Last night I was reading Simon Scarrow's historical novel, When the Eagle Hunts. It's my first Scarrow book and I'm enjoying it quite a bit and I'll probably get around to reviewing it when I'm done, but for this post I'm mainly using it as an example of what I like about Robert E. Howard's sword & sorcery and what I look for in sword & sorcery in general.
Most S&S fans agree that Howard invented the genre of S&S by combining his love for historical (or pseudo-historical) adventure with fantasy/horror. Even though Conan's adventures take place in the imaginary Hyborian age, a lost era before recorded history, for the most part the Hyborian world is our world and based in our history. The early Conan stories, such as The Tower of the Elephant and The God in the Bowl take place in a world similar to ancient Mesopotamia. As the series progresses, Howard drops his burly hero into places that mimic other times in Earth history from medieval Europe to sixteenth century pirate days to frontier America. The Hyborian age often seems a way for Howard to place Conan into whatever time period Howard felt like writing about.
And leave us not forget Howard's historical sword & sorcery series characters, Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn. In these stories, Howard took adventures set in actual historical eras and mixed them with the supernatural.
Anyway, what I'm getting around to is this. As I was reading When the Eagle Hunts and enjoying the roguish adventures of its heroes Macro and Cato, I was thinking, "This is much like a Robert E. Howard story without any sorcery." Because in Howard's sword & sorcery, we seem to be seeing the real world, even in the Hyborian age, a world that operates like the one you and I live in and where sorcery or monsters are aberrations and not part of the norm.
And that's what I like in sword & sorcery. An element of realism. It's not that I don't enjoy pure fantasy. I like a lot of writers who use other nonhuman races in their books. I'm good with elves and dwarves and hobbits or Halflings. But in sword & sorcery I prefer for the world to be as close to Earth Normal as possible, so that the sudden intrusion of the supernatural gives you the same jolt as it would in a Stephen King novel. I don't want the characters to take magic or monsters for granted. For the most part you get that level of realism with Howard.
I've joked before about how these days I have to get my sword & sorcery fix from historical novels, but really that's how it feels. Bernard Cornwell's Norse hero Uhtred has adventures much more like those of Conan than any character I can think of in current fantasy. I'm getting a nice Fafhrd and Grey Mouser buzz from Macro and Cato. All Steven Pressfield's novel of Alexander the Great's armies, The Afghan Campaign, needed was a sorcerer or some lurking horror hiding in the mountains to make it an S&S tale.
So basically I guess I want more of what Robert E Howard was dishing out. The real world with supernatural menaces. Howard noted that his every impulse was to write realism. Of Conan he said:
"It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact-his supernatural adventures aside-he is the most realistic character I ever evolved."