Sword of Sorcery, A Retrospective

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

World building sounds a whole lot more glamorous than it tends to become. True development of a whole fictional world can be daunting; it goes beyond just character development and demands the creator design whole cultures, traditions, fashions, customs, architecture, as well as the various meanings behind those elements. J.R.R. Tolkien spent much of his professional career adding more and more to his Middle Earth. And with Lord of the Rings squarely at the end of the timeline, he was able to indulge himself by telling tales that happened in the decades and centuries that preceded the quest to destroy the One Ring the fires of Mount Doom.

Christy Marx has an exceptional knack for fantasy world building. In the early 1990s, Marx and her husband, Peter Ledger, developed two PC video games titled Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood respectively. Both titles were “adventure games” that used puzzle-solving skills and employed decision-making abilities to turn a fairly overused, historically fictional setting into a bigger, more fantastical, more engaging world. Add to them painstaking amounts of historical accuracy and authentic folklore woven directly into the gameplay, and you get some of the most comprehensive fantasy games to be developed.

In Camelot, the player took on the role of King Arthur on a quest to find his lost knights—Gawain, Lancelot, and Galahad—while also searching for the mythic Holy Grail. Marx’s narrative took Arthur throughout England and even down into Gaza and Jerusalem. While different in terms of actual plot, Camelot and The Legend of Robin Hood share the same open-endedness in terms of player control over the actual outcome of the game. This sense of potential is what makes Conquest of Camelot and Conquest of the Longbow such intriguing and impressive games, especially for their time. Titles like Mass Effect, Assassins Creed, and most MMORPGs owe a lot to the ideas pioneered in games such as these.

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”

High fantasy has never been high on my list of literary interests. I’ve always found the importance of story over character development to detract, in the end, from a story’s impact and meaningfulness. High fantasy tends to relish in elements like historical accounts, family trees, royalty tropes, and classical romance. And similar to how William Faulkner saturates his novels in chapters upon chapters of timeline information and family ties, so too do fantasy writers tend to lean toward the lore over the story.

Then there’s Sword of Sorcery, Christy Marx’s New 52 series for DC that followed the adventures of Princess Amaya of House Amethyst. I’ll admit that I was ready to write off this series before I ever read it. My personal bias against most of the fantasy genre kept me from anticipating the series even as I was getting excited for Team 7, Talon, and the Phantom Stranger, at least one of which included a great big dollop of magic and fantasy elements as well. But I read Sword of Sorcery #0 nonetheless and by issue’s end, I was hooked. Marx takes a distinctly thick fantasy concept and makes it new reader friendly where it counts the most: the characters. After a few pages, I already liked Amy and her deadpan take on her unflattering life—she understood who she was and what her life was, even though she didn’t know why.

From that initial culture shock, Amy went on a classic “hero’s journey”, the type of story that sees the main character go from an untrained know-nothing to a brave and honorable warrior by way of physical and mental hardships. There’s an amazing pacing to Sword of Sorcery that allowed Marx to craft a surprisingly and exceptionally versatile series in only eight issues. In that short run, we saw Amy take on her evil Aunt’s hunting squads, stop the assassins of House Onyx, go on a side adventure with the Justice League Dark back on Earth, proverbially crush a fledgling magic user with delusions of grandeur, and stand up against the greatest evil this world has ever known.

Marx’s robust experience with the fantasy genre is what makes Sword of Sorcery such a great read. And unlike many of her contemporaries, Marx’s commitment to character development allows her to add her high fantasy flourish to the lore and legends surrounding the planet of Gemworld without it feeling overbearing.

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.”

The major theme across Marx’s work comes down to one concept: openness. In both Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood, the “choose your own adventure” gameplay style opened up the historical fiction of medieval England to the players’ imagination. Would Arthur find his wayward companions and fight the Black Knight? Or would he search only for the Holy Grail and return to Camelot without rescuing his trusted friends? Is Robin Hood successful in helping King Richard regain his throne? Or does the Sheriff of Nottingham try and hang him for crimes against the crown?

Applying openness to a comicbook is a bit more challenging. For her computer games, Marx utilized a preexisting world and built upon it by allowing the audience to change and play around with elements that were already there. For Sword of Sorcery, Marx had to take a different approach, which resulted in the series attaining two different levels of thematic openness. Because this is the ‘New 52’, she had to build the world of Amethyst from the ground up, relying on readers to let their imaginations run wild with the information presented. Gemworld is filled with amazing peoples. Marx only focuses on House Amethyst, but she makes sure to provide information about the other houses throughout the run of Sword of Sorcery, making this fictional world stronger while simultaneously adding to the ongoing narrative.

The second way Marx finds openness is in the literal flow of the nine-issue run. The variety of story types presented gives readers a choice on how they want to read Sword of Sorcery. You can read about Amaya protecting a bunch of businessmen from their loony CEO in Chicago while on a vacation back to Earth, or you can read about Amy’s first days on Gemworld and how she copes with the massive changes in her adolescent life. You can read about her clash with the assassins of House Onyx, her run-ins with John Constantine (and the Justice League Dark), or you can indulge in the fate of Gemworld as Amy faces the evil Lord Kaala, better known as Eclipso. In this way, Marx carries over the “choose your own adventure” narrative style from her video games, letting readers decide how they want to read Amethyst.

“The only way to give finality to the world is to give it consciousness.”

Marx’s true application of openness, though, comes through in the pages of Sword of Sorcery #8, the final issue of the series. This oversized issue sees Amaya attain the full power of House Amethyst, defeat Eclipso and start the process of bringing the people of Gemworld together again. While the issue focuses mostly on the final battle between Eclipso’s possessed armies and the resistance led by House Amethyst and Amaya, it’s mostly designed to make this ending a beginning, of sorts.

Sword of Sorcery is like the prologue to a whole litany of stories that could come from Gemworld. Amaya’s achieves her destiny and becomes the Lady Amethyst, but that’s not where her story ends and Marx uses the final pages to convey this point. Marx has created this whole new world, now it’s up to us readers to imagine the possibilities.