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.