Here’s a funny thing about “action reads:” a lot of people would equate that to mean a whole lot of running and chasing and swordplay. They wouldn’t be wrong, of course, but all the physical action in the world can’t liven up a bland tale, or make boring characters interesting, and there’s actually plenty of forward momentum and tension to be had in some fantasy adventure stories without the more obvious blood-letting. And then of course there’s lyrical prose. Me, I prefer to see my action with great characters and some lovely writing, and today I’m going to share a few favorites that deliver all those things.
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
There’s a reason NPR described Ilana C. Myer’s first novel as “lyrical, dynamic, and winningly melodic.” That’s a wonderful summation of some of the book’s strengths, and can serve equally well as a descriptor for Myer’s writing throughout the trilogy.
I really can’t understand why her wonderful prose hasn’t earned this gifted author a wider audience. Maybe it’s because people think “lyrical” means slow. Yes, the descriptions are gorgeous, but don’t wander in expecting languid limpid pools to be the subject page after page. Here, have a glimpse from deep in the book and see what she does with the simple act of a musician playing before a fireside audience.
“His hands stroked the strings almost tenderly, to start, but that of course did not last. As with so many things, tenderness was only a beginning, giving way to need and violence. And on the first chord where tenderness gave way to need, Edrien’s voice joined the music of the strings, lifted in a chant that recalled the earliest songs fo the people who had wandered these mountains, the songs they had bequeathed, over centuries, to their children. That much, at least, he owed his hosts. But it was a song he had written himself, combining their traditional forms with his own inspiration as a young man. It was one of the songs that had made his name what it was.
The children were talking and laughing at first, but soon Edrien was aware that in addition to the darkness that encircled them, they were ensconced in breathless silence that only his music filled.”
The flawed and driven characters and the mysteries they uncover propel this book so that you’re soon turning the pages with anticipation. Myers supplies plenty of dynamic tension and layered backstories. When violence occurs in a Myers scene, it is sharp and deadly. I love that much of the book (and those that follow) are set in a musical college that actually feels like a real institution where fantasy bards would train, one with fascinating traditions and secrets so engaging I really wish I’d thought of them myself. And best of all, each book is a little bit better than the one that precedes it, and they start out strong indeed.
Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett
From a recent author, let me shift to one well-regarded but too-often neglected, the late, great, Leigh Brackett. I’ve talked about her everywhere until I’m blue in the face, and you can find write-ups about her across the interweb. So instead of talking about her or summarizing her, just savor this:
“He came alone into the wineshop, wrapped in a dark red cloak, with the cowl drawn over his head. He stood for a moment by the doorway and one of the slim dark predatory women who live in those places went to him, with a silvery chiming from the little bells that were almost all she wore.
I saw her smile up at him. And then, suddenly, the smile became fixed and something happened to her eyes. She was no longer looking at the cloaked man but through him. In the oddest fashion — it was as though he had become invisible.
She went by him. Whether she passed some word along or not I couldn’t tell but an empty space widened around the stranger. And no one looked at him. They did not avoid looking at him. They simply refused to see him.”
Those are the opening words to one of Brackett’s final stories set on her faded, dying Mars, “The Last Days of Shandakor.” She always wrote like that, no matter if she was writing hardboiled mysteries or hardboiled space opera, or hardboiled planetary adventure. Note the key term there, hardboiled, because there’s always a sense of loss in her fiction, and her heroes are haunted and a little broken by life’s trials. If you’ve always wished someone had been writing noir adventure science fiction, well, someone was, and she wrote a lot of it. And she never failed to deliver the action beats and propulsive pacing.
The Coming of Conan by Robert E. Howard
Let’s turn next to someone who should need no introduction: Robert E. Howard. The thing is, he probably DOES need an introduction, because the concept of Conan looms so large over his writing that it can be hard to separate what we think we know of the character and the writing itself from what’s actually there. For those who have never read his work I always have to begin by pointing out that they were written in the 1930s by a man who died when he was 30. And then I have to point out that Conan himself is a more complex character than popularly depicted. Finally, there’s a great deal of power in Howard’s prose, and anyone only familiar with the cinematic Conan is really missing something. Read this, from “Queen of the Black Coast,” where Conan, Bêlit, and their pirate crew row up a river in the darkness:
“Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining road of bursting jewels. The oars dipped into the shining water and came up sheathed in frosty silver. The plumes on the warriors’ head-pieces nodded in the wind, and the gems on sword-hilts and harness sparkled frostily.”
His prose is rich with evocative writing just like this, and he has many characters and settings beyond Conan that deserve a look.
Imaro by Charles Saunders
From Howard’s Hyboria let us shift our gaze to Nyumbani, the African-like fantasy realm where Charles Saunders’ mighty Imaro strides forth into adventure. Debuting around the same time as Michael Moorcock’s and Karl Edward Wagner’s heroic fiction, Imaro is at least as compelling than better known characters and it’s always mystified me that the brave wanderer isn’t discussed more regularly. Not only are Imaro’s exploits great fun, they’re stuffed full of grand writing and memorable characters.
In this scene, Imaro has been embraced by a band of people, the Mtumwe, after rescuing a man attacked by a crocodile. They have challenged him to join their dance one evening:
“The crowd of dancers gave ground as he approached, making way for their guest from afar. And the drumming subsided to a low background mutter as Imaro stood alone in the firelit dance space.
For a long moment, the warrior remained motionless, as though gathering energy into himself. Then, without warning, he sprang so high into the air it seemed he had disappeared. Even the drumming halted as the astonished Mtumwe waited for Imaro to return to the ground. And they wondered how he would manage to land without injuring himself.
When Imaro descended, however, his feet touched the earth as lightly as those of one of the small forest cats that lived in the shadow of Chui the leopard. Now he crouched in a fighting stance: one arm extended as though he were wielding an arem; the closer to his body, in the position of a shield.”
Imaro wanders a fantastical Africa based partly on myth and partly conjured from Saunders’ gifted imagination, righting wrongs, seeking acceptance, and searching for a home. He may be the single most likeable of all heroic fiction protagonists. Elric or Kane might fascinate, but you really find yourself rooting for Imaro – you wouldn’t mind hosting a feast for him to give the guy a break, and no one without a death wish would want to sit down with most sword-and-sorcery characters. It’s about time Imaro got a movie so Saunders and his creations could receive the attention and acclaim they’re due. Interested parties should start with the first volume, Imaro, and be prepared for wonders.
Bard by Keith Taylor
As long as we’re discussing neglected fantasy characters from the ‘70s and ‘80s, let’s close up with Keith Taylor’s Bard books. There were five in all, although the fifth seems to have a smaller print run, for it can be hard to come by. The titular Bard, Felimid Mac Fal, descendant of Druids and the Tuatha de Danann, wanders the Celtic world, which is our own historical world mixed with fantasy elements. The writing is sharp and lyrical – there’s that dangerous word that does NOT translate as slow — and the action is vivid. In book one alone there’s one of the best battles with a giant spider ever put to page, superior to Tolkien and rivaled only by Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant.”) And that’s not even the book’s finest moment. Adventure aplenty awaits all those who dare Taylor’s pages, as well as a sense of playfulness that’s almost mythic and often hard to come by in a lot of more recent fantasy. Here, from early on in the first book, is a moment when Felimid first plays his fabulous harp before a king who plots against him:
“Her black oak frame sheened like silk from generations of loving use. Within its curve, subtle, cardioid, were stretched golden strings like lines of light, slanting through fine holes. Felimid’s long-fingered hand moved across them, setting free a surge of enchanted sound. It summoned the powers of growth and increase. The noises and scents of spring came into Oisc’s hall. Dogs sniffed the air in bewilderment.”
What Felimid’s audience doesn’t know is that he’s working a cantrip on their king, to make his bear grow:
“Felimid’s victim looked baffled, as nearly as could be told from his bearded and hideous face. Then, as something crawled hairily over his hands where one held a drinking horn and the other drummed irritable fingers on the table before him, he was moved to look down. His yell of astonishment drew every eye in the hall.
His beard had spread across his chest like a great flowing glacier and was now twisting, curling, writhing over the table, growing at a rate of yards each minute.”
When not helping run his small family farm or spending time with his amazing wife and children, Howard Andrew Jones is hunched over his laptop or notebook mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. He has worked as a TV cameraman, a book editor, a recycling consultant, and a college writing instructor. He edited 8 collections of Harold Lamb’s historicals and served as Managing Editor of Black Gate. He edits the sword-and-sorcery magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull and edits fiction for the Perilous Worlds book imprint. Check out the book trailer to Jones’ upcoming novel, Upon the Flight of the Queen—available November 19th from St. Martin’s Press.