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Let’s talk about the best sword and sorcery books

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Classic sword-and-sorcery stories have a special place in our hearts. To those unfamiliar with the genre, sword-and-sorcery tales usually follow the adventures of a solitary hero or heroine in a fantasy landscape peopled with supernatural beings — witches, wizards and monsters. If you’ve watched “The Witcher,” then you get the idea. Join us as we stroll (sword in hand!) through the history of the field and look at some notable titles that might have escaped your notice.

Lavie: I love the original “Witcher” stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, collected in English as “The Last Wish” in 2007 and translated by Danusia Stok. They were originally published in the Polish magazine Nowa Fantastyka. I got to read “The Last Wish” in proof before it even came out, but I don’t know that anyone then expected it would become as big as it did. For a time, it was nearly titled “The Hexer” but, hexer or witcher, Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia is a worthy successor to its earlier influences.

Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” has similar origins. The stories were first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These entries were collected into a book of the same title. King swaps guns for swords, but otherwise his Roland of Gilead is as classic an S&S hero as you would like. Subsequent books expanded the scope (and page count), but the heart of the Dark Tower can be found in those original tales, still bound in the yellowing pages of the magazine.

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Silvia: It’s no surprise that King reconfigured S&S into a Western. This subgenre, which begins with writers such as Robert E. Howard and his Conan adventures, had already begun morphing by 1970 when Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories were collected in “Swords and Deviltry.” Leiber was deeply influenced by authors who were active in the pulps in previous decades, such as H.P. Lovecraft, and if we continue this game of six degrees of separation, we arrive at C.L. Moore, who created two iconic characters: the space adventurer Northwest Smith (grandfather to Han Solo) and the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry whose stories are collected in “Black God’s Kiss” (2007).

Around the time Leiber was churning out more volumes of adventures, Tanith Lee, Karl Edward Wagner and C.J. Cherryh contributed to a mini-boom of S&S. Lee had “The Birthgrave” (1975), first in a trilogy, about an amnesiac woman with strange powers who awakens inside a volcano and goes on to roam a landscape populated with magic and violence. Wagner in turn wrote many books starring the mercenary Kane, imbuing his creation with touches of horror — these novels have been collected as “Gods in Darkness” (2002) and “The Midnight Sun” (2003). Cherryh penned the Morgaine Cycle, beginning with “Gate of Ivrel” in 1976, which follows a mysterious warrior on a mission to close down portals that allow time travel and passage between worlds.

Five years later, Charles R. Saunders released his African sword-and-sorcery novel, “Imaro.” Saunders went on to influence a new generation of writers such as Milton J. Davis, who has created numerous “sword and soul” stories (sword and sorcery with an African influence). “Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology” (2011) serves as a good example of more recent sword-and-sorcery efforts. Though Saladin Ahmed may be best known for his comic book work, “Throne of the Crescent Moon,” a Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy novel, garnered him a Locus Award in 2013. Now, should we talk about that famous white-haired warrior who swung a sword long before Geralt?

Lavie: Back in the ’60s, Michael Moorcock was publishing New Worlds Magazine, and writing S&S stories on weekends to pay the bills. The result was the stories of Elric of Melniboné, the haunted albino with the demonic sword who is destined to kill everything he loves, now undisputed classics. They were collected in “The Stealer of Souls” (1963) and “Stormbringer” (1965). When Moorcock went looking for a name for these works, Fritz Leiber came up with “Sword and Sorcery,” at last giving it a label. Also in London at the time was Samuel Delany. He tackled the genre in his own way. “Tales of Nevèrÿon” (1978) was the first of a quartet that covers slavery, gay culture and power dynamics, and radically reinterprets and questions the ideals of sword and sorcery. Even the AIDS epidemic gets woven into the story in “Flight From Nevèrÿon” (1985).

Sword and sorcery has its soul in the short-fiction magazines and, as such, has never been the most popular strand of the fantastic. But whenever it comes up it offers something fresh, individualistic — and often spectacular. How about you, dear reader: Who are the sword and sorcery protagonists that scratch your itch for devilry and adventure?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books include “Mexican Gothic,” “Velvet Was the Night” and “The Return of the Sorceress.” Lavie Tidhar is the author of the novels“The Violent Century,” “A Man Lies Dreaming,” “By Force Alone” and the “Gorel of Goliris” stories.

Science fiction and Fantasy

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