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Flame and Crimson, a review

Having just finished Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson: a History of Sword-and-Sorcery, published in 2019 by Pulp Hero Press, I can now expand on my initial post of a few days back. I am doing this because I think this books deserves a wide circulation, and so we need to talk about it, and because I got wind of some less-than-positive opinions going around, and I’d like to address those, too.

So, for starters, let’s see what you get in the package.

The book opens with a brief Introduction, followed by a chapter about What is Sword-and-Sorcery?, that defines what is about to be discussed. Considering how plastic definitions can be, and how labels tend to proliferate, this is a straightforward and much needed starting point.

We follow up with a chapter about the Origins of the sub-genre, looking at the pre-history of sword & sorcery and at the major influences on the early development of the sub-genre. Norse mythology, adventure literature, lost-world adventures and planetary romance, and the pulp ecosystem are discussed. Being a fan, I find the lack of a section about the influence of the Arabian Nights glaringly missing, but I can see why it is missing: many of the earlier authors of sword & sorcery probably got a taste of Oriental exoticism second-hand, by the likes of Mundy and Lamb, rather than by actually reading and enjoying the Arabian Nights.
Maybe. I do not know. I still feel the Oriental element is too downplayed in favor of the Norse component, but that’s just me.

Robert E. Howard and the birth of sword-and-sorcery covers in depth the work of Howard and its influence as the root of all sword & sorcery to come. Howard’s letters to Lovecraft provide ample insight on the philosophy and ideology of the Texas author, and shed light not just on Conan, but also on what would become the foundation tropes of the sub-genre.

Weird Tales: Howard’s sword-and-sorcery contemporaries covers the other Weird Tales authors that contributed to the first canon of the dub-genre: C.A. Smith, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner. It is particularly good to read a full analysis of the importance of Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories.

Revival moves further downstream along the river of time, and provides an overview of Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, and of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, two excellent examples of sword & sorcery that follows in Howard’s tradition while breaking with his style and his concerns. The chapter also touches upon the Conan reissues that sparked a renewal of interest in the genre.

Renaissance brings us more goodness, with entries on Poul Anderson, Jack Vance and Karl Edward Wagner, thus completing the exploration of an ideal sword & sorcery pantheon.

And yet it is with the following chapter, Decline and Fall, that we get to what was to me the really interesting part of the book. Do not get me wrong, up to this point Murphy’s book is excellent, but we have already seen much of this show: fantasy and sword-and-sorcery readers are well-read about their literary idols. But here, we start observing the development of sword & sorcery as a successful product, and Murphy analyses the causes of the ultimate decline of the genre, tracing the roots of the problem to a mix of personal biases on the part of some authors (Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp in particular) and of too much success, leading to a flooding of the market with sub-par stories and characters.

Underground, Resurgence and New Directions gives us a spark of hope, in the form of a survey of what has become a niche market. This chapter promises to become a source of excitement, wild expenses and frustration for the reader, should they try to track down all the titles that are mentioned.

The Cultural Impact of Sword-and-Sorcery covers just what it says on the tin, with an overview of sword & sorcery’s influence roleplaying games, heavy metal music and movies. This is just a quick look at huge fields, but its serves its purposes.

Why Sword-and-Sorcery? sums up the conclusions and the points of the author, and closes the book. We also get a timeline, and a huge bibliography.

And all in all it is a great book. Maybe, for my tastes, it defines too tightly the boundaries of the sub-genre, but within those boundaries it does a superb work of setting the bases for all future studies of sword & sorcery. I recommended this book after reading the first 100 pages, and I strongly recommend it now that I have read it from cover to cover. Again, I do not subscribe 100% to the positions of the author, but I can see how he came to certain conclusions, and I understand the reasons of my minimal differences.

I was told the book has been considered by some to be “lightweight” and of course yes, it would have been good to get a 700-pages book looking into all the ins-and-outs of Imaro, Brak the Barbarian, Kotar and Thongor and everybody else. But those characters are mentioned, and their position in the genre is discussed, while keeping the book under the 300-pages mark.
So no, it is not lightweight, and it does what it sets out to do with great economy while remaining readable and thorough.

So, here you have it.
Bottom line: buy this book if you love sword & sorcery, or if you are curious about it.

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