Editor Spotlight: Interview with Oliver Brackenbury of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine

New Edge Sword & Sorcery is an upcoming magazine which hopes to showcase not just the sword & sorcery fiction of yesteryear, but what sword & sorcery can be. Editor Oliver Brackenbury has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us about what New Edge is, the new magazine, and their approach to editing. One note before we begin:

Oliver Brackenbury: Up front I want to stress that when I’m discussing my attitudes and methods in this interview, discussing them is all I’m doing. I’ve been reminded lately how easily this can come off as a critique of others, or my suggesting there is only one correct attitude and approach. If people take something valuable from what I say, great, but I’m not being prescriptive here.

What is the one-sentence pitch for New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine?

OB: New Edge Sword & Sorcery magazine will feature brand new sword & sorcery short stories as well as intriguing non-fiction related to the genre’s past, present, and future!”

If I can be cheeky and slip in a second sentence, this is our definition of the idea of New Edge Sword & Sorcery, which informs everything done within the magazine:

“New Edge Sword & Sorcery takes the genre’s virtues of its outsider protagonists, thrilling energy, wondrous weirdness, and a large body of classic tales, then alloys inclusivity, mutual creator support, a positive fan community, and enthusiastic promotion of new works into the mix.”

What are your favorite classic Sword & Sorcery stories and why?

OB: Ah, that’s a tough one! I’ll limit myself to three tales, with the caveat that on any given day I might slot one out and slot another in.

Going back to the big man himself, “People of the Black Circle” is my favorite Conan tale.While I suspect Howard had stage plays in mind, if any other storytelling medium, this is hands down the most cinematic of his tales—that pacing!—and as a screenwriter I appreciate that. Nobody in the story is without compelling motivation or some kind of arc, not even Conan’s “mad Afghulis” who lack individual names but are given great purpose and entertaining turns as their loyalty to Conan understandably wavers. The way Conan and Devi Yasmina part on terms of mutual respect, admiration, and competition is a moment I am absolutely chasing in my own writing, I enjoy it so much, and the strong thematic backbone to the tale, the classic “personal desire vs responsibility to others”, is explored with great skill.

C.L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” deserves its excellent reputation, and it deserves to be more broadly known. Moore’s dreamland of an underworld is gripping, as is the emotional throughline of Jirel’s seeking revenge for that forced “kiss”, and the imagery—oh that imagery! The Ace Fantasy edition’s cover, by Stephen Hickman, with the blind horses galloping, fleeing, flowing around Jirel is the only one for me.

My third choice is “Ring of Black Stone” by Pat McIntosh—and really all five Thula tales in total. Bloody shame they haven’t been collected yet, you can only read them one at a time across the first five of Carter’s The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories anthologies. McIntosh’s war-maid protagonist, Thula, reminds me a little of Russ’s Alyx the pick-lock, both seemingly straightforward characters who reveal intriguing depths while inferring even greater ones, with seemingly simple motivations which you often realize are different than what they’re telling everyone, and who show a great deal more evolution in a few short tales than some S&S protagonists do in their whole careers, yet are still sufficiently recognizable as the person you started with—maybe she hasn’t really changed at all, maybe you’ve just gotten to know Thula better! I find myself thinking back on these stories often, Ring in particular for its touching tale about finding new family through tragedy, and the riot of feelings that entails.

Finally, I’ll give an honorable mention for Leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” whose climax got the biggest laugh out of me S&S has managed so far.

In your guest post on Scott Oden’s blog discussing New Edge as a mode or evolution of Sword & Sorcery fiction, you emphasize “inclusivity.” What does that mean in the context of the stories and writers you’re looking to publish?

OB: What inclusivity means to me is making sure that people outside my own demographic—white, cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied males, or just “white guys” as, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use going forward—can see themselves in both the stories and the authors creating them, ideally making them feel welcome within the community. This is key for expanding the audience of our beloved fantasy sub-genre, as well as its pool of authors.

I’ve gained firsthand experience with this in my six years volunteering with a group dedicated to promoting the western Hemisphere’s largest publicly accessible speculative fiction genre archive—The Merril Collection. Through no malice of anyone involved, in the time I’ve been with them, our group has been made up almost or entirely of white people. Our selling old paperbacks to help raise funds would often combine with 20th century publishing trends to create the scene of a couple of white people sitting behind event tables coated in covers featuring white characters written by white authors, trying to encourage the full breadth of humanity to spend a few dollars in support of the collection, while hearing our pitch for it.

All that sameness was a significant obstacle to achieving our goals, as more than one non-white individual made clear when—quite reasonably—saying “I only see white faces here.” or “I don’t see myself in what you are doing.”

Even coming back to myself, I don’t hate my fellow white guys any more than I hate IPAs, but I get frustrated when the vast majority of shelf space is filled with the same thing, whether it’s beer or writerly perspectives. All of this has informed the approach I’m taking with the stories and authors I’m looking to publish.

Would you characterize New Edge as a reaction to the real or perceived lack of diversity in Sword & Sorcery fiction written by Robert E. Howard and others?

OB: In part, absolutely yes. Keeping in mind I can only speak for myself and the magazine I run, not the nascent “movement” which roared to life back in the spring of this year, I would say that is a significant part of the appeal, as well as its reason for being.

This does not mean burning down all that came before. Again, I’ve been a volunteer promoting a speculative fiction archive for six years! “We still study the art of Ancient Greece, yet we have ceased to wipe our behinds with small stones,” is my glib way of stating how I feel about studying the art that came before us, for all the old or objectionable attitudes which it may contain.

But whether looking through the canon or glancing around at the contemporary fan & creator community, I mostly see faces like my own. I think changing this not through exclusion, but through greater inclusion, is vital to increasing the popularity & longevity of sword & sorcery.

What do you think of Howard’s women warriors in his Sword & Sorcery tales such as Valeria of the Red Brotherhood (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”)?

OB: Dig’em both, including the stories. Like many others—judging by the number of additional adventures she’s had in various comics over the decades—I wish Bêlit had gotten to do more before dying in service of Conan’s story. I feel similarly with Valeria, an overall badass character who didn’t die but did end up chained to an altar so Conan could rescue her. It’s little surprise others have gone on to write more stories with her as well.

Clearly Howard succeeded in creating highly compelling women warrior characters, and I’ve enjoyed all the tales containing them. However, understandably for the period, they are often crafted as a kind of novelty—it’s right there in the title of “Sword Woman”—and one of the ways we can build on what Howard accomplished is by creating proactive, highly capable female characters for whom their gender is not a defining feature, or—as in the case with the 1970’s version of Red Sonja—requiring some kind of supernatural explanation for their skill & toughness. I think this is pretty much the norm these days, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

You specifically mention “Carbon Copy Conans”—do you think that it was authors who followed Howard in creating new Conan stories perpetuated some of the stereotypes of race, sex, and gender in Sword & Sorcery?

OB: Not all of them, but going by what I’ve seen of them so far, yeah, absolutely. Whether authoring direct Conan pastiche or writing a Conan-by-another-name, some of those works are very much surface reproductions of what Howard did, focusing on whatever the author was attracted to—and I think some of those second wave S&S guys writing this stuff in the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s were attracted to the old fashioned attitudes of the 30’s.

This treatment also served to perpetuate the idea that there were no deeper notions behind Howard’s work. Not as damaging as focusing on and magnifying bigoted attitudes, but also a shame.

Much of Sword & Sorcery takes place within a quasi-medieval European setting; do you think that is essential to what makes Sword & Sorcery distinct from, say, Sword & Planet or historical fantasy fiction?

OB: Thanks to there being some pretty consistent storytelling conventions within sword & sorcery, excellently laid out by Brian Murphy in his book Flame & Crimson: A History of Sword & Sorcery, I feel safe saying that a quasi-medieval European setting isn’t strictly necessary. Certainly the “European” part isn’t mandatory, as authors like Saunders and Dariel Quiogue have demonstrated with great skill.

In terms of the era, I think once you’re past the point of flintlock showing up you’ve kind of hit your limits—it’s hardly sword & sorcery if nobody uses swords anymore. That said, part of my great love of the genre is that it can be oh so many things, and still be clearly recognizable as sword & sorcery. We may enjoy sub-sub-headings like Sword & Planet, Sword & Soul, Sword & Silk…but it’s all part of one big happy family, to me.

You mentioned Dungeons & Dragons as well. How does tabletop roleplaying gaming (TTRPG) influence New Edge?

OB: Well I do love me some TTRPG action, in particular Dungeon Crawl Classics and the Call of Cthulhu spin-off setting, Delta Green. That said, RPGs don’t influence NESS a whole lot beyond my having aggressively dug through Gygax’s increasingly well-known Appendix N Reading List, and finding myself mostly preferring the less highly codified fantasy which came before D&D blew up in the early 80’s.

It seems since then that while variations often occur, at the end of the day most fantasy authors—certainly those rooting their work in Western myth & folklore—like to play with the same demihuman races and creatures you’ll find in one monster manual or another. Outside of a game with its need for rules & definitions, why would you ever standardize the fantastic? It feels counter-intuitive to me, thus my love of the far less predictable, weird and wonderful fantastic elements you’ll find in sword & sorcery, past and present.

It’s fair to say this attitude influences my developmental editing when working with authors writing for the magazine, and will continue to do so moving forward. If there’s a classic fantasy creature in a story I publish, it’s likely because the author made an incredible case for it in their story, and/or it works because of how it deviates from what the creature’s name makes you expect. So yeah, I’d say that’s the main influence of D&D on the magazine thus far.

The field has changed a good deal from the Sword & Sorcery boom of the 1980s and 1990s. If Karl Wagner was alive and sent you a Kane story, or Jessica Amanda Salmonson sent you a Tomoe Gozen or Amazon story, would those have a place in New Edge?

OB: I confess I’ve not read Salmonson’s Gozen or Amazon tales yet, though they are high on my TBR list. That said, I imagine I’d review them the same as I have, say, Bryn Hammond’s tale in NESS #0 and decide accordingly. I gather Salmonson was something of a scholar on medieval Japan but, as I say, I need to read more by and regarding her.

Luckily I have read all the Kane novels and several of the stories. While I can see my own personal taste causing me to request any explicit descriptions of sexual violence be minimized,  I’d still potentially publish a story like “Cold Light,” where such violence illustrates character, while—as I recall—not being designed to titilate. Maybe I’d put a content warning on the first page, I confess I’m still deciding where I sit on such things.

But yes, despicable, villainous characters such as Kane absolutely have a home in New Edge Sword & Sorcery. Including challenging topics doesn’t equal endorsing them, and one of the purposes of literature is to explore difficult themes & ideas. As ever, skill and thoughtfulness make all the difference.

Women have written Sword & Sorcery too, from C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry to Joanna Russ’ Alyx; how do these authors and their creations fit into your conception of New Edge?

OB: My opinion is that they are to be enthusiastically studied and promoted. I shan’t be ignoring the men of the genre’s history, however I can’t see myself rushing to publish profiles on the most frequently discussed fellas, like Howard or Leiber. Cora Buhlert is contributing a great profile of C.L. Moore to issue #0, which I hope will serve as a useful introduction to both the author and her most well-known creation. Joanna Russ, Pat McIntosh, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson are on my wish list for future profiles, as well as editors like Cele Goldsmith Lalli, who saved Fafhrd and Gray Mouser from oblivion, discovered Roger Zelazny, and published S&S when no one else did.

Another evolution of Sword & Sorcery that is aimed at greater diversity is Sword & Soul, as exemplified by Charles Saunders’ Imaro and Milton Davis’ Griots stories. How does New Edge relate to Sword & Soul? 

OB: It actively celebrates and promotes it! Issue #0 features a sword & soul tale by J.M. Clarke, I’ve already reached out to Milton Davis about his writing an author profile on Charles Saunders for a future issue, and have been in touch with a second sword & soul author about contributing a story to either issue #1 or 2, should our crowdfunding campaign for more issues succeed.

This also brings me to an important point, since sword & soul clearly predates New Edge S&S—whether the idea or the magazine of the same name, New Edge Swordy & Sorcery isn’t claiming to have invented the idea of diversity/equity/inclusion in S&S. What it does is add to diversity, equity, & inclusion in S&S, purposefully and with great vigor, while providing a rallying banner the various scattered parties already engaged in this work can choose to unite behind.

“What about [this person] who’s already doing [this thing related to more diverse S&S]?” I’ve heard one or two people say, and my response is always “They’re great, I dig what they’ve been doing, and maybe we’ll work together one day.” It’s not a zero sum game, or any other kind of competition, it’s a collective endeavor.

Many speculative fiction magazines in the past have had an issue with lack of diversity among the authors; it wasn’t unusual even well into the 90s for every author to be white, male, and heterosexual, and the contents of those magazines tended to reflect that. How do you as an editor plan to ensure the diversity of your magazine?

OB: Hell, you still see it today, now and then, or perhaps you see a ToC that’s all white guys but for one or two white women tacked on. Let’s be wary of thinking these issues are done and dusted.

My current plan to ensure diversity in the magazine is by being intentional about the authors whose work I solicit. I’m not doing subs, yet, and I suppose when I get there I’ll have to think about how to handle that. For now I’m limiting the number of white guys I publish in any given issue to one or two, out of six authors total.

Why the limit? Why not just focus on good stories?

Because if you are trying to effect positive change to the current status quo of homogeneity, as I am, then simply focusing on good stories isn’t enough. It ain’t shabby, there are far worse approaches, but it won’t do the trick.

This is because even if you request submissions without names on them, you are only being mindful of things on your end. The world in which your magazine exists, from which those stories are submitted, is not a meritocracy. It is a wildly uneven place where issues of race, gender, class, etc all affect who can even get to a place where they can tell good stories, and who feel welcome participating in any given literary scene. 

The latter is not necessarily because you personally have done anything to make them feel unwelcome, but because the scene as a whole looks extremely white guy-centric and doesn’t seem to be putting off enough signals like “Hey, come on over, you’re welcome here”.  Therefore, regardless of how pure your motives, as an editor you will likely, unintentionally replicate the demographic homogeneity of the scene in your ToC if you aren’t at least somewhat intentional about trying to compensate for this wildly uneven world we all live in, by making a point of spreading around the love, so to speak.

So diversity is a substitute for good stories then?

No. Good stories are assumed. If you’re in the magazine, it’s because I thought you told a good story. This can be a master of their craft, or it can be an emerging talent with promise that I want to support through publication/promotion/payment, but either way nothing has been substituted for a good story. Inclusion is a parallel concern of mine. Beware false choices, folks!

Along similar lines, I’m choosing to have a very clear, concise inclusion statement in the magazine. If the magazine is a restaurant then the inclusion statement isn’t the big neon sign on the roof that says “Burgers!” that brings you in off the highway, that’s the original fiction, non-fiction, and art. The inclusion statement is the wee sticker in the window, near the door, letting you know the appropriate government agency has made sure there isn’t any vermin in the kitchen.

Clearly stating “NOT WELCOME: People who think some humans are less than human because of what kind of human they are,” you know, no hate and no harassment please, has value. This is because for people other than white guys, the risks of entering or participating in the wrong fan community are higher, whether it’s tripping over posts laden with racial slurs & dog whistles, or being harassed for being a woman, and so on. 

Unambiguously letting people know that sort of thing isn’t welcome—and demonstrating as such through your actions—helps expand the pool of people who’ll submit to the magazine, read the magazine, engage with our social media community, and participate in the sword & sorcery scene in general.

One of the criticisms of Sword & Sorcery fiction is cultural appropriation and the misuse and misrepresentation of BIPOC by white authors. Is New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine looking for sensitivity readers to guard against that, or how do you plan to handle such issues if they come up?

OB: In regards to appropriation, the first thing I like to do is look at the author’s knowledge base. For example, Bryn Hammond will have a story in issue #0 that is in part based on historical / medieval Tangut culture specifically, and edge-of-steppe/steppe culture in general. Bryn is a white Australian woman, by no means of these cultures.

However she is an accomplished scholar of the steppe, published and well-reviewed, who has written a few blog posts about racism towards steppe cultures in SF and other popular media, as well as in popular and academic history books, and someone I know well enough to feel comfortable judging a considerate, thoughtful person. As I reviewed her story I saw only a deep respect and love for her real life historical inspiration, nary a whiff of “Look at this weird shit! How exotic.” And thus, I not only feel comfortable publishing her tale, I’m excited to see what people think of it.

I can see sensitivity readers being a tool I turn to, however indie publishing isn’t known for being highly lucrative, so I’ll have to see what I can accomplish within budgetary limits.

If, despite my best efforts, readers bring up issues of appropriation, then my plan is simple – I will listen, perhaps cross-reference with others more knowledgeable than myself, and adjust my methods for future issues accordingly.

Charles Saunders in his essay “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” emphasized his dislike of tokenism in fantasy (“Who needs black hobbits?”)—do you agree with that?

OB: Well, as young Saunders said in that section of the essay “…it is better to be ignored than maligned.” , and I can also see why in 2011, looking back, Saunders said “…I was, perhaps simply venting my anger and frustration…”, though certainly young Saunders had plenty to be angry about, for good reason.

But yes, “maligned”. Tokenism is to malign others through the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort at inclusion. So to me it sounds more like Saunders was wary of having white writers include black characters because when they did, they were racist caricatures, and he’d rather they just be left out altogether. Fair!

Do I agree? As a white guy, I don’t think it’s really up for me to agree or disagree as it doesn’t affect me much, if at all. In terms of the magazine, certainly I will be doing my best to avoid tokenism in the stories I publish.

You’re working on a New Edge novel yourself. How do you as a writer work to put your ideas on inclusivity into practice?

OB: Being mindful as I can (ex. “Am I describing all the female characters in this chapter by how attractive they are?”), doing research, and, when it feels necessary, reaching out. “Necessary” being kind of a gut feeling based on how far I’m wandering from portraying someone like myself or a secondary world culture rooted in Western European history. 

For example, there’s an important character present for a good chunk of the novel that is bigender. There’s a great deal more to who they are, and making sure characters are never just “The [X] character” is another thing I’m doing, but that’s the relevant aspect for what we’re talking about here.

I’ve never felt any doubts about my gender identity, nor have I ever felt it fluctuate or like it’s on a gradient, so this was going far off from where I stand, demographically. I figured I should do more than read the Wikipedia article, you know?

So I decided to reach out to an online community, over at r/bigender, by explaining who I am, what I’m doing, the context of the character, and so forth, while also making it clear I was interested in hearing from as many people as were comfortable answering my questions. It was an immensely useful experience, both for my writing the character and just for better understanding my fellow humans.

I offered a little compensation for bigender members of the forum who provided me with useful advice, and was touched that none of the advice-givers felt that was necessary. Still, I’m glad I offered, as I strongly believe authors need to be mindful when asking for what amounts to unpaid research labour, especially when it relates to something as personal as identity.

Down the road I may seek a bigender sensitivity reader for the stories featuring that character. We’ll have to see what I can do within the limits of budget and opportunity. In terms of beta readers in general I’ll also try to make sure they aren’t all white guys, since that will help potentially catch issues that I’d not even think to look for.

Which brings me to an always salient point—doing this kind of stuff isn’t just about being thoughtful regarding the experience of your potential readers, it makes your work better.

As an editor, you must have a pretty decent grasp of the field. What writers would you recommend for readers who want to read new Sword & Sorcery fiction, and why?

OB: I always make people nervous when I ask for reading recommendations during my interviews hosting Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection…and now I’m finally put in the hotseat! With the caveat that of course I can’t list everyone here who I’d like to, I’d recommend…

  • The Red Man and Others by Angeline B. Adams and Remco Van Straten
    I read this book, then bought two extra copies to give to friends. Early in my path through the genre, this book made me feel hope that sword & sorcery has a future beyond rehashes of its past, that it can expand and grow while still being recognizable. For more detail, here’s my Goodreads’ review.
  • Swords of the Four Winds: Tales of Swords and Sorcery in an Ancient East That Never Was by Dariel Quiogue
    Dariel has his own voice, no doubt, however it’s plain to me that he has truly studied the works of Robert E. Howard and REH’s great influence, Howard Lamb, before applying what he learned to his own tales. Outside of being centered on Asian characters, rooted in the history of Asian cultures, while being written by an Asian author, these tales are traditional sword & sorcery in the best possible sense—bold, fast-paced, and gilded with stunning surprises.
  • The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
    A novella-length tale pulling the unusual-for-S&S move of featuring a sorcerer protagonist, The Return accomplishes many things beyond the baseline of telling a compelling tale—including putting you in the head of the titular sorceress while walking the tightrope between telling enough of how magic works to follow her concerns & goals without going against the genre by demystifying the fantastic with a highly codified magic system.

Full disclosure, I’ve had the good fortune to interview the authors of the first and second books, and would love to interview the third, however that would not be sufficient cause for me to recommend their works. The stories do have to be good, ya know!

Last but not least, can you tell us about where readers can read New Edge Sword & Sorcery and what they can expect? 

OB: Issue #0 of New Edge Sword & Sorcery is due out for some point in September 2022. “Some point” because I’d rather get it right than rush for a Sept 1st launch date. At www.newedgeswordandsorcery.com you can learn more, as well as sign up for our mailing list that will alert members to the release of new issues, and crowdfunding campaigns to fund future issues. That’s all, it’s very low impact on your inbox.

Issue #0 will feature an original painted cover by Gilead, and each of our all-new stories will feature original B&W illustrations, to say nothing of the reprinted pieces kindly lent to us by their artists to enhance our non-fiction essays, book review, and long-form interview.

The magazine will be available in ePub, softcover, and hardcover via Amazon POD. Exclusive to issue #0, the ePub will be free, while the physical copies will be sold quite cheaply, exactly at the cost of production. This first issue is a passion project for all participants, who hope for it to take off like a rocket, that we might crowdfund issues #1&2. From those issues onward I will be paying people, and paying them as much as I can since the stretch goals for the campaign will be almost exclusively pay bumps for writers and artists.

And hey, if I’m being as thoughtful and intentional about inclusion in the magazine, then imagine how carefully I’m considering all the other aspects! The stories, art, and articles will be high quality, and shall only improve if we get to successfully crowdfund further issues.

Thank you Oliver for answering all of these questions, and best of luck to New Edge Sword & Sorcery!

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

3 thoughts on “Editor Spotlight: Interview with Oliver Brackenbury of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine

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