Sunday, March 10, 2019

Scott Oden and John C Hocking - Accessible Authors

Reviewing books accomplishes many tasks, from documenting the experience for myself, informing potential readers whether or not to purchase, to establishing a dialogue with authors. The last one I learned as an unexpected, pleasant, outcome over the years. This blog captures interactions with Scott Oden and John C. Hocking.

Recently, I was excited to learn that Marvel partnered with Perilous Worlds  to serialize new, pastiche novellas to accompany their reboot of the Conan franchise (reclaimed from  Dark Horse comics). For reasons unknown to me, Marvel chose to blitz fans with three parallel comics in early 2019, with unrelated stories, and with bonus novellas too: making >5 near simultaneously-released serials regarding a character who is expected to jump geographies and careers (barbarian, pirate, king). 

With all this, fans will be glad to know that some of the tour guides (authors) are more than focused--in fact, some are compulsive about continuing Howard's Conan milieu.

"Shadow of Vengeance"

The Savage Sword of Conan series features the story "Shadow of Vengeance" by veteran historical fantasy author Scott Oden. Having read his Gathering of Ravens novel, I was excited to see what he was going to produce. 

As noted in my reviews of the first two Savage Swords (Savage Sword #1 &  Savage Sword #2), Scott Oden's meticulous craft is self-evident and stands in contrast to the frenetic plotting of the comic beside it. The first installment does not even explicitly show Conan, since its purpose was to create a sequel for REH's "The Devil in Iron" tale and Oden's transition called for a different perspective. The second installment does show Conan; I was excited to see more action, despite my appreciation for controlled pacing which I noted.

To my delight, Scott Oden read my review and explained some of his intents and methods. Check out his Scott Oden website; notes on Chapter #2.  Select snippets are below regarding (a) content delivery and (b) crafting genuine dialogue:

"The technique I’m using is one known in film and TV as the Establishing Shot. You start at a wide angle, the landscape, and narrow your focus until you’re centered on a single character — or, in this case, a pair of characters, Conan and Octavia. It’s a technique Howard used quite often (he was a surprisingly cinematic storyteller for the early 20’s and 30’s), though I’ve never been able to match his economy of words..."
"... I opened a text file and imported the text of my favorite Conan stories from Project Gutenberg. Then, I excised everything but Conan’s dialogue. This became my guide, my bible, to replicate Howard’s syntax, style, word choice, even punctuation. I think I pulled it off, but ultimately you’re the judge of that, Gentle Reader." -- Scott Oden
In short, I encourage others to review literature, and to reach out to authors too. SSoC #3 is coming out shortly, and it's set up to deliver "Vengeance".

"Black Starlight"

Similarly, John C. Hocking is writing the serial "Black Starlight" accompanying the Conan the Barbarian comic (review No.1No. 2No. 3No. 4.) In this novella, Conan and his mysterious group travels to Stygia with the emerald lotus. 

This extends the Conan and the Emerald Lotus pastiche written by Hocking himself in 1995, and also features the sorceress Zelandra. Perilous Worlds in reprinting that in early 2019, along with another pastiche novel by Hocking called Conan and the he Living Plague (excerpt on Perlious World website, and blurb below).

As part of the Sword & Sorcery group on goodreads, we are having a group read on all things Emerald Lotus( direct thread link). 

To our surprise, John C. Hocking has joined in! Feel welcome to participate. He explained that the reprint and Living Plague should be printed in Spring... so we will likely extend the groupread (currently Mar-Apr, will likely extend. May-June).
Conan and the Emerald Lotus blurb ($16 ISBN : 978-1-7328301-1-0)Lured into the addictive thrall of the Emerald Lotus, the lovely sorceress Zelandra turns to Conan for aid. They must contend with bandits, undead revenants, monsters, and the desert deeps to defeat the lotus’s Stygian master in his lair, never guessing the Emerald Lotus itself may be the greater threat. 
Conan and the Living Plague blurb ($16 ISBN : 978-1-7328301-0-3): 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.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Conan The Barbarian #4 - Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #4 by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really enjoyed this, however there are some incongruities. The artist differs from the previous three installments, and although the story-arc continues with Conan aging into an old man... it does not explicitly or implicitly mention the Crimson Witch. So that is strange.

It is very well done filler. Given that Marvel's reboot of Conan is all over the map (and time) with three comic series released together in 2019, and each apparently with serialized novellas (decoupled from the comics they are printed with), one can argue that readers didn't need any more jarring. I'm curious if the next issue can connect all the dots.

That said, Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #4 captured the "barbarian vs civilization" conflict that Conan deals with remarkably well. Conan strangles the king of Aquilonia (called Namedides instead of Numedides, as per REH canon from the 1932 "The Phoenix on the Sword" story.) Then he assumes the boring role of king without a war.

The art is gritty and mesmerizing. Instead of a shallow sidekick, he bonds with an captive lion--which seems much more appropriate and genuine. As a king, he needs to conceal his identity as he delivers vigilantly justice on the streets at night to regain his mental strength (must satiate the inner barbarian). Conan seems to re-purpose one of his old pirate flags into a mask, which made sense to me but some say it looks too detailed and anachronistic (like a "biker's mask"). I liked the idea.

Part #4 of Black Starlight by John C. Hocking starts to gel and get dark. Conan and his party are on Stygian shores and zombies had attacked them. The role of the emerald lotus grows clearer, and the conflict with a ghostly entity escalates. Looking forward to #5.

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Is That The Best You Can Do? Card Game - Review by SE

 "Is That The Best You Can Do?"
Free Market Kids delivers a solid card with "Is That The Best You Can Do?"

It is inspired to teach basics of financial literacy and negotiating skills, but it's fun whether or not you care about learning. It is as easy as Uno... but totally different.

The games works with three people, but works best with four or more for the negotiations to get exciting. It is excellent for family gatherings, home schooling, or class settings. A match runs about 30-45min, but a single ~5min round can be fun and full of teachable moments.

High quality materials, art, and design produced this Deluxe version. The box is like a book that can be stored like one. A magnetic closure/top is slick .  The currency, core to the game, are translucent, poker-sized "crypto-currency"---they are fun to hold and durable.

Each player takes 7 Supply/Demand cards. Then the negotiations start.  One player begins by offering to sell or buy an item (all are Sci Fi based.... like flying cars, robot dogs, alien chess, etc.).  Then... the others chime in. Some will want to buy, and others enter as competitive sellers.  Everyone has different goals (ie buy-for-less-than OR sell-for-more-than).

Pairs negotiate, come to a price, and are awarded the difference between their card value and the end-price.  Then they replenish their deck of 7.

It is easy, but different than most buying-trading games. Only takes a minute to pick up.

To add spice and learn more, there are Market Cards. Instead of replenishing one's deck with Supply or Demand cards, one can pick a Market card that introduces one-time events; there are 9 flavors (ie everyone holding a Robot Dog gets taxed! Or arbitrage is enabled, so you can buy/sell to yourself...and seven more events).

Free Market Kids are going to spring board off this, as they are preparing lesson plans and game-add-ons to stimulate learning. I suspect they will create a basic (non Deluxe) set that just has the basic cards and will cost less.

Game Overview


Set up




 Market Cards


Friday, March 1, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan 2019 #2 Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #2 by Gerry Duggan
S.E. rating: 3 of 5 stars

Starts off great, with Conan and his newfound buddy Suty landing on Stygian shores. A brutal landscape of "trees" leads to an encounter with pseudo-human (Darth-maul inspired) followers of Koga Thun. Conan administers the expected, titular savagery. The art is nice. This leads to a history of the area and the city of Kheshatta.

Then the comic portion stalls and becomes contrived and inconsistent. With limited pages, the information flow has to be spot on, and this issue seemed to spend/waste its precious pages after the nice beginning. More on that below in the spoiler section.

The bonus serial installment of "Shadow of Vengeance" by Scott Oden was an okay follow-up to an awesome beginning from Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1. Conan is now on stage with Octavia. I appreciate the call outs to the Hyborian Age milieu but it ate two of this three-page dose. The last page did not end with the cliff-hanger I expected. Conan is slowly entering peril. I hope for a fun confrontation in the next installment.

Spoiler section...

The Koga Thun followers go from being thugs to weakling rats who reveal their master's plan to find treasure. Conan kills them and goes to the city. At this point I expected Conan to "use the map in his head" to steer him into the guarded city. But no, the scrawny Suty calms the angry guards by explaining that the towering hulk of Conan is simply a slave he wishes to sell, so the guards instantly flip to being okay with letting them in. This was a wasted page of silliness that could have been better spent on reinforcing the mind-map. 

Then we have several pages of Conan wandering into a library. It is unclear if his mind-map is steering him or if he is just goofing around. A lady he saw in a vision from Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1 appears; her name is Menes. She introduces herself with a silly one-liner (she sneaks up on Conan, and he says men cannot do that... but wait...she is no man; I half expected her to say her name was Eowen.)

Whatever, Menes seems to be on their side (anti Koga Thun), so they make up a team.

It ends on a real shallow WTF. Menes, who was hiding and/or protecting the library, departs randomly from the conversation to head down stairs and open the barred door. Strange. She walks casually while asking if they brought friends. Conan strolls behind saying nothing. She opens it to be drug out by three bad guys! 

Menes was stealthy & smart enough to sneak up on Conan, but then not observant enough to sense danger when a random person knocks--why is she opening the door? Does "savage" Conan & Suty help save her from being drug out, or fight after? Nope. They hide behind the door. 

It just feels inconsistent & contrived from frame to frame. 
It is unclear how Conan and Suty have and react to any vision.

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

For the Killing of Kings - Review by SE

For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.
I shall use my arms to shield the weak.
I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to see it.
I shall use my hands to mete justice to high and low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.
Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.
When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and sisters, for I am eternal
-- Pledge of the Altenerai

Howard Andrew Jones’s For the Killing of Kings is highly recommended for epic fantasy fans. Twice in the first half, I was completely floored by plot twists. The last third kept me from going to sleep. Haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. This jumpstarts The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, a wild & fresh & furious epic.

Pitched as The Three Musketeers presented via the style of Zelzany’s Chronicles of Amber, it holds true. Indeed, the epic pacing is reminiscent of Zelzany; HAJ doles out action and backstory with precision. Since there are many more than three “musketeers” here, and it has more of a medieval flare, one could argue it is more of a “King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table” mashup. Instead of a singular Holy Grail, the Altenerai guard are spread out searching for many hearthstones of mysterious, spiritual, power—in this case, stones are not clearly holy.

The key story arc focuses on the coming of age of the female squire Elenai, a soldier with burgeoning magic prowess. Her rise in the Altenerai (the Queen’s guard) is compelling. On her journey she mingles with the older members who still reel from the ambiguous ending of a war seven years prior; their commander was killed, and their Queen Leonara decided to make peace rather than annihilate the barbaric Naor enemies. The Queen spread the ranks out searching for hearthstones, and distanced herself from Altenerai traditions.

I list some of my favorite elements (Re-ordered and slightly disguised to avoid spoilers): a spellcasting system that linked nature to people (hearthstones); a sculptured horse worthy of Frazetta’s Death Dealer (or a woman of the similar ilk); a humanoid made of blood; a spooky ghost-town/village; the hidden content within the Chasm Tower; an unexpected, swift betrayal.

Humor: the expected banter between friends on the front line is well-delivered. Also, there are humorous cultures like the kobalin which are honor-driven furballs (reminded me of a matured, and more belligerent, Gurgi from Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain series)—if they like you, they want to kill you.

A diverse cast feels genuine and fresh. Despite a requisite dose of masculinity (via violence and “charmers”), women play a dominant role in the book; to wit, Queen Leonara rules over the city of Darassus, and Feolia is governor of Alantris. Elenai mingles with the disenfranchised Altenerai as she matures. The group listed below is ~50% female; a few in the group are sexually nonbinary (orientations are not a focus of the story, just low-key truths, matters of fact).
1. Asrahn (m): Master of Squires, veteran
2. Elenai (f): Young squire under Asrahn
3. N’lahr (m): Entombed Swordsman and war strategist; his sword Irion is part of a prophecy
4. Kyrkenall (m): Archer and mad poet; best buddy to N’lahr
5. Denaven (m): Veteran like Asrahn
6. Varama (f): Weapon’s specialists and scientist, emotionally cold (reminded me of a Star Trek Vulcan)
7. Rylin: (m) James-Bond-like, charming specialist
8. Cerai: (f) Hearthstone seeking sorceress with artistic flare
9. Rialla (f): Spellcaster and forger of weapons
10. Belahn (m): An aged crazy, protector of families
11. Decrin (m): Veteran
12. Aradel: (f) Archaeopteryx (ko’aye) riding, retired member
13. Kalandra: (f) MIA sorceress, searching for hearthstone and their origin
14. Renik: (m) also MIA, swordsman looking for hearthstones and their origin, may have heeded to a strange garden in Ekhem

A map was not necessary, but would have been appreciated.

The role of the sword Irion in the plot is fantastic. It is a fun weapon to see in action. It certainly was fated to complete a mission instead of being locked up in a display case after a stalled war. However, the hope/myth behind its potential is referred to as “prophecy” which (a) seemed like a misnomer and (b) introduced a fantasy cliché. In a book in which many dozens of story arcs are interwoven, each having believable motivations/consequences, posing a fate-driven prophecy felt out of place. The prophecy seemed to originate in a relatively private setting in an impromptu ritual (not a public discourse or professed openly) and there was some mystery about its invocation (where did the inspiration come from to link the weapon to a particular individual).

More from HAJ:
The trilogy is well underway. During the Feb 2019 Ask Me Anything (AMA) on reddit, I inquired on the release schedule. HAJ returned: “First, rest assured. Not only is the second book written, it's going through final revisions right now… The third book is fully outlined and I had begun drafting…”

Howard A. Jones has long held a passion for action fiction and throughout his career has re-introduced readers to Harold Lamb, moderated Sword and Sorcery websites, and edited the Dark Fantasy magazine Blackgate and currently Tales from the Magician’s Skull & Perilous Worlds.

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mar Apr Groupreads - Haggard's Eric Brighteyes and Hocking's Emerald Lotus

The Sword and Sorcery Group on Goodreads
invites you to the Mar Apr 2019 groupreads

 (two topics, two months; click on links to the discussions):

(1) Haggard's Eric Brighteyes

(2) Conan and the Emerald Lotus - by John C Hocking

Banner Credits

- 1978 unknown/uncredited artist for the H. Rider Haggard book "Eric Brighteyes"
- 1999 Ken Kelly, Cover for "Conan and the Emerald Lotus" by John C. Hocking

Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking the 1995 pastiche which has a 2019 sequel (of sorts) with a serialized novelette in Marvel's Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #1(penned by John C Hocking, included as a parallel story with the comic). That series started release this year in January and continues!

Sword and Sorcery in 1891!; Indeed, Eric Brighteyes was written then by H. Rider Haggard, also known for:
She: A History of Adventure and Ayesha: The Return of She
King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain

BTW, DMR books recent blog post on Haggard

interior illustrations by Lancelot Speed, 1891; that link shows many, and here are two:
"Eric and Skallagrim boarding the Raven" // "All Night Long Gudura Sat in the Bride's Seat"
descriptionLancelot Speed's image All Night 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan #1 (2019) Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1 by Gerry Duggan
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is part one of three separate reboots for Marvel's Conan. I am also reading the Conan the Barbarian yarns (CtB, now on #3), and will likely try out the Age of Conan series (AoC, due out next month, March 2019).

Like the CtB series, this comic also has a novelette attached; this one also appears unrelated to the story in the comic. This one is penned by Scott Oden. For me, this story is less an add-on and more of the real feature. It is presented as a sequel to Robert E. Howard's 1934 The Devil in Iron, a short story that presents Conan as a leader of a kozak group who annoys a corrupt governor from Turan. I was instantly inspired to re-read it. That is a testimony to Oden's pastiche which deftly continues the tale without explicitly presenting the barbarian.

The comic part had some highs and lows. Here Conan is ostensibly twenty years old, living as a pirate. In a disjointed tale, he is captured in the high seas from wreckage, imprisoned, then must fight for freedom from a Stygian galley. I was most impressed with Conan when he... hmmm.. "procures" some bones to unlock his manacles. That was a savage and witty scene, true to Conan. I was less impressed with a kick-to-the-groin and an anachronistic depiction of a gun on a pirate (noted by several Facebook groups). Monsters and sorcery sneak their way in, but not smoothly. As cool as the cover is, it only tangentially reflects the story.

Beware Marvel's ADHD: I was concerned about the frenetic coverage of location and times within CtB, and that concern is amplified here with SSoC. This introduces two new story yarns in parallel. Let us assume that the AoC has a story too... that would mean that Marvel is giving readers ~6 separate Conan yarns nearly simultaneously; within the comics, Conan seems to be flitting about new geographies every issue.

Review of CtB No.3,
Review of CtB No. 2,
Review of CtB No.1

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