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”)
“What does it all mean?” – narrator of House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson
I bought Wildside Press's The William Hope Hodgson Megapack: 35 Classic Works primarily to read one of his most well cited works: The House on the Borderland. In the US, the Kindle version is only $0.99, and conveniently organizes 35 of William Hope Hodgson ‘s work with introductions from Darrell Schweitzer and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Being a Megapack, it may take a while to read the whole thing, so I check in now to review. The collection is a great value.
The House on the Borderland (1908) was written by William Hope Hodgson(1877-1918) who influenced many weird fiction writers. In the introduction, we have NOTES ON HODGSON, by H.P. Lovecraft which is telling:”Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be.
.... The House on the Borderland (1908)—perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works—tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator’s spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system’s final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath seems similar to the strange quest presented in House on the Borderland. Sidebar, I am a huge fan of HPL’s Pickman’s Model and have been motivated to read the Dream-Quest novel since it has Pickman and his ghouls appear again, but the journey is so extended and unfocused, I have failed three times to finish that tale.
WHH’s House on the Borderland is very similar in style, but I could finish this one! The story is more plot-centric than character-driven; the meandering journey can easily lose the reader, at times becoming repetitive. However, it’s unique strength is its epic tale and flowery language interlaced with mystery & terror. The scope is truly epic. The tale concerns two adventurous hikers who go to remote Ireland, discover a enormous pit and ruined house. In the ruins, they find the titular manuscript: The House on the Borderland. The remaining story switches narration to the writer's perspective. The recluse narrator encounters lots of terror: his haunted house, the swine-things stalking him in the gardens, evils floating up from the Pit, disease corrupting his body, and being extracted from his body to lose one’s anchor in reality…. and have one’s soul float across the cosmos into heavenly and hellish worlds.
Characterization is weak & distant, but read this for the Journey: The main narrator is nameless, and his relationship with his sister is bizarre. At times when she should be involved, Mary is marginalized or disregarded to the point I thought she may be a ghost. Several instances have the narrator securing himself in a locked room with no concern about Mary who is left elsewhere prone to attack. WHH seems to be aware of this and writes: “She is old, like myself; yet how little we have to do with one another. Is it because we have nothing in common; or only that, being old, we care less for society, than quietness?” But this does not make up for her floating in and out of the story so oddly.
There is also the “dear One”, a nameless love interest of the narrator. She mysteriously appears in the middle of the story (which is weird because the House is very remote) but her prime story is literally left out as “unreadable fragments”? WTH? Why? It seemed as easy out for WHH to avoid real storytelling than it did for driving any story line. I any event, this approach deflates the cool/weirdness of the narrator searching and finding remnants of his "dear One’s" soul. It was confusing, and I was convinced for a while that she may have been Mary.
Pepper, the dog, is a splendid character and plays a larger role than Mary. And there is “Tip,” Mary’s cat which is abruptly introduced and then disregarded. Why Tip got a name and the dear One did not, I have no idea. Names are important, but in this story, the characters are simply less important than the places.
The names of the strange geography resonant like a Jack Vance novel: Plain of Silence; The Sea of Sleep; The Pit; House in the Arena; and Green Sun. Reading this will be more pleasurable if you focus on the trippy geography than the characters. The language is captivating; excerpt below. At times, WHH seems to be blatantly ironic, like when he uses the word “Presently?” in the middle of a timeless adventure. Really? Like most weird fiction writers of the early 20th century, they peppered their prose with the transitional word “Presently.” WHH did so ironically throughout the trippy, disembodied adventures across time & outerspace.
"What does it all mean?" : I don't know. Nevertheless, the journey is very weird and very fun. A must read for weird fiction aficionados.
Excerpt:It might have been a million years later, that I perceived, beyond possibility of doubt, that the fiery sheet that lit the world, was indeed darkening.
Another vast space went by, and the whole enormous flame had sunk to a deep, copper color. Gradually, it darkened, from copper to copper-red, and from this, at times, to a deep, heavy, purplish tint, with, in it, a strange loom of blood.
… Gradually, as time fled, I began to feel the chill of a great winter. Then, I remembered that, with the sun dying, the cold must be, necessarily, extraordinarily intense. Slowly, slowly, as the aeons slipped into eternity, the earth sank into a heavier and redder gloom. The dull flame in the firmament took on a deeper tint, very somber and turbid.
… Overhead, the river of flame swayed slower, and even slower; until, at last, it swung to the North and South in great, ponderous beats, that lasted through seconds. A long space went by, and now each sway of the great belt lasted nigh a minute; so that, after a great while, I ceased to distinguish it as a visible movement; and the streaming fire ran in a steady river of dull flame, across the deadly-looking sky.
…An indefinite period passed, and it seemed that the arc of fire became less sharply defined. It appeared to me to grow more attenuated, and I thought blackish streaks showed, occasionally. Presently, as I watched, the smooth onward-flow ceased; and I was able to perceive that there came a momentary, but regular, darkening of the world.”
Viking Age: The Sword and Sorcery group on Goodreads had a Viking Age theme, for fans of books like The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson or Scott Oden's newly released A Gathering of Ravens ...or C. Dean Andersson's Bloodsong! — Hel X 3. I went after 1970’s Berserker series.
Availability: The Berserker series was originally published in 1977-79 under pseudonym Chris Carlsen (real name Robert Holdstock). Since 2014, it has been available as an omnibus paperback edition under Holdstock: Berserker SF Gateway Omnibus: The Shadow of the Wolf, The Bull Chief, The Horned Warrior. Melvyn Grant was the cover artist for the originals, which represent the books well with Sword and Sorcery flare ala Frazetta..
1977 Grimdark!: This reads fast and drips testosterone. Monstrous possession ala lycanthropy is prominent, but here it is Odin’s ursine Berserker spirit in the spotlight. Like Jeckyl-n-hide, Harald Swiftax is cursed to relent his body to a bear-entity that is less chivalrous than himself. The Berserker in him is bestial, without empathy, and blood thirsty. This is Harald’s story, from being cursed to struggling to break it. The book is geared toward all the good and bad of stereotypical masculinity. It features mostly men (save for one screaming-hot witch who bares all); it has plenty of gore-rich melee, one overtly gratuitous, drawn-out sex scene, and a few lesser rape scenes.
The milieu is filled with supernatural forces from Nordic gods, Celtic witches, and even Lovecraftian Old Ones. Overall, entertaining. It’s like riding a wolf or bear at a rodeo (animal choices intentional). Pacing alternates from easy-going/trope-filled village pillaging to high octane savagery and horror. Several story lines had the potential to be over-the-top epic, but were left hanging or deflated. One or two moments seemed either contrived [(i.e., Harald’s tense-confrontation with other Berserker’s in Urlsgarde, followed instantly with him not caring and getting drunk)] or inconsistent [ [ (Harald and Diedre’s “relationship” seemed to diminish Elena’s impact…and given that Diedre needed an immortal… then she should have mated with a Berserker form)].
That said, there is still some great story telling employed. Most of the mysteries are resolved. The title “Shadow of the wolf” eventually makes sense. It is part of a trilogy; some mysteries remain (i.e., exactly why was Swiftax or his family targeted by Odin’s curse?)
Death Dealer Sigurd Gotthelm is a great secondary character who wears a cursed horned helmet and is reminiscent of Frazetta's Death Dealer (though arguably more interesting than the James Silke's presentation of the Death Dealer in Prisoner of the Horned Helmet 1998’s Gath of Baal). Frazetta painted the original in 1973, so perhaps that was in inspiration for Gotthelm. I hope there is more of him in the subsequent books. I have no idea where the next two installments will take me, but I own the next one and am jumping in.
A Gathering of Ravens delivers an Orc with serious depth, and he carries a bloody seax too.
“Since young adulthood, I’ve wanted to write a book about Orcs—those foot soldiers of evil first revealed to us in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I wanted to write it from the Orcs’ point of view. And I wanted to redeem them.” – Scott Oden, Author’s Note from A Gathering of Ravens
Scott Oden did not want to “write about a redeeming orc,” or the “redemption of an orc.” Rather, the author set out to present an orc that was not shallow, zombie-like drone (ala Tolkien, and most of high fantasy novels stereotype).
The milieu in A Gathering of Ravens is reminiscent of Poul Anderson’s Viking Age The Broken Sword, being full of Dane’s and Celtic faeries and Norse myths. The style is more readable than that classic, but is still saturated with just the right amount of call-outs to geographies and history to blur the lines between fantasy and history. This is no historical fantasy, but the foundation of history is so well played the fantasy feels “real.”
Equally balanced are the sorceries of Celtic witches, Norse deities, and Christian beliefs. All supernatural “sides” of faiths conflict here. All are presented as real, though some are being superseded.
So who is the orc protagonist employed by Scott Oden to redeem the Orc culture? He is Grendel’s brother, as named by some. The lady Étaín, a servant of the Christian God, the Nailed One, and unlikely companion of him describes him:
“He is called Grimnir… the last of his kind, one of the kaunar—known to your people as fomóraig, to mine as orcnéas, and to the Northmen as skrælingar. In the time I’ve known him, he has been ever a fomenter of trouble, a murderer, and as cruel a bastard… I can vouch neither for his honesty nor his morals, as he is bereft of both. And while he did kidnap me, threaten me with death, mock my faith, and expose me to the hates of a forgotten world, he also saved my life …”
Grimnir is a brutal bastard. His name suits him, since he might as well be caring a flagstaff with the contemporary “Grimdark subgenre” splayed upon it. Yet his predicament and motivations are compelling as any vigilante hero. Way to deliver on your muse, Scott Oden!
Calling Weirdbook #35 a "magazine" seems to minimize this ~200page book which is more a quality anthology. It has 22 contributing authors (18 stories, and 4 sets of poetry) and there are no reviews/advertising/articles one expects in a magazine. Skelos comes to mind as a contemporary magazine (newly kickstarted) which has those non-story features (also worth subscribing to).
In any event, Weirdbook #35 is entertaining and a great value. Douglas Draa continues to share myriad adventures by new & seasoned authors with milieus running the gamut of weird-dark fantasy. It promises that readers will experience some flavor of horror. Expect equal parts ghost stories, psychedelic trips, gory murders, thoughtful introspections, and battles with the unknown! My favorite is the last entry from Darrell Schweitzer’s The Take and the Teller, but I enjoyed most of these (I star/earmark the ones below that I can’t get out of my head and will reread). I’m usually mired in Sword & Sorcery, and reading Weirdbook allows me to branch out. I encourage others to do the same. Get Weirdbook. Don’t trust my “stars/earmarks” but find your own amongst the menu.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
“Who is the teller and to whom is the story told? Listen: there are voices, and the wind, and the sighing of the sea. Listen.
If you make your way a hundred miles up the Merimnian coast, you come to the Cape of Mournful Remembrance, and, beyond that, pass into a curious country, where high tablelands reach to the edge of the sea, the drop off sharply, revealing black, granite cliffs.
Now white ruins protrude out of the earth like, old, broken teeth, but once a great city stood there, called Belshadihphon, a name which means “City of a Thousand Moons.” So it was: in the days of the Empire of the Thousand Moons, it was the capital of half the world. Yet there remain only ghosts, and wisps of wind; and, of nights, when the tide rushes into the caves that honeycomb the whole landscape, you can hear millions of souls crying out, all those who died in the wars that brought the place glory. Not for sorrow, not for vengeance. Just crying, wordlessly, faintly, like tide and wind.
It was called the City of a Thousand Moons because, in the great times, the very gods appeared on brilliant nights, rising out of the sea in their luminous robes, wearing masks like full moons, drifting up the cliffs and onto the tabeland, to walk among the pillared palaces of the great city, some of them even, or so it is claimed in stories like this one, to give counsel to the emperor on his throne.
You can still see the moon-masks. They have turned to stone and lie across the beach and the tableland like so many scattered coins.
Aloethe’s life is taken by a jealous prince; Aloethe’s love, Varka, serves as a scapegoat to the murder. Sentenced to sacrifice at the temple of the Darxes, Lord of the Underworld, Varka awakens and is encouraged to find Aloethe in Limbo … if he can find the place. Varka is also empowered with the Book of Paradox, a magical book with pages/verses are cryptic, dynamic, and crucial to understand.
The actual Book of Paradox has 22 chapters, each named/influenced by the Major Arcana of the Tarot. A forward by the author’s first husband Gary Cooper explains the design: “The Book of Paradox represents the journey of the Fool through the initiations of the various cards. This is Varka’s fated quest, and one which leads him and the reader through many strange lands, into contact with many strange people, as will the Tarot itself.”
Louise Cooper was only twenty years old when her debut novel came out, and she was graced with a breath-taking Frank Frazetta cover (called “Paradox”). Each chapter has a frontispiece with an illustration by Barbara Nessim of the card influence in the current chapter along with a paragraph explaining the interpretation. Many mini-stories span 2-to-3 cards/chapters; for instance, the cover of Varka approaching vampire women is a scene from a story spanning (a) Chapters VII: The Chariot (Reversed) and (b) VIII: Fortitude.
This is a trippy adventure into an underworld that is more dream-like than it is horrifying. It is short and reads fast. The pacing and style is reminiscent of Michael Moorcock (known for his Elric novels) and there are some echoes of Jack Vance (1926-2013) and his Dying Earth series--iconic in RPG/D&D history since the naming of Items and Spells was simple: Magic Items such as Expansible Egg, Scintillant Dagger, and Live Boots...and Spells such as Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, Call to the Violent Cloud, Charm of Untiring Nourishment. There is an echo of Vance flare here, in that Louise Cooper offers location and titles similarly: Castle Without parallel, Queen of Blue, the Cave of Souls Passing, and the titular Book of Paradox.
The Tarot design is interesting but not obviously crucial/integral for the story; i.e., the Book of Paradox carried by Varka begged for a stronger connection to the Tarot cards, but the connection, if any, was not obvious. Nonetheless, it is a fun tale. Louise seems better known for her Time Master and Indigo series, which I plan to read.
The Initiate and Nemesis
Andrew P. Weston’s The IX is fun and genre-spanning for sure, being a mashup of military sci-fi and fantasy. Think of mixing Star Trek, John Carter of Mars, and Alien/Predator into a blender. However, it actually reads more like a Young-Adult mystery. Give the proverbial Hardy Boys some assault rifles and space suits, join them on a distant planet, and save all life from alien corruption--be part of the IXth! Without spoiling, the premise revolves on the sudden gathering of the below groups across time:
1. The IXth Lost, Roman Legion (~120 CE)
2. Abraham Lincoln’s US Calvary (1800 CE)
3. An anti-terrorist special forces group (~2052 CE)
The challenge/promise presented is that all these groups are related somehow…and an alien Horde threatens them all. There are tons of characters embroiled in time-travel & a bizarre fight for survival, but the characters do not carry the story. The mystery of the situation does.
- What is the belligerent Horde?
- Why are three pairs of warring groups selected throughout time and space to play a role battling the Horde?
- How are these pairs of earthly enemies going to work together?
The IX is lighthearted too, so as you go from control-room reporting and war-room planning to the alien fields of Arden, you’ll be tossed onto the front line with dose of humor. Hold onto your drawers! There are dozens of characters, but Lieutenant McDonald and Ayria emerge as central protagonists. “Mac” is an intelligent, special-forces operative, a contemporary smart-aleck (wait…I may have just described the author; see his BIO below) and Ayria is a physician with a splendid, weird ancestry. I adored Ayria and her story & chapters the most. She is paired with Stained With Blood, a Native American dream walker, and their experiences were the most meaningful to me.
All threads of this militaristic mystery are resolved, but it also sets up a sequel: Exordium of Tears. The author’s voice shines through. From his BIO sheet, we learn that he is a Royal Marine and Police Veteran with studies in astronomy and law. It’s clear he is drawing from his experience. I was drawn to this book after reading Hell Bound, a Heroes in Hell novel featuring Daemon Grim (aka Satan’s Hitman, of course). Daemon Grim is also developed with mysterious elements, but his character is more developed than any provided in IX. I’ll be reading more of Weston for sure, though I am more attracted to Hell than Space so I may prioritize the Hell series.
Author’s BIO: Andrew P. Weston is Royal Marine and Police veteran from the UK who now lives on the beautiful Greek island of Kos with his wife, Annette, and their growing family of rescue cats. An astronomy and law graduate, he is the creator of the international number one bestselling IX Series and Hell Bound, (A novel forming part of Janet Morris’ critically acclaimed Heroes in Hell shared universe). Andrew also has the privilege of being a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the British Fantasy Society, the British Science Fiction Association and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. When not writing, An drew devotes some of his spare time to assisting NASA with one of their remote research projects, and writes educational articles for Astronaut.com and Amazing Stories.
Moorcock delivers souls for Arioch, and classic Elric for you, in The Fortress of the Pearl
Expect Michael Moorcock’s style/voice. It is “pulpy,” with tons of wild action. A breathtaking pace will drag you from you reading chair! It’s blistering. Literally, every few pages new conflict emerges, and is dealt with. Every 2-3 pages, Elric encounters mind-bending conflicts. This is awesome for the first 33%, then it becomes underwhelming/distracting since many of the threats are obtuse. Some sequences are spot-on awesome (fire beetles, tons of corpses blow apart via sorcery); and many are silly and wildly coincidental (a cameo from Whiskers the winged, fighting cat, really?).
Moorcock has a weird milieu in his Eternal Champion multiverse, and has dream-like worlds. In Fortress, this dreaminess is explicit, since Elric travels in dreams for >50% of the book [no spoilers there, the book flap reveals as much]. Fortress of the Pearl reads as if Elric quests for the Holy Grail in Dante’s Hell. In fact, Elric goes through ~6 levels of supernatural tours searching for a “Holy Girl” in the hidden/remote Fortress of the Pearl. Plenty of tour guides come and go through these levels:
You’ll be treated to heavy doses of philosophy too, which usually add depth: life’s motivations, realization of dreams, moving past tragic pasts (avoid the City of Inventive Cowardice!), addressing conflict and political corruption, complacency on personal and social levels, etc.
Untapped Potential. The pacing and apparent random encounters, which are Moorcock Hallmarks, has limits. There still seems untapped potential here in Elric’s tale. Moorcock has started so many interesting threads that he’ll never be able to fill them in, but he hardly had to start new ones. Here, Oone the Dreamthief is introduced, for instance; her tale is clearly a setup for The Dreamthief's Daughter. Starting new tales is all well and good, but when word-count and pacing is designed to be dense/efficient, I would have enjoyed more explanation of Cymoril. She still lies in Imrryr (The Dreaming City), while he literally adventures in dreams. Melnibone’s past with Quarzhasaat is explained on a cursory level too. So, Moorcock delivered a decent, intermediate story. Yet he could have delivered much more.
On the whole, Fortress of the Pearl is a wondrous blend of Sword and Sorcery. It had me hooked. It developed Elric story and character well enough (note that it was published last in the sequence but is only #2 chronologically). Elric remains a must read for fantasy fans, especially Sword & Sorcery fans (Howard, Leiber, Wagner,…). If starting new, try reading in chronological sequence:
Story Chronology #: Title (publication year)
1: Elric of Melniboné (1972)
2: Fortress Of The Pearl (1989)
3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1961)
5: Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress (1970)
6: Revenge of the Rose (1991)
7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1962)
8: Stormbringer (1963)
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.