Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Join the Sorcerer's Guild Today, See the Worlds

The time has come to start thinking about nominations for the next Harper's Pen Award. That means it's time to unlock the adamantine doors of the Sorcerer's Guild and open our membership drive.

The Sorcerer's Guild is an autonomous anarcho-syndicalist collective of fans, editors and authors of the short fiction genre commonly known as Sword and Sorcery (cue lights, smoke, thunder). We gather once each year to trade spells and knitting patterns and select the winner of the presigious and lucrative Harper's Pen Award. The 2009 winner was John C. Hocking for his story "The Face in the Sea" published in Black Gate #13.

Beginning this year, you must be a member of the Sorcerer's Guild to nominate a story for the Harper's Pen. Cruel, I know, but we must maintain some standards. Luckily, joining the Sorcerer's Guild is not only easy, it's rewarding, because we are prepared to offer the first 100 new members a pdf download of Black Gate #14. Yes, that's right - by joining today, you will receive a free magazine of the some of the best Sword and Sorcery short fiction being published today. How can you say no?

Send me an email to harperspen@gmail.com and let me know if you are a fan, author, or editor, and which issue of Black Gate you would like to receive. Supplies are limited to the first 100 who join, so don't delay. If you already know which stories you would like to nominate, include them in your email. You can nominate up to five stories, including your own.

But beware! Once you join the Sorcerer's Guild, you can never leave, for death awaits you with nasty big pointy teeth.

The Structure of the Sorcerer's Guild

I've just updated the post about the Harper's Pen Award, detailing how the Guild will nominate and select the winner of the Harper's Pen. Check it out.

Friday, April 16, 2010

How Should The Sorcerers Guild Work?

As you know, or as I hope you know, The Sorcerers Guild exists to determine the yearly winner of The Harper's Pen Award. The award is meant to promote the Sword & Sorcery genre in short fiction. For the first year, I selected the finalists and chose the winner, to help get things started and because I wasn't sure how I wanted to get things started, but my plan is to get more people involved, especially readers and fans, not just writers and editors. 

So what I have is a brief outline of the organization and how I expect it to work. This is a rough draft, so if you have other ideas, especially better ideas, please feel free to discuss.

Each December, the nomination period opens. Only members of The Sorcerers Guild may nominate a story, but anyone can join. By joining this facebook group, you are already a member. Members will receive a certain number of nominations - I'm thinking 3 or 5. Those stories that meet a minimum threshold of nominations (to be determined) go onto a Long List.

Now for the fun part. Each year, I will provide a certain amount of seed money. For 2009, I hoped to get contributions to help increase the pot, but I only received one contribution of $10 for the entire year. Clearly we cannot rely on contributions, so I came up with the idea of a second level of membership, called The Wizard's Conclave. Membership in The Wizard's Conclave costs $5 (open for debate), in return for which you get to chose a certain number of stories from the long list (say, 3) to make the short list. Also, there may be goodies in association with joining during one of the membership drives. I plan to hit up publishers for promo copies of their magazines/anthologies to give to those who join The Wizard's Conclave. If you know anyone, or have something to donate, please feel free to contact me.

So now we have the Wizard's Conclave, and the $5 membership fee goes directly into the Award. The Wizard's Conclave chooses the short list of stories from which the finalists and winner will be selected by...

The Council of Elders. The Council consists of a certain number (to be determined) of randomly-chosen members of The Wizards Conclave. Council members are screened to prevent anyone with a short list story (either author or publisher) from serving on the Council. (This has the added benefit of tilting the Council toward the fans.) The Council members choose their top ten stories for the year, with the top story being the winner of The Harper's Pen. Or perhaps a winner and a several honorable mentions, rather than a top ten.

What do you think? Will it work? Would you pay $5 to join, especially if you got a free book or magazine out of it? Please feel free to post your ideas.

(This is cross-posted at The Sorcerers Guild discussion board on Facebook. Please feel free to pop over and join the discussion, or to leave comments here.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Small Gathering of Friends

The Sorcerers Guild is now on Facebook. It's time to open the doors, so pop on over and sign up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

News of the World

The new issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is out, with stories by Nancy Fulda and Tom Crosshill.

In other news, it appears your host has won the first Barry Hannah Memorial Competition.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Swords & Dark Magic anthology

Here's an anthology sure to generate several finalists for The 2010 Harper's Pen Award. Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery published by Harper Eos, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders. It's due out June 22, and here's the table of contents:

"Introduction: Check Your Dark Lord at the Door" - Lou Anders & Jonathan Strahan
"Goats of Glory" - Steven Erikson
"Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company" - Glen Cook
"Bloodsport" - Gene Wolfe
"The Singing Spear" - James Enge
"A Wizard of Wiscezan" - C.J. Cherryh
"A Rich Full Week" - K. J. Parker
"A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet" - Garth Nix
"Red Pearls: An Elric Story" - Michael Moorcock
"The Deification of Dal Bamore" - Tim Lebbon
"Dark Times at the Midnight Market" - Robert Silverberg
"The Undefiled" - Greg Keyes
"Hew the Tint Master" - Michael Shea
"In the Stacks" - Scott Lynch
"Two Lions, A Witch, and the War-Robe" - Tanith Lee
"The Sea Troll's Daughter" - Caitlin R Kiernan
"Thieves of Daring" - Bill Willingham
"The Fool Jobs" - Joe Abercrombie

(ht Saladin Ahmed)

Finalist Notes - Tomb of the Amazon Queen by Michael Ehart

Tomb of the Amazon Queen is the longest of the eight finalists and the largest is scope. It reads like part of a much larger work. Nishi and her adopted daughter/fellow adventurer Miri have a number of problems. One, they are constantly hunted by the soldiers of the temple of Ishtar, because Nishi attacked it some time in the past. Two, Nishi is bound by a curse of some sort to a fearsome beast - The Manthycore - and this curse keeps her alive, making her a legendary being. But Nishi is seeking a way to end the curse. In the midst of a sandstorm, they take refuge with a group of Amazon-ish women warriors, whose path inevitably brings them all together at the tomb of their queen.

Both the story hook and the adventure hook are brilliant and engaging. The story begins in the middle and moves forward from there. Having taken out a party of temple soldiers, Nishi summons the Manthycore to feed and to frighten the one soldier she has allowed to survive, so that he can return and warn the temple to stop sending soldiers to hunt her.

The setting, ancient Iraq and Syria, is wonderfully depicted, with plenty of historical detail. As with most desert stories, the environment plays a direct role in the plot, when a sandstorm drives Nishi and Miri to take shelter with, and thus meet and befriend, a band of Amazons.

Nishi and Miri are great heroic characters - Nishi the old warrior who has lived for hundreds of years and become a legend, and young Miri, who is a talented archer. Less well-defined are the Amazons - seven archetypical sisters whose names tended to blend together as I was reading.

There is mayhem aplenty, with several good battle scenes in just the right doses. The action breaks up long periods of narrative in which we learn about the characters, their relationships, and their goals. And although there is only one monster - the Manthycore - and he physically appears only once in the story, his prescence is throughout, driving the plot.

If there is a weakness in the three M's (monster, mayhem and magic), it is the magic of the story. There is the curse bond between Nishi and the Manthycore, which keeps Nishi alive and allows her to heal more quickly, and the magical quest of the rubies that Nishi has undertaken to break the curse, but all of the magical moments seem to occur offstage. It's a subtle magic, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'd have liked to see a bit more of it.

The catharsis is pretty good, with a sense of loss and regret, but the ending felt hurried and was the weakest part of the story, as neither the conflict nor the curse is resolved. In this it is a realistic ending, but it doesn't deliver as strongly as a tighter ending might. As lengthy as this story is, I felt it should have been longer, as the final potential conflict between Nishi and the Amazon ends somewhat anticlimatically. If Tomb of the Amazon Queen is part of a longer work, I can understand why, but it was this very feeling of an incomplete, unrealized ending that prevented me from selecting this otherwise worthy tale.

Update: Michael tells us that his story is part of a larger tale, The Tears of Ishtar, which just came out last Friday from Cyberwizard Productions' Ancient Tome Press.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Interview with John C. Hocking and John O'Neill

John C. Hocking is the author of the Harper's Pen Award winning story, "The Face in the Sea," which appeared in Black Gate #13, published by John O'Neill. Recently I had an opportunity to ask these two gentlemen a few questions about the winning story, writing, and publishing.

Sorcerer's Guild: According to a note accompanying your story, "The Face in the Sea" is the first of three stories about Brand the Viking. Are the Brand stories closely connected by events? Are they part of a larger narrative, like a novel (finished or unfinished)?
John C. Hocking: The Brand stories I’ve written so far are tied closely together, as Brand and his shipmates reclaim their chieftain’s stolen daughter and try to bring her back home. I was originally working on a novel about the characters, but the elements I wanted to use ended up better expressed in short stories.

SG: How did "The Face in the Sea" and Black Gate meet?
John O'Neill: I think it all began with a book published in 2004 called LORDS OF SWORDS, edited by Dan Blackston. Word went around that it was a pretty good collection of heroic fantasy -- with some standout work by such folks as E.E. Knight, Howard Andrew Jones, Joe McCullough, and others -- when it got a hilariously off-base review at Tangent Online. It annoyed a few members of the staff, including Todd McAulty, who commandeered a chunk of the review section in BLACK GATE 8 to do a lengthy rebuttal, and celebrate the work of some of these emerging talents.

One of the stories Todd called out in LORDS OF SWORDS was called "Vali's Wound," by Mr. John C. Hocking. I took the time to read it, and was suitably impressed. It was the tale of a young and inexperienced Viking named Brand, who dared to defy a Valkyrie when she came to claim a fallen comrade.

I met John just a few weeks later at Windycon in 2005, and learned he had a series of these stories. When I asked John if he would ever send me one, he told me one was already sitting in my slush pile at home. I suppose I'd had know that, it I hadn't been busy having a good time at a convention.

SG: Was it love at first sight?
John O'Neill: Yes, actually. Although the story's actually a little more complicated. Literally, in this case.

The first story John submitted to me was called "The Bonestealer's Mirror" -- a really terrific piece in which Brand and his shipmates discover the rather chilling secret of a particularly loathsome demon haunting a lonely isle. I bought it immediately, and Storn Cook delivered a fabulous pair of illustrations to accompany it (the first work he'd ever done done us, incidentally.) I was all set to unleash it on the world.

John then delivered a NEW Brand story: "The Face in the Sea." I jumped at the chance to buy it, and scheduled it for Black Gate 13. And then John informed me this one occurred chronologically *first* in the series, followed by "Vali's Wound," and then "Bonestealer."

So John's appearance in Black Gate had to wait. I postponed "Bonestealer," commissioned art for "Face" -- which Storn delivered again -- and published "The Face in the Sea" in Black Gate 13.

"The Bonestealer's Mirror" has finally appeared in Black Gate 14, with Storn's art -- over four year after I purchased it. It's been a long wait, but I hope it's been worth it. John returns in our very next issue with the start of a brand new series. I think you'll like it.

SG: What do you like best about "The Face in the Sea"?
John O'Neill: "The Face in the Sea" is a textbook example at what John Hocking is best at -- and indeed, what all great heroic fantasy writers are good at. And that is creating, in swift and sure strokes, a group of valiant characters that we quickly come to care about, and a forlorn setting where the cast must stand alone.

And then, he unleashes the monsters.

SG: You've written three stories about Brand the Viking, so I take it you like writing in this setting. What is it about Vikings that attracts your creative energies?
John C. Hocking: I’m certainly not alone in finding the Vikings and their world deeply fascinating. Their barbaric yet oddly civilized culture, their astonishing drive to explore, their ideal of stoic bravery in the face of death, all capture and encourage the imagination. Brand lives in a slightly off-center, alternate version of the Viking world, where history has played out a little differently and magic works, but I like to think I get a little flavor of the sagas in there all the same.

SG: When I first read "The Face in the Sea," I had recently finished reading Poul Anderson's War of the Gods. Have you read this novel? Was your work influenced by Anderson's?
John C. Hocking: I love Anderson’s work, especially Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but the Brand stories are more influenced by the Icelandic sagas and Weird Tales magazine of the 1920’s and 30’s than anything else.

SG: I detected influences of Robert E. Howard in this tale, especially Brand's Conanesque solution to their monstrous problem. Would you say Howard was a big influence on this story?
John C. Hocking: Of course I would! Howard’s imagination, passion, and seemingly effortless handling of the elements of plot continue to amaze me.

SG: Speaking of Howard, you published a Conan novel with Tor in 1995. How did that come about?
John C. Hocking: Long story. In short, I wanted to write for Weird Tales in 1932, but since that was impossible I tried to write a tale with its roots in that period. The Conan pastiche novels I was reading back then seemed to me to have an overly distant relationship with REH and Weird Tales, so I tried to bring that back together. It was a strange way to spend my time, as I had no way of knowing if the book I was working on would ever be read by anybody but me. Some have pointed out that Conan and the Emerald Lotus is a less than entirely successful experiment, but 15 years later it’s still in print and I can still find reasons to be proud of it.

SG: You wrote that novel without a commission from Tor Books, yet they accepted it for publication? That's a pretty incredible authorial feat.
John C. Hocking: It's true, I wrote Conan & the Emerald Lotus all by myself, with no sanction from TOR, Conan Properties, or anyone else. Ridiculous thing to do. Like an amateur animator spending years in the basement making a cartoon about Mickey Mouse. I had no right to put down a word of it but I was inspired by trying to pay tribute to Conan, REH, Lovecraft, Smith, Bloch, and the whole Weird Tales circle, and kept working away until it was done.

And THEN I wondered what I should do with it.

Figured I might as well see if it could even be considered for publication, but didn't even know how to do that. Sent out a volley of letters to anybody I thought might know and got a response from L. Sprague de Camp. He told me they got unsolicited Conan manuscripts all the time and that they were uniformly poor and summarily rejected, but that he would look at my book if that's what I wanted. I sent it to him and he liked it enough to back it for publication.

SG: What's on your launch pad right now? What's in your future?
John C. Hocking: The third Brand tale, by far the longest and most ambitious, is in Black Gate #14, which just came out. Five years back, when Howard Andrew Jones was editing the Flashing Swords e-zine, I wrote a trio of stories for him about a different set of characters. I’ve written two more tales of the Archivist and his friend Lucella, and Black Gate has accepted them. I’ve been stalled on both a novel about the Archivist and the final Brand story, Home to Midgard, but I hope to get both into action before too much longer.

SG: One of your more recent projects was co-editing a book called Detroit Noir. With a title like that, it's not hard to guess, but go ahead and tell us about the book, what's inside the covers, who published it, and where we can find it.
John C. Hocking: I love noir and hardboiled fiction almost as much as I love Sword and Sorcery. My friend Eric Olsen and I noticed that Akashic Books acclaimed Noir series featured anthologies of stories set in specific cities, yet there was no volume for Detroit. We convinced the publisher we were for real and, over the course of a couple years, solicited a fearsomely tall stack of brand new manuscripts from Detroit authors. Then we had to select and arrange our favorites into a book. The tales range from gentle mood pieces to savage hardboiled thrillers, and I was somewhat overwhelmed by the quality of the material we received. There’s work from established masters like Joyce Carol Oates and Loren D. Estleman, as well as memorable tales from authors who have gone on to make a name for themselves, like Megan Abbott and Michael Zadoorian. Desiree Cooper’s haunting Night Coming was selected for inclusion in Best African American Fiction 2010, and Estleman’s Kill the Cat was up for the Shamus Award for best private eye short story of the year. Detroit Noir is still available at many bookstores and all the major on-line booksellers.

SG: Do you consider yourself primarily a short story writer or a novelist?
John C. Hocking: Neither. I write what I can. I’d like to produce more novel length work, but the process is as arduous as the end product is uncertain of publication. Right now, shorter work suits me.

SG: Have you always been a writer, or did you come to it gradually? Or suddenly?
John C. Hocking: I’ve always been a writer, always told stories. There is little that makes me happier than learning someone who I’ve never met read and enjoyed something I wrote.

SG: Putting together a magazine is no easy task. Putting together a magazine as enormous as Black Gate must be Herculean. What inspires you to sit down every day and work on it?
John O'Neill: First, let's dispel this myth that it's "Herculean." What I do to create Black Gate is simple: I read fantasy stories, and select the ones I like the most. Nothing to it. Anyone who's read an anthology or magazine and said, "I liked these stories the best" has done what I've done.
Physically creating the magazine is only slightly more work. But with modern desktop publishing programs such as Quark or Microsoft Publisher, even that is a cinch. Quite a bit easier than putting together a web page, for example.
No, the only hard thing about producing a magazine is finding a printer, and a way to distribute and sell it. And you really only have to do that once.
But I'm dodging your question.
Yeah, it takes time -- a lot of time, in which I could be playing with my kids, or watching BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with Alice. What keeps me going? There's a real joy in finding new authors -- folks like James Enge, Joe McCullough, and Peadar O Guilan -- and giving them a stage. Few people remember the editor who first discovered a promising writer.
But editors do. And that's enough.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Harper's Pen Finalist in The Million Writers Award

Dale Carothers' Bright Wings in the Ebony Hall (Electric Spec) has been chosen as a Notable Story in the storySouth Million Writers Award.

Congratulations to Dale for his truly excellent story. The recognition is well-deserved.

Finalist Notes - Where Virtue Lives by Saladin Ahmed

The set-up for this story is rather traditional, but Saladin handles it quite nicely. Basically, you have a jaded, older warrior in the form a ghul hunter, who takes on an eager, idealistic young apprentice, in the form of a bad-ass swordsman. They set out to rescue the wife of some villager, who was taken by a ghul.

The setting has a strong Middle Eastern flavor, described with excellent detail, firmly setting the reader down in a believable world almost from the first line. Saladin's storytelling voice is authoritative and compelling.
The jaded ghul hunter is wonderfully jaded, in that he's not some grouchy Nick Nolte character who can barely drag himself out of bed to solve another case. His "clients" still believe him to be a pious doctor of monsterology.

As does the young ascetic swordsman who comes to join him and learn to slay ghuls, at the behest of his temple. He is a pious killer in the finest paladinic tradition, seeing the world around him through a veil that only admits black and white. When they meet their first ghuls, he strikes without fear in a scene of whirling mayhem dotted with sorcerous flourishes. More magic ensues when a girl appears and attacks them with knot-blowing magic, a sort of sympathetic magic on steroids. This was, I thought, the best part of the tale. The resolution was satisfying, though I felt it came a bit too quickly, and the magic of the evil sorcerer at the center of the plot seemed weaker than the knot-blowing magic of his magically compelled accomplice.

There were, however, a few weaknesses which kept the story out of the top spot. Though the story hook is good, the adventure hook is weaker - the good doctor is asked to rescue a woman. He has no compelling reason to do so other than duty, which he secretly resents. The lack of a strong adventure hook subsequently robs the story of some of its emotional impact. This is mitigated by the relationship that builds between master and apprentice, as both learn and grow from the experience.

Also, the only monsters in the story are the ghuls, which appear briefly in the middle of the story and are quickly dispatched. As the doctor is a ghul hunter and ghul hunting is the adventure hook, I hoped the ghuls would prove to be more central to the resolution of the plot.

No Foolin'

A few of those fools foolish enough to pursue the largely thankless task of publishing fantasy short fiction (though hopefully not so thankless as once it was) seem to have chosen April Fools Day as a fine day to publish the newest issue of their fine online magazines.

New stories to be devoured at Aurora Wolf, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (eh-hm, you might notice a slightly familiar name there), and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (March 25).

No foolin', do check out Living Totem by Vaughn Heppner at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. What a powerful tale! A new genre - Flint Axe & Sorcery.

Also of note, the website for Enscorceled, the University of California Berkeley student-run magazine of fantasy and sci-fi, is finally back up and running. Alas, no new content, but hopefully they will have a spring issue out soon.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finalist Notes - Slow Stampede by Sara Genge

I decided to save the winner's notes for last. Instead, I'll begin at the top of the list, with "Slow Stampede" by Sara Genge.

"Slow Stampede" was published in Asimov's Science Fiction. When this story was first nominated, I thought, no way Asimov's published a S&S story. I was only partially right. "Slow Stampede" is best qualified as Sword and Planet. There are a couple of technological mentions in this story - a pair of binoculars, and a scientist whom a mer-woman once ate (he was delicious), and the world setting is clearly not earth-like (Eldora's low gravity) - otherwise, the overall technology is primitive. The characters fight with blades and crossbows, and caravans of behemoths stride through an enormous swamp filled with barbarian raiders, as well as muddy merpeople who dwell below the muck. The setting is well-described and thoroughly believable, from the village to the caravan, to the way the swamp elephants move and the swamp flowers bloom.

The story hook begins with a moment of tension - Raj is watching the caravan, picking out his target. The adventure hook flows from that - he is also plotting to knock off his chieftain during the raid.

The character of Raj is well drawn. He is an ambitious young man with designs upon the throne of his clan, but his mother is trying to marry him off. The merwoman he meets is sly and sultry, with plans of her own. The weakest character in the story is the hapless caravan driver, who remains nameless throughout.

The monsters are the swamp elephants, who are huge, reminding me of the Oliphaunts from Lord of the Rings. There are also merpeople, who live below the muck and pick off the weak and injured, including Raj when he is shot by one of the caravan drivers. There is plenty of exciting mayhem during the raid on the caravan.

Sara provides us with a satisfying, belieavable ending, which I won't ruin here by describing it. Suffice to say that not everything goes the way Raj had expected, yet he is able to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. Her storytelling voice is quite good, and the story does not lack for entertainment value.

What's missing? Magic. I give it some points for magic because of the nature of the world itself. There are magical creatures in the form of the merpeople. Whether or not they use actual magic is never stated, but they certainly seem magical. For that reason, and because it is such a good story, I included it in the finalists. However, without more overt magic, I couldn't award it The Harper's Pen.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

And the winner is...

John C. Hocking for "The Face in the Sea," and Black Gate for publishing the best all-around Sword&Sorcery short story in 2009. In my humble opinion, of course.

Alas, there can be only one. This was not an easy decision to make. I read and reread every story, taking notes along the way, spent most of yesterday weighing my decision, then slept on it. When it came right down to it, I had to select the story I liked best and that I felt was truest to the form. But every finalist was worthy and selecting just one has taught me that the Sorcerer's Guild has its work cut out for it in 2010.

John's story is a superb example of the genre, harkening back to the master himself - REH. It hit all the points I mentioned in my previous post: two strong hooks (story and adventure); well-crafted, believable historical fantasy setting; solid characters; monsters, mayhem and magic aplenty; a satisfying ending, and an entertaining storyteller's voice.

Over the next few days, I will post my notes on each of the finalists, starting in my next post with the winning story. Meanwhile, please use the comments to send John and Black Gate your well-deserved congratulations.

Also of note, Black Gate #14 just came out. It includes another of Mr. Hocking's Brand the Viking stories.

Rather than add another post, I also want to give a few shout-outs to finalists magazines.

First, Silver Blade has to be the best-looking zine on the web. Their art is superb and I love the way they present each issue and the stories within. Reading Silver Blade is as pleasurable as reading a book, perhaps moreso.

In addition to being chock full of good stories, the production quality of Rage of the Behemoth was excellent. It's a solid book put together with professional care, excellent art, design and typography. It now has an honored place on my shelf.

Based on the quality of the two nominations sent to me from Dark Worlds 3, I'm going to have to pick up a copy and see what else it holds.

A big shout out to editor Sheila Williams and Asimov's for publishing Sara Genge's sword-and-planet story, "Slow Stampede." I'm not an enormous sci-fi fan so this magazine isn't on the top of my must-have list. But I'll be inclined to check more often now, to see what other jewels they let fall.

Another jewel of a find was Electric Spec. I happened upon Dale Carother's story almost by accident and have been taken with it ever since.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a wonderful webzine, producing a pair of quality fantasy stories twice each month. "Where Virtue Lives" was Saladin Ahmed's first published story.

I don't plan to publish my short list of stories, from which I drew the finalists, but you should know that Heroic Fantasy Quarterly had the most stories of any publisher on my short list - four. And that's out of nine total stories published in 2009. If this were baseball, they'd be millionaires with that batting average.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The judge delivered his instructions to the jury

Selecting the winner of The Harper's Pen Award is no easy task. Now that I come down to it, each of these eight stories are worthy, and my final selection, when it comes, will probably be a matter of personal taste.

Nevertheless, I thought I would outline here my thoughts about heroic fantasy and what makes for a good sword-and-sorcery story. These are the categories and what I am looking for in each:

Story hook - This is the first five paragraphs or so, in which the author grabs and holds the attention of the reader. None of the finalists would have reached the finals without a solid story hook.

Adventure hook - Different than the story hook, the adventure hook is what draws the characters into the plot and keeps them (were they not characters in the story) from walking away.

Believable, interesting setting - The setting must feel real even if it is utterly alien. It must have at least three dimensions, unless there is a good reason to have more or fewer. It must obey the laws of physics, unless there is a good reason not to. Even better if the setting is almost a character within the story, if it plays a vital role in the actions and decisions of the characters and serves as more than static backdrop to the play.

Interesting is subjective, but I don't put a lot of emphasis on settings that are entirely undreamt of. In selecting the stories for this award, I read pages and pages of chimerical worlds and heroes cobbled-together from things and ideas that have never been cobbled together before, all in some vain quest to come up with something entirely new.  Humans have been telling stories for a hundred thousand years, and most of those stories have been set in worlds intimately familiar to both the storyteller and the audience. The best new recipes are not born from never-before-tasted ingredients, they are concocted from the same ingredients put together in interesting new ways. As a reader, I am not often bedazzled by shiny things.

Engaging characters - Storytelling tells the story of people. Heroes are just people - flawed, imperfect, prone to mistakes. What makes them heroic is what they do despite their imperfections and how they go about fixing their mistakes. Neither perfect heroes nor perfect villains are interesting or believable. But what makes a character engaging is how he or she connects with the reader, and every reader is different.

Monsters - Human or otherwise, there must be monsters in heroic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery. Huge, queer hulking beasts or dainty, sprite-winged creatures, they must be more than an afterthought. They are the foil and the fodder of the hero, obstacles in the path to the big boss. Or they are unlooked-for allies and fonts of arcane knowledge to be found nowhere else. Or perhaps they are both. But there must be monsters here.

Mayhem - This is the sword in sword-and-sorcery - a hefty dollop of pulse-pounding, teeth-gritting action. People finding fairies in their cupboards might be fantasy, but it isn't heroic fantasy. Sooner or later they must draw swords and enter the fray.

Magic - Which is the sorcery part of the equation. Without magic, it's adventure fiction. I'm looking for a strong magical element which plays an important role in the action and resolution of the story.

Catharsis - Consequences that matter. The story delivers a strong emotional impact, both to the characters and to the reader, if the reader cares about the characters at all.

Satisfying end - I'm looking for a believable, complete, though not necessarily tidy ending. The villain may escape, the hero may fail, but in failing achieve some other, more desirable end, bringing the story to a satisfying close.

Storytelling voice - Vitality of delivery. This is the most difficult aspect to explain, but it's what makes a good story into a great story. The same tale, told by two different authors, can be entirely different based on nothing more than the life the storyteller breaths into the tale. Some people are just good at telling jokes, and some people are born storytellers. The best ones are able to draw upon a depth of personal experience and a profound understanding of the human puzzle. But defining it is difficult. You know it when you see it. They have a spark, a vitality that other people, telling the same story, don't.

I will announce the winner of the award by Wednesday, March 31, after which I will post why I chose that story and how the finalists fared in each of the above categories.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wicked, Bad, Naughty Zoot

They have set alight the Grail-shaped beacon over Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Tear open a bag of nachos, lube up your d20s, and check out this bit of gamer porn over at Black Gate - an on-the-spot report from Garycon II, the new convention dedicated to Gary Gygax and all things old school gaming.

Now excuse me while I clean the cheese whiz off my keyboard.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Art for Art's Sake

Wouldn't it be nice for this site to have a fantasy-themed design?

I'm looking for heroic fantasy art that I can use to spruce up the place a bit. Know where I can find some cheap? Or better yet, free?  Post a link in comments.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with Carl Walmsley

Check out this interview with Carl Walmsley, including his thoughts about heroic fantasy fiction and his finalist list story, "Serpents Beneath the Ice" in Rage of the Behemoth.

The Harper's Pen Award (2009) Finalists

The time has come, the walrus said, to announce the eight finalists for The Harper's Pen Award (2009). This has been an emotional two weeks, beginning with my decision to delay the award a year in order to enlarge the pool of nominations, followed by my decision not to delay the award but to change its name to The Harper's Pen Award, followed by my decision to migrate the award to a new site and establish an organization to administer and distribute the award - The Sorcerer's Guild.

From the nominations I received, and also from stories I found on my own, I chose eight tales that I believe best represent the tradition as well as the future of Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. These stories were published by a variety of publishers - from legendary print magazines to new webzines to anthologies by small, independent publishers. Some of these stories include links, so you can read them yourself if you haven't already (you should!).

Here they are, alphabetized by publisher:
Congratulations to the finalists! I will announce the winner in a week or so.

The winner of the The Harper's Pen Award (2009) will receive:

  • Publisher - $200 and a handsome certificate of recognition
  • Author - $200, a handsome certificate, and this handmade pen by Syzygy Pens, engraved in recognition of the award

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sorcerer's Guild

Welcome to The Sorcerer's Guild, a blog dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy fiction, especially short fiction. The Sorcerer's Guild draws its inspiration from the original Sorcerer's Guild:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA) is the name of a literary group of American fantasy authors active from the 1960s through the 1980s, noted for their contributions to the fantasy subgenre of heroic fantasy or "Sword and Sorcery." The group served as a vehicle for popularizing and promoting the respectability of the subgenre.

The original members of SAGA were Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance. Later, other members joined, and from 1973 - 1981, the group produced five anthologies of stories written by the members (published under the Flashing Swords title) and handed out the Gandalf Award for lifetime achievement.

The new Sorcerer's Guild is open to fans and authors. We will not produce an anthology, but we will award a prize for the best Sword and Sorcery or Heroic Fantasy short fiction for a given year. Finalists for the 2009 award will be announced here, followed by the winner.

Soon, we'll begin posting review, interviews, and news about Sword and Sorcery in all its forms. If you have any news to share, please feel free to contact me with press releases, promotion material, and review copies. Feel free to join in, become a friend, and follow the Guild on Twitter.