Monday, August 2, 2021

The Green Knight Movie - review by SE

I just saw The Green Knight movie. The trailer was awesome. The reviews were promising..... but it was terrible. Beyond cinematics, it was not engaging, it was slow and incoherent. Sigh ..... stick with Excalibur (1980s), Clive Owen's "King Arthur", or even Guy Ritchie's Legend of the Sword. Well...there is always Monty Python's Holy Grail too.

Before I jump in, you may want to check out author Sean Poage's take. He is much more knowledgable than I am about the Gwain legends, having written one of his own too (The Retreat to Avalon, more on that below). Interestingly, he and his wife hit the movies as I did with mine (i.e., a post covid, first-time-back-to-movie-post-covid-wave-1 date). Here's his review of Gawain's legends and movie (link).

We are not treated to many Sword & Sorcery movies, let alone ones that promise some sense of intellectual content. So I was looking forward to this. As part of my grieving process.... I will go on a small rant.


Promises to be Broken

The intro sets up very clear "rules of engagement" (as revealed in the trailer). The Green Knight challenges a knight to strike him, and a year later he will return the wound to the challenger. Gawain cuts off the Green Knight's head...and a year later must confront the Knight again (who survived).

Bait and Switch Conflict

Although I am cool with a man-vs-self conflict..... the trailer, title, and beginning all promise a man-vs-man/creature (Gawain vs. Green Knight) conflict (which is not at the forefront). But let's say you get past that as you begin witnessing multiple, slow side-quests.

Incongruent Rules of the Game & Meaningless Fluff

The visuals were awesome. The pace couldn't have been slower....which I would have been okay with if the "rules of the game" were followed. Remember the super clear rules of the beginning? To Heck with clear rules going forward. One could literally cut the entire middle ~1.5hrs out (anything between the initial and final Green Knight interactions) and not change the impact of the climax. Actually, I think I would have loved this movie if were only 30min long.

(below explains more with some obtuse/minor spoilers)
Gawain has several important items (sash, ax, jingle-bell, and fox) to take on a journey to reach the Green Knight's location. He loses sight of said items, and they reappear and disappear in ways that are incongruent across ~3-4 side quests/challenges/tests. Did he earn them back? Just stumble across them? How/why did they come back to him? You should care. Gawain doesn't.

The handling of the "rules" didn't feel intentionally done to be mysterious or engaging. It felt like the producers stitched together a few different historical legends of Gawain's journey/tests, and they did not harmonize the meaning/rules across them.

Frankly, if the conflict is indeed "man-vs-self" then Gawain strangely doesn't really seem affected/changed....nor does he seem surprised that his key items come back to him for no clear purpose... and he doesn't even seem to be in denial or fretting about his impending duel. What seemed clear is that the ~3-4 side quests (~1.5hrs of the 2hr movie) were actually pointless (they did not build-up to the climax or develop the character) and they were also full of non-sequitur events.

The Retreat to Avalon

So what should we do about scratching the Arthurian Legen itch? Monty Python's Holy Grail would have us "Run Away, Run Away!" Well, I recommend retreating..... ie to read Sean Poage's "The Retreat to Avalon" which will likely leave you excited about Gawain and Arthurian legends! Sean Poage is an accomplished author with a knack for storytelling.


Book Blurb:

Fifteen hundred years have turned history into legend…

After three generations of struggle against ruthless invaders, Britain has finally clawed its way back within reach of peace and prosperity. Across the sea, Rome is crumbling under an onslaught of barbarian attacks, internal corruption and civil war. Desperate for allies, Rome’s last great emperor looks to Britain and the rising fame of her High King, Arthur.

Arthur believes the coming war is inevitable, but many are opposed. Dissent, intrigue and betrayal threaten to tear the fragile British alliance apart from within, while the enemies of Britain wait for the first sign of weakness.

Meanwhile, Gawain, a young warrior craving fame, is swept up in Arthur’s wake as the king raises an army. While Gawain’s wife and kin face their own struggles at home, the young warrior finds himself taking on more than he bargained for, and heading into the greatest battle his people have faced in generations.

The Retreat to Avalon is the exciting beginning of the historical fiction trilogy The Arthuian Age, introducing readers to the origins of King Arthur and the world he lived and fought for.



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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Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Aesthetics of Sword & Sorcery: An Interview with Philip Emery

First published on Black Gate July 17th, 2021

This continues our interviews on "Beauty in Weird Fiction" with previous topics being:

Are you haunted, perhaps obsessed, with Sword & Sorcery?

Heroic fiction is infectious. Sometimes vicariously “being the hero” via reading is not enough to satisfy the call. Being compelled to write manifests next. Ghosts may be to blame. Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is credited with originating the genre with his characters: Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn; in a 1933 correspondence to his friend and contemporary author, Clark Ashton Smith, Howard explained his interaction with the muse that inspired his Conan yarns.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Forging Independence

  

Another Dyscrasia Fiction short story has been published, this time in Swords & Sorcery Magazine's July 2021 edition. "Forging Independence" focuses on Doctor Grave's struggle to raise daughters in the Underworld. Have a look. It's free to read online.


This story follows "Raising Daughters" published late last year in Whetstone:

More stories are to come via various outlets, I hope.

Sept-Oct Groupread Topic Poll is up

 Join the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads in selecting the Sept-Oct topics:

Belgian Coke Oven and Vinton Furnace 2021 - Ohio Ruins

While our kids were young, my wife and I toured many of the Native American ("aka Indian") mounds across Ohio (Serpent Mound, Mound City, Seip Mound...many more) we stumbled upon ruins of the past industry (~Civil War era) such as the Hope Furnace. This led to the desire to seek out other lost edifices and has inspired some of my writing (ie Clan Tonn in the Dyscrasia Fiction universe). For more on the history of iron furnaces in OH, I recommend:

 So I learned about this gem of a site called Vinton Furnance, which is accessible but off the beaten track. There are two key features at this location: one, the Belgian Coke Furnaces used to turn coal into coke fuel used for the blast furnace, and two, the huge Vinton blast furnace used to extract iron from ore.

Vinton Furnace operated from 1854 to 1883. In 1875 the charcoal-fired Vinton Furnace was converted to use coke for fuel. The unique feature of the Vinton Furnace is the set of 24 Belgian coke ovens. The battery of ovens was used to process coal into the coke, which was then was used to fire the furnaces.   Due to the local coal's high-sulfur content, efforts to produce coke capable of firing the iron furnace failed.  Coal had to be brought in by railroad to produce satisfactory coke. (from https://ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/go-and-do/plan-a-visit/find-a-property/belgian-coke-oven-ruins)

1) Belgian Coke Furnace (used to turn coal in coke fuel needed for the blast furnace)

(from http://www.oldeforester.com/Vinton.htm#Belgian ) The following is a copy of a newspaper report dated 11/25/1875 which Lawrence McWhorter, Hamden, OH, found in the Democratic Inquirer archives.  He recognized its historical importance in the Iron Industry of The Hanging Rock Iron Region.....The article was written at the opening of the coke plant and at the time the new process was thought to be successful. Unfortunately, the local coal proved to be too high in sulphur content and couldn't be used....The article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette and was written by a technical writer.

"The coal is ordinary hill coal of this region, and found from eighteen to twenty feet below the limestone ore.  This is taken first to the crusher, where it is broken up into small pieces of a size to permit them passing through a screen of about five-eights mesh.  It is then elevated and passed through the screen, from which it passes to the ‘Separator.’  This is simply a sieve working up and down in water, and by this process the whole of the slate and sulfur in the coal (being of greater specific gravity than the coal) sinks to the bottom of the sieve, and passes out there, while the clean coal flows out over the top and is carried to bins where it is left to drain off its water and dry sufficiently to go into the ovens.  From these bins it is taken in iron cars right out  upon the top of the ovens and drops into them through holes made for that purpose.  When coked for thirty-six to forty-eight hours it is pushed from the ovens in a solid mass or plug and extinguished by a stream of water poured upon it and it is then ready for use.  These ovens are of the Belgian type, and twenty four in number, standing side by side in a row or battery.  On one side is the coke floor, upon which the coke is discharged when coked sufficiently.  Upon the other side stands a pushing engine, which runs upon a track the whole length of the ovens, and from which when the ovens are opened there issues a huge plunger, which passes entirely through the ovens and shoves the m ass of coke out upon the other side, thus dispensing with the use of men and rakes to empty them, and discharging and filling an oven in about three minutes.  The ovens themselves are simply rectangular tubes of fire brick, twenty-two feet long, three feet wide and six feet high, with cast iron doors at each end.  Above, below and around each however, runs a system of flues through which are carried the gases evolved in coking, and which are thus utilized in creating greater heat for this purpose."



2) The Vinton Blast Furnace (used to melt iron ore and produce pig iron)

 Quote about its history and image below from Olde Forester.com:

Vinton furnace was placed in blast in 1854. Mr. Culbertson of the original company soon retired for in 1859 the firm was Means, Clark and Company. At this time Cyrus Newkirk was manager of the works. The original stack was 11 feet across the boshes, 32 1/2 feet in height and in forty-seven weeks of 1857 made about 3,100 tons of foundry iron from the local ores.

About 1868 or 1869 this firm sank a shaft west of the furnace and about 130 feet in depth to the Quakertown or No. 2 coal with the intention of using it as fuel. In 1872 Thomas B. Bancroft and his partner, Charles I. Rader, leased the property from the Philadelphia owners and undertook the smelting of the local ores with the shaft coal. This fuel, however, was unsuited for this purpose as the bed was very faulty and the coal high in sulphur and ash. The firm was now known as the Vinton Coal and Iron Company as both pig metal and coal were offered to the trade. The old charcoal stack, Vinton furnace, ceased operation in about 1883. Soon after this a coal furnace, 50 by 11 feet, was built on the site....

" For that time the new Vinton furnace, under the name of Vinton Coal and Iron Company, was modern in every respect. It had a steel jacket, was water cooled, had special devices for charging and casting, and had efficient hot blast stoves. This stack was 50 feet in height by 11 feet in diameter at the boshes. The rated capacity was 20 tons of metal per day or 6,000 tons per year."

How to get there

Vinton Furnace is near Hocking Hills Ohio (an outstanding park). However, it is not part of the normal park trails. It is located within the "experimental forest" which is run by the USDA and the State of Ohio (I think). They do experiments such as clear-cutting and monitoring regrowth.  Anyway, the public is welcome, especially on foot.


Do not expect great phone-cellular service, though the nearby town of Mcarthur seems to have some. Always good to bring a trusty old map just in case. Getting to the forest isn't too bad.

 Ohio Dept of Nature Resources (PDF Map): Map of Vinton 

Hiking the trail is easy no, especially with Apps like All Trails (download the Pine Run Trailmmap for Vinton....then even without cell service or wifi....the App can track your position over the map using basic GPS (as long as you downloaded prior).  Works splendidly.

Other hikers have documented how to get there and their step-by-step experiences:

Hocking Hills too!

Hocking Hills park is so close, you'll need to reserve time to walk part of its many curated pathways. Old Man's Cave, the Rock House, and Cedar Falls are favorites of ours.








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 and more obtuse 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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Friday, June 25, 2021

July-Aug Group reads: DMR and Bard

 

Join us this July and August as we read and discuss two topics over in the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads.

This July-Aug we have two 2-month Groupreads. Here are the Links:

A) DMR books - Discussion Link
B) Bard series - Discussion Link

Banner Credits:
-DMR publications represented by the cover from Worlds Beyond Worlds: The Short Fiction of John R. Fultz (author John R. Fultz, and core artist Brian LeBlanc) 2021
- Keith Taylors Bard series represented by 1986 cover to Bard IV: Ravens' Gathering,

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Eda Blessed II Released Today

Check out our Black Gate announcement for Eda Blessed II by Milton Davis.

That's me with a signed copy, thanks Milton!

I have the honor of contributing a testimonial blurb on the back cover:

"Omari Ket is a rogue warrior, not a spy, but he is as suave, cunning, and as lethal as any Secret Agent Man. ‘Agency’ is a term for the capacity of a character to act independently, and Omari is an Agency onto himself: he reports to no one. Omari is a ladies’ man in a dog-eat-dog world. If you like a cut-throat, libertine, action-oriented protagonist, then you are ‘Eda Blessed.’"

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.









Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Lost Empire of Sol - Review by SE

Sword & Planet is Back!

Jason M. Waltz, champion of Rogue Blades Entertainment and the Rogue Blades Foundation, is well known for rounding up contemporary authors in themed anthologies (perhaps most well known for the 2008 Sword & Sorcery classic Return of the Sword .... and most currently known for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life releasing ~now, appropriately on June 11th, REH's anniversary of passing).

Fletcher Vredenburgh, well known in the adventure fiction community for outstanding reviews provides the "Foreword": he explains how discussions on Facebook with Scott Oden (adored author of historical fiction, Conan pastiche, and the Grimnir series) escalated into this collection.  Also, to dimension the genre and set the stage for a revival is the esteemed John O’Neill (Black Gate Magazine editor) with “Sword & Planet is the Genre We Need.” 

The Book Blurb Explains the Theme and Context:

Bold fonts, added by me, emphasize two key sentences. More on that below.

An exciting repository of the tales of an empire that pre-dates the solar system's recorded history. A spectacular homage of ten 'romantic tales of high adventure' written in the American pulp imagination style of breathless bravado. A return to an era when the exploration of time and the mystery of space travel held the attention of the reading world with heroes/heroines that faced dangerous unknowns with hopes and fists raised high!

20,000 years ago, the first Emperor of Sol ascended the Iridium Throne of Earth. A sorcerer who learned to extend his life through elixirs and potent demonic bargains, he ruled a thousand years, until deposed by a conspiracy among his wives. His youngest wife, the most cunning, became the first Empress of Sol and began the Imperial practice of tracing lineage through the female.

This anthology's "present" is 10,000 years after the Ruin of the Empire of Sol, an event immortalized by a cabal of poets who wove history with myth. Civil war erupted inside the Empire when warlords of another planet sought to seize the Iridium Throne of Earth. War rent the system, until finally a doomsday weapon was deployed. This weapon caused the Ruin; it shattered worlds and threw the citizens of the Empire into such a state of savagery that it has taken 10,000 years to make it to a current Dark Age. The worlds of the solar system have slowly emerged to reclaim only the most slender portion of the ancient splendor of the Empire. Through the combined efforts of sorcery and science, mankind and alienkind have returned to the stars in Aether ships, though even these are considered crude by the ancient Imperial standards.

Above them all looms a mysterious THREAT on the horizon. Augurs see bad omens, demon familiars speak of a coming cataclysm; a few ships have gone missing along the fringes of the system, only to be spotted and boarded later . . . ghost ships with missing crews. One had a cryptic note scrawled in blood: "They're coming!"

Missing Cool Context:

Strangely, the Ruin mentioned within the blurb is not referred to explicitly in the stories (they occur after that event). Also, the two introductions and blurb ignore the awesome premise of chapter/book design: There is one story per planet in the solar system, doled out in order from the center to the outer rim of pluto, with an additional "planet" called Tharsia replacing real life's asteroid belt. So you get to tour the ruins of the solar system (the Empire of Sol) planet by planet, as you drift away from the sun. The Interior Ancient Solar Map by M.D. Jackson (who also crafted the superb cover) actually lays out your journey as a reader, with some variant names offered for several planets. 

Scott Oden cryptically, and beautifully, frames the book with two pieces. He introduces us to the Emissary and the living-ship Leviathan in the prologue which focuses on a female's imprisonment; her mind is tapped to reveal the subsequent stories you'll read. The epilogue hints that a nameless god is threatening the solar system's future; this cosmic horror vibe seeds a possible sequel anthology.


Stories Share Common Elements: 

1) Portals and gateways enable travel to other planets, but many are lost or broken and some stream one-way. This lost infrastructure of the Empire is explored multiple times.

2) The red "dot" on Jupiter is given some spiritual and religious context that presents in two stories

3) Most stories have female leads, which the authors claimed on social media (Goodreads and Facebook) was not an intentional design strategy (not that it matters). I speculate that the context of the book blurb regarding the Empress of Sol (emboldened above) combined with Scott Oden's Prologue that focuses on a singular female representing "ape-kind" may be symptomatic of the creative discussions. Anyway, there are some male protagonists, and many male teammates, so there is gender diversity.

4) Soul & psionics: Sorcery here manifests in psionics and mental powers (i.e., influencers of the mind), and there are several stories involving the separation of mind and body

4) Typical threats include space pirates and humanoid aliens (reptilian, insectan, or ape-like)

5) Spaceship mayhem: crash landings and appropriation of space ships are plentiful

The Lost Empire of Sol Contents

  • [Sol/Sun] “Prologue” by Scott Oden
  • [Mercury] “To Save Hermesia” Joe Bonadonna and David C. Smith
  • [Venus] “The Lost Princess of Themos” Tom Doolan 
  • [Earth] “What Really Happened at the Center of the Earth” by Christopher M. Blanchard 
  • [Mars] “A Sand-Ship of Mars” by Charles Allen Gramlich
  • [asteroid belt, Tharsia] “Whispers of the Serpent” by Howard Andrew Jones
  • [Jupiter] “Outcasts of Jov” by Mark Finn
  • [Saturn, Cronesh] “Written in Lightning” by Keith J. Taylor
  • [Uranus] “Survivors of Ulthula” by E.E. Knight
  • [Neptune] “Hunters of Ice and Sky” by David A. Hardy 
  • [Pluto] “A Gate in Darkness” by Paul R. McNamee 
  • [Sol/Sun] “Epilogue” by Scott Oden
As expected in a collection, the styles vary by author. Gramlich is the only one I know who routinely writes Sword & Planet (his Talera series); however, Bonadonna has dabbled in space-adventure as much as he has Sword & Sorcery. Otherwise, the contributor list reads like a contemporary who's-who of S&S authors and Robert E. Howard content editors. That said, all stories felt like S&P adventure to me, with the possible exception of the Earth piece which was appropriately a "lost world" tale (reminiscent of Burrough's Pellucidar adventures in the Earth's Core; that makes sense...if you are tasked with creating an S&P adventure on planet earth, one might as well emulate the creator of John Carter and go deep). Most were a blast to read. A few stories were too melodramatic for my taste, and one felt like a chapter from a novel (it did not stand alone as a short story). 

In summary, this is a fine collection that certainly achieved its mission of inserting a jolt into Sword & Planet offerings. The Lost Empire of Sol is destined to become a historic Sword & Planet anthology, a classic akin to how Return of the Sword is perceived for the Sword & Sorcery genre. If a sequel emerges, I would purchase and read it in a heartbeat. 







Saturday, May 29, 2021

Goodread group read topic poll for July-Aug

Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads

Please join us this July-Aug when we will tackle books together; topics to be determined by the poll.

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.