Sunday, February 24, 2019

For the Killing of Kings - Review by SE

For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.
I shall use my arms to shield the weak.
I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to see it.
I shall use my hands to mete justice to high and low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.
Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.
When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and sisters, for I am eternal
-- Pledge of the Altenerai

Howard Andrew Jones’s For the Killing of Kings is highly recommended for epic fantasy fans. Twice in the first half, I was completely floored by plot twists. The last third kept me from going to sleep. Haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. This jumpstarts The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, a wild & fresh & furious epic.

Pitched as The Three Musketeers presented via the style of Zelzany’s Chronicles of Amber, it holds true. Indeed, the epic pacing is reminiscent of Zelzany; HAJ doles out action and backstory with precision. Since there are many more than three “musketeers” here, and it has more of a medieval flare, one could argue it is more of a “King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table” mashup. Instead of a singular Holy Grail, the Altenerai guard are spread out searching for many hearthstones of mysterious, spiritual, power—in this case, stones are not clearly holy.

The key story arc focuses on the coming of age of the female squire Elenai, a soldier with burgeoning magic prowess. Her rise in the Altenerai (the Queen’s guard) is compelling. On her journey she mingles with the older members who still reel from the ambiguous ending of a war seven years prior; their commander was killed, and their Queen Leonara decided to make peace rather than annihilate the barbaric Naor enemies. The Queen spread the ranks out searching for hearthstones, and distanced herself from Altenerai traditions.

I list some of my favorite elements (Re-ordered and slightly disguised to avoid spoilers): a spellcasting system that linked nature to people (hearthstones); a sculptured horse worthy of Frazetta’s Death Dealer (or a woman of the similar ilk); a humanoid made of blood; a spooky ghost-town/village; the hidden content within the Chasm Tower; an unexpected, swift betrayal.

Humor: the expected banter between friends on the front line is well-delivered. Also, there are humorous cultures like the kobalin which are honor-driven furballs (reminded me of a matured, and more belligerent, Gurgi from Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain series)—if they like you, they want to kill you.

A diverse cast feels genuine and fresh. Despite a requisite dose of masculinity (via violence and “charmers”), women play a dominant role in the book; to wit, Queen Leonara rules over the city of Darassus, and Feolia is governor of Alantris. Elenai mingles with the disenfranchised Altenerai as she matures. The group listed below is ~50% female; a few in the group are sexually nonbinary (orientations are not a focus of the story, just low-key truths, matters of fact).
1. Asrahn (m): Master of Squires, veteran
2. Elenai (f): Young squire under Asrahn
3. N’lahr (m): Entombed Swordsman and war strategist; his sword Irion is part of a prophecy
4. Kyrkenall (m): Archer and mad poet; best buddy to N’lahr
5. Denaven (m): Veteran like Asrahn
6. Varama (f): Weapon’s specialists and scientist, emotionally cold (reminded me of a Star Trek Vulcan)
7. Rylin: (m) James-Bond-like, charming specialist
8. Cerai: (f) Hearthstone seeking sorceress with artistic flare
9. Rialla (f): Spellcaster and forger of weapons
10. Belahn (m): An aged crazy, protector of families
11. Decrin (m): Veteran
12. Aradel: (f) Archaeopteryx (ko’aye) riding, retired member
13. Kalandra: (f) MIA sorceress, searching for hearthstone and their origin
14. Renik: (m) also MIA, swordsman looking for hearthstones and their origin, may have heeded to a strange garden in Ekhem

A map was not necessary, but would have been appreciated.

The role of the sword Irion in the plot is fantastic. It is a fun weapon to see in action. It certainly was fated to complete a mission instead of being locked up in a display case after a stalled war. However, the hope/myth behind its potential is referred to as “prophecy” which (a) seemed like a misnomer and (b) introduced a fantasy cliché. In a book in which many dozens of story arcs are interwoven, each having believable motivations/consequences, posing a fate-driven prophecy felt out of place. The prophecy seemed to originate in a relatively private setting in an impromptu ritual (not a public discourse or professed openly) and there was some mystery about its invocation (where did the inspiration come from to link the weapon to a particular individual).

More from HAJ:
The trilogy is well underway. During the Feb 2019 Ask Me Anything (AMA) on reddit, I inquired on the release schedule. HAJ returned: “First, rest assured. Not only is the second book written, it's going through final revisions right now… The third book is fully outlined and I had begun drafting…”

Howard A. Jones has long held a passion for action fiction and throughout his career has re-introduced readers to Harold Lamb, moderated Sword and Sorcery websites, and edited the Dark Fantasy magazine Blackgate and currently Tales from the Magician’s Skull & Perilous Worlds.

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mar Apr Groupreads - Haggard's Eric Brighteyes and Hocking's Emerald Lotus

The Sword and Sorcery Group on Goodreads
invites you to the Mar Apr 2019 groupreads

 (two topics, two months; click on links to the discussions):

(1) Haggard's Eric Brighteyes

(2) Conan and the Emerald Lotus - by John C Hocking

Banner Credits

- 1978 unknown/uncredited artist for the H. Rider Haggard book "Eric Brighteyes"
- 1999 Ken Kelly, Cover for "Conan and the Emerald Lotus" by John C. Hocking

Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking the 1995 pastiche which has a 2019 sequel (of sorts) with a serialized novelette in Marvel's Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #1(penned by John C Hocking, included as a parallel story with the comic). That series started release this year in January and continues!

Sword and Sorcery in 1891!; Indeed, Eric Brighteyes was written then by H. Rider Haggard, also known for:
She: A History of Adventure and Ayesha: The Return of She
King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain

BTW, DMR books recent blog post on Haggard

interior illustrations by Lancelot Speed, 1891; that link shows many, and here are two:
"Eric and Skallagrim boarding the Raven" // "All Night Long Gudura Sat in the Bride's Seat"
descriptionLancelot Speed's image All Night 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan #1 (2019) Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1 by Gerry Duggan
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is part one of three separate reboots for Marvel's Conan. I am also reading the Conan the Barbarian yarns (CtB, now on #3), and will likely try out the Age of Conan series (AoC, due out next month, March 2019).

Like the CtB series, this comic also has a novelette attached; this one also appears unrelated to the story in the comic. This one is penned by Scott Oden. For me, this story is less an add-on and more of the real feature. It is presented as a sequel to Robert E. Howard's 1934 The Devil in Iron, a short story that presents Conan as a leader of a kozak group who annoys a corrupt governor from Turan. I was instantly inspired to re-read it. That is a testimony to Oden's pastiche which deftly continues the tale without explicitly presenting the barbarian.

The comic part had some highs and lows. Here Conan is ostensibly twenty years old, living as a pirate. In a disjointed tale, he is captured in the high seas from wreckage, imprisoned, then must fight for freedom from a Stygian galley. I was most impressed with Conan when he... hmmm.. "procures" some bones to unlock his manacles. That was a savage and witty scene, true to Conan. I was less impressed with a kick-to-the-groin and an anachronistic depiction of a gun on a pirate (noted by several Facebook groups). Monsters and sorcery sneak their way in, but not smoothly. As cool as the cover is, it only tangentially reflects the story.

Beware Marvel's ADHD: I was concerned about the frenetic coverage of location and times within CtB, and that concern is amplified here with SSoC. This introduces two new story yarns in parallel. Let us assume that the AoC has a story too... that would mean that Marvel is giving readers ~6 separate Conan yarns nearly simultaneously; within the comics, Conan seems to be flitting about new geographies every issue.

Review of CtB No.3,
Review of CtB No. 2,
Review of CtB No.1

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Conan the Barbarian #3 - Review By SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #3 by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #3: In this third installment, we have Conan at a third location and adventure. We also have a third installment of John C. Hocking's "Black Starlight" novelette, itself an entirely different story taking place somewhere near Stygia. More on Marvel's ADHD issue below.

No.3 pays homage to Conan being crucified on a giant tree. Previous classic scenes include:
1) The "Tree of Death", in the second chapter in A Witch Shall Be Born (Weird Tales, 1934)… in Khauran (Koth, Zamora, Shem surround this small country)
2) The "Tree of Woe" from the Conan the Barbarian 1982 movie) occurring in … Eastern Lands, sentenced by Thulsa Doom

Here in Conan #3 2019, he is in Nemedia, in then mining town region, hung up to die on the giant, ancient Red Tree (on Red Tree Hill), sentenced for thieving

Most of the story emphasizes Conan's unique abilities (huge size, quick thinking) to work his way out of a terrible fate; a chance, and unnecessary, lightning strike detracted from Conan’s ability to solve his own problems. The primary antagonist introduced in #1 was the Crimson Witch and her minion children; they appear again, this time for 2 pages (in No.2 it was ~1page). I'm hoping No.4 allots them more emphasis.

On the Black Starlight front, John C. Hocking dishes out another chunk of Conan and his mysterious travels to Stygia with the emerald lotus. This story starts to take shape now, so I am interested in seeing what his mission/goal is really about.

Marvel's ADHD: Marvel's Conan the Barbarian is done well, but with the frenetic coverage of location and times in just three installments, plus a disconnected story attached, the apparent lack of focus is a concern.

But wait there is more! Marvel is releasing two more Conan comics, very soon to overlap with this series:
2) The Savage Sword of Conan
3) AND... The Age of Conan
- AND there is another pastiche novelette to be placed in The Savage Sword (penned by Scott Oden).
- Let us assume that The Age of Conan has a story too... that would mean that Marvel is giving readers ~6 separate Conan yarns nearly simultaneously, the first two of which is jumping across geographies and time. I only hope that there is some sort of coherent theme across these.

Review of No. 2,
Review of No.1

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

Twilight Echoes #1 Review by S.E.

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Carnelian Press ‘s Twilight Echoes #1 Steve Dilks brings together three 2013 tales (by Charles Allen Gramlich, Davide Mana, Steve Lines) anchored by a relatively obscure Robert E. Howard adventure. It’s a sixty-seven page pamphlet nicely illustrated; the cover is drawn by veteran Jim Pitts, with interior illustrations by Regis Moulun, Kurt Brugel, Tony Gleeson, and Yanis Rubus Rubulias. Editor Steve Dilks pens the opening foreword. It is an interesting selection of authors who stand in contrast to the style of the father of Sword & Sorcery, Robert E Howard. They cover a variety of milieus: Nordic, Egyptian, Arabian, and African. All vary in writing style but are common in that they lean heavily toward poetic, weird pulp (like a blend of REH and Clark Ashton Smith).

1) “Whisper in Ashes” I interviewed Charles Gramlich on Black in 2018. This follows his warrior Krieg (war); this was published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #17 (2013), and I had read Unsheathed which is a disconnected episode for the mysterious warrior (having read that led me to this anthology). This time Krieg is in a Nordic milieu facing a lycanthrope in a remote castle with a jarl called Tovar; it is unique and wonderful, and it evoked a Kane story by KEW in has many parallels: “Reflections for the winter of my Soul.”

2) “Bride of the Swamp God”: Davide Mana published this as an eBook in 2013. Several converging parties find themselves near Alexandria Egypt: firstly, an Egyptian sorceress Amunet and Greek vizier go into the swamp to all upon the Ancient One for support (in part against her own family); secondly, Aculeo, the hero, follows his deserting, Romanesque “moronic soldiers who had wandered off for treasure; and lastly, there are locals who worship the Lovecraftian swamp god. No more spoilers, save what is said in the introduction: Amunet and Aculeo have more tales together.

3) “The Eyes of the Scorpion”: Steve Lines first published this in FUNGI #21 (2013). The beginning of this Arabian inspired tale is overly verbose and heavy on narrative, but the necromancer-saturated tale eventually takes off and is very satisfying. Shamal is a warrior serving protection over the Sultan’s necromancer. The later sends him on a mission to retrieve the titular “eyes.” The protagonist embarks into the den of the Lord of Ghuls and Scorpion God controlled by his master’s mind.

4) “The Vale of lost women” by the Robert E. Howard wrote this drug-inspired, African trip. The very white Livia (and very druggable) is saved by Conan twice; once from black warriors and once from brown women. As Steve Dilks mentions, this is racially charged and was not published in REH’s life (published posthumously in The Magazine of Horror #15, 1967). In fact, the racial aspect is cringe worthy by today’s sensibilities. However, the story is a splendid mix of weird horror and action.

Carnelian Press: To order (as of 2019) you communicate via Private Message on Carnelian Press’s Facebook Page. Here is their pinned post:
How to order through Carnelian Press.
At present we only accept payment via PayPal. If you have an account, please follow these 4 easy steps-
1- Private message us on which chapbook you would like to purchase and we will get back to you with an e-mail address where you can send payment.
2- Go to the PayPal website and log in to your personal account.
3- Once you are logged in, select the option to "send money" at the top of the page and enter the correct amount to pay to the e-mail address we supplied.
4- Once Carnelian Press receive confirmation of the e-mail transaction we will private ms. you to tell you payment has been received and your book order is ready for shipment.

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Conan #2 - Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #2
by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conan is back, but is he just wandering?

This is a decent sequel, a frontier story pitting Conan against the civilized soldiers at Fort Velitrium, a tribe of savage Picts, and a horde of monstrous giant serpents. It’s a representative Conan tale with good art; it demonstrates his ability to lead, and to be conflicted (as much as a barbarian is) about what it means to be a barbarian vs. a civilized being.

However, this tale is a deviation from the horror story presented in #1 ; for a series pitched as worthy as being a 6-episode book (available July 2019) I expected that story to continue (or at least have elements that crossed over). Well, an element of story 1 did sneak in at the end, but was simply a way to call out “the authors remember the real story & acknowledge this was just filler.”

The Hocking Story is similarly decent but disjointed. Certainly, it is cool to have a short story as part of the comic, but it is not associated with the illustrations; "Black Starlight" continues with three more pages of prose with Conan and his crew checking out the ghost town they stumbled on previously. On the one hand, it was neat to see a call-out to the emerald lotus (Hocking's pastiche), but... motivations of the band were murky before and this episode did not clarify much, nor did require anything mentioned in the first episode.

Enjoyable but less promising. I bought #3 since I have hope for this and the art is well done. I hope it stays on track and builds on these.

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