Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gramlich's Swords of Talera - Review by SE

Swords of Talera: Book One of the Talera CycleSwords of Talera: Book One of the Talera Cycle by Charles Allen Gramlich
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun “Sword & Planet” adventure. Get svelte, escape to Talera.

I first discovered Charles Allen Gramlich via his poetic Sword & Sorcery books (highly recommended): Bitter Steel: Tales and Poems of Epic Fantasy and Harvest of War. Being biased toward weird adventure on “earth,” I was inspired to branch out slightly because of the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group's groupread for May-June 2014, the theme being “Sword & Planet.” Being a fan of Gramlich, this was a prime time to try out his Talera Cycle. If you ask the author why he should read it, he’ll reveal his humorous side (taken from his Facebook page):
"Dr. Charles Gramlich, professor of psychology at a prominent New Orleans University, has made the extraordinary claim that reading the three books of the Talera fantasy series, Swords of Talera, Wings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera, will actually help you lose weight and maintain a svelte figure. Gramlich says that, “those who read the slender volumes of the Talera series, which are quick and exciting stories, develop a speedier metabolism, allowing them to burn calories more quickly. This effect lingers for weeks after the books are finished,” he adds, “and can easily be prolonged further by consuming another book by the same author.” When asked whether that author, Charles ‘Allen’ Gramlich, was any relation, Dr. Gramlich abruptly yelled “Fire” and left the room."
Even though Swords of Talera: Book One of the Talera Cycle is not explicitly comedic, it does present pulp adventure with a dose of old-school “cheese” sprinkled atop weird milieu and tons of melee. It is a homeage the Sword & Planet subgenre initiated by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early 1900’s with John Carter, and has all the tropes fans of the subgenre would demand: a man from the early 1900’s gets transported from earth to a strange planet; he can occasionally revisit earth; he manages to quickly converse with many aliens, lead armies, and free a maiden in distress.

Gramlich’s “Carter” is a 1914 sea merchant captain named Ruenn Maclang, whose arrogance and decisive leadership will remind readers of Indiana Jones. He gets transported to Talera mysteriously along with his crew, though he gets separated and strives to find his fellow earthlings. He is met by many humanoid aliens embroiled in slave-trade and war. Maclang becomes infatuated with a maiden in distress, and shallow-romantic interactions with her are intermittent. A sidebar on the technological history behind the mysterious Planet/Land Talera was distinctly cheezy sci-fi, but was not explored in depth in this first installment. There are continuous combat scenes, adequately fulfilling the “Sword” requirement for “Swords & Planet.” What I enjoyed most about this adventure was Gramlich’s poetic side, that creeps into every chapter. Check out these Excerpts:

Beautiful Battles
"…Heril leaped forward, swinging an axe over his head. The beast commander caught the stroke on his shield but the blow drove him to his knees. He surged up, hurling Heril back, and lashed out with his own axe. I watched Heril leap away and then saw no more of them as the beach exploded into motion.

War cries tore the sky. Steel whistled through air and rang on steel, or thunked into soft flesh. Men screamed with the impact and went down hard. Blood clotted the sand and stained the bright swords with ugliness.

Numbers were on our side and our first charge carried the Klar back. They recovered and held. Bodies piled up. Men stumbled over the dead and few who went down were given the chance to rise again. Axes and swords lifted and fell, came away drawing screams or soft sighs of death. Our enemies were cold and disciplined, but so too were Jedik’s men, and the slaves were hot with anger. It was that passion which finally broke the Klar line. But we paid for it in blood."

Weird Ambience
“A bass throbbing rose and fell with each pulse of emerald light, and over the vibration lay the screams of my men, crawling up the scale until their voices teetered on the edge of soundlessness. Then the screams were gone and the cold, verdant fire went with them.”

“The thing’s body was human-like but it was not a man. Its flesh gleamed an iridescent green and gold; scales covered it like armor. A broad, thick tail stretched away into the gray fog behind it. The creature’s face was an abomination, calling up visions of fallen angels burning centuries in hell. The eyes shone flat and stone blue, without whites. Two slits gashed the face where the nose should have been and the mouth below glistened wide and red, lined with yellowed fangs. Large vanes, like the wings of bats, extended from either side of the beast’s head, fluttering with each harsh breath it drew.”

“The lorn wind blew about the volcanic peak, playing dirges in the empty lava funnels. Both beauty and pain lived in that wind, and the drifting ghosts of ancient memories.”
Testimonial: I lost 3 pounds in just one week reading Swords of Talera! To stay with my weight maintenance program, I’ll continue with Wings Over Talera:Book Two of the Talera Cycle, and Witch of Talera.


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Friday, May 9, 2014

Barczak's Veil of the Dragon - Review by S.E.

Veil of the DragonVeil of the Dragon by Tom Barczak
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…all seemed like a ghost that he could scarcely remember…”

There is a lot to like in Tom Barczak’s Veil of the Dragon. Barczak is an artist/architect who delivers a splendid adventure with interesting characters, a beautiful style, and a haunting medieval setting. Veil of the Dragon is well-done, angelic warfare. Occasional sketches by the author are a nice touch, but they are not finished or abundant enough to affect the read. Barczak’s dreamy style carries the story well enough on its own (see excerpts below). Expect a poetic read, with lots of combat with demons, ghosts, and angels.

The two primary characters are neatly designed and paired: “Al-Aaron”, a young priest-warrior, serves as a teacher of sorts to the older “Chaelus,” a prince dragged into a battle for redemption. The child leads the adult in a believable, interesting way. They battle a disembodied evil (the titular Dragon), and those it has corrupted: the wraith-like Remnants. Chaelus is haunted by a former love, the loss of a mother, and a deadly relationship with his father.

Christianity is not overtly identified, but readers will detect its influence given the inclusion of:
  1. Ever present themes of redemption
  2. Lots of resurrection
  3. A magic system based on blind faith
  4. A medieval milieu with priest-warriors (Crusaders): these are the white robed, chain mailed Servian Knights, adorned with red, prostrate crosses on their chests. They are equipped with cloth covered swords and vowed to use their weapons only against intangible demons
  5. Angelic warfare between a merciful Creator/Giver and a Dragon/Serpent who assumes shadowy form that can poison souls (arguably a more effective dark-force than Tolkien’s Sauron)
Keeping this nice work from a 5-star rating is its unique strength: the dreamy style was so constant and intense that I often got lost in the trips. As a reader I really felt the character’s struggle to discern reality from fantasy: “…all seemed like a ghost that he could scarcely remember…” An overabundance of the following words proved distracting: veil, shadow, azure flame, cenotaph, and happas. Veil of the Dragon offers more than it can resolve in one novel, which should motivate readers to track down the prequels (Awakening Evarun, a serial of six parts). I look forward to reading more artsy, grim Sword & Sorcery from Barczak.

EXCERPTS:

Ethereal Haunts
"Behind him, a bitter sigh resounded through the bent and broken wood. The forest was speaking. Behind him, the path he’d only just cleared had gone. From the trees, shadows bled like oil, folding down amidst the branches.”

“His breath held like a vapor. The Dragon’s whisper splintered across the frozen air.”

“The stones trembled as they changed, melting away like ice upon spring water. The passage closed in ahead of him.”

"Illuminating from beneath the water like a fallen angel, ghostlike in her glow, a girl child lay drawn in upon herself. Her head was shaven and her skin was bare. Ebony spandrels laced out from the black spots that covered her. Her lips moved faintly upon her upturned face. Her gray eyes flickered. A shadow turned in the water beside her, matching the one within.”
Demonic Creatures:
"The spirits’ breath hung like a black vapor in tendrils about them. Armored veils hid all but the abyss of their eyes. Beneath them, their acrid laughter shrilled out amidst the grinding clatter of their teeth. Yet it wasn’t laughter. No; it was a desperate sound, one of anticipation, the kind that a starving cur utters for carrion."

"The demons drew closer beyond the wall of shadow, their armored veils now torn aside. The terror of their empty eyes was bettered only by their ghoulish maws beneath, filled with beast-like teeth meant for the consumption of souls, the corpses of the Khaalish, torn and cast away beneath them. Unsated, they howled at the ones who had retreated from them."

"…a black and bloodied claw emerged, grasping at its edge. Sand clung to its wet, skinless flesh. The creature pulled its body up, pushing its way past the heavy bones that had caged it. It clambered until it stood, stooped and broken, naked in the rawness of its gray flesh.”

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sword and Planet - Groupread Topic for May June 2014

Sword and Planet Group Read 2014

Sword & Planet

May-June Groupread is "Sword and Planet": Only one topic for the next two months,  but it is a big one! Please join us (any sci-fi adventure with swords will suffice).

Discussion Link (click and join): https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/... 

Banner: Enjoy the mashup of  Frank Frazetta's version of John Carter and Barsoom (drawn from below coverart)!
Thuvia, Maid of Mars / The Chessmen of Mars
A Princess of Mars
The Gods of Mars / The Warlord of Mars
The Mastermind of Mars and A Fighting Man of Mars

Testament: The Life and Art of Frank Frazetta

Thuvia, Maid of Mars / The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom, #4-5) The Mastermind of Mars and A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom, #6-7) Testament  The Life and Art of Frank Frazetta

Background elements from:
A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1) The Gods of Mars / The Warlord of Mars (Barsoom, #2-3) 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Barbazul (Bluebeard 2012) Movie Review by S.E.

bluebeard poster 2012
7/10 Stars. Review by S.E. (on IMDB.com)

Recommended for (1) mature audiences who (2) enjoy literary, paced horror (with healthy doses of disturbing erotica):  This graphic tale aims to disturb in elegant fashion. Note firstly that the script is an adaption of a classic fairy tale La Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard, 1697) by Charles Perrault. Most folks in 2014 in the USA will not recognize his name, but he authored many famous tales translated to the movie screen (i.e.,Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and The Sleeping Beauty). Here, Bluebeard tells the story of a wealthy aristocrat who kills his many fiancees.

Beautiful Serial Killing: Bluebeard appropriately plays like the Sweeney Todd play. Viewers watch as victim after victim are taken to Barbazul’s remote plantation to suffer an unsuspecting death. The pacing is measured; the music and strange situations carry the film. The beautiful remote setting and filming was reminiscent of the cinematography of the Coen Brother’s Fargo (1996) and Stanley Kubrick’s rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980).  About ~10 minutes could have been shaved off the first third without lessening anything, so impatient viewers may lose interest.

The acting, writing, casting, and filming were all well done. The music score did overwhelm voices at times (at least on the version I streamed); however, despite the writing being good enough to listen to, the occasional dimmed conversation didn't detract from the film.  For one, I was reading the subtitles anyway.  Also, the acting is clear enough that this could have been presented as a silent movie (keeping the wondrous soundtrack of course).
Each victim arguable has more character depth than the titular Barbazul. They all have some artistic bent (poor model, mature model, singer, writer, museum goer), which reinforces the artistic nature of the film. Each death is intimately, and vividly, captured at length.  Despite the cruel nature of the deaths, and the copious amounts of exposed flesh, the “blood and gore” was kept at minimal levels; in short, the murders are done tastefully. The beauty of each woman is torturously lost as viewers become voyeurs to fatal sex. Bizarre, really.

Excerpt: Creating horror with beauty is a tough task, yet screen writer Amy Hesketh (also Director and actress for Jane) seems to reveal the movie’s core theme explicitly:
Barbazul: So, do you enjoy modelling? 
Annabelle: I am enjoying the fact that I am still beautiful. I love taking photos, looking at my photos. It’s something that will last forever. It’s artistic as well.Using your body, knowing how to move, knowing yourself. To understand your own beauty is…not that easy…
Art Horror: The film crew at Pachamama Films have made a series of complex horror films, each being unapologetic about graphically killing naked women. Yet they aim to keep rooted in history or classic literary works, and they take their craft seriously. Somehow they present loads of erotic horror in a beautiful way; that is a stunning balancing act. I look forward to their film currently in production called "Olalla," which is based off of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story (Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.) That tale originally featured an English soldier recovering from battle wounds when he falls in love with a woman who belongs to a mysterious vampiric family. Can’t wait to see the Pachamama adaptation of Olalla.

Availability (2014, US): DVD’s in the US run ~$35; buying a streamable version from Amazon is ~$20. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Gate of Ivrel - Cherryh's Morgaine Heroine reviewed by S.E.

Gate of Ivrel (Morgaine Saga, #1)Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sword & Sorceress Adventure– Morgaine rivals Elric with her dragon blade
This reviews Gate of Ivrel, which I read as part of the The Morgaine Saga which was DAW’s 2000 omnibus of C.J. Cherryh Sword & Sorcery trilogy (1. Gate of Ivrel 1976; 2.Well of Shiuan 1978; 3. Fires of Azeroth 1979). There is a fourth book Exile's Gate written in 1988. Actually, this is my first C.J. Cherryh novel and I was impressed (Gate of Ivrel was her first published work, and it is quite good).

Morgaine is reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, since she is a doomed hero, traveling through interstellar space with a dragon-cursed sword that sucks souls (Morgaine’s blade Changeling is almost kin to Elric’s Stormbringer). There are Sci-Fiction elements to this that are kept obscure enough that it reads as pure fantasy (everything scientific appears as magic).

Morgaine’s charge is to destroy alien Gates, which allow for travel between time and universes; for those who want to stay put, the “witchfires” of the Gates fuel sorcery and extended lives. We quickly learn that she was imprisoned hundreds of years before the start of the story as she lost an epic battle with the evil magician Thiye. He apparently still lives (via said sorcery):
"...Carcasses were found near [the Gate of Ivrel], things impossible, abortions of Thiye’s art, some almost formless and baneful to the touch, and others of forms so fantastical that none would imagine what aspect the living beast had had."

Strangely Thiye does not emerge for most of this novel. Instead there are compelling "new" threats from a host of others (some in relation to Vanye), and the book is full of magical clashes in which Changeling obliterates souls! It may be "her" saga, but book one introduces her through her male companion Vanye, an outcast bastard prince. The story arc for Book 1 belongs to him. Vanye becomes her servant after he releases her from a magical prison, and so the two enter an uneasy pairing. They make a good team, but trust comes slowly as Vanye enables Morgaine to confront those supporting the Gate:

"Morgaine was supremely beautiful …when he saw her in that hall, her pale head like a blaze of sun in that darkness, her slim form elegant in tgihio and bearing the dragon blade with the grace of one who could truly use it, an odd vision came to him: he saw like a fever-dream a nest of corruption with one gliding serpent among the scuttling lesser creatures—more evil than they, more deadly, and infinitely beautiful, reared up among hem and hypnotizing with basilisk eyes, death dreaming death and smiling.”

Great stuff. I expect the rest of the trilogy to flesh-out Morgaine’s character (otherwise it should be renamed Vanye’s saga). The ending was fine, but I was left questioning the direction a bit (I’ll hide that in a spoiler twistee on Goodreads.com (link).


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel - Review by S.E. and E.E.

Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper NovelSword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel by Tara Cardinal
Overall rating: 4 of 5
(Avg. of S.E.L's rating: 3 of 5 stars  ... E.E.L's daughter's Rating 5 of 5)

YA Adventure: 'Coming of Age' of a 'Chick-in-Chainmail' 

Sword Sisters is a tale of Aella, a snarky, special teenager who starts exploring her independence. She may not wear chain mail, but her attitude fits that of the stereotypical chick-in-chainmail (Aella resembles author Tara Cardinal in appearance, which happens to reflect that of red-haired warriors of the Sword & Sorcery genre: Agnes de Chastillon, Red Sonja, and Jirel of Joiry). Tara Cardinal is the key force behind a “Red Reaper” franchise, this novel Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel serves a prequel to the Legend of the Red Reaper (video trailer link) movie which she directed, wrote, and acted as the major star. The movie has opened in select markets a month after the book was released (movie available via many streaming and online retailers April 2014.).
Tara Cardinal is motivated to expand the Sword & Sorcery audience by making it more appealing for younger females, and she is succeeding. 

This book was co-authored by Alex Bledsoe, who contributed to another Rogue Blades Entertainment work: Writing Fantasy Heroes. Rogue Blades Entertainment’s library (i.e., Rage of the Behemoth, and Return of the Sword) had focused on anthologies tailored for an adult audience, so this novel presents a slight departure into a new market (Young Adult, not-anthology). Having read the aforementioned RBE works, I would not recommend this to their historic audience, unless they happened to also identify with & enjoy YA fare.

This review combines 2 perspectives: (1) an adult male, dark fantasy reader (me), and (2) a young adult fantasy reader (my teenage daughter).

Old Man Perspective: Other than featuring a belligerent, young heroine, this book sticks to many of the tropes & clich├ęs of any coming-of-age fantasy novel. Conflict is consistently deflated with adolescent humor, juvenile idioms, or Aella's giggles. There are hints of mature content that are never developed: the basis of Aella's powers stems from demons raping human females, however, explicit sex or sexual violence never presents itself. The prose could be considered `mature,' since copious cursing & cussing peppers the text (as a teenager learning the art of "adult" language would speak).


Young Adult Perspective: Since I was not the target audience, my teenage daughter was enlisted. She enjoyed it better. Her thoughts: "Aella, last of the Reapers (half-human and half-demon), is a witty, humorous, well-rounded character whom you can't help but love. Told from the first-person point of view, you really get to see Aella's character and motivation. Being a teenager myself, I defiantly enjoyed this. Plan on having time to sit down and read the whole book in one sitting, because once you pick it up it's hard to put down. I hope there's more to read in the future :)"

Sword Sisters Book cover  Legend of the Red Reaper movie poster


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