Enjoy walking in cemeteries? This book is for you. If Edgar Allen Poe or Clark Ashton Smith were to rewrite Tolkien, they would produce something like Tom Barczak’s Evarun series. There are no elves here, but there are angels who have abandoned a land to susceptible humans. Disembodied forces and corporeal possession abound. The author’s dark, poetic style keeps bringing me back to his portfolio.
Mouth of the Dragon: Prophecy of the Evarun continues the royal Chaelus’s journey from Veil of the Dragon, which readers will want to read first. His body has become a puppet in war between good and evil. He is currently possessed by good-natured angel(s) tasked to confront the demonic, disembodied evil that was mastered him. The major conflict is between Chaelus (and the spirit Talus within him) versus the titular Dragon that has corrupted land of the Theocracy and his betrothed Faerowyn. The war escalates to epic, apocalypse. It closes well but sets up for another book.
Deep and Poetic: As revealed in many interviews, Barczak is an architect by day and writer/painter by night; he also experienced the death of a 2yr old daughter named Olivia. His artistic flare shows through with wonderful architectural descriptions including “clerestory lights” and “dark pools of cenotaphs.” He paid homage to Olivia with a character of the same name who first appeared in the Awakening Evarun set. Olivia appears in Mouth of the Dragon as Revered Mother over the Servian Order, centuries old. This echoes other instances of children saving adults. From the prelude book Veil of the Dragon, “Al-Aaron,” a child priest-warrior, saved and mentored Chaelus. Barczak continually explores the role of children saving or superseding adults: in Mouth the main duo for this interplay is Login and Maedelous.
Style: Barczak style defines his writing. He writes with entertaining paradox. In one sense, the conflict could not be more stark: good angels vs. evil demons; yet both are presented as reflections, or veiled versions of the other. The author is fascinated with sensing strange/beautiful things, such as the ailment synesthesia which refers to a secondary stimulus of senses. For instance, a subset is called chromesthesia, in which hearing certain sounds will trigger recoloring of whatever is being viewed by eye: one could be looking at a white wall and it would change to red or blue as certain music is played. Such dissonance is similar to one making sense of Rene Magritte’s Ceci n'est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe). Barczak intentionally provides beautiful synesthetic observations. Here are example excerpts:
There was nothing to see here but a sullen whisper.
Darkness seared her vision. It bled down her cheeks like oil. It drained from her mouth, like every soul she had ever taken it from.
The gray morning light, sullen, settled in full over the golden city of Paleos, the glimmer of its domes struck mute by its haze.
Everything is veiled and unsettled: A surreal milieu pervades the book. The best example is of the gossomar covered blades of Servian knights who vowed to kill only non-blooded humans (i.e. wraith like Remnants). The cover of Veil of the Dragon drawn by the author displayed this. It highlights the paradox of a military legion representing a benevolent religious organization. Again, Barczak intentionally blurs what is superficially clear. The Servian Order plays a large role again in Mouth, of course. However the cloth “veil” over the blade resonates with myraid other veils: ghostly phantoms, smokey tendrils obscuring vision, memories bleeding into dreams and reality. There are two contrarian, prophetic forces running in parallel: two sets of Servian knights, two sets of prophets, two armies…etc. It is like both good and evil are personified and stare through a window at each other; the reader is watching too, trying to figure out which one is real… or are they reflections of the reader in a mirror?
Poetic Style: There is an obvious rhythm. This is done in part with oft repeated words (azure, veil, Happas…which is an archaic word for a Roman highway), and with repeated phrasing such as:
The man’s eyes stared up at her from somewhere beyond, where he cradled himself at her feet. The stain of blood and darker things colored his chin, his face, his chest. Black tendrils had begun to lace across his pale skin. Soon, the Dragon’s Sleep would take him. Soon, the Dragon’s Sleep would take them all. Even the one she had just let go. Even her lover who was coming for her, for she knew it was the only way he could save her.
He could still see them, all of them. He could still see the knights’ faces staring back at him with their dead eyes, staring back at him from the edge of the encampment; seven of them, each of them with arms and legs flayed out upon a prostrate cross, staring back at him, staring through him long after they had passed from his sight.
Evarun series: Evarun’s audience and backing is deservedly growing. The serial Awakening series was an independent endeavor, but not Barczak now has the backing of Perserid Press who provided the book with a Roy Mauritsen designed cover (elegantly embedding the author’s sketch).
Judging by the author’s blog, the next installment is to be called “Hands of the Dragon,” which would refer to several wizards serving all-things-dragon: Vas Ore and Vas Kael. The author has drawn them too.
The Angels of Our Better Beasts is fantastic, evocative fiction that will make you laugh while you think.
Jerome Stueart’s The Angels of Our Better Beasts invites you to role-play as humans, lemmings, werewolves, vampires, in a splendid 15 tale collection. With each entry you’ll find new perspectives on what it means to be a human (angel or beast). Most are weird, fantasy and sci-fi, and the relationship span the gamut from lemming-to-researcher, to husband-to husband, and wife-to-husband, etc. The variety is great, but Stueart’s keen sense of humanity, and the role art plays in our relationships, is the key strength. Few times have weird fiction actually evoked real emotions. Fittingly there is a bonus too, since the author provides his own illustrations throughout.
The best way to convey the voice/tone is with excerpts. For selected tales, I include those below. My favorites were (1) a bold, pseudo-2nd person story in a sci-fi setting in which an artist strives to save humanity “You Will Draw This Life Out To Its End” and (2) a haunting futuristic setting in which one must choose between leaving home (a place) or leaving family; the theme of impermanence is truly evocative ( “For a Look at New Worlds”). Lastly, I’ll call out an example of the creative milieus by highlighting the names of wine from one story that, if drank, will literally evoke memories such as The First Time We Made Love at My Apartment in Yokoshima, Absence of Tourists During the Rain at Inokashira Koen, and The Moon Over Tokyo Through Fall Leaves (from “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Fall Leaves”).
“If animals talk, then they can’t just be eaten as food anymore. They aren’t any more a part of the food chain than humans are. If everything talks, where do you draw the line on feeling for them as individuals?” -Lemmings in the Third Year
“I remember my wife and kid left me. I’d find myself standing in the music section just scanning the tapes, asking myself which song would save me from all this pain. I’d bring home the Charlie Daniels Band, Alabama, Dolly. Sometime the names would blur and I’d look up and find out I’d been there an hour, trying to find something to soothe the ache….Mostly I just see them using carts as walkers, slowly moving down the aisles, overwhelmed by all the possibilities they have to make that need disappear. Yeah, I guess, in a way, a lot of people came to Walmart to pray.” - Heartbreak, Gospel, Shotgun, Fiddler, Werewolf, Chorus: Bluegrass
“We cause emotions without product directive, emotions without prescription. People read our writing and feel something, and they don’t know what to do with that emotion. In the city, all those pretty pieces of writing you see—most of them done by us when we absolutely have to earn money—have a directive: but this tooth cream, explore this underground chasm, invest in this high-rolling casino. So if we make you feel sad or happy, you can find resolution in a purchase. But literature, on the other hand, doesn’t let you off the hook that easy, and that’s why there was a time when we were blamed for a lot of murders and mayhem that went on.” - Why the Poets Were Banned from the City
“Young painters might be asking if there is a place for art in politics, if you are sullying your reputation,” a renowned art magazine says to you in an interview being recorded for later broadcast. “What do you say to them about the nature of true art and its neutral place outside the quagmire of human rivalry?” -You Will Draw This Life Out To Its End
“Many walked up, and with a hundred fingers they carved swaths of themselves across the sand, ruining the beautiful design. The destruction of such beauty was supposed to bring home the price of violence, the pledge for peace. Today, though, it felt as if those fingers had pushed into her heart.” -For a Look at New Worlds
Table of Contents
[*Published before in print or award recipient, ranging from 2005 through 2015]
* “Sam McGee Argues with His Box of Authentic Ashes” (Beast = Sam McGee)
* “Lemmings in the Third Year” (Beast = lemmings or man)
“Heartbreak, Gospel, Shotgun, Fiddler, Werewolf, Chorus: Bluegrass” (Beast = man or werewolf)
* “Old Lions” (Beast = man or lion)
* “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Fall Leaves” (Beast = man and the past)
* “How Magnificent is the Universal Donor” (Beast = Vampires)
* “Bondsmen” (Beast = 007 agents?)
* “Et Tu Bruté” (Beast = Ape)
* Why the Poets Were Banned from the City (Beast = man or art)
“You Will Draw This Life Out To Its End” (Beast = man or art)
* “For a Look at New Worlds” (Beast = memories/holograms)
* “Brazos” (Beast = God)
“Awake, Gryphon!” (Beast = man and gryphon)
* “Bear With Me” (Beast = man or bear)
* “The Song of Sasquatch” (Beast is either Nature or man)
“I use a very unique dowsing rod that can, among other things, detect the ectoplasmic residue of any supernatural or demonic entity, and sense the vestiges of vile sorcery used in the commission of a crime. My name is Dorgo Mikawber. Folks call me the Dowser.”
As before, Joe Bonadonna entertains in splendid fashion. His Dorgo character is a supernatural detective with a righteous side, and who wields a dowsing rod to probe/locate weird things. This is what you get by mashing up “Who Dunnit? Mystery” with “Lovecraftian Mythos” and “Leiber’s Adventures in Lankhmar.” Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent extends his adventures, world, and background, being a sequel to Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser). Again Dorgo has allies; friends include constables, Mazo Captain of the Purple Hand and Sergeant Evad Thims, and the halfing/hybrids Muthologians like the physician satyr Praxus and gambler cyclops Vorengi. Favorite locales like the Hoof and Horn Club in the city of Valdar are revisited.
But there is more, much more!: MSII goes beyond being a second, great collection of tales:
(1) MSII’s chapter episodes are longer (novellas) and have a common story arc.
(2) We learn more about Dorgo, partly through a relationship with Valuta Jefoor, a regal lady with a passion for ghouls.
(3) Erika Szabo’s “Map of “Continent Aerlothia / World of Tanyime” broadens our vision (the map is not needed to enjoy the story, but is well drawn and many of the locales in the map are not mentioned in the stories, which fans may interpret as there is even more to Dorgo yet to come.
Readers could just as easily enjoy reading this in reverse order, so pick either to get started. Whereas the first book is a collection of separate tales, Dorgo tackles three related mysteries in this volume. One could easily argue that
Part I The Girl Who Loved Ghouls
Part II The Book of Echoes
Part III The Order of the Serpent
Chapters I and III are new to the world, but Chapter II, Book of Echoes was my first Dowser/Joe Bonadonna experience published in an earlier form within Azieran Adventures Presents Artifacts and Relics: Extreme Sorcery. According to the author (via Facebook conversation) the first scene and finale were somewhat influenced by the 1950s film version of Mickey Spillane's "Kiss Me, Deadly." I enjoyed this so much that I purchased Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser immediately.
In MSII, Book of Echoes has been revamped to extended Dorgo’s relationship with the lady Valuta as well as the bullying Khodos brothers. The cross-over to the Azieran series is maintained. There are also extended descriptions of Valdar’s workings, such as the Wheel, a device to enable people to drop off babies to an orphanage. This had eerie overtones of the author’s MS1 dedication to: “Mary Ellen Pettenon and the other 91 children and 3 nuns who became angles too soon in the Our Lady of Angels School Fire, December 1, 1958.” I learned on Facebook that Bonadonna is a long time Chicagoan, who was in the same school system and if his birthday was a few months different, he would have been in the building. In the book, we learn early on that Dorgo is an orphan, and many of the plots/character-motivations are based on family ties.
Still need more!: As Dorgo develops, I long for more insight into his past. We know that he is a veteran of the Wandering Swords, a band of mercenaries. And we know that the dowsing rod was given to him by a “grateful Yongarloo shaman” after Dorgo rescued his daughter from a gang of slavers. “How he got it, where he got, he never said and I never asked,” says our protagonist. It seems the longer he has the rod, the more he build a symbiotic relationship with it. I would welcome any more Dorgo, but would enjoy some revelation of the past in future volumes.
Official Synopsis: Dorgo the Dowser lives in a world where life is cheap and souls are always up for sale. Armed with a unique dowsing rod that can detect the residue of any supernatural presence or demonic entity, he can sense the vestiges of vile sorcery used in the commission of crimes. His adventures pit him against inter-dimensional creatures, friendly ghouls, raging cyclopes, psychopathic satyrs, and monstrous insects . . . not to forget a criminal underworld of duplicitous women and dangerous men. This time around, Dorgo falls in love with a witch known as the Girl Who Loves Ghouls, battles creatures from another dimension, and meets one very special werecat named Crystal. It’s also the first time he hears about an ancient death cult known as the Order of the Serpent. Then, after a young woman is murdered and a deadly, dangerous book of arcane lore is stolen from her, Dorgo comes closer to learning more about this secret Order. But first he must battle both humans and demons in order to find and destroy “The Book of Echoes.” Finally, Dorgo squares off against a horde of fiends born of dark sorcery when he tries to help a young girl who became trapped inside a powerful spell while attempting to destroy someone calling himself Ophidious Garloo. Racing against time, Dorgo the Dowser uses every trick he knows to uncover the secret identity and learn the True Name of Ophidious Garloo -- the Undying Warlock who may very well be the leader of the Order of the Serpent.
More magic, murder, mystery and mayhem in this sequel to Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser. MAD SHADOWS II -- DORGO THE DOWSER AND THE ORDER OF THE SERPENT. . . Heroic Fantasy with a film noir edge. Available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other online booksellers.
Mystery for the Horror Fan -- Cozy Gothic Noir Joe Bonadonna's Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser is a great mashup of Horror/Fantasy/Film Noir. In Television terms, this would appeal to fans of the X-files, Supernatural, or Grim. Being a collection of tales, each serves as an episode. Expect: necromancy, mythogical creatures -- especially the hybrid horned creatures (satyrs, minotaur, etc.), pitted against our protagonist who is motivated to set things right (and make enough money to eat…and perhaps a sustained glance at a beautiful woman).
Gothic Noir: With the exception of one tale, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser proved to be more “Crime & Sorcery” than “Sword & Sorcery.” Dorgo is not an official constable or justice keeper, but he is hired layman with investigative skills and a magical dowsing rod which he uses on occasion -- much less than expected given his name “Dorgo the Dowser.” Bonadonna brands his Dorgo tales “Gothic Noir,” which is fitting. Despite the weirdness of Valdar city and the threatening necromancy that abounds, we know Dorgo will survive and resolve any case as surely as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser did. Speaking of Leiber, Bonadonna call’s out Leiber as an influence; Bonadonna's style is unique but he delivers the same entertaining blend of weird adventure dosed with humor.
Episodes: All are stand alone reads, except for the last one (“Blood on the Moon”) which leans toward being a sequel to the “Black Diamond.” Without spoiling, the first four are set in Valdar, and the final two explore some “old” territory…and we learn a bit about Dorgo’s past.
2-The Secret Of Andaro’s Daughter
4-The Man Who Loved Puppets
5-In The Vale Of The Black Diamond
6-Blood On The Moon (an extension of #5)
Orphan/Parent-Offspring Themes: The haunting dedication sets the stage for the themes of many of these stories: the dedication was extended to his parents and to “Mary Ellen Pettenon and the other 91 children and 3 nuns who became angles too soon in the Our Lady of Angels School Fire, December 1, 1958.” I learned on Facebook that Bonadonna is a long time Chicagoan, who was in the same school system and if his birthday was a few months different, he would have been in the building. In the book, we learn early on that Dorgo is an orphan, and many of the plots/character-motivations are based on family ties.
Echoes: Bonadonna’s Book of Echoes contribution to Azieran Adventures Presents Artifacts and Relics: Extreme Sorcery was so good I tracked this collection down, and enjoyed this. I suggest you track more Dorgo/Bonadonna down too:
Skelos was an ambitious 2016 Kickstarter project. Successfully funded, it aims to be an outlet for literary essays, short stories, poem, novelettes, and reviews for Dark Fiction/Weird Fantasy. As a backer, I am very pleased. Somehow, it delivered all this in its first issue and a low price--just ~12USD for the print version. In short, it is a highly recommend periodical to subscribe.
This reviews their first issue (Summer 2016 edition, Kickstarter funding seems to guarantee at least four issues). I thought I was well versed in Sword & Sorcery and Pulp/Weird Fiction but still learned more by Robert E. Howard and Arthur Machen. I discovered new authors too. In a collection so broad, not all the contents will please everyone…the menu is just too big. The quality is good, and anyone interested in dark fantasy will be pleased. There are lot of nice touches here, including cover art by Gustav Dore’, tons of interior art, and photographs of REH's drafts. There is no common theme, but this issue leans toward 'Vikings & Plagues.' My specific comments per contribution are detailed below.
Skelos is edited by Mark Finn, author of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard; Chris Gruber, editor of Robert E. Howard's Boxing Stories from the University of Nebraska Press; and Jeffrey Shanks, co-editor of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror. They are leading Skelos Press.
‘The Dead Unicorn’ –Scott Cupp (It is depressing as its title suggests)
‘Hungry –Charles Gramlich’ (A groaner sci-fi; it may be the only contribution that infused some sort of comedy, except for the single-frame cartoon ‘By Crom’. Also, it is one of the few to have a modern milieu)
‘The Night Maere’ –Scott Hannan (Classic horror in which your sickness may take a life of its own!)
‘The Nameless Tribe Drafts’ –Robert E. Howard (Included to complement an essay; very nice touch)
‘The Yellow Death’ –David Hardy (A plague doctor experiences lots of death)
‘The Burning Messenger’ –Matt Sullivan (Two Viking-esque tribes are pitted against one another…or something more cosmically evil; this started out with too many trope’s to promise much, but turned into a wonderfully dark tale)
‘Dangerous Pearl’ –Ethan Nahté (An average pirate/Lovecraftian adventure with a satisfying denouement)
‘The Drowned Dead Shape’ –Keith Taylor (This is an engaging zombie-Viking tale; it was so good, I stopped reading Skelos, tracked down Taylor’sServant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis…devoured that….then came back to Skelos)
‘One Less Hand for the Shaping of Things’ –Jason Ray Carney (A Fairy Tale /Weird Romance; this had its moments; the title seemed misrepresentative; I didn’t think I liked it until I reached the ending and realized I was more attached to the characters than I realized)
(I enjoyed having the poetry interspersed; they are short and digestible, and their presence reinforces the literary history/approach to weird fiction.)
Diary of a Sorceress –Ashley Dioses
Midnight in the Ebon Rose Bower –K. A. Opperman
The Writer –Jason Hardy
The Casualty of the Somme –Frank Coffman
Totem –Pat Calhoun
Surtur –Kenneth Bykerk
‘Nameless Tribes: Robert E. Howard’s Anthropological World-Building in “Men of the Shadows”’ –Jeffrey Shank (This details REH’s evolution of his Hyborian Age, with his Drafts complementing the essay; I didn't know REH factored in the infamous continent Lemuria and California into his world)
‘From the Cosmos to the Test-Tube: Lovecraft, Machen, and the Sublime’ – Karen Joan Kohoutek (Loved this, in part because I am fascinated in how serious Weird Fiction writers [i.e. Edgar Allen Poe, RE Howard, Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft] took their craft serious and often philosophized on the “Art’ in Horror. I missed Arthur Machen’sHieroglyphics book in my hobbyist studies and will be getting that).
‘A Sword-Edge Beauty as Keen as Blades: C.Moore and the Gender Dynamics of Sword and Sorcery’ –Nicole Emmelhainz (this had potential, but could have been even more provocative, the premise being that the Sword & Sorcery genre….often stereotyped correctly as misogynistic… has some feministic qualities; strangely, the essay focuses on C.L. Moore’s female Jirel of Joiry story in The Black God’s Kiss but somehow glosses over that C. stood for “Catherine”…yes a woman writer who had to use a pseudonym to get published, or work with her husband writer Henry Kuttner who could use expose his first name. I’m not sure how the author’s gender was left out of this essay; perhaps it was done on purpose, otherwise it would not be surprising that a woman may decide to represent other woman as strong. The only indication that a reader may know Catherine’s gender is by reading the endnote reference.)
'Skull Session I' –Editorial by Mark Finn (This sets the stage for Skelos’s approach to provided deep and broad based weird fiction)
'Grettir and the Draugr' –An illustrated tale by Samuel Dillon and Jeffrey Shanks (Wow, they squeezed in a mini-graphic novel; the artwork by Dillon outshined the story here, which was okay.)
'By Crom!' –Rachel Kahn (A single frame cartoon)
How better to reinforce Weird Fiction’s longevity than to review contemporary works? There are ~8 books reviewed depth. Despite the review’s average rating, I was unaware of Swords Against Cthulhu’s publication and will likely track this one down.
Sword and Mythos fiction- too Entertaining to be Horrific
Brian Lumley’s Hero of Dreams is an overt mashup of Lovecraft’s Dreamcycle and Leiber’s Fafred and Gray Mouser series. The premise is great and reinforces Lumley’s Khash series written in a similar vein (i.e. fun Sword & Sorcery adventure in a Weird-Fiction, Cthulhu-esque world). The stories are too fun for a reader to feel horror or tension, but the milieu is enjoying to explore. Like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories The Swords of Lankhmar, the Scooby-Doo vibe emanates from the story: there are horrors show, but the story is too fun to be scared.
One could argue that horrific landscapes need to be fun or they can’t be enjoyed at length (i.e. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath comes to mind, a rare novel length adventure that is really difficult to read…even by die-hard weird fiction readers desperate to learn more of Pickman!). Hero of Dreams is reminiscent of Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean stories; Hero of Dreams somehow makes reading about the First Ones and Eldritch Gods really easy.
Your tour guides are the waking-world dreamers David Hero and Eldin (and their woman side kick, and Dreamland native Aminza). Ostensibly, by waking day, David Hero is “really” an artist and Eldin (Leonard Dingle) a professor; these characteristics are shed in Dreamland. They have superior strength and dexterity versus the native dream things, but are not as powerful as the god-like First Ones or skilled in magic like the sorcerers they stumble upon. There are plenty of call-outs to Cthulhu and Lumley’s own Titus Crow (Lumley’s weird fiction character, i.e., from The Transition of Titus Crow). They come into direct contact with the elders and anthropoid termites as they quest for the three magic wands (with ties to Cthulhu no less).
My edition is a 1986 one from W. Paul Ganley. He printed was a conduit for Lumley into the US Market, printing mush of his work first before large publishers reprinted his works. He also had them illustrated. Jean Corbin illustrated this one and the dozen illustration do add to the adventure, with compelling renditions of night-gaunts and Ter-men.
Lumley’s Dreamland Series:
Lumley's Khash series, Tales of the Primal Land:
(reprinted later in a series starting with Tarra Khash: Hrossak!: Tales of the Primal Land)
Wagner's pastiches are highly recommended. A groupread from the Sword & Sorcery group in Goodreads led me to this. In short, the milieu was true to Hyborbian Age as discussed above. Also, it followed Conan's development from buccaneer to potential king well; this would serve as a great prequel to REH"s only novel length Conan story The Hour of the Dragon.
Karl Edward Wagner was a dark fantasy hero, taking editing and writing very seriously. His expertise in adventure horror led him to develop the Sword & Sorcery amoral hero Kane (Gods in Darkness: The Complete Novels of Kane), which is legendary stuff. He also paid homage to Robert E. Howard by writing two pastiches: one for REH's hero Bran Mak Morn called Bran Mak Morn: Legion From The Shadows (a sequel to the Worms of the Earth short) and one for Conan called Conan: The Road of Kings. In both cases, Wagner took care to represent REH's Hyborian Age/milieu well while extending the canon slightly.
KEW ensured that Hyborian Age's historic cataclysms affected current life. The same events that sank Atlantis also covered the city of Kordova, the central local of this this book. The still inhabitable, underground city called the Pit and the drowned Kalenius's Tomb are not passive backdrops of history ... but affect the future of the land. The Pit was a great idea, only partially realized. Imagine manor houses and streets at the base of a grand canyon. There were many instances of fiery riots, but the consequences (like excess smoke/oxygen deprivation... and a lack of visibility were not demonstrated). "The Road of Kings" was written in 1979, before the popular Arnold movie that began with the oft quoted below (paraphrased from REH’s opening to Phoenix in the Sword).
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."—The Nemedian Chronicles -Phoenix in the sword 1932 REH
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure! - Wizard from Conan the Barbarian Movie 1982”
Conan: The Road of Kings delivers everything one would want in a pastiche. REH's voice: even though REH wrote in short story form for Conan, this novel still read similarly. It's pace was uber-fast and the fight scene's grim. The milieu was true to Hyborbian Age as discussed above. Also, it followed Conan's development from buccaneer to potential king well; this would serve as a great prequel to REH"s only novel length Conan story The Hour of the Dragon. It was also true to the Sword and Sorcery genre that spawned from REH: Callidos's Stygian Necromancy and controlling of the golem-esque Final Guard worked well for the "sorcery", and plenty of melee satisfied the "sword" aspect.
Illustrations by Tim Kirk start out nicely grim (i.e., execution charms and souvenirs , i.e., hands and heads that amplify the story) but then quickly turn into a sparse picture book glossary for armor and weapons (halberds, swords, etc. that don;t add much to the story). Keeping this from a 5-star is the Climax and Ending. The story arc was well designed but the delivery fell a little flat; the last chapter felt rushed and would have been better served drawn out. That said, Conan: The Road of Kings was a great fast read that will satisfy cravings for more Conan...but will only leave you wanting even another helping!
Leigh Brackett's sword & planet adventure The Sword of Rhiannon is a short novel but a favorite among aficionado's. It was first published Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories in "Thrilling Wonder" Magazine in 1949 (cover artist Earle Bergey).
This really is a gem. Written before Sci-Fi and Fantasy really became substantial genres of their own, the summary of this sounds Sci-Fi but really is Fantasy. The Mars milieu features little technology; in fact, it is almost exclusively populated with fantasy creatures ("halflings" that are like reminiscent of harpies, mermaids, and man-serpents) and fantasy/historic technology (swords, pirate ships); there is a lack of laser guns and air-ships. Actually, the technology that enables some interesting time/space travel is rooted in a Lovecraftian Mythos magic associated with an elder race (Quiro).
Our protagonist is Carse, an archaeologist/criminal who is very "Indiana Jones" like (of course this was created long before Indy Jones hit theaters). The titular Sword of Rhiannon is revealed from the start to Carse; it had been hidden for centuries in a tomb, so it was rumored, and he quickly finds the tomb from which it came as sought treasure to loot. His adventure begins as he comes into contact with eldritch forces...
The adventure is high throttle action from start to finish. The reader learns more of the curse of Rhiannon. However, there is a rich history and dynamics between cultures that are not fully realized. I would have enjoyed experiencing more of: the initial/future perspective on Rhiannon's past, the Dhuvian's oppression of others, the demonstration of Rhiannon's power(s), the demonstration of the Sword's power or purpose...
Brackett's prose is deeper and more poetic than one expects from pulpy Sword & Planet. Here is an excerpt:
"It was a long way to the city. Carse moved at a steady plodding pace. He did not try to find the easiest path but rammed his way through and over all obstacles, never deviating from the straight line that led to Jekkara. His cloak hampered him and he tore it off. His face was empty of all expression but sweat ran down his cheeks and mingled with the salt of tears.
He walked between two worlds. He went through valleys drowsing in the heat of the summer day, where leafy branches of strange trees raked his face and the juice of crushed grasses stained his sandals. Life, winged and furred and soft of foot, fled from him with a stir and a rustle. And yet he knew that he walked in a desert, where even the wind had forgotten the names of the dead for whom it mourned.
He crossed high ridges, where the sea lay before him and he could hear the boom of the surf on the beaches. And yet he saw only a vast dead plain, where the dust ran in little wavelets among the dry reefs. The truths of thirty years living are not easily forgotten."
This book is very well done but feels like four servings of a five-course-meal. It is a quick read and well worth it, but apparently this is a stand alone adventure. This novel could easily have been inflated to 2x its length without departing from its pulp-adventure roots (i.e., it would not become filler-saturated epic fantasy). Brackett did write more Sword and Planet, but not with Carse.
The Gonji Deathwind trilogy was really one book cut into three parts. Take home message: if you decide to follow Gonji, just plan on reading the whole trilogy.This review combines my first two reviews with additional commentary.
Gongi Is A Unique, Entertaining Mashup: Gongi is a wandering, displaced warrior--a Ronin (master-less samurai) roaming 16th century Europe. This is not historical fiction, however. This is Sword & Sorcery in vein of R.E. Howard’s Conan…but it is a solidly unique take on the genre. Firstly, Gonji is a cross-breed of a Japanese warlord and Viking sword-maiden; rather than the Hyperborean continent of REH, Gonji explores a realistic version of Europe’s geography (Ottoman–Habsburg times). Plenty of creatures and magic infuse compelling fight scenes. I half expected Godzilla to emerge on multiple occasions!
Gonji is a mysterious, intelligent character. familiar with many languages (Japanese, Spanish, Italian, German, English, more?) sufficiently to converse with anyone. He is a bit moody too, which is ostensibly related to his mixed heritage (disciplined father, wild mother). His allegiances are difficult to predict, sometimes joining mercenary bands, sometimes rescuing weak townspeople. Generally, the blend of cultures and Gonji’s mysterious motivations are engaging.
By the end of this first installment, we know only that he is seeking the “Deathwind,” and we know he gets closer to this goal when he reached the city of Vedun, but otherwise the core of his quest is unclear. There is parallel conflict with some apparently evil occupiers of Vedun; but their motives are not clear by the end either, at times brutally dominating folk and at times letting them live in peace. I would have enjoyed a bit more clarification; the demarcation between the first and second book may just be due to the publication history.
I enjoyed Part-1 (Red Blade From the East) but was left wondering about character motivations; also my mind struggled to contain a geographic scope that seemed to only grow. The second installment pleasantly explored all the characters and mysteries posited in the first; geographically, it focused on one location essentially (Vedun city and the adjacent Castle Lenska). It delivered on every aspect I hoped, and the conflict/story leapt forward every chapter; it unveiled truths behind several key secrets & motivations behind the characters, and ramped up the adventure (which was at a high level anyway). Great adventure fantasy that is more dark & pulpy than it is historical. I like the content in #1 more after reading #2, and I can’t see how any reader could not stop without tackling #3.
Gonji: Deathwind of Vedun: The Deathwind Triology, Book Threeconcludes the original trilogy. The first half focuses on Vedun city’s plight (which has lots of battle but is less interesting since it deals with secondary characters; select vignettes like Hildegarde's story amplify Gonji's character); the latter half focuses on the primary characters battling in Castle Lenska--which was exhilarating. The milieu allows for subtle steampunk warfare (i.e., with Paille’s coffin-cupolas, and a measured level of gunpowder mayhem); it also allows for demons, giants, and werewolves. I would like to have learned more about Akryllon's history and Gonji's motivation for seeking the "Deathwind"; enough was revealed to tell a good story while luring me into the future installments (see below list). Rypel excels with his description of demons and monsters like the Hell-Hounds and the unveiling of the mysterious multi-personality disorder of King Klann (that's not a spoiler as much as a teaser comment); here is an example:
"It looked like a gaping hole in the space above the ward, yet shaped like something reptilian. And its eyes—that horrible yellowish glare that suggested eyes—seemed to see everywhere at once, to burn into the soul of the watcher with ghastly promise of lost eternity. In its wake it carried...dancing things, whirling and lashing about in tormented rhythm. Lost souls, grasping for a new purchase in the world of men that always seemed close, yet ever out of their reach."
Series: The initial Zebra books of the 1980’s essential split one long novel into a trilogy (I suspect the split was arbitrary). T.C. Rypel’s 1980 series has been released in a more complete forms (more books, eBooks, audiobooks). The newer releases from Borgo Press seem to have maintained this split. I’ll need to read the second and third books to confirm that, and I plan to do that. Actually, Rypel has a lot more Gonji in mind, and has books 4 and 5 available now. Books 1-3 are the original trilogy:
1) Gonji: Red Blade from the East: The Deathwind Trilogy, Book One
2) Gonji: The Soul Within the Steel
3) Gonji: Deathwind of Vedun: The Deathwind Triology, Book Three
4) Gonji: Fortress of Lost Worlds
5) Gonji: A Hungering of Wolves
6)... (7) ....(8)
2016 and beyond UPDATE: DARK VENTURES, from Wildside Press due out late 2016, and according to the author, "It comprises two new novellas, my essay on the series' creation/production history, and a generous excerpt from the coming Gonji origin novel, BORN OF FLAME AND STEEL." And [Rypel] just agreed to a commission to write a NEW Gonji short story for an anthology scheduled for next summer (2017).
Social Media, Cover Art, and Maps: T.C. Rypel is very accessible viaFacebook(Gonji Page) and the Goodreads Sword and Sorcery Group. If you check those websites you can (a) communicate with him and (b) just read/learn fascinating tidbits. For instance, from these I learned the artwork of Serbian illustrator Dusan Kostic graces most of the new releases, which seem more appropriate than the 1980’s covers that seem to mirror the James Clavell books (contemporary for 1980’s works, but of different genre). Also, The Kindle editions of the Deathwind Trilogy books do not include artist Joseph Rutt's Maps that appear in the front of the print editions.
Ohio Rocks: Incidentally, T.C. Rypel has Ohio roots, as do many Sword and Sorcery authors; in fact, 20% of the original Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA, 1960-80s) came from my home state OH. The unassuming state of OH has ties to many relevant authors including including: David C. Smith, Andre Norton, Stephen Donaldson, John Jakes, Richard Lee Byers, Roger Zelazny, Dennis L. McKiernan, Steve Goble, and more.
Awakening Evarun by Tom Barczak
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thaumaturgy is associated with deep incantation of magic, and Tom Barczak is an expert at such language-delivered-necromancy. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on the topic of Beauty in Weird fiction.
Weird fiction pioneer Clark Ashton Smith once wrote: "My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation."
Tom Barczak's poetic style is as mesmerizing like Clark Ashton Smith's style, but produces fiction laced with both (a) total grimness and (b) hopeful redemption. His work is compact Sword & Sorcery for the serious reader, with undertones of spirituality. This is not like C.S. Lewis's approach to Young Adult fantasy fiction; Barczak writes for a mature reader who wants to explore ruins filled with ghosts and meet evil face-to-face. Here is an excerpt:
"A little boy stared back at him with living eyes. Dark, deep, and soul filled eyes, eyes that hadn’t begun to carry the scars of the loss of everything around them, eyes that didn’t hide behind a veil, behind a promise made to be broken. His eyes were familiar. The boy’s eyes weren’t afraid. They were hungry.
Talus threw himself backwards, fumbling with his cloak. He thrust the small blade of his trembling knife towards the boy. The new light of day settled upon it like blood.
The boy scrambled away, but his dark eyes held like ice. He raised his hand to a growing red scar just let upon his cheek. A supplicant’s smile stretched his lips. He placed the back of his hand against his face."
There are six short stories in the Awakening, a set that is a prequel to Veil of the Dragon (which I enjoyed of course). They are very short... but the amount of impact per word is very high. This type of work is best served in limited doses (i.e. like espresso). Unpolished illustrations from the author are a nice touch; they are fitting since the author is an artists/architect, but they are bonus material to complement the experience.
The Awakening Evarun is highly recommended.
"From death to death [The Heart of Ahriman] came, riding on a river of human blood. Blood feeds it, blood draws it. Its power is greatest when there is blood on the hands that grasp it, when it is wrested by slaughter from its holder. Wherever it gleams, blood is spilt and kingdoms totter, and the forces of nature are put in turmoil." -- Thutothmes of Khemi (The Hour of The Dragon, by REH)
The Hour of the Dragon (1934-1936), is Robert E. Howard''s only full length novel of Conan, the barbarian he popularized in short story form. The text is available on-line for free via the Gutenberg project, but there are reason's to track down a paperback. I read the Berkley Putnam 1977 edition, which has splendid additions to the story: comprehensive foreword and afterwords by Karl Wagner explain how the novel formed prior being serialized in Weird Tales; a map of the Hyborian Age (inspired by REH's own drawings) is essential for the Hyborian ambiances; interior illustrations are bonuses; and cover art by Ken Kelly is stellar.
Hyborian Age: As Wagner details, this book was REH's attempt to break into the UK market that demanded novels (and were not agreeable to his proposals for a collection of his own stories). REH presents Conan as King of Aquilonia. Sorcery and treachery dethrone him, and Conan trots about much of Hyboria, either pursing or being challenged by those who have the magical Heart of Ahriman (which we learn in the opening chapter). This touring of the pre-drowned Euro-Afro-Asia continent begs for a map. The traveling adventure amplifies the Hyborian Age concept; REH's Conan lived in rich pseudo historical land that enabled real ancient cultures to interact with mythical ones. Each chapter has Conan (and his enemies) traversing Aquilonia, Nemeda, Argos, Stygia, and more (these roughly translates to central Europe and Northern Africa). I'm not sure if any othe rtale
Missing Chapter Mystery: A deal was accepted but the UK publisher went belly up, so REH worked with Weird Tales to publish the chapters in serial form. As Wagner explains, there is a possibility that one chapter went missing (#20). Wagner left the numbering of the chapters consistent with the numbering as printed in Weird Tales (#20 is skipped); the original manuscript sent to Denis Archer has 4,000 more words (Pawling & Ness imprint) has 75,000 words. That edition never made it to press, but Weird Tales published the novel in serial form...and it had only 71,000 words. Regardless, the story seems consistent, so there is no obvious loss in plot.
Style: REH did not change his writing style, so each chapter maintains a very pulpy feel. Chapters are over saturated with conflicts to maintain a frenetic pace. An over reliance on chance encounters detracts from the enjoyment, but it remains a fun read on the whole. Written in the 1930's, the tone has some racial and misogynistic aspects of the time. Despite the use of the word "negro," Conan appears as a champion/friend to many and even freed many slaves. Woman on the other hand were represented terribly; the few featured are concubines who are cheer leaders of Conan requiring rescue. Here are some examples:
Example 1: Concubine saves Conan and is glad to have him put a knife to her "Walk beside me," [Conan] instructed her softly, passing his massive arm about her lithe waist. "You've played me fair so far, and I'm inclined to believe in you; but I've lived this long only because I've trusted no one too far, man or woman. So! Now if you play me false you won't live to enjoy the jest." She did not flinch at sight of the reddened poniard or the contact of his hard muscles about her supple body.
"Cut me down without mercy if I play you false," she answered. "The very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfillment of a dream."
Example 2: Conan relishes in his obvious manliness "All right," [Conan] muttered. "I'll trust you; though, by Crom, the habits of a lifetime are not easily put aside. Yet I wouldn't harm you now, if you brought all the swordsmen in Nemedia upon me. But for you Tarascus's cursed ape would have come upon me in chains and unarmed. Do as you wish, girl." Kissing his hands, she sprang lithely up and ran down the corridor, to vanish through a heavy double door.
He glanced after her, wondering if he was a fool to trust her; then he shrugged his mighty shoulders and pulled the satin hangings together, masking his refuge. It was not strange that a passionate young beauty should be risking her life to aid him; such things had happened often enough in his life. Many women had looked on him with favor, in the days of his wanderings, and in the time of his kingship.
Example 3: Conan thanks the concubine who saves him by taking his sexual due "A horse is hidden for you in a thicket beside the road that runs westward, a few hundred paces to the south of the fountain of Thrallos. You know where it is?"
"Aye! But what of you? I had meant to take you with me."
A flood of joy lighted her beautiful face.
"Then my cup of happiness is brimming! But I will not hamper your escape. Burdened with me you would fail. Nay, do not fear for me. They will never suspect that I aided you willingly. Go! What you have just said will glorify my life throughout the long years."
He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind, even his love- making was violent.
In Andrew P. Weston’s Hell Bound, our protagonist and tour guide into Hell is Daemon Grim: he’s a snarky bounty hunter, Satan’s right-hand man for reining in the damned. Grim is so impressed with himself that it takes a while to realize that he may, like everyone in Hell, may actually be subject to being played.
Grim was introduced to the Heroes in Hell series in the previous installment,Doctors in Hell. In short story form there, he was tasked to retrieve Dr. Thomas Neill Cream who had escaped topside. Doctors in Hell is an anthology,an enjoyable introduction to Hell which serves as a great entry point to the series. Heroes in Hell is a long, sustained series, but Doctors and Hell Bound confirm that anyone can hop along and enjoy the ride from any stop ( it is always a good time to go to Hell. Reading Doctors will help the reader appreciate the full novel Hell Bound, but doing so is not necessary.
For new readers, I summarize the Heroes in Hell milieu. It is a fantastical place built from myths and religions—so do not expect Tolkienesque elves or dwarves. The primary realm explored is called Juxtapose, which is a satirical mirror of our earth’s cityscapes (the Seine river featured as “Inseine”, Paris called Perish, the Eiffel Tower represented as the Awful Tower, Facebook is called Hatebook… which sadly seems too appropriate…). Since time has little meaning in Hell, beings from past and present meet and scheme (i.e., Tesla and Chopin). There are other realms beyond Juxtapose connected with ethereal gateways. All are populated by beings being tormented and try to outwit Satan or their comrades. Even Erra, the Akkadian plague god, has visited Hell to torment Satan. No one is safe! It is a splendid, wacky place that works well.
Having recently read Doctors, I was intrigued with the Heroes In Hell world. I wanted to experience it more but needed a tour guide. Daemon Grim did so in entertaining fashion. I wanted to “see” how the Undertaker refreshed the damned as they underwent subsequent deaths; I wanted to experience more odd-ball pairings of historical figures struggling to complete their life’s missions; I wanted my tour guide to have some depth, even if he was unware of it. The story is a bizarre cat-versus-mouse hunt, with Grim chasing Cream through very dark realms, upturning mystery after mystery. A scavenger hunt-like game ensures with beautiful, cryptic poetry that leads Grim further and further into a web of deceit. Antagonists are aplenty.
Hell Bound delivered. Andrew P. Weston did a superb job balancing the needs of a full length novel with the freedoms/constraints of a shared world usually expressed in short story form. Highly recommended for fantasy readers who enjoy a bit of dark adventure.
Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish is a must read for sword-and-sorcery aficionados.
• The Last Wish and most of the series were published in the 1990’s
• They spawned from Poland, not the United States or United Kingdom
• Inspired the Witcher game series a decade later (2007-ongoing)
• More to come, the author and series continue
Andrzej Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia is a “Witcher,” a superhuman trained to defeat monsters. After hundreds of years killing creatures, there are fewer threats and witchers. Actually there is less hunting monsters than Geraltsleuthing mysterious altercations. Sapkowski’s stories have conflicts that arenot lone-Witcher-in-the-wild vs. monster conflict; they are more humans/vs strange forces in which Geralt referees (and usually kills). His investigative methods are a bit rougher than Sherlock Holmes. Each story was as if Conan was dumped into the Grimm's Fairy tales. But all is not grim. Lots of humor present is reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Humans tend to persecute or shun the weird witchers; sustaining future witchers is addressed as the seeds of an apprenticeship are sown.
Geralt has dialogue with antagonists often. Lengthy interrogations are common. This approach allows for funny banter, philosophizing, and entertaining information-dumps. This makes for a fast, entertaining read. Sapkowski stands out as a leading non-English writer. No map, table of contents (TOC), or glossary were featured in the paperback translation. I provide the TOC below. The structure reveals the over-arching narrative of “the Voice of Reason” which attempts to connect all the others. This works pretty well, but is not always smooth. This was designed as an introduction to the series. I was impressed enough to order the Sword of Destiny when I was only half way through. It is not until the third book does a dedicated novel emerge. The series and the games continue to this day with books 7 and 8 awaiting English translation (as of 2016).
The Last Wish Table of Contents
1- Voice of Reason #1
2- The Witcher
3 - Voice of Reason #2
4- A Grain of Truth
5- Voice of Reason #3
6-The Lesser Evil
7-Voice of Reason #4
8-A Question of Price
9-Voice of Reason #5
10-The Edge of The World
11- Voice of Reason #6
12- The Last Wish
11- Voice of Reason #7
Andrzej Sapkowski Blood of Elves saga:
1. The Last Wish; Short Stories 1992 , translated from Polish to English 2007 when the first Witcher Video Game was released
2. Sword of Destiny Short Storeis 1992 translated 2015
3. Blood of Elves 1994 [novels begin] trans 2014
4. The Time of Contempt 1995 translated 2015
5. Baptism of Fire 1996 translated 2016
6. The Tower of Swallows 1997 translated 2016
7. Lady of the Lake (1999…being translated for a 2017 release in US)
8. Season of Storms (Sezon burz) written 2013, set between the short stories in the first book in the series, The Last Wish. English edition TBD
2007 Witcher PC
2011 Witcher 2 (Assassins of Kings) PC, Xbox, Mac OS
2015 Witcher 3 (Wild Hunt), PC, PS4, Xbox
Sisowath’s Mythdark: The Fall of Undal is the second half of a duology (its initial half being The Doom of Undal). For obvious reason, readers should read Doom prior reading Fall. As many epic fantasy novels, there are many characters. In “Doom,” four characters emerged as our primary guides, three of which are sisters (Rhea, Hathor, and Sobekh) and the last is a male from a different royal family (Cronous). Sisowath’s ancient Kings and Queens (Dragon Court) have dragon blood within their veins, but their alien nature is suppressed as they rule over humans. Their curse/blessing manifests in various abilities which have associated temples to nurture/worship. “Fall” is all about the war between [Rhea and Cronous] versus [Hathor and Sobekh], and alien natures are unleashed in grim warfare. This dark fiction is mashup of mythical characters, cataclysms, and global war from a variety of ancient texts and rites.
The milieu is very rich and the Dragon Court family full of intrigue—a testament to the author’s study of history and world building. The style is mostly narrative, which is fitting for a myth-based story. That said, the complex story would have been more engaging with more “showing” versus “telling” (less narrative, more demonstrating). The author has indicated on Goodreads that lengthening her books is what motivated this duology to exist (i.e. stretched from one book); actually, “Fall” itself could easily have been developed into several books on its own accord. I hope Sisowath continues the trend, perhaps focusing on a subset of the epic and highlighting a single character’s perspective; something like that would make this rich world even more accessible.
Dragon Court and Anunnaki Deities: Katrina Sisowath’s Dragon Court series fictionalizes the plight of the royal Anunnaki. Note, the Anunnaki were actual ancient Mesopotamian deities of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures. Katrina Sisowath regularly publishes onAncient_Origins.Net and drew upon her expertise to construct a deep, believable world including: (a) blood-letting rituals of mystery cults, (b) alchemy-based magic, poisons and drugs, and (c) grand architecture expected of ancient times. The world is very immersive and believable. Alien references are relegated to subtle steampunk details; on the continuum of sci-fi to fantasy, this leans heavily toward epic-historical-fantasy.
Katrina Sisowath’s Dragon Court series is definitely recommended for epic fantasy readers who enjoy mythology.
1: Serpent Priestess of the Annunaki
2a: The Doom of Undal
2b: The Fall of Undal
…more to come…
"To write sword-&-sorcery in the twenty-first century, it seemed to me, required a redefinition of the form. ‘The Shadow Cycles’ is my attempt at that redefinition – in effect, the formulation and deployment of a tarot." – Philip Emery
P. Emery’s Sword & Sorcery and Weird Works : I first learned of his work via the Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, in which his "Fifteen Breaths" appealed to me; it had a poetic, dreamy-weird style to it. Crossed his work again in Return of the Sword and was completely taken with his "The Last Scream of Carnage" (notably the editor's pick). It was again poetic, and pushed the bounds of the genre. His gothic, steampunk novel Necromantra was very enjoyable. His experimental The Shadow Cycles continues to push the weird/S&S genre, and I am glad to have read it. The book features an essay which details the history of the Sword & Sorcery genre and the author’s motivations to expand it in new ways.
The Shadow Cycles draws more upon Clark Ashton Smith’s poetic style than it does Robert E. Howard’s clear cut action. The pacing and scope of Michael Moorcock’s eternal champion series. In short, The Shadow Cycles is weird, dense narrarative. Reading takes focus since scarce dialogue, obtuse descriptions, a completely foreign fantasy world, and repeated stanzas make this disorienting.
Milieu & Style: The milieu containing the Uroboros event is featured over character development. There is a universe in which all the suns/planets were flooded/swallowed by a tangible shadow, and magical forces allow limited teleportation from other realms to steer the fate of two remaining serpents which serve as vessels for humanoids: one, a petrified, floating dragon; and two, a leviathan on life-support. The latter is a wondrous, horrific landscape in which humans live in arteries filled with “tallow warts” and resonating with “meat echoes.” Clive Barker fans would devour this stuff (excerpts below):
“Again there is a different cold. Bleak. Vast. Filled with moans. The chamber stretches into the distance, and throughout that length, hanging from the vaulty ceiling, are the same fleshy stalactites that strew the labyrinths. Except these are longer. And from them hang bare bodies. Men. Women. Children. Moaning.
The tendril-things curl around their necks, holding them just above the floor. Others meander among them. Gazing up at them. Nudging them so that they turn slightly. Pinching them. Considering. Because these tendrils, unlike human umbilical cords, not only nourish but leach. They give life to the suspended ones but at the same time soften tissue, suck bone brittle – until the time is right.”
And the exterior Shrike Wall:
“Leviathan moves on through the wakeless sea and the dragonreme slips down its flank. Across its leagues of back a spine of bony spikes stab out. One each spike is impaled a torn, livid body, and oriflamme of skin and sinew. The spike bores through the small of the back and up through the belly, bowing the body. Arms and legs loll down but not their heads. There are no heads.”
Undeveloped Characters and Muddled Conflict: Despite the book blurb, the book is not about Rorn. Nor is it about the first hero introduced, Gemmored… first of the mysterious party of five called the Phoenix Prey. Here's the book description:
With four others, all of different realms, Rorn is transported to a new world. The last magician of a race of magicians; another possessing and possessed by a vampiric labrys; a towering swordsman whose blade sucks out the evil of those it slays; an assassin shape-shedder. All five are plunged into a strangely black sea which ships sail across like dreams across obsidian - a sea of shadow. They find themselves in the midst of an uncanny war fought over generations but approaching a final apocalyptic battle where victory is to be won not by strength or strategy but by something far stranger.
The Phoenix Prey are collected across a multiverse by an omnipotent force; this party comprises:
1. Gemmored of Darkling Realm, a warrior with his Doom Sword
2. Gel of Gnomon Realm, a warrior with his labrys axBloodbane
3. Zantalliz of Voyage Realm, a librarian wizard
4. Harnak of Aftermath Realm – a shapeshifter
5. Rorn of Nightwake Realm – a ranger
These are mired in a conflict between the two serpent city-states run at war, led by Sstheness (Leviathan Leader) and Phariane (Archivist of Dragon Keep). The cultures of Dragon Keep and Leviathan are bizarre but compelling. The characters, who have loads of potential, remain emotionally distant and their story arcs half developed. Plenty of potential epic threads are left incomplete and conflict obscured. It was difficult to know if enemies really posed a threat as main characters walk thru battles untouched at times and were occasionally teleported to other realms for unclear purposes; there are many sorties that seemed to have an imbalance enemy resistance (sometimes too little, sometimes way-too-much). The fate of the Phoenix Prey remained unfinished. A climax that promised betrayal and tension between the Prey was unfulfilled. Ultimately the cosmic “world” was awesomely weird but still not developed clearly enough to emotionally engage the reader. Fans of soap-opera, high fantasy will likely be disengaged.
A Worthy Experiment: The experimental The Shadow Cycleswas a compelling read written by a passionate author. It will enjoyed by aficionados of weird fiction, but will be inaccessible for the common fantasy reader. I will jump at the chance to read more of Emery’s works since I enjoy being pushed passed boundaries and he excels at that. I end with a snipet from his essay:
"… I hope ‘The Shadow Cycles; is at least a new version of the Howardian tarot that redefines the combination of blood and darkness and fear at the heart of sword-&-sorcery. – Philip Emery"
Major Arcana = Violence and the Numinous
1. S&S is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect.
2. S&S is potentially amoral.
3. S&S is the combination of violence and the numinous
4. S&S eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
5. S&S is naturally a short story form.
6. S&S contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
7. S&S has a Chthonic sensibility
8. S&S has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
9. S&S combines explicit and implicit horror
10. The S&S protagonist is a loner
11. S&S addresses the irrational
12. S&S is about power
13. S&S is highly ‘visual’