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.