Showing posts with label Reviews - by S.E.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews - by S.E.. Show all posts

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

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).

Contents:
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; #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 the 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 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) Black 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 describing "gestures" and "shadows", to literal plots based on foundlings and the creation of homunculi (loriks), giving birth to

3) Black blooded beasts: 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 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 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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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure - Review By SE

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure by Milton J. Davis

SE rating: 5 of 5 stars

Omari Ket, an Agency of One

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure is all about Omari Ket. The collection chronicles his rise from street-rat to god-marked mercenary (a Mikijen). “Agency” is a term for the capacity of a character to act independently, and Omari Ket is an Agency onto himself. He is as suave, cunning, and as lethal as James Bond, but Omari reports to no one, really; he is a survivor more than a spy, so he approximates a Han Solo rogue who is happy to join a large melee (for a price). And woman-in-power and upper-classes adore him! He’s the bad boy of action.

Why the call-outs to Bond and Solo (and not Conan)? I wanted to emphasize that Omari Ket feels like a non-stereotypical Sword & Sorcery hero. In fact, his testosterone-rich aura is expected from a Secret Agent Man. Omari is not a spy, but he is a ladies’ man in a dog-eat-dog world. If you like a cut-throat, libertine, action-oriented protagonist then try this out. You’ll enjoy the action set in an alternative African continent called Ki Kanga.

Omari earns a role in the band of mystical Mikijen mercenaries granting him Ngisimaugi tattoos; these enable his boldness and ability for his body to rejuvenate. He confronts all sorts of conflicts, from tomb raiding, chaotic skirmishes, and battles with strange centaur-like creatures that are “amalgam of man and beast; their bodies that of the great grass antelopes, their torsos man-like, their heads crowned with horns.”

Omari appears to be an anagram for Imaro, the original Sword & Soul champion created by Charles Saunders (that alternative Africa was called Nyumbani). The author of Eda Blessed, Milton Davis, is a Black Speculative fiction writer and owner of MVmedia, LLC, a publishing company specializing in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Sword and Soul…including Saunder’s works. Milton writes other characters as well, in other universes, including the Changa's Safari series (Changa is an action hero of historic Africa), who has a polar opposite personality to Omari).

More Ki Khanga: Ki Khanga has its own anthology (Ki-Khanga: The Anthology) and RPG game world to immerse yourself in. Read the books, then play the world. There are other spinoffs too, including two with leading heroines Priestess of nKu and The Bene's Daughter: A Ki Khanga Novel. And Eda Blessed II (~10 more tales) is due out imminently (Spring 2021)

Contents (Eda Blessed I)
-Kept
-A Better Deal
-Second Chance
-The Skin Man (Originally published in Skelos II)
-The Ngola’s Promise
-Assassin’s Choice
-Old Habits (Originally published in Griots: Sisters of the Spear)
-Simple Math (Originally published in the Ki-Khanga: The Anthology)


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Friday, January 22, 2021

Tales from the Magician's Skull #5 - Review By SE



Tales from the Magician's Skull #5
by Howard Andrew Jones
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Heed me mortal dogs, Sword & Sorcery fans will devour these tales!:
Tales from the Magician's Skull #5 provides six new tales printed in superb format, with a bonus essay on Harold Lamb. And take in that beautiful cover by Manuel Pérez Clemente (better known as Sanjulián)!

As per the Tales from the Magician's Skull series, all are graced with RPG item/character statistics so readers can play out the stories, or play with key parts of them; the stats are in Dungeon Crawl Classics form which can readily be applied to other formats. The illustrations are wonderful too. Several more issues are in the queue.


Availability & Subscriptions
- General retailers like Amazon have some current issues, but some of the earlier ones are getting out of stock.
- Goodman Games (publisher of the magazine) has many for direct sale (PDF and print), as well as subscriptions.
- DriveThruRPG has PDFs of most.

#5 Table of Contents with official blurbs (and some of my own commentary)

(1) "Pool of Memory" by James Enge: A wondrously trippy Morlock Ambrosius tale, extending the serialization across issues.
The sword sang, with an almost human voice, and bright shards of crystal flew everywhere. The luminous, image-laden fog of memories billowed forth, around him and through him. He staggered like a drunk, intoxicated by the swift shocking burst of other lives, other hates, other loves. When the mists were gone, he was himself again—whoever that was.

(2) "The Guardian of Nalsir-Fel" by Adrian Simmons: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly editor contributes an adventurous-duo (characters Ahzlamin and Penkatel) tale reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series:
“Do not look for help,” the messenger said. “Do not call out for the guards, they will not hear you! They will not see you! Such is the power of Cowlanati Palisani, the great and serene!”

(3) "In the Corridors of the Crow" by John C. Hocking. Classic Hocking here. A calculated buildup to explosive mayhem. This one really builds the strained relationship between Benhus (the King's Blade) and his master King.
It was a nest, a great nest made of bones. He saw the bones of men and animals wound and bound together, forming such a dense fabric that he could not tell where one ended and the other began. He could make out the weathered skulls of men and the antlers of a great stag, all crusted with layers of dust and cobweb, filthy with age and abandonment.

(4) "Road of Bones" by Violette Malan: Malan has had several Dhulyn & Parno adventures in TftMS, and this one was my favorite so far. They escort a deranged wizard on a perilous adventure into ruins.
We, we removed his power—it’s a complicated and painful procedure, for all parties. Then we cut him to pieces, and burned the pieces. But the bones you know, the bones don’t burn.

(5) "Dreams of a Sunken Realm" by Adrian Cole: Yes, another Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis pastiche! The climatic battle between ghosts and demons-of-sea was splendid.
Elak and his companions watched in horror as the first wave exploded and cascaded over the great buildings of the city. Palaces and temples erupted, smitten by the almighty power of the wave.

(6) "Demons of the Depths" by C. L. Werner: Shintaro Oba always offer demon killing with a refreshing non-European-centric milieu.
The waves turned red as the feeding frenzy drove the creatures to turn against one another, ripping away at their fellows in the crazed hunger. When this frenzy was at its height, the man on the tower calmly rose and stepped to the edge. Deliberately he dropped the jewel straight down into the midst of the ravenous sharks.

(7) "A Profile of Harold Lamb" by Howard Andrew Jones.
Any writer who encountered Adventure magazine between 1917 and the early 1930s would have had Harold Lamb’s work readily at hand, because he was one of the magazine’s most popular writers and appeared there with great frequency. Probably the most important of those who saw him, though, was a Texan named Robert E. Howard…

(8) "The Monster Pit" by Terry Olson.
Enter the monster pit! Down here in the pit, we provide tabletop RPG fans with playable DCC RPG game.


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Friday, January 1, 2021

Tales from the Magician's Skull - review by SE


Tales from the Magician's Skull #4
by Howard Andrew Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eight new engaging tales printed in superb format. As per the Tales from the Magician's Skull series, all are graced with RPG item/character statistics so readers can play out the stories, or play with key parts of them; the stats are in Dungeon Crawl Classics form which can readily be applied to other formats. Most have a King-sent-me-on-a-mission premise, but all are varied in tone and style. The illustrations are wonderful too. You can get TftMS from sellers like Amazon, or better... direct from Goodman Games (PDF's via DrivethruRPG).


All are stellar reads. I star my personal favorites (I'm a sucker for ghosts, dark blood magic, and tortured souls and the two with ties to Atlantis struck a cord).

-Expect returning authors to continue their serials: (a) John C Hocking's has his King's blade Benhus tracking down a magical ring in a den of thieves; deliciously dark magic explodes there; (b) also, Enge's Morlock Ambrosius appears again; this episode is a somewhat comedic and psychedelic experience as he seeks out a pair of hands he lost previously.
-Sword & Soul champion, Milton Davis, delivers a tale with the livestock loving warrior Garang being toyed with elder gods in Africa's Kush (reminiscent of Saunder's Imaro).
-Warhammer/Black Library author C.L. Werner offers a blood-soaked samurai tale that will encourage you to take care of your pets better.
*-Veteran writer Adrian Cole offers up an 'Elak of Atlantis' pastiche that echoes Henry Kuttner's voice really well (splendid conflict on a cursed island rife with elder god-things).
*-Speaking of Atlantis, Tom Doyle sends us into subterranean ruins with an Atlantean. This was the first time I read his work.
-Ryan Harvey offers us a touch of Steampunk gods plaguing Sorrow-ridden freedom fighters struggling to rebuild a city.
-James Stoddard offers the most varied tale, arguable not classic S&S. It's post-apocalyptic, curse-breaking adventure with cameo's from fairy tales.

Table of Contents (with the official teaser blurbs):
(1) Guardian of the Broken Gem by John C. Hocking
Benhus wondered what he could expect if they took him alive. Torture and interrogation, probably. They’d pry the fact that he worked for the King from him and that would seal his death warrant. He squeezed the hilt of the white dagger and wondered how many of them he could kill before they took him down.

(2) On Death Seed Island>/i>- by Adrian Cole
The cloud writhed gently, as if shifting in a breeze, though the air in the grove was very still. In a moment it had formed itself into a distinctive shape and the men drew back in alarm. It was a human figure, hunched, its face a blur, save for the eyes and mouth.

(3) Masks of Silence - by James Enge
The glass cages were full of… things. Not people, but parts of people. They were moving—they were alive: meaty throbbing hearts, shiny pulsating strips of liver, fingers crawling like inchworms, feet flopping like fish.
“There is a part of hell that’s supposed to be like this,” Deor remarked.

(4)Cage of Honor - by James Stoddard
Without hesitation, he sent his knife whistling through the air, striking the witch full in the throat. Ignoring her, he caught the woman in his arms, and she was everything to him all at once, everything he ever wanted.

(5) The Witch’s Hound - by C. L. Werner
In a burst of supernatural speed, the dog-ape lunged at Oba. It drove its hairy body beneath the sweep of his sword and drove its shoulder into his midriff in a maneuver that was more tackle than pounce. The samurai was knocked back, sent sprawling on the ground

(6) The Dead Queen’s Triumph - by Ryan Harvey
“You—don’t yet believe—that I am your queen.” The tongue moved freer as the abomination became used to speaking. “For long, I forgot that I was as well. But I am royal blood still. See?” One of the manipulated arms placed its hand over a flap on the chest cylinder. Fingers gripped the sides and pulled it open.

(7) Thieves of the Fallen World - by Tom Doyle
We’d taken these unearthly glowing gems and blades of cold flame from beings who (at best) weren’t quite human. These trophies were still puissant for ill, and a captured battle lance twitched at me like a living bug impaled on a pin. You shouldn’t be keeping such things, sire.

(8) Apedamak’s Army - by Milton Davis
Garang had made a mistake. He crouched as he walked backwards to the hut, hoping the beasts did not see him. He was halfway to the hut when the last beast spotted him and changed directions, shrieking at him as it attacked.

(X) Appendix: Game Statistics by Terry Olson
We present this appendix of game statistics for the various creatures, spells, and items described herein.



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Sunday, December 6, 2020

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu - Review by SE

 

The Trail of Bohu by Charles R. Saunders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spurred by a Sword & Sorcery groupread honoring this year's passing of Charles R. Saunders, I continued the Imaro Series with The Trail of Bohu. A guide to the series and book availability will be posted on Blackgate.com shortly [link coming].

This third novel is a setup for last: The Naama War. The Trail of Bohu has considerably less action than Imaro and The Quest for Cush: Imaro II (the prior being comprised of short stories and this being the first full-length novel). So far, Saunders has been building up two big plots: (1) Imaro's mysterious, ancestral origin, and (2) the burgeoning war between the united Northern tribes/nations (Cloud Strider and Cushite aligned) and the evil Naamans (Erriten, Mashataan sorceries). Here Saunders delivers mostly on the former, and quite comprehensively; the latter, reserved for the final book.

When he does deliver action, he doesn't hold back. Creatures are wonderfully dark:
"Even in the half-light of dusk, the animate corpses were hideous to behold. Though they were all naked, the bloating of their bodies had advanced to the point that their sex was difficult to determine. Their faces were travesties of humanity: noses split apart, teeth jutting beyond peeling lips; eyes that were nothing more than gelatinous orbs that glimmered with a tinge of green luminescence. Machawai green... The walkingdead gouged at throats, faces, eyes. They attempted no defense against the steel that hacked and slashed at their bodies..."
Saunders provides plenty of Nyumbani (i.e. Africa) lore, culture, and creatures, including mountable rhinoceros and zebras. Glossaries in the back of each book are appreciated, but not necessary. There is one distinct moment which made me snicker, recalling Samuel Jackson's renowned cursing. When questioned by Rabir about what Imaro will do when he catches the titular Bohu, Imaro says: "I will kill the mama-mfuka." I am no linguist to know the etymology of that insult, but it sounded the most contemporary of every Nyumbani term.

My favorite location is the "The Placed of Carved Trees", a mystical grove that Imaro seeks guidance:
"Each of its trees was carved into a gigantic sculpture that was grotesque in form and enigmatic in meaning. At first glance, the sculpted tree-trunks appeared distorted, and even monstrous. Many of the carvings took the shape of bulbous masses of bodies separated by thin, cylindrical stalks that might have been legs. Faces hung from those bodies--faces with misarranged features and distended mouths with protruding teeth, sometimes smiling, sometimes screaming..."
All in all a great stage for an all-out war for the continent of Nyumbani!

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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Shattered Seas Review AND Deep Madness Tour Guide - Review by S.E.

This post was simulcast on Black Gate.com on Nov-28-2020

BG_SS_cover
Cover art by Christopher Shy / Cover design by Byron Leavitt.

Shattered Seas is a toxic dose of Lovecraftian mythos, psychedelic team-exploration (reminiscent of Stark Trek voyages), and survival-horror melee (mutant creatures replacing zombies). It’s a maelstrom of fun if you enjoy horror adventure, losing your mind, and drowning.

Ever want to crack open the gateway into an Otherworld with a few friends? Perhaps you are ambitious and naively want to gain dominion of cosmic powers. Will you be comfortable with mutating forces transforming you into a tentacled mass? Start the madness by searching for the mystical Sphere buried in the ocean near the submerged Kadath Mining facility. Lucas Kane, a marine biologist, is one of your tour guides. Here he observes Kadath, a mining facility with organic qualities (excerpt):

Kadath lit up below them drew his attention and caught his breath. The facility sprawled across the seabed like a sunken metropolis from another world, its illuminated structures pushing defiantly upward into the inky abyss. The station’s domes and towers seemed like the last bastions of light and reason still standing in an endless Stygian wasteland. It was hypnotic, dreamlike, and yet somehow inexplicably solid. Lucas could make out the shuttle tubes running between the three main domes, as well as to the smaller, squarer outposts and middle structures. He could even see the primary enclosed drilling site not far off from the main facility, connected to Dome Three by long, spacious tubes.

This novel was inspired by Diemension Games' Deep Madness, a cooperative sci-fi/horror board game. The novel serves as a stand-alone book as much as it does a gateway into the game narrative. Non-gamers will enjoy it all the same since the key protagonists (Lucas Kane and Connor Durham) are freshly introduced, plus the story is a prequel to the story presented in the game. At the end of this article, there is an embedded movie overviewing the board game. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Dungeon Vol. 1: The Black Tower - Review by SE

SE rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Black Tower (1988) is full of forced action and lost opportunity. In any event, I thank the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery groupread that enabled me to revisit a series I thought I missed out on. If you like to be constantly bait-n-switched without reason, then this book is for you. Since it is the anchor for the series, I don't plan on reading more.

The Concept: Set ~1870, the aristocratic Englishman Major Clive Folliot goes exploring across the world for his missing brother Neville. The premise has a "lost world" pulp vibe (i.e., an alien world in which the protagonist is teleported/transported to and cannot return to earth) and that world is essentially a hostile prison for beings across time & space. A few instances, the book evoked emotions I last felt while watching the 1967 TV series The Prisoner or the 2004-2010 TV series The Lost. As the introduction explains, Byron Preiss had asked Philip José Farmer to edit and oversee the Dungeon series. Richard A. Lupoff was chosen to lead this (but it is unclear if Farmer selected him) with Volume 1: The Black Tower (1988).

What worked:
-Farmer's introduction to the series & the concept of the "Dungeon"
-The pull of the mysterious disappearance of Neville; this premise kept me in the book the duration.
-Bonus sketches/illustrations ostensibly drawn by the protagonist
-Occasional, brief scenes that deserved more than a paragraph (i.e., the plight of enthralled giants, and the impregnation of spider eggs into human bodies)
-User Annie's futuristic (~1999) language (which mention motherboards, and downloading); for a 1988 novel, this take on future vocabulary was entertaining and fairly accurate.

What did not work:
(1) The promise behind the cover and title: The cover by Robert Gould is awesome. It has stuck in my head for 30+ yrs. However, it promises a Heroic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery story, and the book is Sci-Fi adventure. My initial, ignorant impression was that the book may be like the 1984 Deathtrap Dungeon experience in which a hero is trapped a grim prison and must fight his way out (at least that cover matched the milieu).I don't think Major Clive Folliot ever wears a cape while wielding a sword either. The first third of this book is set in ~1870; then it's a mix of modern and futuristic elements. "The Black Tower" title seems off too; there is a black tower which is termed the City of Q'oorna, run by a khalif who spares the explorer's crew and puts them into a dungeon of sexy women! (an exclamation used to mirror the author's style) ... but we do not return to this tower or khalif, so...whatever.

(2) Embarrassing Sexism: Clive's constant desire to have sex with every woman undermines his deep feelings for Annabella Leighton, his love interest (stuck on earth as he explores the Dungeon). It is laughable to read chapter after chapter with him observing women as sex objects; expect descriptions of boobs, hips, and lips. Clive even has carnal desires for his relatives stuck in the dungeon! Cripes. Here's my favorite as Clive meets an alien lady with alabaster white skin:
"The magnificent woman touched the emerald that lay against her bosom, and Clive found himself wondering at the likely color of the areolae of her breasts." (p310)
(3) The conflict is "Clive vs.... ??? ". Maybe the conflict is against the Q'oornans (which are labels for people/things that might be ruling the strange Dungeon) but Clive fights people/things that are not Q'oornan constantly. Several prisons and military outpost exist, but they are all run by other prisoners. The final climax is not at the original Black Tower (i.e., the center of Q'oorna, the first outpost we experience in The Dungeon proper, and the title of the book) but features some other random tower with other random antagonists.

(4) The cool stuff relating to the main mystery is sidelined. Beyond the Black Tower bait-n-switch, the few links to a real story are sparse. For example, Clive's brother's notebook appears abruptly (mysteriously providing communications), then disappears for a long time; when it eventually reappears, it is given scant attention. On the other hand, the book is full of random conflicts that don't matter from chapter-to-chapter. In short, the pretense of "mystery" allows Clive to randomly explore, attack, befriend, and wander without reason.

(5) The author seemed lost: The formula was clear for each chapter: introduce new ideas then toss them. Many times the main story arc was disregarded and we are treated to campy, fireside discussions amongst the characters echoing the author's lack of direction. Here is my own distillation of these silly discussions:
"Why are we banding together?"
    [no answer since no ones knows why]
"What should we do now that we are stuck again?"
    "Let me tell you, the plot calls for us to do something, dammit sah (~sir)!"
When first stumbling into the Dungeon, and climbing a mountain, the characters find themselves stuck (they can't descend). But wait, there is a mysterious coffin here...and it seems tall. Yes it is. In fact, there is a trap bottom under the body and inside are ropes to climb down. Perfect, let's take them and go! (That is actually a true spoiler of a minor scene) and it represents the constant pseudo-action. Essentially, the action has to keep going, and every few pages when the group is in a bind, a meaningless solution presents itself.

Conversely, in the middle of action sequences we are treated with forced sides, i.e., when Shriek is introduced and spearman threatens the group, Clive decides to calmly experiment with telepathy to someone back "home" (for a few pages of dialogue).

Instead of closing the loop on the key story arcs, the final chapter (named "Chang Guafe") even springs a new character on us. In Farmer's intro, he actually calls out Chang as being a great element (maybe, but it is poorly placed in the story, and poorly utilized).

View all my reviews

Friday, July 24, 2020

Tales of Attluma - Review by SE and Oron Guide



Tales of Attluma by David C. Smith
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

David C. Smith crafts his own flavor of adventure-horror with his Tales of Attluma, heavily influenced by Robert E. Howard (REH, Conan creator) and his contemporary Pulp Fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith (CAS). Attluma is an island continent akin to the mysterious Atlantis, and these 16 tales cover its dark history and doomed end. These stories are fantastically dark and exciting, a true blend of REH’s action and CAS’s dreaded atmosphere. On Attluma, ancient gods live in mountain temples and underground; humans struggle to survive, and seem to be intruding on land made for, and by, demons.
“These tales and a dozen more by fantasy and adventure author David C. Smith appear in this unique collection. Out of print for more than 40 years, these stories were first published in the days of limited-circulation fanzines—the only avenue for new work created by the generation of writers who grew up in the shadow of the pulp magazines. The paperback reprints of those pulp stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s encouraged an entire generation of young writers to enlarge on that tradition of popular American storytelling. Now they are in print once more for a new generation of fantasy fiction enthusiasts.” -- Official book blurb

Interestingly, there are no Oron tales, Oron being the warrior protagonist that the original Zebra series was named after. Yet he is not needed here. Attluma is saturated with lore and conflict, armies of ghosts, lost loves seeking retribution, and hungry demons just looking for some attention. The last several stories ramp up the demonic uprising (or retaking) of the island/continent. “The End of Days” finale is epic in scope, a sprawling battle with loads of mayhem and militant sorcery. The collection fits the Sword & Sorcery label, with an emphasis on Sorcery (specifically necromancy and demon summoning). Excerpts are the best way to share the poetic, dark conflict readers should expect:

EXCERPTS:
“Dressed in scarlet wounds and running with blood, here was my mother, her face beseeching mercy, gashes across her face and body. There came my father, hobbling on a split foot and one arm gone, strings of meat and tendon trembling from the open shoulder. Here was my brother, once a strong and handsome man, now in death a broken thing with no legs, pulling himself forward with his arms, his wife beside him, on her belly and kicking her feet as her head rolled beside her.”—from “The Last Words of Imatus Istum”

And there was Yadis, The All Mother, the hag with one eye and triple teats whose spittle had made the stars and whose defecation made the earth. Her mad singing had awakened humans to life; we crawled from the muck and ever since wondered about the dark heart of life.” —from "Dark Goddess”

“Silene observed the sorcerers as they met and fought in the field. She saw the air turn colors between these people and watched as they moved their arms in gesticulations, or with daggers drew designs in the air. One or the other of these mysterious people would die, pulled into the sky to be torn invisibly into pieces, raining blood, or drawn into the earth to suffocate, or simply fall, breathless and unmoving, wrapped beneath sheets of glowing color.” —from ”The End of Days”

Several of the attacking sorcerers made signs toward Edric’s fighters and dropped them. These men and women fell onto their backs and caught fire from their chests. They screamed as they died, but the unnatural fire consumed them swiftly, turning the men and women as black as charred wood. From the burnt corpses rose pieces of them, bits of black, which moved high into the air and, at the command of the attacking sorcerers, dropped like hurled missiles into the lines of Edric’s men, the bits of black pushing through faces and armor. …“Souls,” Hame told her. “They remove the charred souls from the burned bodies to use as weapons.” —from ”The End of Days”

GUIDE: Tales of Attluma is splendid by itself, but it serves as a foundation for the other works in the same world. Read this and you’ll want to jump into the novels and other short stories. A guide is needed since the publication history is complicated by title changes and, like most fantasy, publication order does not match the chronological order of the fictional world. Thanks to a group-read in the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery group we were able to communicate with the author and clarify the chronological & publication history of the Attluma Cycle (coined that with the tacit approval of the author). As of 2020, there are 25 stories and novelettes; 3 Oron novels; 1 Akram novel.

For newcomers, I recommend starting with Tales of Attluma since it fleshes out the world and prepares readers to jump into various arcs, such as the primary barbarian Oron set (many start with the 1978 book that introduced the character to the world named simply Oron), or the cursed sorcerer Akram novel The Sorcerer's Shadow). To learn more about David C. Smith, check out recent interviews by DMR and BlackGate.


ATTLUMA CYCLE

Chronological Story-Order / Key Characters / Publication date

Tales of Attluma by David C. Smith Azieran Adventures Presents Artifacts and Relics Extreme Sorcery by Christopher Heath Warlords, Warlocks & Witches by D.M. Ritzlin Oron Mosutha's Magic by David C. Smith Oron No. 4 The Valley of Ogrum by David C. Smith Oron 5 The Ghost Army by David C. Smith Oron by David C. Smith The Mighty Warriors by Robert M. Price The Sorcerer's Shadow by David C. Smith Engor's Sword Arm by David C. Smith

0) Tales of Attluma: Collection (2 Akram tales, 1 Dathien, no Oron); 16 Short stories, 2020 by Pulp Hero Press: Listed mostly in chronological order, mostly pre-Oron, with the last several being the “End” of Attluma (see below)

1) “Shadow-born Shadow-taken” in Azieran Adventures Presents Artifacts and Relics: Extreme Sorcery Pre-Oron novelette (featuring Dathien from Tales of Attluma’s “Dark of Heart”), 2013

2) “Twin Scars” in Warlords, Warlocks & Witches Pre-Oron, “(standalone Kellen tale), 2019

3) Oron: Mosutha's Magic Oron Novel 1/3: Zebra #3 1982 (original title: Reign, Sorcery!)

4) Oron No. 4: The Valley of Ogrum Oron Novel 2/3: - Zebra’s #4 1982 (original title: Deathwolf)

5) Oron 5: The Ghost Army 5 short stories with Oron: - Zebra #5, 1983 (original title: Death in Asakad and Other Tales)

6) “The Shadow of Dia-Sust” Oron short story appears in The Mighty Warriors, 2018, … also available online at Blackgate.com

7) Oron, the original Oron Novel 3/3: Zebra #1, 1978

8) Sometime Lofty Towers, Pulp Hero Press, 2021

9) The Sorcerer's Shadow an Akram Novel: Zebra #2, 1982 (original title: The Shadow of Sorcery)

10) Engor's Sword Arm novella, Forgotten Ages ~1991

11) Several stories from Tales of Attluma including two Akram tales (“Come Death” and “The Return to Hell”) and the grand finale “The End of Days”


CONTENTS of TALES of ATTLUMA (summary notes with spoilers)

1. “Descales’ Skull”: Three men collect as many parts of Descales’ skull and resurrect his soul….he grants them each a wish (Clamus:Gold, Sumi Dan power over slavery; Bordogas: partnering with a woman). All get their wish… with nasty, ironic deaths.

2. “The Generosity of the Gods”: Obroc of Kurstikan and his buddy Cedes are fishermen who decide to test the power of the two gods [they should remain nameless!]. The pair blaspheme to determine if the gods are real. The consequences of so terrifying, really really terrible, but at least the friends survive in some way, together. This is so dark, it is funny.

3. “Feasting Shadows”: Pel and Jenta are a young couple seeking ancient temples in the caves, and come across more than ruined ritual spaces. They experience the Song, Dance, and Culmination of the Feast.

4. “Dark of Heart”: Captain Dathien gets a second chance of freedom. Princess Amyra is missing in Midriga (his place of origin) and Prince Eam seeks to save her. What ensues is a mad mission into the mountainous region of Midriga, involving body horror, bleak fates for all.

5. “The Last Words of Imatus Istum”: The depressing story of Imatus Kad Istum, of the civilized city Mograd which was overrun by the barbaric Kunashtu. Loss of knowledge, slavery, eating of former citizens, raising the dead on a mass scale.

6. “Aliastra the Sorceress”: Count Holos, a homeless roaming royal who deals with failing his father; he had been taught that 'he owned his own future through the choices/actions he made'. This is mostly a story of the love between the sorceress Aliastra and her long-dead lover Ormenidu….which Holos gets embroiled in.

7. “Ithtidzik”: The titular student was arrogant enough to seek power from around his wise mentor; he seeks out an ancient tome from a demon and gains more insight than his single head can hold! Sharing knowledge with enthralled, sustained corpses helps for a time… doesn’t end well for the protagonist, of course.

8. “Rhasjud’s Destiny”: A mercenary warlord of the title returns to the site of where he murdered his brother, who haunts him; wolves and ghosts roam everywhere.

9. “Blood Ransom”: Androm the pretty boy, gets tied up with Tsathsimus and Ishrid in a plot to kidnap the princess Asri; beware bloody red gems that are actually alive. Asri and Lady Liprosa let Androm go since he redeems himself.

10. “Dark Goddess”: Jutom and the Nthgali warriors ransack the city of Coroth which includes the raping of a priestess of Yasid. The product of rape and torture will haunt Jutom.

11. “Come, Death”: Akram is introduced as a cursed immortal sorcerer strolling through plagued ruins. He pities a child amongst a plague and saves it.

12. “The Return to Hell” Akram appears again in a very trippy story. Akram amasses mercenaries to sacrifice them to the Witch/Sorcerer pair (Nidyis, Narathkor) that made him immortal. He wishes to die, but he has a young female fan Tharis who wants to be like him. He tries to spare her even as he leads hundreds to slaughter….

13. “The Passing of the Sorcerer”: A love story of the sorcerer Camses with royal princess Porissa of Karhum, with hints of reincarnation and celestial life. A demonic scourge plagues the town, and the King. Apparently, humans took too much from the demons without sacrifice or honor, or belief…

14. “Patience Serves”: A dose of vengeance for a “wronged love” between Lady Tristania and Lord Mors.

15. “The Sounding of the Gong”: Another bizarre love story. Seft and Oma (sorcerer aged, and younger sorceress) are the last few humans worth stealing from. A trap is set for these thieves to sacrifice. This continues the theme of weird-love and eternal life between pairs of sorcerers.

16. “The End of Days”: Meet the poet Nour, his pregnant wife Silene, and her brother Edric, as they race toward the Surkad Capital city. It is the last stand for humans on Attluma. The demon Serenthal seeks to reclaim all the territory and eliminate everything. It is over the top epic and dark…a great end to the book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Twilight of the Gods - Review by SE

This review was published on Blackgate.com April 8th, 2020:
The Doom of “Oden”: Twilight of the Gods (Grimnir #2)


With Grimnir #2 Twilight of the Gods (TotG), Scott Oden presents a novel take on Ragnarök, the apocalypse in Norse mythology. He masterfully integrates his historical fiction expertise (i.e., from Memnon, Men of Bronze) with gritty battles reminiscent of Robert E. Howard (i.e., the creator of Conan the Barbarian; Oden recently published a serialized, pastiche novella across the Savage Sword of Conan Marvel Comic series). Few can merge the intensity of low-fantasy Sword & Sorcery with high-fantasy Epics, but Oden does here.

TotG is second in this series; Fletcher Vredenburgh reviewed Griminr #1 A Gathering of Ravens (AGoR) in 2017, and reported: “Oden tells a story that feels lifted straight from the sagas and Eddas.” This February, John O’Neill posted a Future Treasures to reveal the Jimmy Iacobelli cover art to Twilight of the Gods.

This article is a review of the story, the style, and the lore. Read on to learn about the series’ namesake, the apocalypse in this second volume, and get teasers for the third book, The Doom of Odin.

“Mark this, little bird: you can judge how high you stand in your enemy’s esteem by the weapon he draws against you.” – Grimnir



Odin Fades and the Cross Emerges

TotG blurs the line between fantasy and history.” With Odin losing power, the hymn-singers are stepping up to rule the world. The Christian commandment “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me” gave rise to much strife in real history, which even had converted Danes and Norsemen crusade for the Cross. The book opens with this conflict fueling Ragnarök (read Ch.1. online). These excerpts also capture Oden’s style, including Grimdark scenery:

Corpses sprawled atop a low hill, beneath a sky the color of old slate. They lay in their tattered war gear: mail riven, shields broken, and helmets split asunder by ferocious blows. There were scores of them, arranged not in the perfect windrows borne of clashing shield-walls, where the dead fall like grain beneath a thresher-man’s blade, but rather in heaps and mounds—as though the Tangled God himself, cunning Loki, had decided to reshape the land with the bodies of slain Northmen. Their blood mingled with other vital fluids, turning the early snow underfoot to a scarlet slurry.
A cold north wind moaned through the evergreen spruces ringing the hill. It rattled the shafts of spears that grew from bodies of the slain like corpse-flowers, their blades rooted in bellies and spines; it snapped the fabric of cast-off pennons. Some displayed a wolf’s head against a white field. Others, more numerous, bore a stark black cross. The wind faded; utter silence returned.

And… Howardian battle scenes:
Úlfrún did not flinch. She did not shy away from the whistling blade that sought to end her life. Instead, she stepped in and caught it on the knuckles of her iron fist. The sword sparked, rebounded; the clangor of impact reverberated. Far to the north, from among the cloud-wreathed peaks, came the echo of thunder as if in answer … The blade of her axe flashed in autumn’s pale light, and she rained blow after furious blow down upon the guard of her enemy. A rush of breath, a ringing crash, and the rasp and slither of steel on iron were the only sounds as she batted aside Heimdul’s clumsy riposte and very nearly took off his head. A hasty backward leap was all that saved him.

And… poetic horror:

And with a sound like the rattle of immense bones, the stranger’s cloak is borne up as by a hot breath of wind. There is only darkness, beneath. And that darkness grows and spreads, becoming monstrous wings that blot out the burning sky. The darkness crawls like a serpent across the ruin of Hrafnhaugr. It snuffs the flames and robs the air of its breath; it slays the living with a pestilence that rots the blood in their veins. It crushes and destroys. She turns to run as the darkness engulfs her. And in its hideous embrace, she opens her mouth to scream…

Via the current Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Groupread featuring this book, I learned from beta-reader Stan Wagenaar that this chapter was an intentional homage to REH’s Conan tale “Frost Giant’s Daughter” (1953, Fantasy Fiction). Between Étaín and Disa, Grimnir has sympathized with both sides of the religious war marking the end of the world (i.e., the Nailed-God versus the likes of Odin). Ultimately, he is out for his personal agenda, and there are plenty of antagonizing forces beyond human ones.
Frazetta, REH’s Frost Giant’s Daughter

Who/What is Grimnir?

In the Beowulf saga, the titular hero hints down the monstrous Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then a dragon; the hero even becomes King of the Geats (the Geats of Scandinavia hailing from modern-day Sweden). TotG presents Grimnir as a demi-god hybrid of Beowulf & Grendel: half monster, half savior-to-be-worshipped) and king over the Raven-Geats no less! He has one working eye, but so do many suspicious characters ranging from Odin, a great wyrm, Nila, Grimnir, and the Grey Wanderer. So, you should not trust any one-eye, let alone Grimnr: he is a brutal bastard who is more out for self-preservation than for defending his human worshippers. He cares less about the threats of cross-bearing crusaders than he begrudges an ancient dragon—but more on wyrms below. TotG’s cursed crusader introduces us to Grimnir, emphasizing the various perspectives and clashes of cultures:

“Grimnir son of Bálegyr,” Konraðr said. “What a rough beast you are. You go by many names, I am told. Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night. Some claim you are the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. The Irish called your kind fomoraig, did they not? They cursed your sire, Bálegyr, and the wolf ships that brought him to their fair isle. What did the English name you? Orcnéas? But to the Danes and the Norse your kind were always skrælingar. Accursed sons of Cain, you are …

Oden followers will note the “Orcneas” reference. The author has said: “Since young adulthood, I’ve wanted to write a book about Orcs—those foot soldiers of evil first revealed to us in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I wanted to write it from the Orcs’ point of view. And I wanted to redeem them.” Inspect the Russian cover to A Gathering of Ravens (inset) depicting Grimnir, albeit with a gratuitous beard. Oden concurs of his appearance on his blog while explicitly developing the lore: “I’ve seen that gets his hair right. Really, give him a sharper nose and there you have the last of the fabled kaunar, that blighted race of monsters who would enter popular culture centuries later as Tolkien’s Orcs.”
Russian cover art for A Gathering of Ravens, and zoomed-in depiction of Grimnir

Grimnir’s Partner, Dísa Dagrúnsdottir:

Étaín was the young female protagonist in A Gathering of Ravens. This round, Grimnir’s partner is young Dísa (a.k.a. “Little Bird”, a Raven-Geat). Whereas Étaín was a Christian, Dísa is a barbaric, maiden of war—or she dreams to become one, anyway. Motherless, her clan selects her to confer with their godly protector the “Hooded One” (Grimnir). This book is really about her coming of age while the world ends; her priestess role puts her smack-dab on the intersection of the corporeal and the supernatural. Disa is a likable, spirited character that you will be rooting for from the instant she is presented in chapter two.

[Disa], who springs from the loins of Dagrún Spear-breaker; she, who is a Daughter of the Raven, bearer of the rune Dagaz; she, who is the Day-strider, chosen of the Gods. She, who is skjaldmær, shieldmaiden.

A contemporary similar character would be Sensua from the acclaimed Ninja Theory video game series Hellblade (Sensua’s Sacrifice (2017) followed by Sensu’s Saga due out 2020). This January, S.M. Carrière posted on the sequel’s video trailer featuring the band Heilung. In short, if you like Sensua or Heilung, then you must experience Disa’s saga. The embedded video could easily be repurposed as a trailer for Dísa in TotG:


Serpents & Dragons:

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is triggered by the world (Midgard)-wrapping serpent Jörmungandr releasing the tail from its mouth, and uncoiling. So, readers should expect some form of dragon and we are gifted the spawn of the legendary Jormungandr’s (Midgard Serpent): Malice-Striker. The combination of lore and prose reinforcing Malice-Striker’s presence evokes classic dragons, such as Beowulf’s foe or J.R.R.’s Glaurung (the Worm of Morgoth/Angband from the Children of Hurin). Malice-Striker’s character and past are revealed, and [minor spoiler] he is set up for a key role in the next installment.

John Howe depicts Tolkien’s Glaurung and Alan Lee depicts Glaurun’s eye

The Doom of Odin (Grimnir series #3)

Twilight of the Gods delivered an apocalyptic nail-biter. It can be read completely stand-alone, but certainly builds on A Gathering of Ravens. Still the battle rages on for Grimnir. Oden plans to finish the third installment, The Doom of Odin, by the end of summer 2020 (publication at St. Martin’s discretion). From the author’s website, we find the likely book blurb:

As the Black Death rampages across Europe, two creatures of the Elder World clash over the rotting corpse of Christendom. 
Sicily, 1347 AD. A ghost ship from the east washes ashore at Messina. A ship of dead men, and hidden in its belly is a doom like no other: the dragon Niðhöggr, the Malice-Striker, an ancient vessel of destruction from the Elder Days. And while it is no longer the mighty wyrm of Ragnarök, the beast’s breath still bears upon it a pestilence, a plague that will echo through the ages as the Black Death.
But the world of Men has a strange champion – another creature of the Elder World: a snarling, spitting knot of hatred, profane and blasphemous, whose ancestors were the goblins of myth and legend; he is a monster in truth, though nevertheless he stands as the last bastion between humanity and the cold silence of oblivion. He is Grimnir, and he has hunted the Malice-Striker for more than a century, from the cold wastes of the Baltic to the dank cisterns beneath Constantinople.
Now, as the plague stalks through Western Europe – and as the dread wyrm slithers through Italy, bound for Rome on its mission to devour the head of Christendom – Grimnir must contend not only with the beast’s insidious cunning, but with the iron fist of the Papal Inquisition, and the army of a vengeful Italian condottiere. Grimnir, however, is not without allies of his own. Accompanied by a Jewish witch and mystic, and aided by the fey King of the Mongrel Court, a troupe of half-blooded creatures bound for Finisterre and the World’s End, Grimnir sets the stage for a final showdown. 
For at Avignon, the papal enclave on the River Rhone, the Doom of Odin will fall, and the Elder World will finally meet its bloody end. The only question that remains is: will Miðgarðr and the world of Men survive this deadly clash of titans?

On Scott Oden

Scott is the author of five novels, two historical fiction (Men of Bronze and Memnon), three fantasy with a strong historical bent (The Lion of Cairo, A Gathering of Ravens, and Twilight of the Gods), and a collaborative novel (A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus). He is the author of the Robert E. Howard pastiche Conan novella “The Shadow of Vengeance”, serialized in issues #1-#12 of Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan, as well as the Conan short story “Conan Unconquered”, appearing in the video game of the same name. In addition, he has written a couple of short stories, and a few non-fiction articles and introductions (notably, the introduction to Del Rey’s Robert E. Howard collection, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures). He has been an avid tabletop role-playing gamer since 1979, beginning with Holmes-edition D&D. Scott was born in Columbus, Indiana, but was raised in rural North Alabama, near Huntsville. He currently splits his time between his home in Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age.


Monday, March 2, 2020

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories - Review by S.E.

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories by Clifford Ball
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery group for bringing Clifford Ball's The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories, with vintage cover art by Virgil Finley, to my attention; also, thanks to DMR Dave Ritlzin for compiling great collections like this one (and others like The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis).

As the introduction reviews, these tales emerged in the wake of the death of S&S "father" Robert E. Howard in 1936. Clifford Ball was one author stepping up to try and fill the void in pulp magazine collections (Weird Tales). He is relatively obscure, but I speculate that these tales may have been very influential to others (like Leiber and Wagner). There are six in this collection. Conan the Barbarian Marvel Issue #264 (1993, Roy Thomas and John Watkiss) reintroduce Karlk, the evil sorcerer, as an enemy of Conan in a tribute to Clifford Ball (along with Throll, and the white apes of Sorjoon).

The Sword & Sorcery Tales (stories 1-3): These occur in kingdoms adjacent to Ygoth, called Forthe and Livia. There are explicit call-outs to Burrough's white apes from Barsoom. In all three, the protagonist(s) are held captive or in jail and escape.

(1) “Duar the Accursed” May 1937 Weird Tales. 5-star
The mysterious barbarian king Duar battles Lovecraftian horror while searching for the powerful Rose of Gaon. This was dark, fun adventure that set the stage for lots more Duar...but that never seems to have materialized. As an immortal, intelligent barbarian, Duar seems to be a precursor to Karl Edward Wagner's Kane. Duar's companion is a female spirit, Shar, who monitors him via the ether and counsels him on demons.Unlike the following stories, Duar's capture is more intense and his escape more interesting.

(2)“The Thief of Forthe” July 1937 Weird Tales3-star ...and...
(3)“The Goddess Awakes” Feb. 1938 Weird Tales.3-star
The "Thief of Forthe" introduces us to the thief Rald. Rald is contracted by Karlk, an evil wizard, since a mission requires some sort of corporeal brawn, which is simply to lift a bar from a door. The melodramatic interactions with the King and Queen are full of incongruity; they seem to like Rald despite his criminal nature. The wizard and Rald are eventually caught and tied up, and then left alone to escape!

"The Goddess Awakes" continues with Rald, this time gaining a partner. Most S&S prior had a lead protagonist (ie Conan) and a semi-serious delivery, but here we have a humorous duo featuring a barbarian thief (Rald) and a sly, philosophical mercenary (Thwaine). This screamed of a Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" influence (ie The Swords of Lankhmar. However, Leiber's first story of his own duo was published the following year (1939, "Two Sought Adventure" in Unknown). The end-boss had a Sphinx quality to it, but was too easily dispatched. In any event, this was slightly better than the second tale, but still too shallow for my tastes.

(4)“The Swine of Ææa” Mar. 1939 Weird Tales.5-star
Having sought out this collection for the first three, these others were just unexpected fun. This one has a slow setup, but the characters are engaging. They include an author documenting a wild story from a drunk sailor. There are echoes of statuesque end-bosses (Buddha and the Sphinx) that began in "The Goddess Awakes". The story is delivered with care and the descriptions are cool too:

The mystery island
“That’s queer shrubbery for these parts, isn’t it?” It was. I never saw such strangely shaped trees, with limbs that twisted like writhing snakes, or such oddly formed, three-cornered leaves as those growing on this island. Now that we were closer, things did not appear to be entirely green; there was a red network through some of the leaves, a patter of tiny lurid veins running wild at strange angles. No two of them seemed alike. The influence of jungle odors which we now encountered must have affected me; for the thought came into my mind that the colors of the brush were continually changing, like some lizards I had seen that were readily able to merge their outlines and coloration with their surroundings. It gave me the creeps, I tell you."


Beautiful Goddess:
"It was her eyes. They burned with a submerged fire that might have been stolen from Vulcan after he pilfered it from Olympus. I can’t tell you what color they were; they must have taken on all the tints of the rainbow, for one minute I thought them to be blue and the next I decided they were either gray or green. Another look, and I was prepared to swear her eyes were as yellow as a panther’s. You can’t describe the color of flame-tips; they keep changing too rapidly. The next best thing is to discover the source and look at the fuel. It was her eyes, not her features, that registered the “here-I-am” invitations, yet the woman, or girl, owned an aura of virginal sweetness..."


Ruins:
The whole floor of the inner courtyard was strewn with projecting rock formations which might once have been statues, but were now worn so smooth by the hands of Time and changing climates that they had lost all bold outlines a sculptor may have executed upon them. Chunks of shapeless stone, some formed groups oddly suggestive of women gossiping in the market place, or leaned toward one another as men engaged in desperate struggle. I selected one piece, in particular, which resembled a crucified man with his head thrown backward as he stared in hopeless pleading toward a silent sky. All were so worn that any carven facial contours some ancient artist may once have been proud of had been erased forever, and perhaps my impression of lines defining corded muscles and rounded limbs was a fantasy of the brain alone.

...The worn images seemed to have recovered whatever original forms they had once enjoyed; they, too, were laughing and gesticulating with queer movements. The whole courtyard was a fantastic scene, such as may have been drawn by imaginative artists depicting lost souls in Hell.


(5)“The Little Man” Aug. 1939 Weird Tales.5-star
What's this? A noir mystery with a self-confessed serial killer walking the streets? Fast and very fun. Will you understand how a thin, lithe man murders bigger men? Well...to quote the story: "Men lack faith in a thing simply because they are not able to understand it."

(6) “The Werewolf Howls” Nov. 1941 Weird Tales. 4-star
Monsieur Etienne Delacroix has a secret, and a canine-cryptid to deal with. An obvious denouement ends a short story, but the delivery was enjoyable.

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