“Map Fantasy” is an umbrella term I use for the Fantasy subgenres of High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy / Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Soul. If you ever see a book whose cover depicts a guy fighting a dragon, or a freakishly muscled warrior staring off into the distance as a buxom woman kneels at his feet, crack that mug (in Chicago, where I grew up, we call objects “mug”) open and I bet the first thing you find in there is a map. You have just discovered a book of “Map Fantasy”. Now, there are exceptions; my own Sword & Soul novel, Once Upon A Time in Afrika does not have a map (although it does have a glossary). So do not send me any rants or “I told you so”-s. If you still do, know that you are crazier than a mug (yep, we use it like that, too).
Genre is primarily a marketing tool that publishers use to attract a certain demographic of readers and brick-and-mortar bookstores (yes, some still exist) use to categorize books on their shelves. Secondarily, genre is convenient shorthand – based on typical tropes and themes – to tell readers what type of book they are about to read.
So, what are the tropes of Map Fantasy?
In general, Fantasy uses the magical or the spiritual as an element of setting or plot. Oh yeah, and people wield Big Ass Swords.
In High Fantasy, Elves, dwarves, Halflings and other non-human, albeit humanoid, races often abound and an epic quest is quite common. Of course, the recounting of this quest usually requires multiple books. The Lord of the Rings and the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons are examples.
Before The Lord of the Rings and High Fantasy, there was Heroic Fantasy, which began with the pulp hero, Conan, the Barbarian, whose “mighty thews” first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1932.
Back then, speculative fiction wasn’t as clearly defined by genre and subgenre. Fantasy and horror often lay in the same bed, so Heroic Fantasy was bloody…very, very bloody and magic was – and often still is – wielded solely by the forces of “darkness”.
Sword & Soul – African-inspired Map Fantasy – is less confined by tropes and can include elements of both Heroic and High Fantasy. Sword & Sorcery can be quite bloody and magic is often wielded by the forces of good and evil.
Let’s examine these subgenres a bit closer and see how they are similar and how they differ.
On High Fantasy covers, look for men and women wielding swords and dressed in shining armor – women are usually dressed in the compulsory chainmail bra – and fire-breathing dragons, unicorns and electricity-wielding Lords of Darkness. You might also find a Castle, looming in the misty distance, or a wizard with a long, white beard and a pointy hat.
On Heroic Fantasy covers, you will find nearly naked men burying their axes and swords into the skulls of other bloody, mostly naked men, or into the pallid flesh of some creature that looks like it crawled out of the Devil’s toilet. You will also find full-breasted, nearly naked women kneeling at the hero’s feet, with her arms wrapped around his mighty thews. Oh, and as for those creatures that crawled out of the Devils toilet, those mugs usually have mighty thews, too.
On the covers of Sword & Soul novels, you may find the things you find on the covers of High and Heroic Fantasy, with one huge difference:
The hero will be Black.
The Effect of Saving, or Finding, a Mug
Whether saving a princess or finding nine powerful, magic rings, the heroes of High Fantasy will also save the world. High Fantasy is usually driven by its setting and the world is all-important.
Heroic Fantasy is less magnanimous. The effects are usually personal. If Conan saved the world, it’d be by accident, and he might curse Crom for allowing him to do so, because, in Heroic settings, the world isn’t worth – or is beyond – saving. Heroic Fantasy is usually character-driven.
In Sword & Soul, the heroes are usually of higher morals than the heroes – or anti-heroes – of Heroic Fiction. They may – or may not be concerned with saving the world, but whether the characters or on a seafaring safari, wandering a vast continent, or battling for the hand of a princess in a grand tournament, they are, most certainly, character driven.
In High Fantasy, the world – yes, the entire world – looks, smells, sounds and acts like Medieval Europe. The places of good are rolling shires and an occasional stony underworld ruled by dwarves as strong – and sometimes as hard – as the stone and ore they mine. Kings are brave and wise and the people are hardy and simple. Of course, there is a Dark Lord just waiting to pass a shadow over the land.
Heroic Fantasy is a bit more willing to experiment. Medieval Europe abounds, but there are also other earth-based societies on the fringes. These societies are usually barbarous, grimy wildernesses (how a wilderness can be grimy is beyond me), swarming with thieves, or exotic lands in which cultists make sacrifices to naked deer-headed goddesses or monstrosities that would make Cthulhu soil his knickers. Farms? Hell, agriculture? There is none. I guess plant-life has a hard time growing when it’s watered with blood.
Sword & Soul is usually set in a city or village based on a real city or village found in ancient Africa. The people in the story are usually based on the real people who populated the real setting the story is based on. Thus, most writers of sword and soul are well-versed in history, or, since they are a lot who often communicate with each other and freely exchange information, they contact another writer who is well-versed in history, particularly African history.
In High Fantasy, humans are generally the baseline. Humans can be bad or good, in league with the Dark Lord, ambitious, timid, brave, or cowardly. Basically, they’re people. White people. Other non-human races exist and their existence is usually a stereotypical one. Dwarves are drunken, hardy louts who never forget a friend or enemy; Elves are usually arrogant and quite delicate, despite the fact they have lived, for eons, in the forest; Orcs are evil, stupid, dark-skinned brutes who are, most likely, servitors of the Dark Lord.
On occasion, one of the other humanoid races will “rise above” his or her stereotypical nature and act more human (i.e. more white). This “exceptional humanoid usually becomes the sidekick of the protagonist, eventually earning the respect of all and proving that all people can transcend their “lowly” upbringing.
Where High Fantasy stories usually veil their racist messages in the actions of its humanoid races, Heroic Fantasy shrugs its shoulders and screams “Who gives a crap?” as it openly embraces its racism and sexism. Jungle-residing cannibals, mysterious and treacherous “Orientals” and sexually insatiable witches are fodder for the mighty thewed heroes’ swords, clubs, axes and penises. Non-humans are rare. If they do exist, they are usually monstrosities best left unnamed.
In Sword & Soul, humans are usually the baseline. However, non-humans also often exist and inhabit the world. These non-humans may be heroes, villains, or just weary travelers looking for a bed and a hot cup o’ joe.
Monsters of various sorts exist in all three milieus. Vampires, demons, zombies and strange creatures, whose bodies are half in our world and half in some other world, roam the planet. In High Fantasy, monsters are varied and quite common. In Heroic Fantasy, monsters are usually less common and a lot meaner. In Sword & Soul, monsters are usually based on creatures from African folklore and are thus stranger – and often more frightening – to Western readers.
In High Fantasy, magic can be rare, like in The Lord of the Rings, or it can be so widespread that one has magical steeds and magical weapons and magical burger joints. Magic is used to heal the sick and feed the poor, or to infect the healthy with a plague and turn the poor into a shambling horde of zombies. It might be hereditary, or it might be learned from a wise old wizard or an arcane text.
In Heroic Fantasy, on the other hand, magic is usually rare, unpredictable, and is often evil. It is accessible to anyone who is willing to sell a bit of his or her soul to some demonic entity. In fact, Heroic Fantasy is often concerned with the triumph of the sword over sorcery.
In Sword & Soul, magic is linked more to the spiritual than to the arcane. Magic is usually the gift – or curse – of some god, or of some powerful ancestor. It can be as common as it is in High Fantasy, but is always more common than it is in Heroic Fantasy.
In High Fantasy, the protagonist is often marked by ancient prophecy to rise to greatness and to remove the shadow that blankets all the mountains and shires. Often, the hero is an ignorant farm-boy, who happens to live somewhere out of the Dark Lord’s grasp. Usually, some town drunk or ne’er do well is secretly the person charged with protecting and teaching the boy when the time finally comes for the lad to take up his quest.
The hero of Heroic Fantasy is the anti-hero. The best of Heroic Fantasy’s heroes lives by a code of honor, but will go against that code if need be. Taking a quest because it is “the right thing to do” is unheard of. Quests, in Heroic Fantasy, are taken for the money, or for sex, or for revenge.
In Sword & Soul, quests are taken for the reasons in both High Fantasy and Heroic Fantasy, but the hero is usually more like the heroes of High Fantasy in morality and more like the heroes of Heroic Fantasy in attitude.
We have already seen the Dark Lord throughout this work. Evil, in High Fantasy, is an ideal; a force that must be vanquished. The Dark Lord is an embodiment of that force, so he must also be destroyed. There are clear delineations of what is good and what is evil in High Fantasy; very black and white.
In Heroic Fantasy, the villain is usually just a tad bit more unpleasant than the hero. The hero, however does not wield magic and the villain does. He is not evil for evil’s sake. The villain in Heroic Fantasy most likely wants power, or booty (money and the other booty), and figures the best way to get it is by sending his horde of undead warriors to acquire it for him. If you had a horde of undead warriors at your disposal, you just might do the same.
In Sword & Soul, good and evil is more complex. This is probably because, in most traditional African societies, good and evil is not really dealt with; appropriateness is. If bandits invade a hero’s house and attempt to rape his mother, to do nothing, or to run and hide would be considered “evil”, because it is an inappropriate act in regard to the situation. To kill them all would be considered appropriate, thus good. If our hero runs next door and kills one of the bandits’ grandmother, then that would be considered inappropriate, thus evil. In Sword & Soul, the hero is often forced to deal with such complexities, which makes for some powerful storytelling.
Where do I get started?
By now, you are surely wondering where you can pick up some of these wonderful books to read (if not, you are crazier than a mug). While there are works from High and Heroic Fantasy that I enjoy – chief among them, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser by Joe Bonadonna, I have loved Sword & Soul since I sought it as a child while creating people that looked like me in the world of Dungeons and Dragons and finding Charles Saunders’ Out of Africa article as a young man in Dragon Magazine (I did not know that Charles was Black back then) and I have grown to pen a Sword & Soul novel myself and several Sword and Soul short stories.
Thus, I give you a few must have titles to get you started:
Imaro, volumes 1 – 4 by Charles R. Saunders
Imaro is the tale of the titular outcast, wandering warrior and his search for a people and a community to call his own. Written by the Founding Father of Sword & Soul, Imaro is an exciting series that is often compared to the works of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but, in my opinion, transcends all of the works of those authors and is some of the greatest writing in print.
Changa’s Safari, volumes 1, 2 and 3 by Milton J. Davis
Driven from his homeland as a boy, Changa Diop travels the 15th Spice Trade world seeking wealth and adventure. Together with his companions and crew he crosses the Indian Ocean to fulfill his dreams and destiny. His dhows filled with the treasures of the East, Changa begins his journey home. But adventure waits with the winds, changing his fortunes and friendships in ways he could not have imagined.
Griots: A Sword & Soul Anthology by 14 Authors; Edited by Charles Saunders and Milton Davis
Fourteen writers; fourteen artists; one unforgettable anthology! In Griots, Davis and Saunders have gathered together fourteen stories, written by new and seasoned writers, to answer the question: What is Sword and Soul? Each story is accompanied by illustrations to give vision to the prose. A first of its kind, Griots is an anthology that lays the foundation and expands the definition of Sword and Soul.
Once Upon A Time in Afrika by Balogun Ojetade
Once Upon a Time in Afrika tells the story of a beautiful princess and her eager suitors. Desperate to marry off his beautiful but “tomboyish” daughter, Esuseeke, the Emperor of Oyo, consults the Oracle. The Oracle answers, telling the Emperor Esuseeke must marry the greatest warrior in all Onile (Afrika). To determine who is the greatest warrior, the Emperor hosts a grand martial arts tournament inviting warriors from all over the continent. Unknown to the warriors and spectators of the tournament a powerful evil is headed their way. Will the warriors band together against this evil?
“Magic and mayhem. Gods and glory. Witches and warriors. Once Upon a Time in Afrika has all this, and much more. It is Sword and Soul at its finest, casting a long shadow over the ‘jungle lord’ and ‘lost city’ motifs that have previously prevailed in fantasy fiction set in Africa”
-Charles R. Saunders, author of Imaro & Dossouye, creator of Sword and Soul
“Balogun Ojetade represents a powerful new voice in Sword and Soul. He’s a master storyteller with an engaging, exciting style. Once Upon a Time in Afrika is well worth the read.”
-Milton Davis, Author of the Meji duology and Changa’s Safari Volume One and Two
Beneath the Shining Jewel by Balogun Ojetade
Beneath the Shining Jewel takes place in Ki Khanga’s jewel city, Sati-Baa. Mba, a retired constable, is called back to active duty to deal with a situation that still haunts him twenty years later. Mba and a host of characters battle a scourge that once ravaged the city and may be poised to return. Beneath the Shining Jewel is both familiar and unique, combining African folklore with a good dose of horror and action adventure. Sword and Soul – African-inspired Heroic and Epic Fantasy – has been taken in a new and thrilling direction with Beneath the Shining Jewel, a tale that will have you riveted from beginning to end.