Sunday, August 18, 2019

Tales from the Magician's Skull #2 - Review by SE

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Heed me, mortal dogs!" (so sayeth the Skull) Tales from the Magician's Skull is a must-read, must subscribe, periodical aimed at fantasy adventure and role-playing fans.

Tales from the Magician's Skull #1 and Tales From the Magician's Skull #2 emerged out of a 2017 Kickstarter. Tales #1 exceeded expectations with high-quality printing, stories, and scope (the Appendix seals the deal!). A successful 2019 Kickstarter indicates subscriptions are planned up to #6.

Editor (author and Sword & Sorcery fanatic) Howard Andrew Jones teamed up with Goodman Games to bring us another eight tales with an Appendix that draws items, spells, and creatures to life (i.e., RPG descriptions to enable readers to role-play with story elements).

Cover Illustration: artist Diesel LaForce created a cartoony Lovecraftian scene that resonates with a nostalgic vibe of Margaret Brundage (Weird Tales cover illustrator ~1930’s). Inside, we are promised high-quality pulp fiction.

Interior Illustrations: monochrome decorations from many artists line the pages: Samuel Dillon, Jennell Jaquays, Cliff Kurowski, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Russ Nicholson, Stefan Poag, and Chuck Whelon

Contents of Tales #2: These are all excellent. I star the ones that resonated with my preferences for horror. For me, I was not familiar with Setsu Uzume or Dave Gross, and now want to seek out their work. That is one true pleasure of reading anthologies: reading authors you adore and finding new ones.

1) John C. Hocking's "Trial by Scarab": Showcases the rapid rise of Benhus from being the King’s Hand dexterous student of the military arts … into something better. That is if he can overcome betrayal, a challenge to deliver a message to shady frienemies, and a battle with an eldritch creature! John C. Hocking is on a hot streak here, with his Conan and the Emerald Lotus due to be reprinted soon along with his Conan and the Living Plague pastiche (and his novella serialized within Marvel's Conan comics).

2) James Stoddard's "Day of the Shark": A refreshing tale of adventure of mermen (and women) battling the Dread One in the depths of the ocean. This breathtaking underwater rescue has the heroes fighting a hostile tribe and a Lovecraftian leviathan.

* 3) James Enge's "Stolen Witness": This is a Morlock Ambrosius tale, a sorcerer investigator who must always overcome his father's legacy. I've read other Morlock tales that emanate noir comedy and have always enjoyed them. I recall reading my first in Rogue Blade Entertainment's Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure ("Red Worm's Way"). Here the investigator has a compelling (pun intended) mystery on his hands with a stone--a device of sorts that reminded me of Robert E Howards's "The Black Stone" (1931).

4) Nathan Long "Blood of the Forest": Whereas the above had male protagonists, this one shifted gears with a female duo. Lanci and Anla are lower class thieves, and they crash a party of the elite. The first few pages are a slow burn, then the action ramps up, and then it ramps up more (almost too fast for me).

* 5) Setsu Uzume "Break them on the Drowning Stones": Wow, this was intense. Gatja, a female sorceress aligned with water, confronts her magic-linked, elemental brother Riad (stone) in an epic, dark battle. This leans heavily on Sorcery (no Swords) and is remarkably deep. Beautiful stuff. There are a few lines that really impacted me, in particular:
"They’ll chain you and call it compassion." 

6) Violette Malan' "A Soul’s Second Skin": A duo of mercenaries with telepathic skills unravel a mystery, and accidentally cage themselves in another plane with an antagonist magician.

* 7) Dave Gross "Shuhalla’s Sword": Wow, this was a blast. Another mystery is presented, this time the katana-wielding Imperial Investigator Shullala with her sword Sindel. She finds the boy Denkar surviving in a corrupted outpost. Was he responsible for the demise of the village?

* 8) Stefan Poag illustrated a version of Abraham Grace Merritt's 1918 "The People of the Pit": This was fun to devour. The drawings and selected snippets allow us to re-experience a classic horror adventure.

Appendix: Terry Olsen again takes one key feature from each story and fleshes out descriptions to enable readers to role-play with magic items, spells, and monsters. I love this. It explicitly ties the stories together and encourages readers to enjoy the stories more fully. The statistics are geared toward the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game.

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