Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues by J.M. Martin
S.E. Lindberg rating: 5 of 5 stars
Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues is Highly Recommended Dark Fantasy:: This collection is largely Dark Fantasy. As the subtitle says, this not just about Assassins--there are plenty similar lawbreakers featured: Thieves, Smugglers, and Mercenaries. As J.M. Martin clarifies in his introduction:
"Blackguard, by the way, is actually pronounced ‘blaggard,’ as in haggard. The term seemingly originated from scullions and kitchen-knaves, in particular those in courtly caravans who were in charge of the pots, pans, utensils, and the conveyance of coal … one could extrapolate that a ‘blaggard’—also ‘blagger’ in some texts—is a ‘rag-tag deceiver with grandiloquent habits.’"
Crowdfunded Gateway: Anthologies often function as a way to speed-date authors. Want to get acquainted with those who write about a theme you crave? Then find a thematic anthology and shop around! The Sword & Sorcery genre spawned from short stories; for many decades anthologies needed no classification. But in the last few decades, within the dark fantasy genre associated with S&S, there has been a move toward themes—which is great (i.e., Rogue Blade Entertainment’s Rage of the Behemoth and Heroika 1: Dragon Eaters come to mind). Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues provides a whopping 27 stories—24 of which are linked to established series. The “Roll-Credits” section in the end is designed to link readers to the authors they just liked. Classy. This book was launched via Kickstarter and Ragnarok Publications delivered a solid product. Me? I was just a Bung Nippers level supporter, but am still part of the band wagon and proud to be acknowledge in the contributor section.
Variety: A menu of 27 entries starts off with ~4 female protagonists, which was unexpected and enjoyable. The range of characters and milieu is truly broad. There is surprisingly little redundancy. As mentioned above, the Sword & Sorcery genre was influential: Michael J. Sullivan and Paul Kemp offer duos reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar “Fafred and Mouser”; and Jon Sprunkseemed to write a pastiche/fan-fiction of Glen Cook’s The Black Company.
Many are tales of betrayal and grim situations; the most impactful was Peter Orullian ’s "A Length of Cherrywood" which was uber-dark, but very well written--this story is one you’ll enjoy reading once, and then never again. Not all these are grim. There are several comedic entries, the funniest for me wasRichard Lee Byers’s "Troll Trouble" which had me laughing out loud. There are several others that have the protagonist as savior/hero, or the target of blackguards; Kenny Soward’s "Jancy's Justice” was one such which also offered a bit of steampunk/gnome technology. The last several entries really cast the net: James Enge casts Odysseus as a blackguard, Lian Hearn provides some Japanese inspired darkness, Snorri Kristjansson offers Viking flare, andAnton Strout brings a psychic- sorcery into contemporary art crime.
Personal Favorites: S.R. Cambridge’s "The Betyár and the Magus" blends magic into western-European history—great characters and setting. Equally entertaining & well written was Shawn Speakman’s dose of druidic/Celtic lore; his "The White Rose Thief" made me aware of “Rosenwyn Whyte” a musician with a dark past which I am anxious to read more about. Tim Marquitz ’s "A Taste of Agony" got me intrigued about the “outlaw, eunuch assassin Gryl”, even though the story’s mission was obscure. Anthony Ryan’s "The Lord Collector" offered it all—an intriguing world of assassins, dark magic, and interesting characters.
Art: The cover art by Arman Akopian is nicely done and representative on the book’s contents (yes, there are plenty of female protagonists). Interior art for each of the stories is bonus flare, well done by artists Orion Zangara andOksana Dmitrienko