What I’ve seen over the years is that when you try to define a category in order to make it easier for readers to find the kind of books they like, publishers begin to tailor their marketing to that definition. Then people begin to write to that definition. The definition becomes increasingly narrow, and it makes stories that don’t fit that definition in every respect harder to sell.
When you do sell a book that doesn’t fit, you occasionally get a reader email demanding to know why something sold as a fantasy doesn’t have a bearded white guy with a sword as the main character, because the definition is now so narrow that your book (and a lot of others) has been squeezed out of it.
When I wrote The Cloud Roads, the first of the Books of the Raksura, I still felt it fell mostly under the category of sword and sorcery, despite there not being any swords, and the sorcery being internal and intrinsic to the characters. The books I read that I thought of as sword and sorcery usually had one (or two) loner characters, bumming along in a fantasy landscape as mercenaries, looking for treasure or opportunities to make a living. They had been outlaws in the past, or were fleeing accusations of something, or a past of slavery or powerlessness or something in their lives that they had to hide.
In The Cloud Roads, Moon was profoundly alone, even when he was living with other people. He was traveling in a fantasy landscape looking more for food and shelter than treasure, and he had something to hide.
But instead of a career as an outlaw or a failed rebel, he was hiding the fact that he was a flying shapeshifter whose other form resembled top-tier predators that were famous for destroying whole cities and eating their inhabitants. Instead of a sword, he had claws.
He didn’t know what he was, or where he should go to find out, and the story deals with what happens when he finally does discover his own people, the Raksura.
In most sword and sorcery, there’s often an evil sorcerer. Instead of battling a human sorcerer in The Cloud Roads, all the Raksura and their enemies (the Fell) were magical creatures. Some of them, like the mentors, used magic more overtly, but there was nobody who really fit the definition of a sorcerer using ceremonial magic. (Though in The Serpent Sea, the second book of the series, the Raksura do run into some magic-users who better fit the definition of sorcerer.)
One of the other elements that doesn’t fit is that in sword and sorcery, a male protagonist often ends up rescuing a princess (or sorceress, or queen or some other woman who needs rescuing) and she is in effect the prize for his success. One of the things Moon discovers when he meets the Raksura is that his position in their culture, determined by their biology, makes him the prize in that scenario.
He has to figure out if this is what he wants, if what is basically an arranged marriage in a complicated society that can be very difficult to navigate is what will make him happy, or at least content to stay for a while. If he wouldn’t be better off alone. So that is kind of a big way in which The Cloud Roads doesn’t fit the S&S definition, though I feel like there is still a thematic connection.
But there is also a lot of fighting and adventure and escapes and rescues and bad plans that don’t turn out as expected and all the other fun bits that I like in the sword and sorcery I read. So your mileage and definitions may vary, but I tend to think sword and sorcery can stretch far enough to include Raksura.
Martha Wells is the author of the Nebula-award nominated The Death of the Necromancer, the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, Wheel of the Infinite, and other fantasy novels. The final novel of the Books of the Raksura, The Siren Depths, was released in December, and her YA fantasy Emilie and the Hollow World is scheduled for release in April. Charlene Brusso reviewed The Clouds Roads for us here, and we featured The Serpent Sea here.