"Behold! I have fashioned a magazine like those from fabled days of yore. It overflows with thrilling adventures. There are swords, and there is sorcery. There are dark deeds and daring rescues. There are lands where heroes fear to tread." - The Magician's Skull speaks in Kickstarter
Should you trust a talking skull? Well, no sane person would, but I attest this Skull does not lie. Tales from the Magician's Skull #1 spawned from a successful 2017 Kickstarter Campaign in which Howard Andrew Jones (Sword & Sorcery guru, author, and RPGer) teamed up with Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, publisher of Dungeon Crawl Classics. The resulting magazine reflects this partnership, marrying great stories with suggested RPG game items. As a backer and enthusiast of fantasy fiction, I couldn’t be more pleased.
QUALITY: The quality is great (the artwork, editing, illustrations, paper-feel etc.); this magazine is just fun to hold.
APPENDIX: The Appendix! What a great design idea! To drive home the RPG elements of the stories, these guys created items and rules related to each story for the Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG. This is really cool. read the stories...then go play them.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Ooh, the illustrations are nice and varied. For Enge’s story, Russ Nicholson drew a full page, very reminiscent of his drawings for the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Many full page, detailed illustrations decorate the interior (by artists: Jennell Jaquays, Doug Kovacs, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Ian Miller, Russ Nicholson, Stefan Poag, and Chuck Whelon).
1) "What Lies in Ice" A Gaunt and Bone story by Chris Willrich - For me this was 3-stars, but I think YA-adult and lit-RPG (literary RPG) readers will enjoy it more. For a short story, this has a huge party of protagonists (>6), heavy doses of comic relief, and an overabundance of fast-paced story telling that shoots for ADHD action scenes rather than elements-that-build-on-each other. It reminds me of a Marvel Avengers movie. It has too much in it to allow an old fogie like myself enough to grasp on to, but it does have a lot of neat things going on (as disjointed as they are). My favorite concept/creature: Hands of the Sea (which is the first item in the Appendix!).
Sharing my thoughts on Goodreads prompted the Sword & Sorcery crowdassured me that followers of Gaunt and Bone will enjoy this since it ties together other G&B yarns.
2) James Enge's "The Guild of Silent Men : A Story of Morlock Ambrosius". 5-star! Although less action than the previous story, this fantasy-murder mystery delivers more than enough swords-n-sorcery while fleshing out Thain Morlock's background and motivations. A fun read that also serves to make me want to learn more. Perhaps I should go get Blood of Ambrose right now.
3) Bill Ward's "Beneath the Bay of Black Waters” A Tale of Shan Spirit Slayer and the Banner General Bao" - 4-stars. I'm a big Bill Ward fan (i.e., his anthologies like
Mightier than the Sword and Last of His Kind). This Asian/Orient adventure is led by an entertaining duo tracking a drug trade (of Black Pearls, being mysterious narcotics) from the Fish-Gutter gang. Death escapes the protagonists more than it should, but the story is great.
4) Aeryn Rudel's “Beyond the Block” - 5 stars. A first-person perspective was perfect for this undead horror. Another duo stars, this time its Lucinda and her brother Matthais (the narrator). Matthais is a blacksmith who seeks to defend Lucinda from Lord Magister Vyard (a sorcerer who wants something of Lucinda’s magical potential).
5) Howard Andrew Jones’s “Crypt of Stars, From the Chronicles of Hanuvar Cabera" has one primary hero: Hanuvar of the Volani. It's him against the invading Dervani who are out to raid his ancestral cemeteries. I am a big HAJ fan, having followed his blogs and Black Gate articles and enjoyed his fiction (i.e., The Bones of the Old Ones). He never disappoints. 5-stars.
6) C.L. Werner's "There Was an Old Fat Spider” offers a biased protagonist, Karl, who may be an anti-hero. A knight and civil protector Rudolf Goettinger tracks Karl down in this Germanic/Gothic tale that reminded me of Werner's Warhammer tales. Lots of gray areas here. Good grimness. 4-stars.
7) John C. Hocking’s “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest. From the World of the Archivist." Another police-like duo lead this mystery: Thratos (mentor Hand of the King sorcerer) and Benhus (young mentee, warrior sorcerer). Thieves are breaking into royal crypts, but not necessarily to steal. Why? Some neat Magical Weapons are presented, i.e., the Nobleman's Comfort (magical wand, and its in the Appendix). Best of all, this story has a talking skull! But is it THE skull? 5-stars.
VOLUME #2 promises more of the great quality, and it is nearing publication (June 15th 2018). I suggest you join the Legion of the Skull, whether you like to read, play RPGs, or both.
1) Heroes of Dreams & Khash series: I discovered Lumley’s writing via his Weird Sword & Sorcery. Vintage dark fantasy spawned in the early 1900’s from the work of pen-pals R.E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft; though it seems rare to find quality Conan-Mythos mash-ups. Lumely has done so a few times. First, his Hero of Dreams series is an overt mashup of Lovecraft’s Dreamcycle and Leiber’s Fafred and Gray Mouser series. Lumley’s Tarra Khash series (a.k.a. Tales of Primal Land) was written in a similar vein (i.e. fun Sword & Sorcery adventure in a Weird-Fiction, Cthulhu-esque world).
2) Blood Omen Legacy of Kain: A huge fan of the Horror S&S Game Series “Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain”, I was delighted to learn that Lumely’s writing influenced Denis Dyack’s vision of Nosgoth. Denis Dyack, creator of Silicon Knights, made the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain game (various incarnations from 1996 thru 2009). As a Kain fan I did not know the influence from Lumely until I saw an interview on Youtube (The Quantum Tunnel 2016 called Blood Omen Legacy Of Kain Deep Dive 1) in which Dyack reveals that the classic horror/action-rpg game was influenced by Lumey’s Necroscope series. Given the Visceral, Vampire, Lovecraftian, and Time Travel elements, this makes sense; however, the book has a contemporary setting versus the medieval one in the game.
As a fan of Khash, Heroes of Dreams, and Legacy of Kain… I just had to check out Necroscope. So what is it really?
Necroscope is “ESPionage” fiction (a word coined in this book), blending paranormal horror with spy adventure. It kicks off a series of 18 books (published 1986 to 2013). This first entry is entertaining and sets an expansive foundation for a wild ride. People with supernatural powers (predicting the future, speaking to the dead, etc.) are being enlisted into government agencies.
The book is ostensibly about the battle between the United Kingdom vs. the Russian governments special forces, but the conflict is really about Harry Keogh (speaker to the dead) vs. Boris Dragosani (who approximates a vampire). Each is associated with a government, but each is motivated by personal goals which take center stage. The reader learns about supernatural powers as these two do. After they master their respective powers, they go to battle in a most bizarre way chock-full of undead things and over the top time travel.
Expect lots of changing perspective and lots of story threads that will gel about half way through. Artwork is unexpectedly sprinkled throughout the book (even the Kindle version). The geometry puzzles and Moebius Strips shown relate the story and make for fun, relevant, diversions. This is very digestible horror for non-horror fans. A very fast read, recommended to just about everyone who likes dark adventure.
Never let a lesser person hold dominion over your sense of worth. If you doubt your own logic, you become vulnerable to oppression, violation, and control.- scholar Adam Lockhart
Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark inspired this Slaves of Erafor series (a dark muse for sure). When and how should passive intellectuals fight back against blind oppression? It is a timely philosophical question for many, especially in a day in with faux news is eroding our confidence in society's collective intelligence. At what point is violent revolution warranted? Rhein offers an entertaining adventure that invites us to consider such dilemmas. Don't worry, it reads as fun escapism--not a manifesto.
This is a stunning sequel to the The Reader of Acheron, which introduced us to Kikkan (an educated brute, a freed slave--he's the pipe-weilding due on the cover) and the duo of Cole & Quillion (nuanced mercenaries). The three men go on a mission, inspired by a rare scholar named Lockhart: find a teacher, a literate thief, in Edentown. They are continuously dogged by an oppressive, illiterate government. Acheron was ambitious and rewarding, introducing us to a future in which reading is prohibited; Thief is even better.
Stylistically, the Literate Thief is very realistic (no mythological monsters or contraptions exist) but it does "feel like" Steampunk Fantasy. Its tone is more Grim than Hopeful, but that reflects the daunting conflict our heroes face. Its faces several humans against (a) organized authoritarian government, (b) a drugged, apathetic populace, and (c) an impoverished ruined city-scape. There are several instances you will hope that they can escape into the infested, haunted subway for relative safety from the dangers above.
Walter Rhein mixed up just the right number of opposing & cooperative players and places. As much as the Literate Thief fleshes out the World of Erafor, it opens up new vistas into weird science (futuristic alchemy & drug use) while exposing more mysteries. One the one hand, the geography crystallized: places like: San Borja, San Aryan, Brinewater, and Edentown all became distinctive characters unto themselves; on the other hand, characters like Quillion, Cole, and Kikkan demonstrate wild heroics while revealing more about themselves... and new people (i.e., the antagonists Orion and Janus, and the roving library-scholar) offer up an atlas full of new stories. There is a thief of course: Simyon, a friend of the seductive archer Valeria; they make a great pair. But is Simyon the titular Thief?
Drugs play a prominent role. First there is Bliss, that is voluntary, and involuntary imbibed by the abundant, lower classes; these addicts become so consumed they resemble mindless, cannibalistic demons. There is also an unnamed steroid-like substance the governing brutes consume, which may be harvested from the humans they torment.
The Slaves of Erafor is an unfinished series, so don't expect all mysteries to be explained. I haven't felt the giddy need to read the next book (in progress) since I was a teenager devouring series like Raymond E. Feist Riftwar or Margaret Weis's Dragonlance.
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rogue Blades Entertainment has a great track record for delivering anthologies (Return of the Sword, Writing Fantasy Heroes,Rage of the Behemoth, and more). Challenge! Discovery is the 2017 edition, which posed a challenge: look at the cover, and write a story about it. The illustration features a scantily clad female warrior and a panther emerge from jungle ruins.
The concept is cool, but the entries range in quality, and I disagree with the judges. Apparently the last two won 1st and 2nd place by the judges, but if I were to rate by (a) inspiration from cover and (b) storytelling (good pacing, show not tell, etc.) then I would have chosen 2 of the below:
- "Inner Nature" by JOHN KILIAN
- "Someplace Cool and Dark" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN
- "Witch with Bronze Teeth brushed" by KEITH J. TAYLOR
1) "Witch with Bronze Teeth brushed" by KEITH J. TAYLOR: 5-star blend of military Warhammer-esque battle and zombie horror
2) "Fire Eye Gem" by Richard Berrigan: 3-star; too corny for me; features a do-good Kimmeriorian barbarian named ‘Jack’?. ugh
3) "Inner Nature" by JOHN KILIAN 5-star, started ok and but ramped-up very satisfyingly
4) "The Ash-Wood of Celestial Flame" by GABE DYBING; nice fairy tale elements
5) "Someplace Cool and Dark" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN: 5-star, it is first person, weird funny and dark.... and I heard this exact story before! It took me a while to figure it out, but I heard him read this at the World Fantasy Convention 2016. A bonus essay on the writing of this story is added and is as engaging as the story
6)"World inside the Walls" by Frederick Tor : 3-star. Nice inspiration from the cover, but delivery style was dry narrative
7) "In the Ruins of the Panther People" by DANIEL R. ROBICHAUD: 4-star. Started slow and has cheesy romance lines, but ends with a huge bang, science-sorcery Meat Stamp! Loved the Meat Stamp!
8) "The Serpent’s Root by DAVID J. WEST, young adult pacing, but fun. 3.5; not obviously connected the cover as the other stories.
9) "A Fire in Shandria" by FREDERIC S. DURBIN; 4-star. Decent Amazon warrior story with a dragon (not sure why there was a dragon and not a panther)
10) "Cat’s in the Cradle NICHOLAS OZMENT (awarded 2nd place): 3-star Inspired by the cover for sure, but for a short story most of its pages are dedicated to non pertinent content. Pacing off.
11) "Attaberia" by HENRY RAM - (awarded 1st place): 4-star. Viking story with nice concept; starts as a 5 and ends as 3 (there is a disconnect between the tension & remoteness of a mysterious island and the inhabitants).
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars
In short, this follows suit. New readers should start with Vol .1. Also, readers need to be comfortable "reading" visual images sans words. Of course, they must also like gritty, mature drawings of scantily clad women and undead warriors.
This sequel has the same style as the first: very dark & contrasty monochrome drawings, very small word count (~ 1 word per page). Adrian Smith leaves visual clues that identify the various clans. These can be subtle, but they are there. For instance, those aligned with the Mother Earth crew wear crescent moon ornaments. Many of the bad-guy clans are harder to distinguish, except for the Tyrant.
The story progresses very well and delivers on our hero "Worm" attempting to revive Mother Earth. Prior purchasing, I was worried that the story may not develop enough. But this was satisfying.
The culture of thee world develops more. It is more clear that each clan has a leader and a champion. Adrian Smith's illustrations are generally splendid. If you ever looked into any Warhammer/Games Workshop art (which Adrian has made many) and wished you could immerse yourself in a similar world (this is not part of Warhammer's TM Olde World), this is your chance.
Currently, there is a Kickstarter Campaign (by CMON with Adrian Smith) to realize this HATE-full world into a competitive board game. Pitched as an exclusive KS order, it may be difficult to get later (this runs thru mid-Feb 2018). This did inspire me to get Vol.2 and back the KS. The world of HATE evolves!
I'm a big Walter Rhein fan, having read and reviewed his autobiographical Reckless Traveler (highly recommended story of his South American travels), and his fiction Reader of Acheron (also highly recommended, this one being more of dystopian, urban fantasy focused on a culture in which reading is prohibited). Actually, the sequel to The Reader of Acheron is slated for a 2018 release and I was anxious to read more Rhein. So, I grabbed The Bone Sword to tie me over.
The Bone Sword is classic fantasy with a coming of age story of a brother and sister (Noah and Jasmine). Their savior is the outcast warrior: Malik. This tale is simpler with less philosophical undertones than the Reader or Reckless Traveler. The "bad guys" are undeniably evil (Father Ivory in particular, though one may argue he was 50%crazy). The "good guys" are the young children with brewing, magical potential, and their fellow oppressed villagers. The only "gray" character is Malik, but despite his ability to murder and fight, he is closely aligned with the good guys and brings hope to the battle of Miscony.
The first chapter I feared was going to be cliche or overly simplistic, but Rhein quickly introduced meaningful backstory and context. A few chapters in, and I became genuinely attached to the main party. Rhein sprinkles in several very memorable scenes to ramp up the drama. A slight over reliance on rapid healing dampens several stunning sequences that had taken my breath away.
The Bone Sword is a step above a lot of fantasy. It is only #1 of a promised cycle, which is great news. For now, I eagerly await "Acheron #2/The Slaves of Erafor #2" which should emerged soon.
A great starter novel for kids 4-12
The Power of the Sapphire Wand continues the Creepy Hollow Adventures (the first being Three Ghosts in a Black Pumpkin: Creepy Hollow Adventures 1). It is crafted by the duo of Erika M Szabo, an established children's book author, and Joe Bonadonna, established in the Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction arena. I know Bonadonna's work more than Szabo's; even though he has written more adult fiction, he has always expressed empathy and interest in children's perspectives (partly inspired by a direct connection to the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire).
The paperback The Power of the Sapphire Wand clocks in at 244 pages, but it reads fast with wide spacing and large font. Jack and Nikki are key young protagonists who come of age ~13yrs old, learning new Gifts and making friends as they adventure in "Creepy Hollow" (a parallel world, Narnia-esque). They leave earth to save family members and fantastical creatures from Evila, a cruel witch. All the fantasy creatures are derived from common myths/stories, and the "Creepy" world is appropriately fantastical yet very accessible.
Humor abounds, with three stooge-like goons (Poo, Goo, and Boo) and Dragon Rocks (a.k.a. scat, or poop) playing essential roles. Plenty of righteous motivations drive Jack and Nikki: they protect the weak and confront evil directly. It is fun to see them grow. Some of the bad guys are just too bad to save, but others are open to redemption.
In short, Szabo and Bonadonna make a great pair. Their Creepy Hollow Adventures is a perfect starting point for young children making the leap from "kids books" to "novels.".
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars
Entertaining, Genre-Bending, Satirical Madness:
Hell Hounds is a mashup of genres: Fantasy, Satirical Horror, Historical Fiction, and some Mystery Noir thrown in. Imagine a parallel universe to our reality on earth where the dead “un-live” for an eternity. If they die there, they feel the pain but then reawaken…. sometimes creatively transformed by The Undertaker (i.e., perhaps he’ll remove your testicles and use them handles on a zipper that wraps around your neck!). Goofy, satirical puns laden the map (Paris is Perish, the Eiffel Tower now the Awful Tower, etc.]. Want to read fresh fiction, read Andrew P. Weston’s Daemon Grim series (check out the guide below to begin).
Daemon Grim is the Reaper, Satan’s personal enforcer and chief bounty hunter. He commands the titular Hell Hounds, a band of agents (Nimrod – the rebellious, biblical king, Charlotte Corday – murderess of Marat, Yamato Takeru—a ninjutsu master of the Yamato dynasty, and more ). They ultimately all serve Satan, Father of Lies, who needs them to control Hell from the conniving dead and meddling angels; but Satan is also punishing his servants for their sins, so no one is on good terms.
Underlying tension spans many groups: Satan, Grim & his Hell Hounds, the duo Frederic Chopin and Nikola Telsa (an ingenious duo learning to control the physics & time in Hell), an insane Angel stripped of his Wings (Grislington), and seven angelic Sibitti who are auditing the souls in Hell. At first the combinations of intentions and conflict is downright farcical. Eventually several themes converge, usually about Grim. The last 20% is a blast of a climax which clarifies the chaos. Along the way, Mr. Weston will occasionally slip into dosing out exposition-through-dialogue, which didn’t bother me. Usually this occurs at times the reader will desire a boost in clarity about the abstract conflicts.
There are two primary games occurring. One is the continuing, cat-and-mouse battle between Grim and Chopin/Tesla, who love to leave scavenger-hunt notes at crime scenes. The second is Grim vs. the angels (and perhaps himself &/or Satan); there is a mystery in this series which is slowly being revealed: who “was” Grim before becoming Satan’s strongest champion?
Where to Start:
Hell Hounds is wacky and fun, but is not the beginning. The Heroes in Hell is primarily a series of anthologies; this novel focuses on Grim but has story arcs connected to HIH. Given the breadth of abstract interactions, I recommend initial readers begin with either:
1) Doctors in Hell (HIH #18): Daemon Grim is introduced in this collection, and even though it is #18 in the series, it is a perfect entryway for HIH newcomers.
2) Or…. Hell Bound (Grim novel #1): Daemon Grim’s first novel, occurring chronologically after Doctors, but before Hell Hounds.
3) Or for those who’ve done that, note Grim also appears in Pirates in Hell (“Pieces of Hate”)
“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)