The Mad Hatter, being, well, a bit mad, asked me if I was interested in running with this topic for a guest blog. Me, also perhaps a touch not right, said absolutely.
The truth is, while I have never shied away from violence in my writing, I try very hard not to fetishize or glamorize it, and I never aim to be gratuitous at all. The world in Scourge of the Betrayer is certainly harsh, no question, and plenty of characters do meet an unpleasant (and yes, sometimes gruesome) end. If I handed the book to anyone accustomed to reading cozy mysteries and harlequin romance, sure, they might go pale and hand it back pretty quick.
That said, I like to think the violence in Scourge serves a purpose. I grew up on Howard, Feist, Tolkien, Eddings, Burroughs, Moorcock, LeGuin, Zelazny. All of them are fabulous in their own way, but none of them treated the violence in an overtly in-your-face way. Even Conan’s exploits, brutal as they could sometimes be, were hardly Tarantinoesque. Combat happened in these books, but it wasn’t hardcore, and while the action scenes were entertaining, they weren’t especially realistic. In some cases, they were brief and fairly sanitized, and in others they were of the swashbuckling variety, more akin to the choreographed Errol Flynn fencing of old—showy and fun, for sure, but failing to accurately capture what it’s like when two men armed with blades try to really slice each other into ribbons.
When it came to the combat scenes in Scourge, I wanted to establish as high a level of verisimilitude as you could in a fantasy novel, something that would make Bernard Cornwell want to buy me a beer. Still, while the fights in the book certainly involve bloodletting, it often takes some real effort to get there. The action sequences usually involve combatants wearing various levels of armor—everything from simple gambesons and nasal helms to full scale, mail, or lamellar hauberks or cuirasses and great helms. And beyond parades, jousts, and posing for effigies, armor was largely NOT a fashion statement—this stuff can be hot and uncomfortable when you’re tromping around on campaign all day. People suffered the relative discomfort and paid the (sometime exorbitant) prices not to look pretty, but because by and large, armor worked.
There are tons of myths about arms and armor that drive me a little batty—e.g., swords weighed ten pounds; a man in plate had to be hoisted onto a horse with a crane and was as helpless as an overturned turtle if he got unhorsed and lost his footing; medieval combatants just whacked away at each other with massive, clumsy weapons, totally lacking sophisticated training or technique; Vikings had horned helmets; swords could slice up plate armor and turn mail into cheese cloth, etc.
Now, I’m no purist about this stuff. The term “chain mail”, though wrong, was not a D&D invention, but promoted by a bunch of stuffy Victorians. Same dealio with “plate mail” and a bunch of other mistakes and misnomers that cropped up in enough books, movies, and Ren Faires over the years to be almost ubiquitous. Those bug me, but I can handle a lot of them, though I make it a point to avoid inaccurate terminology whenever possible. But the armor getting diced up part, or warriors being clumsy or ignorantly brutish thugs—yeah, those I take issue with.
There has been a lot of research in the last 50 years that has undermined a good deal of the the previously accepted/entrenched opinions. If you Google “armor vs. arrow” or “mail vs. sword” or anything similar, you’ll find roughly about 10 million hits, many of them tests of varying kinds (some well-intentioned, many amateurish or obviously biased) to demonstrate just how feeble or impenetrable armor really was. So, as you might expect, there is still some disagreement among historians and in the various WMA (Western Martial Arts) communities about its effectiveness, ranging from “armor was never compromised, not ever, ever, ever” to “look at the illuminated manuscripts—everyone in armor looks like they were attacked by Wolverine!” The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but again, people wore mail for thousands of years because it was damn good defense against the weapons of the day, ditto for most other kinds of armor that had serious longevity. Not invulnerable, not beyond compromise, but affording the wearer a pretty high level of protection. Otherwise they would have just spent the money on ale and wore fur loincloths or mail bikinis, which clearly are fashion statements.
So, all that said, I really tried to emphasize three things in my novel.
1) Armor worked—not always, and not forever, but it was NOT easy to cause debilitating carnage to an area protected by mail/lamellar/scale (the tech level in this world—plate doesn’t make a cameo). So there are plenty of instances when the armor does its job in the book—deflecting blows, minimizing bludgeoning damage, saving someone’s ass, prolonging the battle. It was no easy thing to take a well-armored man down.
2) While the term “Dark Ages” has fallen out of favor in lot of circles as being inaccurate, simplistic, or misleading, plenty of folks still think that after the fall of Rome, no one underwent any martial training until, oh, Napoleon got up on a really big soap box to issue orders. The truth is, there was plenty of training, strategy, and tactics in the medieval and Renaissance period. Genghis Khan employed elaborate feints and utilized sophisticated intelligence gathering and propaganda; Edward III orchestrated devastating chevauchées in the Hundred Year’s War; plenty of manuscripts explicitly describe how to fence with a sword and buckler, engage in a judicial duel, grapple, and on and on. This isn’t the place to go into it too far, and I’m probably not the best guy for the job, anyway—I know just enough to be dangerous, really—but needless to say, there wasn’t a skills blackout for 1,000 years. Soldiers knew their business, particularly the wealthy martial class and the mercenaries who were rarely out of work for very long. So I tried to capture that in Scourge—Braylar and the Syldoon have been exhaustively trained, and it shows when the blows start flying.
3). Combat of every time period is brutal and ugly, but this was especially true when you had to wade through mud and blood to try to bypass or beat through that spiffy byrnie to carve him up or turn him into hamburger. Sure, people were killed at farther range—bolts, arrows, stones from trebuchets, etc.—but most skirmishes and pitched battles involved ending someone’s life up close and personal, nasty like. And when the armor is finally negated or ultimately fails, it ain’t pretty. Sites like Towton and Visby perfectly illustrate just how horrific hand to hand combat could be.
Archeologists and military historians have sifted through the evidence and painted a really grim picture of what those kinds of battles were like, with a number of the dead being stuck by numerous blows, skulls being caved in, legs and arms being lacerated before the man dropped his guard or fell or whatever and someone could deliver a coup de grâce. For those interested in the topic, it’s pretty grisly and fascinating stuff. But the takeaway for me, and what I tried hard to showcase in Scourge, is that battles with swords and spears and falchions were likely terrifying, even for hardened veterans, and death could swoop down at any instant as you were blindsided, or lost your footing in the offal, or were overwhelmed when only moments before you were pretty sure your side had the decided advantage. Armor did work, but the old adage about battle plans going to hell after the first engagement were likely even more true in pre-modern warfare.
So, yeah, it’s not that I love bloody fantasy for the blood’s sake. Don’t get me wrong—I dig Tarantino and Peckinpah movies, and love authors like Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan, and Mark Lawrence. But I wasn’t setting out to emulate them, or to drop in buckets of gore for shock or kicks. The battles in Scourge of the Betrayer are harsh and brutal, can change momentum in a heartbeat, and yes, are bloody as hell, because I was aiming to instill as much realism as I could cram in there. I tried for combat that was as visceral as possible—I really wanted the reader to feel the suddenness, the grit in the face, the stink of sweat and shit, the sounds of combat, the fear a man on foot experience facing a horseman charging down on him, the nerves before the first clash, the intense relief after the last.
Sometimes this means blood gets spilled. Sometimes a whole bunch. Cozy mystery fans stand warned.
Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years. Salyards' debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, is a hard-boiled fantasy published by Night Shade Books in May 2012. It’s the first installment in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc.
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