Sunday, April 18, 2021

Rakefire and Other Stories - Review by SE

Rakefire and Other Stories by Jason Ray Carney

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rakefire and Other Stories's Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

Rakefire and Other Stories
released July 2020 via Pulp Hero Press. Nine weird adventures span the 216 pages of this grimoire. Penned by emerging thaumaturgist Jason Ray Carney, Rakefire promises to corrupt any reader. So let us get this disclaimer out of the way: the mere reading of this tome may thicken your blood with wonder. Red turning to black, your blood will never bleed the same. Read this review at your own risk.

The book blurb labels this “Fever Dreams of Sword & Sorcery in an Eld Realm of Unfathomable Beauty and Cruelty” and it also contains “enigmatic tales of horror and fantasy in the pulp tradition.” That summary is spot on. Most of the tales here can be considered S&S, but they focus on the sorcery end of the spectrum. The writing style is reminiscent of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith (full of pregnant shadows and intellectual skullduggery!). Excerpts throughout this review reinforce what to expect.

The majority of the stories (6/9) have been published in various magazines, but reading them piece-meal is like eating random snacks instead of a 5-course meal. The confluence amplifies the lore threading them all together (lore discussed below). Plus, the 3 newly published tales extend the impact. Each is recapped below, and most have excerpts that emphasize the style and common milieu (while avoiding spoilers). This serves as a tour guide into Jason Ray Carney's strange world.

Cover & Title: The cover depicts Mera the Cruelly Beautiful (from story#1, not the witch from #6-Rakefire). I would have expected a red-robed sorceress (i.e., representing the character Rakefire), or, since Rakefire (although a fine story) does not stand apart as being the singular cornerstone, I could actually see this collection keeping the cover and retitling it “Weird Legends of Drossus” (which would sound too much like a David Gemmell work…but the point is: the collection does not revolve around the character Rakefire…but it does have a unified world which is a character unto itself).

1. “The Ink of the Slime Lord” appeared in Swords Against Cthulhu II: Hyperborean Nights (2017) & Sword & Sorcery Magazine (Dec 1018)
- Mera the Cruelly Beautiful alone survives a purging of her cult…and goes on a quest to resurrect her bloodline. She’s crazy and attractive (like DC Comic Harley Quinn). She invades Inmor’leh for essential ingredients. Her sister Sasha the Scarred is mentioned a lot in stories #5 and #7. As mentioned above, that’s probably Mera on the cover. Backcover Blurb: A psychotic witch, driven by the spirits of her murdered sisters, seeks out the secret of a ruined city and the formless horror that destroyed it.... Excerpt:
“…along with their prophets, Alesh the Old, Sasha the Scarred, and Mera the Cruelly Beautiful, the cultists were taken to the purple swamps outside of the city. A deep grotto had been prepared there, of roots, mud, and worms. Their crime, writ on the beaten bronze tablet in ancient hieroglyphs, there was verbalized with the sonorous majesty of the High Priest of Atok’s powerful voice. Amidst song and the beating of spears on shields, all of the heads were sliced off the convicted and swung into the hole.”

2. Trigon (new)
-The captain of the Gate Watch investigates and attempts to close the gate which oozes evil. Coincidentally, this journey involves the removal of a sorcerer’s hand (which obtusely foreshadows the next section). Backcover Blurb: "An impudent sorcerer, contemplating the outer beyond between stars, threshes shadowy demons from the lightless outside.... Excerpt:
“The thrall-messenger breathlessly pleaded his case, told the council his terrible tale: high in hubris, the Sorcerer Peroptoma of Dis-Penethor, Duke of Chius, seeking secrets in the stars, had opened a Black Gate, one he could not close, and now shadows poured through it, like black blood from a wound, ravening with hunger for human flesh."
3. “One Less Hand for the Shaping of Things” appeared in Skelos, #1 (2016)
- A weird tale, but not S&S. This is all about Ayolo’s journey and his infatuation with Jessa, a tree spirit who rescues him. The title is cryptic, though a priestly character does mention this verbatim. Note, #5 indicates this title is a line used by the followers of the tree goddess Ral (from the Discourses of Thees). Backcover Blurb: A reluctant scholar, forced to confront his impermanence, abandons hearth and wealth for a doomed passion.... Excerpt:
“[Ayolo’s] thoughts wandered to his wife Shemira and Chamberlain Brocoshio, who had, with clever arguments, convinced him to organize his caravan to the south...If he had any virtue as a merchant, it was due to his shrewdness. He was no swordsman or adventurer and was fully aware of the dangers that plagued the roads through Yizdra. Instead of sublime beauty of alien lands, he’d much prefer the ordinariness of his study, reading correspondence or tabulating accounts by candlelight; or better yet, the poetry of Thees….
4. “A Song in Deepest Darkness” appeared in Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Issue #10 (2018)
- A weird S&S tale very much in the vein of CAS. This is the most comedic of the bunch, I laughed out loud over the predicaments of the protagonists: Pardew and the warlock, Ka seek out the Hearthfather’s true name and make poor decisions. Callouts to “Rakefire’s Resplendent Roadblock” and “Ink of the doom of Inmor’leh” were welcome. Backcover Blurb: A holy man and a pauper mage delve the devil-haunted maze of a dead wizard of legend.... Excerpt:
“O lightdrinkers!” sung a mellifluous voice as pale lights bobbed behind them. “Listen to how we will treat with you! We will flay you and then bind a Black Book with your skin! We will make a wine pot of your skull! We will read dark verses as your soul writhes in the chest-cage of the Horned One’s breast!”
5. "Her Formless Temple" appeared in Phantaxis #7 (2017)
-Sasha the Scarred is sought after to heal a sick child, Cas. He is worked upon, and he joins up with Lia (his love) as leaders of the tree-loving Ral. Backcover Blurb: A guttersnipe transforms hatred into a force of nature... Excerpts
"Cas of the Sun Disk flourished at his mother’s breast, and when he grew to a hate-filled guttersnipe, he was not killed in the urchin wars that plagued that slum’s youths, nor did he lose his namesake; but, alas, a grippe swept through the slum, and both mother and child contracted it. "
We also learn more about the cryptically named story #3 with this excerpt:
“Most heroes know not themselves .... have fallen deeply... Their joy in questing unselfing like a breath exhaled .... Inflating their mainsails, propelling them beyond .... To strangle lands where the measure of joy is sunlight, lightning, shadow, and mist, and sometimes death: one less hand for the shaping of things.”

6. "Rakefire" appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Q33 (2017)
Qwayas is sought after by the female narrator (the titular Rakefire). She is enlisted by a village to investigate weird sorcery, which has his signature attached. Book Blurb: A nameless sorceress takes a thrall and gains a name...Excerpt:
"...they looked at me, the little quivering wretches, and answered my warning with snarling grins that revealed transparent teeth. Their radiant eyes dilated. I saw their brains bulging, brightening. They threw the force of their poisonous dreams against my ward that repelled them back like a brick wall. In the intensity of their mental barrage, they popped like overindulging ticks, the bloody slime of their brains smearing across the cliff face and undergrowth."

7. “Two Silvers for a Song of Blood” (new)
- An unidentified rogue comes to the rescue of the bard Maur who played a role in #3) from the anti-magic, policing minions of Atok (i.e. those of the priest who slew Mera and her sisters in #1). Excerpt:
“The Rogue slid his dagger into this man; his eyes bulged and bubbling foam spurted from his mouth. The dagger removed, the Rogue slit his throat with a wet slash, hissing, showing stained teeth in a rictus snarl, and then shoved the limp body over a table, scattering wine bowls, gnaw bones, and candles. In a flash, seven swords gleamed trembling in the flickering light of the smoking grease lamps swaying from the rafters. The Rogue leapt to a table, his cloak thrown off, his blade, a curving shiwa, gripped and ready at his dark brow. One of the men-at-arms came forward and died, stabbed through the eye. Another guard came forward and died, his blood spattering the Rogue’s face and bare chest, and thereafter fell like a sack of roots to the ground, his hot blood spurting rhythmically from his wound. The sounds of his gargling and dim death-movements were all that broke a new silence, and the iron aroma of blood blended with the stale musk of fear-sweat.”
8. “Shadows from Shadows” (new)
- Mika protects/rescues the seedling Shela from the necromancer who created her and other homunculi (loriks). Book Blurb: Hope steams as hot blood in the snow...Excerpt:
"I saw them: at the base of the incline were two Loriks, their faces nearly identical, their brains glowing red in grayish, translucent skulls. They gazed up at me with large, lamplight eyes: little naked slime men with undulating lobes like blooming flowers. They chattered something at me in a foul, half-formed language, black tongues slipping out."
9. “The Curio Dealer” appeared in Hypnos, Vol. 6 No. 1 (2017)
- A short piece that reveals the audacity of merchants preying on the poor land of Bel (Yesha valley specifically, where Cas from story #5 is gifted the copper amulet mentioned here).

Themes and reoccurring Items/Places
1) Triangles (a.k.a. trigon, a polygon of 3 sides): in addition to being the title of a story, these appear as icons for witchery, inform the design of amulets, banners, and other insignia.

2) Weird pregnancies: from adjectives describing "gestures" and "shadows" to plots based on foundlings and the creation of homunculi (loriks).

3) Black blood: evil usually bleeds black, whether be from the Slime Lord, the goblin-like granlings' blood, or the evil that pours through Trigon’s black gate. The gran and their Horned One leader are mentioned in at least three stories. Excerpt:
"The gran were elder-lived humans of mysterious origin, sometimes thralls to ancient, tree-tall sorcerers, purposefully stirred to emotional frenzy so that their insubstantial fear, hatred, and rage could be incarnated, extracted, and harvested as a black sap used as a dark fuel for even darker sorceries."
4) The land is shared across all tales, and an excerpt from story#5 best captures some of the names:
Cas and Lia learned much about the world: the Youv to the north marshalled brown-cloaked armies of Porthror axemen and swore to annex Drossus, a northern fief of Griess Volor, peopled by shrewd merchants who flirted with republicanism. The City of Re to the south was plagued with religious dissent; a coven of witches cowed the oligarchy there, a masked priesthood of Atok, a God of a Million Eyes. Even whispers of Yesha trickled into Roa: the devil sorcerer who sat on the throne of that city-state was fashioning a great sphere that gave dark vibrations, and the thrall-nobles who kept his court, bathed in the sphere’s subtle movements, had developed a taste for human flesh and long teeth to tear it. But the worst of these stories treated Yizdra, the forestland Cas and Lia called home, where of recent seasons evil, cavern-dwelling creatures, the gran, had been waxing in numbers and raiding by night. They depleted game, burned villages, and murdered travelers on the ancient roads. … hung brazenly at a crossed cart road, the flyblown, wet skins and bones of the slaughtered, hooked beneath a rude formation of horns and antlers nailed and tied to a stand of weeping trees, and a flapping banner with ancient runes inked with blood and gore, and a single rune, a rendering in an ancient tongue. What, precisely, it meant, no scholar could tell, but its core message was clear: war.

Who is Jason Ray Carney? : If you are a fan of adventure horror, then keep an eye out. I first read his work in Skelos #1..and first saw him (via video) on a Howard Days 2019 Panel on S&S. Recently, he seems to be ever-present in the S&S and Weird Fiction communities, contributing to Goodman Games and to Black Gate blogs with articles on the gothic tradition in S&S and “How S&S brings us life.” He recently edited Savage Scrolls Volume One : Thrilling Tales of Sword-and-Sorcery for Pulp Hero Press and is an editor at The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery. By day, he is a Lecturer in Popular Literature at Christopher Newport University. He also authored the academic book Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

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