Sunday, December 29, 2019

Offutt's BS: The Black Sorcerer of the Black Castle - Review by SE

The Black Sorcerer of the Black Castle by Andrew J. Offutt
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Black Sorcerer of the Black Castle is Andrew J. Offutt's parody of Sword & Sorcery. The one I read has illustrations from Jim Pitts, introduction by Wayne Warfield (editor), and an afterword by andrew j. offutt (who seldom capitalized his name).

It is intentionally overwritten with excess adjectives, and offutt referred to this as "BS" (short for many things, Black Sorcerer included.) The story has the common tropes of a lone hero fighting ~3 representations of something evil capped with a final confrontation with a malicious wizard. Plenty of silly call-outs to the S&S crowd are within (i.e., the wizard is named Reh after Robert E Howard).

I heard about this via the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads. My goal was further to understand how the use of color was applied in pulp fiction (S&S especially).

The afterword reveals the story's evolution. More importantly, it showed how multiple readers/editors preferred a particular balance of humor and action. In fact, offutt confessed he learned via working with BS of his Great Discovery:
"pornography and heroic fantasy have something much in common: both quite for different reasons, need to create a mood and a spell, and to make it last --and neither, can be overwritten.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Anthology Groupread 2020 - Jan Feb on S&S - Goodreads

Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads

Happy Yuletide, Xmas, etc... and especially Happy New Year.

The next two months are slotted for Anthology reading, the foundation of the S&S genre is formed from short stories... and plenty of new collections are out there. Classic or new, grab one from your TBR pile and join in.

The Jan-Feb 2020 Anthology discussion folder (link)

"What anthologies are people reading?", a list (disguised as a Poll): Link to list/poll, feel welcome to add your vote (or write one in)

The inspirational Image Banner credits (L-R)

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Deep Madness Scenario Guide - Chronology

I just submitted an updated Word file(Version 3) in the BGG Files for Deep Madness (Dec 22, 2019) to accommodate the Faces of the Sphere expansion.

I assume it will be approved soon by the admins.I think Version #3 will appear in place of #2 will appear here:

And the Deep Madness Facebook crew (thanks Phil) actually has a Files section (I just learned) and it has a similar guide:

Rise of Dagon
1: Rite of Bile
Ward Phillips
2: Virulent Whispers
3: Dagon Rising
Pre Core Story
Profundum PDF
(and/or The Faces of the Sphere)
1: Drowning in the Depths

Core Story
Core Story of Deep Madness
1: Crawling Asphyxia

2: Last Shuttle to Hell
3: Bathphobia
4: Through the Looking Glass
5: Madness Within
6: Lost in the Mist
7: The Horror Beneath
8: The Substance of Terror
Middle of Core Story
Oracle’s Betrayal
1: Trimming Virtues
John Murdock
2: Collecting Tissue
3: Lobotomy
True Ending
to Core Story
Uncounted Horrors
1: Another Dawn

Post Core Story
Profundum PDF
(and/or The Faces of the Sphere)
1: Faces of the Sphere

Endless Nightmares
1: Fathoms Dark

2: Fevered Dreams
3: Expectant Terror

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dawn of Madness - Suggested Icon Changes

Dawn of Madness is complex, choose your own adventure/terror game by Diemension Games.

I was fortunate to check out a prototype at GenCon 2019.

The Kickstarter is going on now and draft rules posted.

This posts suggests two changes and enables image-URLs to refer to in the comments.

Since "Concepts" have gone away and many are confused by icons, I suggest the below changes:

1) Simplify Sentience Icons: Eliminate the icons-graphics sentience and just use the colors (no one in the play throughs says them by "name" and no one can read the icons when made tiny on the cards....). Best to eliminate the confusion.  Makes more sense to add a color (sentience) to a graphic to make a domain

2) Simplified Sentience Test Verbage: This can further help declutter the cards...for example the Sentience Testing. No reason to say "test x for y" …. just make the icon bigger (so you can read it) and sow the colored-domain

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tales from the Magician's Skull #3 - Review by SE

S.E rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Rejoice, mortals! I have heard your pleas and returned to grant your greatest desire: More sword-and-sorcery!

Once again I will bring you tales of thrilling adventures in time-lost lands. There are swords, and there is sorcery. There are dark deeds and daring rescues..." -- 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 (and I am making a habit of listening to it). Tales from the Magician's Skull (installments #1 and #2) 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 corresponding RPG elements. This July 2019, the Skull resurfaced with issue #3 and promises of issues #4-6. As a backer and enthusiast of fantasy fiction, I couldn’t be more pleased.

If you missed the Kickstarters, have no worries, you "mortal dogs" (another Skull saying). Behold! Goodman Games and Amazon offer them. Future plans are as follows: "Issue #4 will release in March 2020, and others will follow bi-annually thereafter. Upon reaching issue #666, the Skull will travel to a higher plane and the magazine will end."

Quality: The print quality is great again (the artwork, editing, illustrations, tan-cardstock pulp-feel etc.). The magazine is just fun to hold.

Appendix: The last item in the Table of Contents (below) should be the first to discuss since it is iconic: The Appendix. What a great design idea! To drive home the RPG elements of the stories, Terry Olson once again created items and Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG rules related to each story. This is really cool. Read the stories...then go re-live/play them. I enjoy reading this section each time just to re-imagine the stories (without playing an RPG).

Illustrations: The cover is by master Sanjulián (Manuel Pérez Clemente). Many full-page, detailed illustrations decorate the interior by established artists: Samuel Dillon, Justine Jones, Doug Kovacs, Brad McDevitt, Russ Nicholson (an old-time favorite from Fighting Fantasy), Stefan Poag, Matthew Ray, and Chuck Whelan. There is a short contribution in which Samuel Dillon explains how he created one the frontispiece for "The Second Death of Hanuvar."

intrior illustration by Samuel Dillon

Tales #3: Contents. All six are quality Sword & Sorcery stories, and there is plenty of bonus content like flash fiction, author and illustrator notes, and the appendix of RPG-items. Most stories have some mystery or police-procedural flare; several are serials from the previous Tales magazines; others have characters appearing in other venues. For me, since I am a huge fan of Clark Ashton Smith and poetic/weird adventure (Dunsany), the last story by Sarah Newton was a true highlight.

(1) "Face That Fits His Mask" by William King. King's Kormac is available in a series of anthologies (starts with Stealer of Flesh). Kormac is a hunter of dark creatures with some supernatural abilities of his own. With the aid of a suspicious demon, he goes after a kidnapper to rescue children from an underworld full of rat-men. Even though this is not Warhammer, William King has written for the Black Library and the rat-kin resembles Skaven.

(2) "Tyrant’s Bane" by John C. Hocking. This time our King's Blade (i.e., the king's right-hand man) is sent to find a missing colleague named Viriban—well, sent after his missing corpse. The shady King Flavious wants to know what is going on in the mortuary. Benhus sets out to solve a weird necromantic tale, armed with his Nobleman's Comfort wand of freezing and his master's sword. Yes, this is the third tale of Benhus in as many Tale's magazines. It is really rewarding to see Benhus evolve. From Tales #1: “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest. From the World of the Archivist" thieves were breaking into royal crypts, but not necessarily to steal. Why? The police-like duo of Thratos (mentor Hand of the King sorcerer) and Benhus (young mentee, warrior sorcerer) investigate. And from Tales #2, "Trial by Scarab" showcased the rapid rise of Benhus from being a dexterous student of the military arts … into something better.

(3) "Five Deaths" By James Enge: More S&S police procedurals/mysteries! I recall reading my first Morlock tale in Rogue Blade Entertainment's Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure ("Red Worm's Way"). "Five Deaths" reads as two cops tracking a thief/criminal. Morlock is a thain (servant) to the older Lernaion (a summoner). Both are dwarf-like, with Morlock being a better caver and Lernaion being able to sense the demon's trail. The pair chases a murdering demon in a tale that is more Sorcery than Sword. Morlock's strange optimism balances the seriousness of the adventure well. I laughed out loud when Morlock surmised:
"The sorcerer died for a flippancy?"
Morlock's exploits are in the book Blood of Ambrose, and the first two Tales from the Magician's Skull. From Tales #1 "The Guild of Silent Men : A Story of Morlock Ambrosius", a fantasy-murder mystery fleshed out Thain Morlock's background and motivations. And from Tales #2 "Stolen Witness" the sorcerer investigator overcame his father's legacy in a compelling (pun intended) mystery regarding a stone--a device of sorts that reminded me of Robert E Howard's "The Black Stone" (1931).

(4) "The Forger’s Art" by Violette Malan. A mystery adventure regarding forged art and theft! Dhulyn (finally, a lead female protagonist) and Parno are Mercenary Brothers for hire, but in this case they are also out to avenge a fellow Brother's death. They also appeared in Tales #2: "A Soul’s Second Skin" in which the duo with telepathic skills unraveled a mystery, and accidentally caged themselves in another plane with antagonist magicians.

(5) "Second Death of Hanuvar" by Howard Andrew Jones. Twice as long as any other story herein, this one stands out. Hanuvar (a fictionalized anti-Roman general...could this be an incarnation of Hannibal Barca?) tangles with the Roman-like Dervani who have invaded his homeland. Expect espionage thriller sorties, gladiator battles, and a sorcery-saturated climax that balances all the sword fights prior. Hanuvar appears in Tales #1: "Crypt of Stars, From the Chronicles of Hanuvar Cabera."

(6) "The Wizard of Remembrance" by Sarah Newton. Wow, there are few who can roll out a tale as smoothly as Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith, but Sarah Newton delivers this literary dose with excellence. I admit this was my first experience with her writing and couldn't be happier to discover someone "new" (to me). That's the fun of anthologies and magazines...enjoy the stories and find new authors to track down. Here is an excerpt of her voice:
"So Suven would summon the memnovores, as was his duty, and close his doors and stop his ears to the screams as the demons devoured the thoughts of his women in return for terrible gifts. Later, when the sight of their placid faces, cleansed of all care, became too much to bear, he would bow his own head and submit himself, too, to the ministrations of the memory eaters.

The Empire of Ubliax waxed mighty on the strength of its forgetting, and the savage lands of the Men of Mogor grew smaller each year. No one in the Empire knew how long its glory had endured..."
"By That Much", "Dead Wood", "The Return", and "Duel's End" by Joseph A. McCullough: These flash fiction pieces are sprinkled throughout all feature the grave digger Nick Bury. Full of whimsy and irony. Nice change of pace to complement the longer contributions.

The Appendix by Terry Olson. This is the aforementioned collection of spells, creatures, and magic items for RPG play derived from the stories.

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Arrival - Review by SE

Arrival by Richard Lee Byers
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Lee Byers's Author's Note in Arrival invites the reader to provide feedback regarding the future of The Paladins (the series that Arrival novella kicks off).

Note the book blurb (below) is an excellent synopsis. It combines Lost-World tropes with Sword & Sorcery, as a witch in an alternate realm summons six warriors (five Christian Crusaders and a Muslim/Saracen fighter) that team up to fight an evil force called the Stain.

It reads really fast. This is true to Richard Lee Byer's style who has a long bibliography of fantasy books, many associated with RPG games.

Would I buy Book Two: yes.

What would I want/expect:
- More explanation about the Stain: is it a curse on the land, or some mutagen? I hope for something to show the commonality in all its manifestations: Parchment-men, one-eyed-dogs, sentient mud, mutating children...
- Kolinda's plan (she could have used her six warriors behind enemy lines to her advantage, but she lead them to her homeland, but it is not clear how they are going to help still)
- The continuing reveal of the Muslim (Saracen) Jibril's collusion with the Christian Hospitalers (Ox, Ottoman), and escalating tension between the Hospitaler and the Crusaders (hot-blooded Pierangelo and his more empathetic companions: Gaspard, William)

The author is accessible at conventions (such as GenCon). After meeting Richard Lee Byers, I interviewed him in 2018. Check it out to learn more about his views on Art and Horror.

Official Arrival Book Blurb:
Prophecy said holy warriors would travel from another world to save the Western Kingdoms. The men who showed up were rather different.

The priestess Kolinda risked her life to travel deep into the Stained Lands and cast the summoning in the only place where the ritual could be performed. She believed the magic would bring a fellowship of paladins.

Instead it snatched six warriors from the so-called Holy Land of the Earthly Crusades: Pierangelo the fanatic, Gaspard the pragmatist, William the callow novice, Ottomar the politician, Ox the dullard, and the enigmatic Jibril.
Flawed men with no interest in helping a strange land of pagans solve its problems. Enemies who sought to kill one another only moments before.

Now, however, they must band together to escape a country blighted by the foulest sorcery and stalked by unnatural terrors like the parchment men, the One-Eyed Hounds, and the ice witch Lady Coldbreath. It’s a brittle alliance born of necessity, in danger of shattering at any moment and surely not fated to last should the company be lucky enough to reach the Western Kingdoms alive.

The Paladins: Arrival is the start of a new fantasy epic about swordplay, war, demonic magic and horrors, and, just maybe, second chances and redemption.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Upon the Flight of the Once Queen - Review by SE

A Grim Take on the Holy Grail: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew Jones - Nov 12th 2019 Black Gate

flight-of-the-queen-larger-BGThe Ring-Sworn Trilogy

Howard Andrew Jones’s For the Killing of Kings jumpstarted the epic fantasy Ring Sworn trilogy this February 2019, and the sequel Upon the Flight of the Queen hits shelves next week (November 19th). MacMillan’s St. Martin's Press pitches the series as “The Three Musketeers presented via the style of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.” The pacing is reminiscent of Zelazny since Howard Andrew Jones (HAJ) doles out action and backstory with precision. Yet there are many more than three heroes, and the milieu has more medieval flare than musketry, so it is more “King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table” than Musketeers. For the Killing of Kings is actually a grim take on the consequences of seeking, and finding, a figurative Holy Grail (hearthstones). The Altenerai guard had been spread out over the Five Realms searching for many hearthstones that fuel magic — the enigmatic Queen Leonara deems them holy. Twice I was completely floored by plot twists, and the last third kept me from going to sleep. I haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. Black Gate’s Fletcher Vredenburgh's review should likewise entice new readers.

91fi4aU2QFL#2 Upon the Flight of the Queen

Summarizing a sequel can be tough without spoiling its predecessor, but the following overview will try as it showcases why you should commit to Ring-Sworn. Upon the Flight of the Queen starts off exactly where For the Killing of Kings ends. The adventure begins in high-gear with Alten Rylin assuming his action-thriller role (~James Bond) penetrating the Naor camp disguised in magic, dragging the reader into mayhem.

The primary story arc still focuses on the coming of age of the female squire Elenai, a soldier with burgeoning magic prowess. Her rise in the Altenerai ranks is compelling. On her journey she campaigns with seasoned members who are still reeling from the previous war; their commander was killed, and their Queen Leonara decided to make temporary peace rather than annihilate the barbaric Naor enemies. War rages across the Five Realms of the Dendressi again, but now the Altenerai forces are less prepared, less numerous, and less united. By the end of this sequel, the new war with the Naor reaches a major milestone, and the Queen is confronted by the Altenerai. Upon the Flight of the Queen delivers on all the tension brewed in For the Killing of Kings, and you’ll still be left hungry for a third installment.

Cut-to-the-Chase Style

HAJ applies the same intense momentum from his Sword & Sorcery short fiction into these novels. Even though the Ring-Sworn epic spans a continent with dozens of characters, it propels without any filler. Likewise, despite there being ample political intrigue with the loyal Altenerai have been replaced with secretive Exalts of Queen, the conflict pulls no punches. HAJ simultaneously covers:
  • Remnants of the past war (readers will learn about many of the Altenerai who went MIA previously)
  • The current escalating war across three major fronts (the besieged Alantris, the corrupted Darassus; the lands about Vedessus)
  • An impending cataclysm (meddling with hearthstones unsettles the foundation of the Five Realms).

How Can so Much Ground be Covered so Fast and Smoothly?

The carefully designed milieu enables the efficient storytelling and informs everything: the magic systems, the health of the land, and every character’s motivations. The Naor, the kobalin, the Dendressi… all have cultures, and biology, intimately tied to the Five Realms and the conflicts between them. The Naor and ko’aye fight over nesting lands, the hearthstones obsessed by the Queen literally tap into the land’s substance, and as nature is reshaped, so too are the kobalin’s bodies:
[The Shifting Land] looked as though some mad deity had dropped geometric monoliths upon a distant line of irregular hills. Immense, perfectly square onyx and celadon blocks had embedded in three of the nearer ones, and the slopes were littered with smaller cubes of gray and green.
Storms pass and interact with the land and the creatures who live there—nature and beast share the same chaotic lifeforce:
…the light harshened and the dark, rocky soil under their feet transformed into white sand blazing under a tropic haze. The kobalin crooned, then they themselves began to shift…Qirock’s hands lengthened to claws and the hunched one grew hooves... the orange one thrust new elbow spikes into the soil.

Expect a Diverse Cast, with Contemporary Issues and Comic Relief

Don’t expect dwarves, elves, and such, since HAJ is always motivated to create fresh experiences. The Ring-Sworn has a unique cast of humanoid creatures, like the kobalin Ortok who provides humor as a fierce frenemy: if Ortok respects you, then he’ll challenge you to a duel to the death. Ortok’s banter and social analyses are hilarious. A few of the cast are sexually nonbinary (orientations are not a focus of the story, just low-key matters of fact). The macho Rylin certainly tries to charm more women than he deserves, but he is driven to be chivalrous and his approach to relations matures during the adventure. Gender roles even add tension amongst the masculine Naor ranks. Despite a requisite dose of masculinity (via testosterone-fueled violence), women play a dominant role in the book. In addition to Elenai’s role as lead protagonist, all the governors of the realms are female: Queen Leonara of Darassus, Verena of Vedessuus, and Feolia of Alantris.

Evil Naor

The antagonistic Naor disdain modern sensibilities and civilization. They love to coerce/enthrall dragons to fight on their behalf, they ransack nesting grounds of the ko'aye and harvest blood from hundreds of people to fuel their blood-sorcery (sacrificial “olech” ceremonies). All that just makes them really entertaining, bad guys. While the standard humans are fascinated with hearthstone magic (at the expense of the land’s health), the Naor are thrilled to practice blood magic (at the expense of life):
The rising strands of blood twisted into ropes that quickly shaped a complex framework. Over the course of a few minutes a scaffolding took shape, over which recognizable forms grew distinct: a torso, a head, a mass below that which was flowing and vaguely fishtail-like until it was revealed as the bottom of a robe… long strands of blood hung down either side of the head… Vannek looked upon a sculpture of his oldest brother.

Cover & Map & Trailer

A map was not necessary for the first book, but Upon the Flight of the Queen expands the scope of action across the Five Realms and a map appropriately complements the story. As the Lauren Saint Onge cover indicates, readers will experience aerial battles between dragons and Archaeopteryx-like ko’aye. Darian Jones, son of the author, is a skilled animator and produced the trailer. Fletcher Vredenburgh interviewed Darian Jones and revealed how the trailer was designed and made (including the music), and sheds light on a father-son relationship.

#3 The Goddess Wakes in 2020?

The trilogy is well underway. During the Feb 2019 Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA), I inquired on the release schedule. HAJ returned: “The third book is fully outlined, and I had begun drafting…”. From subsequent correspondence, I learned the working title for Ring Sworn #3 is When the Goddess Wakes (obviously subject to change), with a targeted release in 2020.

Howard Andrew Jones

When not helping run his small family farm or spending time with his amazing wife and children, Howard Andrew Jones can be found hunched over his laptop or notebook, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. His novels include The Chronicles of Sword and Sand (The Desert of Souls, The Waters of Eternity, The Bones of the Old Ones) and several Pathfinders Tales. Jones has worked variously as a TV cameraman, a book editor, a recycling consultant, and a college writing instructor. He assembled and edited 8 collections of Harold Lamb's historicals for the University of Nebraska Press, and served as Managing Editor of Black Gate. He edits the Sword-and-Sorcery magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull, and edits for the Perilous Worlds book imprint.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Barczak 2019

Van's Pig Stand... or Starbucks?

Since 2014, Tom and I have met each November in Norman OK for coffee, and it has always been a blast. Blogging has captured our chats, drawing, and join ups.

Far be it for two writers with similar minds to miscommunicate, but we almost missed our annual connect due to ambiguous messaging.  My agenda included a 6PM connection with OU professors at Van's Pig Stand and (next day) 6AM meeting with Tom... but fate would take him to the BBQ joint in the morning looking for me. 

We overcame the madness, but are now motivated to spice up our routine next year.
2019, S.E. Lindberg and Tom Barczak

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Larvae Cake Day - 2019

In remembrance of all the Larvalwyrmen cursed to never to mature after their eldritch Queen passed, we eat cake! Especially, we eat cupcakes of red velvet, filled with Maraschino cherries, topped with chocolate frosting, white sprinkles and extruded marzipan!

We celebrate just before Halloween, sustaining the tradition sparked last year (follow the link to learn the history and connection to Dyscrasia Fiction).

Cupcakes will be served in the West Chester area tomorrow. Cheers!

Next year, we may try some Dr. Grave Skin Pie's!
Inspired by "The Macabre Art of Baking ‘People Pot Pies’"
 Ashley Newman Photo from  The Macabre Art of Baking ‘People Pot Pies’"

Friday, October 25, 2019

Nov-Dec Groupreads: Classic REH and Fresh HAJ

The 2019 Nov-Dec Groupread poll for the Goodreads Sword and Sorcery Group is finished. Please join us to discuss and/or read!

Masthead illustration credits:
- Justin Sweet illustration of Kull
- Cover artist TBD of Howard Andrew Jones' Ring-Sworn book #1: For the Killing of Kings

(A) with 13 votes: Link to the Classic Robert E. Howard discussion, ie just the real Conan/Kull/Bran (no pastiche).

(B) 10 Votes (with a write-in): Link to discussion folder for Howard Andrew Jones' Ring-Sworn series


The next runner-up with 9 votes was Dyrk Ashton's Paternus and War of Gods books. which will be on our radar in future polls. Note that there is a Kickstarter coming up for that series: 2019 Hard Cover Kickstarter for Dyrk Ashton's War of Gods books -link

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Interview: Making Dark Fantasy Accessible - Carol Berg

This article is simulcast on Black
BergCate_IllusionOfThieves BergCate_2

Let us welcome Carol Berg (and Cate Glass)

Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University, in part so she wouldn't have to write papers. But while earning her mathematics degree, she took every English course that listed novels on the syllabus, just so she would have time to keep reading. Somewhere in the midst of teaching math for a couple of years, raising three sons, earning a second degree in computer science at the University of Colorado, and a software engineering career, a friend teased her into exchanging letters written "in character." Once Carol started writing fiction, she couldn't stop. Carol's fifteen epic fantasy novels have earned national and international acclaim, including the Geffen Award, the Prism Award, multiple Colorado Book Awards, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She has been twice voted the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year. Carol's newest work, written as her alter ego Cate Glass, is a fantasy adventure series called Chimera about a rag-tag quartet of sorcerers who take on missions of deception and intrigue in a world where magic earns the death penalty. The first book, An Illusion of Thieves, was released in May 2019 by Tor Books (A Conjuring of Assassins is due out Feb 2020). Carol lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her Exceptional Spouse. She routinely attends conventions and was recently a special guest at the 2019 GenCon Writer’s Symposium. Carol Berg makes dark fantasy fun and accessible, a perfect candidate for our interviews on “Art & Beauty in Weird Fantasy” (see previous interviews listed below). Most authors who produce horror/fantasy are (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven by strange muses. Let’s tap the mind(s) of Carol Berg and Cate Glass.

Your epic fantasy is infused with grim reality — it is not simple good-vs-evil fantasy, nor is it over-the-top grimdark. How would you describe your style?

Yes, I would call most of my work dark fantasy — reflecting that grim and gritty reality you mentioned — and epic, because the stories deal with world shaking events. But my stories are told through a very personal lens. To me, when I am looking at these great events through the eyes and mind of a real, complex human (or almost human) being – someone I want to spend several years with -- I can always find threads of hope and light through the story and especially at the end of it all. I begin with heroes or heroines who have plenty of reason for angst—enslaved, exiled, a failure, entire extended family massacred, father a convicted murderer, or just released from a horrific, seventeen-year imprisonment. But for this individual to feel real to me, there has to be more than angst. Dark secrets, a dark side, or grudges are fine, but I want to interweave that with lots of other human characteristics: wit or humor, a soaring intellect or an inability to read, curiosity or superstitions, maybe phobias or maybe a truly romantic view of the world. Weird family histories are fun to incorporate. I enjoy protagonists who have interior conflicts: oath-sworn warriors driven by compassion, intellectuals with a penchant for violence, necromancers whose magic is based on an understanding of the natural world. A sorcerer might embrace magic with all its possibilities and find that the restrictions on his life are worth the wonders he can work. But other sorcerers might despise and detest the power that lives in them, and feel that those restrictions are “slavery with golden chains.” Some would-be sorcerers just can’t find their way to the magic they just know lives inside them. Sometimes the most “magical” character who fires a plot is the one who has no extraordinary power at all, but rather the personal characteristics to marshal the talents of those around them who do. I like to confront interesting, creative people like artists, singers, or librarians with events that stretch their abilities as well as push them into a life outside of their imagining. And every character must have the capacity to change. It’s up to me to figure out how to make them do that. Through events, through difficulties, through other real people who show up in the story. Around these complex characters, I aim for complexity in the world — many intersecting threads that have created the status quo — often with conflicting stakes that are not necessarily apparent to begin with, but ratchet with the action. Those ratcheting stakes need to be significant, not just for the world, but to the characters themselves. And in answer to the common queries: neither characters nor world are fully defined before I start writing, though the characters always are the seed of the story. Oftentimes I know just enough of the world to start writing. Both characters and story evolve as I go.
Berg-a-HeavenTree SongOfTheBeast

Any professional tips for maintaining a good balance of tension? How can you brutalize protagonists while keeping appeal to wide audiences?

I can definitely be tough on my characters — mostly my protagonists. I put strong people in impossible situations, which means they have to go through some very dark times in order to see and understand and accept what has to be done to fix the problems I’ve set them. Sometimes that means changing themselves in ways they detest. I like to think that through these very gritty events, they are able to find a path of grace that leads to a hopeful — if not perfect — resolution. Writing those difficult situations is a perpetual teeter-totter. Some people think I chicken out. Some readers think I go too far. Some tell me that they had to take a break when Lucian went through his prison ordeal in Dust and Light or when Seyonne got trapped in the daemon dungeons of Kir’Vagonoth in Revelation. But I believe that epic events must impact people in lasting ways, and that it takes a great deal to make strong and stubborn people change. These are the fires that temper the blade… or ruin it. A few personal rules of thumb in what I put on the page:
  • I try not to minimize terrible truths of human history like slavery, war, or fanaticism. That being said, there are certain lines I will not cross and places I will not go in the events of my stories, especially with regard to children and to sexual violence.
  • When violence or brutality is necessary to the story, I try to show results — both physical and emotional — more than graphic details. I also try to portray the cost of violence, both to the subject and the perpetrator (if this perpetrator is a significant actor in the story).
Sociopaths or psychopaths or people driven solely by revenge don’t interest me all that much. Over the years I’ve found that villainous people are much more interesting if they have complex motives (sorry Sauron), some of which I – or my protagonist – might actually support. With some I like to imagine that with some small difference in experience or human intervention, that person might have turned out to be a good person. One of the best villains I have ever read comes from a story called The Heaven Tree by Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles). The Heaven Tree is a trilogy of historical novels set in twelfth-century Wales. The noble named Isambard is one of the most black-hearted villains you will ever find — a very cruel and personal villain — and yet, by the end of those books you might find yourself weeping for him. How did the writer DO that? I am still striving to be that kind of writer!

As an engineer by training, you must be concerned about mass, heat, or energy balances. Is magic a conserved quantity for you (or is it a boundless source)?

First off, just to be clear, I was a software engineer, much more concerned with logic, languages, and software processes than with thermodynamics or mechanical processes! But my engineering background did indeed make me want to deal with technical issues correctly. You will never see any of my characters hauling about bags of gold as if they are bags of wheat a la Treasure of the Sierra Madre (that much gold would have collapsed the horses!) In the same way, in the Books of the Rai-kirah, when I was dealing with shapeshifting, I wanted to get the mass/energy balance right. Thus when a certain cursed person changes from a man to a lion, all the heat is sucked out of the vicinity. When he changes back, he is the one left shivering while the room warms up. As for magic, each of my worlds (the Rai-kirah books, the Navronne books, the D’Arnath books, the Collegia Magica books, Song of the Beast, and the Cate Glass Chimera books) has a different magic system. Sometimes magic derives from the individual’s blood, sometimes from genetic heritage, sometimes from magic infused into the land by actions of semi-divine beings. Sometimes from a combination of those things. In one series, the actual magic resides in objects in the natural world, while the power to use it and shape it comes from the individual sorcerer’s strength of will and clarity of insight. In all cases, however, I do impose limits on a sorcerer’s ability to make use of magic. That might correspond to physical or mental exhaustion that can be restored by eating, drinking, rest, or an infusion of hope or faith. Sometimes a sorcerer’s expenditure of power has to be renewed by particular actions that this person has learned to replenish the gift. So, in essence, yes. And no.
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Protagonists empowered with taboo-sorcery seem central across your varied worlds: i.e., Romy (Illusion of Thieves in Chimera); Seyonne (Transformation in Books of the Rai-kirah); Karon (Son of Avonar in The Bridge of D'Arnath); Lucian (Dust and Light in Sanctuary Duet). Can you shed light on forbidden magic and your sympathetic muse toward sorcery?

I must preface this answer with one of my mantras: Trope is not a dirty word. Literary tropes are stories, themes, or plot devices that have become embedded in our human DNA throughout millennia of storytelling. The Romeo and Juliet story, for example, or “the common man drawn into great events” story. Among plot elements you would find the unknown twin or the evil step-sibling or the alcoholic ex-cop private eye. Certain stories or plot elements become tropes because they engage and satisfy us on an emotional level. What differentiates a trope from a cliché is the treatment — the originality that comes from unique characters, settings, motivations, and plot twists. West Side Story is a retelling of the R&J tragic love story — one of thousands — but its reimagining is wonderful on its own. There are hundreds of fantasy tropes, whole websites devoted to listing them. Taboo sorcery is definitely one, and it’s one that speaks to me, I think because of the challenge of possessing a skill so awesome and marvelous, in a world that forces you to cripple yourself or die. It builds in major conflict and tension that I can use as a superstructure for all sorts of other conflicts. And the circumstances and origins of the prohibition are fodder for many interesting plot twists. In each of the cases you mention above, the prohibition arises from entirely different circumstances and plays an entirely different role in the overall plot.

Isolation is another theme, with your protagonists being torn from their communities either enslaved, outcast, or exiled. Does this reflect your own fears?

Thank goodness I’ve never had to face these challenges in my own life as so many have throughout history and still do in present day. But isolation can be a very powerful torment, especially when one’s heart is entirely rooted in strong, positive bonds to that community, as with Lucian de Remini and his family in the Sanctuary books or when one’s whole identity is rooted in a cultural mandate that protects an unknowing world, as happens with one of my protagonists. Even when that isolation is voluntary, as with the runaway rogue, Valen de Cartamandua-Celestine, an extrovert party guy who comes to the realization that he has never truly had a friend. But as I said earlier, I look for circumstances that force my characters to see the world in an entirely different way. Often we can’t do that unless the comfortable buffers of family, culture, or belief are ripped away. It is my task as a fiction writer to learn how this (or any other challenge) might affect the human person I am trying to create, and to share those effects on the page. Another subject I find myself returning to is the nature of memory. Does it live in our physical body or is it something that can be removed or shared or replaced? One reason I love writing fantasy is the opportunity to explore that kind of what ifs. The answers one finds in Ash and Silver (in the Sanctuary Duet) are something very different from those one finds in Guardians of the Keep (in The Bridge of D'Arnath).

Do you practice other arts (drawing, music, etc.)? What other types of art inspire you?

Alas, my nattering on the piano fell victim to the writing passion along with gardening, needlepoint, furniture refinishing, and a handful of other sidelines to day job and family. Eventually the day job went away, too. But I’ve always drawn inspiration from music of many kinds. I grew up with classical music, especially wonderfully emotional varieties like Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tschaikovsky and Dvorak. And though my “regular life” has been filled with everything from the Doors to Dylan to Alison Krauss to Miles Davis, those are not writing related. I can’t listen to symphonic music, jazz, rock, or much of anything with English words, because those demand attention. But sometimes I find a particular set of tracks that puts me right in the imagination groove for a particular series. With the Navronne books, it was medieval chant that put me right into Gillarine Abbey, as well as secular court music from the courts of Malta, the Seattle Medieval Women’s choir, and Project Ars Nova. For the Collegia Magica books it was 17th-century music from France and Loreena McKennitt. Somehow with the Chimera books, it is the soundtrack from Blood Diamond and the evocative moody background music to the video game Braid that I pull up when I need to go deep.
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You’ve had several well-known cover artists (Luis Royo, Matt Stawicki, and most recently Google Doodler Alyssa Winans) depict your characters & worlds employing very different styles. Did you get a chance to guide cover art?

Sadly (in some cases) and fortunately (in other cases) I have had very little say in my cover art. Publishers are notoriously reluctant to leave marketing considerations in the hands of authors – and covers are totally marketing. Some of my covers have been gorgeous. Even the ones I most regret were well executed. I totally admire anyone who has visual art skills and can come up with an excellent cover design, and the marketing aspect often escapes me entirely. I live in horror of having to tell an artist what I want. I just know what I like when I see it.

After establishing fifteen books over two decades, your alter ego emerged: Cate Glass. Why the pseudonym now?

In short: new publisher, new type of story. The Books of the Chimera are episodic adventures with continuing threads, rather than a single epic story told in multi-volume set. After we signed the contract for the Chimera books, the publisher asked if I would consider a pseudonym. It gave them the opportunity to promote the Chimera as a debut for industry purposes such as expanding my audience, while leaving the identity open (not a secret), so my current readers could find me. Their proposal made sense and I agreed. Hopefully, Carol Berg will be bringing more stories to life along the way as well.
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Let’s discuss a character who is an artist too: Lucian de Remeni-Masson (Dust and Light and Ash and Silver). Can you describe how he sketches souls?

Lucian is specifically a portrait artist. At a sitting, Lucian observes his subject—not only physiognomy, but movements, attitudes, speech, posture, and emotions. He begins sketching on paper — line, light, and shadow — while simultaneously building the person’s image in his mind. As he works, he uses these sensory connections with the subject to ignite his magic, which shifts that image in his head into what he calls a true image that will linger in his mind for a very long time. In turn, this true image guides his fingers to refine the sketch into a full portrait. By the time he is finished with the portrait, his magic has imbued that portrait with truth, so that it can be used to identify that person inerrantly. Of course, sometimes people don’t want to see the truth of themselves. Uh oh. When Lucian is contracted to draw portraits of the dead so that they can be identified, the only sensory connections he can make with his subject are those of his eyes and his hand. He has to dig deeper into himself and the magic to create that internal image that enables him to draw truth. And the results are very interesting.

Do you find any fiction beautiful? If so, what made it so?

Absolutely. In fact, I would call most of my all-time favorite books beautiful. Example? Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer. The vivid, believable characters. The language that creates perfectly individual voices for the protagonists, as well as creating the real world version of a fairy tale. The books draws you into the emotional nuances of a man cursed to answer any question with the truth — not a simple prospect at all, because sometimes we tell lies in order to give comfort, or we avoid or obfuscate to protect the questioner. True Thomas doesn’t have that luxury. For something completely different… I thought Christina Henry’s Alice was beautiful fiction. A fractured world from the viewpoint of a woman who wakes up in a mental hospital, and a fantastic, sometimes grotesque city can be beautiful in the way a painting by Mondrian or Hieronymous Bosch can be as beautiful as a Renoir. Again it was the way the author used language and nuance to create the vivid characters of Alice and her Hatter, and an adventure you were never quite certain was real. But a book doesn’t have to be a fairytale retelling in order to be beautiful. Dick Francis’s mysteries are beautiful in the way he could take three sentences to evoke the feeling of Cheltenham Racetrack on the damp, cool afternoon of the biggest horse race of the year. Three more will tell you everything you need to know about his latest detective. And then you are off on a non-stop adventure. It’s all magic.
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You’ve obviously mastered first-person perspective. Is that your natural voice or a strategic choice?

I wrote for a number of years for my own enjoyment before imagining anyone would ever be interested in reading any of it. My first few attempts were in first -person because they grew from a series of letters a friend and I were writing to each other in character. That was fun (and some very awful writing no one will ever see). Once that was finished, I started something new, this time in third-person. It took me a while trying to figure out why the new story just wasn’t working in the way the admittedly awkward first books did. One problem was that I felt like the story was taking place at arm’s length. So I tried switching to first-person – essentially went through and replaced “she” with “I” and so forth. What resulted was ridiculous. The narrative was stiff as a board. It was at that point that I realized that almost every one of my favorite books—whether fantasy, mystery, historical, or spy thriller — was written in the first-person. First-person just came more naturally, especially as my writing matured and I figured out how to go deeper into my characters. Turned out that the kind of stories I wanted to write were all told through this personal lens, and first-person just fits.

You describe your writing process as being “organic” (not a pantser per se). What does that mean?

To me, the word “pantser” implies that you sit down with a blank page with no end in mind except the end of the book. Instead of that, I start with a seed: a character, a setting, and a destination in mind. I need to get the slave back to the prince’s house. I need to get Portier into the king’s service to investigate a murder. I need Anne to see where her sister was found dead. Whatever. Then I start writing. As I write I set the event in motion and think – at that moment – how does this character react to this event? What does that reaction tell me about that character? Who else is there and why? As I write the scene, I decide what else I need to include in this setting to make the scene more sensory. More vivid. And then, how do those details inform the world that includes the setting? Etc. Etc. That isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. That is growing new things from known things.

The sequel to An Illusion of Thieves, A Conjuring of Assassins, is due out Feb 2020. What illusions can we expect?

Each of my little cadre of sorcerer/spies has a unique talent. Because sorcery has been mostly exterminated in the Costa Drago, they’ve no idea of the possibilities or varieties of magic in the world. It’s also very dangerous to experiment. But in the short timespan since the events of Illusion, they’ve tried a few things. Rather than channeling their power through the particular shape of their talents, they’ve had some success drawing on the raw power itself to do a few things. Sort of like using white gas to start your campfire or to clean the sap off your boots, rather than simply pumping it through the campstove for a single purpose. This enables the possibility of everyone pouring their “white gas” into the single purpose…. hmmm, does that work? The biggest revelation comes though when they encounter someone who is talented in entirely different ways. Any more would be telling!

Previous Black Gate interviews on “Art & Beauty in Weird Fantasy”:

S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist by day. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword & Sorcery genre, spurs him to write adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors (under the banner “Dyscrasia Fiction”). With Perseid Press, he writes weird tales in the same vein (Heroika and Heroes in Hell series). He co-moderates the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads, and invites all to participate. He enjoys studying Aikido and creates all sorts of fine art in the family workshop. Touch base via Face