REVIEW: Neither Beg Nor Yield by Jason M. Waltz

The definition of Sword & Sorcery is a perennial topic of discussion in related forums. While the unacquainted often use the term to label any variety of fantasy fiction containing edged weapons and magic, fans usually have a very specific style of story in mind: one that hews closer to the blood and thunder-filled stories by Conan creator Robert E. Howard rather than the more genteel work of J.R.R Tolkien. Despite reasonably widespread agreement among enthusiasts of what stories and characters can be categorized as Sword & Sorcery, it becomes surprisingly tricky to nail down what, precisely, differentiates S&S from other varieties of fantasy. Sword & Sorcery stories tend towards grittiness and the horrific, but so do Dark Fantasy and Grimdark. Is a barbarian or thief hero required? Must magic always be treacherous and evil? Must the stakes be personal and localized, or can an S&S story be epic in scope? In his introduction to Neither Beg Nor Yield: Stories with S&S Attitude, editor and Rogue Blades Entertainment proprietor Jason M Waltz sidesteps the endless hair-splitting. He makes a convincing argument that Sword & Sorcery is all about attitude. S&S heroes stubbornly cling to life, no matter how the odds are stacked against them. According to Waltz, “Sword & Sorcery is a clenched fist thrust into the sky, a raised middle finger in the face of the Unknown, an epithet spat into the dirt through a rictus of bared teeth.” At 446 pages in length, Neither Beg Nor Yield brings together 20 stories showcasing this vigorous and defiant attitude. While story quality is uniformly high, in the interest of brevity this review focuses on a subset of stories either expected to appeal to Grimdark fans or those that demonstrate the breadth of the anthology.

Neither Beg Nor Yield“Prince of Dragons” by William King is one of the outstanding entries of the early portion of te book. King is a prolific contributor to Games Workshop’s Black Library fiction line, and is particularly celebrated for his Gotrek & Felix novels. Here he provides an origin story for his own original hero, Kormak. After massacring his entire village, the infernal Prince of Dragons leaves young Kormak with a promise that some distant day, at a time of the demon’s choosing, the Prince would return to claim Kormak’s life. While Kormak is taken in by the Order of the Dawn and trained in the art of monster-slaying, the Prince of Dragon’s threat is never far from his mind. The story traces several formative episodes in Kormak’s life leading up to his lethal reunion with the demon. “Prince of Dragons” has a compelling sense of grim inevitability throughout, and while I’ve read other Kormak stories by King in the past, this particular story has convinced me that I must investigate further.

While many of the stories in Neither Beg Nor Yield stick to familiar Northern or Western European-inspired settings, feudal Japan is used as the backdrop for two contributions. “Hunters and Prey” by C.L. Werner, another popular Black Library writer, is a new tale featuring wandering ronin warrior Shintaro Oba. While Oba frequently appears in issues of Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Waltz notes that the character’s initial introduction was in Rogue Blades’ Rage of the Behemoth anthology. “Hunters and Prey” has Oba on the trail of a diabolical spider demon while Oba is, himself, in turn being stalked by a relentless bounty hunter. Glen Cook (The Black Company, etc.) provides the other samurai-themed entry with “Isekai Sengokumonogatari.” War veteran Shinzutoro finds himself tasked with escorting three orphaned noble children and their guardian through bandit- and monster-infested wilderness. Nearly everyone Shinzutoro encounters on the trail proves threatening, and he senses fairly early on that his travel companions are likewise not what they seem. The Japanese trappings of both stories offer a refreshing change of scenery while still delivering the horror-tinged action expected by Sword & Sorcery fans.

Waltz’s introduction-cum-manifesto argues that attitude is everything when it comes to Sword & Sorcery, so it’s perhaps no surprise that some of the entries in this book reject the conventional tropes of the sub-genre. Set in our era, “Suspension in Silver” by Eric Turowski features a massive biker (a modern-day barbarian?) desperately fighting against a pack of werewolves driven to recruit him. Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Organ Grinder’s Monkey” ranges even further afield, with two mechanics embarking on an inter-dimensional journey (via Chevy) to stop a giant trike-riding monkey’s misguided revenge against the men who killed the monkey’s sloth lover. Neither story is what most readers would typically expect to find in an anthology of this type, but the sort of fierce determination in the face of overwhelming odds lauded in Waltz’s introduction is undeniably present.

“The Last Vandals on Earth” is a gritty historical fantasy by Steven Erikson, of Malazan Book of the Fallen fame. Narrated in the first person by their cook Ulfilas, this story chronicles a small band of misfit Vandals living recklessly for loot and excitement with seemingly the entire world against them. “The Last Vandals on Earth” pairs wry humor with graphic combat as the last Vandals prepare to sell their lives dearly.

A Hanuvar adventure not included in last year’s Lord of a Shattered Land or The City of Marble and Blood, Howard Andrew Jones’ “Reflection From a Tarnished Mirror” was an especially welcome entry. While working to free his Volani countrymen from enslavement at the hands of the oppressive Dervan Empire, fugitive general Hanuvar encounters an impostor masquerading as himself. Further investigation reveals that the man is a soldier with a brain injury that has had Hanuvar’s personality sorcerously overlaid upon his own: an experimental Dervan plot to track the real Hanuvar by creating a mental duplicate that acts and thinks like the original. Deep behind enemy lines, Hanuvar has the delicate task of working with the tragically addled impostor to free the Volani slaves while simultaneously avoiding the scrutiny of the Dervans hunting them both. While nobler in intentions and character than many of the frequently mercenary-minded protagonists in this book, Hanuvar shares their grit and indomitable spirit.

Adrian Cole’s “Maiden Flight” is a truly fitting finale for Neither Beg Nor Yield. Grievously wounded on the battlefield, viking warrior Ulric Wulfsen finds himself chosen for Valhalla by a newly-minted Valkyrie. Ulric and the Valkyrie find themselves at an impasse; Ulric still clings to life and refuses to accept death, while the Valkyrie has no choice but to forcibly escort her unwilling charge to the afterlife or risk being stripped of her divine status and exiled. The struggle between the pair escalates until Ulric finds himself in defiance of Odin himself. While a dogged refusal to capitulate to death is a common hallmark in all of the stories included in this anthology, “Maiden Flight” in particular effectively embodies the “S&S attitude” described by Waltz in his introduction.

Publisher of 15 books over the span of nearly two decades, Rogue Blades Entertainment has been a steadfast supporter of 21st century Sword & Sorcery fiction. Neither Beg Nor Yield is intended to be the final Rogue Blades anthology and the capstone of Jason Waltz’s editing career. Packed with thundering adventure from a wide variety of authors, Neither Beg Nor Yield sends Rogue Blades off on a triumphant note.

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Robin Marx

Robin Marx

Born in Spain and raised in the United States, Robin Marx has lived in Japan for more than two decades. He works in the video game industry, handling localization and international licensing. In addition to over a dozen video games, his writing has appeared in a number of role-playing game supplements. He lives with his wife and their two daughters. You can link up with Robin over at: https://mastodon.social/@RobinMarx