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

Monday, November 20, 2023

Good Vibes from Demons: Re-release and Commentary

Rogue Blades Presents Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology ISBN-13: 9798863079608 (print) ASIN: B0045Y1LMS (Kindle); Cover Artist: Johnney Perkins. Interior Graphics: M.D. Jackson

  • Jason M Waltz (Publisher of RBE/RBF) had dedicated the re-release to Robert Mancebo, author for several Rogue Blade Entertainment anthologies, who sadly passed away in 2023.
  • For this "Good vibes from Reviews" tag, note the response from Robert Mancebo's daughter in the Black Gate commentary. Breathtaking. Reviews and announcements rarely are emotive. Writing and reading is often a solitary hobby, but as Rachel points out, books bring us together in ways often not told.

Here is my mini-review and re-release notice:

In 2010, Black Gate announced Rogue Blades Entertainment Conjures DEMONS. This October 2023, the third edition has been issued and with it a revamped Kindle version! The original Kindle edition lacked a functioning, linked Table of Contents, but that’s all brought up to modern standards. It is dedicated to Robert Mancebo, author for several Rogue Blade Entertainment anthologies, who sadly passed away in 2023.

Jason M Waltz is well known amongst adventure fiction readers, especially the Swords & Sorcery crowd. With his Rogue Blades Entertainment Books and associated Foundation, he’s brought us the epic Return of the Sword (BG review) and then Rage of the Behemoth, and Demons.  He’s edited/published a variety of other anthologies with themes of Weird Noir, Pirates, and Sword & Planet with Lost Empire of Sol (BG review), and splendid nonfiction like Writing Fantasy Heroes (BG review) and recently Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (BG review). He recently ran a successful Kickstarter for another anthology as spotlighted on BG: “Neither Beg Nor Yield – A Sword & Sorcery Anthology with Attitude.” As you await Neither Beg Nor Yield, you’ll want to revisit Demons.

Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology – Blurb

When the gates of Hell open, who stands between Man and the Abyss? From mankind’s infancy, people have huddled in the dark, drawing signs in the air, muttering quiet prayers, quivering with dread at what roams in the night. Demons. Creatures of the Darkness. Evil spirits riding dark winds. And mankind trembled. Yet a few stood, drew steel imbued with magic to hue spirit as well as flesh, and walked out into the night to meet the foes of mortal men. Join the struggle in these 28 masterful tales of adventure and mayhem as heroes, forged as ‎strong as the steel they wield, defy foes from the realms of nightmare.‎


In Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, Rogue Blades Entertainment (RBE) delivers what it claims: a sampling of demon stories and adventure. Your chance of finding appealing stories is decent with 28 entries. Chock full of demons, champions, possession, witches, etc.. Kudos to RBE for keeping these tales alive from a 2006 publication (Carnifex Press). The purpose of an anthology is to provide an array of options, allow new readers to explore the genre, allow self-described “veteran readers” to identify new authors, and enable reading in small doses (i.e. great for traveling or parents with small children constantly interrupting their activities). “Demons” delivers this.

For anthologies, we expect to experiment with doses of new material/authors. For me, three stories that emphasized personal demons (or personal challenges) were outstanding. They stuck with me and are worth rereading; my favorites are in bold below in the Table of Contents listing. But you may have your own favorites! Check them out:

Demons: Table of Contents

  • “Foreword” by Armand Rosamilia
  • “The Man with the Webbed Throat” by Steve Moody
  • “Imprisoned” by Carl Walmsley
  • “Toxic” by Steven L. Shrewsbury
  • “Azieran: Bound by Virtue” by Christopher Heath
  • “Bodyguard of the Dead” by C.L. Werner
  • “Kron Darkbow” by Ty Johnston
  • “The Vengeance of Tibor” by Ron Shiflet
  • “The Beast of Lyoness” by Christopher Stires
  • “Fifteen Breaths” by Phil Emery
  • “The Pact” by Jonathan Green
  • “Blood Ties” by Trista Robichaud
  • “Zeerembuk” by Steve Goble
  • “The Fearsome Hunger” by Rob Mancebo
  • “The Furnace” by Sandro G. Franco
  • “The First League Out from Land” by Brian Dolton
  • “The Sacrifice” by Jason Irrgang
  • “Son of the Rock” by Laura J. Underwood
  • “Into Shards” by Murray J.D. Leeder 
  • “Through the Dark” by Darla J. Bowen
  • “Joenna’s Ax” by Elaine Isaak
  • “The Lesser: A Swords of the Daemor Tale” by Patrick Thomas
  • “When the Darkness Grows” by Frederick Tor
  • “Demon Heart” by Bryan Lindenberger
  • “Azieran: Racked upon the Altar of Eeyuu” by Christopher Heath
  • “Born Warriors” by TW Williams
  • “Mistaken Identity” by Robert J. Santa
  • “Box of Bones” by Jonathan Moeller
  • “By Hellish Means” by Bill Ward


Tuesday, November 7, 2023



Simulcast on Black Gate magazine Nov 6th, 2023.

Old Moon Quarterly is a magazine of dark fantasy and weird sword-and-sorcery. In the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, Tanith Lee and Karl Edward Wagner, it contains stories of strange vistas, eldritch beings, and the bloody dispute thereof by both swordsmen and swordswomen. Old Moon Quarterly emerged in 2022 led by Editor-in-Chief Julian Barona, flanked by Assistant Editors Caitlyn Emily Wilcox and Graham Thomas Wilcox. This May 2023, Black Gate reviewed Issue #3 (with an overview of #1 and #2).  True to what the editors promise, the magazine consistently delivers strong doses of weird Sword & Sorcery.

This post reviews Old Moon Quarterly Issue V; shared below is the table of contents with summaries of each story and excerpts (these were selected to avoid spoilers while conveying the feel of each).  As with previous issues, expect stories that push the boundaries of uniqueness, blending poetic writing with horror and adventure. If you read tropes they’ll lean toward the twisted or bizarre.

But first a quick call out to the ongoing Kickstarter for Issues VII & VIII;  This campaign runs now through Nov 31st, 2023 and, if successful, would fund two more issues paying contributors professional rates!

Here is a key blurb from and about the Old Moon Quarterly crew.

Old Moon Quarterly is an award-winning print and digital magazine of sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy fiction, featuring over 20,000 words of original fiction as well as poetry and original nonfiction. We’ve a love for the classics of the genre and a desire to push for some new, strange takes on our old favorites. And of course, the magazine is made with a particular love and affinity for the eldritch aesthetics and weird storytelling of BerserkBloodborne and Dark Souls.

We’ve published five issues so far, with a sixth issue on the way. Since our inception in June 2022, we’ve increased our pay for authors from 5c a word to 8c a word, making us the only sword-and-sorcery focused fantasy magazine that pays what the SFWA considers a “professional” rate. We firmly believe that dark fantasy and sword-and-sorcery authors deserve a venue where they can receive fair pay for stories that are often very difficult to place in other venues. We started Old Moon Quarterly to give authors that venue.

With the funding from this Kickstarter, we’ll be able to maintain that payrate for issues 7 and 8, which will release in 2024. And not only will we be able to maintain that payrate, we’ll be able to increase the amount of fiction in each issue from 20,000 to 30,000+; we’ll be able to include (for the first time) interior artwork in a classic black-and-white style!

Old Moon Quarterly Issue V: Stories and Poems

1) “Together Under the Wing” by Jonathan Olfert

The perspective and scale of this story are simply huge: the protagonists are mammoths, and they pale in size versus their giant antagonist!  Epic duels drive this revenge tale. Walks-like-a-Rockslide seeks revenge for the death of his mother (Grass-Wisper) by the hands of the ancient Giant King.

The matriarch Grass-Whisper had lived in a grove in the hills, now stomped flat by vast human-like footprints. Her carved tusks lay in cracked-off chunks; they and the blood were all that remained—that, and the huge flint used to skin her before eating. A flint five times the size of the quartz blades bound to his tusks… (p11)

2) Champions Against the Maggot King by K.H. Vaughn

Get ready for some Warhammer/Grimdark-Tolkien fare. The soldier Grath narrates this tale. He details an epic battle against the Maggot King. The titular, heroic champions lead an army of >60 thousand that ride in landships made from living stone, armed with canons, and fueled by elemental sorcery. The champions include the Dwarf Ko Mon who has a lengthy morning-star-like prosthetic, the sword-wielding elf-who-never-smiles lIhar, and their demoness leader Sergeant, the female Sorrow Mai.

A wave of wild men break against the ship. They are pathetic. Pale and soft, but secure in their sense of power, waving their genitals at us as they come. They howl in impotent rage as they die, mowed down by arrows and lances. The ship rolls over them and churns their corpses into dirt. No one will find their bones or mourn their deaths. Where does the Maggot King find them? There must be thousands of them in the dim light of subterranean caves, thinking nothing but their eventual victory.  (p49)

3) “The King’s Two Bodies” poem by Joe Koch

I enjoyed this so much, I read it three times to soak in the words. It is beautiful, but too cryptic to understand on its initial pass.  Two souls with liquid properties are contained within one body. One may exit the vessel via a ritual of exiting the body and filling a cup.

4) “The Origin of Boghounds” by Amelia Gorman

Samphire is a female bounty hunter searching out a snake-oil salesman at the edges of Sichel, the stained city that radiates a New Orleans swamp vibe. She’s not the only bounty hunter seeking a payout. Several other hunters stumble into her and boghounds as they track down their prey while unearthing mysteries and monsters.

Samphire blows out her candle and sips into the dark corner between the headboard and wall. She disappears into the dark sod and crouches down in a knot in the tiny crawlspace, barely fitting with her giant pack of unguents and vinegars. [A boghound] hops silently off the straw, pads over to her and crawls under the bed, looking up at her with those affectionate golden eyes like two stars in the dirty dark. As the dark obscured their faces, Samphire catches voices she’s butted against time and again.  (p56)

5) “Well Met at the Gates of Hell” by David K. Henrickson

An amoral warrior arrives in Hell and is met at the entrance by three antagonists (two humanoids, one not) seeking to duel.  Lots of banter makes this more of a light-hearted read.

In that moment, the newcomer skims the plate he has finally freed from his armor toward the giant’s eyes and throws himself in a roll.

Automatically, the giant flinches away from the spinning metal. ‘Faithless!” he cries out, aiming a blow at the tumbling figure as it dives past.

The newcomer is already inside and below the other’s guard. His blade flashes out in a backhand swing, shearing through the giant’s thigh just above the greave.  (p73)

6)  “A Warning Agaynste Woldes” poem by Zachary Bos

As the title suggests, this poem has an Old Shakespeare tone. It is cryptic like the previous poem. It conveys that nature, and its forests, are a type of temple or church. Be wary of entering the forest, since it is full of fear, faith, and spirits.

7) “The Skull of Ghosts” by Charles Gramlich

Confession: I’m a huge Gramlich fan and frequently seek out his Krieg stories (I interviewed him for Black Gate in 2019, and we discussed his Krieg character). Here the sorcerer-warrior receives a haunting call from “Amma”, so he seeks out his old acquaintance (of the same name) in a plagued city. An evil sorcerer is seeking bodies to possess, and as Krieg starts to put an end to the madness, he learns he’s jumped into a trap.

Krieg slipped to one side, caught the swordman’s hand and twisted. A raw shriek burst from the man’s lips; bones ground audibly together as his blade turned inevitably upward to point at his face.

The assailant’s hood fell back, revealing swarthy skin marked by plague skulls. A topknot of greasy reddish hair invited a hold. Krieg grabbed it, slammed the man’s face forward onto the sword. Once, twice, thrice. Wiping his hand on the man’s cloak, the black-eyed warrior let the body fall like a burden he’d grown tired of… (p87)


8) “The Headsman’s Melancholy” by Joseph Andre Thomas

This could easily be a Twilight Zone episode written by Edgar Allen Poe. Executioner Jack meets a robber multiple times on the chopping block. Written as a series of journal entries. The ending is emotive, and a bit abstract, as Jack seeks peace by stopping his profession, leaving town, or pursuing other options. Loved this.

The man screeched laughter as he eviscerated himself, His blood poured down my face, into my mouth. It seeped between my teeth and beneath my tongue.

I screamed.

His smile was no longer cocky, but overjoyed. He reached into his chest cavity and grabbed hold of something, pulled it out. His heart, I realized, still attached to whatever tubes and capillaries govern the viscera. He hung it out above me with one hand… (p129)


Monday, May 29, 2023

Old Moon Quarterly Vol III - Review by SE

 Old Moon Quarterly Vol III — Winter (119p, March, 2023). Cover by Daniel Vega.


Old Moon Quarterly is a magazine of weird sword-and-sorcery fantasy. In the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, Tanith Lee and Karl Edward Wagner, it contains stories of strange vistas, eldritch beings, and the bloody dispute thereof by swordsmen and swordswomen both.

Old Moon Quarterly emerged in 2022. This reviews the four stories inside the Winter 2023 issue (Vol III), which delivers solid doses of the weird adventure it promises. The Editor-in-Chief is Julian Barona, flanked by Assistant Editors Caitlyn Emily Wilcox and Graham Thomas Wilcox (who recently debuted here on Black Gate with his review of John Langan's Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, so I gleefully checked this out).  Excerpts best convey the style and elements of what to expect, so you'll get those here!

Vol III Contents:

  • "Evil Honey" by James Enge.
  • "Knife, Lace, Prayer" by T.R. Siebert.
  • "Singing the Long Retreat" by R.K. Duncan.
  • "The Feast of Saint Ottmer" by Graham Thomas Wilcox.
  • A review of Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, edited by Ellen Datlow.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths - review by S


The Citadel of Forgotten Myths by Michael Moorcock
SE rating: 4 of 5 stars

This extension to the Elric saga is okay.

New to Elric? Don't start here. Start with the Elric of Melniboné (1972).

There are three books within The Citadel of Forgotten Myths, the first two being short stories that appeared elsewhere; revised versions of these are the best parts of this. In all parts, Moonglum travels with Elric to the World Above, a parallel realm where Melnibonean ancestry persists.

Part 1: based on Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery 2010's "Red Pearls: An Elric Story"

Part 2: based on Weird Tales 349 - 85th Anniversary Issue #349 2008's "Black Petals" (Elric novella)

These both have action, wild bits of over-the-top fantastical magic, and a decent dose of expanded lore. We get to learn more about the Phoorn (dragon relatives of Meniboné too). These are five stars....

Part 3: And...the disappointing Third itself a 3-star (at best):

The third Book admittedly has a nice outline/scope with Arioch not responding when summoned, Xiombarg stirring up major trouble with Dyvim Marluc (introduced in the first stories); a cool bee-hive driven city called Karlaak that mirrors Elric's original city plays a major role.

But the delivery is terrible.

It is mostly exposition (all telling, little-to-no showing). It reads like an outline full of info dumps.

There are more exclamation marks than periods (I didn't count them, but that statement is close to being accurate). It is truly bizarre to read! Really it is! Almost comical! Eh gad!

Also, there is some forced romance? noble-blood incest? It comes across as just silly. Elric has some nice flashbacks regarding his first love Cymoril and his second (Zarozinia, who is still alive during this adventure into other worlds). Here, Elric feels like it is still "ok" to court a young, female Melnibonean noblewoman despite his genuine love for his other wives. I guess Zarozinia is cool with an open relationship, and Cymoril has long since passed. Anyway, the relationship falls flat/weird, and is not even developed well. I was reminded of Moorcock's weird, misogynistic entry for Ghor, Kin Slayer: The Saga of Genseric's Fifth Born Son.

Oh, then there is Orlando Funk. That is not a typo. Minus the "o" we have Orland_ Funk, who is one of Moorcock's heroes from his Runestaff series; this is the same dude. Moorcock loves weird cross overs.... but here Mr. Orlando comes across (at least to me, who was not aware of the character before) as a time-traveling, Floridian (i.e., from Orlando) who might as well have been wearing bell-bottom jeans. Every time I read his name, I had Bruno Mars' "uptown Funk" song trigger in my head. Orlando's presence added more silliness than it did mind-blowing plot twists.

Elric along with his companion Moonglum return, in this prequel set within the early days of Elric’s wanderings, in order to investigate the history of Melniboné and its dragons, known as the Phroon, in this exciting new addition to the Elric Saga from World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Michael Moorcock.

Elric is the estranged emperor of the Melnibonéan empire, struggling with his nature while desperately striving to move forward with his dying empire alongside the constant thirst of his soul-sucking sword, Stormbringer. Elric is on the hunt for the great Citadel of Forgotten Myths while traveling through the remnants of his empire with his tragic best friend Moonglum, as Elric seeks the answers to the nature of the phroon of The Young Kingdoms. Taking place between the first and second book in the Elric Saga, The Citadel of Forgotten Myths is perfect for longtime fans and those new to this epic fantasy series.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Servants of War by Correia and Diamond - Review by SE

Review originally posted on Black Gate:


Cover blurbs used by Baen!

Servants of War by Larry Correia and Steve Diamond (Baen Books, 2022. 424pages).

 Cover art by Alan Pollack

Veteran fantasy readers may yawn if they hear about an epic fantasy about a farm boy in a remote village rising to power, and the first few pages of Servants of War dangles that trope before readers. And then horror rushes in like a tidal wave, and before Chapter 1 can end, the worn trope is burning with hellfire billowing alchemical smoke, a Grimdark spirit rises out of the book to slap the reader in the face, crank the head back, and pour gasoline-action down a thirsty throat.

Welcome to Servants of War.

The combination of military-fantasy veteran Larry Correria with horror-guru Steve Diamond promises “military fantasy with horror” and you’ll get trenches full of that. Baen released this masterpiece that opens The Age of Ravens series in hardcover and audiobook in March 2022; the paperback is due February 2023. Without spoiling, this post covers a summary, excerpts, and a small hint as to the forthcoming sequel.



The war between Almacia and the Empire of Kolakolvia is in its hundredth year. Casualties grow on both sides as the conflict leaves no corner of the world untouched.

Illarion Glaskov’s quiet life on the fringes of the empire is thrown into chaos when an impossible tragedy strikes his village. When he is conscripted into the Tsarist military, he is sent to serve in The Wall — an elite regiment that pilots suits of armor made from the husks of dead golems.
But the great war is not the only — or even the worst — danger facing Illarion, as he is caught in a millennia-old conflict between two goddesses. He must survive the ravages of trench warfare, horrific monsters from another world, and the treacherous internal politics of the country he serves.


The setting resembles an alternative earth on the Eurasia continent. A never-ending war continues between the Almacian state (West) and the Kolakolvia (East); cities and named battle zones resonate with pseudo-Eastern European flare: Rolmani, Praja, Transellia. Both sides disrespect (or forsake) the old ways and religions which are explicitly and overtly present, albeit repressed. Golems, ghouls, and blood storms haunt both armies. The clearest sacrilege is the repurposing of golem bodies to make Objects, the name for the mechanized war-suits Kolakolvia employs (how else can one defile another species than to tap its magical potential while playing in their corpses?). In short, there are three conflicting entities: the East, the West, and the Others. Each is manipulated by a Sister goddess. The variety of conflicts keeps this interesting, expect: human vs human; state vs state; human vs. state; and heroes vs supernatural.

If a dystopian, war-ravaged alternative earth feels too familiar, don’t worry. You’ll be salivating for a trip to an even darker realm, and you’ll get that too. That jolt reminded me of the beauty of the Silent Hill games in which players experience a terrifying ghost-town for a while until an air siren blares, paint peels off walls, Hell arrives, and players yearn to find a way back to the relative safety of the ghost-town.

Stylistically, this felt like a mashup of Warhammer’s gritty sci-fi battles, with Silent Hill’s weird world-building and exploration-of-Hells, with the demon-confronting Solomon Kane leading the sorties. Somehow the warfare was never portrayed as a giant chess board; instead, the combat was intimate, frontline adventure. Localized views of battle felt like episodes of Sword & Sorcery focused on the hero(ine). I kept thinking, this is what I’d expect if Mary Shelly teamed up with Robert E. Howard to rewrite Frankenstein for BattleTech fans.


One didn’t think about war and politics when you had a mill to run, cows to tend, and crops to plant. The greatest question in Ilyushka every year had been how deep would the ground freeze? – Illarion character’s thoughts

Humans are just the puppets of the Three Sisters, but they comprise the titular servants of war. You’ll be rooting for them in a heartbeat. There are many characters, but the primary ones are below. Their paths intertwine, of course, as some become comrades and others enemies.

• Illarion Glazkov – a farm boy who evolves into an awesome soldier; he’s trailed by ravens as he seeks atonement
• Scout Specialist Natalya Baston (once in the 17th Sniper Division) – she’s an outstanding rogue motivated to free her family
• Arnost Chankov – a ghoul-tattooed, low-ranking officer over Illarion
• Oprichnik Kristoph Vals – Secret Service Agent under Chancellor and Tsar of Kolakolvia – no one can trust this guy, and all fear crossing him
• Amos Lowe – a mysterious prisoner seeking to remain anonymous and lost

EXCERPTS Reveal What to Expect

Mechanized Melee:
…More soldiers rushed out of the fog, swarming his legs. The hatch rattled as soldiers tried to pry it open. If they got that open he’d end up a red, oozing skeleton like the last pilot he’d seen.
Only Illarion’s Object did not react in the lumbering, clumsy fashion they’d come to expect. He brought the empty cannon barrel down on the head of one, crushing his skull and snapping his spine. Inside the coffin of rapidly dwindling air, Illarion twisted the controls. 12 spun and kicked. Frail bodies were crushed underfoot. Instinctively, he crouched as low as the braces around his legs allowed, then launched his body up. He’d never seen anyone jump in the suits before, and didn’t know if it was at all possible, be he had to try something.

12 was briefly airborne. The ground shook when he landed, and most of the soldiers were thrown free. He stomped down, popping skulls and driving bodies deep into the mud. A punch from his gun arm caved in a chest. A sweep of his halberd cut three bodies into six pieces. The last man hanging onto the latches was hurled free, but unfortunately for him, he left one of his gloves behind. He hit the ground, flesh already smoking, and quickly tried to bury his hand in the mud to save it. Illarion would’ve killed him, but that would’ve taken another second or two worth of air….

Horrors of War, Confronting Weird Creatures:
The doors were being torn to splinters. Kristoph watched, fascinated and appalled, as a monstrous head snapped through a window and bit off a trencher’s face off. A scorpion tail, but big around as his arm, zipped through a window lightning quick and stabbed another soldier in the chest. He fell near Kristoph’s feet. Kicking and twitching.

Kristoph looked up to see the monster trying to squeeze through the gap nearest him, despite two other soldiers spearing it with their bayonets. Somehow, its body was still slick and pale, as if the blood snow slid right off. Jaws snapped at him. Spittle hit him. Kristoph aimed his pistol and shot through the gap, and another immediately took its place.

As he looked down to reload, the man who had been stung was grasping at Kristoph’s boots. It was hard to understand him, with all the foam coming out of his mouth, but Kristoph suspected he was begging for a quick and merciful death. Anything to be spared the torture of this poison. It was so piteous that even Kristoph was tempted to aid him, but he might need the ammo, so he kicked the dying man’s hand away….

NEED MORE OF The Age of Ravens?

Noir Fatale, an anthology edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell (Baen, 2019), has a prequel to Servants of War called “The Privileges of Violence” by Steve Diamond. It’s a grim homage to the Maltese Falcon featuring at least three of the same characters. Highly recommended.

Servants of War focused on the machinations of two of the three Sisters. Subsequent books promise to highlight the remaining goddess as all the servants of war resolve their tension with the Tsar of Kolakolvia and the Sisters. Book 2 in The Age of Ravens is forthcoming and has a tentative title of Instruments of Violence.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Skallagrim- In the Vales of Pagarna: Review by SE


Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna (Hidden Crown Press, 373 pages; Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, March 2022). Cover by Walking of Sky Tree

Experience Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna by Stephen R. Babb in all its forms. This post covers everything to get you hooked, from a summary, review, excerpts, and links to the complementing albums from Glass Hammer. Reading Skallagrim feels like you are a witness to the live version of Frazetta’s “Against the Gods” painting! You actually witness a hero grab a sword from the sky.

The opening scene poses a set of mysteries as the titular protagonist is brutally attacked in the streets of Archon, the Dreaming City. He loses his memory during the struggle, by wounds or sorcery, so the hero and the reader want to know: Why Skallagrim in a melee? Who is he, really? Why does he feel protective over a maiden kidnapped during the conflict? Why are multiple sorcerers after him? Why the hell can he grab a sentient, screaming sword that materializes from a sudden storm?

The rest of the book unravels these questions, as Skallagrim races against time to save the mystery maiden. He’ll wrestle with eldritch, chthonic creatures, a herd of ghouls, a few necromancers, and an assassin. As Skallagrim unearths the weird history of Andorath’s Southern Region, we get to learn about it as he battles. The book stands alone, but did you know that Stephen R. Babb has been a progressive rocker and theatrical-album-leader for thirty years (more on Glass Hammer below!). Poems and lyrics infuse the prose. For the full effect, readers should listen to the complementary Skallagrim albums. These are not Audio Books. These are thematic rock sets chronicling Skallagrim’s heroic journey.  Embedded below are the opening songs to (1) and (2).  Listen to these!  Babb is creating a rich world here.

Want to learn more about the creation of Skallagrim’s world? Check out Oliver Brackenbury’s recent interview with the author on his podcast So I’m Writing a Novel Interview (Aug 22 2022). Babb reveals his influences, from Tolkien, Dunsany, and RE Howard, and discusses how music informs writing (and vice versa). Listening to this I learned that Skallagrim’s world actually catalyzed in Glass Hammer’s 2005 album The Inconsolable Secret (which has tracks called Lirazel, Mog Ruith!), which then inspired the epic poem Lay of Lirazel (2014). To know why those matter, you’ll have to read the book.

Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna reads fast and blends the Sword & Sorcery style (action-heavy, focused on a lone hero) with an epic tale (novel form, save-the-world in addition to save-yourself motivations).  Plenty of call-outs and imagery evoke S&S influences, most obviously, a sorcerous city full of towers called the “Archon the Dreaming City” (that echoes Elric’s home of Melniboné) and the sentient “screaming” sword Terminus (that feels like a cousin of Stormbringer). In any event, Skallagrim is more of its own tale than it is a homage to its dark fantasy roots. Information flow is deceptively well placed; one of my favorite chapters was halfway through the novel because it revealed why Skallagrim’s nickname was Quickhands.

The cover blurb below is a splendid summary; below that are excerpts and embedded samples of the music.

Book Blurb

Skallagrim wakes in the middle of a fight for his life with only the vaguest idea of who he is. Facing an angry mob of murderous cutthroats, he watches helplessly while the love of his life is abducted before his eyes. Finally, with a crushing sense of despair, he realizes he’s going to die without even knowing her name.

But he doesn’t die.

To find the girl and take his revenge upon the fiend who took her, Skallagrim, wounded and exhausted, must endure a journey like no other. He’ll face madmen, ghouls, tentacled horrors, and witches, both foul and fair, as he races toward a final showdown that will have readers on the edge of their seats.

An awe-inspiring tale of adventure, triumph, and tragedy, set in a brutal, unforgiving wilderness and packed with heart-stopping action, Skallagrim – In The Vales Of Pagarna marks the first installment of an outstanding new series.

Illustrations from the CDs by Luke Eidenschink; Steve Babb snapshot from Youtube

Excerpts Reveal What to Expect

Weird settings

The forest was weirdly beautiful in a somber, funereal way, like a colossal mausoleum whose joyless vaults were supported by interwoven columns, their vast, mournful chambers hollowed out by the hands of giants. There was a certain thrill to walking in that place with its cool air and ancient trees whose limbs trailed moss like great sweeping beards of grey.

Bloody Action

…geysers of black water shot into the air from a hundred places at once. The plumes sparkled in the weird, flickering light, then seemed to cascade in slow motion in a myriad of diamond-like droplets. From the point at which each geyser had sprung, writhing tentacles sprouted—fiendish bouquets resembling Devil’s Fingers fungus… one such arm, slick and smelly with a coating of gleba, whipped the water directly in front of Skallagrim. He did not remember drawing Terminus, but the sentient sword was in his hand. He swept the blade low, severing the tentacle from the submerged, suberumpent egg from which it had burst. An immediate release or explosion of spores caught Skallagrim off guard, and he coughed painfully—his throat inflamed….

The Albums

#1 Skallagrim: Dreaming City album – opening titular track

#2  Skallagrim: Intro the Breach album (2020) : “He’s Got a Girl” and “Anthem to Andorath”

#3 Due out Oct 2023 (preorder now), Skallagrim: At the Gate (teaser trailer)

Glass Hammer

Glass Hammer is an American progressive rock band from Chattanooga, Tennessee, created and led by Steve Babb and Fred Schendel. Babb and Schendel, who founded the band in 1992, are the only constant members in the lineup, having surrounded themselves by various guest performers

  • Fred Schendel – keyboards, guitars, backing vocals (1992–present), lead vocals (1992-2004, 2015–present), drums (1992-2004)
  • Steve Babb – bass, keyboards, backing vocals (1992–present), lead vocals (1992-2004, 2016–present), percussion (1992-2004)
  • Aaron Raulston – drums (2013–present)
  • Hannah Pryor – lead vocals (2021–present)

Stephen R. Babb (a.k.a. Steve) Bio

First off, he prefers “Steve” to “Stephen.” Now that that’s out of the way…

He’s best known as the bassist and co-writer for the prog-rock group Glass Hammer. A professional musician for most of his life, he started at the age of twelve as a church pianist. Since then, he has traveled the US and a handful of other countries in various bands.

Glass Hammer, which he founded, has received critical acclaim for their twenty-one studio albums, headlined major festivals, and have become one of the most respected bands of the progressive rock genre.

In 1990, he had the good sense to marry the right girl, come home from the road, settle down and start a business. Since then, he has busied himself in the production of numerous albums for songwriters, the recording of audiobooks, and in the day-to-day tasks required to operate a recording studio while maintaining the persona of prog-rock star, prolific songwriter, and lyricist. This last bit, he enjoys to the fullest.

In 2005 he penned the epic poem, The Lay Of Lirazel, which was published in 2014. For that effort he was honored with The Imperishable Flame Award by The North East Tolkien Society.


Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Blood of Roses Vol-1, by Tanith Lee: Review by SE


The Blood of Roses Volume 1: Mechail, Anillia by Tanith Lee

SE rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tanith Lee (1947-2015) acclaimed Fantasy & Horror writer known for her poetic weirdness and mature content (i.e. sexual situations). The Blood of Roses Volume 1: Mechail, Anillia sequence follows suit; originally available only in the UK, a more-global audience can now access her take on a milieu featuring the conflict between a Christian religion and naturalistic pagans. The Back Cover Blurb below from Immanion Press summarizes the contents and the re-publishing of the single book into two volumes (each ~300pages with sub-books focused on key characters; Volume 1 Contents: “Mechail” and “Anilla”; Volume 2 Contents, “Jun”, “Eujasia”, “Mechailus”).

Read this is as part of a Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group Read [The Blood of Roses is not classic S&S, but Lee has written in that genre and this is focused on a dark fantasy environment that is tangential; it falls into the “dark epic fantasy” category instead]. The key thing to note for candidate readers is that Lee adores presenting mysterious worlds, blurring the lines between myth, reality, and dreams. So, reading becomes more like deciphering a puzzle, and reading less easy.

Here, she does the following:
• Presents a fantasy world in which magic truly exists
• Presents many mysteries (i.e., riddles) that are unexplainable to the characters...such that even their understanding of their world is insufficient, so the reader’s will be too
• Changes perspectives at chapter & scene breaks
• Changes time too between chapter & scene breaks (going forward or backward days or decades between chapters)
• Use pronouns at the beginning of scenes, avoiding explicitly identifying who “She” or “He” are for several paragraphs.
• No map is provided; reading each chapter reveals the land more, so it is like a fog-of-war approach in video games; its all a mystery until you unveil it
• The conflict is complex: it is not simple “single protagonist vs single enemy”, nor is it the more intangible "protagonist vs world-nature." Here are many characters here and each struggles against a variety of forces
• Writes at a high Reading Level using an intellectual vocabulary and archaic & dreamy descriptions (metaphor similes). She literally mixes dreams in with "reality."

Anyway, The Blood of Roses Volume 1: Mechail, Anillia is expertly written and enjoyable. If you are looking for digestible, guilty-pleasure reading, this won’t be for you. Lee demands her reader to be immersed and attentive. Like Celtic fantasy, but want something more deep? Then you will adore this.

Back Cover Blurb

In a rich, complex epic set in a grim fantasy world, Tanith Lee explores in her distinctive style the excesses of religion as well as the dark pagan roots of earlier times. There are disturbing similarities between the rites of apparently conflicting beliefs – the blood and body of Christ and the divine blood of the World Tree.

While the Christerium might believe it wields the greater power and keeps the people under control through brutality and oppression, the older cunning ways lie hidden in every forest glade and in the hearts of those who worship the Great Tree, nourished by the blood of willing sacrifice. But then the Tree is destroyed, in the midst of a sacred rite, unleashing a potent and vengeful magic.
From the ruin of this atrocity, the enigmatic dark priest Anjelen arises. He deftly works his way into the heart of the Christerium, bewitching its most powerful administrators. He is like an angel, beautiful and charismatic – yet to be feared. People are drawn to follow him into any darkness he claims to be the Light of God. The rites he introduces to the inner cabal of the Christerium change all who take part in them, not least invoking a thirst for blood.

Characters with mysterious origins, damaged in body and mind, assemble to enact a world-changing drama. Anillia wakes within an old abbey, knowing she is 15 years old, but with no idea who she is or how she got there. She feels safe with the ageing nuns until sons of a local forest clan arrive at her sanctuary, claiming she is their sister, lost long ago in the woods. She is married off to a local clan leader, thereby becoming part of Anjelen’s plan. Mechail, the crippled son of a powerful forest lord is murdered yet rises from death to follow an unknown destiny. It seems he was never quite human to begin with. Jasha, a wild woods girl, more animal than human is drawn into
Anjelen’s entourage, witness to strange and terrifying events, knowing she too has a part to play in the savage rites of blind belief and raw desire.

This vivid, macabre epic was only ever published in the UK in a hardback edition – to most readers it will be a completely new title, which Immanion Press is proud to present in two paperback volumes, with illustrations by Danielle Lainton and cover art by John Kaiine.

Excerpts: Anthropomorphized Nature, Similes, &Metaphors Abound

[1] "Warm, deceiving and sad, the light of Autumn lit the courtyard and chapel building. But the berries were thick as red drops of blood all over the bushes at the door. It would be a wicked winter. The forest, standing behind and about like an army of bears, its darkness still green, would change rapidly to a place of snows. Marika feared the winter. Her uncomfortable joints turned painful…"p185

[2] "She led him to the hearth and sat down there on the slave’s stool. He looked up, at her eyes, and away again. Time was like the snow. It had no enduring substance and might thaw to mud in one spring day." p246

[3] "...she offered her whispering cry to the soldier, the captain of her husband’s garrison, twenty-nine years of age, Carg Vrost, strayed broken-handed and partly mad, from terrifying night to chaos night…He looked young, the captain, and old. Agony – the broken hand – had pulled his face against its bones." p253

[4] "That evening, sunset was not red but angrily overcast, with leaden clouds that promised boiling summer rain. Veins beat in the grey forehead of the sky." p292

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Hunter (by Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake) - Review by SE

During a Writing Class I took last year via the Muse Writing Center (The Craft of Heroic Fantasy Fiction) author Howard Andrew Jones suggested I read Donald E. Westlake (aka Richard Stark)'s Parker series to (1) to add variety to my steady dose of Sword & Sorcery [this is a dark, noir crime thriller .... not fantasy adventure] and (2) experience reading economical writing and optimal information flow (ie "reveals").

This was a blast. Granted, some of the misogynistic 1960 perspectives did not age (nor should it this case it reinforces the protagonist Parker's culture). I can see why this expanded in 1 24 book series. Parker is our protagonist, but he's a tough criminal. His exploits are James Bond-like, in that he is a lone rogue constantly thinking on the fly; otherwise, his intentions are entirely self-serving.

As HAJ indicated, this was not only fun to read, but it is a fine example of an entertaining book that also demonstrates highly-efficient prose; each sentence delivers only what it has to, and Stark/Westlake perfected when to add detail (i.e. Brand names or key adjectives). Also perfected, chapter-to-chapter information reveals; the reader only receives what they need, but five chapters in you'll realize that each section unravels key context from all the prior ones.

Splendid. I'm not sure if I want to read all 24! However, I heard the first three comprise a story arc, so I plan to read the next two.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Terra Incognita: Lost Worlds of Fantasy and Adventure - Overview by S.E.

This expands on a press release for Terra Ingognita posted on Black Gate this May. NEW TREASURES: DMR PRESENTS TERRA INCOGNITA: LOST WORLDS OF FANTASY AND ADVENTURE

Since I am a contributing author, I will bypass any rating and just provide a perspective that readers may appreciate.

Readers of Black Gate will be familiar with D.M. Ritzlin (champion of DMR books) and Doug Draa (editor of Weirdbook Magazine and Startling Stories).. For this they gathered seven authors, including many Black Gate veterans (contributors or featured in the articles): David C. SmithAdrian ColeS.E. Lindberg, J. Thomas Howard, Milton DavisJohn C. Hocking, & Howard Andrew Jones.  Expect trips into lost worlds…but expect them with a fantasy, Sword & Sorcery bias. Each story presents different storytelling styles in varied milieus, from Cosmic Horror, Irish and African mythologies, to complete fantasy worlds on land and sea.



Unknown territory: An unexplored country or field of knowledge — Merriam Webster

“Does that sound exciting and dangerous? I hope so. We never know what’s over the hill or ahead of us up around the bend. It might be something exciting and dangerous. Or simply wondrous and surprising. Perhaps even a mixture of all these. We never know though, until we take that final step into the unknown. The blank areas on old maps were labeled hic sunt dracones, here there be dragons. As frightening and as daunting as that sounds, it’s also a siren’s call to the adventurous among us.

… Looking back now, it’s clear to see that a large portion of genre literature dealt directly with this theme. Writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Abraham Merritt devoted a large portion of their work to stories about exploring the unknown.

… For this collection we are sticking to the realms of fantasy in order to see what is out there, lost and lurking. I envy every one of you. I do. Truly! You are getting to read these marvelous tales of adventure for the very first time. And this is one of those things in life that you can only experience once.” – snippets from Doug Draa’s introduction

Terra Incognita: Lost Worlds of Fantasy and Adventure

You are holding a ticket in your hands. A ticket for a voyage of thrills, wonder, and discovery as seven of today’s top fantasists, each one a master of Heroic Fantasy, transport you to lands beyond your imagination. Lands of fantasy and adventure. And the only passport needed is your imagination.

Cover Art

The cover by Laura Gornik is splendidly appropriate for lost world travel/adventure. I adore the apparent phase-inversion of the space (i.e., dark objects dispersed in white fog …that get flipped into white bubbles in dark tentacles/beams).  It calls to mind M.C. Escher’s famous tiling (i.e. Sky and Water) and it represents the travel the reader will experience going from reality into seamless other-worlds.


Table of Contents with Personal Notes


  1. "Shadow of the Serpent" - David C. Smith’s courageous rebels under the leadership of the undying warrior Akram must form an alliance with an ancient race to overthrow murderous usurpers, along with their necromantic masters, who are hellbent on destroying their kingdom in an insane attempt to conquer the world.

Akram is a cursed immortal who is featured in the novel The Sorcerer’s Shadow: 1982 (original title: The Shadow of Sorcery).  It is part of the author’s ongoing stories of Attluma, which is Atlantean-inspired, horror S&S,; Akram can be considered a character akin to Karl Wagner’s Kane. This reads like a legend and might be most appreciated by readers already familiar with the cursed protagonist. I highly recommend Tales of Attluma and checking out this tour guide:  TALES OF ATTLUMA BY DAVID C. SMITH: A REVIEW AND ORON SERIES TOUR GUIDEIt is an honor to share a TOC with David, and bring Dr. Grave and Akram one more step closer to rubbing shoulders.


  1. "The Place of Unutterable Names" - Adrian Cole transports a group of explorers to a Lovecraftian netherworld of no return. Or is there, if one is courageous enough?

This is one of my favorites of the collection since it wholeheartedly embraces the lost-world theme. It is a superbly executed homage to Howard Phillip’s Lovecraft work (arguably easier to read than most of HPL actually).  Cole invites the reader to leave reality in HPL style: from the framing of the story to the call-outs to the elder god Nyarlathotep, the landscapes of Kadath like the Plateau of Leng, and the exploratory expedition akin to At the Mountains of Madness.  The pacing and wonder are spot-on.  Its placement before my story is fortuitous. This builds the Eldritch culture vs human civilization, and has strong does of fungal body horror & Insect-men (that echo my One Hive. Two Queens.)

Fungus Excerpt

 "When we reached the cavern, we rested. What a place that was! Gouged out of the naked rock, certainly by prediluvian hands, it reared up to an invisible ceiling and spread out on all sides, unfathomable without stronger light. There were countless rocks and heaps of stone debris, but it was clear even in the murk that some of these blocks and monoliths had been deliberately cut and shaped. Intelligent beings had once lived here, though how long ago that had been was impossible to calculate….The fungi seemed to be burying into the rock, as though feeding from it. It seemed to be in varying degrees of development: there were grouped globules of sickly white, criss-crossed with purple veins, while stacked above these were layer upon layer of broad mushrooms, some of which had opened up to release, I assumed, countless spores. Their colours varied from livid yellow to soiled brown, and higher still up the cavern walls, the thread-like mycelia spread like a colossal spider’s web, ever probing for cracks and crevices, anchoring further colonization."


"I saw, too, insectoid, human-sized beings with exoskeletons, living in fantastically complex nest networks, protected by their warrior armies, always striving to expand their empire, adding to the wars and tribulations of a world in turmoil. It was no surprise to me to see the extent to which dinosaurs roamed, some wild and terrible, feared and avoided by lesser creatures, man included, others living in a kind of harmony with man, used as cavalry in his armies, a formidable fighting force."

  1. "One Hive Two Queens" - S.E. Lindberg gives us a distant world where two alien sisters, who were created in the image of man, wage a war against each other to determine the future of their world.

This presents a “weird fiction” take on the civilization-vs-barbarism trope. Here, the colonization of a lost land pits civilized humanity vs. eldritch natives. Spearheading the conflict are two sisters, humanoid golem maidens, who vie for control over an abandoned, eldritch hive (their birthplace). These golems are hybrids by nature, humans shaped from the earth. Melanie leans toward her earthy constitution; deemed a child-eating, bog-loving lamia by occupying humans, she aims to protect nature and the land’s past, going so far as to nurture neglected nests of larvalwyrmen. Her sister, Ember, embraces human proclivities; she leads the colonialization of the hive and aims to erase all eldritch history. One hive cannot accommodate multiple queens. Witness the battle that will decide nature’s owner.

This tale features two golem daughters of Dr. Grave, who is prominent in my Dyscrasia Fiction; a few other short stories about Gave’s golem family have appeared online and can be read now for free: 

All my writing is based on alchemy and is designed to feel bizarrely unique (i.e. “weird). BTW a key scene was catalyzed by Peter Jackson’s 2001 adaptation of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, the Flight to the Ford scene specificallyOf course, one must replace [the angelic Arwen and the ailing Frodo] with a dark goddess saving giant larvae, to better envision the inspiration.

  1. "The Siege of Eire" - J. Thomas Howard reveals the harsh realities of ancient Eire, Samhain, and the war between the Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Danann.
This is another favorite of mine since it resonates the theme of lost worlds, an escape from modernity and civilization with glorious battle in the Irish-inspired underworld. Stylistically, it feels lyrical like Dunsany, but it is so action-heavy that REH fans will devour the melee. Here’s an excerpt:
"He drew his runic blade. The combatants circled. The Dullahan’s range gave him advantage, and Reglin knew it and was eager to close the distance. Thrice the whip kept him at bay, but at last he gained an opening. He dove in, driving his sword towards the armored chest. The markings on the blade became luminous. But the Dullahan brought round his other weapon, his very head, and it crashed into the lunging Fomorian’s face. The boney jaws clenched, tearing into the blue skin and red flesh. Blood ran down the ivory teeth. Reglin faltered and the whip came roaring round. But even blinded by his pain the admiral caught the skeletal weapon with his sword. Viridian flames erupted where the two artifacts met, but Reglin’s free hand still clutched his bleeding face, and the Dullahan struck once more with his head, and his jaws latched onto Reglin’s throat. They tore, and blood erupted high into the air. The Fomorian slumped down to the beach, his sanguine ruin profaning the white shore."
  1. "Warriors of Mogai"- Milton Davis introduces us to a young man, barely past boyhood, who has to brave great dangers on his own to seek the help of ancient allies who may no longer exist.
Ostensibly the conflict is against desert people invading, but this story highlights the prelude to battle. The hero Koboye seeks out help from the lost city of Mogai. It felt more like a chapter than it did a stand-alone tale. Slower-paced than the preceding stories, this African-inspired fantasy is a welcome shift in variety. Milton is known for being a champion of Sword & Soul, writing his own characters (i.e., Changa, Omari) and spearheading MLVmedia (publishers of frofuturism, Sword and Soul, Steamfunk and more!).

  1. "Necropolis Gemstone" John C. Hocking regales with the plight of a young archivist who is forced at swordpoint to travel into a parallel world full of horrors from a time long forgotten
Many will know Hocking from his Conan pastiche. Of course, he also has his Archivist series (check out that tour guide here: Archiving the King’s Blade Champion: An interview with John C. Hocking). Including an archivist character in Terra Incognita to document the otherworld makes complete sense! As with Hocking’s short stories that have appeared in many venues, including a bunch on Tales from the Magician’s Skull, he lays out a plot that ramps up continuously and delivers with some wild creative creature. Classic Hocking here.

  1. "From the Darkness Beneath" Howard Andrew Jones sets sail into adventure with a group of sea-going merchants and their passengers. Many of them are not who they seem to be and only reveal their true selves once a sunken kingdom from the bottom of the sea launches an attack against the travelers.

Fantasy readers will likely recognize Howard Andrew Jones who recently finished his Oathsworn Trilogy and has been a long-time contributor to Pathfinder novels; he also is the editor for Tales From the Magician's Skull Magazine and his interns carefully obey his every command lest they be immolated. HAJ has several sets of characters he likes to write about, like his Asim and Dabir Sword & Sandal stories; without spoiling much, this story occurs in Howard’s Hanuvar universe (inspired by Hannibal the Carthaginian). This episode occurs on the high seas and has long-dead sorcerers crawling back to life.