genre which limit its audience growth, as well as its appeal to most large publishers, while linking up similarly-minded individuals (fans & creators), seeing how we can continue to push the genre forward into interesting new territory.

      Does that help clear things up? You seem to be under the impression that I’m trying to suppress POC voices while putting a crown upon my brow. Not the case.

  3. I don’t understand where the confusion came from between the commenters. It seems to me Oliver that you support a new wave of Sword & Sorcery that is not constrained by Anglo-Saxon or gender restraints, both from what I’m reading here and previously on GR and Discord. Sword and Soul is a good example and well..many may disagree with me but I feel Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth series skirts the very outer sphere of S&S also…though it is also part Space Opera part Planet and Sword and part Urban Fantasy (or, at least in its tone and target audience). I would think this not dissimilar to what is defined as New Pulp to old school Pulp; it’s more inclusive now. Does anybody in 2022 actually have a problem with that. And where was it said that you, Oliver, were trying to be King of S&S coz I don’t see it? Nor do I feel that coming from you. Regardless, everything from Batman to D&D to LOTR etc., gets updated and revamped with new energy and a more inclusive POV every couple decades which allows for more interested parties thus increasing sales, more interest and more product so where’s the problem? Of course a lot of the resurgence is because of the efforts of all those previously mentioned, especially Howard Andrew Jones and Milton C. Davis. And I would add everyone at DMR Books as well as the editors/creators for both the Savage Realms and Storyhack continuing anthologies. And have to give a well-deserved assist to S&S board group moderator, Seth Lindberg and you, Oliver + the rest of our swordbrothers. So, thanx!

    1. You’re welcome! I think when someone says “This thing we (you) love could be improved upon and taken further”, no matter how you phrase things it can come off confrontational and provoke a less-than-measured reaction, alas.

      But you can’t let that stop you.

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