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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

HOCKING's CONAN PASTICHE: Emerald Lotus AND "Black Starlight"; Review by SE

Simulcast on Black Gate


Ken Kelly cover art for Conan and the Emerald Lotus

John C. Hocking's Conan PasticheConan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking emerged from Tor in 1995 (Ciruelo Cabral cover artist) and reprinted in 1999 (Ken Kelly cover); paperbacks are insanely expensive now (i.e. >$500 on Amazon). Fast forward to 2019, and Hocking released a 12-part serialized novella "Black Starlight" that spanned the recent Conan the Barbarian comic (Jason Aaron)--a direct sequel to "Emerald Lotus" that tracks Conan's adventures as he returns from Stygia.


An indirect sequel novel by Hocking called Conan and the Living Plague was pulled from a 2019 publication at the last minute. Its future is unknown (by certain graces, the author did provide me a copy of the manuscript...and we plan to discuss/share some in an interview planned for 2022).

Setting the Stage with the cover blurb:
(BTW, an astute Goodreads S&S Group member pointed out that there are actually 3 wizards, and this official blurb blends the identity of "Shakar the Keshanian" and "Ethram-Fal")
One wizard is bad. Two are a disaster...And a deadly disaster, too. For Conan, after refusing to help the evil wizard Ethram-Fal, has been cursed with a spell that is slowly, inexorably squeezing the life from his mighty frame. The only person who can banish the spell--besides Ethram-Fal, of course--is the sorceress Zelandra: a raven-haired beauty who practices only white magic...or so she says.

Zelandra has offered to lift the spell from the Cimmerian, if only he will do her one small service: steal the deadly Emerald Lotus from the clutches of Ethram-Fal in his impregnable desert fortress. No good can come of this, Conan thinks to himself. Once sorcery gets mixed up in it, the whole job goes to hell Unfortunately, he's right.

The Prologue: This catalyzes the adventure, defines the conflict, and sets the expectation for substantial horror elements (which the reader gets!). In fact, the titular lotus is both (a) a resource for casting sorcery and (b) a living inhuman-floral creature. Drugs and sorcery are equated, and they are also connected to a vegetable-entity-demon, so the conflict(s) feel very rich, fun, & unique. Sorcerers are addicts!

A moist crackling filled the still air. The corpse jerked and trembled as though endowed with tormented life. Ethram-Fal caught his breath as fist-sized swellings erupted all but instantaneously from the dead flesh of his ap-prentice. The body was grotesquely distorted in a score of places, with such swift violence that the limbs convulsed and the yellow robes ripped open.

Green blossoms the size of a man's open hand burst from the corpse, leaping forth in such profusion that the body was almost hidden from view. Iridescent and six-petaled, the blooms pushed free of enclosing flesh, bobbing and shaking as if in a strong wind. In a moment they were still, and a sharp, musky odor, redolent of both nectar and corruption, rose slowly to fill the chamber.

The Style/Scope: Hocking certainly captured the spirit of REH's fast-paced adventure, and presented the Hyperborean canon/landscape well. Conan's remarkable travel and experiences set him apart from other mercenaries. As he gets embroiled in an adventure, he'll travel across Shem, the river Styx, and into Stygia. There are some greater conflicts teased with Shamtare and King Sumuabi that are introduced but not fleshed out (more on that later).

REH's Conan was essentially all short stories, but novels require longer relationships and here Conan finds himself allied with a team. Conan and the mute Khitan Heng Shih are the two men, and each is loosely paired with a strong-willed woman. The lady on the Ken Kelly cover seems a hybrid of Zelandra (the sorceress with raven hair) with her dagger-wielding attendant Neesa. Conan's warrior skills and knowledge of Stygia are needed to guide them to the ruins of Cetriss. Conan's scouting powers are great with preternatural, and predatorial, eyesight, sense of smell, and instincts:

S&S in Style:
….Where the stream of bubbles had emerged from the pool's floor, a thick shaft of shining green, like the trunk of a tree, now thrust itself into view. It shook, jerked, and stretched itself taller than a man, lashing the water to froth. A cluster of pale, bloated, petal-like growths covered the thing's crown. Its body was a densely wrinkled green cylinder, crisscrossed with pulsing veins. A pair of ridged tentacles burst from each side of its midsection, lashing the air. A thick mass of roiling roots formed its base, heaving at the pool's floor, lifting the grotesque thing up out of the water, moving it toward the shore and the stunned human intruders.

A whiplike tentacle whistled toward Conan, snapping itself around his right calf. It pulled forward with incredible strength, jerking his leg up, upending the barbarian's body, so that for a moment he was suspended head down. The Cimmerian's sword leapt into his hands, making a flashing arc that slashed through the hard, ridged arm and dropped him to the sand.

Heng Shih's hands caught Zelandra's waist and tossed her forcefully back. She stumbled out of range even as a tentacle curled around her bodyguard's torso. The emerald arm constricted, sinking sharply into Heng Shih's abdomen, drawing him in toward the hideous thing.

Conan sprang cat-like up off the ground, ducking beneath one flailing tentacle as another struck him across neck and chest like a slavemaster's whip. He twisted away, stumbling in the sand, a line of dripping crimson bright on his bronzed throat.

The unnatural plant proceeded to pull itself out of the pool on its tangled carpet of roots while bone-white thorns began sprouting from the net of wrinkles on its swaying trunk. Wicked, needle-sharp spikes pushed into view, jutting the length of a man's hand. The unladen tentacles lengthened, whipping wildly about- as the one gripping Heng Shih pulled steadily, tirelessly at him.

The Cimmerian lunged to his friend's aid. A questing tentacle writhed about the barbarian's left arm, biting into muscle and spoiling a stroke meant to free Heng Shih. The tentacle he had severed snaked clumsily between Conan's legs, seeking an ankle.

The Khitan's boots plowed twin furrows in the sandy soil as he was drawn irresistibly toward the thing….
Some of the initial setting begged to be addressed again (i.e., the fate of Conan's mercenary buddy Shamtare and King Sumuabi's need for raising armies), but these are minor threads and happen to be seeds developed in The Living Plague. Although the climax was consistent and action-packed, Conan could have played an even larger role in the resolution.

2019 Conan the Barbarian Comics



"Black Starlight" is the serialized extension of Emerald Lotus. The 12-part episodes published across the 2019 Conan the Barbarian comics picks up directly after the conflict; to clarify, the comics are separate, disconnected story penned by Jason Aaron. With precious little lotus surviving, Stygian liches are desperately trying to steal what little Zelandra has procured. As the party makes its way back to Shem, a fight over it leads the party to an abandoned manor, and a demonic battle. Expect more Hocking pastiche, which always involves a bit of weird-horror:
"No matter." Nubar shrugged the white robes off his shoulders. The barbarian almost lunged, but the hooked blade was back at Zelandra's throat in an instant, and the thing that wore the form of Lord Nubar favored him with a slow and mocking smile. He let the robe fall to his belted waist. His upper body was pale, and the hair on his breast was shot with gray, but he stood straight and there was strength in his shoulders.

With a faint sigh he lifted his arms for a moment, giving Conan a glimpse of long, crimson openings high along his ribs on either side, as open as wounds but not bleeding. Conan saw two horizontal slashes like wide, red-lipped mouths, and each was full of fitfully moving slugs, tiny facsimiles of the winged leeches he and his comrades had faced again and again this hellish night.
Living Plague: Expect coverage on this in an upcoming interview. In short, having read the manuscript, it was designed as an indirect sequel to Emerald. As per the title and blurb, there is a new creature/villain to battle, but Conan's compatriot Shamtare and the location of Akkharia are explored in very satisfying ways.
The long-awaited follow-up to 'Conan And The Emerald Lotus', Hocking once again proves to be amongst the best of the Conan pastiche writers.

Sent to recover treasure from a plague-wracked city, not only must Conan avoid its deranged survivors, but battle a deadly disease given humanoid shape. To save himself - and perhaps the world - he allies with a scheming sorcerer to traverse a demon-haunted abyss in a desperate bid to destroy the Living Plague.

More Hocking
 BTW, Hocking has been cranking out "King's Blade" stories featuring his hero Benhus; these appear in Tales from the Magician's Skull. Highly recommended.

He also had a series of short stories on Brand the Viking. The first “Vali’s Wound” in Daniel Blackston’s anthology Lords of Swords (Pitch-Black, 2004), the second “The Face in the Sea” appeared in Black Gate (2009), and the third “The Bonestealer’s Mirror” in Black Gate (2010).

He also has a few essays out, including "Conan: REH, Conan and Me" in Jason M. Waltz's (Rogue Blade Foundation champion) Robert E. Howard Changed My Life. Here's an excerpt of his 2019 essay that reflects on pastiche:

...I wrote Conan and the Emerald Lotus (1995) for a number of reasons, but foremost among them was a desire to produce my own tribute to Robert E. Howard, Conan, and the Cimmerian’s saga, canonical and otherwise. Na├»vely, it never occurred to me the book might be seen as anything but a tribute. It was an attempt, for better or worse, to reflect and celebrate the aspects of the original tales I had most enjoyed and, more often than not, found absent or muted in much modern fantasy adventure.

The book received a mixed response, of course. It appears impossible to find a Conan pastiche that is uniformly appreciated or uniformly scorned. Looking back on Conan and the Emerald Lotus now, 25 years after it was written, I can neither be satisfied with nor dismissive of the book. It is, naturally, down to the individual reader to determine any degree of success the book might have as a novel, a pastiche or just the provider of a few hours of entertainment. However, I do like to think its status as a tribute, as a sincere effort to frame and broadcast my admiration of Robert E. Howard and his immortal Cimmerian, would be apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the prose originals. The book is so saturated with references, connections, tributes and call-outs to REH, the Conan pastiche I most admired, and Howard’s fellow Weird Tales authors that were they to be stripped out of the novel the book would be half its size and nearly incomprehensible. In this way the book is not simply a reaction to Howard and Conan but an expression, decades in the making, of the reaction I initially felt upon encountering “The People of the Black Circle” and the world of reading it threw open for my exploration...




Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Spine of Night - Movie Review

The Spine of the Night


5.0 out of 5 stars - A magical blend of nostalgic S&S and Heavy Metal with fresh takes on adventure.
"Do not mistake ritual for truth.
Do not mistake the desire for power with the desire for knowledge"
--so says Tzod (voiced by Lucy Lawless)


Many of us old folk will adore the formatting and production: rotoscoped classics like Bakshi's Lord of the RIngs and Bakshi/Frazetta's Fire and Ice movie paved the way for this. Classic barbarism vs civilization themes are explored but expanded from historical Sword & Sorcery limits. Violence and nudity are shown in gritty detail. Lucy Lawless voices Tzod, who leads the presentation as a sorceress heroine. Unlike Tegra from Fire and Ice, her body is less young/model-like more mature/motherly; her courage and strength rival that of Conan. So we get treated to S&S but with a strong, older woman with sorcery skills as our protagonist. The story and setting are epic and span centuries. This is well done, intellectually warfare and art. Try it out, the Bloom is contagious. Here are some thoughts on it:

  • The Bloom is knowledge and power.
  • Should the Bloom empower nature, or mankind?
  • Who owns it, really?
  • Should anyone guard it against humanity? Disperse it, via scholar or the ruling hierarchy of sorcerers?
  • What would you do with the Bloom?


Watch it now online, from many venues .... including Amazon Prime (own the HD version for $10)

Oh, get the Spine of Night merchandise too. I am thinking each family member will get an eye-shirt for the Holidays!


"Spine of Night" with Creators Morgan King and Phil Gelatt, Rogues in the House (link) 

First off, it is amazing that the roto-scoped masterpiece Spine of Night was made, and then cooler yet that a bunch of rogues cornered the creators to discuss all sorts of story & movie elements (from barbarism to the role of fertility gods and the bodily shapes of heroines). Check out the link above, or find the 11-12-2021 Rogues in the House Podcast episode on your favorite podcasting venue.

2021 Dec Update!  Family Xmas T-shirts!







Saturday, October 30, 2021

Tales from the Magician's Skull #6 - Review by SE

Tales from the Magician's Skull #6 by Howard Andrew Jones

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tales from the Magician's Skull #6 (Cover Illustration: Doug Kovacs) ramps up an already impressive line-up. Editor and author Howard Andrew Jones and publisher Joseph Goodman must be possessed by this Skull character, which is fine by me. 

BTW, there is a Kickstarter ready to launch this week to fund issues #7 and beyond. Sign up here to be notified.

Listen here to what the Skull has them creating:

Like the first five issues, the print copy of #6 is an ~8.5x11 inch masterpiece printed on high-quality, textured paper. Fully illustrated again, of course. PDFs have always been available too, but this issue is also available in ePub from the publisher (Amazon and DriveThruRPG also offer versions). Also, this issue continues the great tradition of enabling readers to play RPG versions of the stories with statistics for items/characters provided by Terry Olsen.

And rise from your chair, mortal dogs (that's Skull speak), #6 has an officially licensed pastiche of Fritz Leiber's Fafhred and the Gray Mouser tales, brought to you by veteran writer Nathan Long. His story has the famous duo attempting to steal books from a secretive clan of sorcerers; honestly, it felt just like "Leiber," with an entertaining, weird adventure that works in humor to break the tension.

Hocking, Enge, and Malan continue to extend their series that have been anchors to the magazine to date. All the contributions are episodic (i.e. stand-alone). However, Hocking has a knack to impart more character progression with his Benhus than traditional, episodic action heroes of the pulps. His style is to ramp up slowly over a few pages, and then roll it into epic madness. Hocking delivers again as he had before. And Enge Morlock's character is a wonderful, troubled man; I feel empathetic and attached to him as he struggles with inner and real demons--great stuff. And Malan's Parno and Dhulyn make an entertaining pair of mercenaries.

Mele offers up his "Azatlan" milieu, which is akin to Robert E. Howard's Hyborian World (a harmonized blending of anachronistic European/North-African/West-Asian cultures), but with a focus on South/Meso-American flare. Necromantic rituals feel fresh here. This complements Howard's champion Hanuvar who goes undercover in the Dervan Empire (which radiates a Romanesque feel). Varied stories, characters, and lands make this a splendid issue.

TABLE OF CONTENTS with official snippets.
1) CALICASK'S WOMAN by John Hocking (A TALE OF THE KING’S BLADE): “I can’t hold them back for long,” gasped the apprentice. His face had gone pallid and sweat dripped from his chin. “Stand by the opening and try to take them one at a time. Perhaps we can… where are you going?!”

2) THE FEATHERED SHROUD by Howard Andrew Jones (A TALE OF HANUVAR)
The water behind the soldier erupted, and Hanuvar lunged past him to jam the pitchfork at a shovel-shaped reptilian head. The tines bit deep, and the dark water reddened.

3) GUILTY CREATURES by Nathan Long. A TALE OF FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER
"In the circle, Mouser stared cross-eyed at the tip of Kalphin’s blade, knowing death was coming to him at last."

4) SHADOWS OF A FORGOTTEN QUEEN by Greg Mele. A TALE OF AZATLAN
"I’ve seen a maiden’s veins opened as she is led through the fields, watering the new crops with her life’s blood in honor of Majawl, Our Lady of Maize, and lit my own father’s funeral pyre. But what manner of man owned books made of human flesh?"

5) COLD IN BLOOD by James Enge. A STORY OF MORLOCK AMBROSIUS
"She moved with a lithe, muscular dancer’s grace as she walked around him to enter the room. Her hair was a waterfall of starless night. Her eyes were the stars, shining with tears. Morlock had seen a more beautiful woman, but not recently."

6) ISLE OF FOG by Violette Malan. A DHULYN AND PARNO ADVENTURE.
"Dhulyn judged from the way his mouth moved now that he was screaming. That was easy to fix, she thought, as she brought her sword up and sent the head bouncing and rolling across the tiled floor."

ARTICLES
A PROFILE OF FRITZ LEIBER by Michael Curtis
Leiber replied, “I feel more certain than ever [that this field] should be called the sword-and-sorcery story.” And thus a sub-genre, while not quite newly born, received a name for the first time…

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 statistics for the creatures in this issue of Tales From The Magician’s Skull.

THE SKULL SPEAKS by the Skull Himself
He asks us to prepare to celebrate Sword & Sorcery on October 23rd, 2021, a day slated to begin an annual Day of Might celebration. 


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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Heroes of Echo Gate (Mad Shadows Book Three) - Review by SE

Review posted on Black Gate: FUN, FRESH FANTASY: MAD SHADOWS: THE HEROES OF ECHO GATE BY JOE BONADONNA

Mad Shadows III: The Heroes of Echo Gate (Pulp Hero Press, February 2021). Cover artist uncredited

Joe Bonadonna’s third installment of his Mad Shadows, Dorgo the Dowser series, The Heroes of Echo Gate, was announced this Feb 2021 at Black Gate. We covered Dorgo’s world and Bonadonnoa’s cinematic narrative, which we’ll touch upon again during this review. Also on Black Gate, the author of the internationally acclaimed IX Series, Andrew Paul Weston, reviewed all three books of the Mad Shadow series. This post reinforces those articles and highlights this fresh fantasy adventure’s (a) Epic Scope, (b) Cinematic Style, and (c) Faith theme.

The Heroes of Echo Gate is fun, fresh fantasy. Dorgo and his fellowship of Harryhausen-like creatures defend a magical portal from a horde of demons. Epic!

As the cover implies, we have our beloved weird-fiction investigator & mercenary Dorgo (the guy front and center on the cover with the dowsing rod and sword) defending the titular portal with a band of friends (most of whom could have stared in a Ray Harryhausen movie. For the young readers take note that Harryhausen was the “Frank Frazetta” of cinema who gave life to the fantastical creatures before computer graphics were invented. There are three acts that follow the classic purposes: setup, rising tension, and an epic battle. The climax consumes a full third of the book and resonates with all the grandeur of defending Tolkien’s Helm’s Deep. The city of Soolaflan, on the island of Thavarar, is the fortress and it is situated around Echo Gate. Demons from across time want access to it. The portals across the world of Tanyime (and even across time and space) echo those from C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle and even Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga.

(a) Epic Scope

Read the first two books to appreciate the players and the role of the Wandering Swords group: Book One: Mad Shadows by Joe Bonadonna and Book Two: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent. The first two are episodic weird-mystery with Dorgo taking the spotlight. The adventures are more “Crime & Sorcery” than “Sword & Sorcery.” Dorgo is not an official constable or justice keeper, but he is a hired layman with investigative skills and a magical dowsing rod. Bonadonna brands his Dorgo tales “Gothic Noir” which is fitting. Despite the weirdness of Valdar city and the threatening necromancy that abounds, we know Dorgo will survive and resolve any case as surely as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser did.

Heroes of Echo Gate is simply more epic than the first two. First, the structure abandons the episodic set of stories for one epic tale. Secondly, the point of view (although maintaining a focus on Dorgo) pans back to feature a party of 6-8 heroes.  Also, at 318pages, it is larger than the first two (at 270 and 233 pages). With these changes, combined with the prevalence of non-human creatures and some engagement of royalty, Heroes of Echo Gate fits a high-fantasy mold.

(b) Cinematic Style & A Fellowship of Harryhausen Creatures

Joe Bonadonna weaves in Easter Eggs to his many relationships/bibliography. Two obvious ones I caught were: (1) the “Rogue Blades” mercenary group, a call out to Jason M. Waltz’s Rogue Blades Foundation publishing (Bonadonna has a contribution with David C. Smith in RBF’s Scott Oden Presents: The Lost Empire of Sol); (2), a description of weird terrain that contained Waters of Darkness (the title of a book Bonadonna co-wrote with David C. Smith).

Bonadonna has written articles for Black Gate wherein he describes how cinema informed his style.  Prior/in-addition-to writing, he was a rock guitarist, songwriter, and even a board member of the Chicago Screenwriter’s Network. So he composes as if he is writing for the camera, and his mind has been influenced by the masters. This reads like a homage to classic fantasy films. Dorgo’s group comprises creatures right out of the 1958 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts. This time, many of the Harryhausen-like beings are heroes rather than villainous monsters; for instance, the cyclops Quedemas (with his hilariously named warhammer “Daisy”) and his compatriot Saburo the minotaur serve as warriors with Dorgo. Incidentally, those two are like brothers and their comradery is emotionally engaging. Plenty of animated skeletons, evil harpies, and some Talos-like automatons are also present.

The Heroes of Echo Gate begs to be put into stop-motion, cinematic form.


Screen shots from Ray Harryhausen films

(c) Conflict: Faith

Like lots of fantasy, there are themes of spirituality or faith being explored. There is nothing heavy-handed here. Expect just the right amount of thought-provoking tidbits one may expect when protagonists are battling angelic/demonic powers. As much as the monsters are drawn from Mount Olympus and cinema, the angels reflect various Christian manifestations (i.e., nuns). Everyone, good or evil, seems to play with Odyllic power, the same magic that empowers Dorgo and his dowsing rod.  At root of the conflict is the corruptibility of those without faith in gods versus those who are faithful.  Also at play is the faith in companionship/brotherhood (outside of religion).

The Heroes of Echo Gate expands the scope and influence of Dorgo the Dowser. Check out his adventures in the Mad Shadows series:

Joe Bonadonna

Joe Bonadonna is the author of the heroic fantasies Mad Shadows-Book 1: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser (winner of the 2017 Golden Book Readers’ Choice Award for Fantasy); Mad Shadows-Book 2: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent; Mad Shadows-Book 3: The Heroes of Echo Gate; the space operas Three Against The Stars and The MechMen of Canis-9; and the sword & sorcery adventure, Waters of Darkness (in collaboration with David C. Smith.) With co-writer Erika M Szabo, he wrote Three Ghosts in a Black Pumpkin (winner of the 2017 Golden Books Judge’s Choice Award for Children’s Fantasy), and The Power of the Sapphire Wand. He also has stories appearing in: Azieran—Artifacts and Relics; GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear; Heroika: Dragon Eaters; Poets in Hell; Doctors in Hell; Pirates in Hell; Lovers in Hell; Mystics in Hell; Sinbad: The New Voyages, Volume 4; Unbreakable Ink; Sha’Daa Toys (in collaboration with Shebat Legion), and The Lost Empire of Sol (with David C. Smith.) In addition to his fiction, he has written a number of articles and book reviews for Black Gate online magazine.

Visit his Amazon Author’s page or his Facebook author’s page, called Bonadonna’s Bookshelf.

 


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Queen of the Martian Catacombs - Review by SE

Queen of the Martian Catacombs by Leigh Brackett

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many Sword & Sorcery readers also adore Leigh Brackett. To date, I had only read The Sword of Rhiannon which I enjoyed. As part of a group read in the GR S&S group I'm reading more.

Brackett was a prolific writer, notable known for writing part of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V). In the Queen of the Martian Catacombs, written in 1949 (~30 yrs prior Star War) you can see some overtones. "Eric John Stark" is the hunky rogue, a mercenary for hire with a heart---clearly a Han Solo figure. Women adore him, in this case, a princess causing rebellion Berild (Leia?).

The romance is heavy-handed, but the action and scenery are expertly paced. There is a ton of information provided with just the right amount of words. Even though Stark is the awesome hero you'll still feel that he is in peril, and will even feel for the characters he forms relationships with.

At ~25K words, this is more of a novella than a novel. It is available online via the Gutenberg project, but I enjoyed the paperback; the edition I read was illustrated well.

To boot, there are splendid descriptions that are stunning (bold font is mine).

Excerpt 1:
But Berild had gone a few steps farther. With a hoarse cry, she bent over what had seemed merely a slab of stone fallen from the cliff, and Stark saw that it was a carven pillar, half buried. Now he was able to make out the mounded shape of a ruin, of which only the foundations and a few broken columns were left.

For a long while Berild stood by the pillar, her eyes closed. Stark got the uncanny feeling that she was visualizing the place as it had been, though the wall must have been dust a thousand years ago. Presently she moved. He followed her, and it was strange to see her, on the naked sand, treading the arbitrary patterns of vanished corridors.

Excerpt 2)
Stark saw it rising against the morning sky--a city of gold and marble, high on an island of rose-red coral laid bare by the vanished sea. Sinharat, the Ever-Living.

Yet it had died. As he came closer to it, plodding slowly through the sand, he saw that the place was no more than a beautiful corpse, the lovely towers broken, the roofless palaces open to the sky. Whatever life Kynon and his armies might have foisted upon Sinharat was no more than the fleeting passage of ants across the perfect bones of the dead.

This is great stuff! I'm on to Black Amazon of Mars next.

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Friday, September 3, 2021

 A Sorcerer of Atlantis by John Shirley

S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Entertaining Pulp Adventure by Veteran Author

A Sorcerer of Atlantis: with A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts has two key parts: (1) A three-chapter novel called "A Sorcerer in Atlantis" that has been released in doses over the years, and (b) the lost-world trip : "A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts", which despite its second billing, I enjoyed more.

First let's cover the author. To do that, I'll borrow from Douglas Draa who edited the 2020 release of Weirdbook #42: Special John Shirley Issue (~11 stories, including bits of those in this collection). Here's how Draa introduced John Shirley (who has written with several pen names):
“Seriously, Mr. Shirley is the recipient of multiple Bram Stoker and Locus Awards. He has won the International Horror Guild Award twice (along with 6 nominations). He has written two albums for Blue Oyster Cult, the original draft for The Crow, and been nominated for an Emmy for his work on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Oh! And he’s also scripted for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!” – Douglass Draa Intro to WeirdBook #42

A Sorcerer of Atlantis

 Publication History. This three-chapter novel has been published piecemeal. If you are looking for more Snoori and Brimm stories, they will probably be coming, but understand that the previous incarnations are essentially duplicated.

1) Jul 4, 2017, Swords Against Darkness, edited by Paula Guran
    I. The Swords of Her Heart (by John Balestra)

1+2) Feb 26, 2020, Weirdbook #42: Special John Shirley Issue contains an entry called "Swords of Atlantis" which is really:
    I. The Swords of Her Heart
    II. Swords for the King

1+2+3) Jun 15, 2021, A Sorcerer of Atlantis: with A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts. With few changes, like the renaming of the Poseidon priest 'Mestor' to 'Nestor', we get a new chapter plus the previous two:
    I. The Swords of Her Heart
    II. Swords for the King
    III. The Destiny of Atlantis


Without spoiling, the ending hints at another adventure set in Latina, Roma. That makes sense, since that would build on the strengths of this light-hearted read (focused on Atlantis to this point). The core milieu builds on tensions between Greek and Roman myths/history, namely between the sea-god Poseidon and the fire-appreciating Vulcanus. The call-outs to Roman and Greek gods are usually interesting (minotaurs, necropolises, volcano tubes under Atlantis) but are sometimes heavy-handed (Romulus and Remus make an unnecessary cameo).

The key strength is the fun environments, battle, and varied creatures. My favorites were the "Uncertain" demon trapped inside the Cold Heart of Jupiter and the demon "Zirrish." Expect lots of crypt walking and speaking with ghosts. That said, A Sorcerer of Atlantis is more comedic than immersive. The protagonist is Brimm the Savant, who is not only a suave barbarian but a competent magician. He’s both warrior (with his piercer sword) and mage so he can summon demons to do his bidding (like kill his enemies) if he can remember the spells. There is plenty of grand fights, but you’ll never feel like Brimm is actually in danger. Snoori is his foil, a compatriot who has a knack for escalating trouble. Romance is over-the-top melodromatic, with two royal women Selinn and Maitha fawning over Brimm. The first chapter reads like Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, with a fun duo fighting Lovecraftian horrors with swords & magic. The later chapters introduce a bunch of characters and enlarged the party such that it assumes more of an epic fantasy feel (classic S&S focuses on one hero).

Conflict? Brimm and Snoori are ostensibly after gold or honor (or something to pass the time). Thanks to Snoori's brilliant ideas, and Brimm going along with them, they are really causing troubles and then trying to fix them. Yep, most of their actions are damage control. Ultimately, Brimm's journey is really a coming-of-age story of a wanderlust dude who learns that he desires to protect others (Atlantis). It all starts with Cleito, and her presence and power extend through all three chapters.
And there, in an old palace [in Atlantis], awaits the beauteous Cleito, a princess who has offered ten bushels of gold to any ten men who will become the Swords of her Heart: the champions who will destroy a minor demon.” - Chapter 1

A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts:

This entry is not Sword & Sorcery, but it is pulpy adventure that likely will satisfy the same readers. The light-hearted tone of Shirley pervades this story too. The protagonist Kerrin lives in contemporary times as a gem cutter, but is suddenly drug to a different world, one that promises to reveal the mystery of his father's sudden death (which happened when Kerrin was a teen). Kerrin's plight is more interesting than Brimm, and the weird descriptions a tad weirder (and more impactful) than the Atlantis adventure (which had decent settings actually). Anyway, here's two excerpts of the experience:

1) Kerrin looked over his shoulder at the palace... The gardens encircling the palace were varicolored, with enormous purple blossoms and vines with butter yellow blooms; then came a stand of trees with jade-like foliage. Along the edges of the avenue were nodding, diaphanous growths, some fifty feet high; translucent and drooping, their branches subtly moved of their own volition like the arms of sleepy Hawaiian dancers, slowly shifting gigantic translucent leaves. Light from the sparkling moon refracted by the broad lens-like leaves shattered into primary colors that fluxed with secretive dynamism. It made Kerrin think of an effect from light striking an inclusion deep within a polished diamond. As the phaeton trundled along, the light from the growths served as streetlamps, illuminating the road and an exquisitely serene pond of orange night-blooming waterlilies and golden lotuses, coming up on their left. The bordering lilies were artfully counterbalanced by swans, now easing toward their nests in the reeds. A small herd of deer cropped grass along the farther shore of the pond. Kerrin felt called, summoned by the light softly pulsing in the limpid water; by the living serenity of the place. He wanted to leave the phaeton and go to the pond, to sit in contemplation of it.

2) Illuminated by shafts of red light coming through the translucent stone at the peak of Bald Mountain was a squirming aggregation of ghosts. Specters in various stages of incarnation struggled like hundreds of white moths caught in transparent glue. They were fixed in a kind aspic of decaying caro spiritus—the source of the rancid odor underlying the smell of dead bats. Nearly three hundred spirits seemed entombed at Kerrin’s feet, in a putrefied melding of souls. Their faces were contorted with anguish, lined with misery, pinched by fear; their mouths were open in endless outcry. There were spirit countenances that had been Caucasian, African, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, all united by a cruel compression, a crushing constraint within their bonds. Kerrin could make out rag-ends of arms and legs, but not a complete body in the lot. Most of the fragmented ghosts were groaning, wailing, calling out in various languages for assistance.


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Sunday, August 1, 2021

Worlds Beyond Worlds - Review by SE

 Also on EXPLORE THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS: WORLDS BEYOND WORLDS BY JOHNR. FULTZ (Aug 2021 Black Gate)


Worlds Beyond Worlds: The Short Fiction of John R. Fultz by John R. Fultz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Volume I: Transcending the Illusions of Modernity and Reason.: The first thing you must understand is that the One True World is not a figment of your imagination, and it does not lie in some faraway dimension. To help you understand the relationship between the True World and the False, you must envision the True World lying beneath the False, as a man can lay hidden beneath a blanket, or a woman’s true face can be hidden by an exquisite mask. (Fultz, “The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria” )

YOU WANT SOME OF THIS? The Brian LeBlanc cover of Worlds Beyond Worlds: The Short Fiction of John R. Fultz shows the revenant Chivaine displaying the trophy head of his enemy. As a reader, do you want to follow him? Challenge him? The tile and cover set up expectations well, so you can expect planetary landscapes, witches, twisted creatures, and villainous heroes. Worlds Beyond Worlds is exactly what it says, a collection that takes the reader/protagonists into other worlds which are beyond even stranger ones. You are invited to explore the beautiful darkness.

The mere fact Fultz can publish eleven tales across ten markets in just a few years is a testament to his skill. BTW, John R. Fultz is equally skilled in the novel form as he is in short stories; looking for a dose of weird adventure? Then consider The Shaper Trilogy or Tall Eagle series (listed below). He has a knack for blending genres/settings which reflects his desire to take the reader to new places, really weird new places full of disturbing surroundings and high-stakes adventure.  Heck, there is even a Sword & Sorcery tale that harmonizes dragon killing with the ambiance of Kung Fu (dedicated to David Carradine's iconic role in the TV show). Anyway, if you crave unique fiction that conveys a wild experience, and are excited to immerse yourself in the cover's world, then the answer is: YES, YOU DO WANT THIS.

Learn more about John R. Fultz by perusing the author's website and by reading the 2017 interview where I cornered him on the topic "Beauty in Weird Fiction". You'll learn about the author's muses and illustration skills (which inform his visual style).

TABLE OF CONTENTS:
1. “Chivaine” originally appeared in Weirdbook #31 (2015).
2. “Yael of the Strings” originally appeared in Shattered Shields (2014).
3. “Ten Thousand Drops of Holy Blood” originally appeared in Skelos #3 (2017).
4. “Strange Days in Old Yandrissa” originally appeared in Orbit Short Fiction (2013).
5. “The Gnomes of Carrick County” originally appeared in Space & Time #116 (2010).
6. “The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria” originally appeared in Way of the Wizard (2010).
7. “Daughter of the Elk Goddess” originally appeared in Hyperborea (August 2014).
8. “The Penitence of the Blade” originally appeared in The Audient Void #2 (2016).
9. “Where the White Lotus Grows” originally appeared in Monk Punk (2011).
10. “Oorg” originally appeared in The Audient Void #5 (2018).
11. “Tears of the Elohim” originally appeared in Forbidden Futures #3 (2018).

WILD CHARACTERS: The protagonists are as varied as the milieus. “Chivaine” opens with an undead knight. “Yael” offers a reluctant bard turned hero on a battlefield with mega-insects; later stories feature the perspectives of a sentient sword (“Ten Thousand Drops of Holy Blood”), and we even get a bibliophile (“Thirteen Texts”) and a moon-born elder god (“Oorg”)! And there is more. You will travel the Land of the Scorpions, Valley of Sacred Bones, Eiglophian Mountains, the doomed city of Yandrissa, and through the underworld of the New World. Here is a taste:

"In the Land of Scorpions the warlock Vallicus kept a fortress of volcanic stone. Its ramparts rose above a realm of poisoned waters and crumbling ruins. Vallicus, like his citadel, was a relic of the elder ages. He had ruled a decadent kingdom in the time before the Hundred Gods tamed the world. How he longed for those ancient days of blood and slaughter. I was born into flames, falling out of the void. A womb of stone hurtling ever downward, until the thunder of impact fractured my shell. I lay among the glittering shards, formless and thoughtless, until Vallicus came for me. Weaving spells against the heat and flame, he carried me from the steaming crater. A silvery seed he would nurture and grow with sorcery. A nameless mineral to which he gave a form, a name, and a purpose." (“Ten Thousand Drops of Holy Blood”)

"There came a day when the rusted moon cracked open like an egg, and the giant Oorg fell screaming to earth. A pale and fetal meteor, his body slammed into the green ocean. Tidal waves and tsunamis swept the shattered continents, drowning empires and flooding the world. The world had flooded before, but there had never been a burden like Oorg for the earth to endure. He rose up from the steaming mud of the drained seabed, gleaming like a mountain white as snow. The light of his eyes was the glow of double suns, scouring the air with heat, scorching the low-hanging clouds to ash. The world roiled with cataclysms about his gargantuan feet, and he roared like an uncaged beast.

On the other side of the world Oorg explored the nature of his surroundings, howling at the red sky with his great maw, possessing no language to express whatever mundane or alien thoughts might be swimming in his vast brain. He knew hunger, and confusion, and cold. Inside the moon’s womb he had been warm and oblivious, dreaming of unguessed realities. Here he was titanic, pain-struck, and alone. He howled his pain like a hungry wolf and stomped across the ruined lands, his great arms tearing up islands and hurling them at nothing. " ("Oorg")


STYLE: Fultz's approach is reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith's weirdness blended with Robert E. Howard's action. Expect bloody, weird bloody melee:
The men of Sharoc marched toward the overwhelming ranks of Ghothians. Diving griffons harried the rows of colossal arachnids. Knights drove their lances into the bulbous monsters. The spider-beasts squirted silvery ropes of webbing into the sky, bringing knights and griffons tumbling to earth. The Ghothian pikemen closed about the fallen ones, stabbing them to death in seconds.

The marching armies grew closer and closer. They would meet in the valley’s exact center. The spider-banners of Ghoth rippled in the autumn wind, and the yellow banners of Lion and Hawk streamed forth to meet them. At a certain distance the archers on either side took to ground. Volleys flew into the sky, each a black rain of barbed death. The footmen paused, sank to their knees, and raised their shields for shelter. When the arrows had fallen, the footmen rose and marched again. Another volley shot into the sky, and the footmen paused again and raised their shields. A soldier next to Yael took an arrow in the eye and died instantly.

Again and again the arrows fell, until the two armies came together in a rush of shouting, charging pikemen. Then all sense of ranks and order was lost, and the slaughter truly began. The wicked pikes of the Ghothians impaled their foes, ripped sideways to spill guts from bellies. Others hooked men into immobile positions of lasting pain. In such cases the Ghothians pulled forth their scimitars and took the heads of wounded men.

Yael might have dropped his pike and ran from the fray like a coward, but the press of men behind him made this impossible. So he marched into the forest of barbed and glittering blades aimed at his gut and face. The Ghothian pikes were grotesquely made, barbed and hooked to inflict maximum carnage. The screams grew louder. Dying men wailed and clutched at their spilled intestines on the ground as others trampled them into the mud.

Time had slowed so that each moment was an eternity. The roar of battle was like the roar of the ocean in Yael’s ears. Droplets of red blood spilled through the air like tiny jewels, splattered across the muddy ground. Dead boys lay all about him, their skulls and hearts and bellies split open, spilling the red secrets of existence into the black dirt. The whiteness of an ancient bone poked through the mud, a remnant of some historic battle. How many bones, how many skulls, filled the earth beneath this valley? The soil was rich with decayed humanity. (“Yael of the Strings” )


NOVELS by John R. Fultz/b>

The Shaper Trilogy
Seven Sorcerers
Seven Princes
Seven Kings
Seven Sorcerers (Book of the Shapers 3) by John R. FultzSeven Princes (Books of the Shaper) by John R. FultzSeven Kings (Books of the Shaper, #2) by John R. Fultz

Tall Eagle Series
The Son of Tall Eagle
The Testament of Tall Eagle
The Son of Tall Eagle by John R. FultzThe Testament of Tall Eagle by John R. Fultz


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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu - Review. by S.E.

S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book blurb attracted me to Jason R. Koivu's Beyond Barlow since I am a fan of Heraclix & Pomp. Turns out his summary is spot on.
"Somewhere between Huck Finn and Locke Lamora" -- Forrest Aguirre, author of Heraclix and Pomp


Beyond Barlow is Intellectual Grimdark: Readers typically differentiate stereotypical High Fantasy (elves, dwarves, wizards with pointy hats with a slant toward happy adventuring) vs Low Fantasy (more "realism" & "earthier" milieu, with a focus on humans defending trenches at the battlefront or crawling through crypts to save a maiden or rob a god). The latter encompasses sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery and the contemporary-named Grimdark.

Beyond Barlow has no explicit sorcery, and lies somewhere between medieval fiction and today's Grimdark. Yet it feels different, and this difference can be a plus or a detraction for readers. It all boils down to the conflict. Most adventures of Dark Fantasy tap into simple conflicts of Hero(ine) protagonists vs evil villains/creatures. Beyond Barlow works the more obtuse Hero vs. Self (or arguable Hero vs. Nature) conflict; this development can be slower to develop than the former.

The book follows Ford Barlow who is an impulsive, violent teenager who struggles to fit in with his family in a comfortable way. The story tracks his coming of age as he learns to kill in battle; he causes several brutal accidents leading to his departure from Barlow (his family's hamlet). He joins the Wayward Boys, and his teambuilding with the gang has all the hallmarks of Golding's Lord of the Flies.

Themes of "family matters" persist across every chapter; i.e., what does it means to belong to one? What is your role as a member? The opening chapter, for instance, has Ford going to battle with his dad, step-brother, and dog Stinky. At first, I thought this was a foundation for a Ford-vs-other-clan narrative, but subsequent chapters amplified Ford's feelings of mis-belonging.

Ford is continually haunted by visions of his father, a woodcutter. The following chapters focus on his bonding with a band of thieves. Plenty of drama unfolds as the wanderlust boys survive by thieving food, braving cold winters, and looting crypts. The characters Runt and Ham echo Ford's relationship with his step-brother Leo; they were my favorite of the bunch.

Its uniqueness may also make this less accessible. Ford isn't really honorable (though he does mature a bit)... the situations he experiences are very grim, and without a clear villain, it leans toward intellectual fiction. The series continues with the sequel The Rue of Hope, which interestingly calls out magic. So we can speculate that the tone shifts towards dark Sword & Sorcery in the next installment.

Blurb for The Rue of Hope:
Murder in the streets. Murder in the houses of the holy. The violent deaths of prominent figures have the populous on edge. Now, amid fire and flood, the revolt is on. The castle is taken, the lord is on the run, and the city is crumbling. With society on the verge of collapse, impulsive street-fighter Ford Barlow finds himself in just as much turmoil. Not only is he juggling his own problems, but his slippery rogue friend is embroiled in a string of high-profile assassinations. Mercenary work for a mage meant to distance him from his troubles only highlights his selfish ways and drives him back into a crumbling world of scandal and betrayal. Magic, adventure and murder combine in this fantasy-mystery!


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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Turn Over the Moon- review by SE



Sorrowless

Sorrowful and Sorrowless Fear neither Moon nor Sun,
Side by side, we flip the stones…
...Until both can claim we’ve won.
Last October, Black Gate alerted folks to the Turn Over the Moon’s Kickstarter campaign which brought Ryan Harvey’s world of Ahn-Tarqa into novel form. That journey began a decade prior and we’ll cover the ancillary tales leading up to that. Although a prequel and side stories exist, be assured that the novel feels designed to be the gateway into this Sorrow-laden world. Have no fear (or Sorrow) and enter here (with Turn Over the Moon).

The subtitle “Saga of the Sorrowless Book #1” had me gearing up for an epic fantasy in which (a) most mysteries would resolve in subsequent books and (b) the pace may be slower than the short stories I typically read. That would have been fine, of course, but Harvey (who already has proven himself a master of the short form) pleasantly delivers a cross-breed of short-story style with typical novel form: there are mysteries, but you get to learn them speedily, and the pace is super-charged. The opening chapters will have you wondering (no worries, no spoilers here): (1) who are the Shapers, (2) how the heck does the prevailing Sorrow connect to the heroine, world, and conflict, and (3) who is the mystery woman? I won’t tell you here but rejoice in knowing that the revelations are engaging and explained satisfyingly within the covers.
“The Shapers can reach me in my dreams. I escaped their clutches once, but in the blackness of sleep they tear open the walls of my head and slither inside. In each nightmare they glare down on me as they once glared down on all the land, from the edge of the eastern desert to the dwindling tip of the western peninsula. As they once glared down on my father, bound across his own workbench for their tortures. Even though their eyes are drowned within the dark slits of their masks, I can feel their stares. The robes hiding their bodies flutter around me in a barrier. There is nothing beyond.” — the teenage heroine Belde

Abandon all Sorrow, all ye who enter here!


This book will appeal to just about any fantasy enthusiast, from Epic Fantasy to Sword & Planet to Sci-Fi Opera fans. Given the primary protagonist is the teenaged girl Belde, this leans toward being a young-adult dystopian adventure; however, any stereotypical dystopian romance is minimized, the violence is beautifully brutal, and the pace advances like an action flick. Belde manages to escape predicaments no one should ‘realistically’ overcome, but this is all forgivable when the world and story are so engaging (like James Bond or Indiana Jones, it’s okay for them to succeed… cripes we have dinosaurs to ride, colossi to battle, and tubes to remove from our heads!).

Here’s Ryan Harvey’s recipe for entertaining adventure:
  • Endearing heroines and heroes
  • A land saturated with steampunk technology… and dinosaurs!
  • A magic Art tied to an melancholic element called “Sorrow” that is as ever-present as the weather
  • Tortured, fascinating villains
  • Action that won’t quit
  • Deep mysteries revealed pleasantly and frequently

I’m a big fan of books that provide titles and covers that set up correct expectations. This one works well. The title explicitly refers to a board game which is like Reversi (aka Othello) with a purpose mirroring our protagonist’s journey to change the world, i.e.., by turning away the Sorrow. At the center of the cover is Belde and her dinosaur-pet Rint, who are appropriately the focus. The background speaks to the conflict in the book: there is a war brewing between the nature-loving, oppressed folk (Sorrowless, represented by the mountains on the left) and the steampunk, mind-controlling elders (Sorrowful Shapers of the Black Spires on the right).

The Sorrow and the Sorrowless

Having a magic system rooted in emotion is outstanding. Yet the Sorrow is more than part of the Art. Its existence emerges from the world’s history, inspires the Shaper’s technology and goals, and (most importantly) informs all the conflict and heroine’s plight. The best way to describe it is to share the author’s own summary of the Sorrow’s creation, echoed below from the Kickstarter campaign:

"At the heart of Turn Over the Moon and the other stories set on the otherworldly continent of Ahn-Tarqa is “The Sorrow,” a mental burden almost all people suffer from. When I first hatched the idea of Ahn-Tarqa, it was as a playground where I could mix dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, and weird science. A place where I could write scenes of a Tyrannosaurus fighting a metal automaton made from archaic technology.

But the world was missing something that would make it more than a fun sandbox. I started to think of authors who have influenced me; the tone of melancholy lurking under the works Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett, Clark Ashton Smith, and Cornell Woolrich made me wonder what would a world where melancholy was the basis of existence might be like. A world where what we today call “depression” is as regular as breathing. I came up with “The Sorrow,” and then my fictional world was no longer a backdrop but something alive and rich.

But during the last few decades, something new has emerged. Across Ahn-Tarqa are a few who need no cure for the Sorrow. These “Sorrowless” are blessed with the vitality of life, but they can still know terror and sadness, and their condition sets them apart from others. Worse, they are the target of the Shapers, who want them as either slaves for their tests or dead. The Sorrowless won’t accept either

The Sorrow is a chronic depression that makes the world seem a terrifying place simply because it exists. For the people of Ahn-Tarqa, this futility has strangled the development of civilization. Humans live terrified in a strange world of great beasts and mysterious technology that burns their minds to even touch. Only the morbid, cruel race known as the Shapers, who cover their deformed faces behind masks even amongst themselves, have sought to find a cure for the Sorrow. But they seek the cure for their benefit only. All other people are disposable tools in their quest." Ryan Harvey


Past & Future Sorrowless

2011: “An Acolyte of Black Spires” short story by Ryan Harvey wins the Writers of the Future Contest. That work is available via Amazon and Dream Tower Media. Here’s the story summary:

In oppressive towers of walled cities, the scholars of a decrepit race search for answers to the mysterious ailment that has oppressed the land for ages: the disease known as “The Sorrow” that crushes the spirit with hopelessness.
In a room in one of these towers, the lonely historian Quarl sees his whole world challenged when he takes on a younger assistant: a woman who hides a secret that can shatter the world. But first it may have to shatter Quarl.

2013: “Sorrowless Thief” story: Ryan Harvey shared this on Black Gate (still available via this link,)!
Dyzan Ludd was the Sorrowless Thief, and the prize he had in mind proved he was insane — or a thief like none other in Ahn-Tarqa.

2020: Farewell to Tyrn, a prequel tale for Turn Over the Moon.

On the continent of Ahn-Tarqa, where science and magic are one, and humans share the land with great saurians, all races have in common a dreadful ailment: the disease known as “The Sorrow.” A lingering hopelessness with no cure. A fear of life itself. But for twelve-year-old Belde, her days in the city of Tyrn, playing in the streets with her whip-smart dinosaur pet Rint, seem far removed from the Sorrow she sees in others. Then, one burning summer day, cruel sorcerers from the masked race known as “The Shapers” slither from their black towers into Tyrn and knock on the door of the workshop of Belde’s father. Belde is about to drop into a nightmare that will carry her and Rint across the city, fleeing from the Shapers’ twisted killers, and into the glaring light of the truth about her life—a truth that echoes over all Ahn-Tarqa with the sound of the word “Sorrowless.”


2020: Turn Over the Moon, novel: this is where I entered the fray, and it works as a fine starting point. It’s the longest of the works so far, the first novel of several promised of the Saga of the Sorrowless. In short, it follows Belde from her escape from Tyrn to her charging full-throttle into a war of epic proportions. Blurb:

In a world of prehistoric savagery where barbarism and dark science sorcery vie for power over decadent cities, a brave young orphaned woman, Belde, and her miniature pet dinosaur, Rint, may hold the key to freeing a world oppressed by a psychic burden called the Sorrow and saving humanity from ultimate self-destruction!


2022: Look out for Novel #2 Saga of the Sorrowless (as per Ryan Harvey’s author’s blog).

 

Bio

Ryan Harvey is a science fiction and fantasy author who lives in Costa Mesa, California. He’s a recipient of the Writers of the Future Award, and his fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Beyond Centauri, Plasma Frequency, Tales From the Magician’s Skull, and the anthology Candle in the Attic Window. He has written extensive nonfiction articles for Black Gate and other magazines. Ryan graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota with a BA in history. He worked as a Hollywood story editor, speed-reading instructor, and copyeditor before becoming a professional writer. He writes marketing content by day, and during the nights and weekends creates works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His ongoing science-fantasy series on the continent of Ahn-Tarqa explores the many different nooks of genre in a gumbo of dinosaurs, weird tech, and fantastic adventure. His influences include Leigh Brackett, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ian Fleming, Algernon Blackwood, and Michael Moorcock. He is a leading authority on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and loves movies, history, and numerous oddball topics. In the world outside his apartment fortress, he’s an improv comedian who performs as part of the Improv Collective in Costa Mesa. He lives with a sinister black cat, and his spirit animal is Godzilla.









Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Crimson Crown - Review by SE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the Atrocity

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

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

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

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

Title, Cover, and Summary

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

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

Aeon of Chaos:

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

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

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