S.E. Lindberg rating: 5 of 5 stars
An anthology of dark adventure; highly recommended.
Epic Content: Sub-genre purists would clarify that the inclusion of “Epic” in the title inappropriately evokes long-winded, 2000page fantasy sagas; this anthology does feature 20 items of epic qualities, but these are discontinuous, compact doses of horror adventure (weird, pulp fiction). Most poems and tales were published previously. A table below sorts the order of presentation vs. publication and serves as a tour-guide for adventurous readers. The contents are organized well if you decide to tackle this linearly; a timely intermission of three humorous tales appears two-thirds the way through. After that, a few more doses of dark Sword & Sorcery leads into the final poem, an appropriate, haunting dedication to Robert E. Howard.
Author: Charles Allen Gramlich is a college professor of psychology (also teaching “writing for psychologists”); he extends his passion for teaching writing into the speculative fiction arena too (i.e. see Write with Fire: Thoughts on the Craft of Writing). He is also a scholar of the Sword & Sorcery genre, having been a member of REHupa (Robert E. Howard United Press Association). Personal annotations transition many of the tales/poems in Bitter Steel. These almost recast the anthology as a bibliography/teaching-text for future authors. As an example: the theme of lost fathers and sons is persistent throughout, and Gramlich confesses in his tour-like annotations that this stems from his losing his father as a teenager.
Emotive Style: The author’s psychology expertise enables him to his infuse his prose with emotive flare. This sometimes manifests in characterization, but more often affects his poetic tone (best represented by excerpts, like the ones below). Although he claims to have been inspired primarily by Howard and Wagner, he appears influenced by Clark Ashton Smith too. I was first introduced to Gramlich via his short story Harvest of War (highly recommended), which shares the style here: poetic cadence, with dark content, a fast read despite its depth.
In this collection, protagonists range from barbarian warriors, to anti-hero kings, to pathetic necromancers. Side characters are far from being shallow, many being deformed or mutilated with plenty of their own motivations. The Thal Kyrin yarn (6 tales) is a highlight. Thal adventures on Thanos, a version of Earth long after an alien race colonized it. No worries fantasy fans, this is not sci-fi. The foundation is obscure and mysterious, reminiscent of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Here are some examples:
Undertones of Cosmic Horror
Cloudy tears of darkness began to pour from the eyeless face of the moon, and the normal white light of that orb began to shimmer and alter, from pearl, to gray, to bloody red. And when it was all red, the color poured out into the surrounding clouds, igniting crimson lightning that cracked wide the night. The people in the tiers, the shades of Karillon, gasped and fell to their knees, hiding their faces as their God began to materialize out of the storm. Wings unfolded from tattered cumulus streamers; eyes blinked open with thunder. In another moment, bladed talons extended beneath the mass and the shape of a giant raptor was born.Poetic, Grim Prose:
In the bitter twilight of frost-rimmed peaks, Thal dreamed, the visions crimson with gore. War-horses frothed at their bits, eyes rolling like bloody pearls. Men in bruised armor and torn silks of umber and white hacked each other into ragged scarecrows. Arrows sleeted the sky like sharpened flakes of ice. When it was over the ravens gathered, scarcely moving as Thal rode among them searching. He found [spoiler]’s head on a stake.A Whisper From a Muse: More Thal?
Many know that REH was inspired to write Conan as if the barbarian was literary standing behind him, encouraging him to chronicle his tales. Gramlich was similarly inspired by the muse of Thal Kyrin. He does not apologize for discontinuities between the tales, but instead employs his annotations to spur our imaginations. Bitter Steel was released in 2010, and readers have yet to see more Thal in print. However, just this year (2013) Gramlich published "A Whisper in Ashes" (on Heroic Fantasy Quarterly e-zine) another accessible, poetic adventure inspired by Wager and Howard. Personally…I suspect the nameless warrior Krieg from Whisper in Ashes is actually Thal wandering, chasing ghosts and abandoned pyres. In any event, Bitter Steel is a great anthology.
Table of Contents:
Item Title Category First Published
1 “Recompense Reprise” Poem Niteblade, 2008
2 “A Gathering of Ravens” Standalone Tale: female lead Deep South Writers Conference: The Chapbook, 1991
3 “The Horns of the Air” Poem Deep South Writers Conference: The Chapbook, 1990
4 “Of Sake and Swords” Prose Poem Warrior Poets, 1997
5 “You Were There” Poem Bitter Steel, 2010
6 “Dark Wind” Thal Kyrin -1 Welcome to Suburbia, 2007.
7 “In the Memory of Ruins” Thal Kyrin -2 Shadow Sword, 1996.
8 “Wine and Swords” Thal Kyrin -3 Shadow Sword, 1997.
9 “Coin and Steel” Thal Kyrin -4 Bitter Steel, 2010
10 The Evening Rider Thal Kyrin -5 Shadow Sword, 1995.
11 “Sword of Dreams” Thal Kyrin -6 Fantastic Realms, 1992
12 “Smoke in the Blood” Poem Warrior Poets, 1997.
13 “Worms in the Earth: Barbarian’s Bane” Humorous Adventure Dragonlaugh, 2001
14 “Mirthgar” Humorous Adventure Strange Worlds of Lunacy, 2008
15 “Slugger’s Holiday” Humorous Adventure Beacons of Tomorrow, 2006.
16 “Luck and Swords” Standalone Tale Classic Pulp Fiction Stories, 1999.
17 “Sundered Man” Standalone Tale Bitter Steel, 2010
18 “A Flock of Swords” Standalone Tale Warrior Poets, 2000
19 “In Cold Desert Light” Poem The Barsoom Poet’s Corner, 1997.
20 “Cross Plains Conjure Man” Poem Star*Line, 2001
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