Let me begin by saying that I love sword and sorcery. Michael Moorcock’s Elric and, later, Prince Corum stories and novels are among some of my all-time favourites and I hold the work of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and C.L Moore in the highest regard along with many other practitioners of the form.
On the other hand, I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with sword and sorcery. There’s an emphasis from writers, editors and readers on, as it were, ‘good, old fashioned storytelling’ and, often, an adherence to the ‘rules’ of s&s which sometimes precludes its growth.
I’ve argued before elsewhere that sword and sorcery and space opera are kindred spirits in a literary sense. Both began at roughly the same time: sword and sorcery with the publication of Howard’s The Shadow Kingdom in 1929 and space opera with E.E Smith’s the Skylark of Space in 1928 (there is, of course, a separate argument to be made about this – there were precedents for both genres – but that’s for another place and another time). Both tend to be looked down upon as inferior literary forms, even within the speculative fiction community, and both are saddled with tropes that are continually recycled (and which give them their particular ‘flavour’).
The main difference, it seems to me, is that somewhere along the track space opera managed to break free from its pulp shackles, embracing different literary techniques while remaining true to its roots. Writers as diverse as Dan Simmons, Iain M Banks and Lois McMaster Bujold have worked effectively in the field – Iain Banks in particular bringing a distinctly literary approach to space opera.
By comparison sword and sorcery often seems mired in its own past, trapped within the shadow of Robert E. Howard and, with a few exceptions (the aforementioned Moorcock, Leiber and Moore) content to remain so. If such a thing as post-modern space opera can exist, is such a thing as post-modern sword and sorcery possible?
Which brings me very nicely to Richard A. Lupoff’s 1976 novel Sword of the Demon.
A quick glance at the blurb might convince the casual reader that, in s&s terms, this is more of the usual – “Through realms of oriental splendour and superhuman conflict, a beautiful woman warrior and a fierce man-god journey to challenge a being more awesome than the gods for a magical sword that holds the power of death … and the key to enlightenment.” – but Sword of the Demon is much more than a standard quest/defeat the dark lord/ win the prize narrative.
Firstly, there is the narrative style itself, relentlessly in the present tense (“The sprite yields up a horrible scream of pain and fear. His mouth falls open, his eyes stare wildly. A spasm of his muscles and he pulls away.”), then there is the beautifully crafted prose and, unusually for the time, the rich and exotic Asian setting, utilising the mythology of Japan and the samurai tradition.
While there is action a-plenty, demons to spare, demi-gods by the bunch and the odd mystical weapon (the titular sword) Sword of the Demon isn’t primarily an adventure novel, rather it is a novel of change and adaptation – an unnamed creature who may or may not be a god is incarnated as a woman (Kishimo) who then becomes a warrior, a hero, a saviour and ultimately becomes one with the universe; a demi-god (the Aizen) undergoes a similar transformation, as does his sworn enemy Miroku and throughout the novel characters and landscape continually transform.
Often, the effect is to shift the narrative abruptly, leaving both the reader and the characters momentarily disoriented and it is this audacious approach to narrative and plotting which gives Sword of the Demon its unique, dizzying, aspect.
Not an easy read but a rewarding one, Sword of the Demon is perhaps the closest thing to post-modern sword and sorcery that I’ve ever come across, a daring novel that plays not only with the tropes of s&s but also the language and narrative form, refusing to explain its more outlandish moments yet steadfastly maintaining its own fragmented and dream-like logic.
Of course in many ways such a radical departure from conventional narrative was never going to revolutionise the field of sword and sorcery, but its good to know that there are (and hopefully will be again) writers who aren’t afraid to break the mould.