Review: The Phoenix on the Sword

It has been over five years since I started reading Sword & Sorcery with Conan and then expanding into Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Kane. Since I started actually working on my own stories this year, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and read them again, this time with an eye on how they are written and what makes them tick. I also recently noticed that most of the old reviews of various Sword & Sorcery books were pretty negative and I am actually a bit surprised about what I said about them, compared to what I remember of them.

So I don’t just want to read my old books again, and finally get around to read those I had been missing yet, but also to re-review each story again and see how my opinions about them might have changed. My plan is to reread all of Robert Howard’s Conan stories, two or three of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser collections, Michael Moorcock’s Elric (from Fantasy Masterworks), Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, all five of Karl Wagner’s Kane books, and the recent anthologies Swords & Dark Magic, The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, and Swords & Mythos. And maybe also get Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher in somewhere. While that’s a lot of books, most of them are really not very long. I think this might be perfectly doable in a year or two.


The Phoenix on the Sword is not the first story set in the ancient prehistoric past written by Robert Howard, (Kull was written before it) but it was the first one that was published. Which quite justifiably could be regarded as the moment when Sword & Sorcery appeared in the world of fantasy literature.

The first thing I noticed about the story is that the first half of it is nothing but really heavy handed info-dumping. You have three scenes of characters telling a long monolog about their past histories that led up to the current events. Two of which are told to characters who already know all of it. It jumps straight at you right on the second page and should make everyone cringe. But somehow, it’s still entertaining. It obviously is blatant info-dumping, but the stories that are being retold are actually quite intriguing.

First we start with the mastermind of a conspiracy telling his enslaved sorcerer the whole plan and background of their conspiracy. We are getting a lot of exposition on politics and power in Aquilonia, but the information is about a conspiracy and the other conspirators have just left the house to make the final preparations for their assassination. That makes the information much more interesting and relevant to the reader. I think it also helps that the mastermind reveals right at the start of his monolog that the other conspirators think he’s just one of their peons and that they are in charge of everything. So we get a conspiracy within a conspiracy. That’s interesting and we want to know more.

Then we have Conan retelling telling the story of how he became king of Aquilonia to his Aquilonian advisor. It’s also a pretty interesting story because we only get to read parts of it and the spaces that are left blank sound intriguing. Most of what Conan says also relates to why there is dissent against his reign, which connects directly to the conspirators we just heard about in the scene before. It’s info-dumping, but since the information is about things the characters in the story were recently doing, it’s also very much flashbacks. It’s not like we’re being told things with no context and told “trust me, this will be important later”. I think that’s what makes the story still entertaining to read.

One could probably write full papers about Conan’s words about the poet Rinaldo who is stirring up resentment against Conan with his songs, calling for an uprising, and eventually taking part in the assassination attempt. Conan gives two reasons why he doesn’t want to have Rinaldo arrested and executed before his agitation will cause him problems. The first is that Conan believes that as a poet, Rinaldo is untouchable and above him in power. He could have him killed, but it might make the people even more angry, and history will judge him by the songs of the bards. There is no winning for Conan in such a fight. The other reason is that Conan has heard Rinaldo sing his songs and unwilling to lay hand on such a gifted artist. When he sees Rinaldo among the assassins, he begs him not to force his hand and kill him. But Rinaldo strikes him anyway and lands the wound that almost leads to Conan’s death. I am not entirely sure what Howard seems to be saying here about the importance of public opinion in government, but I certainly feel that here he tries to make a cause to place the gifted poet above the powerful ruler, and thereby elevating his own profession.

The third scene is in my opinion the weakest, because nothing about it really feels believable. Everything about it feels massively contrived. Thoth-Amon tells the nobleman about how he was an extremely powerful Stygian sorcerer until a thief stole his magic ring, he had to escape from his enemy, and is now being blackmailed by his current master who will make his true identity public if he tries anything funny. And he goes on about how one day he will find his magic ring again and then there will be terrible revenge. There really wasn’t any reason to tell that to the nobleman. But then the noble says “Well, isn’t that the funniest coincidence. I happen to have a ring that I got from a Stygian thief, who told me he stole it from a powerful sorcerer.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. This scene is stupid.

However, the description of what happens when Thoth-Amon sees the ring is super interesting:

The slave’s eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge dusky hands outstretched like talons.

“The Ring! By Set! The Ring!” he shrieked. “My Ring—stolen from me—” Steel glittered in the Stygian’s hand and with a heave of his great dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron’s fat body. […] Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidness.

“My Ring!” he whispered in terrible exultation. “My power!” How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian knew.

Was this the typical depiction of magic ring ownership in traditional myths? I know the One Ring of Tolkien has precedents in the Niebelungenlied, but here Thoth-Amon is just a hair’s breadth away from saying “My precious!” Interesting find.

Once the assassins get to Conan, the whole scene is almost entirely one big fight. And I found it quite interesting how Howard describes the fighting. He was a huge history and martial arts nerd, and you can see that in the amount of detail he gives about what everyone is doing in the fight. But 90 years ago, decent information about actual sword fighting and armor certainly would have been much more sparse and more difficult to find, and this shows as well. Today we have people actually making historically accurate replicas of weapons and armor, and other people training with them, which has revealed huge amounts of lost knowledge over the recent decades.

What I really liked is how the story gives emphasis to the fact that Conan starts putting on his armor on the first sign that something seems off, and then later has the attackers point out that he’s at a big disadvantage because he’s not wearing a helmet and couldn’t get to his shield in time. But then we also get Conan swinging his weapons like a baseball bat and several mentions of blades cutting through armor. One of the attacks that wounds Conan is described as going through a gap in his incomplete armor, which is great. But then he’s cutting through metal plates, which is simply impossible. But that’s really just whining from a modern history and martial arts nerd. The important thing is that Conan is getting hit badly a lot and close to death at the end. Yes, he was fighting twenty men all at once by himself, but he didn’t simply brush them aside like nothing. So yay, a nod towards realism.

This story really has it all: Fighting, monsters, sorcery, conspiracy, ghost helpers, magic weapons, traitors. It really is no wonder that the editor wanted to get more stuff like this to publish. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but I really shows huge potential. And as we all know, the rest is history.

Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery

I’ve been gone for a while and have to admit that I’ve been nothing related to writing fantasy in the meantime. But recently I’ve been feeling like trying to get back on this horse and with InaNoWriMo coming up it’s seems a good time to stretch my fingers again.

One of the first things that came up was what word count to aim for. Sword & Sorcery is my style anyway, and with the classic story format being relatively short compared to common fantasy novels it seems like a good reference point for what I might realistically be able to get written down.

Some years ago I hunted down the word count numbers for the great classics of Sword & Sorcery and some other of my favorites, and I just realized that I never put them on this site. So here they are:

Conan by Robert Howard:
  • The Phoenix on the Sword: 8,823
  • The Scarlet Citadel: 15,446
  • The Tower of the Elephant: 9,726
  • Black Colossus: 14,346
  • The Slithering Shadow: 12,897
  • The Pool of the Black One: 11,252
  • Rogues in the House: 9,676
  • The Frost Giant’s Daughter: 3,284
  • Iron Shadows in the Moon: 12,123
  • Queen of the Black Coast: 11,334
  • The Devil in Iron: 12,292
  • The People of the Black Circle: 30,890
  • A Witch Shall be Born: 16,337
  • Jewels of Gwahlur: 17,167
  • Beyond the Black River: 21,799
  • Shadows in Zamboula: 12,146
  • The Hour of the Dragon: 72,375
  • Red Nails: 30,946
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber:
  • The Jewels in the Forest: 14,215
  • The Bleak Shore: 4,272
  • The Howling Tower: 5,855
  • The Sunken Land: 6,900
  • Thieves’ House: 12,235
  • Adept’s Gambit: 31,901
  • Claws from the Night: 9,410
  • The Seven Black Priests: 9,523
  • Lean Times in Lankhmar: 15,400
  • When the Sea-King’s away: 9,806
  • The Cloud of Hate: 4,929
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: 9,653
  • Their Mistress, the Sea: 1,316
  • The Wrong Beach: 2,267
  • The Circle Curse: 3,596
  • The Price of Pain-Ease: 4,650
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
  • Elric of Melnibone: 48,000
  • The Sailor on the Seas of Fate: 24,000
  • The Weird of the White Wolf: 39,000
  • The Vanishing Tower: 48,000
  • The Bane of the Black Sword: 45,000
  • Stormbringer: 71,000
Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith
  • The Tale of Satampra Zeiros: 4,852
  • The Testament of Athammaus: 7,309
  • The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan: 3,203
  • The Door to Saturn: 7,056
  • The Ice-Demon: 6,135
  • Ubbo-Sathla: 2,975
  • The Seven Geases: 7,785
  • The White Sybil: 3,650
  • The Coming of the White Worm: 7,109
  • The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles: 3,901
Kane by Karl Wagner
  • Reflections for the Winter of My Soul: 26,205
  • Cold Light: 29,662
  • Mirage: 10,280
  • Untertow: 11,480
  • Two Suns Setting: 9,453
  • The Dark Muse: 16,654
  • Raven’s Eyrie: 21,922
  • Lynortis Reprise: 14,220
  • Sing a Last Song of Valdese: 5,964
The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Witcher: 10,213
  • A Grain of Truth: 10,418
  • The Lesser Evil: 12,764
  • A Question of Price: 13,105
  • The Edge of the World: 14,395
  • The Last Wish: 18,349
  • The Voice of Reason: 12,495
  • The Bounds of Reason: 25,538
  • A Shard of Ice: 13,572
  • Eternal Flame: 16,767
  • A Little Sacrifice: 19,557
  • Sword of Destiny: 19,995
  • Something More: 17,574
Various Tales by H.P. Lovecraft:
  • Dagon: 2,216
  • The Lurking Fear: 8,164
  • The Rats in the Walls: 7,974
  • The Shunned House: 10,742
  • The Call of Cthulhu: 11,905
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: 51,112
  • The Colour out of Space: 12,457
  • The Dunwhich Horror: 17,524
  • The Whisperer in Darkness: 26,624
  • At the Mountains of Madness: 40,881
  • The Shadow over Innsmouth: 27,026
  • The Thing on the Doorstep: 10,954

As an interesting fact, all the stories of Conan written by Howard combined are about as long as the average novel in the Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire series, and only about two third the length of The Lord of the Rings.

Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.