Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Court of Broken Knives - Review by SE

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
SE rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anna Smith Spark's The Court of Broken Knives is epic, grim, and filled with amoral characters; and its delivered with an unconventional writing style. It worked for me, since I value and enjoy books that deviate from the norm; the oddly poetic style became familiar as if I was listening to the author narrate. This kicks off a trilogy, the last of which is due out this Fall:

Empires of Dust
(1) The Court of Broken Knives
(2) The Tower of Living and Dying
(3) The House of Sacrifice (August 2019)

A polarizing writing style supported by themes of death and rebirth: Anna Smith Spark opens with a disorienting dream-like chapter that proves to be a mix of flashback and drug induced hallucination. Then the sequence continues with fragmented sentences, one word sentences, and sentences lacking subjects. Excerpts capture this well (below).

Chapters switch across multiple perspectives, shifting in tense, and person (first and third). It had the potential to be entirely incoherent, but there is consistency across all this, and a uniting story that keeps it glued together.

Expect some jarring prose that is actually well organized. The beginning offers a lot of conflict (person vs. person, person vs family, person vs self, other-person vs a different group, etc.), but these all converge. The glue holding all together is the replaying of history; readers are watching a grand struggle replay itself: Amrath's bloodline (death embodied) fighting the city of Sorlost (the city where life & death are balanced). What resonated with me was the "Beauty in Death" theme which becomes real via Marith.

Grim & nontraditional content: If the style doesn't throw you, the grim content might. However, the author is "the Queen of Grimdark" and is targeting dark fantasy readers. The Court of Broken Knives is full of characters who you'll find broken, despicable, but you may end up cheering for them anyway because you'll want to see their potential realized. Several gay and bisexual pairings are becoming the norm now, and Smith dishes up several couples that read very accessible (this is not a romance book).

Four characters become most prominent:
Marith Altrersyr : He's a "hatha" (drug) addict with demonic inner potential. He inspires death on a huge scale, has a penchant for murdering and killing his loved ones. He is haunted by some of these experiences, and inspired by others.

Tobias: He's a sub-leader of a crew of mercenaries with a love-hate relationship with Marith.

Thalia: She's a high priestess and an empathetic woman, who is also accustomed to killing innocents to maintain the living/dying balance expressed via the customs of the God Tanis and City of Sorlost.

Orhan: He's a politician whose calm demeanor belies his desire to take over the city.

1) Regarding the titular Court of Broken Knives (within Sorlost):
“They strolled down the wide sweep of Sunfall and crossed the Court of the Broken Knife. A single pale light flickered beneath the great statue in the centre of the square, too small in the dark. A woman sat beside it, weeping quietly. It was a place where someone was always weeping. The statue was so old the man it depicted had no name or face, the stone worn by wind and rain to a leprous froth tracing out the ghost of a figure in breastplate and cloak. A king. A soldier. A mage lord. An enemy. Even in the old poems, it had no face and no story and no name. Eyeless, it stared up and outward, seeing things that no man living had ever seen. In its right hand the broken knife pointed downwards, stabbing at empty air. In its left hand it raised something aloft, in triumph or anger or despair. A woman’s head. A helmet. A bunch of flowers. It was impossible to tell.”

2) Example writing style:
"A dead dragon is a very large thing. Tobias stared at it for a long time. Felt regret, almost. It was beautiful in its way. Wild. Utterly bloody wild. No wisdom in those eyes. Wild freedom and the delight in killing. An immovable force, like a mountain or a storm cloud. A death thing. A beautiful death, though. Imagine saying that to [character]’s family: he was killed fighting dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon. Like saying he died fighting a god."

3) Beauty and Death
"Marith swerved his horse toward her. His face was rapturous. Ecstatic. So beautiful her heart leaped. He raised his sword and for a moment she thought he would kill her, and for a moment she thought she would welcome it if he did. So beautiful and perfect his face. So joyous and radiant his smile."

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Belit 2019 #2 - review by SE

Age Of Conan: Belit, Queen Of The Black Coast (2019) #2 by Tini Howard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Catapults, really? Age of Conan: Belit, Queen of the Black Coast launched the third of Marvel's near-simultaneous Conan comics. Belit-issue one was marred with a nonsensical mercy killing. Issue 2 did little to steer the wreckage.

Some pieces of appealing design were thrown in, but the execution was lacking. Belit demonstrates a love of her father's ships, and a desire to be a pirate queen. The details are missing. We are not shown her attachment to the ship, nor are we really given any hint of how she plans to become a queen of the seas. Also, there are hints of her having a connection to sea-creatures, perhaps even summoning them, which would have been welcome, but was squashed.

The best part of this issue is Stackpole's 3-page, novelette serial: "Bone Whispers." It's a great extension from the introduction and is a great companion piece regarding Belit.

But the comic is main draw, and we are treated to another meandering story of teen-aged brat and a "WTF moment" during a key conflict: catapults on pirate ship. Yep. You might be thinking "hey, aren't catapults siege engines used on land?" and you would be correct. Some historians might say "they were on used ships, but usually war barges, since sails would interfere with the ammunition."

Here, Belit has catapults attack her friend?/nemesis sea-creature, a leviathan (a kraken with tentacles). You would hope that the artist or writer would realize how dumb this is. Would have rather seen Belit dive in the sea and wrestle the giant squid. Instead, I gazed a panel that literally has a catapult shooting rocks through a sail. For a series that strives to make connections with pirate-loving, seafaring adventurers, you'd hope they would have applied a ballista, or a Greek-fire spewing canon.

Then we have a glint of hope: Belit and her pirate buddies decide to use the carcass to exploit a random port, to convince them that protection is needed and they require money for that. Turns out the port (one of many) happens to be the one that can controls/summon more of the sea creatures. WTH. There is no foreshadowing of the importance of this port, or that a sorceress may be controlling the sea creatures... in fact, this shift takes away from Belit having a special connection to the rare creatures. It would have made more sense if Belit had summoned more (even accidentally).

This is pitched as a 5 part series, and there is no clear conflict/story-arc guiding episode #3 (in the comic anyway, the "Bone Whispers" story on the other hand is building tension and hope just fine). What can we expect? Well, at least one absurd panel.

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Groupread Poll - GR Sword and Sorcery Group

The Head Hunter movie review

The Head Hunter is well done. It's an 1hr 20min conflict between a monster hunter and the creature who killed his daughter.

It's a slow burn horror with Sword 'n Sorcery milieu. Photography, setting, and story rule here. Little dialogue (mainly one actor). Most action off screen.

Reminded me of the pacing/tone/setting of "Valhalla Rising" (Mads Mikkelseon, 2009), but The Head Hunter has a simpler story and is less grim (still grim...just less grim than Valhalla Rising).

The Head Hunter (2019) Trailer  

Valhalla Rising (2009) Trailer

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan #4

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

A betrayal of sorts (ambiguous to avoid spoilers) disrupts the party of Suty, Menes, and Conan while rooting through the sewers/ruins. They follow Conan's mind-map... being chased by Koga Thun's henchman.

Satisfying growth and application of character motivations demonstrated here. The story develops at a nice pace with loads of skeleton smashing. The conflict is much more clearly a Conan vs Koga Thun match rather than many previous, shallow/random battles. It ends on a decent cliff hanger that will compel readers to grab #5.

On the novelette front: Scott Oden's "The Shadow of Vengeance" focuses on Conan's meeting with bunch of pirates and mercenaries as he tries to unite/motivate the Brotherhood to create a harbor for all Free Peoples. Cimmerians lack political moxy, so this war council transpires as smoothly as a bunch of testosterone charged men resolving a controversial sports call at a pub. The hypnotized Octavia from the previous episode did not appear, and will likely confront Conan in the next episode.

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Friday, April 5, 2019

Conan The Barbarian 5 - Review by SE

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

"In his prime, Conan encountered the Crimson Witch, and later, her child servants--all worshippers of the death god Razazel. The more a great warrior cheats death, the more imbued his blood becomes with the power of Death Magic that the Crimson Witch needs to resurrect her death god. From the hills of Cimmeria to the kingdom of Aquilonia, Conan travled, survived, and thrived by cutting a bloody swath through the Hyborian Age, and with the amount of times he's escaped death, he's become very powerful indeed..." -- inside flap blurb

This is a solid issue, that could stand alone. The inside flap blurb covers the progress and summarizes the approach to the series so far: each issue captures Conan defying death in a different part of his life across the globe. The art is great, the story consistent, battles fun, creatures weird, and it even has some a few, subtle call-outs to the Belit and Savage Sword series content. Great stuff.

But, it is part #5, and we hardly need another episode showing how much Conan defies death. I am glad that it crystallized that the idea that Conan has to enrich his sacred/cursed blood, but bring on more of the Crimson witch! She deserved more than half a page.

John C Hocking's novelette "Black Starlight" continues on a good trajectory, with Conan and Zelandra (and friends) defending the Emerald Lotus from nightmarish, eldritch creatures conjured by some sorcerer.

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