Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A fantasy teaser

In my copious spare time, I've been working on a novel in the heroic fantasy genre.  I'm trying very hard to avoid the things I dislike in some so-called 'sword-and-sorcery' books and films.  In many cases they're completely nonsensical, far beyond the 'suspension of disbelief' that readers or viewers are supposed to invoke.  (For example, anyone trying to wield in actual combat a full-size steel 'fantasy sword' such as that portrayed in the film 'Conan The Barbarian' would find it utterly impossible!  It would be far too heavy and bulky to be usable.  Similarly, scenes such as those in the 'Lord Of The Rings' film trilogy where an arrow strike punches someone backwards, or knocks them off their feet or blows them out of the saddle, are simply ridiculous.  An arrow strike is nowhere near that powerful, as any bowhunter will attest.)  The 'sorcery' is also over the top, flagrantly in-your-face, far beyond any of the claimed attributes of magicians and sorcerers of old.

Instead, I'm trying to write a heroic fantasy rooted in real military history, with believable characters, weapons, tactics, societies, action scenes and primitive-religion-based 'sorcery'.  It may or may not work . . . I just don't know.  However, I think if I can get it right, it may be a worthwhile addition to my books, and might form the basis of a new series for those who are more into fantasy or sword-and-sorcery genres than science fiction (although my SF writing will continue, of course).  I've written several rough drafts over the years, none of which satisfied me, but all of which improved compared to their predecessors.  With luck, the current effort may go all the way to publication next year.

Here's an excerpt from the current project.  I'd be grateful to hear your opinion of it.

    The ford was a bustle of horses and men, some crossing the stream, others spreading out along both banks, finding an open spot to let the horses drink and refill their waterskins. The tall man's face wrinkled with annoyance as he watched those on their first raid. They were using water already muddied and staled by animals upstream of them.
    “They'll learn,” his companion said tolerantly, guessing from his expression what was on the other's mind. “You only have to drink water mixed with horse piss a couple of times to work out that there has to be a better way.”
    “Yes.” The older man took a waterskin from behind his saddle and knelt to fill it as his horse straightened, its appetite sated for now. “In days gone by they'd have learned that from their fathers, but our people grow soft. Too few ride the raiding trail nowadays. Too many prefer to leave it to others to do the hard work while they ape the soft ways of merchants and farmers.”
    “If the Gods smile upon the young na-Khan, that may change before long.”
    “Then let us pray most devoutly that they do!” He rose, slinging the now-full skin over the saddle, and glanced up at the mid-morning sun. “Take them on slowly. Don't wind the horses – they've had a hard run, and we'll want them as fresh as possible in case we have to get past a patrol. I'll ride to the top of that rise, and watch our back trail from the cover of the trees until Hicta and Kundoz get here. We should catch up with you within an hour.”
    The younger man frowned. “Yabun, you are our leader and I don't question your authority, but why are you worried? We've never raided in this area before, so no-one was expecting trouble. We struck the breeder yesterday, killed everyone, took all their horses and got away clean. It will have taken them this long just to get word to their Army and send a patrol to the farm. We've got to be far ahead of any pursuit. We've kept to the hills, where there's hardly anyone to see us, and we killed both the hunters we came across, to stop them reporting our route. We'll be safe across the border by this afternoon. I don't see that there's anything to fear.”
    “That's what worries me. Things are going too well. When you've raided as often as I have, you become suspicious of good fortune. The Gods aren't usually so generous. They're mischievous, devious and tricky, just waiting for someone to get over-confident so they can teach him not to be so foolish. That's why I've had scouts watching our back trail to see if anyone's following. All it will take is for someone to signal our position using smoke or a mirror. If one of their border patrols sees it, they'll try to block our passage. We can evade them, even fight our way through a small patrol, but not with all the captured horses. We'd lose a lot of them.”
    “Yes, but why wait for the scouts yourself? You're too important for that. Let me assign someone else.”
    “Haven't I taught you to lead by example? We're a clan, part of a tribe. Everyone does his share of the dirty work and routine, boring tasks, otherwise some will resent him. Don't forget, I'm not just a war chieftain. I must lead our clan in war and peace, at home and on the raiding trail. I have to set the example I want them to follow.”
    His subordinate heaved a sigh. “I suppose you're right.”
    “I know I'm right! The little things matter, Perun. Don't forget that when your time comes to lead a raid. Now, gather the others and be on your way.”
    “As you command.”
    As Perun issued orders, he silently decided to send back a couple of men to check on Yabun if their chieftain hadn't reappeared within an hour. He was skilled and experienced, but even he might make a mistake.

* * *

    Yabun was growing impatient by the time he spotted two horses making their way down the far slope towards the ford. “At last!” he snorted to himself. “They've taken their time. They should have been here long ago!”
    He raised his farseer, adjusted the sliding telescopic elements to focus it, and looked more closely. His face creased in a mixture of anger and concern as he realized that only the front rider was sitting in his saddle. He was walking his horse slowly, doubled over his saddle-horn, clearly in great pain. Yabun couldn't see his face beneath the brim of his hat, but from his dun horse and his familiar dull brown cloak, folded loosely around him, he recognized Hicta. He was leading a black horse, its saddle carrying a long bundle wrapped in Kunduz' black-and-white striped blanket. All the signs pointed to the scouts having hit big trouble somewhere on their back trail.
    Yabun closed the farseer, slid it into its tubular leather case and put it back in his saddlebag, thanking the Gods yet again that he owned so useful an instrument. It was one of his most prized possessions, taken from an enemy's body after a fierce skirmish five years ago. Swinging into the saddle, he spurred his black horse down the hill towards the ford. Its banks still showed the tracks of almost a hundred horses and a score of riders, but the water had long since cleared.
    Splashing across the ford, Yabun swung down from his saddle, casually tying the reins to a bush. No-one in his right mind left his mount to its own devices when he knew fight or flight might be necessary at any moment. The horse could stray or run without its rider, as many a raider had discovered to his terminal cost. He turned towards the path where it emerged from the heavily wooded hillside. He could hear hoofbeats approaching slowly, and saw a movement in the gloom beneath the trees.
    “Hicta! It's Yabun! What happened, man?” he called.
    In answer a flicker of light and dark flashed across the space between them. Yabun doubled over as an arrow spiked deep into his lower abdomen. The screaming agony of the strike froze him in his tracks for an instant. With iron will and a hoarse grunt of pain he forced himself erect, reaching for the hilt of the scimitar at his left side; but a second arrow struck home, driving in just below his sternum. He staggered back, hands rising to clutch at its shaft. He'd killed enough men, and seen enough injuries, to know at once that he'd been mortally wounded.
    The brown-cloaked figure stepped into the clearing. It wasn't Hicta, even though he wore the scout's cloak, now thrown back. His face was young, hardly adult yet, topped with brown hair, and his body was lithe and strong. His left hand held a finely made recurve bow with compound limbs, right hand reaching into a quiver on his belt for another arrow. He fitted it to the bowstring, eyes glowing with anger as they focused on the wounded man. Fleetingly Yabun realized it was a hunting arrow, head set upright to slice between the ribs of animals walking on four legs. A war arrow's head was horizontal, to pass between the ribs of an upright man. This hunting arrow implied that his killer was neither warrior nor soldier.
    “Who … who are you?” Yabun asked falteringly in the enemy's tongue as he struggled to keep his balance.
    “What's that to you?” The young man's voice was harsh, bitter.
    “A man should … know who killed him.”
    “I'm Iolyn, son of Eldric the horse breeder, whom you murdered yesterday.”
    “What did … you do to my scouts?”
    “They grew careless, and didn't hide themselves well enough as they watched your back trail. I got behind them before they left their position to rejoin you. I shot the first one, then the second before he could charge me or turn to run, and finished them off with my knife – as I will you, in a moment.” He took the arrow from the bowstring and returned it to his quiver. It was obvious to both of them that he wouldn't need it.
    “And … this?”
    “It stood to reason that if you'd set scouts to watch your back trail before, you'd do so again. This ford was an obvious place to station one or two more, so I planned to draw you out of concealment to help what you thought were your wounded comrades. I tethered my horse a mile away in a clearing, then put on one of your scouts' cloaks to hide my bow and rode his horse as if I was hurt. The bundle across the other saddle is both of their bedrolls, wrapped in a blanket to look like a body.”
    Yabun felt a wave of dizziness surge over him. He stumbled to his knees, half-sitting, leaning to one side, supporting his failing body with his left arm as he looked up. “Know, then … you have killed Yabun, noyan of the Tanit clan of the Kaladi tribe. I … I led this raid. Many have tried to kill me … and failed. You have … done what no warrior … could ever do in a fair fight.”
    “My father taught me that war is never fair. Besides, a murderer deserves no fairness.”
    “Not a murderer! I … I am a raider, as my people have been … for aeons. How … did you … survive? I … thought we … killed everyone … at the farm.” Yabun felt his breath growing shorter, saw the light growing darker, and felt cold creeping up his limbs towards his chest. He knew it would not be long now; but suddenly, urgently, he needed to know how he had come to his death.
    “I was hunting. I saw the smoke as your men set fire to our buildings, and made it back to the farm in time to see your rearguard disappear into the hills. I sent my man to warn the Army, then followed you.”
    “You … have avenged your father in my blood, then.”
    “But not enough. Your men still live.”
    “They are almost … a score … and you … are … alone …”
    Yabun could no longer remain upright. He sank onto his side, trying to support his weight on his elbow, but even that was too much for him now. He tried to speak, but the words would not come through the icy cold freezing him to the marrow. He saw the young man draw a hunter's skinning knife from his belt, and wanted to shout, scream aloud, beg to be allowed to die like a man instead of be butchered like a hogbut the darkness loomed over him like a wave, and crashed down upon him.

Well, there you are.  What did you think of that 'teaser' segment?  Did it interest you?  Did it hold your attention?  Would you like to read more of the story?  Please let me know in 'Comments'.




JeffW said...

Yes, more please. This is a good start for the story. Not sure how the magic is going to work, but I am willing to pay for the first book to find out.

Mike said...

Yes, yes, and yes! I think your concept of more subtle, more realistic sword and sorcery is intriguing. Looking forward to your finished product.

Roger Ritter said...

Yeah, that works. Already, I want to know more, and whether Iolyn survives.

Anonymous said...

Not my usual cup of tea but I think I'd read it anyway.

rws said...

It reads like a Young Adult novel, with higher levels of exposition and simpler language than I might expect in an adult novel. If that is your intent then good on ya.

Borepatch said...

You know I don't read fiction, but this was pretty interesting.

Rev. Paul said...

What they said. More, please!

Paul said...

I do find it interesting and worthwhile.

If I may make an observation, I find that it is very reminiscent of a Western novel in the Zane Grey / Louis L'Amour style. Which I have read dozens of. Considering that Louis L'Amour is in my opinion the best storyteller I have ever read, don't take this as a criticism.

The plot from what you have written is very similar to many such stories. Indian raiders attack village, lone gunman goes after them for justice/revenge. He even informs the Army before heading off, calling in the cavalry. Although of course in typical western hero style, he doesn't wait for the cavalry. And also, he is not some special 'chosen one', just a fellow caught up in circumstances who rises to the occasion.

Despite the Mongol-style references to the raiders, from the very beginning I pictured them as Indians, simply from the descriptions and dialog. I pictured some young bucks not satisfied with the treaties made with the palefaces and embarrassed by the elders that made them going back to the old ways. The opening conversation between Perun and Yabun again just struck me as an experienced Apache talking to a younger warrior on the trail.

FInally, I find the style very reminiscent of the way that I found that those authors were able to bring the environment to life but without purposefully doing that. What I am trying to say is that you are able to describe the physical surroundings in a way that makes me almost see them, but it occurs naturally, from the conversations, from describing what's going on, as opposed to specifically describing them seperately and on their own. The description of the activities of the stream crossing, the conversation about it, the horse piss, gives a good visual (and olfactoray!) impression of the physical location, naturally tied into the storytelling without having to digress into a patch of dry text to merely describe the background.

Same with the feel you give to the cultural aspect of the raiders. Obviously I got a very strong impression as to what kind of people they are, but not because you came out in the text and said these are the x, a people who believe y, who are lead by z, but because they became alive from what they were saying and doing.

My $0.02 worth for you :)

Ted said...

You have a tendency to over-explain. For instance, here in the section that starts "“Yabun, you are our leader and I don't question your authority, but why are you worried?..." you give a blow by blow sequence of events that both characters already know, because it happened to them in the last day or two. The dialogue doesn't ring true.

You do it again farther along. "“They grew careless..." Stop right there. The dying man doesn't need another detailed sequence of steps that the hunter took to get to that point. Yabun doesn't care that the horse was tethered a mile away, etc.

These are things that more editing would tighten up, but just thought I'd point them out.

TJR said...

I agree with what Paul said. I was getting a Louis L'Amour vibe from the way it was written. Actually it reminded me of The Walking Drum and that is one of my favorite L'Amour books. I would like to see more.

TGreen said...

Personal taste...
Please nudge the dial toward story and away from exposition.
Show us, rather than have the characters tell us.

That being said, I've got cash waiting.

Bill S said...

Credit card ready.

richard mcenroe said...

Some of the young bowman's dialogue is a bit expositorily lumpen. Only evil overlords should go into that much unnecessary detail. Still, I'd put this on the to-read list. Have you read any of Glenn Cook's Black Company stories?

Quentin said...

As others have noted, it needs a lot of tightening up, story-wise.

You also get off to a bad start grammatically: you need a colon and a semi-colon in the first sentence.

You're trying for verisimilitude so the leader should stop the inexperienced men from filling skins with foul water unless he wants disabled men later.

> He raised his farseer, adjusted the sliding telescopic elements to focus it, and looked more closely.

If you're going to use the word 'telescopic', just call the thing a telescope and have done. It's a tautology anyway - the latter word is redundant.

I could go on.

In the shop I'd have put this back after the first page. But it's not bad for an initial draft.

PS Gaudere's Law surely applies! :D

Andrew Hill said...

Your experience in SA is showing through. There is bush war element to the setting. To my ear it sounds like you are trying to educate on raiding and bush warfare, something like Tom Kratman has done with unit training in his M-Day novels.

Snoggeramus said...

You had me at "horse piss." LOL.

MrGarabaldi said...

Hey Peter,

Nice start, I wouldn't mind seeing more of it:)

Scott said...

Yes, please!

Anonymous said...

Sir, you have a sale when you finish this work. Your approach reminds me of an essay by Paul Anderson; I can't remember the title, though.

Also, I would respectfully disagree with comments about telescope and excessive dialogue. Young men are often proud and willing to brag. I know I was. :)

Have a great day.


Peter B said...

It's good start. As others have said, show more, tell less. That'll make character-driven bragging stand out better.
Matt, were you thinking of "On Thud and Blunder?"

Peter, one thing I'd like to see done better in SF and fantasy is the treatment of religion, and with your clerical background plus African experience, I think you might do interesting things.

My 2 cents worth: Overtly, Elizabeth Moon's earlier Paksworld stuff did it fairly well. Cordwainer Smith's later work (after his Christian conversion) seems to reflect a different sensibility than his earlier writing.

Where it tends to stink in fantasy is when it becomes just another magical technology.

Richard Blaine said...

If you haven't read "The Deed of Paksenarrion", Elizabeth Moon I'd highly recommend it. The magic might be a tiny bit over what you're looking for but I'd guess not by much. The fighting scenes are excellent - people actually get confused, dehydrated, tired, worn out. They're not all experts with every sword they pick up. Really excellent.

Morris said...

I'll keep it simple.


Anonymous said...

Yes, good stuff, already want to buy the book.

I liked how the author puts us with a group of people who we think are the protagonists, then gradually it dawns on us how savagely cruel they are, and just as we begin recoiling in disgust the REAL protagonist comes along. Very gratifying to see Yabun not only killed but also in horrible pain.

That said, your critics above make good points about the potential for improvement.

Anonymous said...

Good start. Keep going.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I like it! Looking forward to more.



Old NFO said...

As a rough draft, it's worth expanding on. It's a great idea to do the 'realism' aspect, which has been sadly missing...

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

...knelt to fill it as his horse straightened, its appetite sated for now.

"appetite sated" or "thirst slaked"?

Other than that, write faster.

C. G. R. said...

Sounds like an interesting story - sounds like somewhere in central Asia, like Turkmens & Mongols based on horse breeding and recurved bow. Details like the "farseer" vs. "telescope" and "appetite sated" or "thirst slaked" are stylistic relevant but not that relevant - that's the job of a good editor, so go ahead and write the whole story.

Peter said...

Thank you all for your comments. A couple of general responses:

1. To those worried about "show" versus "tell", or awkward words or expressions: remember that this is a first draft. Issues like that are generally resolved during the revising and editing process. This is an initial attempt, and still needs a lot of polishing.

2. @Andrew Hill: Yes, inevitably there's an element of my own military experience in it. That's probably unavoidable. (South Africa used mounted patrols in the operational area of South West Africa, now Namibia. It was a little incongruous seeing troops riding into battle on horseback, carrying the latest-generation assault rifles and rocket launchers!)

3. To all who mentioned Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion series (, yes, I've read them. I have serious doubts about their protagonist being able to achieve so much in the face of the realities of muscle and body mass, etc. - female warriors would find it almost impossible to fight male opponents of equal skill, purely because of physiological disadvantage. Still, the series makes great reading.

Joseph Kappl said...

Good , pulled me in and made wonder what is next?

Comrade Misfit said...

Maybe change this: “My father taught me that war is never fair. Besides, a murderer deserves no fairness.”

To something along the lines of: "You are a cowardly thief and a murderer. Your name and title are of no importance."

Andrew Hill said...


I thought that overall the concept was great. My initial thought was ‘This is how I would write about planning a silvicultural treatment, if I was writing a novel.’ It is what I know and I can go into great detail about the how and why of a given decision. Since this was set up as a training raid, it was appropriate to go into Yuban’s though process and his attempt to create teachable moments for his subordinates. I think that needs to stay in somehow, even as the prose tightens up.

Within that short excerpt there were several ideas used to good effect: 1) everyone thinks they are the ‘good guy.’ 2) teaching is hard work, 3) the enemy get a vote, and 4) all warfare is based on deception.

I plan on buying this when it comes out. If you can keep up the development of the characters as well as expressing the ideas and their implementation consistently you’ll have a strong novel.

Piper said...

Dang, Peter, I thought that little snippet was pretty good. I have purchased your other online books, and I'll buy this one. I'm not a writer and won't tend to over critique it, but will tell you if the book follows this example, I'm sure I will enjoy it.

Joe Allen said...

As the saying goes "Shut up and take my money!"

Like Richard McEnroe, it also reminds me of Glen Cook's Black Company. I'm generally not a big Sword 'n Sorcery fan, but you managed to set the hook with just a few paragraphs.

Peter B said...

I agree with what you say about the physical combat stuff in the Paksenarrion books; while she herself is written as a farm girl way out on the extreme end of the size/strength bell curve, that wouldn't be true for most of the female fighters.

My comment was meant mainly for the way religion worked. As I see it, there are a number of basic human impulses: art/music (including storytelling,) politics, commerce, religion, and of course aggression and the need to defend one's own. And curiosity. Maybe medicine, too.

Of all of them, religion gets the weakest treatment in SF and fantasy.

Tom Bridgeland said...

Liked it, with one nit-pick. Arrows spin in flight. Doesn't matter a bit if the blades are vertical or horizontal at the bow. Of course, an individual might believe that, and use different arrows for different tasks...

Peter said...

@Tom Bridgeland: You're right, but that brings up two interesting points. First off, the Mongols (and as certain readers above have guessed, I'm using them as my historical starting point for the Makin) used to have their warriors wear silk undershirts. The reason was because arrows fired at longer range might have sufficient energy to penetrate the body, but not necessarily to go all the way through the silk. Instead, they'd carry the silk into the body, twisting themselves into it through their rotary motion. Mongol "doctors" could then extract the arrow by pulling on the silk, easing the arrow out of the flesh without causing further harm.

The other thing is that many Native American tribes (I've checked on the Comanche in particular, but I know of others) followed precisely this practice. Hunting arrows had vertical heads; war arrows had horizontal heads. It was said that this was because of the orientation of animal and human ribs when standing, but it may be that it was simply a way to differentiate between them for "medicine" (i.e. spiritual) purposes.

It's an interesting field to research.

Anonymous said...

As a casual archer, I had the same question at Tom. I decided not to say anything because after some thought I concluded that it is plausible. It is possible to fletch an arrow without any offset or helical. Some people do that nowadays to avoid "wasting" energy on inducing a spin. I doubt you could guarantee that the head would remain in the same orientation over significant distance, but it would certainly be a much slower spin than if the fletchings were specifically oriented to provide an aggressive spin. I do think accuracy would suffer, due to wind and lift on the flat head (especially if the head is not perfectly aligned).