On Weaponry and Weapon Variety in Fantasy

I was washing my hair in the shower this morning when I started thinking about the regrettable lack of weapon variety in Tolkienesque or “high” fantasy.

What? You mean you don’t think about broadswords and morning stars in the shower?

Fantasy heroes and heroines almost invariably wield a sword of some description, while their companions wield axes, bows and arrows, or magical staffs. And, almost invariably, a dwarf gets the axe, an elf gets the bow, and a grumpy old wizard gets the staff.

God, could this get any more boring?

Here are some high fantasy book covers to illustrate my point:

tolkienesque-coversThere’s actually one guy who appears to be wielding a hammer. Creative.

Now, please don’t think I have a problem with swords. On the contrary, swords remain my fantasy weapon of choice. (When I was recently married, I had the photographer snap a shot of me in my wedding gown with my replica of Andúril.)

What bothers me about high fantasy is not the pervasive obsession with swords, but rather the failure of most authors to provide any variation beyond the occasional “broadsword” or “longsword.” Even disregarding the endless possibilities that exist when you’re creating weapons for a fantasy world, there are hundreds of real-world sword types to choose from, and hundreds more variations on each type.

Here’s a short list of sword types I’ve compiled just from a quick look at Wikipedia:

Gladius – Short, one-handed Roman sword
Estoc – Edgeless variant of the longsword, used for thrusting
Rapier – Slender, sharply pointed sword ideally used for thrusting attacks
Cinquedea – Italian short sword with tapered blade used during the Renaissance
Sabre – Backsword with a curved, single-edged blade used for slashing (see also Middle Eastern scimitars)
Falchion – Slightly shorter version of a sabre
Jian – Chinese double-edged straight sword
Hook sword – Exotic Chinese weapon with a crescent-shaped hand guard and pointed daggers on the ends of the hilt
Katana – A curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or square guard, associated with Japanese samurai
Balisword – A longer variant of the balisong knife or butterfly knife, with two hilts that cover the blade when folded
Kalis – Double-edged Filipino sword with a wavy blade
Machete – Cleaver-knife used in the Americas for cutting through thick brush
Cutlass – Type of saber often used in naval combat
Dirk – A long thrusting dagger used by naval officers in hand-to-hand combat
Pata – Indian sword with integrated protective gauntlet
Katara – Indian ceremonial dagger with H-shaped hand grip

While we’re at it, why stop with swords? There are so many more interesting weapon types to choose from outside the mundane array of swords, bows, and axes:

Slingshot
War hammer
Whip/Chain whip
Morning star
– Spiked club-like weapon first appearing in medieval Germany
Glaive
– Type of polearm with a curved blade, and my personal favorite exotic weapon (see also Chinese guan dao and Japanese naginata)
Shuriken – Traditional Japanese throwing stars, often seen in manga
Poleaxe – Type of polearm with a steel axe head mounted on a wooden haft
Tomahawk – North American throwing axe resembling a hatchet
Quarterstaff – wooden shaft used especially in martial arts (see also Chinese gun and Japanese )
Chakram – Circular blade used as a throwing weapon in India
Knobkierrie – Long, wooden club used in Africa for throwing or bashing
Stinkpot – Invented in China, filled with gunpowder and sulfur, used as incendiary and suffocating naval weapon
Qiang – Chinese spear with a leaf-shaped blade and horse hair tassel
Bolas – Throwing weapon consisting of weights tied together with a cord, common to South America
Blowgun – A small tube for firing light projectiles or poisoned darts, used in Southeast Asia and South America
Nunchaku – Japanese weapon consisting of two sticks connected by a chain
Hunga munga – curved throwing dagger native to the tribes of South Africa

Be honest—do you really want to outfit your fantasy hero with a classic longsword after learning that there’s a weapon called a hunga munga?

Swords are a staple of high fantasy, and I don’t think they’re likely to be replaced by the knobkierrie or the slingshot anytime soon, but the next time you sit down to a blank page on a new project, think twice before falling back on the standard weapons that you’re familiar with. Give your hero or heroine a glaive or a chakram to throw around, and I guarantee you’ll create a character that your readers aren’t likely to forget.

What are some weapons you’d like to see more of in fantasy novels? Share in the comments!

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Why Aren’t There More Blond Heroines in Fantasy?

Yesterday I started reading “God’s War,” Kameron Hurley’s celebrated breakout novel, and it is glorious. Hurley’s characters are believable and charismatic; her world, visceral and raw and richly imagined.

Nyx, a disillusioned government assassin fighting to stay alive on a resource-strapped planet, is one of the best female protagonists I’ve read in a long time. She hides her insecurities about her lost faith in God behind a veneer of callous cynicism, and she cuts off the heads of deserting soldiers like nobody’s business.


GodsWar

“On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on—

There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war—but at what price?

The world is about to find out.”


Oh yeah, she’s badass. How badass, you ask? Think Zoe from “Firefly” crossed with Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard. Yes. That badass—and with the same irreverent disregard for society’s expectations of her.

I will almost definitely be reviewing this book once I’m done reading it, but that’s not what this post is really about. You see, there’s a question bouncing around my head—a question that started formulating when I began reading “God’s War” and realized its lead character is a sexually independent and morally complex young woman.
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Lessons of the Red Wedding: The Uses of Character Death in Fantasy

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***SPOILER ALERT***
This post contains spoilers for the June 2 episode of “Game of Thrones.” If you did not watch the episode, have not read “A Storm of Swords,” and do not want “The Rains of Castamere” spoiled, do not continue. There are NO spoilers posted here for “A Feast for Crows” or “A Dance with Dragons.”

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If you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” then last night’s “Game of Thrones” was a chance to relive the horror, the pain, and the rage you felt the very first time you read those blood-stained pages chronicling the Red Wedding.

And if you are a “Game of Thrones” fan who never read the books—I’m so sorry. Here—watch this video of a kitten stuck in a hamster ball.


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