Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Lost Empire of Sol - Review by SE

Sword & Planet is Back!

Jason M. Waltz, champion of Rogue Blades Entertainment and the Rogue Blades Foundation, is well known for rounding up contemporary authors in themed anthologies (perhaps most well known for the 2008 Sword & Sorcery classic Return of the Sword .... and most currently known for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life releasing ~now, appropriately on June 11th, REH's anniversary of passing).

Fletcher Vredenburgh, well known in the adventure fiction community for outstanding reviews provides the "Foreword": he explains how discussions on Facebook with Scott Oden (adored author of historical fiction, Conan pastiche, and the Grimnir series) escalated into this collection.  Also, to dimension the genre and set the stage for a revival is the esteemed John O’Neill (Black Gate Magazine editor) with “Sword & Planet is the Genre We Need.” 

The Book Blurb Explains the Theme and Context:

Bold fonts, added by me, emphasize two key sentences. More on that below.

An exciting repository of the tales of an empire that pre-dates the solar system's recorded history. A spectacular homage of ten 'romantic tales of high adventure' written in the American pulp imagination style of breathless bravado. A return to an era when the exploration of time and the mystery of space travel held the attention of the reading world with heroes/heroines that faced dangerous unknowns with hopes and fists raised high!

20,000 years ago, the first Emperor of Sol ascended the Iridium Throne of Earth. A sorcerer who learned to extend his life through elixirs and potent demonic bargains, he ruled a thousand years, until deposed by a conspiracy among his wives. His youngest wife, the most cunning, became the first Empress of Sol and began the Imperial practice of tracing lineage through the female.

This anthology's "present" is 10,000 years after the Ruin of the Empire of Sol, an event immortalized by a cabal of poets who wove history with myth. Civil war erupted inside the Empire when warlords of another planet sought to seize the Iridium Throne of Earth. War rent the system, until finally a doomsday weapon was deployed. This weapon caused the Ruin; it shattered worlds and threw the citizens of the Empire into such a state of savagery that it has taken 10,000 years to make it to a current Dark Age. The worlds of the solar system have slowly emerged to reclaim only the most slender portion of the ancient splendor of the Empire. Through the combined efforts of sorcery and science, mankind and alienkind have returned to the stars in Aether ships, though even these are considered crude by the ancient Imperial standards.

Above them all looms a mysterious THREAT on the horizon. Augurs see bad omens, demon familiars speak of a coming cataclysm; a few ships have gone missing along the fringes of the system, only to be spotted and boarded later . . . ghost ships with missing crews. One had a cryptic note scrawled in blood: "They're coming!"

Missing Cool Context:

Strangely, the Ruin mentioned within the blurb is not referred to explicitly in the stories (they occur after that event). Also, the two introductions and blurb ignore the awesome premise of chapter/book design: There is one story per planet in the solar system, doled out in order from the center to the outer rim of pluto, with an additional "planet" called Tharsia replacing real life's asteroid belt. So you get to tour the ruins of the solar system (the Empire of Sol) planet by planet, as you drift away from the sun. The Interior Ancient Solar Map by M.D. Jackson (who also crafted the superb cover) actually lays out your journey as a reader, with some variant names offered for several planets. 

Scott Oden cryptically, and beautifully, frames the book with two pieces. He introduces us to the Emissary and the living-ship Leviathan in the prologue which focuses on a female's imprisonment; her mind is tapped to reveal the subsequent stories you'll read. The epilogue hints that a nameless god is threatening the solar system's future; this cosmic horror vibe seeds a possible sequel anthology.

Stories Share Common Elements: 

1) Portals and gateways enable travel to other planets, but many are lost or broken and some stream one-way. This lost infrastructure of the Empire is explored multiple times.

2) The red "dot" on Jupiter is given some spiritual and religious context that presents in two stories

3) Most stories have female leads, which the authors claimed on social media (Goodreads and Facebook) was not an intentional design strategy (not that it matters). I speculate that the context of the book blurb regarding the Empress of Sol (emboldened above) combined with Scott Oden's Prologue that focuses on a singular female representing "ape-kind" may be symptomatic of the creative discussions. Anyway, there are some male protagonists, and many male teammates, so there is gender diversity.

4) Soul & psionics: Sorcery here manifests in psionics and mental powers (i.e., influencers of the mind), and there are several stories involving the separation of mind and body

4) Typical threats include space pirates and humanoid aliens (reptilian, insectan, or ape-like)

5) Spaceship mayhem: crash landings and appropriation of space ships are plentiful

The Lost Empire of Sol Contents

  • [Sol/Sun] “Prologue” by Scott Oden
  • [Mercury] “To Save Hermesia” Joe Bonadonna and David C. Smith
  • [Venus] “The Lost Princess of Themos” Tom Doolan 
  • [Earth] “What Really Happened at the Center of the Earth” by Christopher M. Blanchard 
  • [Mars] “A Sand-Ship of Mars” by Charles Allen Gramlich
  • [asteroid belt, Tharsia] “Whispers of the Serpent” by Howard Andrew Jones
  • [Jupiter] “Outcasts of Jov” by Mark Finn
  • [Saturn, Cronesh] “Written in Lightning” by Keith J. Taylor
  • [Uranus] “Survivors of Ulthula” by E.E. Knight
  • [Neptune] “Hunters of Ice and Sky” by David A. Hardy 
  • [Pluto] “A Gate in Darkness” by Paul R. McNamee 
  • [Sol/Sun] “Epilogue” by Scott Oden
As expected in a collection, the styles vary by author. Gramlich is the only one I know who routinely writes Sword & Planet (his Talera series); however, Bonadonna has dabbled in space-adventure as much as he has Sword & Sorcery. Otherwise, the contributor list reads like a contemporary who's-who of S&S authors and Robert E. Howard content editors. That said, all stories felt like S&P adventure to me, with the possible exception of the Earth piece which was appropriately a "lost world" tale (reminiscent of Burrough's Pellucidar adventures in the Earth's Core; that makes sense...if you are tasked with creating an S&P adventure on planet earth, one might as well emulate the creator of John Carter and go deep). Most were a blast to read. A few stories were too melodramatic for my taste, and one felt like a chapter from a novel (it did not stand alone as a short story). 

In summary, this is a fine collection that certainly achieved its mission of inserting a jolt into Sword & Planet offerings. The Lost Empire of Sol is destined to become a historic Sword & Planet anthology, a classic akin to how Return of the Sword is perceived for the Sword & Sorcery genre. If a sequel emerges, I would purchase and read it in a heartbeat. 

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Goodread group read topic poll for July-Aug

Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads

Please join us this July-Aug when we will tackle books together; topics to be determined by the poll.

The Crimson Crown - Review by SE

Intense, Emotive, Dark Fantasy. Equally Enjoyable and Discomforting.

The Crimson Crown by B.J. Swann ; SE rating5 of 5 stars

Like to read familiar, cozy mysteries or adventures? BJ Swann's The Crimson Crown is not for you. As the blurb on the back warns: “The Crimson Crown is a Punk AF…contains graphic sex, violence, and disturbing material, and is not intended for the squeamish or the easily offended.”

The Crimson Crown is for readers looking for a fresh and emotive experience that is well-crafted, but discomforting. This is extreme Dark Fantasy. The beginning radiates an insane-fairytale vibe which evolves into a climactic battle that is wholeheartedly Grimdark melee. Here’s an excerpt of some of its early, passive brutality:

[Barbus] grabbed the serving girl by the neck and forced her to kneel, so that her chin rested on the tabletop and its edge pressed into her throat. She coughed and choked, and at first Honey thought the poor girl’s windpipe might be broken, but then she began crying and begging for her life ... Blood trickled down her face and mingled with her tears. Honey wanted to say something, tell him to stop, but she was paralysed with terror. She watched as Barbus grabbed the girl’s hair and peeled back her scalp like a rind, laying bare her naked skull. Honey felt sick from the sight, but the horror was only beginning.

And that scene really is just the beginning. It continues to dish out the serving girl’s brains. Submissive Honeydew witnesses it all. This book is literally full of scenes like this. Whereas the initial chapters are grotesquely calm, they ramp up toward action-oriented warfare:

She clapped her hands on either side of an enemy’s head. His helm collapsed and his skull cracked like an egg, forcing blood and brain to go shooting through the holes in his visor. The gore splattered afresh all over her face. She stopped, blinded, senses cocooned by the hot wetness clogging her nostrils, coating her lips, overwhelming her with its scent and its taste. She tried to wipe it away but her blood-covered gauntlets weren’t suited to the task. Even when she managed to scoop it out of her eyes so she could see, it was still on her lips and in her nose, preventing her from breathing, lest she breathe it in too. A part of her was sickened, repulsed by the thick, cloying film; another part wanted to let it in, to bathe in it both inside and out.

Enjoy the Atrocity

There were instances of violent eroticism that made me uncomfortable. I kept reading since none of the madness was gratuitous, the delivery was smooth, and the horror was interrupted with (a) grim humor and (b) contrasting scenes of peace & serenity. All the scenes, no matter how vividly terrible, amplified the themes and story arcs. Ashleigh the painter is a character whose task in life is to document the carnage following the crown, and he seems to echo the author’s muse by maintaining an Atrocity Exhibit. There is cruelty that he must document and share. 

The Crimson Crown is intentionally edgy. As "PunkAF" as it is, it strikes great balances. The story arcs were simple, conflicts stark, and characterizations extreme. This clarity made for a fast read. The fun uncertainty lies in the journey. You will be flipping pages anxious to know how the journey unfolds, even though you know it ends terribly. I found both Honeydew and Oda to be strangely relatable even though they are almost cartoonishly unreal characterizations. I got attached to them anyway. As Honey and Oda transform, you may ask yourself, “Do I have inner cruelty to feed?” No? Then why are you enjoying the book?  Questioning your own glee while reading this Atrocity Exhibit is, in itself, disturbing.

The blood was disgusting, with a hint of deliciousness thrown in, like any other type of acquired taste. She swallowed it down, sucked in a blood-tainted breath, then licked her lips. She told herself it was only to clean her mouth, because her gauntlets were too clumsy to do so, but a part of her was howling with joy at the texture and taste. What’s happening to me? she wondered, though she already knew.

The complex of feelings was always the same – a sense of great power that gloried in itself; a bestial hunger for agony and blood; the pleasure of selfishness unbound; and, last but not least, the delicious frisson of doing the forbidden. In other words, it was cruelty, pure and simple. It had always been inside of her – she was simply just letting it out.

Title, Cover, and Summary

The cover art by Anton Rosovsky is engaging and represents the story well. The title and design deliver exactly what they should: the promise of a brutal story about an artifact called the Crimson Crown. It raises mysteries too: is the head wearing the crown a protagonist? Is the crimson referring to blood or the highlighted gem? The synopsis on the back summarizes the conflict:

Inverted Dreams. Excoriated Hearts. Terror and Horror Sublime. The twin princesses Oda and Honey are as different as night and day. Oda is a child of the dark, obsessed with cruelty and death. Honey is as sweet as her name, filled with goodwill and compassion. It is therefore a remarkably revolting twist of fate when the royal astrologer orders Oda to be married to the mild-mannered King Armand, while Honey is betrothed to King Barbus of Gutgirt, the most brutal man in the world, who tears peasants apart with his bare hands and keeps his murdered brides’ bodies on display in his own bloody chamber. As the twins strive to wrest back their lives from the cruel hand of fate, they embark on a journey of self discovery that will twist them in unimaginable ways – and perhaps bare the secrets of their innermost selves. At the centre of their struggles, shining balefully over all, is the Crimson Crown of Gutgirt, a relic of terrible mystery and demonic power, whose secrets hold the key to salvation – and everlasting doom.

Aeon of Chaos:

The Crimson Crown is associated with the Aeon of Chaos (AoC) universe produced by BJ Swann. The series all share the disclaimer: “contains graphic sex, violence, and potentially disturbing material. It is not intended for children or the easily offended.” I have not read these yet, yet the introductory pages provide some context:

It is the Aeon of Chaos, a time of terror, wonder, and pleasures undreamed of. The gods are dead and the great demons gnaw at their bones. From the cannibal kingdom of Kaszanka to the sordid pornocracy of Thune life is frenzied and cheap. Fortunes and kingdoms are bartered at the swing of a blade. Lawlessness and lust rule the day, while magic and mayhem take charge of the night. Slavery and massacre swarm across the land like ants at a picnic, while notes of demon laughter dance over all like shadows of flames from the deific pyre. It is the Aeon of Chaos, and only Chaos reigns!

Other Aeon of Chaos books: The Unwithering Flower, The Court of the Mushroom King, and Our Lady of the Scythe: Demon Academy.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

BJ Swann reviews Lords of Dyscrasia


Book Review: Lords of Dyscrasia by S.E. Lindberg (originally posted on Aeon of Chaos)

LORDS OF DYSCRASIA is a starkly original fantasy epic steeped in horror and weirdness.

The thing I love most about the fantasy genre is its limitless potential. The thing I hate most about the fantasy genre is how little this potential is actually used. Let’s face it, most fantasy authors are simply copyists, slavishly aping either Howard, Tolkein, or more recently Martin. Most fantasy worlds are generic and uninspired, and seem merely to have been cobbled together from the refuse of someone’s high school D&D campaign. Sorting through this dross in search of something truly original often feels exhausting, depressing, even infuriating. Nonetheless, the search pays off when you find something like LORDS OF DYSCRASIA.

LORDS OF DYSCRASIA is truly unique and deeply, deeply weird. Reading it means being immersed in a different reality, one with all the exquisite newness and strange deja vu you might find in a dream. The narrator does little to handhold you through the weirdness either, and parts of the story are beautifully elliptical. The imagery is baroque, eldritch, and horrifying. Here we find the magic wombs of divine and undying insectoid matriarchs used as forges infernal; sentient fogs from which mutilated bodies dangle like gems on a crystal chandelier; crowds of worshippers whose pierced bodies are linked by bloody strands of musically vibrating thread. The rich imagery is everywhere present, as is an atmosphere of deep and uncompromising horror. There is a coldness to the tale, a menacing inhumanity that denies the reader even the most fleeting sense of comfort in its depths. To add to this effect, many of the protagonists are inhuman, and even the mortal ones move through strange states of undeath and deific possession. Nevertheless, their motives are always deeply human, even archetypal – the need for knowledge, the desire for revenge, the urge to be united with a loved one. These classic motives make even the weirdest characters relatable, and link them into an intricate tale of mythical dimensions, filled with treachery, irony, and ominous coincidence. Dread gods manipulate mortal fates, creating a family saga to rival that of the Volsungs or the Atreidae.

If I have any criticisms of LORDS OF DYSCRASIA, it is that the narrative can be so esoteric, so weird, so relentlessly rich in its otherworldly visuals, that it can at times feel alienating. Then again, this is perhaps part of the book’s unique charm and personality. One more definite criticism: there are too many adverbs for my liking, though that is of course a matter of style. Overall I loved the book, and I can even see myself reading it again so I can pour over all the rich descriptions of weird monsters and undead abominations. The visual nature of LORDS OF DYSCRASIA would make it an excellent candidate for adaptation into a graphic medium, especially a comic or video game.

I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series and I urge anyone who likes truly weird and innovative fantasy to give it a try.

B.J. Swann writes punk as fuck fiction with elements of fantasy, extreme horror, erotica, and anything else he wants to throw in there. The Aeon of Chaos is his fictional setting, a hyperreality of fairytale madness where anything can happen.