Last week on Twitter Mims the Word asked about what brand we want to be associated with in our writing. I said:
An early 20th century style of manliness that involves outdoor activity, a willingness but not desire to use violence, and a strong sense of honor that marks all the “swords &” genres.
I realized people might not understand what I mean by “sword &” genres. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I’m not sure it is a genre, but more a meta-genre that encompasses sword & sorcery, sword & planet, and sword & sandal in terms of already named “sword &” genres. That ever helpful rabbit hole TV Tropes has trope pages for all of the above (sorcery, planet, and sandal). The place where they overlap is a good starting point.
But, there are other genres that fit. This topic first came up when I wanted to put a tag on Riders South, which meant putting a tag on the Horseclans books because they are the closest to my work. In fact, until earlier this year they were the only examples of similar work I knew. Now I see a strong kinship with Harold Lamb’s stories about Cossacks, especially Khlit. Then there are various pirate tales (sword & cannon?), jungle opera (sword & vine?), and even ERB’s Outlaw of Torn (sword & shield is the obvious choice here, or sword & board). I labelled Horseclans swords & ruins.
Instead of digging through common tropes, although I might just to see what shakes out, I want to focus on three elements I mentioned and one I did not to Mims. First up is outdoor activity. While Conan is often imprisoned and John Carter is often in cities, both ruined and otherwise, there is a sense of the outdoors in these men. Perhaps instead of outdoors I should say physical action. The protagonists of these tales are men of action. This is not to say they don’t think. Milo Morai of the Horseclans is very much a thinking and plotting man, as is his wife Mara. Khlit the Cossack seems to succeed as much by trickery as frontal assault. All three show keen skills of observation. In the end, though, each uses direct action, usually a sword in combat, although Mara confirms his suspicion about Milo with a dagger alone in their tent. They are physical people and their actions rely on physical action.
All of the people I have mentioned are violent in the sense they use violence as a tool. None are afraid of violence. But, they do not select violence as their first choice in every situation. Milo is famous for his deal making in the early books. In the latter books, which often cover earlier times, he is a teacher. Khlit wins by clever bets and understanding the buttons to push to get people to doom themselves. They are not murder machines like some more modern characters. Violence is one of many tools in their toolbox. They do not default to it, but neither do they eschew it.
The final point I did mention on Twitter is all these protagonists have a sense of honor. Honor is the key word here instead of morality. Donald Westlake’s Parker, although not a “swords &” character, would fit in with these people. Mal of Firefly would as well. In fact, two quotes from the original pilot of Firefly sum up this sense of honor pretty well:
I do the job, and then I get paid.
You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.
These men will steal and they will win a fight by any means necessary, but they won’t cheat or welch on a deal. Although, some of them will give the fey of old a run for their money on constructing a deal in their favor.
The one point I did not mention, and this is why Parker and Captain Reynolds do not fit, is the settings. Even if super science is present, as we see in sword & planet and sword & ruin, the world of these stories is pre-industrial. Firearms might be used in mass combat, but they are not the weapon of duels. There are no factories and while cities maybe be dirty and decedent they are not grim and dark impersonal places. Rome, or even better in my mind, Byzantium are the biggest cities in these worlds, not the London of Charles Dickens or the San Francisco of Dashiell Hammett.
So, that is what I mean by “swords &”, adventure stories set in pre-industrial level civilizations featuring physical men and women who live by their wits and the proverbial sword while embodying a basic code of honor.
I love to read such tales. I wish there were more of them.
So, I’m working on making sure that happens.