Sorcery & Noir

I’m still talking about sword noir. I’m wondering if anyone is still listening? Er, I guess that would be writing and reading, but you know what I mean.

The basis for all this has been a definition of sword noir I provided here.

So what is sword noir as a genre? Characters morals are shifting at best and absent at worst. The atmosphere is dark and hope is frail or completely absent. Violence is deadly and fast. The characters are good at what they do, but they are specialists. Trust is the most valued of commodities–life is the cheapest. Grim leaders weave labyrinthine plots which entangle innocents. Magic exists and can be powerful, but it takes extreme dedication to learn, extorts a horrible price, and is slow to conjure.

This time, I want to look at something that comes from the “sword” part of sword noir.

Magic exists and can be powerful, but it takes extreme dedication to learn, extorts a horrible price, and is slow to conjure.

I cribbed this from my understanding of sword & sorcery. This is the magic of Conan and Lankhmar. Different than the flash and explosions of the average D&D game, it is more mysterious, and sometimes much more deadly.

Does one need magic for something to be sword noir? Magic is as much a part of sword & sorcery as, . . . well, as swords. It is a part of Conan’s world and is certainly a part of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s. Whether it is a part of Solomon Kane’s word might be open to debate, but he certainly thinks it is, and its effects are there to be seen.

Now, I hope you will forgive me, but these three series are the basis for my understanding of sword & sorcery. As such, they have become the basis for my aspirations for sword noir. If you’ve been reading this series, you might also note the preponderance of references to the movies the Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past. These two movies were seminal in getting me interested in noir. Putting these five elements together, and you’ve got sword noir.

Anyway, about the magic, I do think it is necessary. It does not need to dominate, but I believe it must be present, even if only in the superstitions and beliefs of those who inhabit the world of sword noir. It is easy to wave away such belief as superstition, in fact, because of the scarcity of magic in the setting. Think about it, if it takes extreme dedication and extorts a horrible price, how many practitioners do you think are wandering around? And they certainly aren’t doing parlour tricks for the local peasants.

This extreme dedication to learn may mean that the centres of learning are secretive and inaccessible. It may mean that there are no centres of learning and that the lost knowledge known only to a few must be hunted down and taken from those who already hold it. Whatever the reason, it is not for the impatient or the dilettante. Learning even the weakest of spells may be an epic quest of itself, suitable for an entire campaign!

And once you have learned these secrets, it doesn’t cost points or fatigue or mana. It will likely cost your very soul. Very few of the wizards one finds in S&S are what might be called good. There is N’Longa the shaman, friend of Solomon Kane. One might consider Sheelba and Ningauble good, given that they are linked to the heroes of Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, but their actions are too often self-interested. And the Gray Mouser dabbles, but not even he considers himself a good hero.

So there are some that have either overcome the taint of magic or avoided it somehow. Most wizards and warlocks in the lands of S&S, and therefore the lands of sword noir, have succumbed to madness or evil. Magic is inherently unnatural, and so perhaps it follows that those whom possess it become inhuman.

Finally, the magic of sword noir is not the quick spell of a few words and a motion that Cugel might ply on one—and that finally found its way into the rules of D&D. The magic of sword noir is, for lack of a better term, ritual magic. It is about incantations and rituals. Rites that lead back to the most ancient of times. Do these ceremonies contact ancient spirits, otherworldly beings, or just tap mystical energies hidden beyond the curtain of realities? Who is to say (well, the GM of course!). Whatever the source of magic, its invocation is time consuming, and the greater the power, the greater the length of the ritual.

For this reason, magic is often not important in combat. However, items might be enscorceled and carry powerful enchantments. Perhaps an individual herself has had spells of exceptional power cast on her, making her far more formidable than she already is.

So there you have it. The definition dissected. My ideas elaborated. What more is there to say?

There are the stories. Right now, I have only two that have been published, but a third is scheduled to be. None of them are pure sword noir, but I don’t think any story is pure of theme or genre in any meaningful sense. I think these stories helped to define sword noir, just as I am trying to now use sword noir to define my stories.

You can read “Flotsam Jewel” in the June 2006 issue of Forgotten Worlds, that is, if you can find it. The venue went bust just as this issue was being published. I didn’t even see my contributor copies, and I know there were people interested in getting this story that simply couldn’t.  This was the first story in which I intentionally included elements of noir, and it was set in Hadrapole.

The second Hadrapole story to be written was also the second to see publication. You can read “For Simple Coin” in the Winter 2009 issue of On Spec, available here.

Black Gate will be presenting “A Pound of Dead Flesh,” though I don’t know when. While the setting was inspired in part by Imperial Rome and in part by Celtic Britain, the characters and their predicament was specifically intended as a riff on noir, and so might be considered my first real sword noir story, though given the setting, it might be better described as sandal noir.

Here’s hoping there’ll be more stories for you to read that give you that sword noir feel.

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2 Responses to Sorcery & Noir

  1. Congrats on the Black Gate score. I’ll forward to reading your story.

  2. Fraser says:

    Thank you! I just saw on the website that the story is slated for the next issue. The excitement mounts!

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