Skelos was an ambitious 2016 Kickstarter project. Successfully funded, it aims to be an outlet for literary essays, short stories, poem, novelettes, and reviews for Dark Fiction/Weird Fantasy. As a backer, I am very pleased. Somehow, it delivered all this in its first issue and a low price--just ~12USD for the print version. In short, it is a highly recommend periodical to subscribe.
This reviews their first issue (Summer 2016 edition, Kickstarter funding seems to guarantee at least four issues). I thought I was well versed in Sword & Sorcery and Pulp/Weird Fiction but still learned more by Robert E. Howard and Arthur Machen. I discovered new authors too. In a collection so broad, not all the contents will please everyone…the menu is just too big. The quality is good, and anyone interested in dark fantasy will be pleased. There are lot of nice touches here, including cover art by Gustav Dore’, tons of interior art, and photographs of REH's drafts. There is no common theme, but this issue leans toward 'Vikings & Plagues.' My specific comments per contribution are detailed below.
Skelos is edited by Mark Finn, author of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard; Chris Gruber, editor of Robert E. Howard's Boxing Stories from the University of Nebraska Press; and Jeffrey Shanks, co-editor of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror. They are leading Skelos Press.
‘The Dead Unicorn’ –Scott Cupp (It is depressing as its title suggests)
‘Hungry –Charles Gramlich’ (A groaner sci-fi; it may be the only contribution that infused some sort of comedy, except for the single-frame cartoon ‘By Crom’. Also, it is one of the few to have a modern milieu)
‘The Night Maere’ –Scott Hannan (Classic horror in which your sickness may take a life of its own!)
‘The Nameless Tribe Drafts’ –Robert E. Howard (Included to complement an essay; very nice touch)
‘The Yellow Death’ –David Hardy (A plague doctor experiences lots of death)
‘The Burning Messenger’ –Matt Sullivan (Two Viking-esque tribes are pitted against one another…or something more cosmically evil; this started out with too many trope’s to promise much, but turned into a wonderfully dark tale)
‘Dangerous Pearl’ –Ethan Nahté (An average pirate/Lovecraftian adventure with a satisfying denouement)
‘The Drowned Dead Shape’ –Keith Taylor (This is an engaging zombie-Viking tale; it was so good, I stopped reading Skelos, tracked down Taylor’sServant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis…devoured that….then came back to Skelos)
‘One Less Hand for the Shaping of Things’ –Jason Ray Carney (A Fairy Tale /Weird Romance; this had its moments; the title seemed misrepresentative; I didn’t think I liked it until I reached the ending and realized I was more attached to the characters than I realized)
(I enjoyed having the poetry interspersed; they are short and digestible, and their presence reinforces the literary history/approach to weird fiction.)
Diary of a Sorceress –Ashley Dioses
Midnight in the Ebon Rose Bower –K. A. Opperman
The Writer –Jason Hardy
The Casualty of the Somme –Frank Coffman
Totem –Pat Calhoun
Surtur –Kenneth Bykerk
‘Nameless Tribes: Robert E. Howard’s Anthropological World-Building in “Men of the Shadows”’ –Jeffrey Shank (This details REH’s evolution of his Hyborian Age, with his Drafts complementing the essay; I didn't know REH factored in the infamous continent Lemuria and California into his world)
‘From the Cosmos to the Test-Tube: Lovecraft, Machen, and the Sublime’ – Karen Joan Kohoutek (Loved this, in part because I am fascinated in how serious Weird Fiction writers [i.e. Edgar Allen Poe, RE Howard, Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft] took their craft serious and often philosophized on the “Art’ in Horror. I missed Arthur Machen’sHieroglyphics book in my hobbyist studies and will be getting that).
‘A Sword-Edge Beauty as Keen as Blades: C.Moore and the Gender Dynamics of Sword and Sorcery’ –Nicole Emmelhainz (this had potential, but could have been even more provocative, the premise being that the Sword & Sorcery genre….often stereotyped correctly as misogynistic… has some feministic qualities; strangely, the essay focuses on C.L. Moore’s female Jirel of Joiry story in The Black God’s Kiss but somehow glosses over that C. stood for “Catherine”…yes a woman writer who had to use a pseudonym to get published, or work with her husband writer Henry Kuttner who could use expose his first name. I’m not sure how the author’s gender was left out of this essay; perhaps it was done on purpose, otherwise it would not be surprising that a woman may decide to represent other woman as strong. The only indication that a reader may know Catherine’s gender is by reading the endnote reference.)
'Skull Session I' –Editorial by Mark Finn (This sets the stage for Skelos’s approach to provided deep and broad based weird fiction)
'Grettir and the Draugr' –An illustrated tale by Samuel Dillon and Jeffrey Shanks (Wow, they squeezed in a mini-graphic novel; the artwork by Dillon outshined the story here, which was okay.)
'By Crom!' –Rachel Kahn (A single frame cartoon)
How better to reinforce Weird Fiction’s longevity than to review contemporary works? There are ~8 books reviewed depth. Despite the review’s average rating, I was unaware of Swords Against Cthulhu’s publication and will likely track this one down.
Sword and Mythos fiction- too Entertaining to be Horrific
Brian Lumley’s Hero of Dreams is an overt mashup of Lovecraft’s Dreamcycle and Leiber’s Fafred and Gray Mouser series. The premise is great and reinforces Lumley’s Khash series written in a similar vein (i.e. fun Sword & Sorcery adventure in a Weird-Fiction, Cthulhu-esque world). The stories are too fun for a reader to feel horror or tension, but the milieu is enjoying to explore. Like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories The Swords of Lankhmar, the Scooby-Doo vibe emanates from the story: there are horrors show, but the story is too fun to be scared.
One could argue that horrific landscapes need to be fun or they can’t be enjoyed at length (i.e. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath comes to mind, a rare novel length adventure that is really difficult to read…even by die-hard weird fiction readers desperate to learn more of Pickman!). Hero of Dreams is reminiscent of Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean stories; Hero of Dreams somehow makes reading about the First Ones and Eldritch Gods really easy.
Your tour guides are the waking-world dreamers David Hero and Eldin (and their woman side kick, and Dreamland native Aminza). Ostensibly, by waking day, David Hero is “really” an artist and Eldin (Leonard Dingle) a professor; these characteristics are shed in Dreamland. They have superior strength and dexterity versus the native dream things, but are not as powerful as the god-like First Ones or skilled in magic like the sorcerers they stumble upon. There are plenty of call-outs to Cthulhu and Lumley’s own Titus Crow (Lumley’s weird fiction character, i.e., from The Transition of Titus Crow). They come into direct contact with the elders and anthropoid termites as they quest for the three magic wands (with ties to Cthulhu no less).
My edition is a 1986 one from W. Paul Ganley. He printed was a conduit for Lumley into the US Market, printing mush of his work first before large publishers reprinted his works. He also had them illustrated. Jean Corbin illustrated this one and the dozen illustration do add to the adventure, with compelling renditions of night-gaunts and Ter-men.
Lumley’s Dreamland Series:
Lumley's Khash series, Tales of the Primal Land:
(reprinted later in a series starting with Tarra Khash: Hrossak!: Tales of the Primal Land)
Wagner's pastiches are highly recommended. A groupread from the Sword & Sorcery group in Goodreads led me to this. In short, the milieu was true to Hyborbian Age as discussed above. Also, it followed Conan's development from buccaneer to potential king well; this would serve as a great prequel to REH"s only novel length Conan story The Hour of the Dragon.
Karl Edward Wagner was a dark fantasy hero, taking editing and writing very seriously. His expertise in adventure horror led him to develop the Sword & Sorcery amoral hero Kane (Gods in Darkness: The Complete Novels of Kane), which is legendary stuff. He also paid homage to Robert E. Howard by writing two pastiches: one for REH's hero Bran Mak Morn called Bran Mak Morn: Legion From The Shadows (a sequel to the Worms of the Earth short) and one for Conan called Conan: The Road of Kings. In both cases, Wagner took care to represent REH's Hyborian Age/milieu well while extending the canon slightly.
KEW ensured that Hyborian Age's historic cataclysms affected current life. The same events that sank Atlantis also covered the city of Kordova, the central local of this this book. The still inhabitable, underground city called the Pit and the drowned Kalenius's Tomb are not passive backdrops of history ... but affect the future of the land. The Pit was a great idea, only partially realized. Imagine manor houses and streets at the base of a grand canyon. There were many instances of fiery riots, but the consequences (like excess smoke/oxygen deprivation... and a lack of visibility were not demonstrated). "The Road of Kings" was written in 1979, before the popular Arnold movie that began with the oft quoted below (paraphrased from REH’s opening to Phoenix in the Sword).
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."—The Nemedian Chronicles -Phoenix in the sword 1932 REH
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure! - Wizard from Conan the Barbarian Movie 1982”
Conan: The Road of Kings delivers everything one would want in a pastiche. REH's voice: even though REH wrote in short story form for Conan, this novel still read similarly. It's pace was uber-fast and the fight scene's grim. The milieu was true to Hyborbian Age as discussed above. Also, it followed Conan's development from buccaneer to potential king well; this would serve as a great prequel to REH"s only novel length Conan story The Hour of the Dragon. It was also true to the Sword and Sorcery genre that spawned from REH: Callidos's Stygian Necromancy and controlling of the golem-esque Final Guard worked well for the "sorcery", and plenty of melee satisfied the "sword" aspect.
Illustrations by Tim Kirk start out nicely grim (i.e., execution charms and souvenirs , i.e., hands and heads that amplify the story) but then quickly turn into a sparse picture book glossary for armor and weapons (halberds, swords, etc. that don;t add much to the story). Keeping this from a 5-star is the Climax and Ending. The story arc was well designed but the delivery fell a little flat; the last chapter felt rushed and would have been better served drawn out. That said, Conan: The Road of Kings was a great fast read that will satisfy cravings for more Conan...but will only leave you wanting even another helping!
Leigh Brackett's sword & planet adventure The Sword of Rhiannon is a short novel but a favorite among aficionado's. It was first published Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories in "Thrilling Wonder" Magazine in 1949 (cover artist Earle Bergey).
This really is a gem. Written before Sci-Fi and Fantasy really became substantial genres of their own, the summary of this sounds Sci-Fi but really is Fantasy. The Mars milieu features little technology; in fact, it is almost exclusively populated with fantasy creatures ("halflings" that are like reminiscent of harpies, mermaids, and man-serpents) and fantasy/historic technology (swords, pirate ships); there is a lack of laser guns and air-ships. Actually, the technology that enables some interesting time/space travel is rooted in a Lovecraftian Mythos magic associated with an elder race (Quiro).
Our protagonist is Carse, an archaeologist/criminal who is very "Indiana Jones" like (of course this was created long before Indy Jones hit theaters). The titular Sword of Rhiannon is revealed from the start to Carse; it had been hidden for centuries in a tomb, so it was rumored, and he quickly finds the tomb from which it came as sought treasure to loot. His adventure begins as he comes into contact with eldritch forces...
The adventure is high throttle action from start to finish. The reader learns more of the curse of Rhiannon. However, there is a rich history and dynamics between cultures that are not fully realized. I would have enjoyed experiencing more of: the initial/future perspective on Rhiannon's past, the Dhuvian's oppression of others, the demonstration of Rhiannon's power(s), the demonstration of the Sword's power or purpose...
Brackett's prose is deeper and more poetic than one expects from pulpy Sword & Planet. Here is an excerpt:
"It was a long way to the city. Carse moved at a steady plodding pace. He did not try to find the easiest path but rammed his way through and over all obstacles, never deviating from the straight line that led to Jekkara. His cloak hampered him and he tore it off. His face was empty of all expression but sweat ran down his cheeks and mingled with the salt of tears.
He walked between two worlds. He went through valleys drowsing in the heat of the summer day, where leafy branches of strange trees raked his face and the juice of crushed grasses stained his sandals. Life, winged and furred and soft of foot, fled from him with a stir and a rustle. And yet he knew that he walked in a desert, where even the wind had forgotten the names of the dead for whom it mourned.
He crossed high ridges, where the sea lay before him and he could hear the boom of the surf on the beaches. And yet he saw only a vast dead plain, where the dust ran in little wavelets among the dry reefs. The truths of thirty years living are not easily forgotten."
This book is very well done but feels like four servings of a five-course-meal. It is a quick read and well worth it, but apparently this is a stand alone adventure. This novel could easily have been inflated to 2x its length without departing from its pulp-adventure roots (i.e., it would not become filler-saturated epic fantasy). Brackett did write more Sword and Planet, but not with Carse.
The Gonji Deathwind trilogy was really one book cut into three parts. Take home message: if you decide to follow Gonji, just plan on reading the whole trilogy.This review combines my first two reviews with additional commentary.
Gongi Is A Unique, Entertaining Mashup: Gongi is a wandering, displaced warrior--a Ronin (master-less samurai) roaming 16th century Europe. This is not historical fiction, however. This is Sword & Sorcery in vein of R.E. Howard’s Conan…but it is a solidly unique take on the genre. Firstly, Gonji is a cross-breed of a Japanese warlord and Viking sword-maiden; rather than the Hyperborean continent of REH, Gonji explores a realistic version of Europe’s geography (Ottoman–Habsburg times). Plenty of creatures and magic infuse compelling fight scenes. I half expected Godzilla to emerge on multiple occasions!
Gonji is a mysterious, intelligent character. familiar with many languages (Japanese, Spanish, Italian, German, English, more?) sufficiently to converse with anyone. He is a bit moody too, which is ostensibly related to his mixed heritage (disciplined father, wild mother). His allegiances are difficult to predict, sometimes joining mercenary bands, sometimes rescuing weak townspeople. Generally, the blend of cultures and Gonji’s mysterious motivations are engaging.
By the end of this first installment, we know only that he is seeking the “Deathwind,” and we know he gets closer to this goal when he reached the city of Vedun, but otherwise the core of his quest is unclear. There is parallel conflict with some apparently evil occupiers of Vedun; but their motives are not clear by the end either, at times brutally dominating folk and at times letting them live in peace. I would have enjoyed a bit more clarification; the demarcation between the first and second book may just be due to the publication history.
I enjoyed Part-1 (Red Blade From the East) but was left wondering about character motivations; also my mind struggled to contain a geographic scope that seemed to only grow. The second installment pleasantly explored all the characters and mysteries posited in the first; geographically, it focused on one location essentially (Vedun city and the adjacent Castle Lenska). It delivered on every aspect I hoped, and the conflict/story leapt forward every chapter; it unveiled truths behind several key secrets & motivations behind the characters, and ramped up the adventure (which was at a high level anyway). Great adventure fantasy that is more dark & pulpy than it is historical. I like the content in #1 more after reading #2, and I can’t see how any reader could not stop without tackling #3.
Gonji: Deathwind of Vedun: The Deathwind Triology, Book Threeconcludes the original trilogy. The first half focuses on Vedun city’s plight (which has lots of battle but is less interesting since it deals with secondary characters; select vignettes like Hildegarde's story amplify Gonji's character); the latter half focuses on the primary characters battling in Castle Lenska--which was exhilarating. The milieu allows for subtle steampunk warfare (i.e., with Paille’s coffin-cupolas, and a measured level of gunpowder mayhem); it also allows for demons, giants, and werewolves. I would like to have learned more about Akryllon's history and Gonji's motivation for seeking the "Deathwind"; enough was revealed to tell a good story while luring me into the future installments (see below list). Rypel excels with his description of demons and monsters like the Hell-Hounds and the unveiling of the mysterious multi-personality disorder of King Klann (that's not a spoiler as much as a teaser comment); here is an example:
"It looked like a gaping hole in the space above the ward, yet shaped like something reptilian. And its eyes—that horrible yellowish glare that suggested eyes—seemed to see everywhere at once, to burn into the soul of the watcher with ghastly promise of lost eternity. In its wake it carried...dancing things, whirling and lashing about in tormented rhythm. Lost souls, grasping for a new purchase in the world of men that always seemed close, yet ever out of their reach."
Series: The initial Zebra books of the 1980’s essential split one long novel into a trilogy (I suspect the split was arbitrary). T.C. Rypel’s 1980 series has been released in a more complete forms (more books, eBooks, audiobooks). The newer releases from Borgo Press seem to have maintained this split. I’ll need to read the second and third books to confirm that, and I plan to do that. Actually, Rypel has a lot more Gonji in mind, and has books 4 and 5 available now. Books 1-3 are the original trilogy:
1) Gonji: Red Blade from the East: The Deathwind Trilogy, Book One
2) Gonji: The Soul Within the Steel
3) Gonji: Deathwind of Vedun: The Deathwind Triology, Book Three
4) Gonji: Fortress of Lost Worlds
5) Gonji: A Hungering of Wolves
6)... (7) ....(8)
2016 and beyond UPDATE: DARK VENTURES, from Wildside Press due out late 2016, and according to the author, "It comprises two new novellas, my essay on the series' creation/production history, and a generous excerpt from the coming Gonji origin novel, BORN OF FLAME AND STEEL." And [Rypel] just agreed to a commission to write a NEW Gonji short story for an anthology scheduled for next summer (2017).
Social Media, Cover Art, and Maps: T.C. Rypel is very accessible viaFacebook(Gonji Page) and the Goodreads Sword and Sorcery Group. If you check those websites you can (a) communicate with him and (b) just read/learn fascinating tidbits. For instance, from these I learned the artwork of Serbian illustrator Dusan Kostic graces most of the new releases, which seem more appropriate than the 1980’s covers that seem to mirror the James Clavell books (contemporary for 1980’s works, but of different genre). Also, The Kindle editions of the Deathwind Trilogy books do not include artist Joseph Rutt's Maps that appear in the front of the print editions.
Ohio Rocks: Incidentally, T.C. Rypel has Ohio roots, as do many Sword and Sorcery authors; in fact, 20% of the original Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA, 1960-80s) came from my home state OH. The unassuming state of OH has ties to many relevant authors including including: David C. Smith, Andre Norton, Stephen Donaldson, John Jakes, Richard Lee Byers, Roger Zelazny, Dennis L. McKiernan, Steve Goble, and more.
Awakening Evarun by Tom Barczak
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thaumaturgy is associated with deep incantation of magic, and Tom Barczak is an expert at such language-delivered-necromancy. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on the topic of Beauty in Weird fiction.
Weird fiction pioneer Clark Ashton Smith once wrote: "My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation."
Tom Barczak's poetic style is as mesmerizing like Clark Ashton Smith's style, but produces fiction laced with both (a) total grimness and (b) hopeful redemption. His work is compact Sword & Sorcery for the serious reader, with undertones of spirituality. This is not like C.S. Lewis's approach to Young Adult fantasy fiction; Barczak writes for a mature reader who wants to explore ruins filled with ghosts and meet evil face-to-face. Here is an excerpt:
"A little boy stared back at him with living eyes. Dark, deep, and soul filled eyes, eyes that hadn’t begun to carry the scars of the loss of everything around them, eyes that didn’t hide behind a veil, behind a promise made to be broken. His eyes were familiar. The boy’s eyes weren’t afraid. They were hungry.
Talus threw himself backwards, fumbling with his cloak. He thrust the small blade of his trembling knife towards the boy. The new light of day settled upon it like blood.
The boy scrambled away, but his dark eyes held like ice. He raised his hand to a growing red scar just let upon his cheek. A supplicant’s smile stretched his lips. He placed the back of his hand against his face."
There are six short stories in the Awakening, a set that is a prequel to Veil of the Dragon (which I enjoyed of course). They are very short... but the amount of impact per word is very high. This type of work is best served in limited doses (i.e. like espresso). Unpolished illustrations from the author are a nice touch; they are fitting since the author is an artists/architect, but they are bonus material to complement the experience.
The Awakening Evarun is highly recommended.
"From death to death [The Heart of Ahriman] came, riding on a river of human blood. Blood feeds it, blood draws it. Its power is greatest when there is blood on the hands that grasp it, when it is wrested by slaughter from its holder. Wherever it gleams, blood is spilt and kingdoms totter, and the forces of nature are put in turmoil." -- Thutothmes of Khemi (The Hour of The Dragon, by REH)
The Hour of the Dragon (1934-1936), is Robert E. Howard''s only full length novel of Conan, the barbarian he popularized in short story form. The text is available on-line for free via the Gutenberg project, but there are reason's to track down a paperback. I read the Berkley Putnam 1977 edition, which has splendid additions to the story: comprehensive foreword and afterwords by Karl Wagner explain how the novel formed prior being serialized in Weird Tales; a map of the Hyborian Age (inspired by REH's own drawings) is essential for the Hyborian ambiances; interior illustrations are bonuses; and cover art by Ken Kelly is stellar.
Hyborian Age: As Wagner details, this book was REH's attempt to break into the UK market that demanded novels (and were not agreeable to his proposals for a collection of his own stories). REH presents Conan as King of Aquilonia. Sorcery and treachery dethrone him, and Conan trots about much of Hyboria, either pursing or being challenged by those who have the magical Heart of Ahriman (which we learn in the opening chapter). This touring of the pre-drowned Euro-Afro-Asia continent begs for a map. The traveling adventure amplifies the Hyborian Age concept; REH's Conan lived in rich pseudo historical land that enabled real ancient cultures to interact with mythical ones. Each chapter has Conan (and his enemies) traversing Aquilonia, Nemeda, Argos, Stygia, and more (these roughly translates to central Europe and Northern Africa). I'm not sure if any othe rtale
Missing Chapter Mystery: A deal was accepted but the UK publisher went belly up, so REH worked with Weird Tales to publish the chapters in serial form. As Wagner explains, there is a possibility that one chapter went missing (#20). Wagner left the numbering of the chapters consistent with the numbering as printed in Weird Tales (#20 is skipped); the original manuscript sent to Denis Archer has 4,000 more words (Pawling & Ness imprint) has 75,000 words. That edition never made it to press, but Weird Tales published the novel in serial form...and it had only 71,000 words. Regardless, the story seems consistent, so there is no obvious loss in plot.
Style: REH did not change his writing style, so each chapter maintains a very pulpy feel. Chapters are over saturated with conflicts to maintain a frenetic pace. An over reliance on chance encounters detracts from the enjoyment, but it remains a fun read on the whole. Written in the 1930's, the tone has some racial and misogynistic aspects of the time. Despite the use of the word "negro," Conan appears as a champion/friend to many and even freed many slaves. Woman on the other hand were represented terribly; the few featured are concubines who are cheer leaders of Conan requiring rescue. Here are some examples:
Example 1: Concubine saves Conan and is glad to have him put a knife to her "Walk beside me," [Conan] instructed her softly, passing his massive arm about her lithe waist. "You've played me fair so far, and I'm inclined to believe in you; but I've lived this long only because I've trusted no one too far, man or woman. So! Now if you play me false you won't live to enjoy the jest." She did not flinch at sight of the reddened poniard or the contact of his hard muscles about her supple body.
"Cut me down without mercy if I play you false," she answered. "The very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfillment of a dream."
Example 2: Conan relishes in his obvious manliness "All right," [Conan] muttered. "I'll trust you; though, by Crom, the habits of a lifetime are not easily put aside. Yet I wouldn't harm you now, if you brought all the swordsmen in Nemedia upon me. But for you Tarascus's cursed ape would have come upon me in chains and unarmed. Do as you wish, girl." Kissing his hands, she sprang lithely up and ran down the corridor, to vanish through a heavy double door.
He glanced after her, wondering if he was a fool to trust her; then he shrugged his mighty shoulders and pulled the satin hangings together, masking his refuge. It was not strange that a passionate young beauty should be risking her life to aid him; such things had happened often enough in his life. Many women had looked on him with favor, in the days of his wanderings, and in the time of his kingship.
Example 3: Conan thanks the concubine who saves him by taking his sexual due "A horse is hidden for you in a thicket beside the road that runs westward, a few hundred paces to the south of the fountain of Thrallos. You know where it is?"
"Aye! But what of you? I had meant to take you with me."
A flood of joy lighted her beautiful face.
"Then my cup of happiness is brimming! But I will not hamper your escape. Burdened with me you would fail. Nay, do not fear for me. They will never suspect that I aided you willingly. Go! What you have just said will glorify my life throughout the long years."
He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind, even his love- making was violent.
In Andrew P. Weston’s Hell Bound, our protagonist and tour guide into Hell is Daemon Grim: he’s a snarky bounty hunter, Satan’s right-hand man for reining in the damned. Grim is so impressed with himself that it takes a while to realize that he may, like everyone in Hell, may actually be subject to being played.
Grim was introduced to the Heroes in Hell series in the previous installment,Doctors in Hell. In short story form there, he was tasked to retrieve Dr. Thomas Neill Cream who had escaped topside. Doctors in Hell is an anthology,an enjoyable introduction to Hell which serves as a great entry point to the series. Heroes in Hell is a long, sustained series, but Doctors and Hell Bound confirm that anyone can hop along and enjoy the ride from any stop ( it is always a good time to go to Hell. Reading Doctors will help the reader appreciate the full novel Hell Bound, but doing so is not necessary.
For new readers, I summarize the Heroes in Hell milieu. It is a fantastical place built from myths and religions—so do not expect Tolkienesque elves or dwarves. The primary realm explored is called Juxtapose, which is a satirical mirror of our earth’s cityscapes (the Seine river featured as “Inseine”, Paris called Perish, the Eiffel Tower represented as the Awful Tower, Facebook is called Hatebook… which sadly seems too appropriate…). Since time has little meaning in Hell, beings from past and present meet and scheme (i.e., Tesla and Chopin). There are other realms beyond Juxtapose connected with ethereal gateways. All are populated by beings being tormented and try to outwit Satan or their comrades. Even Erra, the Akkadian plague god, has visited Hell to torment Satan. No one is safe! It is a splendid, wacky place that works well.
Having recently read Doctors, I was intrigued with the Heroes In Hell world. I wanted to experience it more but needed a tour guide. Daemon Grim did so in entertaining fashion. I wanted to “see” how the Undertaker refreshed the damned as they underwent subsequent deaths; I wanted to experience more odd-ball pairings of historical figures struggling to complete their life’s missions; I wanted my tour guide to have some depth, even if he was unware of it. The story is a bizarre cat-versus-mouse hunt, with Grim chasing Cream through very dark realms, upturning mystery after mystery. A scavenger hunt-like game ensures with beautiful, cryptic poetry that leads Grim further and further into a web of deceit. Antagonists are aplenty.
Hell Bound delivered. Andrew P. Weston did a superb job balancing the needs of a full length novel with the freedoms/constraints of a shared world usually expressed in short story form. Highly recommended for fantasy readers who enjoy a bit of dark adventure.
Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish is a must read for sword-and-sorcery aficionados.
• The Last Wish and most of the series were published in the 1990’s
• They spawned from Poland, not the United States or United Kingdom
• Inspired the Witcher game series a decade later (2007-ongoing)
• More to come, the author and series continue
Andrzej Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia is a “Witcher,” a superhuman trained to defeat monsters. After hundreds of years killing creatures, there are fewer threats and witchers. Actually there is less hunting monsters than Geraltsleuthing mysterious altercations. Sapkowski’s stories have conflicts that arenot lone-Witcher-in-the-wild vs. monster conflict; they are more humans/vs strange forces in which Geralt referees (and usually kills). His investigative methods are a bit rougher than Sherlock Holmes. Each story was as if Conan was dumped into the Grimm's Fairy tales. But all is not grim. Lots of humor present is reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Humans tend to persecute or shun the weird witchers; sustaining future witchers is addressed as the seeds of an apprenticeship are sown.
Geralt has dialogue with antagonists often. Lengthy interrogations are common. This approach allows for funny banter, philosophizing, and entertaining information-dumps. This makes for a fast, entertaining read. Sapkowski stands out as a leading non-English writer. No map, table of contents (TOC), or glossary were featured in the paperback translation. I provide the TOC below. The structure reveals the over-arching narrative of “the Voice of Reason” which attempts to connect all the others. This works pretty well, but is not always smooth. This was designed as an introduction to the series. I was impressed enough to order the Sword of Destiny when I was only half way through. It is not until the third book does a dedicated novel emerge. The series and the games continue to this day with books 7 and 8 awaiting English translation (as of 2016).
The Last Wish Table of Contents
1- Voice of Reason #1
2- The Witcher
3 - Voice of Reason #2
4- A Grain of Truth
5- Voice of Reason #3
6-The Lesser Evil
7-Voice of Reason #4
8-A Question of Price
9-Voice of Reason #5
10-The Edge of The World
11- Voice of Reason #6
12- The Last Wish
11- Voice of Reason #7
Andrzej Sapkowski Blood of Elves saga:
1. The Last Wish; Short Stories 1992 , translated from Polish to English 2007 when the first Witcher Video Game was released
2. Sword of Destiny Short Storeis 1992 translated 2015
3. Blood of Elves 1994 [novels begin] trans 2014
4. The Time of Contempt 1995 translated 2015
5. Baptism of Fire 1996 translated 2016
6. The Tower of Swallows 1997 translated 2016
7. Lady of the Lake (1999…being translated for a 2017 release in US)
8. Season of Storms (Sezon burz) written 2013, set between the short stories in the first book in the series, The Last Wish. English edition TBD
2007 Witcher PC
2011 Witcher 2 (Assassins of Kings) PC, Xbox, Mac OS
2015 Witcher 3 (Wild Hunt), PC, PS4, Xbox
Sisowath’s Mythdark: The Fall of Undal is the second half of a duology (its initial half being The Doom of Undal). For obvious reason, readers should read Doom prior reading Fall. As many epic fantasy novels, there are many characters. In “Doom,” four characters emerged as our primary guides, three of which are sisters (Rhea, Hathor, and Sobekh) and the last is a male from a different royal family (Cronous). Sisowath’s ancient Kings and Queens (Dragon Court) have dragon blood within their veins, but their alien nature is suppressed as they rule over humans. Their curse/blessing manifests in various abilities which have associated temples to nurture/worship. “Fall” is all about the war between [Rhea and Cronous] versus [Hathor and Sobekh], and alien natures are unleashed in grim warfare. This dark fiction is mashup of mythical characters, cataclysms, and global war from a variety of ancient texts and rites.
The milieu is very rich and the Dragon Court family full of intrigue—a testament to the author’s study of history and world building. The style is mostly narrative, which is fitting for a myth-based story. That said, the complex story would have been more engaging with more “showing” versus “telling” (less narrative, more demonstrating). The author has indicated on Goodreads that lengthening her books is what motivated this duology to exist (i.e. stretched from one book); actually, “Fall” itself could easily have been developed into several books on its own accord. I hope Sisowath continues the trend, perhaps focusing on a subset of the epic and highlighting a single character’s perspective; something like that would make this rich world even more accessible.
Dragon Court and Anunnaki Deities: Katrina Sisowath’s Dragon Court series fictionalizes the plight of the royal Anunnaki. Note, the Anunnaki were actual ancient Mesopotamian deities of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures. Katrina Sisowath regularly publishes onAncient_Origins.Net and drew upon her expertise to construct a deep, believable world including: (a) blood-letting rituals of mystery cults, (b) alchemy-based magic, poisons and drugs, and (c) grand architecture expected of ancient times. The world is very immersive and believable. Alien references are relegated to subtle steampunk details; on the continuum of sci-fi to fantasy, this leans heavily toward epic-historical-fantasy.
Katrina Sisowath’s Dragon Court series is definitely recommended for epic fantasy readers who enjoy mythology.
1: Serpent Priestess of the Annunaki
2a: The Doom of Undal
2b: The Fall of Undal
…more to come…
"To write sword-&-sorcery in the twenty-first century, it seemed to me, required a redefinition of the form. ‘The Shadow Cycles’ is my attempt at that redefinition – in effect, the formulation and deployment of a tarot." – Philip Emery
P. Emery’s Sword & Sorcery and Weird Works : I first learned of his work via the Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, in which his "Fifteen Breaths" appealed to me; it had a poetic, dreamy-weird style to it. Crossed his work again in Return of the Sword and was completely taken with his "The Last Scream of Carnage" (notably the editor's pick). It was again poetic, and pushed the bounds of the genre. His gothic, steampunk novel Necromantra was very enjoyable. His experimental The Shadow Cycles continues to push the weird/S&S genre, and I am glad to have read it. The book features an essay which details the history of the Sword & Sorcery genre and the author’s motivations to expand it in new ways.
The Shadow Cycles draws more upon Clark Ashton Smith’s poetic style than it does Robert E. Howard’s clear cut action. The pacing and scope of Michael Moorcock’s eternal champion series. In short, The Shadow Cycles is weird, dense narrarative. Reading takes focus since scarce dialogue, obtuse descriptions, a completely foreign fantasy world, and repeated stanzas make this disorienting.
Milieu & Style: The milieu containing the Uroboros event is featured over character development. There is a universe in which all the suns/planets were flooded/swallowed by a tangible shadow, and magical forces allow limited teleportation from other realms to steer the fate of two remaining serpents which serve as vessels for humanoids: one, a petrified, floating dragon; and two, a leviathan on life-support. The latter is a wondrous, horrific landscape in which humans live in arteries filled with “tallow warts” and resonating with “meat echoes.” Clive Barker fans would devour this stuff (excerpts below):
“Again there is a different cold. Bleak. Vast. Filled with moans. The chamber stretches into the distance, and throughout that length, hanging from the vaulty ceiling, are the same fleshy stalactites that strew the labyrinths. Except these are longer. And from them hang bare bodies. Men. Women. Children. Moaning.
The tendril-things curl around their necks, holding them just above the floor. Others meander among them. Gazing up at them. Nudging them so that they turn slightly. Pinching them. Considering. Because these tendrils, unlike human umbilical cords, not only nourish but leach. They give life to the suspended ones but at the same time soften tissue, suck bone brittle – until the time is right.”
And the exterior Shrike Wall:
“Leviathan moves on through the wakeless sea and the dragonreme slips down its flank. Across its leagues of back a spine of bony spikes stab out. One each spike is impaled a torn, livid body, and oriflamme of skin and sinew. The spike bores through the small of the back and up through the belly, bowing the body. Arms and legs loll down but not their heads. There are no heads.”
Undeveloped Characters and Muddled Conflict: Despite the book blurb, the book is not about Rorn. Nor is it about the first hero introduced, Gemmored… first of the mysterious party of five called the Phoenix Prey. Here's the book description:
With four others, all of different realms, Rorn is transported to a new world. The last magician of a race of magicians; another possessing and possessed by a vampiric labrys; a towering swordsman whose blade sucks out the evil of those it slays; an assassin shape-shedder. All five are plunged into a strangely black sea which ships sail across like dreams across obsidian - a sea of shadow. They find themselves in the midst of an uncanny war fought over generations but approaching a final apocalyptic battle where victory is to be won not by strength or strategy but by something far stranger.
The Phoenix Prey are collected across a multiverse by an omnipotent force; this party comprises:
1. Gemmored of Darkling Realm, a warrior with his Doom Sword
2. Gel of Gnomon Realm, a warrior with his labrys axBloodbane
3. Zantalliz of Voyage Realm, a librarian wizard
4. Harnak of Aftermath Realm – a shapeshifter
5. Rorn of Nightwake Realm – a ranger
These are mired in a conflict between the two serpent city-states run at war, led by Sstheness (Leviathan Leader) and Phariane (Archivist of Dragon Keep). The cultures of Dragon Keep and Leviathan are bizarre but compelling. The characters, who have loads of potential, remain emotionally distant and their story arcs half developed. Plenty of potential epic threads are left incomplete and conflict obscured. It was difficult to know if enemies really posed a threat as main characters walk thru battles untouched at times and were occasionally teleported to other realms for unclear purposes; there are many sorties that seemed to have an imbalance enemy resistance (sometimes too little, sometimes way-too-much). The fate of the Phoenix Prey remained unfinished. A climax that promised betrayal and tension between the Prey was unfulfilled. Ultimately the cosmic “world” was awesomely weird but still not developed clearly enough to emotionally engage the reader. Fans of soap-opera, high fantasy will likely be disengaged.
A Worthy Experiment: The experimental The Shadow Cycleswas a compelling read written by a passionate author. It will enjoyed by aficionados of weird fiction, but will be inaccessible for the common fantasy reader. I will jump at the chance to read more of Emery’s works since I enjoy being pushed passed boundaries and he excels at that. I end with a snipet from his essay:
"… I hope ‘The Shadow Cycles; is at least a new version of the Howardian tarot that redefines the combination of blood and darkness and fear at the heart of sword-&-sorcery. – Philip Emery"
Major Arcana = Violence and the Numinous
1. S&S is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect.
2. S&S is potentially amoral.
3. S&S is the combination of violence and the numinous
4. S&S eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
5. S&S is naturally a short story form.
6. S&S contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
7. S&S has a Chthonic sensibility
8. S&S has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
9. S&S combines explicit and implicit horror
10. The S&S protagonist is a loner
11. S&S addresses the irrational
12. S&S is about power
13. S&S is highly ‘visual’
“There is a monster for each of us to face. Some we conquer; some we flee; some we negotiate with; some we suffer; some we… become.” editor Jason M. Waltz.
So opens Jason M. Waltz's introduction to Rage of the Behemoth--it is appropriate to quote it in this review of Vengeance is My Lord's: Tales of Direk, Lord of Vengeance for two reasons: (1) the hero Direk is tasked with serving the King and is granted magical/god-like powers to deliver vengeance; each instance he calls upon his shadow powers to perform a killing he is consumed a little bit more, and transforms from a human into a monster; (2) Jason Waltz is transforming himself too, in a great way, from editor to author, so noting his past achievements and trajectory in heroic fiction is a must.
Under the banner of Rogue Blade Entertainment, Jason edited the above mentioned Rage of the Behemoth which was a superb thematic anthology following the landmark 2008 Return of the Sword (a must read for heroic fiction fans). Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology was a fair third in the series. Jason Waltz then delivered his first nonfiction collection Writing Fantasy Heroes, with insights from a panel of notable authors (Orson Scott Card, Brian Sanderson, Steve Erikson, Glen Cook, Janet & Chris Morris, Ian Esslemont, Paul Kearney, Howard Andrew Jones...etc.). In all these books, he always provided awesome introductions which were as compelling as any of the stories.
With Vengeance is My Lord's: Tales of Direk, Lord of Vengeance, he introduces us to his own dark hero. In addition to being cursed/empowered by dark powers, he also carries a sword named Retribution. There are other swords in existence i.e., Justice which are bound to the avatar wielding it. It's a simple but awesome premise delivered excellently.
Any criticism of this would be that it is very short, just two stories...one of which has been published already ("As Retribution Falls, so too Truth" which had appeared in Tales of the Black Arts: A Sword and Sorcery Anthology, and "Collecting Vengeance". That said, it was very affordable and marks the beginning of what promises to be an awesome series (note that the book is labelled Volume 1). I am anxious to learn more of Direk's plight, why he became a servant of the Kind Wincuff and the gods Otuus & Ez-Wrayal... and what will become of his as he transforms completely into a demon. Jason Waltz is dedicated to the Sword & Sorcery / Heroic Fiction genre, and witnessing the birth of his inner-monsters is a pleasure.
The artist of the cover is noteworthy. Didier Normand provided coverart and interior illustrations for Rage of the Behemoth and has established relationship with Rogue Blade authors such as Jason Thummel to provide cover art.
I learned about Stranger Comic’s The Untamed: Sinner’s Prayer while browsing Kickstarter. The art and story were captivating and the campaign organized well, so I backed a reward that was essentially a pre-order. This served as my introduction to the World of Asunda and Stranger Comics (led in part by Sebastian A. Jones). In short, the hardcover exceeded my expectations: for $30USD we get 260pages of great story telling and art. This work serves as an outstanding introduction to deep, fantastic world that will appeal to dark fantasy fans (from Spawn to Conan to all those Grimdark folk).
Contents: The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer is an omnibus that contains all seven comic book issues of the Stranger’s journey back from Hell (one issue for each day the Stranger has to complete his tasks)…plus tons of bonus content on “the making-of” in the appendix.
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #1
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #2
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #3
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #4
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #5
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #6
The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer #7
Premise and Milieu : This is for mature readers. The publisher’s summary is concise and true:
A cloaked Stranger slips into the rustic Town of Oasis, changing things forever. Ten years it has been since he ran this town with malice and harshness. Even then, there was hope for his soul. His wife and daughter were on the verge of turning him from wickedness. But they were murdered, and so was he. Now he has returned, hell-bent on killing. Written by Sebastian A. Jones; Art by Peter Bergting; Layouts by Darrell May
Without spoiling, readers should know that this work focuses on the titular characters (the stranger) but has abundant background for Niobe (a female heroine with her own set of comics). The unnamed stranger starts his journey leaving Hell to complete a deal: 7 days to return 7 souls and redeem himself. On the surface, the town of Oasis in Asunda presents many fantasy tropes (elves, humans, dwarves) with a fresh spin (unique names and twists in culture… i.e., it isnot as European-Medieval centric as one may expect) and beautifully presented art that is both angelic and brutal. The attention to detail as in the cover (red had embracing the stranger) is presented throughout. The covers of the series represent the art within:
Other World of Asunda Works: As this moment (Spring 2016) the other Asunda works are not compiled in an omnibus yet. There are novellas and more comics that promise to be equally compelling, such as NIOBE: She is Life, Issue One; Niobe: She Is Life #2 and Dusu: Path of the Ancient #1.
Cathartic Reading: As a longtime Silent Hill fan (since the original) I needed a fix to overcome the disappointing issues plaguing game publisher Konami: Silent Hills for PS4 promised to be awesome (involvement with Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus-walking dead actor). Then it got abruptly cancelled. I turned to Silent Hill Omnibus and Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2 to satiate my need to roam thru a ghost town.
Here's my review of Omnibus #1
The Silent Hill Omnibus omnibus #2 comprises 3 more installments of the comic adaptions for the Silent Hill game franchise from Konami. It contains the full versions of:
1) Silent Hill: Sinner's Reward
2) Silent Hill: Past Life
3) Silent Hill Downpour: Anne's Story
Like #1, this Omnibus is true to the canon/style of Silent Hill. The art in this one is more clear and understandable, yet remaining "weird" in a good way. Expect cameos from your favorite creatures; characters always being drawn into a ghost town to confront their past. The last two installments provide some extension of background story for the Postman and Anne featured in the game Downpour. On the whole, the story lines rely too heavily on adultery & murder (some variation would be nice), but they are well written.
The comics will not replace what-could-have-been the experience promised in Silent Hills (plural, the game), but they are a worthy part of the "Hill." Recommended for Hill fans.
Cathartic Reading: As a longtime Silent Hill fan (since the original) I needed a fix to overcome the disappointing issues plaguing game publisher Konami: Silent Hills for PS4 promised to be awesome (involvement with Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus-walking dead actor). Then it got abruptly cancelled. I turned to Silent Hill Omnibus and Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2 to satiate my need to roam thru a ghost town.
The Silent Hill Omnibus omnibus comprises 5 installments of the comic adaptions for the Silent Hill game franchise from Konami. The survival horror games are known for their Lovecraftian style of horror (weird, nondescript nightmares emphasized over sudden shock); typically a visitor goes to the town with serious emotional baggage, explores a ghost town, and comes face to face with realized version of their nightmares....that is the safe part of the workflow. Then visitors (gameplayers/readers) are taken to deeper levels of hell in which they yearn to revisit the haunting ghost town for safety. What is "real", "imagined", or "remembered" is never clear.
The comics are generally true to the ambiance. They introduce new characters, some of which mirror those in the games (i.e., police officers, a young girl). A few stories stretch the mood to include shoot-zombies-up gameplay vibes (ala Resident Evil) or B-rated horror (gratituous cheerleaders).
The art is likewise ambiguous; like the game's notorious fog that hides details, the art is not always clear. For Dying Inside (the fist chapter) this worked okay; by the end of the omnibus the art & story became confusing (too many characters that looked liked one another). The idea of intermixing various characters' memories, haunts, and stories was nice at first... but the story complexity diverged so much that the final story (which aims to bring closure to it all) remains confusing.
On the whole, the omnibus was satisfying and true enough for me to launch into Vol 2.. It's recommended to other Silent Hill fans needing a fix between games.