Terrible Swift Sword


I was watching History Channel for a bit this morning.  There was a show on about Hannibal’s march into Italy during the Second Punic War.  The main takeaway was that Hannibal – for all his tactical genius – was in over his head on the strategic level.  Hannibal was a comsumate tactician.  His maneuvers at Lake Trasimene and Cannae were nothing short of brilliant.  He won the majority of his fights and inflicted appalling losses on the Romans.  But for all that, he never broke the will of the Roman senate or people – which, of course, is the objective of war.  (Comparisons of American involvement in Vietnam can be discussed elsewhere.)

This got me to thinking about fantasy battles and the tactics employed therein.  I read a lot of fantasy.  Lord knows, I’ve read about a lot of battles.  But I can only recall one where the characters employed sound strategic and tactical reasoning – at least, where it made sense with what was going on around them in the rest of the book (taken in a vacuum, I have read one or two others).  That one case was the Lost Regiment series by William Forstchen … but then again, he is a history professor with an affinity for the American Civil War.  So he’s writing near to his heart.

Is this all that complicated?  I don’t think so – and worse, I think it represents sloppy thinking and a general lack of regard for the reading audience, for several reasons:

1)  I gather that orcs and other similarly-minded critters aren’t all that bright.  But the big baddies running the show usually are.  How hard is it to tell Orc Group B, "Stay hidden until I give the signal, when Orc Group A has the elves’ attention, or I’ll flay you all alive!"  I’m disappointed how seldom evil lords demonstrate any military intelligence, when even rudimentary tactics would result in the heroes’ butchery.  In short, it’s poor characterization.

2)  Most authors I know go to great pains to a) research things such as clothes, harvest patterns, architecture, and smithing processes to add a feeling of reality to their writing, and b) exhort other authors, loudly, to do the same thing.  Yet, at the same time, when they do write battles, these same authors have them charge and slam into each other in mindless glory.  Why would this collective self-flagellation to add realism stop at the battlefield?

3)  I think too many authors dismiss the martial aspects of their stories.  Why?  I had one author tell me they thought it was ‘boring.’  Well, sure, if you describe every sword stroke and shield clang.  But think of the character development for someone who has never been in one and has designs of glory.  The dynamics of a tearful last stand.  The chance to employ all five senses for the characters.  The tension and drama.  Not every good book has to have a battle – but there is no reason to shy away from one, either.

Has anyone read a fantasy battle with a truly good tactical turn?  Or read a story where the combatants demonstrated sound strategic thinking, with real goals other than "destroy the other guy"?

Lemme know ….


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