Sunday, March 27, 2016

Silent Hill Omnibus #2 - review by S.E.

Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2 by Tom Waltz
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cathartic Reading: As a longtime Silent Hill fan (since the original) I needed a fix to overcome the disappointing issues plaguing game publisher Konami: Silent Hills for PS4 promised to be awesome (involvement with Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus-walking dead actor). Then it got abruptly cancelled. I turned to Silent Hill Omnibus and Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2 to satiate my need to roam thru a ghost town.

Here's my review of Omnibus #1

The Silent Hill Omnibus omnibus #2 comprises 3 more installments of the comic adaptions for the Silent Hill game franchise from Konami. It contains the full versions of:
1) Silent Hill: Sinner's Reward
2) Silent Hill: Past Life
3) Silent Hill Downpour: Anne's Story

Like #1, this Omnibus is true to the canon/style of Silent Hill. The art in this one is more clear and understandable, yet remaining "weird" in a good way. Expect cameos from your favorite creatures; characters always being drawn into a ghost town to confront their past. The last two installments provide some extension of background story for the Postman and Anne featured in the game Downpour. On the whole, the story lines rely too heavily on adultery & murder (some variation would be nice), but they are well written.

The comics will not replace what-could-have-been the experience promised in Silent Hills (plural, the game), but they are a worthy part of the "Hill." Recommended for Hill fans.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Silent Hill comics satiate time between game installments

Silent Hill OmnibusSilent Hill Omnibus by Scott Ciencin
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cathartic Reading: As a longtime Silent Hill fan (since the original) I needed a fix to overcome the disappointing issues plaguing game publisher Konami: Silent Hills for PS4 promised to be awesome (involvement with Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus-walking dead actor). Then it got abruptly cancelled. I turned to Silent Hill Omnibus and Silent Hill Omnibus, Volume 2 to satiate my need to roam thru a ghost town.

The Silent Hill Omnibus omnibus comprises 5 installments of the comic adaptions for the Silent Hill game franchise from Konami. The survival horror games are known for their Lovecraftian style of horror (weird, nondescript nightmares emphasized over sudden shock); typically a visitor goes to the town with serious emotional baggage, explores a ghost town, and comes face to face with realized version of their nightmares....that is the safe part of the workflow. Then visitors (gameplayers/readers) are taken to deeper levels of hell in which they yearn to revisit the haunting ghost town for safety. What is "real", "imagined", or "remembered" is never clear.

The comics are generally true to the ambiance. They introduce new characters, some of which mirror those in the games (i.e., police officers, a young girl). A few stories stretch the mood to include shoot-zombies-up gameplay vibes (ala Resident Evil) or B-rated horror (gratituous cheerleaders).

The art is likewise ambiguous; like the game's notorious fog that hides details, the art is not always clear. For Dying Inside (the fist chapter) this worked okay; by the end of the omnibus the art & story became confusing (too many characters that looked liked one another). The idea of intermixing various characters' memories, haunts, and stories was nice at first... but the story complexity diverged so much that the final story (which aims to bring closure to it all) remains confusing.

On the whole, the omnibus was satisfying and true enough for me to launch into Vol 2.. It's recommended to other Silent Hill fans needing a fix between games.

Silent Hill Omnibus Contains:
Silent Hill: Dying Inside
Silent Hill: Among the Damned
Silent Hill: Paint It Black
Silent Hill: The Grinning Man
Silent Hill: Dead/Alive

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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