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

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Hocking Understand this S&S kind of Stuff - City of the Dead released

 Most of this content was simulcast on Black Gate June 25, 2024: 


CONAN City of the Dead, by John C. Hocking (2024, Titan Books. 507p)[/caption]

It’s June of 2024, and Titan Books has just delivered John C. Hocking’s City of the Dead which contains both Conan and the Emerald Lotus (1995, TOR) and its follow-up Conan and the Living Plaguea book lost in the limbo of publishing craziness for ~two decades! Hocking also wrote a bridging novella set in between these two novels called “Black Starlight” (serialized across Conan comics in 2019, and provided assembled as an eBook in 2023 as Conan: Black Starlight: The Heroic Legends Series). Since Titan Books & Heroic Signatures had the rights to publish and print “Black Starlight” separately, it seems like a lost opportunity to have it absent from  City of the Dead, but fans are just glad to finally see the Living Plague in print, it is tough to whine about that.

Conan fans will be purchasing City of the Dead in a frenzy since they are familiar with Hocking’s style and its heroic journey

Want to know what the fuss is all about? This post is all about John C. Hocking’s Conan pastiche. It consolidates my reviews from Emerald Lotus and Black Starlight and highlights from my interview-with-Hocking and pre-review of Living Plague (that post contained informational, but distanced comments, about the book since the manuscript was still not available to all… at the time, I was blessed with one of the sacred Perilous World copies by Hocking to read). Read this and you'll have all the excerpts and context needed to lure you into the City of the Dead.

Lord of a Shattered Land and The Doom of Odin: Howard Andrew Jones and Scott Oden deliver high-octane, anti-Roman Adventure

I just finished two Euro-Mediterranean-inspired fantasy novels, and, by chance, both feature dragons on their beautiful covers. This post showcases both. Scott Oden's The Doom of Oden wraps up a trilogy (Grimnir Series) and Howard Andrew Jones' Lord of a Shattered Land begins a five-book series (Hanuvar Chronicles). Each offer anti-Roman myths/legends, Oden's Grimnir overtly calls out Rome (and then introduces loads of Nordic fantasy) and HAJ's Hanuvar's primary antagonist is the Dervan Empire (obviously inspired by the Roman Empire). In the spirit of Robert E. Howard's Conan, who roamed the Euro-Mediterranan continue of Hyboria, these both continue a tradition with a unique flair. These series are not to be missed!

Both are veteran authors with respect for history and historical fiction (HAJ is known for his Harold Lamb series editing and Oden for his bibliography that includes The White Lion, The Lion of Cairo, Men of Bronze, and Memnon). Here they write sagas about veteran protagonists. Don't expect coming-of-age stories or epic fantasy, five-character parties either. These provide the classic Sword & Sorcery approach: the protagonists may have sidekicks, but they operate primarily on their own, and they are already equipped with experience/skills/power from page-one. So the pace is fast and focused.

Both Lord of a Shattered Land and The Doom of Odin blend history with fantasy but each provides significant doses of myth/sorcery, so these are not alternate history novels. Each protagonist is motivated by their respective family too: HAJ's Hanuvar is human, and since he is a displaced general managing to survive as his society is destroyed by Derva (Rome), he operates like a secret agent going rogue behind enemy lines to rescue other stragglers and family members. Oden's Grimnir is inhuman, more of a manifestation of Beowulf's Grendel's kin, and whereas the first two books had Grimnir apart from his estranged family, this last installment showcases loads of family drama (i.e., think family reunion on the scale of Ragnarok, aka, the end of the world, with Rome hosting part of the picnic).

This post provides brief reviews, book blurbs, and excerpts. Read on and battle Rome and ancient Gods!

Hanuvar Series (link)

Hanuvar is a fictionalized general (an incarnation of Hannibal of Carthage) who tangles with the Roman-like Dervani who have invaded his homeland. Expect espionage thriller sorties, gladiator battles, and sorcery-saturated climaxes in each chapter to balance all the melee. Lord of a Shattered Land (Aug 2023) kicks off a 5 book series from Baen, followed by  City of Marble and Blood (Oct 2023), and Shadow of the Smoking Mountain (Oct 2024), (#4 and #5 to be revealed later). 

Hanuvar is Conan possessed by James Bond!

Lord of a Shattered Land Cover Blurb

When their walls were breached at last, the people of Volanus fought block by block, house by house, until most fell with sword in hand. Less than a thousand survivors were led away in chains.

The city’s treasuries were looted, its temples defiled, and then, to sate their emperor’s thirst for vengeance, the mages of the Dervan Empire cursed Volanus and sowed its fields with salt. They committed only one error: the greatest Volani general yet lived.

Against the might of a vast empire, Hanuvar had only an aging sword arm, a lifetime of wisdom… and the greatest military mind in the world, set upon a single goal. No matter where they’d been sent, from the festering capital to the furthest outpost of the Dervan Empire, Hanuvar would find his people. Every last one of them. And he would set them free.

Worst of all, a magical attack had left Hanuvar with a lingering curse that might change him forever, or lead him to an early grave…

Lord of a Shattered features fourteen episodes chronicling Hanuvar's undercover investigations and travels. The settings and delivery are reminiscent of Richard L Tierney's Simon of Gitta (Black Gate review) who was posed as an enemy of sorcerous Rome (the character Simon was loosely modeled after the biblical magus, and was motivated by vengeance.)  Hanuvar is driven more to save his people than to cause further harm, but bloodshed follows him everywhere. HAJ's delivery is splendidly smooth, whether he is describing body horror or humorous situations--at times evoking Leiber's Lanhmar ambiance. You likely have seen some of his stories, since seven of the fourteen episodes/chapters were published in similar form by reappearing here with slight editing to close out a story arc:

  1. “The Way of Serpents,” first published in the Goodman Games Gen Con 2016 Program Guide and then reprinted in Issue "zero" of Tales From the Magician’s Skull, 2018.
  2. “Crypt of Stars,” printed in Tales From the Magician’s Skull, Issue 1, 2018.
  3. “The Second Death of Hanuvar,” printed in Tales From the Magician’s Skull, Issue 3, 2019.
  4. “A Stone’s Throw,” printed in Heroic Fiction Quarterly #40, 2019.
  5. “Course of Blood,” printed in the anthology Galactic Stew.
  6. “From the Darkness Beneath” in Terra Incognita
  7. “Shroud of Feathers” appeared in issue 6 of Tales From the Magician’s Skull.

Excerpt: Vivid, clever, James-Bond-Like Melee

"His opponents were spread out, and while the circumstance was far from ideal, it might not get better. Hanuvar dashed from the brush and slammed the antlered man’s head with his spear haft. This knocked his foe’s deer-hood askew and set him reeling drunkenly. Hanuvar closed and struck him across the throat with the heel of his hand.

Antler-head sank to his knees, gasping for breath.

Hanuvar grasped his cheeks, pushed the severed finger through his teeth, and clamped the man’s jaw shut. “Swallow,” he ordered into his ear, the spear blade against his neck.

The man’s throat moved, he pushed at Hanuvar’s arm with shaking fingers . . . then swallowed as the spear blade pricked him."

Excerpt: Weird, Sorcerous, X-Files-Like Predicaments

"Arcella lay there, at least what was left of her. Her dress had been rent down the front, and her skinless, hairless body lay wet and glistening, the lidless eyes rendered enormous. Unlike the other bodies, her internal organs still lay in their places. The reek was overwhelming.

Even Hanuvar was stunned by the scene, for he could think of no ordinary means by which the woman could have screamed and then been rendered skinless in the scant moment since they had raced to find her."

The City of Marble and Blood (already out) continues Hanuvar's grand adventures!

Grimnir Series (link)

Ymir’s balls! Oden's trilogy comes to an end. This was initiated with A Gathering of Ravens (reviewed by Flecther Vredenburgh on Black Gate) to be followed by Twilight of the Gods. Read those first to become a cheerleader of Grimnir. The milieu is reminiscent of Poul Anderson’s Viking Age The Broken Sword, being full of Dane’s and Celtic faeries and Norse myths. Oden's style is more readable than that classic, but is still saturated with just the right amount of call-outs to geographies and history to blur the lines between fantasy and history. This is no historical fantasy, but the foundation of history is so well played the fantasy feels “real.” Equally balanced are the sorceries of Celtic witches, Norse deities, and Christian beliefs. All supernatural “sides” of faith conflict here. All are presented as real, though some are being superseded.  So who is the orc protagonist employed by Scott Oden to redeem the Orc culture? He is Grimnir...Grendel’s brother, as named by some. The lady Étaín, a servant of the Christian God, the Nailed One, and unlikely companion of him describes him:

“He is called Grimnir… the last of his kind, one of the kaunar—known to your people as fomóraig, to mine as orcnéas, and to the Northmen as skrælingar. In the time I’ve known him, he has been ever a fomenter of trouble, a murderer, and as cruel a bastard… I can vouch neither for his honesty nor his morals, as he is bereft of both. And while he did kidnap me, threaten me with death, mock my faith, and expose me to the hates of a forgotten world, he also saved my life …” from A Gathering of Ravens

Grimnir is a monstrous, brutal bastard!

His name suits him since he might as well be carrying a flagstaff with the contemporary “Grimdark subgenre” splayed upon it. Yet his predicament and motivations are as compelling as any vigilante hero. How best to end the series other than (a) meeting Grimnir's estranged family [i.e., the paternal Bálegyr] while (b) ushering in Ragnarok? This last installment takes us to mindbending travel between ancient Rome and Nastrond/Yggdrasil (i.e. Nordic Otherworlds that Oden can explain better than me). Granted Rome is only part of the landscape here; readers should expect more time in the Nordic realms.

The Doom of Odin: A Novel (Grimnir Series Book 3)  Blurb:

To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcnéas; to the Irish, he is fomoraig. He is Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. He is Grimnir, and he is the last of his kind—the last in a long line of monsters who have plagued humanity since the Elder Days.

Drawn from his lair by a thirst for vengeance against the Dane who slew his brother, Grimnir emerges into a world that’s changed. A new faith has arisen. The Old Ways are dying, and their followers retreating into the shadows; even still, Grimnir’s vengeance cannot be denied.

Taking a young Christian hostage to be his guide, Grimnir embarks on a journey that takes him from the hinterlands of Denmark, where the wisdom of the ancient dwarves has given way to madness, to the war-torn heart of southern England, where the spirits of the land make violence on one another. And thence to the green shores of Ireland and the Viking stronghold of Dubhlinn, where his enemy awaits.

But, unless Grimnir can set aside his hatreds, his dream of retribution will come to nothing. For Dubhlinn is set to be the site of a reckoning—the Old Ways versus the New—and Grimnir, the last of his kind left to plague mankind, must choose: stand with the Christian King of Ireland and see his vengeance done or stand against him and see it slip away?

Grimdark Battles Infused with Norse Mythology

Excerpt 1: 

Grimnir hacked slivers from the skrælingr’s club; over his shoulder, he saw the shuffling kaunr—that straight-legged bastard with a beard like tarry weeds—moving into his blind side. Snarling, Grimnir deflected another blow from the skrælingr’s knotty club, then drove the hilt of his long-seax into the idiot’s teeth. Once. Twice. Blood spurted from the wreckage of his nose and mouth. A third blow snapped the skrælingr’s head back. The club slipped from his nerveless fingers. A fourth crushing blow sent him crumpling to the ground with a broken neck.

Excerpt 2:

Grimnir never let him finish...With a serpentine hiss, the son of Bálegyr snapped his arm forward, driving the blade of his spear into the point of the kaunr’s bearded chin. His drawn breath, meant for the boastful recitation of his deeds, turned into a death-rattle as the spearhead plowed through bone and teeth; it cut through the muscle of his tongue and the soft flesh of his palate, splitting his face from jaw to brow. Blood spewed from the spear-cleft ruin.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Good Vibes from Demons: Re-release and Commentary

Rogue Blades Presents Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology ISBN-13: 9798863079608 (print) ASIN: B0045Y1LMS (Kindle); Cover Artist: Johnney Perkins. Interior Graphics: M.D. Jackson

  • Jason M Waltz (Publisher of RBE/RBF) had dedicated the re-release to Robert Mancebo, author for several Rogue Blade Entertainment anthologies, who sadly passed away in 2023.
  • For this "Good vibes from Reviews" tag, note the response from Robert Mancebo's daughter in the Black Gate commentary. Breathtaking. Reviews and announcements rarely are emotive. Writing and reading is often a solitary hobby, but as Rachel points out, books bring us together in ways often not told.

Here is my mini-review and re-release notice:

In 2010, Black Gate announced Rogue Blades Entertainment Conjures DEMONS. This October 2023, the third edition has been issued and with it a revamped Kindle version! The original Kindle edition lacked a functioning, linked Table of Contents, but that’s all brought up to modern standards. It is dedicated to Robert Mancebo, author for several Rogue Blade Entertainment anthologies, who sadly passed away in 2023.

Jason M Waltz is well known amongst adventure fiction readers, especially the Swords & Sorcery crowd. With his Rogue Blades Entertainment Books and associated Foundation, he’s brought us the epic Return of the Sword (BG review) and then Rage of the Behemoth, and Demons.  He’s edited/published a variety of other anthologies with themes of Weird Noir, Pirates, and Sword & Planet with Lost Empire of Sol (BG review), and splendid nonfiction like Writing Fantasy Heroes (BG review) and recently Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (BG review). He recently ran a successful Kickstarter for another anthology as spotlighted on BG: “Neither Beg Nor Yield – A Sword & Sorcery Anthology with Attitude.” As you await Neither Beg Nor Yield, you’ll want to revisit Demons.

Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology – Blurb

When the gates of Hell open, who stands between Man and the Abyss? From mankind’s infancy, people have huddled in the dark, drawing signs in the air, muttering quiet prayers, quivering with dread at what roams in the night. Demons. Creatures of the Darkness. Evil spirits riding dark winds. And mankind trembled. Yet a few stood, drew steel imbued with magic to hue spirit as well as flesh, and walked out into the night to meet the foes of mortal men. Join the struggle in these 28 masterful tales of adventure and mayhem as heroes, forged as ‎strong as the steel they wield, defy foes from the realms of nightmare.‎


In Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, Rogue Blades Entertainment (RBE) delivers what it claims: a sampling of demon stories and adventure. Your chance of finding appealing stories is decent with 28 entries. Chock full of demons, champions, possession, witches, etc.. Kudos to RBE for keeping these tales alive from a 2006 publication (Carnifex Press). The purpose of an anthology is to provide an array of options, allow new readers to explore the genre, allow self-described “veteran readers” to identify new authors, and enable reading in small doses (i.e. great for traveling or parents with small children constantly interrupting their activities). “Demons” delivers this.

For anthologies, we expect to experiment with doses of new material/authors. For me, three stories that emphasized personal demons (or personal challenges) were outstanding. They stuck with me and are worth rereading; my favorites are in bold below in the Table of Contents listing. But you may have your own favorites! Check them out:

Demons: Table of Contents

  • “Foreword” by Armand Rosamilia
  • “The Man with the Webbed Throat” by Steve Moody
  • “Imprisoned” by Carl Walmsley
  • “Toxic” by Steven L. Shrewsbury
  • “Azieran: Bound by Virtue” by Christopher Heath
  • “Bodyguard of the Dead” by C.L. Werner
  • “Kron Darkbow” by Ty Johnston
  • “The Vengeance of Tibor” by Ron Shiflet
  • “The Beast of Lyoness” by Christopher Stires
  • “Fifteen Breaths” by Phil Emery
  • “The Pact” by Jonathan Green
  • “Blood Ties” by Trista Robichaud
  • “Zeerembuk” by Steve Goble
  • “The Fearsome Hunger” by Rob Mancebo
  • “The Furnace” by Sandro G. Franco
  • “The First League Out from Land” by Brian Dolton
  • “The Sacrifice” by Jason Irrgang
  • “Son of the Rock” by Laura J. Underwood
  • “Into Shards” by Murray J.D. Leeder 
  • “Through the Dark” by Darla J. Bowen
  • “Joenna’s Ax” by Elaine Isaak
  • “The Lesser: A Swords of the Daemor Tale” by Patrick Thomas
  • “When the Darkness Grows” by Frederick Tor
  • “Demon Heart” by Bryan Lindenberger
  • “Azieran: Racked upon the Altar of Eeyuu” by Christopher Heath
  • “Born Warriors” by TW Williams
  • “Mistaken Identity” by Robert J. Santa
  • “Box of Bones” by Jonathan Moeller
  • “By Hellish Means” by Bill Ward


Tuesday, November 7, 2023



Simulcast on Black Gate magazine Nov 6th, 2023.

Old Moon Quarterly is a magazine of dark fantasy and weird sword-and-sorcery. In the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, Tanith Lee and Karl Edward Wagner, it contains stories of strange vistas, eldritch beings, and the bloody dispute thereof by both swordsmen and swordswomen. Old Moon Quarterly emerged in 2022 led by Editor-in-Chief Julian Barona, flanked by Assistant Editors Caitlyn Emily Wilcox and Graham Thomas Wilcox. This May 2023, Black Gate reviewed Issue #3 (with an overview of #1 and #2).  True to what the editors promise, the magazine consistently delivers strong doses of weird Sword & Sorcery.

This post reviews Old Moon Quarterly Issue V; shared below is the table of contents with summaries of each story and excerpts (these were selected to avoid spoilers while conveying the feel of each).  As with previous issues, expect stories that push the boundaries of uniqueness, blending poetic writing with horror and adventure. If you read tropes they’ll lean toward the twisted or bizarre.

But first a quick call out to the ongoing Kickstarter for Issues VII & VIII;  This campaign runs now through Nov 31st, 2023 and, if successful, would fund two more issues paying contributors professional rates!

Here is a key blurb from and about the Old Moon Quarterly crew.

Old Moon Quarterly is an award-winning print and digital magazine of sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy fiction, featuring over 20,000 words of original fiction as well as poetry and original nonfiction. We’ve a love for the classics of the genre and a desire to push for some new, strange takes on our old favorites. And of course, the magazine is made with a particular love and affinity for the eldritch aesthetics and weird storytelling of BerserkBloodborne and Dark Souls.

We’ve published five issues so far, with a sixth issue on the way. Since our inception in June 2022, we’ve increased our pay for authors from 5c a word to 8c a word, making us the only sword-and-sorcery focused fantasy magazine that pays what the SFWA considers a “professional” rate. We firmly believe that dark fantasy and sword-and-sorcery authors deserve a venue where they can receive fair pay for stories that are often very difficult to place in other venues. We started Old Moon Quarterly to give authors that venue.

With the funding from this Kickstarter, we’ll be able to maintain that payrate for issues 7 and 8, which will release in 2024. And not only will we be able to maintain that payrate, we’ll be able to increase the amount of fiction in each issue from 20,000 to 30,000+; we’ll be able to include (for the first time) interior artwork in a classic black-and-white style!

Old Moon Quarterly Issue V: Stories and Poems

1) “Together Under the Wing” by Jonathan Olfert

The perspective and scale of this story are simply huge: the protagonists are mammoths, and they pale in size versus their giant antagonist!  Epic duels drive this revenge tale. Walks-like-a-Rockslide seeks revenge for the death of his mother (Grass-Wisper) by the hands of the ancient Giant King.

The matriarch Grass-Whisper had lived in a grove in the hills, now stomped flat by vast human-like footprints. Her carved tusks lay in cracked-off chunks; they and the blood were all that remained—that, and the huge flint used to skin her before eating. A flint five times the size of the quartz blades bound to his tusks… (p11)

2) Champions Against the Maggot King by K.H. Vaughn

Get ready for some Warhammer/Grimdark-Tolkien fare. The soldier Grath narrates this tale. He details an epic battle against the Maggot King. The titular, heroic champions lead an army of >60 thousand that ride in landships made from living stone, armed with canons, and fueled by elemental sorcery. The champions include the Dwarf Ko Mon who has a lengthy morning-star-like prosthetic, the sword-wielding elf-who-never-smiles lIhar, and their demoness leader Sergeant, the female Sorrow Mai.

A wave of wild men break against the ship. They are pathetic. Pale and soft, but secure in their sense of power, waving their genitals at us as they come. They howl in impotent rage as they die, mowed down by arrows and lances. The ship rolls over them and churns their corpses into dirt. No one will find their bones or mourn their deaths. Where does the Maggot King find them? There must be thousands of them in the dim light of subterranean caves, thinking nothing but their eventual victory.  (p49)

3) “The King’s Two Bodies” poem by Joe Koch

I enjoyed this so much, I read it three times to soak in the words. It is beautiful, but too cryptic to understand on its initial pass.  Two souls with liquid properties are contained within one body. One may exit the vessel via a ritual of exiting the body and filling a cup.

4) “The Origin of Boghounds” by Amelia Gorman

Samphire is a female bounty hunter searching out a snake-oil salesman at the edges of Sichel, the stained city that radiates a New Orleans swamp vibe. She’s not the only bounty hunter seeking a payout. Several other hunters stumble into her and boghounds as they track down their prey while unearthing mysteries and monsters.

Samphire blows out her candle and sips into the dark corner between the headboard and wall. She disappears into the dark sod and crouches down in a knot in the tiny crawlspace, barely fitting with her giant pack of unguents and vinegars. [A boghound] hops silently off the straw, pads over to her and crawls under the bed, looking up at her with those affectionate golden eyes like two stars in the dirty dark. As the dark obscured their faces, Samphire catches voices she’s butted against time and again.  (p56)

5) “Well Met at the Gates of Hell” by David K. Henrickson

An amoral warrior arrives in Hell and is met at the entrance by three antagonists (two humanoids, one not) seeking to duel.  Lots of banter makes this more of a light-hearted read.

In that moment, the newcomer skims the plate he has finally freed from his armor toward the giant’s eyes and throws himself in a roll.

Automatically, the giant flinches away from the spinning metal. ‘Faithless!” he cries out, aiming a blow at the tumbling figure as it dives past.

The newcomer is already inside and below the other’s guard. His blade flashes out in a backhand swing, shearing through the giant’s thigh just above the greave.  (p73)

6)  “A Warning Agaynste Woldes” poem by Zachary Bos

As the title suggests, this poem has an Old Shakespeare tone. It is cryptic like the previous poem. It conveys that nature, and its forests, are a type of temple or church. Be wary of entering the forest, since it is full of fear, faith, and spirits.

7) “The Skull of Ghosts” by Charles Gramlich

Confession: I’m a huge Gramlich fan and frequently seek out his Krieg stories (I interviewed him for Black Gate in 2019, and we discussed his Krieg character). Here the sorcerer-warrior receives a haunting call from “Amma”, so he seeks out his old acquaintance (of the same name) in a plagued city. An evil sorcerer is seeking bodies to possess, and as Krieg starts to put an end to the madness, he learns he’s jumped into a trap.

Krieg slipped to one side, caught the swordman’s hand and twisted. A raw shriek burst from the man’s lips; bones ground audibly together as his blade turned inevitably upward to point at his face.

The assailant’s hood fell back, revealing swarthy skin marked by plague skulls. A topknot of greasy reddish hair invited a hold. Krieg grabbed it, slammed the man’s face forward onto the sword. Once, twice, thrice. Wiping his hand on the man’s cloak, the black-eyed warrior let the body fall like a burden he’d grown tired of… (p87)


8) “The Headsman’s Melancholy” by Joseph Andre Thomas

This could easily be a Twilight Zone episode written by Edgar Allen Poe. Executioner Jack meets a robber multiple times on the chopping block. Written as a series of journal entries. The ending is emotive, and a bit abstract, as Jack seeks peace by stopping his profession, leaving town, or pursuing other options. Loved this.

The man screeched laughter as he eviscerated himself, His blood poured down my face, into my mouth. It seeped between my teeth and beneath my tongue.

I screamed.

His smile was no longer cocky, but overjoyed. He reached into his chest cavity and grabbed hold of something, pulled it out. His heart, I realized, still attached to whatever tubes and capillaries govern the viscera. He hung it out above me with one hand… (p129)


Monday, May 29, 2023

Old Moon Quarterly Vol III - Review by SE

 Old Moon Quarterly Vol III — Winter (119p, March, 2023). Cover by Daniel Vega.


Old Moon Quarterly is a magazine of weird sword-and-sorcery fantasy. In the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, Tanith Lee and Karl Edward Wagner, it contains stories of strange vistas, eldritch beings, and the bloody dispute thereof by swordsmen and swordswomen both.

Old Moon Quarterly emerged in 2022. This reviews the four stories inside the Winter 2023 issue (Vol III), which delivers solid doses of the weird adventure it promises. The Editor-in-Chief is Julian Barona, flanked by Assistant Editors Caitlyn Emily Wilcox and Graham Thomas Wilcox (who recently debuted here on Black Gate with his review of John Langan's Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, so I gleefully checked this out).  Excerpts best convey the style and elements of what to expect, so you'll get those here!

Vol III Contents:

  • "Evil Honey" by James Enge.
  • "Knife, Lace, Prayer" by T.R. Siebert.
  • "Singing the Long Retreat" by R.K. Duncan.
  • "The Feast of Saint Ottmer" by Graham Thomas Wilcox.
  • A review of Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, edited by Ellen Datlow.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths - review by S


The Citadel of Forgotten Myths by Michael Moorcock
SE rating: 4 of 5 stars

This extension to the Elric saga is okay.

New to Elric? Don't start here. Start with the Elric of Melniboné (1972).

There are three books within The Citadel of Forgotten Myths, the first two being short stories that appeared elsewhere; revised versions of these are the best parts of this. In all parts, Moonglum travels with Elric to the World Above, a parallel realm where Melnibonean ancestry persists.

Part 1: based on Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery 2010's "Red Pearls: An Elric Story"

Part 2: based on Weird Tales 349 - 85th Anniversary Issue #349 2008's "Black Petals" (Elric novella)

These both have action, wild bits of over-the-top fantastical magic, and a decent dose of expanded lore. We get to learn more about the Phoorn (dragon relatives of Meniboné too). These are five stars....

Part 3: And...the disappointing Third itself a 3-star (at best):

The third Book admittedly has a nice outline/scope with Arioch not responding when summoned, Xiombarg stirring up major trouble with Dyvim Marluc (introduced in the first stories); a cool bee-hive driven city called Karlaak that mirrors Elric's original city plays a major role.

But the delivery is terrible.

It is mostly exposition (all telling, little-to-no showing). It reads like an outline full of info dumps.

There are more exclamation marks than periods (I didn't count them, but that statement is close to being accurate). It is truly bizarre to read! Really it is! Almost comical! Eh gad!

Also, there is some forced romance? noble-blood incest? It comes across as just silly. Elric has some nice flashbacks regarding his first love Cymoril and his second (Zarozinia, who is still alive during this adventure into other worlds). Here, Elric feels like it is still "ok" to court a young, female Melnibonean noblewoman despite his genuine love for his other wives. I guess Zarozinia is cool with an open relationship, and Cymoril has long since passed. Anyway, the relationship falls flat/weird, and is not even developed well. I was reminded of Moorcock's weird, misogynistic entry for Ghor, Kin Slayer: The Saga of Genseric's Fifth Born Son.

Oh, then there is Orlando Funk. That is not a typo. Minus the "o" we have Orland_ Funk, who is one of Moorcock's heroes from his Runestaff series; this is the same dude. Moorcock loves weird cross overs.... but here Mr. Orlando comes across (at least to me, who was not aware of the character before) as a time-traveling, Floridian (i.e., from Orlando) who might as well have been wearing bell-bottom jeans. Every time I read his name, I had Bruno Mars' "uptown Funk" song trigger in my head. Orlando's presence added more silliness than it did mind-blowing plot twists.

Elric along with his companion Moonglum return, in this prequel set within the early days of Elric’s wanderings, in order to investigate the history of Melniboné and its dragons, known as the Phroon, in this exciting new addition to the Elric Saga from World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Michael Moorcock.

Elric is the estranged emperor of the Melnibonéan empire, struggling with his nature while desperately striving to move forward with his dying empire alongside the constant thirst of his soul-sucking sword, Stormbringer. Elric is on the hunt for the great Citadel of Forgotten Myths while traveling through the remnants of his empire with his tragic best friend Moonglum, as Elric seeks the answers to the nature of the phroon of The Young Kingdoms. Taking place between the first and second book in the Elric Saga, The Citadel of Forgotten Myths is perfect for longtime fans and those new to this epic fantasy series.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Servants of War by Correia and Diamond - Review by SE

Review originally posted on Black Gate:


Cover blurbs used by Baen!

Servants of War by Larry Correia and Steve Diamond (Baen Books, 2022. 424pages).

 Cover art by Alan Pollack

Veteran fantasy readers may yawn if they hear about an epic fantasy about a farm boy in a remote village rising to power, and the first few pages of Servants of War dangles that trope before readers. And then horror rushes in like a tidal wave, and before Chapter 1 can end, the worn trope is burning with hellfire billowing alchemical smoke, a Grimdark spirit rises out of the book to slap the reader in the face, crank the head back, and pour gasoline-action down a thirsty throat.

Welcome to Servants of War.

The combination of military-fantasy veteran Larry Correria with horror-guru Steve Diamond promises “military fantasy with horror” and you’ll get trenches full of that. Baen released this masterpiece that opens The Age of Ravens series in hardcover and audiobook in March 2022; the paperback is due February 2023. Without spoiling, this post covers a summary, excerpts, and a small hint as to the forthcoming sequel.



The war between Almacia and the Empire of Kolakolvia is in its hundredth year. Casualties grow on both sides as the conflict leaves no corner of the world untouched.

Illarion Glaskov’s quiet life on the fringes of the empire is thrown into chaos when an impossible tragedy strikes his village. When he is conscripted into the Tsarist military, he is sent to serve in The Wall — an elite regiment that pilots suits of armor made from the husks of dead golems.
But the great war is not the only — or even the worst — danger facing Illarion, as he is caught in a millennia-old conflict between two goddesses. He must survive the ravages of trench warfare, horrific monsters from another world, and the treacherous internal politics of the country he serves.


The setting resembles an alternative earth on the Eurasia continent. A never-ending war continues between the Almacian state (West) and the Kolakolvia (East); cities and named battle zones resonate with pseudo-Eastern European flare: Rolmani, Praja, Transellia. Both sides disrespect (or forsake) the old ways and religions which are explicitly and overtly present, albeit repressed. Golems, ghouls, and blood storms haunt both armies. The clearest sacrilege is the repurposing of golem bodies to make Objects, the name for the mechanized war-suits Kolakolvia employs (how else can one defile another species than to tap its magical potential while playing in their corpses?). In short, there are three conflicting entities: the East, the West, and the Others. Each is manipulated by a Sister goddess. The variety of conflicts keeps this interesting, expect: human vs human; state vs state; human vs. state; and heroes vs supernatural.

If a dystopian, war-ravaged alternative earth feels too familiar, don’t worry. You’ll be salivating for a trip to an even darker realm, and you’ll get that too. That jolt reminded me of the beauty of the Silent Hill games in which players experience a terrifying ghost-town for a while until an air siren blares, paint peels off walls, Hell arrives, and players yearn to find a way back to the relative safety of the ghost-town.

Stylistically, this felt like a mashup of Warhammer’s gritty sci-fi battles, with Silent Hill’s weird world-building and exploration-of-Hells, with the demon-confronting Solomon Kane leading the sorties. Somehow the warfare was never portrayed as a giant chess board; instead, the combat was intimate, frontline adventure. Localized views of battle felt like episodes of Sword & Sorcery focused on the hero(ine). I kept thinking, this is what I’d expect if Mary Shelly teamed up with Robert E. Howard to rewrite Frankenstein for BattleTech fans.


One didn’t think about war and politics when you had a mill to run, cows to tend, and crops to plant. The greatest question in Ilyushka every year had been how deep would the ground freeze? – Illarion character’s thoughts

Humans are just the puppets of the Three Sisters, but they comprise the titular servants of war. You’ll be rooting for them in a heartbeat. There are many characters, but the primary ones are below. Their paths intertwine, of course, as some become comrades and others enemies.

• Illarion Glazkov – a farm boy who evolves into an awesome soldier; he’s trailed by ravens as he seeks atonement
• Scout Specialist Natalya Baston (once in the 17th Sniper Division) – she’s an outstanding rogue motivated to free her family
• Arnost Chankov – a ghoul-tattooed, low-ranking officer over Illarion
• Oprichnik Kristoph Vals – Secret Service Agent under Chancellor and Tsar of Kolakolvia – no one can trust this guy, and all fear crossing him
• Amos Lowe – a mysterious prisoner seeking to remain anonymous and lost

EXCERPTS Reveal What to Expect

Mechanized Melee:
…More soldiers rushed out of the fog, swarming his legs. The hatch rattled as soldiers tried to pry it open. If they got that open he’d end up a red, oozing skeleton like the last pilot he’d seen.
Only Illarion’s Object did not react in the lumbering, clumsy fashion they’d come to expect. He brought the empty cannon barrel down on the head of one, crushing his skull and snapping his spine. Inside the coffin of rapidly dwindling air, Illarion twisted the controls. 12 spun and kicked. Frail bodies were crushed underfoot. Instinctively, he crouched as low as the braces around his legs allowed, then launched his body up. He’d never seen anyone jump in the suits before, and didn’t know if it was at all possible, be he had to try something.

12 was briefly airborne. The ground shook when he landed, and most of the soldiers were thrown free. He stomped down, popping skulls and driving bodies deep into the mud. A punch from his gun arm caved in a chest. A sweep of his halberd cut three bodies into six pieces. The last man hanging onto the latches was hurled free, but unfortunately for him, he left one of his gloves behind. He hit the ground, flesh already smoking, and quickly tried to bury his hand in the mud to save it. Illarion would’ve killed him, but that would’ve taken another second or two worth of air….

Horrors of War, Confronting Weird Creatures:
The doors were being torn to splinters. Kristoph watched, fascinated and appalled, as a monstrous head snapped through a window and bit off a trencher’s face off. A scorpion tail, but big around as his arm, zipped through a window lightning quick and stabbed another soldier in the chest. He fell near Kristoph’s feet. Kicking and twitching.

Kristoph looked up to see the monster trying to squeeze through the gap nearest him, despite two other soldiers spearing it with their bayonets. Somehow, its body was still slick and pale, as if the blood snow slid right off. Jaws snapped at him. Spittle hit him. Kristoph aimed his pistol and shot through the gap, and another immediately took its place.

As he looked down to reload, the man who had been stung was grasping at Kristoph’s boots. It was hard to understand him, with all the foam coming out of his mouth, but Kristoph suspected he was begging for a quick and merciful death. Anything to be spared the torture of this poison. It was so piteous that even Kristoph was tempted to aid him, but he might need the ammo, so he kicked the dying man’s hand away….

NEED MORE OF The Age of Ravens?

Noir Fatale, an anthology edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell (Baen, 2019), has a prequel to Servants of War called “The Privileges of Violence” by Steve Diamond. It’s a grim homage to the Maltese Falcon featuring at least three of the same characters. Highly recommended.

Servants of War focused on the machinations of two of the three Sisters. Subsequent books promise to highlight the remaining goddess as all the servants of war resolve their tension with the Tsar of Kolakolvia and the Sisters. Book 2 in The Age of Ravens is forthcoming and has a tentative title of Instruments of Violence.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Skallagrim- In the Vales of Pagarna: Review by SE


Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna (Hidden Crown Press, 373 pages; Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, March 2022). Cover by Walking of Sky Tree

Experience Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna by Stephen R. Babb in all its forms. This post covers everything to get you hooked, from a summary, review, excerpts, and links to the complementing albums from Glass Hammer. Reading Skallagrim feels like you are a witness to the live version of Frazetta’s “Against the Gods” painting! You actually witness a hero grab a sword from the sky.

The opening scene poses a set of mysteries as the titular protagonist is brutally attacked in the streets of Archon, the Dreaming City. He loses his memory during the struggle, by wounds or sorcery, so the hero and the reader want to know: Why Skallagrim in a melee? Who is he, really? Why does he feel protective over a maiden kidnapped during the conflict? Why are multiple sorcerers after him? Why the hell can he grab a sentient, screaming sword that materializes from a sudden storm?

The rest of the book unravels these questions, as Skallagrim races against time to save the mystery maiden. He’ll wrestle with eldritch, chthonic creatures, a herd of ghouls, a few necromancers, and an assassin. As Skallagrim unearths the weird history of Andorath’s Southern Region, we get to learn about it as he battles. The book stands alone, but did you know that Stephen R. Babb has been a progressive rocker and theatrical-album-leader for thirty years (more on Glass Hammer below!). Poems and lyrics infuse the prose. For the full effect, readers should listen to the complementary Skallagrim albums. These are not Audio Books. These are thematic rock sets chronicling Skallagrim’s heroic journey.  Embedded below are the opening songs to (1) and (2).  Listen to these!  Babb is creating a rich world here.

Want to learn more about the creation of Skallagrim’s world? Check out Oliver Brackenbury’s recent interview with the author on his podcast So I’m Writing a Novel Interview (Aug 22 2022). Babb reveals his influences, from Tolkien, Dunsany, and RE Howard, and discusses how music informs writing (and vice versa). Listening to this I learned that Skallagrim’s world actually catalyzed in Glass Hammer’s 2005 album The Inconsolable Secret (which has tracks called Lirazel, Mog Ruith!), which then inspired the epic poem Lay of Lirazel (2014). To know why those matter, you’ll have to read the book.

Skallagrim: In the Vales of Pagarna reads fast and blends the Sword & Sorcery style (action-heavy, focused on a lone hero) with an epic tale (novel form, save-the-world in addition to save-yourself motivations).  Plenty of call-outs and imagery evoke S&S influences, most obviously, a sorcerous city full of towers called the “Archon the Dreaming City” (that echoes Elric’s home of Melniboné) and the sentient “screaming” sword Terminus (that feels like a cousin of Stormbringer). In any event, Skallagrim is more of its own tale than it is a homage to its dark fantasy roots. Information flow is deceptively well placed; one of my favorite chapters was halfway through the novel because it revealed why Skallagrim’s nickname was Quickhands.

The cover blurb below is a splendid summary; below that are excerpts and embedded samples of the music.

Book Blurb

Skallagrim wakes in the middle of a fight for his life with only the vaguest idea of who he is. Facing an angry mob of murderous cutthroats, he watches helplessly while the love of his life is abducted before his eyes. Finally, with a crushing sense of despair, he realizes he’s going to die without even knowing her name.

But he doesn’t die.

To find the girl and take his revenge upon the fiend who took her, Skallagrim, wounded and exhausted, must endure a journey like no other. He’ll face madmen, ghouls, tentacled horrors, and witches, both foul and fair, as he races toward a final showdown that will have readers on the edge of their seats.

An awe-inspiring tale of adventure, triumph, and tragedy, set in a brutal, unforgiving wilderness and packed with heart-stopping action, Skallagrim – In The Vales Of Pagarna marks the first installment of an outstanding new series.

Illustrations from the CDs by Luke Eidenschink; Steve Babb snapshot from Youtube

Excerpts Reveal What to Expect

Weird settings

The forest was weirdly beautiful in a somber, funereal way, like a colossal mausoleum whose joyless vaults were supported by interwoven columns, their vast, mournful chambers hollowed out by the hands of giants. There was a certain thrill to walking in that place with its cool air and ancient trees whose limbs trailed moss like great sweeping beards of grey.

Bloody Action

…geysers of black water shot into the air from a hundred places at once. The plumes sparkled in the weird, flickering light, then seemed to cascade in slow motion in a myriad of diamond-like droplets. From the point at which each geyser had sprung, writhing tentacles sprouted—fiendish bouquets resembling Devil’s Fingers fungus… one such arm, slick and smelly with a coating of gleba, whipped the water directly in front of Skallagrim. He did not remember drawing Terminus, but the sentient sword was in his hand. He swept the blade low, severing the tentacle from the submerged, suberumpent egg from which it had burst. An immediate release or explosion of spores caught Skallagrim off guard, and he coughed painfully—his throat inflamed….

The Albums

#1 Skallagrim: Dreaming City album – opening titular track

#2  Skallagrim: Intro the Breach album (2020) : “He’s Got a Girl” and “Anthem to Andorath”

#3 Due out Oct 2023 (preorder now), Skallagrim: At the Gate (teaser trailer)

Glass Hammer

Glass Hammer is an American progressive rock band from Chattanooga, Tennessee, created and led by Steve Babb and Fred Schendel. Babb and Schendel, who founded the band in 1992, are the only constant members in the lineup, having surrounded themselves by various guest performers

  • Fred Schendel – keyboards, guitars, backing vocals (1992–present), lead vocals (1992-2004, 2015–present), drums (1992-2004)
  • Steve Babb – bass, keyboards, backing vocals (1992–present), lead vocals (1992-2004, 2016–present), percussion (1992-2004)
  • Aaron Raulston – drums (2013–present)
  • Hannah Pryor – lead vocals (2021–present)

Stephen R. Babb (a.k.a. Steve) Bio

First off, he prefers “Steve” to “Stephen.” Now that that’s out of the way…

He’s best known as the bassist and co-writer for the prog-rock group Glass Hammer. A professional musician for most of his life, he started at the age of twelve as a church pianist. Since then, he has traveled the US and a handful of other countries in various bands.

Glass Hammer, which he founded, has received critical acclaim for their twenty-one studio albums, headlined major festivals, and have become one of the most respected bands of the progressive rock genre.

In 1990, he had the good sense to marry the right girl, come home from the road, settle down and start a business. Since then, he has busied himself in the production of numerous albums for songwriters, the recording of audiobooks, and in the day-to-day tasks required to operate a recording studio while maintaining the persona of prog-rock star, prolific songwriter, and lyricist. This last bit, he enjoys to the fullest.

In 2005 he penned the epic poem, The Lay Of Lirazel, which was published in 2014. For that effort he was honored with The Imperishable Flame Award by The North East Tolkien Society.