Rathen: Into Bramblewood Forest by Grant Elliot Smith
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars
With this sequel, “Rathen” officially becomes a developed character and series. Highly recommend for fantasy & RPG fans.
Grant Elliot Smith delivers another intense literary-Role Playing Game (lit-RPG) inspired adventure with Rathen: Into Bramblewood Forest; here he continues his Rathen series with co-author Steven H. Stohler. This sequel can easily be enjoyed as a standalone adventure. Whichever one you read, you’ll be excited to read the other.
My review of the predecessor, Rathen: The Legend of Ghrakus Castle holds true for this sequel; both are fun reads, having captain Rathen lead ~a dozen adventurers; as in the first book, the first 50% is the party gathering while they travel; the latter half delivering the real conflict.
Bramblewood unfolds super-fast and is surprisingly easy to read given the number of featured characters (~11 in the main party and ~4 antagonists--all of them have backstories and motivations). Presenting at a pleasant pace and delivering intense action while offering character depth is a testimony to the authors’ ability to unfurl balanced storytelling. The authors must be meticulous dungeon masters.
Adding a Lich to the party, and ensuring he had a central role in the plot to obtain the Book of Ziz, really provided a unique take on the typical RPG party. Listen below is Rathen’s party, each member you’ll get to know and route for:
Keeping it from a 5-star is the same melodrama that makes the tale enjoyable. There are instances of fast healing that deflate consequences of battle, but still reflect lit-RPG expectations; many subplots come across as artificial (i.e., including a few romantic relationships, and escape scenes) that develop fun tension but approach feeling forced.
Cover Art by Stawicki and Future Rathen: Longtime fantasy illustrator Michael Stawicki provided another great cover. He has illustrated many in his career for Dragon Lance, Monte Cook Games, Milton-Bradley, Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, Vivendi Games, and others.
I am committed to the third episode in the works, pitched as “The Battle for Korganis.”
Combing Stawicki’s website, it is touch to overlook a stunning related work which I hope/speculate reveals the next adventure, artwork called “Rathen’s Descent.”
Lyrical Narrative: I don’t recommend this particular book for everyone, but Lord Dunsany wrote adult fantasy fiction with lyrical prose which are must-read, enjoyable short stories too: The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories or the Time and the Gods collection for instance. Read those. But The King of Elfland's Daughter (TKoED) is a novel, and the style works less well. Unending paragraphs literally span pages. Run on sentences eventually stop, only to be followed with new sentences beginning with conjunctions.
Occasionally, he’ll break the fourth wall to answer critics requiring a link to actual history (so he calls out a unnecessary connection to 1530 Europe and the Pope in his chapter called “A Historical Fact) and an equally unnecessary apology to stereotyping the alluring willow the wisps. So thick was the main narrative style, these asides blended in smoothly as if he we talking to the reader over a camp fire.
For Adult Fantasy Aficionados: TKoED is really only recommended for fantasy fans learning great works written before or in-parallel with Tolkien’s release of his Lord of the Rings; in fact, I read this inspired by such aficionados with a groupread on Goodreads. There are clear influences that resonate with Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur (The Silmarillion) and milieus that echo that of Eddison’s Ouroboros and Anderson’s Broken Sword. You’ll enjoy this more if consider its broader place in literature:
Fields we Know, and Fields we do not know: Separating the land of magicless men and the field-they-knew is a wondrous twilight which many ignore, but the timeless and geographical shifting land of elves is beyond—and over there lies fields-we-humans-do-not-know. Across this barrier, Dunsany sends the reader with a heroic human. He is heir to the city of Erl, Alveric, questing for some magic in a tale that “only songs can tell.” Alveric gains magic by luring the daughter of the Elfland King back to the city of Erl. The repetition of places-we-know, and places we-do-not-know, evokes a famous quote spoken ~80yrs after the book’s publication:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.” Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense, 12 February 2002
Dunsany wants to share the unknown with us. However, he admits he cannot capture things that can only be sung, or experienced outside the pages of a book. Yet he succeeds in creating entrancing prose.
Conflict is present, but unclear: One may expect more clear conflict, but it is not the ostensible Alveric/Orion/Man vs. Elves. There are many reasons why elves and humans should avoid each other or go to war, but in the end they seem to have undramatic encounters. There is an undertone of “magic vs reality” demonstrated with the Freer (a stifling Christian priest) and his interactions with magic/elves.
The first half and end focus on Alveric. His heroic adventure is compelling. He has wondrous battles with using a magical sword against weird things. His elvish wife (Lirazel) is conflicted. His tale is dark but told friendly; it is a Fairy tale in which Alveric goes mad and follows even madder men. I would have preferred the book just focus on him and his relationship with the titular daughter of the Elfland King.
Their son, Orion, dominates the middle of the book. His hunting experiences were odd. Orion is shown to be at-one with nature, but then he hunts innocent, beautiful, peaceful & magical unicorns (which provide nothing more than glory and trophies). He even teamed with the same troll that tricked his mom into being lured back to Elfland. Content seem to drift with his story, so we get treated to pages of the troll mis-communicating with pigeons.
All in all, if you appreciate older literature you’ll find this one worth the extra effort. Even if you want to tackle this to experience Dunsany, try out his short fiction first.
Excerpts: p68: Weird, poignant, philosophizing example #1: Sad toys in Elfland
“For it is true, and Alveric knew, that just as the glamour that brightens much of our lives, especially in early years, comes from rumours that reach us from Elfland by various messengers (on whom be blessings and peace), so there returns from our fields to Elfland again, to become a part of its mystery, all manner of little memories that we have lost and little devoted toys that were treasured once. And this is part of the law of ebb and flow that science may trace in all things; thus light grew the forest of coal, and the coal gives back light; thus rivers fill the sea, and the sea sends back to the rivers; thus all things give that receive; even Death.
Next Alveric saw lying there on the flat dry ground a toy that he yet remembered, which years and years ago (how could he say how many?) had been a childish joy to him, crudely carved out of wood; and one unlucky day it had been broken, and one unhappy day it had been thrown away. And now he saw it lying there not merely new and unbroken, but with a wonder about it, a splendour and a romance, the radiant transfigured thing that his young fancy had known. It lay there forsaken of Elfland as wonderful things of the sea lie sometimes desolate on wastes of sand, when the sea is a far blue bulk with a border of foam.”
p105: Weird, poignant, philosophizing example #2: The power of ink
And little [Orion] knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills. Little knew he of ink…
p7: Enchanting Magic example #1: The making of a magical sword. And. And. And …
The witch approached it and pared its edges with a sword that she drew from her thigh. Then she sat down beside it on the earth and sang to it while it cooled. Not like the runes that enraged the flames was the song she sang to the sword: she whose curses had blasted the fire till it shrivelled big logs of oak crooned now a melody like a wind in summer blowing from wild wood gardens that no man tended, down valleys loved once by children, now lost to them but for dreams, a song of such memories as lurk and hide along the edges of oblivion, now flashing from beautiful years of glimpse of some golden moment, now passing swiftly out of remembrance again, to go back to the shades of oblivion, and leaving on the mind those faintest traces of little shining feet which when dimly perceived by us are called regrets. She sang of old Summer noons in the time of harebells: she sang on that high dark heath a song that seemed so full of mornings and evenings preserved with all their dews by her magical craft from days that had else been lost, that Alveric wondered of each small wandering wing, that her fire had lured from the dusk, if this were the ghost of some day lost to man, called up by the force of her song from times that were fairer. And all the while the unearthly metal grew harder. The white liquid stiffened and turned red. The glow of the red dwindled. And as it cooled it narrowed: little particles came together, little crevices closed: and as they closed they seized the air about them, and with the air they caught the witch's rune, and gripped it and held it forever. And so it was it became a magical sword. And little magic there is in English woods, from the time of anemones to the falling of leaves, that was not in the sword. And little magic there is in southern downs, that only sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and the chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendour of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of may. And by the time the sword was black it was all enchanted with magic.
Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till Earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. Enough that it was once beyond our Earth and was now here amongst our mundane stones; that it was once but as those stones, and now had something in it such as soft music has; let those that can define it.
p102: Enchanting Magical Music example #2:
Then the Elf King rose, and put his left arm about his daughter, and raised his right to make a mighty enchantment, standing up before his shining throne which is the very centre of Elfland. And with clear resonance deep down in his throat he chaunted a rhythmic spell, all made of words that Lirazel never had heard before, some age-old incantation, calling Elfland away, drawing it further from Earth. And the marvellous flowers heard as their petals drank in the music, and the deep notes flooded the lawns; and all the palace thrilled, and quivered with brighter colours; and a charm went over the plain as far as the frontier of twilight, and a trembling went through the enchanted wood. Still the Elf King chaunted on. The ringing ominous notes came now to the Elfin Mountains, and all their line of peaks quivered as hills in haze, when the heat of summer beats up from the moors and visibly dances in air. All Elfland heard, all Elfland obeyed that spell. And now the King and his daughter drifted away, as the smoke of the nomads drifts over Sahara away from their camel's-hair tents, as dreams drift away at dawn, as clouds over the sunset; and like the wind with the smoke, night with the dreams, warmth with the sunset, all Elfland drifted with them. All Elfland drifted with them and left the desolate plain, the dreary deserted region, the unenchanted land. So swiftly that spell was uttered, so suddenly Elfland obeyed, that many a little song, old memory, garden or may tree of remembered years, was swept but a little way by the drift and heave of Elfland, swaying too slowly eastwards till the elfin lawns were gone, and the barrier of twilight heaved over them and left them among the rocks.
p15: Dreamy style example #1: Fields we know; And. And. And…
“To those who may have wisely kept their fancies within the boundary of the fields we know it is difficult for me to tell of the land to which Alveric had come, so that in their minds they can see that plain with its scattered trees and far off the dark wood out of which the palace of Elfland lifted those glittering spires, and above them and beyond them that serene range of mountains whose pinnacles took no colour from any light we see. Yet it is for this very purpose that our fancies travel far, and if my reader through fault of mine fail to picture the peaks of Elfland my fancy had better have stayed in the fields we know. Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water. And the colour of Elfland, of which I despaired to tell, may yet be told, for we have hints of it here; the deep blue of the night in Summer just as the gloaming has gone, the pale blue of Venus flooding the evening with light, the deeps of lakes in the twilight, all these are hints of that colour. And while our sunflowers carefully turned to the sun, some forefather of the rhododendrons must have turned a little towards Elfland, so that some of that glory dwells with them to this day. And, above all, our painters have had many a glimpse of that country, so that sometimes in pictures we see a glamour too wonderful for our fields; it is a memory of theirs that intruded from some old glimpse of the pale-blue mountains while they sat at easels painting the fields we know.”
p40: Dreamy style example #2: trembling weeds and personified energy
“Cast anything into a deep pool from a land strange to it, where some great fish dreams, and green weeds dream, and heavy colours dream, and light sleeps; the great fish stirs, the colours shift and change, the green weeds tremble, the light wakes, a myriad things know slow movement and change; and soon the whole pool is still again. It was the same when Alveric passed through the border of twilight and right through the enchanted wood, and the King was troubled and moved, and all Elfland trembled.”
Port of Shadows is Fake News: This Black Company installment from Glen Cook (chronologically #1.5, but published >#10) will be enjoyed by long-term fans much more than newer folk reading the books in order. I came from reading only the first book and recommend skipping it (I am still intrigued to read Shadows Linger eventually). As part of group read in the Goodread's Sword & Sorcery group, series fans suggest reading the original trilogy first (Chronicles of the Black Company) and reaffirm that the other books are more engaging.
Some spoilers follow as I explain why Port of Shadows is alluring Fake News:
To quote the main narrator Croaker (physician and official historian of the group): "I had no idea what this ferocious campaign was all about. Well, yes, there were Rebels and Resurrectionists in need of butchering out here. Hints from the wife and kids suggested a possible connection to the Port of Shadows business, but … I could not help suspecting that something more was afoot.
The most reliable information about the late empire is not reliable at all. It, too, is consensus guesswork woven from untrustworthy fragmentary records and hand-me-down oral histories."
Alfred Hitchcock once said, "The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don't care"; the titular "Port of Shadows" is not quite a MacGuffin--but it's pretty close: the mysterious "Port" is the focus of the Black Company's quest/conflict, but ample threads/arcs regarding the danger stemming from it are consistently left unexplained or shown to be not dangerous.
Ostensible conflict (excerpt): "…if the Lady had spoken truly, Tides Elba was a threat to the whole world. She could become the port through which the hideous shadow known as the Dominator could make his return. No doubt she was sought by and beloved of every Resurrectionist cultist hoping to raise the old evil from his grave. No doubt she was the prophesied messiah of darkness."
We are told (not shown) that the Port is an exposed pathway for the evil Dominator to be resurrected--yet as a reader I was never engaged. For one, the Dominator's evilness is not demonstrated, nor do the flashbacks really feature him or his behavior; secondly, the "Port" and all its possible incarnations are not really dangerous (we are told, not shown, many times that the possible Ports are causing mayhem, but the Black Company and our narrator Croaker never seem to be in any danger); and lastly, any such resurrection (i.e., use of the Port) never seems close. Nothing ever seems to be at stake.
A lack luster tale told in a confusing fashion: The tale is told via a weave of historic (long time ago) and present-day chapters. The initial 1/3rd is great, but the mysterious "Just follow my command and do a mysterious task without explanation" [given by the Lady or the Black Co Captain to Croaker] starts to fall flat thereafter. Suspicious activity from the magician One-Eye and the Taken Limper introduced in the beginning are ultimately just snippets for old time fans to relish. Although entertaining, any tension from having untrustworthy companions is not capitalized on.
Fake News: We learn lots of what is going via journalistic accounts (not direct witnessing) as characters touch base with Croaker. This makes sense since he is the Annalist, but also keeps the reader distant. The alternating shifts in time also change point of view (first person with Croaker and third person). Within one yarn, there is time travel (forward and back) in which people are transported via time.
Everyone is unreliable, either because they are mischievous, possessed/"not acting like themselves," are clones, impostors, twins, or alternative incarnations of themselves (Mischievous rain had at least three version of herself; Laissa at least two, Ankou shapeshifts, etc.). The confusion does not seem to be unfurled intentionally (i.e., in a Phillip Dick story). Instead we are given a huge swath of characters, all unreliable, most only appearing for a short time, most with multiple instances of themselves… and none of them know what is going on (see below excerpts).
I am assuming that the following stories in the series follow through and make this feel more complete, but as a standalone novel, and even as a sequel, it feels incomplete.
Excerpts (a.k.a., Fake News headlines):
The most reliable information about the late empire is not reliable at all. It, too, is consensus guesswork woven from untrustworthy fragmentary records and hand-me-down oral histories.
We’re into something unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We don’t know what it is. That’s why we keep talking and talking. I can’t even express it. It’s something that we can’t handle the way we usually do. We can’t trick it. We can’t crush it by being the nastiest killers on the field. It’s all inside. Insidious.
Nobody knows what’s going on. Anything that we think we know is almost certainly not…
"…You don’t know anything more than I do. And now I’m beginning to think that maybe even the Taken is without a clue.” Our mistress was known for playing lives-long games that only she could fathom.
The Captain deployed his ingenuous smile, neither denying nor confirming, just suggesting that he knew something that would remain a mystery to everyone else.
Nothing was what it looked like. Nothing stayed the same. Nothing went the way that it should.
Somebody keeps making us forget stuff
I had no idea what this ferocious campaign was all about. Well, yes, there were Rebels and Resurrectionists in need of butchering out here. Hints from the wife and kids suggested a possible connection to the Port of Shadows business, but … I could not help suspecting that something more was afoot.
From the Old Man down to the Third and local kid Gurdlief Speak, folks keep asking me for news they need to make sense of a time that no surviving memories make sensible.
the Black Company must have been smacked with a widespread, savage, and utterly, angrily deliberate memory assault.
None of the Senjak sisters were described accurately. None of them were identified by their correct names.
The most reliable information about the late empire is not reliable at all. It, too, is consensus guesswork woven from untrustworthy fragmentary records and hand-me-down oral histories.
The back-cover blurb is concise and has no spoilers, and captures the book well (copied/pasted below).
This book is saturated with oppression, violence, and murder but none of that is gratuitous. Like his assassin characters, author Chris A. Jacksonbalances several tight-rope acts: (a) have the protagonist, Lad, commit evil acts while being innocent at heart; (b) present the coming of age of three characters with burgeoning romance without being cheesy; (c) dole out humor (mostly through Lad's dialogue) while shedding blood; (d) present mature themes of identity and life-purpose with an easy-to-read style (suitable for YA or adult audiences).
Each chapter blends into the next with a carefully scripted, enjoyable plot with just the right amount of tension. All the main characters (Lad, Mya, Wiggin) grow while establishing strong character motivations. There are five more in the series and this is solid introduction. Before I jump into #2 Weapon of Blood, I will read Chris A. Jackson's Deathmask since I already have the paperback and I'm a sucker for necromancers.
Most (if not all) are illustrated by Noah Stacey:
Weapon of Flesh Series
#1 Weapon of Flesh 2005
#2 Weapon of Blood 2013
#3 Weapon of Vengeance 2014
#4 Weapon of Fear 2015 *
#5 Weapon of Pain 2016 *
#6 Weapon of Mercy 2017 *
(* with Anne L. McMillen-Jackson)
Back Cover Blurb to Weapon of Flesh:
"Forged from flesh… and magic. Made to kill… but not to feel.
He was made for one purpose: To be the most efficient killer, the most lethal assassin the world had ever seen. But something has gone wrong with the plan.
The Master is gone… The weapon is free… And in a dangerous world, a weapon does what a weapon is made to do. Or does he?
Without even a name, the weapon chooses one: Lad. And so the weapon begins to become a person… All he has been told is that his destiny awaits him, so he seeks it out, though he knows not what that destiny is.
But the one who paid for the weapon to be forged awaits his prize…impatiently. The Grandfather of Assassins has invested nearly two decades and a fortune in his perfect weapon, and when it does not arrive on time, he begins to search. His hunters are seeking Lad, and Lad is seeking his destiny.
There is only one problem: No one thought a weapon of flesh would fall in love."
Book Review: Peter Fugazzotto's The Witch of the Sands is a solid novella.Very much like Glen Cook's The Black Company, this features a band of hired warriors (Hounds) set on quests/errands that once aligned with Shield's personal goal (kill all warriors and witches since they, namely the Warlock King, killed his father).
Here the Celtic/Viking-like Hounds deal with a Roman-like leader named Cassius (a nod to the IX "lost" legion) to (a) murder a magic-less chieftain (reasons unknown) and then (b) seek out the titular witch of the sands. The author handles the group well, assigning simple but effective names: Shield, Harad, Hawk, Patch, the Brothers Bull, Night (my favorite stealthy fighter),etc.. It's a fun squad with decently involved backstory and tension. Fugazzotto's martial art experience influences the fights, with just the right amount of descriptive positioning and movement.
Plenty of sorcery and undead horror here, and the final battle is compelling--delivering a mix of betrayal, music-based magic, and bloody melee.
Without spoiling, not all is answered about Cassius's intentions. I would have have enjoyed a clearer tie-in between missions. I suspect that may be answered in subsequent installments. The characters and writing style serve as a solid introduction to the Hounds of the North. Shield carries his team and the story... and the readers. You'll undoubtedly follow to book 2, Black River.
An obvious must-read for Grimdark readers and fans of Glen Cook.
In summary, The Beauty offered everything I expected and desired: a mysterious adventure, evocative prose, and unique storytelling. It is deep, but thrilling.
PEACE, PIPE, is a bonus story that is 50% of this book. An alien diplomat chronicles its exploits (having accidentally started a war on Demeter) while quarantined and communicating to a pipe (which speaks as water flows through it, and evokes the sounds of a flushing toilet). Again, the themes of storytelling and communication are foundations, as well as an invitation to the reader to change perspectives on different cultures. No body horror in this one.
"There are signs, I don't care what William says. There are signs of change, of regeneration, and I saw the first mushrooms in the graveyard on the morning after U ripped up the photograph of my mother's face and threw the pieces over the cliff, into the fat swallowing folds of the sea..."
My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories.I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past. They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women who all once had lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump limps...Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in a lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown."
"When [William] told me of his journey, that was how he finished it--he fitted there. I find this to the strangest of expressions--how does one fit in with other people, all edges erased, making a seamless life from the sharp corners of discontent? I don't find anything that fits in such a way. Certainly not in nature. Nothing real is meant to tessellate like a triangle, top-bottom bottom-top. The sheep will never munch the grass in straight lines."
"[Doctor Ben] told me diseases were like people. They fight and fight and throw themselves around to escape the walls of tighter and tighter boxes."
"They were found in the graveyard, springing from the decaying bodies of the women deep in the ground, and they were found in the woods, spreading themselves like a rug over the wet earth. The Beauty were small at first but they grew and took the best qualities of the dead. They sucked up through the soil all the softness, serenity, hope, and happiness of womankind. They made themselves into a new form, a new north, shaped from the clay of the world and designed only to bring pleasure to man.
But the Beauty knew form the many experiences of the women that had gone before, that men did not always love what was good for them. Men could attack, hurt, main and murder the things that came too fast, too suddenly, like love...."
Unsheathed: An Epic Fantasy Collection is high quality Sword & Sorcery by nine contemporary authors. The anthology is varied in tone and style, and will delight new fans (who may like lit-RPG fare) as well as aged veterans looking for weird pulp. I picked this up as part of a S&S Groupread on Goodreads which had the theme of "New vs 'N'" (N being the infamous Appendix N list from Gary Gygax.
All were fun, but two of these resonated with me. The first was by Charles Allen Gramlich, whose writing lured me to this collection (having read his Harvest of War and Bitter Steel: Tales and Poems of Epic Fantasy and others). The second was by Jay Erickson whose Lydia/Gwendolyn Locke stood out in design & delivery.
1. Hanging at Crosbhothar Austin Worley: “Corpses hung from the ancient maple like leaves” is a great opener. The story follows the female Arlise, Watcher of the Order, who trails the corrupted Eoghan and his sorceress lover Katrin. A few abrupt saved-by-the-last-minute incidents and rpg-rapid-healing keeps this decent tale from a 5-star.
2. Retribution by Night Chad Vincent: This 4-star tale introduces Captain Brennan who is caught in an outpost drama between the oppressed, local named Aodhan ( a nature lover, and demon lover too?) who is hounded by surly knights, like Sergeant Armstrong. Not sure who to root for in this gray tale, though Brennan is ostensibly on the knights side. Nice undead battles here. Would have enjoyed experiencing Aodhan's past to appreciate his motivations.
3. Where All the Souls are Hollow by Charles Allen Gramlich: a 5 star Sword-n-Planet with the technology being more implicit than explicit. We join Krieg (German for "War") as his adventures mid-mission. Krieg’s purpose is slowly revealed as he battles automatons, sinister alien forces, and evil "children." A beautiful blend of horror and adventure; pacing is spot on.
4. Switch Blade by Scott Simerlein: I am not into humorous stories, but this hilarious farce was well placed in the collection. It was slightly confusing, but was meant to be. 4 star.
5. King’s Road by G. Dean Manuel: This melodrama unfolds faster than the characters can deliver their lines; it felt like a fan fiction tribute of LOTR's Rohan Gondor play between a prince-son usurping his worn-king-father’s rule. 3 star
6. The Artefact by Ross Baxter: lit-RPG readers would like this one. Three heroes with desires to collect as many types of loot (books/knowledge, a weapon, and something mechanical/crafty like a timepiece) adventure in ruins. It feels like part of larger universe, but for a short story the story arc was not contained enough to be a clear stand alone adventure. The character Jud stood out. 3+ star.
7. Under Locke and Key by Jay Erickson: a 5 star tale with female leads and blood magic. Gwendolyne is an enslaved adolescent girl, whose parents died by the Red Tears plague. The same sickness affects the countryside and criminals wishing to profit off of orphaned girls and a possible cure. The flow of the tale was very smooth and engaging.
8. Ransom for a Prince by Liam Hogan: this is saturated with fighting, and was more real/historical than fantasy. Expect lots of medieval duels with a female lead. The premise is a reason for the author to show off the art of sword play, which is described well. 4+.
9. Only an Elf by Stuart Thaman : There is a lot going on here in this 4-star tale of slavery. Overall the plot is very engaging, but the bloody climax seemed inconsistent with the lead up. Certain scenes between the female elf slave Enessana and her master, the blacksmith dwarf Kimiko, worked separately, but did not flow with other events. Perhaps too much was packed within a short span of pages, throwing the pacing off. This would expand into a great novel.
"Behold! I have fashioned a magazine like those from fabled days of yore. It overflows with thrilling adventures. There are swords, and there is sorcery. There are dark deeds and daring rescues. There are lands where heroes fear to tread." - The Magician's Skull speaks in Kickstarter
Should you trust a talking skull? Well, no sane person would, but I attest this Skull does not lie. Tales from the Magician's Skull #1 spawned from a successful 2017 Kickstarter Campaign in which Howard Andrew Jones (Sword & Sorcery guru, author, and RPGer) teamed up with Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, publisher of Dungeon Crawl Classics. The resulting magazine reflects this partnership, marrying great stories with suggested RPG game items. As a backer and enthusiast of fantasy fiction, I couldn’t be more pleased.
QUALITY: The quality is great (the artwork, editing, illustrations, paper-feel etc.); this magazine is just fun to hold.
APPENDIX: The Appendix! What a great design idea! To drive home the RPG elements of the stories, these guys created items and rules related to each story for the Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG. This is really cool. read the stories...then go play them.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Ooh, the illustrations are nice and varied. For Enge’s story, Russ Nicholson drew a full page, very reminiscent of his drawings for the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Many full page, detailed illustrations decorate the interior (by artists: Jennell Jaquays, Doug Kovacs, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Ian Miller, Russ Nicholson, Stefan Poag, and Chuck Whelon).
1) "What Lies in Ice" A Gaunt and Bone story by Chris Willrich - For me this was 3-stars, but I think YA-adult and lit-RPG (literary RPG) readers will enjoy it more. For a short story, this has a huge party of protagonists (>6), heavy doses of comic relief, and an overabundance of fast-paced story telling that shoots for ADHD action scenes rather than elements-that-build-on-each other. It reminds me of a Marvel Avengers movie. It has too much in it to allow an old fogie like myself enough to grasp on to, but it does have a lot of neat things going on (as disjointed as they are). My favorite concept/creature: Hands of the Sea (which is the first item in the Appendix!).
Sharing my thoughts on Goodreads prompted the Sword & Sorcery crowdassured me that followers of Gaunt and Bone will enjoy this since it ties together other G&B yarns.
2) James Enge's "The Guild of Silent Men : A Story of Morlock Ambrosius". 5-star! Although less action than the previous story, this fantasy-murder mystery delivers more than enough swords-n-sorcery while fleshing out Thain Morlock's background and motivations. A fun read that also serves to make me want to learn more. Perhaps I should go get Blood of Ambrose right now.
3) Bill Ward's "Beneath the Bay of Black Waters” A Tale of Shan Spirit Slayer and the Banner General Bao" - 4-stars. I'm a big Bill Ward fan (i.e., his anthologies like
Mightier than the Sword and Last of His Kind). This Asian/Orient adventure is led by an entertaining duo tracking a drug trade (of Black Pearls, being mysterious narcotics) from the Fish-Gutter gang. Death escapes the protagonists more than it should, but the story is great.
4) Aeryn Rudel's “Beyond the Block” - 5 stars. A first-person perspective was perfect for this undead horror. Another duo stars, this time its Lucinda and her brother Matthais (the narrator). Matthais is a blacksmith who seeks to defend Lucinda from Lord Magister Vyard (a sorcerer who wants something of Lucinda’s magical potential).
5) Howard Andrew Jones’s “Crypt of Stars, From the Chronicles of Hanuvar Cabera" has one primary hero: Hanuvar of the Volani. It's him against the invading Dervani who are out to raid his ancestral cemeteries. I am a big HAJ fan, having followed his blogs and Black Gate articles and enjoyed his fiction (i.e., The Bones of the Old Ones). He never disappoints. 5-stars.
6) C.L. Werner's "There Was an Old Fat Spider” offers a biased protagonist, Karl, who may be an anti-hero. A knight and civil protector Rudolf Goettinger tracks Karl down in this Germanic/Gothic tale that reminded me of Werner's Warhammer tales. Lots of gray areas here. Good grimness. 4-stars.
7) John C. Hocking’s “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest. From the World of the Archivist." Another police-like duo lead this mystery: Thratos (mentor Hand of the King sorcerer) and Benhus (young mentee, warrior sorcerer). Thieves are breaking into royal crypts, but not necessarily to steal. Why? Some neat Magical Weapons are presented, i.e., the Nobleman's Comfort (magical wand, and its in the Appendix). Best of all, this story has a talking skull! But is it THE skull? 5-stars.
VOLUME #2 promises more of the great quality, and it is nearing publication (June 15th 2018). I suggest you join the Legion of the Skull, whether you like to read, play RPGs, or both.
1) Heroes of Dreams & Khash series: I discovered Lumley’s writing via his Weird Sword & Sorcery. Vintage dark fantasy spawned in the early 1900’s from the work of pen-pals R.E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft; though it seems rare to find quality Conan-Mythos mash-ups. Lumely has done so a few times. First, his Hero of Dreams series is an overt mashup of Lovecraft’s Dreamcycle and Leiber’s Fafred and Gray Mouser series. Lumley’s Tarra Khash series (a.k.a. Tales of Primal Land) was written in a similar vein (i.e. fun Sword & Sorcery adventure in a Weird-Fiction, Cthulhu-esque world).
2) Blood Omen Legacy of Kain: A huge fan of the Horror S&S Game Series “Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain”, I was delighted to learn that Lumely’s writing influenced Denis Dyack’s vision of Nosgoth. Denis Dyack, creator of Silicon Knights, made the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain game (various incarnations from 1996 thru 2009). As a Kain fan I did not know the influence from Lumely until I saw an interview on Youtube (The Quantum Tunnel 2016 called Blood Omen Legacy Of Kain Deep Dive 1) in which Dyack reveals that the classic horror/action-rpg game was influenced by Lumey’s Necroscope series. Given the Visceral, Vampire, Lovecraftian, and Time Travel elements, this makes sense; however, the book has a contemporary setting versus the medieval one in the game.
As a fan of Khash, Heroes of Dreams, and Legacy of Kain… I just had to check out Necroscope. So what is it really?
Necroscope is “ESPionage” fiction (a word coined in this book), blending paranormal horror with spy adventure. It kicks off a series of 18 books (published 1986 to 2013). This first entry is entertaining and sets an expansive foundation for a wild ride. People with supernatural powers (predicting the future, speaking to the dead, etc.) are being enlisted into government agencies.
The book is ostensibly about the battle between the United Kingdom vs. the Russian governments special forces, but the conflict is really about Harry Keogh (speaker to the dead) vs. Boris Dragosani (who approximates a vampire). Each is associated with a government, but each is motivated by personal goals which take center stage. The reader learns about supernatural powers as these two do. After they master their respective powers, they go to battle in a most bizarre way chock-full of undead things and over the top time travel.
Expect lots of changing perspective and lots of story threads that will gel about half way through. Artwork is unexpectedly sprinkled throughout the book (even the Kindle version). The geometry puzzles and Moebius Strips shown relate the story and make for fun, relevant, diversions. This is very digestible horror for non-horror fans. A very fast read, recommended to just about everyone who likes dark adventure.
Never let a lesser person hold dominion over your sense of worth. If you doubt your own logic, you become vulnerable to oppression, violation, and control.- scholar Adam Lockhart
Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark inspired this Slaves of Erafor series (a dark muse for sure). When and how should passive intellectuals fight back against blind oppression? It is a timely philosophical question for many, especially in a day in with faux news is eroding our confidence in society's collective intelligence. At what point is violent revolution warranted? Rhein offers an entertaining adventure that invites us to consider such dilemmas. Don't worry, it reads as fun escapism--not a manifesto.
This is a stunning sequel to the The Reader of Acheron, which introduced us to Kikkan (an educated brute, a freed slave--he's the pipe-weilding due on the cover) and the duo of Cole & Quillion (nuanced mercenaries). The three men go on a mission, inspired by a rare scholar named Lockhart: find a teacher, a literate thief, in Edentown. They are continuously dogged by an oppressive, illiterate government. Acheron was ambitious and rewarding, introducing us to a future in which reading is prohibited; Thief is even better.
Stylistically, the Literate Thief is very realistic (no mythological monsters or contraptions exist) but it does "feel like" Steampunk Fantasy. Its tone is more Grim than Hopeful, but that reflects the daunting conflict our heroes face. Its faces several humans against (a) organized authoritarian government, (b) a drugged, apathetic populace, and (c) an impoverished ruined city-scape. There are several instances you will hope that they can escape into the infested, haunted subway for relative safety from the dangers above.
Walter Rhein mixed up just the right number of opposing & cooperative players and places. As much as the Literate Thief fleshes out the World of Erafor, it opens up new vistas into weird science (futuristic alchemy & drug use) while exposing more mysteries. One the one hand, the geography crystallized: places like: San Borja, San Aryan, Brinewater, and Edentown all became distinctive characters unto themselves; on the other hand, characters like Quillion, Cole, and Kikkan demonstrate wild heroics while revealing more about themselves... and new people (i.e., the antagonists Orion and Janus, and the roving library-scholar) offer up an atlas full of new stories. There is a thief of course: Simyon, a friend of the seductive archer Valeria; they make a great pair. But is Simyon the titular Thief?
Drugs play a prominent role. First there is Bliss, that is voluntary, and involuntary imbibed by the abundant, lower classes; these addicts become so consumed they resemble mindless, cannibalistic demons. There is also an unnamed steroid-like substance the governing brutes consume, which may be harvested from the humans they torment.
The Slaves of Erafor is an unfinished series, so don't expect all mysteries to be explained. I haven't felt the giddy need to read the next book (in progress) since I was a teenager devouring series like Raymond E. Feist Riftwar or Margaret Weis's Dragonlance.
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rogue Blades Entertainment has a great track record for delivering anthologies (Return of the Sword, Writing Fantasy Heroes,Rage of the Behemoth, and more). Challenge! Discovery is the 2017 edition, which posed a challenge: look at the cover, and write a story about it. The illustration features a scantily clad female warrior and a panther emerge from jungle ruins.
The concept is cool, but the entries range in quality, and I disagree with the judges. Apparently the last two won 1st and 2nd place by the judges, but if I were to rate by (a) inspiration from cover and (b) storytelling (good pacing, show not tell, etc.) then I would have chosen 2 of the below:
- "Inner Nature" by JOHN KILIAN
- "Someplace Cool and Dark" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN
- "Witch with Bronze Teeth brushed" by KEITH J. TAYLOR
1) "Witch with Bronze Teeth brushed" by KEITH J. TAYLOR: 5-star blend of military Warhammer-esque battle and zombie horror
2) "Fire Eye Gem" by Richard Berrigan: 3-star; too corny for me; features a do-good Kimmeriorian barbarian named ‘Jack’?. ugh
3) "Inner Nature" by JOHN KILIAN 5-star, started ok and but ramped-up very satisfyingly
4) "The Ash-Wood of Celestial Flame" by GABE DYBING; nice fairy tale elements
5) "Someplace Cool and Dark" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN: 5-star, it is first person, weird funny and dark.... and I heard this exact story before! It took me a while to figure it out, but I heard him read this at the World Fantasy Convention 2016. A bonus essay on the writing of this story is added and is as engaging as the story
6)"World inside the Walls" by Frederick Tor : 3-star. Nice inspiration from the cover, but delivery style was dry narrative
7) "In the Ruins of the Panther People" by DANIEL R. ROBICHAUD: 4-star. Started slow and has cheesy romance lines, but ends with a huge bang, science-sorcery Meat Stamp! Loved the Meat Stamp!
8) "The Serpent’s Root by DAVID J. WEST, young adult pacing, but fun. 3.5; not obviously connected the cover as the other stories.
9) "A Fire in Shandria" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN; 4-star. Decent Amazon warrior story with a dragon (not sure why there was a dragon and not a panther)
10) "Cat’s in the Cradle NICHOLAS OZMENT (awarded 2nd place): 3-star Inspired by the cover for sure, but for a short story most of its pages are dedicated to non pertinent content. Pacing off.
11) "Attaberia" by HENRY RAM - (awarded 1st place): 4-star. Viking story with nice concept; starts as a 5 and ends as 3 (there is a disconnect between the tension & remoteness of a mysterious island and the inhabitants).
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars
In short, this follows suit. New readers should start with Vol .1. Also, readers need to be comfortable "reading" visual images sans words. Of course, they must also like gritty, mature drawings of scantily clad women and undead warriors.
This sequel has the same style as the first: very dark & contrasty monochrome drawings, very small word count (~ 1 word per page). Adrian Smith leaves visual clues that identify the various clans. These can be subtle, but they are there. For instance, those aligned with the Mother Earth crew wear crescent moon ornaments. Many of the bad-guy clans are harder to distinguish, except for the Tyrant.
The story progresses very well and delivers on our hero "Worm" attempting to revive Mother Earth. Prior purchasing, I was worried that the story may not develop enough. But this was satisfying.
The culture of thee world develops more. It is more clear that each clan has a leader and a champion. Adrian Smith's illustrations are generally splendid. If you ever looked into any Warhammer/Games Workshop art (which Adrian has made many) and wished you could immerse yourself in a similar world (this is not part of Warhammer's TM Olde World), this is your chance.
Currently, there is a Kickstarter Campaign (by CMON with Adrian Smith) to realize this HATE-full world into a competitive board game. Pitched as an exclusive KS order, it may be difficult to get later (this runs thru mid-Feb 2018). This did inspire me to get Vol.2 and back the KS. The world of HATE evolves!
I'm a big Walter Rhein fan, having read and reviewed his autobiographical Reckless Traveler (highly recommended story of his South American travels), and his fiction Reader of Acheron (also highly recommended, this one being more of dystopian, urban fantasy focused on a culture in which reading is prohibited). Actually, the sequel to The Reader of Acheron is slated for a 2018 release and I was anxious to read more Rhein. So, I grabbed The Bone Sword to tie me over.
The Bone Sword is classic fantasy with a coming of age story of a brother and sister (Noah and Jasmine). Their savior is the outcast warrior: Malik. This tale is simpler with less philosophical undertones than the Reader or Reckless Traveler. The "bad guys" are undeniably evil (Father Ivory in particular, though one may argue he was 50%crazy). The "good guys" are the young children with brewing, magical potential, and their fellow oppressed villagers. The only "gray" character is Malik, but despite his ability to murder and fight, he is closely aligned with the good guys and brings hope to the battle of Miscony.
The first chapter I feared was going to be cliche or overly simplistic, but Rhein quickly introduced meaningful backstory and context. A few chapters in, and I became genuinely attached to the main party. Rhein sprinkles in several very memorable scenes to ramp up the drama. A slight over reliance on rapid healing dampens several stunning sequences that had taken my breath away.
The Bone Sword is a step above a lot of fantasy. It is only #1 of a promised cycle, which is great news. For now, I eagerly await "Acheron #2/The Slaves of Erafor #2" which should emerged soon.
A great starter novel for kids 4-12
The Power of the Sapphire Wand continues the Creepy Hollow Adventures (the first being Three Ghosts in a Black Pumpkin: Creepy Hollow Adventures 1). It is crafted by the duo of Erika M Szabo, an established children's book author, and Joe Bonadonna, established in the Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction arena. I know Bonadonna's work more than Szabo's; even though he has written more adult fiction, he has always expressed empathy and interest in children's perspectives (partly inspired by a direct connection to the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire).
The paperback The Power of the Sapphire Wand clocks in at 244 pages, but it reads fast with wide spacing and large font. Jack and Nikki are key young protagonists who come of age ~13yrs old, learning new Gifts and making friends as they adventure in "Creepy Hollow" (a parallel world, Narnia-esque). They leave earth to save family members and fantastical creatures from Evila, a cruel witch. All the fantasy creatures are derived from common myths/stories, and the "Creepy" world is appropriately fantastical yet very accessible.
Humor abounds, with three stooge-like goons (Poo, Goo, and Boo) and Dragon Rocks (a.k.a. scat, or poop) playing essential roles. Plenty of righteous motivations drive Jack and Nikki: they protect the weak and confront evil directly. It is fun to see them grow. Some of the bad guys are just too bad to save, but others are open to redemption.
In short, Szabo and Bonadonna make a great pair. Their Creepy Hollow Adventures is a perfect starting point for young children making the leap from "kids books" to "novels.".
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars
Entertaining, Genre-Bending, Satirical Madness:
Hell Hounds is a mashup of genres: Fantasy, Satirical Horror, Historical Fiction, and some Mystery Noir thrown in. Imagine a parallel universe to our reality on earth where the dead “un-live” for an eternity. If they die there, they feel the pain but then reawaken…. sometimes creatively transformed by The Undertaker (i.e., perhaps he’ll remove your testicles and use them handles on a zipper that wraps around your neck!). Goofy, satirical puns laden the map (Paris is Perish, the Eiffel Tower now the Awful Tower, etc.]. Want to read fresh fiction, read Andrew P. Weston’s Daemon Grim series (check out the guide below to begin).
Daemon Grim is the Reaper, Satan’s personal enforcer and chief bounty hunter. He commands the titular Hell Hounds, a band of agents (Nimrod – the rebellious, biblical king, Charlotte Corday – murderess of Marat, Yamato Takeru—a ninjutsu master of the Yamato dynasty, and more ). They ultimately all serve Satan, Father of Lies, who needs them to control Hell from the conniving dead and meddling angels; but Satan is also punishing his servants for their sins, so no one is on good terms.
Underlying tension spans many groups: Satan, Grim & his Hell Hounds, the duo Frederic Chopin and Nikola Telsa (an ingenious duo learning to control the physics & time in Hell), an insane Angel stripped of his Wings (Grislington), and seven angelic Sibitti who are auditing the souls in Hell. At first the combinations of intentions and conflict is downright farcical. Eventually several themes converge, usually about Grim. The last 20% is a blast of a climax which clarifies the chaos. Along the way, Mr. Weston will occasionally slip into dosing out exposition-through-dialogue, which didn’t bother me. Usually this occurs at times the reader will desire a boost in clarity about the abstract conflicts.
There are two primary games occurring. One is the continuing, cat-and-mouse battle between Grim and Chopin/Tesla, who love to leave scavenger-hunt notes at crime scenes. The second is Grim vs. the angels (and perhaps himself &/or Satan); there is a mystery in this series which is slowly being revealed: who “was” Grim before becoming Satan’s strongest champion?
Where to Start:
Hell Hounds is wacky and fun, but is not the beginning. The Heroes in Hell is primarily a series of anthologies; this novel focuses on Grim but has story arcs connected to HIH. Given the breadth of abstract interactions, I recommend initial readers begin with either:
1) Doctors in Hell (HIH #18): Daemon Grim is introduced in this collection, and even though it is #18 in the series, it is a perfect entryway for HIH newcomers.
2) Or…. Hell Bound (Grim novel #1): Daemon Grim’s first novel, occurring chronologically after Doctors, but before Hell Hounds.
3) Or for those who’ve done that, note Grim also appears in Pirates in Hell (“Pieces of Hate”)