Saturday, March 19, 2016

Mage Maze Demon - short, pulpy, sword and sorcery

Mage Maze DemonMage Maze Demon by Charles Allen Gramlich
SE. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mage Maze Demon by Charles Allen Gramlich is published by “BEAT to a PULP”. It is a short story that delivers the uber-fast adventure pulp fiction readers expect. For the unfamiliar, "the pulps" were inexpensive magazines published ~1920’s that gave birth to Weird Fiction, Sword & Sorcery, Lost World stories; a time when fantasy, sci-fi, and horror were blended together. This one is Sword & Sorcery fare. As in Harvest of War, Gramlich writes concise poetic fiction. The title is a good summary of what Bryle the barbarian has conflict with. Although a short story adhering to pulp roots, I would have enjoyed the story even more if it were about twice it length. I was ready for more, and I suspect Gramlich has more ready for us.

Here is the opening to convey Gramlich’s style:
“The most vicious of all predators hunts in the forest. The barbarian flees. His name is Bryle. He dodges standing trees, leaps fallen logs, bulls past thorns and briars. A trio of gray wolves runs as well. They swiftly pull ahead. Bryle picks up the pace, though dares not run himself to exhaustion—as the wolves are doing. The wolves will tire; the thing that hunts them all will not.
…. It is fire that hunts. The forest roils with flames. Tendrils of crimson and orange whirl between the trees like the churning legs of a giant. Sap explodes into a shrapnel of embers, lashing Bryle now to the greatest effort he can muster. Sweat slimes him. His chest heaves. He passes a wolf from earlier. It staggers, bloody froth at its muzzle. Its heart must be near rupturing. Nothing can be done.”

Charles Allen Gramlich is the author of the Talera fantasy trilogy, the thriller Cold in the Light, and the SF novel Under the Ember Star. His stories have been collected primarily in three anthologies, Bitter Steel, (fantasy), Midnight in Rosary (Vampires/Werewolves), and In the Language of Scorpions (Horror). He is also the author of Write With Fire, a book about writing and publishing. His works are available in print and ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Wildside Press. Additionally, some of Charles's stories are available in novella length packets or as standalone ebooks from Amazon. These include Killing Trail (Westerns), Harmland (Noir/Horror), MicroWeird (Flash Fiction), and Harvest of War (Fantasy).

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Zagor Chronicles: Firestorm" - Obscure, Awesome Arcana for RPG-philes

Firestorm (The Zagor Chronicles, #1)Firestorm by Ian Livingstone
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Obscure, Awesome Arcana for RPG-philes: Firestorm is very dark (authentically “grimdark” in fact as discussed below), young-adult fantasy infused with RPG/Warhammer history. The pace is ridiculously epic, belying the purpose of the first book: introduce four adventures and the titular antagonist, Zagor. The heores are the trope-typical band of four: Braxus the Warrior ; Anvar the Barbarian; Stubble the beardless Dwarf; a female wizard Jallarial. In the span of every few pages, armies are introduced and destroyed; global swathes of destruction and conflict occur constantly; giant monsters come, kill, and then are thwarted or left to destroy. Very intense. The action is so fast and compact, that it is difficult to keep pace especially if the reader is not familiar with the series. For instance, the “Casket of Souls” artifact plays a key role in this book; but without reading the other books in the franchise, the reader would never know why it is suddenly introduced and used. Die-hard RPG would devour this, if they can track it down. It shows the evolution from Fighting Fantasy into the Warhammer games.

Fighting Fantasy – RPG gamebooks and Warhammer: My gateway into the Sword & Sorcery genre was most likely the Fighting Fantasy books (choose-your-own-adventures + dice) created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in the early 1980's (Games Workshop founders; these two would then co-found Warhammer). Before personal computers & smart phones could satiate the need for solo adventuring on the go, these books rocked. They were full of disturbing illustrations that still haunt me to this day. Interestingly, select ones (like Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Steve Jackson’s Sorcery) are now available on Kindle from Worldweaver and iTunes by Tinman games. The tablet evolution has revitalized these game books, check them out! Ostensibly marketed toward the young adult crowd, these are full of darkness. The artwork of the Games Workshop has always been top notch.

Kickstarter Reveals The Grimdark History: Jonathan Green, author of many novels including those under the Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy brands, recently (2014) led a Kickstarter campaign to create a history book detailing how these adventure books evolved. This 2012 effort was successful, and the print and eBook copies are now available. The resulting book You are the Hero (YATH) is 272 pages of illustrated goodness, with insights from authors, publishers, and artists. John Blanche, currently Games Workshop’s art director and “the man responsible for coming up with the look of the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000” (p45 YATH) explicitly addresses the evolution of Grimness:
“The FF books were the early thoughts about fantasy needing to be dark and grim that became more fully developed in the worlds of Warhammer – and it is still happening today. The punk thing is a tribal street visual that pervades all history as far back as you wish – it’s a hint of shamanism, tribalism, barbarism, etc. People relate to that in a very enthusiastic manner. Fantasy is not about fairies and golden knights but about guys with shaved heads and zombies and a multitude of macabre horrific nastiness.” (p52, You Are The Hero, 2014)

The origin of Grimdark chronicled: Many cite Grimdark’s name as being evolved from the tagline of Game’s Workshop’s sci-fi brand of fiction/games: Warhammer 40,0000. The tagline follows: "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Of course, GW also produces the fantasy Olde World line up too (medieval fantasy). Check out GW’s Black Library for their books. So before Warhammer 40,0000, what did GW produce? What spawned this tagline of Grim Darkness? The answer: Fighting Fantasy. Its development is chronicled in a new book, and the series has been revived in App/eBook form. Reading You are the Hero alerted me to awesome evolution of Zagor, the warlock in the first The Warlock of Firetop Mountain gamebook. Diehard Grimdark aficionados will hunt down The Zagor Chronicles.

Darth Maul , Zagor and Iain McCaig : Before designing the iconic Darth Maul for Starwars Episode I: The Phantom Menance, Iain McCaig had a lengthy collaboration with Ian Livingstone. Darth Maul is actually evolved from a cover from the FF series #5 City of Thieves. As the FF universe grew, they made a new type of puzzle book in which reader had to decipher a hidden spell from illustrations Casket of Souls (the casket has since become part of the Tomb King artifacts in Warhammer). Sallazar the Wizard is the narrator of “Casket” and his history becomes intertwined with several heroes in Firestorm and that of Zagor the necromancer.

In the Legend of Zagor, readers can “become” one of 4 heroes which they can read in the novel Firestorm: featured are the main heroes in Firestorm....Braxus the Warrior ; Anvar the Barbarian; Stubble the beardless Dwarf; Sallazar the Wizard (in Firestorm, Sallazar is replaced with a female wizard Jallarial).

Key Books in the history of ZAGOR:
Fighting Fantasy (Dice and paper) gamebooks re: Zagor
1982 - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone
1992- Return to Firetop Mountain
1993 -Legend of Zagor
1987 Illustrated gamebook Casket of Souls

Zagor Chronicles:
1993 Firestorm
1993 Darkthrone
1994 Skullcrag
1994 Demonlord
Firestorm (The Zagor Chronicles, #1) by Ian Livingstone Darkthrone (The Zagor Chronicles, #2) by Ian Livingstone Skullcrag (The Zagor Chronicles, #3) by Ian Livingstone Demonlord (The Zagor Chronicles, #4) by Ian Livingstone

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rathen: The Legend of Ghrakus Castle by Grant Elliot Smith - Review by S.E.

Rathen: The Legend of Ghrakus CastleRathen: The Legend of Ghrakus Castle by Grant Smith
S.E. Rating: 4 of 5 stars

The titular Rathen (a retired soldier/captain) leads a band of misfit characters, mostly retired, needing money or companionship, to explore/tame mysterious dangers around Ghrakus Castle. The first 50% of the novel is the band forming, then it rockets into action that does not cease. The promise of betrayals among the party members, an intriguing mystery with castle-ruins to explore, and interesting back stories per character are compelling; most compelling is a wraith that haunts Rathen's dreams.

The cover art by Matthew Stawicki is well done; the author's blog documents its creation.  Below are some of his rough sketches.

Grant Smith's debut novel reads as an entertaining chronicle of a Role-Playing-Game (RPG) scenario. Plenty of fantasy-RPG tropes are executed well enough: a party of ~12 members of men, dwarves, clerics, mages go adventuring, promised gold to unravel the dangerous mystery behind Grakus Castle; the cultures of orc, half-orcs, demons, etc. are presented as if the reader is already familiar with them (they fit stereotypes as per Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, Warcraft, Diablo, etc.); adventuring from location-to-location, room-to-room, with time in between to heal/regroup resonates the RPG-game ambiance.

On the continuum between guilty-pleasure reading and high-literature, this leans toward the former. It is a fast-read with a style fitting for the young-adult crowd (i.e., erratic pacing and an abundance of exclamation marks!). The mystery behind Ghakus Castle and the dangers that surround it are confronted, but Grant Elliot Smith clearly intends for more adventures for Rathen. If you are a fan of gaming and fantasy fiction, then check this out.

Matthew Stawicki 

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Friday, February 26, 2016

RPG-tie-in AND Swords-n-Guns: Sword-n-Sorcery Groupread Topics for Mar-Apr 2016

The Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads invites you to read and discuss the following topics the next two months (Mar Apr 2016):

(a) Swords-n-Guns - link to folder
(b) RPG tie-in Discussion (link to folder)

What counts for these topics? Whatever you decide...just come discuss and be prepared to articulate the connection.

Banner Credits go to Raymond Swanland: 

Dungeons & Dragons - Forgotten Realms
Cover art (c) 2011 Raymond Swanland

Warhammer - Space Wolves
Cover art (c) 2014 by Raymond Swanland

The Legend of Drizzt The Collected Stories by R.A. Salvatore Blood of Asaheim by Chris Wraight 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

'Weird' is resurrected, and seeks your identity - Weirdbook Review by SE

Weirdbook 31Weirdbook 31 by Doug Draa
S.E> rating: 4 of 5 stars

'Weird' is resurrected, and seeks your identity: Weirdbook Magazine aims to deliver a menu of genres: “fantasy, dark fantasy, sword and sorcery, ghost, horror, heroic fantasy, science fantasy or just plain odd” (quote from their submission requests online). This is fitting because “Weird Fiction” grew out of the pulp magazine era (~1920’s) when the above list was all mashed into one genre. In 1967 W. Paul Ganley edited Weirdbook magazine, its compelling run ceased in 1997 (Back issues available via Ganley’s ebay store). A century from its origins, Weird Fiction still has followers, but its identity is split across myriad markets/venues; in 2015, editor Doug Draa partnered with John Betancourt of Wildside Press to reboot the magazine.

Cover and Themes: Weirdbook 31 contains 19 short stories ( ~10 are traditional length, ~9 are very short/flash fiction) and 8 poems. Many associate Weird Fiction with “Mythos/Lovecraft Horror”; expect some influence, but the net was cast wider. The vast majority of the 19 stories are modern-day ghost/horror stories; less represented are ones with sci-fi elements--which had ~3 entries, and the Sword-n-Sorcery/Fantasy-Myth type--numbering ~2. This mix was unexpected because the Front cover by artist Dusan Kostic appeals to Dark Fantasy readers. The cover arguably leads nicely into the opening story by John R. Fultz, which is one of my favorites of the collection. The back cover by Stephen Fabian was originally planned to be the front cover.
Weirdbook31 back cover by S. Fabian
If there is a predominant theme across these disparate stories, it is “Finding Personal Identity.” Greater than half of the stories deal with possession, haunts, or missions around the protagonists defining/dealing-with “who they are.” I enjoyed finding that theme but it was not clearly designed. I would have enjoyed the collection even more if there was an explicit sub-theme. With all that could be ‘Weird Fiction,” having a theme per issue would help readers know when they should delve in.

My personal favorites include: Fultz’s ghostly myth Chivaine, the two wilderness adventures from Riley and Aquilone (Into the Mountains with Mother Old Growth and The Grimlorn Under the Mountain), Schweitzer’s ghost story Boxes of Dead Children, and Laish’s plight of a raven The Jewels That Were Their Eyes. Short-fiction wise, Harriett’s Zucchini Season and Gregg Chamberlain’s Missed It By That Much both made me laugh aloud. On the poetry front, the one that most affected me as Bride of Death by Dave Reeder.

In all, Weirdbook is solidly reborn with #31; looking forward to see how #32 shapes up.

Content / Author/ milieu-tone

  • Chivaine by John R. Fultz (sword-n-sorcery, ghosts, myths)
  • Give Me the Daggers by Adrian Cole (modern/gothic noir, silly side of carnivals & crime)
  • The Music of Bleak Entrainment by Gary A. Braunbeck (modern horror sound - physics)
  • Into The Mountains with Mother Old Growth by Christian Riley (modern wilderness adventure-weird)
  • The Grimlorn Under the Mountain by James Aquilone (another modern wilderness adventures- weird)
  • Dolls by Paul Dale Anderson (modern possession ghost-like witches)
  • Gut Punch by Jason A. Wyckoff (modern possession – crazy mother and psychologists)
  • Educational Upgrade by Bret McCormick (modern Possession - Gypsy magic)
  • Boxes of Dead Children by Darrell Schweitzer (modern Ghost Story)
  • The Forgotten by D.C. Lozar (very short fiction – modern trippy experience)
  • Coffee with Dad’s Ghost by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (very short fiction – modern ghost story)
  • Missed It By That Much by Gregg Chamberlain (very short fiction – very funny zombie/writer theme)
  • A Clockwork Muse by Erica Ruppert (sci-fi-ish, robots)
  • The Rookery by Kurt Newton (very short fiction – modern day hunting story)
  • Wolf of Hunger Wolf of Shame by J. T. Glover (sci-fi-ish, non-humanoid protagonist)
  • Zucchini Season by Janet Harriett (very short, meet Death herself, she can laugh)
  • The Jewels That Were Their Eyes by Llanwyre Laish (medieval, non-humanoid protagonist)
  • The Twins by Kevin Strange (very short modern day, resurrection gone bad)
  • Princess or Warrior? by S.W. Lauden (sci-fi-ish, very short modern day)


  • The City in the Sands by Ann K. Schwader
  • NecRomance by Frederick J. Mayer
  • Walpurgis Eve by Kyle Opperman
  • Sonnets of an Eldritch Bent by W. H. Pugmire
  • Castle Csejthe by Ashley Dioses
  • The Shrine by Wade German
  • Bride of Death by Dave Reeder
  • Modern Primitive by Chad Hensley

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Ken Kelly Original - Found by Rathen (Grant Elliot Smith)!

Spawn of Dyscrasia - Original on the move!

Ken Kelly with Grant Elliot Smith
The concept and making of Spawn of Dyscrasia's cover by Ken Kelly is documented in three posts; in short, after springing for the commission and the rights to use it as a cover, I had exhausted my funds. To obtain copy for my house I purchased a signed giclee print in lieu of the original. At that point, I did not know what would become it. 

This month a fellow Sword & Sorcery author, Grant Elliot Smith, reached out to communicate that he had purchased the original from Ken. What an honor! It gratifying on many levels, and it is great to know where the original lives.  It is equally rewarding to connect with like-minded writers, and I'm proud to help with the cover reveal of Grant Smith's adventure due for release in Feb 2016:

Rathen: The Legend of Ghrakus Castle

by Grant Elliot Smith (cover by Matt Stawicki)

Rathen, a former Captain in King Delvant’s army, retired to a quiet backwater town after the Kingdom’s forces were dissolved following the King’s sudden death. Trying to forget his problems by the copious use of strong ale, he is approached by the emissaries of a powerful lord to lead a team of fighters, healers and mages to dispel brigands from his lands. Rathen quickly recruits his best friend, an ex-gladiator and landlord of the local tavern, Bulo, to assist him. The two join other members of the group and begin to hear stories of magical creatures and numerous dead in the land they are supposed to cleanse. Despite this, they head for Ghrakus Castle and on the way they learn of the Castle’s dark and mysterious history.
Finally arriving at Ghrakus, where the full horror of their task becomes clear, they realize that their chances of returning home were indeed very slim and that betrayal awaits him.