Showing posts with label Reviews - by S.E.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews - by S.E.. Show all posts

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Worlds Beyond Worlds - Review by SE

 

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


View all my reviews

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!


View all my reviews

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.









Saturday, May 29, 2021

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.





Sunday, April 18, 2021

Rakefire and Other Stories - Review by SE



Rakefire and Other Stories by Jason Ray Carney

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rakefire and Other Stories's Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

Rakefire and Other Stories
released July 2020 via Pulp Hero Press. Nine weird adventures span the 216 pages of this grimoire. Penned by emerging thaumaturgist Jason Ray Carney, Rakefire promises to corrupt any reader. So let us get this disclaimer out of the way: the mere reading of this tome may thicken your blood with wonder. Red turning to black, your blood will never bleed the same. Read this review at your own risk.

The book blurb labels this “Fever Dreams of Sword & Sorcery in an Eld Realm of Unfathomable Beauty and Cruelty” and it also contains “enigmatic tales of horror and fantasy in the pulp tradition.” That summary is spot on. Most of the tales here can be considered S&S, but they focus on the sorcery end of the spectrum. The writing style is reminiscent of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith (full of pregnant shadows and intellectual skullduggery!). Excerpts throughout this review reinforce what to expect.

The majority of the stories (6/9) have been published in various magazines, but reading them piece-meal is like eating random snacks instead of a 5-course meal. The confluence amplifies the lore threading them all together (lore discussed below). Plus, the 3 newly published tales extend the impact. Each is recapped below, and most have excerpts that emphasize the style and common milieu (while avoiding spoilers). This serves as a tour guide into Jason Ray Carney's strange world.

Cover & Title: The cover depicts Mera the Cruelly Beautiful (from story#1, not the witch from #6-Rakefire). I would have expected a red-robed sorceress (i.e., representing the character Rakefire), or, since Rakefire (although a fine story) does not stand apart as being the singular cornerstone, I could actually see this collection keeping the cover and retitling it “Weird Legends of Drossus” (which would sound too much like a David Gemmell work…but the point is: the collection does not revolve around the character Rakefire…but it does have a unified world which is a character unto itself).

Contents:
1. “The Ink of the Slime Lord” appeared in Swords Against Cthulhu II: Hyperborean Nights (2017) & Sword & Sorcery Magazine (Dec 1018)
- Mera the Cruelly Beautiful alone survives a purging of her cult…and goes on a quest to resurrect her bloodline. She’s crazy and attractive (like DC Comic Harley Quinn). She invades Inmor’leh for essential ingredients. Her sister Sasha the Scarred is mentioned a lot in stories #5 and #7. As mentioned above, that’s probably Mera on the cover. Backcover Blurb: A psychotic witch, driven by the spirits of her murdered sisters, seeks out the secret of a ruined city and the formless horror that destroyed it.... Excerpt:
“…along with their prophets, Alesh the Old, Sasha the Scarred, and Mera the Cruelly Beautiful, the cultists were taken to the purple swamps outside of the city. A deep grotto had been prepared there, of roots, mud, and worms. Their crime, writ on the beaten bronze tablet in ancient hieroglyphs, there was verbalized with the sonorous majesty of the High Priest of Atok’s powerful voice. Amidst song and the beating of spears on shields, all of the heads were sliced off the convicted and swung into the hole.”

2. Trigon (new)
-The captain of the Gate Watch investigates and attempts to close the gate which oozes evil. Coincidentally, this journey involves the removal of a sorcerer’s hand (which obtusely foreshadows the next section). Backcover Blurb: "An impudent sorcerer, contemplating the outer beyond between stars, threshes shadowy demons from the lightless outside.... Excerpt:
“The thrall-messenger breathlessly pleaded his case, told the council his terrible tale: high in hubris, the Sorcerer Peroptoma of Dis-Penethor, Duke of Chius, seeking secrets in the stars, had opened a Black Gate, one he could not close, and now shadows poured through it, like black blood from a wound, ravening with hunger for human flesh."
3. “One Less Hand for the Shaping of Things” appeared in Skelos, #1 (2016)
- A weird tale, but not S&S. This is all about Ayolo’s journey and his infatuation with Jessa, a tree spirit who rescues him. The title is cryptic, though a priestly character does mention this verbatim. Note, #5 indicates this title is a line used by the followers of the tree goddess Ral (from the Discourses of Thees). Backcover Blurb: A reluctant scholar, forced to confront his impermanence, abandons hearth and wealth for a doomed passion.... Excerpt:
“[Ayolo’s] thoughts wandered to his wife Shemira and Chamberlain Brocoshio, who had, with clever arguments, convinced him to organize his caravan to the south...If he had any virtue as a merchant, it was due to his shrewdness. He was no swordsman or adventurer and was fully aware of the dangers that plagued the roads through Yizdra. Instead of sublime beauty of alien lands, he’d much prefer the ordinariness of his study, reading correspondence or tabulating accounts by candlelight; or better yet, the poetry of Thees….
4. “A Song in Deepest Darkness” appeared in Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Issue #10 (2018)
- A weird S&S tale very much in the vein of CAS. This is the most comedic of the bunch, I laughed out loud over the predicaments of the protagonists: Pardew and the warlock, Ka seek out the Hearthfather’s true name and make poor decisions. Callouts to “Rakefire’s Resplendent Roadblock” and “Ink of the doom of Inmor’leh” were welcome. Backcover Blurb: A holy man and a pauper mage delve the devil-haunted maze of a dead wizard of legend.... Excerpt:
“O lightdrinkers!” sung a mellifluous voice as pale lights bobbed behind them. “Listen to how we will treat with you! We will flay you and then bind a Black Book with your skin! We will make a wine pot of your skull! We will read dark verses as your soul writhes in the chest-cage of the Horned One’s breast!”
5. "Her Formless Temple" appeared in Phantaxis #7 (2017)
-Sasha the Scarred is sought after to heal a sick child, Cas. He is worked upon, and he joins up with Lia (his love) as leaders of the tree-loving Ral. Backcover Blurb: A guttersnipe transforms hatred into a force of nature... Excerpts
"Cas of the Sun Disk flourished at his mother’s breast, and when he grew to a hate-filled guttersnipe, he was not killed in the urchin wars that plagued that slum’s youths, nor did he lose his namesake; but, alas, a grippe swept through the slum, and both mother and child contracted it. "
We also learn more about the cryptically named story #3 with this excerpt:
“Most heroes know not themselves .... have fallen deeply... Their joy in questing unselfing like a breath exhaled .... Inflating their mainsails, propelling them beyond .... To strangle lands where the measure of joy is sunlight, lightning, shadow, and mist, and sometimes death: one less hand for the shaping of things.”

6. "Rakefire" appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Q33 (2017)
Qwayas is sought after by the female narrator (the titular Rakefire). She is enlisted by a village to investigate weird sorcery, which has his signature attached. Book Blurb: A nameless sorceress takes a thrall and gains a name...Excerpt:
"...they looked at me, the little quivering wretches, and answered my warning with snarling grins that revealed transparent teeth. Their radiant eyes dilated. I saw their brains bulging, brightening. They threw the force of their poisonous dreams against my ward that repelled them back like a brick wall. In the intensity of their mental barrage, they popped like overindulging ticks, the bloody slime of their brains smearing across the cliff face and undergrowth."

7. “Two Silvers for a Song of Blood” (new)
- An unidentified rogue comes to the rescue of the bard Maur who played a role in #3) from the anti-magic, policing minions of Atok (i.e. those of the priest who slew Mera and her sisters in #1). Excerpt:
“The Rogue slid his dagger into this man; his eyes bulged and bubbling foam spurted from his mouth. The dagger removed, the Rogue slit his throat with a wet slash, hissing, showing stained teeth in a rictus snarl, and then shoved the limp body over a table, scattering wine bowls, gnaw bones, and candles. In a flash, seven swords gleamed trembling in the flickering light of the smoking grease lamps swaying from the rafters. The Rogue leapt to a table, his cloak thrown off, his blade, a curving shiwa, gripped and ready at his dark brow. One of the men-at-arms came forward and died, stabbed through the eye. Another guard came forward and died, his blood spattering the Rogue’s face and bare chest, and thereafter fell like a sack of roots to the ground, his hot blood spurting rhythmically from his wound. The sounds of his gargling and dim death-movements were all that broke a new silence, and the iron aroma of blood blended with the stale musk of fear-sweat.”
8. “Shadows from Shadows” (new)
- Mika protects/rescues the seedling Shela from the necromancer who created her and other homunculi (loriks). Book Blurb: Hope steams as hot blood in the snow...Excerpt:
"I saw them: at the base of the incline were two Loriks, their faces nearly identical, their brains glowing red in grayish, translucent skulls. They gazed up at me with large, lamplight eyes: little naked slime men with undulating lobes like blooming flowers. They chattered something at me in a foul, half-formed language, black tongues slipping out."
9. “The Curio Dealer” appeared in Hypnos, Vol. 6 No. 1 (2017)
- A short piece that reveals the audacity of merchants preying on the poor land of Bel (Yesha valley specifically, where Cas from story #5 is gifted the copper amulet mentioned here).

Themes and reoccurring Items/Places
1) Triangles (a.k.a. trigon, a polygon of 3 sides): in addition to being the title of a story, these appear as icons for witchery, inform the design of amulets, banners, and other insignia.

2) Weird pregnancies: from adjectives describing "gestures" and "shadows" to plots based on foundlings and the creation of homunculi (loriks).

3) Black blood: evil usually bleeds black, whether be from the Slime Lord, the goblin-like granlings' blood, or the evil that pours through Trigon’s black gate. The gran and their Horned One leader are mentioned in at least three stories. Excerpt:
"The gran were elder-lived humans of mysterious origin, sometimes thralls to ancient, tree-tall sorcerers, purposefully stirred to emotional frenzy so that their insubstantial fear, hatred, and rage could be incarnated, extracted, and harvested as a black sap used as a dark fuel for even darker sorceries."
4) The land is shared across all tales, and an excerpt from story#5 best captures some of the names:
Cas and Lia learned much about the world: the Youv to the north marshalled brown-cloaked armies of Porthror axemen and swore to annex Drossus, a northern fief of Griess Volor, peopled by shrewd merchants who flirted with republicanism. The City of Re to the south was plagued with religious dissent; a coven of witches cowed the oligarchy there, a masked priesthood of Atok, a God of a Million Eyes. Even whispers of Yesha trickled into Roa: the devil sorcerer who sat on the throne of that city-state was fashioning a great sphere that gave dark vibrations, and the thrall-nobles who kept his court, bathed in the sphere’s subtle movements, had developed a taste for human flesh and long teeth to tear it. But the worst of these stories treated Yizdra, the forestland Cas and Lia called home, where of recent seasons evil, cavern-dwelling creatures, the gran, had been waxing in numbers and raiding by night. They depleted game, burned villages, and murdered travelers on the ancient roads. … hung brazenly at a crossed cart road, the flyblown, wet skins and bones of the slaughtered, hooked beneath a rude formation of horns and antlers nailed and tied to a stand of weeping trees, and a flapping banner with ancient runes inked with blood and gore, and a single rune, a rendering in an ancient tongue. What, precisely, it meant, no scholar could tell, but its core message was clear: war.


Who is Jason Ray Carney? : If you are a fan of adventure horror, then keep an eye out. I first read his work in Skelos #1..and first saw him (via video) on a Howard Days 2019 Panel on S&S. Recently, he seems to be ever-present in the S&S and Weird Fiction communities, contributing to Goodman Games and to Black Gate blogs with articles on the gothic tradition in S&S and “How S&S brings us life.” He recently edited Savage Scrolls Volume One : Thrilling Tales of Sword-and-Sorcery for Pulp Hero Press and is an editor at The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery. By day, he is a Lecturer in Popular Literature at Christopher Newport University. He also authored the academic book Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure - Review By SE

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure by Milton J. Davis

SE rating: 5 of 5 stars

Omari Ket, an Agency of One

Eda Blessed: A Ki Khanga Adventure is all about Omari Ket. The collection chronicles his rise from street-rat to god-marked mercenary (a Mikijen). “Agency” is a term for the capacity of a character to act independently, and Omari Ket is an Agency onto himself. He is as suave, cunning, and as lethal as James Bond, but Omari reports to no one, really; he is a survivor more than a spy, so he approximates a Han Solo rogue who is happy to join a large melee (for a price). And woman-in-power and upper-classes adore him! He’s the bad boy of action.

Why the call-outs to Bond and Solo (and not Conan)? I wanted to emphasize that Omari Ket feels like a non-stereotypical Sword & Sorcery hero. In fact, his testosterone-rich aura is expected from a Secret Agent Man. Omari is not a spy, but he is a ladies’ man in a dog-eat-dog world. If you like a cut-throat, libertine, action-oriented protagonist then try this out. You’ll enjoy the action set in an alternative African continent called Ki Kanga.

Omari earns a role in the band of mystical Mikijen mercenaries granting him Ngisimaugi tattoos; these enable his boldness and ability for his body to rejuvenate. He confronts all sorts of conflicts, from tomb raiding, chaotic skirmishes, and battles with strange centaur-like creatures that are “amalgam of man and beast; their bodies that of the great grass antelopes, their torsos man-like, their heads crowned with horns.”

Omari appears to be an anagram for Imaro, the original Sword & Soul champion created by Charles Saunders (that alternative Africa was called Nyumbani). The author of Eda Blessed, Milton Davis, is a Black Speculative fiction writer and owner of MVmedia, LLC, a publishing company specializing in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Sword and Soul…including Saunder’s works. Milton writes other characters as well, in other universes, including the Changa's Safari series (Changa is an action hero of historic Africa), who has a polar opposite personality to Omari).

More Ki Khanga: Ki Khanga has its own anthology (Ki-Khanga: The Anthology) and RPG game world to immerse yourself in. Read the books, then play the world. There are other spinoffs too, including two with leading heroines Priestess of nKu and The Bene's Daughter: A Ki Khanga Novel. And Eda Blessed II (~10 more tales) is due out imminently (Spring 2021)

Contents (Eda Blessed I)
-Kept
-A Better Deal
-Second Chance
-The Skin Man (Originally published in Skelos II)
-The Ngola’s Promise
-Assassin’s Choice
-Old Habits (Originally published in Griots: Sisters of the Spear)
-Simple Math (Originally published in the Ki-Khanga: The Anthology)


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Friday, January 22, 2021

Tales from the Magician's Skull #5 - Review By SE



Tales from the Magician's Skull #5
by Howard Andrew Jones
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

Heed me mortal dogs, Sword & Sorcery fans will devour these tales!:
Tales from the Magician's Skull #5 provides six new tales printed in superb format, with a bonus essay on Harold Lamb. And take in that beautiful cover by Manuel Pérez Clemente (better known as Sanjulián)!

As per the Tales from the Magician's Skull series, all are graced with RPG item/character statistics so readers can play out the stories, or play with key parts of them; the stats are in Dungeon Crawl Classics form which can readily be applied to other formats. The illustrations are wonderful too. Several more issues are in the queue.


Availability & Subscriptions
- General retailers like Amazon have some current issues, but some of the earlier ones are getting out of stock.
- Goodman Games (publisher of the magazine) has many for direct sale (PDF and print), as well as subscriptions.
- DriveThruRPG has PDFs of most.

#5 Table of Contents with official blurbs (and some of my own commentary)

(1) "Pool of Memory" by James Enge: A wondrously trippy Morlock Ambrosius tale, extending the serialization across issues.
The sword sang, with an almost human voice, and bright shards of crystal flew everywhere. The luminous, image-laden fog of memories billowed forth, around him and through him. He staggered like a drunk, intoxicated by the swift shocking burst of other lives, other hates, other loves. When the mists were gone, he was himself again—whoever that was.

(2) "The Guardian of Nalsir-Fel" by Adrian Simmons: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly editor contributes an adventurous-duo (characters Ahzlamin and Penkatel) tale reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series:
“Do not look for help,” the messenger said. “Do not call out for the guards, they will not hear you! They will not see you! Such is the power of Cowlanati Palisani, the great and serene!”

(3) "In the Corridors of the Crow" by John C. Hocking. Classic Hocking here. A calculated buildup to explosive mayhem. This one really builds the strained relationship between Benhus (the King's Blade) and his master King.
It was a nest, a great nest made of bones. He saw the bones of men and animals wound and bound together, forming such a dense fabric that he could not tell where one ended and the other began. He could make out the weathered skulls of men and the antlers of a great stag, all crusted with layers of dust and cobweb, filthy with age and abandonment.

(4) "Road of Bones" by Violette Malan: Malan has had several Dhulyn & Parno adventures in TftMS, and this one was my favorite so far. They escort a deranged wizard on a perilous adventure into ruins.
We, we removed his power—it’s a complicated and painful procedure, for all parties. Then we cut him to pieces, and burned the pieces. But the bones you know, the bones don’t burn.

(5) "Dreams of a Sunken Realm" by Adrian Cole: Yes, another Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis pastiche! The climatic battle between ghosts and demons-of-sea was splendid.
Elak and his companions watched in horror as the first wave exploded and cascaded over the great buildings of the city. Palaces and temples erupted, smitten by the almighty power of the wave.

(6) "Demons of the Depths" by C. L. Werner: Shintaro Oba always offer demon killing with a refreshing non-European-centric milieu.
The waves turned red as the feeding frenzy drove the creatures to turn against one another, ripping away at their fellows in the crazed hunger. When this frenzy was at its height, the man on the tower calmly rose and stepped to the edge. Deliberately he dropped the jewel straight down into the midst of the ravenous sharks.

(7) "A Profile of Harold Lamb" by Howard Andrew Jones.
Any writer who encountered Adventure magazine between 1917 and the early 1930s would have had Harold Lamb’s work readily at hand, because he was one of the magazine’s most popular writers and appeared there with great frequency. Probably the most important of those who saw him, though, was a Texan named Robert E. Howard…

(8) "The Monster Pit" by Terry Olson.
Enter the monster pit! Down here in the pit, we provide tabletop RPG fans with playable DCC RPG game.


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Friday, January 1, 2021

Tales from the Magician's Skull - review by SE


Tales from the Magician's Skull #4
by Howard Andrew Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eight new engaging tales printed in superb format. As per the Tales from the Magician's Skull series, all are graced with RPG item/character statistics so readers can play out the stories, or play with key parts of them; the stats are in Dungeon Crawl Classics form which can readily be applied to other formats. Most have a King-sent-me-on-a-mission premise, but all are varied in tone and style. The illustrations are wonderful too. You can get TftMS from sellers like Amazon, or better... direct from Goodman Games (PDF's via DrivethruRPG).


All are stellar reads. I star my personal favorites (I'm a sucker for ghosts, dark blood magic, and tortured souls and the two with ties to Atlantis struck a cord).

-Expect returning authors to continue their serials: (a) John C Hocking's has his King's blade Benhus tracking down a magical ring in a den of thieves; deliciously dark magic explodes there; (b) also, Enge's Morlock Ambrosius appears again; this episode is a somewhat comedic and psychedelic experience as he seeks out a pair of hands he lost previously.
-Sword & Soul champion, Milton Davis, delivers a tale with the livestock loving warrior Garang being toyed with elder gods in Africa's Kush (reminiscent of Saunder's Imaro).
-Warhammer/Black Library author C.L. Werner offers a blood-soaked samurai tale that will encourage you to take care of your pets better.
*-Veteran writer Adrian Cole offers up an 'Elak of Atlantis' pastiche that echoes Henry Kuttner's voice really well (splendid conflict on a cursed island rife with elder god-things).
*-Speaking of Atlantis, Tom Doyle sends us into subterranean ruins with an Atlantean. This was the first time I read his work.
-Ryan Harvey offers us a touch of Steampunk gods plaguing Sorrow-ridden freedom fighters struggling to rebuild a city.
-James Stoddard offers the most varied tale, arguable not classic S&S. It's post-apocalyptic, curse-breaking adventure with cameo's from fairy tales.

Table of Contents (with the official teaser blurbs):
(1) Guardian of the Broken Gem by John C. Hocking
Benhus wondered what he could expect if they took him alive. Torture and interrogation, probably. They’d pry the fact that he worked for the King from him and that would seal his death warrant. He squeezed the hilt of the white dagger and wondered how many of them he could kill before they took him down.

(2) On Death Seed Island>/i>- by Adrian Cole
The cloud writhed gently, as if shifting in a breeze, though the air in the grove was very still. In a moment it had formed itself into a distinctive shape and the men drew back in alarm. It was a human figure, hunched, its face a blur, save for the eyes and mouth.

(3) Masks of Silence - by James Enge
The glass cages were full of… things. Not people, but parts of people. They were moving—they were alive: meaty throbbing hearts, shiny pulsating strips of liver, fingers crawling like inchworms, feet flopping like fish.
“There is a part of hell that’s supposed to be like this,” Deor remarked.

(4)Cage of Honor - by James Stoddard
Without hesitation, he sent his knife whistling through the air, striking the witch full in the throat. Ignoring her, he caught the woman in his arms, and she was everything to him all at once, everything he ever wanted.

(5) The Witch’s Hound - by C. L. Werner
In a burst of supernatural speed, the dog-ape lunged at Oba. It drove its hairy body beneath the sweep of his sword and drove its shoulder into his midriff in a maneuver that was more tackle than pounce. The samurai was knocked back, sent sprawling on the ground

(6) The Dead Queen’s Triumph - by Ryan Harvey
“You—don’t yet believe—that I am your queen.” The tongue moved freer as the abomination became used to speaking. “For long, I forgot that I was as well. But I am royal blood still. See?” One of the manipulated arms placed its hand over a flap on the chest cylinder. Fingers gripped the sides and pulled it open.

(7) Thieves of the Fallen World - by Tom Doyle
We’d taken these unearthly glowing gems and blades of cold flame from beings who (at best) weren’t quite human. These trophies were still puissant for ill, and a captured battle lance twitched at me like a living bug impaled on a pin. You shouldn’t be keeping such things, sire.

(8) Apedamak’s Army - by Milton Davis
Garang had made a mistake. He crouched as he walked backwards to the hut, hoping the beasts did not see him. He was halfway to the hut when the last beast spotted him and changed directions, shrieking at him as it attacked.

(X) Appendix: Game Statistics by Terry Olson
We present this appendix of game statistics for the various creatures, spells, and items described herein.



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Sunday, December 6, 2020

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu - Review by SE

 

The Trail of Bohu by Charles R. Saunders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spurred by a Sword & Sorcery groupread honoring this year's passing of Charles R. Saunders, I continued the Imaro Series with The Trail of Bohu. A guide to the series and book availability will be posted on Blackgate.com shortly [link coming].

This third novel is a setup for last: The Naama War. The Trail of Bohu has considerably less action than Imaro and The Quest for Cush: Imaro II (the prior being comprised of short stories and this being the first full-length novel). So far, Saunders has been building up two big plots: (1) Imaro's mysterious, ancestral origin, and (2) the burgeoning war between the united Northern tribes/nations (Cloud Strider and Cushite aligned) and the evil Naamans (Erriten, Mashataan sorceries). Here Saunders delivers mostly on the former, and quite comprehensively; the latter, reserved for the final book.

When he does deliver action, he doesn't hold back. Creatures are wonderfully dark:
"Even in the half-light of dusk, the animate corpses were hideous to behold. Though they were all naked, the bloating of their bodies had advanced to the point that their sex was difficult to determine. Their faces were travesties of humanity: noses split apart, teeth jutting beyond peeling lips; eyes that were nothing more than gelatinous orbs that glimmered with a tinge of green luminescence. Machawai green... The walkingdead gouged at throats, faces, eyes. They attempted no defense against the steel that hacked and slashed at their bodies..."
Saunders provides plenty of Nyumbani (i.e. Africa) lore, culture, and creatures, including mountable rhinoceros and zebras. Glossaries in the back of each book are appreciated, but not necessary. There is one distinct moment which made me snicker, recalling Samuel Jackson's renowned cursing. When questioned by Rabir about what Imaro will do when he catches the titular Bohu, Imaro says: "I will kill the mama-mfuka." I am no linguist to know the etymology of that insult, but it sounded the most contemporary of every Nyumbani term.

My favorite location is the "The Placed of Carved Trees", a mystical grove that Imaro seeks guidance:
"Each of its trees was carved into a gigantic sculpture that was grotesque in form and enigmatic in meaning. At first glance, the sculpted tree-trunks appeared distorted, and even monstrous. Many of the carvings took the shape of bulbous masses of bodies separated by thin, cylindrical stalks that might have been legs. Faces hung from those bodies--faces with misarranged features and distended mouths with protruding teeth, sometimes smiling, sometimes screaming..."
All in all a great stage for an all-out war for the continent of Nyumbani!

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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Shattered Seas Review AND Deep Madness Tour Guide - Review by S.E.

This post was simulcast on Black Gate.com on Nov-28-2020

BG_SS_cover
Cover art by Christopher Shy / Cover design by Byron Leavitt.

Shattered Seas is a toxic dose of Lovecraftian mythos, psychedelic team-exploration (reminiscent of Stark Trek voyages), and survival-horror melee (mutant creatures replacing zombies). It’s a maelstrom of fun if you enjoy horror adventure, losing your mind, and drowning.

Ever want to crack open the gateway into an Otherworld with a few friends? Perhaps you are ambitious and naively want to gain dominion of cosmic powers. Will you be comfortable with mutating forces transforming you into a tentacled mass? Start the madness by searching for the mystical Sphere buried in the ocean near the submerged Kadath Mining facility. Lucas Kane, a marine biologist, is one of your tour guides. Here he observes Kadath, a mining facility with organic qualities (excerpt):

Kadath lit up below them drew his attention and caught his breath. The facility sprawled across the seabed like a sunken metropolis from another world, its illuminated structures pushing defiantly upward into the inky abyss. The station’s domes and towers seemed like the last bastions of light and reason still standing in an endless Stygian wasteland. It was hypnotic, dreamlike, and yet somehow inexplicably solid. Lucas could make out the shuttle tubes running between the three main domes, as well as to the smaller, squarer outposts and middle structures. He could even see the primary enclosed drilling site not far off from the main facility, connected to Dome Three by long, spacious tubes.

This novel was inspired by Diemension Games' Deep Madness, a cooperative sci-fi/horror board game. The novel serves as a stand-alone book as much as it does a gateway into the game narrative. Non-gamers will enjoy it all the same since the key protagonists (Lucas Kane and Connor Durham) are freshly introduced, plus the story is a prequel to the story presented in the game. At the end of this article, there is an embedded movie overviewing the board game.