Category Archives: sword and sorcery

Introducing Andrasta and Rondel

Cult of SutekThe Cult of Sutek: The Epic of Andrasta and Rondel vol.1
Joshua P. Simon
ebook $2.99 (free on Smashwords as of this writing)
paper $11.99

Joshua P. Simon has proven himself to be a consistent writer of solid, character driven fantasy adventure. His Blood and Tears Trilogy (reviewed here, here, here, and here, interviewed here) was one of my favorite epic fantasy series of the last few years.

Now he’s turned his hand to a story that’s smaller in scope and more personal in nature, the sword and sorcery series he’s calling The Epic of Adnrasta and Rondel.

Andrasta is a woman from a distant country, a warrior who is out to steal a jewel in the Tower of Bashan. Rondel is a minstrel who got caught in the wrong bedroom. They meet in a dungeon when Andrasta is thrown in Rondel’s cell. Of course they escape, and shortly thereafter rescue a young woman named Dendera who turns out to be the daughter of a king. Since Rondel knew the king from his minstrel days, they return her home, hoping for a reward to finance their jewel heist.

Unfortunately, the Cult of Sutek is staging a comeback. They believe in human sacrifice and practice cannibalism. Not the sort of folks you want moving in down the block. Continue reading

A Review of The Scroll of Years

ScrollofYearsThe Scroll of Years
Chris Willrich
Pyr Books
Trade paper $15.95 US $17.00 Canada
Ebook $11.99
Amazon  B&N Indie Bound

A Scroll of Years is the first novel about thief Imago Bone and poet Persimmon Gaunt. The pair have appeared in 5 short stories to date, and the first is included in this volume. Somehow this series has managed to fly under my radar. That’s something I’m going to need to fix. Looking at Willrich’s website, I may have read one or two but didn’t realize they were part of a series.

Anyway, Bone and a pregnant Gaunt are fleeing from Night’s Auditors. They are a pair of hit men who don’t merely kill their victims. In essence they steal their victims’ souls. They’re a pair of nasty dudes, and they have a dragon working for them. One of them controls a fire spirit. The other has a mirror embedded in his forehead which shows all possible things his victim might do. These guys are hard to kill, and they don’t give up easily.

Gaunt and Bone flee across the ocean to a land much like Imperial China. Gaunt has a mark forming on her belly that resembles two dragons. It’s a sign that the child she carries is someone a lot of powerful people want to get their hands on. Gaunt and Bone are going to need all the allies they can get.

The writing is rich and subtle, and Gaunt and Bone are foremost of a cast of delightfully flawed characters. Some fantasy novels are like a tankard of ale, intended to be slammed back. The Scroll of Years is of a more refined vintage, one in which you savor the writing as well as the story and characters.  The story takes place over both months and years simultaneously.  (That statement will make sense if you read the book, trust me.)

Gaunt and Bone have been compared to Fafhred and the Grey Mouser. I can see the resemblance, and I’d bet money that Fritz Leiber was one of Willrich’s influences. But that comparison runs the risk of limiting the characters or skewing a potential reader’s expectations. I see echoes of an earlier generation of writers in this book. Writers such as Ernest Bramah with perhaps a dash of Dunsany and maybe a pinch of Clark Ashton Smith. Plus a nod to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Leiber’s heroes were clearly cut from the same general cloth as Conan, inhabiting a milieu rooted in Western tradition where any portrayal of Eastern cultures were filtered to a greater or lesser degree through the West’s perceptions of the East. As Willrich notes in the Acknowledgements, this particular work is firmly planted in Chinese soil. The titular Scroll of Years is a concept I’ve not come across in much European based fantasy.  And rather that detracting, the Chinese folk tales Willrich interjects into the story give it added depth and resonance.

The Scroll of Years is not like anything I’ve seen recently. Willrich has a fresh voice, and with this novel (I can’t speak for the short stories, not being familiar with them yet) he expands the boundaries of sword and sorcery.

The events in this book grow out of the short stories, and there are one or two passing reference to previous events that seem to refer back to them. Don’t let that stop you from picking this one up. You can enjoy The Scroll of Years on its own merits. The ARC I have says today is the release date (which is why I wrote the review today), but the author’s website says the 24th.  Either way, look for a copy if this sounds like it might be your cup of tea. And if Pyr want to publish the short stories (with one or two new ones included, hint, hint), well, that would be fine with me.

I’d like to thank Lisa Michalski at Pyr Books for the review copy.

Worldcon Report, Part 1

This is going to be the written report, mostly without pictures because I haven’t had time to sort through the ones I took and see what I want to post.  It’s been one of those weeks at work and it started on the way down to San Antonio.  I spent more time than I would have liked dealing with a couple of problems that waited until I was on the road to arise.  I post some pictures in the next few days.

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James Gunn at his reception.

I had to teach class Thursday morning, so by the time I got to San Antonio, checked into the hotel and hoofed it over to the convention center to register, I just made it before registration closed.  I wandered the dealer’s room and familiarized myself with the layout before grabbing a bite.  At least I intended to.  I ran into Adrian Simmons, editor of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and ended up accompanying him to a private, invitation-only reception for James Gunn.  Adrian had been invited, and I went along as his guest.  It was a great event, and I took advantage of the opportunity to speak with him.  He’s 90, and critics are calling his new novel his best.  I picked up a signed copy before the weekend was over.  There’ll be a review going up at Futures Past and Present sometime in the next few months.  Learning of Fred Poh’s death made me extra glad I grabbed a signed copy, in spite of being a little overbudget.

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What would you eat for a book?

Later I attended the Bookswarm party, which was packed.  I got a chance to talk to Martha Wells for a few minutes, and I walked away with two free books.  The theme of the party was Eat a Bug, Get a Book.  The bugs were sanitized and freeze dried.  (I ate a mole circket and a dung beetle and got The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis and Exile by Betsy Dornbush.)  The highlight of the party was getting to meet Brad Beaulieu, Douglas Hulett, Courtney Schafer, and Zachary Jernigan.  If you haven’t read them, you should.  Other than a glimpse of Jernigan from across the street, the only one of that group that I saw after that night was Courtney Schafer.

The next day was one of those where there was about twelve hours of programming I wanted to attend, all of it in a three hour block.  I went to most of the Robert E. Howard panels, of which there were many.  Most of the hanging out I did with friends was with members of the Robert E. Howard Foundation or chatting with folks at parties.  Saturday was much the same, but Sunday was a little more relaxed.  Among the non-Howard panels I attended were a discussion of C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”, the history of firearms in the 1800s, a discussion on writing that included Michael Swanwick and James Patrick Kelly, a panel of Texas writers who have passed on, and readings by Jack McDevitt and Howard Waldrop.  I only caught part of the panel on sword and sorcery since it was up against one of the more interesting Robert E. Howard panels.  The autographing lines were either nonexistent or ridiculously long, so I only got a few signatures.

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Sword and Sorcery Panel: (l. to r.) Stina Leitch, Lou Anders, Sam Sykes, Saladin Ahmed, Chris Willrich

I went to the Alamo Saturday morning with Bill Cavalier, editor of REHupa.  He hadn’t seen it, and it had been a while since I had paid my respects.  Next to the Alamo is the Menger Hotel.  Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders in the bar, and it’s something of a mini-museum.  I’ll do a write-up of it on Dispatches From the Lone Star Front over the weekend.

I didn’t try to attend the Hugos.  I wasn’t impressed with the slate of nominees for the most part.  But it’s a popularity contest, and currently my tastes and those of the field are in a state of moderate divergence.  The Legacy Circle of the REH Foundation went to dinner Saturday night.

There were some free books, including NESFA’s three volume Chad Oliver set.  I found the first two of the Heinlein juveniles I was missing, and picked up an extra copy of Glory Road.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of that novel.  I read it when I was about 14, and it’s about time for a reread.

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It’s good to be the king.

Some overall thoughts.  First, this was the first time I’ve been able to attend a Worldcon.  It wasn’t quite what I expected.  I’ve attended World Fantasy twice, and the density of pros in that venue is high, but then that’s a convention that’s aimed at pros.  Worldcon is more geared for fans.  I never saw some of the bigger names, although I know they were there.  Most of the ones I did see, I only saw once or twice.  The convention center is a bit too spread out for this sort of event.

I was surprised at crowded it wasn’t.  I was also a little surprised with how old the average attendee seemed to be.  While people seemed to be having a good time, I didn’t detect a great deal of excitement.  Maybe that’s because I’m getting older, but everything seemed more laid back than I was expecting.

I’d certainly attend another Worldcon, but only if it wasn’t at the same time classes started.  And only if it wasn’t too far away.  While I enjoyed it and am glad I went, I wouldn’t travel halfway around the world, or even the country, to repeat the experience.

I’ll post some more photos later in the week.

The Next Big Thing Blog Chain

I was chained to this by David J. West, author of Heroes of the Fallen and numerous short stories, including one in the forthcoming Space Eldritch.

What is the working title of your book?

I’m not actively working on any novels at the moment, although I have a couple in different degrees of completion I hope to finish/polish after the first of the year.  In addition to some stand-alone short stories (science fiction and fantasy), there are two series I’m working on, both fantasy.  The epic fantasy series doesn’t have a working title at the moment.  The sword and sorcery series is The Chronicles of Roderik and Prince Balthar.  That’s the one getting most of my attention right now.

Where did the idea come from for the book series?

I don’t recall what gave me the initial idea for the characters.  There was a comment on the Black Gate blog a couple of years ago in a post about a fantasy magazine that shall remain unnamed.  The magazine had folded, and in one of the comments, someone said this particular publication didn’t have enough tomb robbing heroes.  Now I really enjoy a good tomb robbing.  Somehow I came up with the idea of a prince and his squire who were into a little cemetery burglary.  The only reason they would do this (that I could think of) was the prince is under a curse to murder his father, something he desperately wants to avoid doing.  So he and his squire are voluntarily exiled from their home until curse can be broken.  The court sorcerer is trying to find a way to break the curse, and it often involves having our heroes liberate certain items from their eternal resting places, usually at great risk to themselves.  The stories are written from the squire Rodrik’s point of view, and all of the ones I’ve worked on so far start with the words “The Chronicle of” in the title.  Rogue Blades Entertainment was accepting some submissions about this time, and I wrote the first story in the series.  Jason Waltz liked it enough to buy it for the Assassins anthology.  I’ve placed a second story in the series with him, and I’ve got four more I need to finish, plus a two more to plot and write.

What genre does the series fall under?

Sword and sorcery, definitely.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

 I have no idea.  I see so few movies these days, I’m not familiar with many of the younger actors.  The characters are both young men, so most of the actors I’m familiar with are too old for those roles.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your series?

An exiled prince and his faithful squire travel their world seeking to break a family curse while there’s still time.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self-published.  I’m not convinced agents bring enough value to the table in the current publishing climate to justify 15% of the earnings for the number of years they want to receive commissions.  Since everything I’ve written in this series so far is either short story or novelette length, I will try to place them in top markets.  If I’m not able to, I’ll put them up myself.  And of course, I’ll collect them and publish them in bundles.

How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first story took a couple of weeks working in the evenings when I didn’t have other commitments.  The others have been stop and go, except for the second I finished.  It’s been accepted, although I have no idea when it will see print.  That one had a deadline and took a week or two once I got past a couple of false starts.  The others are longer, so they’ve been start and stop affairs.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Who or what inspired you to write this series?

This may be cheating, but I’m going to combine the answers to the two previous questions since the works to which I would compare these stories are also some of the main inspirations.  First, I’m a huge fan of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean Age.  I love how he mixed and matched different historical periods in an imaginary fantasy setting.  I also love how the stories are mostly episodic in nature and for the most part can be read in any order.  The setting of The Chronicles draws a lot on that template, although the world isn’t a carbon copy of the Hyborean Age.  On the other hand, there have been so many imitations that I didn’t want to create another Clonan.  I wanted a civilized hero or heroes who were forced to act at times in, if not uncivilized ways, at least ways that wouldn’t meet with civilization’s approval.  There’s probably a little Fafherd and the Grey Mouser in the inspiration somewhere, although I’ve not read that series in years, and there are more F&GM stories I haven’t read yet than there are ones I have.  I also try to read across multiple genres, so you can see the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle in the structure.  Roderik is Watson to Balthar’s Holmes, in that Balthar is supposedly the hero whose exploits are detailed by his faithful companion.

What else about your book series might pique your readers’ interest?

This series is intended to be fun.  I’ve griped at times about how many authors seem to be writing with a political or social agenda, at least judging by their blogs and tweets.  While I certainly don’t begrudge these authors their right to say whatever they like in their works, I maintain that the primary purpose of fiction is to tell an entertaining story, not convert me to your way of thinking.  With that in mind, I want to write some things that people will enjoy reading, hopefully to the point they want to read more. 

I’m also using this series as an opportunity to challenge and stretch myself as a fiction writer.  It would be very easy to get stuck in a rut and write formula stories, so I’m trying to do something different with each installment or to work on some technique.  For instance, the story I’m trying to finish in time to submit to a market by the end of the year focuses entirely on Roderik.  He and Balthar are in serious trouble, and Balthar has been taken out of commission.  Getting them out alive is all on Rodrik’s shoulders.  He doesn’t have much to work with or much time, either.  There’s also a market coming open after the first of the year  The story I’ve got in mind for it isn’t told by Roderik (or Balthar), although he and Balthar are central to everything that happens.

Now I have to chain people to this thing, so…I’m going to I’m going to list several authors whose work I enjoy and want to read more of:

Joshua P. Simon
Ty Johnston
J. M Martin
Mark Finn

Blogging the Lost World of the Warlord

Back in the 1970s DC Comics had a try-out title they called 1st Issue Special.  It was one of those things like Showcase had been in an earlier era where new characters, teams, and series were given a trial run.  Reader response determined if a particular character or team got his/her/its/their own book.  It was also at this time that sword and sorcery was enjoying a period of popularity, in part due to a boom in Robert E. Howard’s work.  This carried over into comics, with Marvel’s Conan.  DC tried to get in on the excitement by attempting several sword and sorcery titles.  Of these, only Mike Grell’s The Warlord lasted more than a few issues. 

The Warlord premiered in 1975.  I didn’t start reading the title until the early 1980s, when it had peaked and begun a long decay, but there were a number of solid issues with some good sword and sorcery storytelling still to come.  Mike Grell was still writing and drawing the book and would continue to do so for a few more years.

I’m going to take a look at this series, and I’m going to try to post on a regular basis, meaning once every week or every other week, hopefully on the same day.  We’ll see.  I’ll focus on one to two issues at a time.  If this series of posts is well received, I’ll continue until I reach the point where Grell left the book.  If not, I’m sure I can find something to blog about.

The story opens with Air Force colonel Travis Morgan flying a solo spy mission over the Soviet Union in 1969.  His plane is damaged in a missile attack, and while he survives, he doesn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the US, specifically a base in Alaska.  He tries to save time by flying over the north pole.  As he passes over the pole, his compass spins wildly, with the explanation that it won’t work over the North Pole. 

Now I’m a physicist by training and there are just some things I can’t ignore, at least not easily.  This is one of them.  On the geographic North Pole, the compass would point south because the magnetic axis and the spin axis of the Earth don’t line up.  The magnetic pole in the northern hemisphere is near the western coast of Greenland.  (It moves slowly with time, so I’ll not try to be more specific.)

Anyway, Morgan crashes his plane, and much to his surprise discovers himself in a tree in a jungle.  While walking, he discovers a dinosaur attacking a beautiful maiden, scantily clad, of course.  He rescues her, although it’s something of a team effort, the girl is the one who delivers the killing blow. 

They are soon captured by slavers and taken to the city of Thera, where Morgan immediately gets on the wrong side of the high priest Deimos.  He still has his sidearm and shoots a globe Deimos uses to try and get inside Morgan’s mind. 

Thinking Morgan is a god, he and the girl are treated as royalty.  Bathed, wined, and dined, they are given a chamber where they immediately fall asleep.  It’s during this sequence that Morgan is given the first costume he would wear in the series, a sort of black leather tights without sleeves.  The winged helmet and loincloth would come later.

At this point Grell reveals another aspect of Skartaris, the name of the world he’s in.  Time has no meaning.  When Morgan and the girl awake, they discover a great deal of time has passed.  He was clean cut when he went to sleep, but when he wakes up he discovers his hair and beard are long and shaggy.  It’s here he adopts the forked beard, a la Green Arrow.  This was another aspect of the series I was never crazy about because at times it will seem as though the characters never age even though decades pass in the outside world.

Being adept at linguistics, Travis Morgan quickly picks up the language, learns the girl’s name is Tara, and some basics about the realm of Skartaris.  Here’s where I have another problem, not just with this story but with any  hollow world tale.  Morgan tries to explain to Tara that they are in the center of a world and gravity holds them to the sides.  The problem is that gravity doesn’t work that way.  There is no gravitational attraction to the side of a hollow sphere or a spherical shell.  Not because gravity doesn’t exist, but because it cancels out.  And it does it everywhere, regardless of where you are in the cavity.  This is basic physics that’s been known for centuries.  Makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief.

Deimos hates them and wants Morgan dead for humiliating him in front of the king but is hesitant to move against Morgan because the people think him some sort of god..  One “night”….rather while Morgan and Tara are sleeping Deimos sends mercenaries into assassinate them.  But Morgan and Tara wake up in time to defeat the mercenaries and escape, ending the first appearance of The Warlord.  Why Deimos didn’t try this while they were asleep the first time, when Morgan’s hair and beard grew so long, is never explained. 

We’ll look at the first and second issue of The Warlord in the next installment of this series.  For now, a few closing comments.  First, the series hadn’t found its legs at this point, a common thing for most new series in just about any format.  Most of the supporting cast haven’t been introduced nor the characters of Morgan or Tara well established.  The two page opening spreads that would come to characterize Grell’s run on the book wouldn’t start for a while. 

I was a pretty naive teenage when I read this series, and I’m interested in seeing what subtle things I missed.  Or just plain don’t remember.  The Comics Code Authority was still very much in place at the time The Warlord was launched.  It would be another decade, give or take a few years, before the direct market would open the door to more adult oriented themes and content.  I’m curious as to what things I missed when I first read these, and I’ll speculate at times as to how the series might have been different if it hadn’t been subject to the Code.

There have been some attempts to revive the character and/or the series in the last decade or so, but I’ve not read them.  The general consensus based on what little I’ve heard is that they weren’t successful in terms of story.  I’d like to see Grell take another stab at the character.  That may be too much to hope for.

Why Modern Fantasy Needs More Naked Slave Girls

Yes, I realize that’s an incredibly sexist title for this blog post.  It’s not intended to be taken seriously (well, not entirely), so chill out a bit and listen to what I have to say.  Substitute “naked slave guys” if you prefer.  If I’m going to be sexist, I’m willing to be an equal opportunity sexist.  It may also come across as a manipulative method of increasing blog traffic, but it’s not (well, not entirely).

Rather I’m picking an old sword and sorcery trope as an example to make a point.  I think much modern fantasy, far too much in my opinion, takes itself way too seriously.  It’s gotten so dark and grim, for one thing.  I don’t have too much of a problem with that.  I tend to prefer a dark strain through much of my fiction. What is starting to get on my nerves is how so many authors seem to be using their fiction to push some sort of an agenda.

At least it sounds like what they’re doing from blog posts, essays, and tweets.  I’ve gotten in the habit of following some writers whose work seems interesting or who are up and coming or major figures in the field.  Some of them are coming across as such ideologues that they’ve killed any interest I have in reading their work and I’m about to stop following some of them on Twitter. While these people are a minority among those I follow, there’s enough of them that I can no longer pretend they don’t exist.

I follow these people because I’m interested in their writing, or at least think I might be.  I don’t follow them to hear their political opinions to the exclusion of just about everything else.  Now, I’m not objecting to someone airing their views on Twitter or a blog or anywhere else.  What I do object to are bigoted, personal attacks on groups or individuals who have different philosophical views, politics, or religious beliefs.  Especially when those being attacked are being accused of the same things the attacker is guilty of.  I’ve been seeing a lot more of those recently.

It’s hard for me to believe that these attitudes won’t show up in their fiction.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.  The first job of a fiction writer is to tell an entertaining story.  Period.  Everything else, whether it be moral instruction, insight into the “human condition”, or to further some political or social agenda should be secondary to telling a good story.  There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they are secondary to the story.  The best storytellers will incorporate secondary objectives into the work to add depth to the work, not make them the central focus of the work with the story the mechanism for the sermon.  If I want to read a sermon, I will.  And do from time to time, but it’s never disguised as a work of fiction.

What does this have to do with naked slaves girls?   Quite a bit actually.  I stated a few paragraphs ago that too much of modern fantasy takes itself too seriously.  I think it’s because too many authors think they have Something Important to say.  Sometimes that includes either actively or passively slamming older fantasy, particularly sword and sorcery, and trying to remove the elements they find offensive from what’s currently being published.  Including but not limited to naked slave girls.  This can be done through editorial policies, reviews, or critique groups and workshops.

What happened to adventure and fun?  Yes, I realize it’s still out there, but some days it’s mighty hard to find.  That’s why I often go back and reread the older stuff, in spite of there being so much new material available.

Robert E. Howard is near the top of the list of classic S&S authors, at least that I read.  One of the things I like about Robert E. Howard is that his stories are fun.  And while they’re also stirring adventures, Howard was a skilled enough writer that he could introduce serious themes and ideas in his fiction.  Howard’s work, particularly the Conan stories, had a sense of the exotic to them, but the societies in them were also modeled after real historical periods, which gave them a sense verisimilitude and just enough familiarity that readers could relate to them.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and not nearly enough of today’s crop (at least the ones I’ve read) can pull it off.

Yet Howard is often attacked for his attitudes on race and women (whether they were naked slave girls or not), and he’s cited as an example of the type of writer newer writers are trying to distance themselves from.  The problem is that Howard’s views on race and women aren’t that simple. (That’s a topic too big for this post.)  Many of the tropes of older fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, that Howard and other writers used are out of favor these days.  And lumping those tropes into broad categories such as “racist” or “sexist” isn’t that simple, either.

I’m not saying we need more fiction that pushes a deliberate racist or sexist agenda.  We already have John Norman for that.  I think we could use a few more Robert E. Howards, though.  A fully realized society will have elements that are racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive to contemporary sensibilities.  That’s just the way the world works.  And what is or isn’t offensive varies from person to person.  Ignoring those things doesn’t lead to good fiction.  Neither does focusing on those elements to the exclusion of a good story, especially in adventure fiction.

Many of the things that made the good old stuff so fun would be considered politically incorrect today.  But there is clearly a market for it.  If not, why else is the New Pulp movement doing so well?  Let’s keep modern fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, fun.  Bring on the naked slave girls.  Or whatever trope or plot you enjoy that’s fallen out of favor.  It can be done in ways that don’t glorify or advocate negative attitudes and still be fun. 

Mastering the Shadows

Shadow’s Master
Jon Sprunk
Pyr Books
trade paper, 313 pp., $17.95

Jon Sprunk is a relative newcomer to the fantasy field, this being only his third novel, the conclusion to a trilogy.  And a right satisfying conclusion it is, at that.  The story that was begun in Shadow’s Son (reviewed here) and continued in Shadow’s Lure (reviewed here) wraps up in Shadow’s Master.  This one is darker, bloodier, and better than its predecessors.

While I won’t give any spoilers to the present book, I might let a few slip from the previous volumes.  Just giving you notice.

The story picks up where the previous novel left off.  Caim, accompanied by three companions, is heading north into the Northern Marches.  There’s something in his head that’s pulling him in that direction.  As she died, his aunt Sybelle told him to look for a dark fortress if he wants to find out what happened to his mother.  Caim thinks he’ll find her when he finds whatever seems to be calling him.

Meanwhile, in Nimea, Josie has survived several assassination attempts and much political intrigue.  She, too, is heading north, ostensibly to tour the northern portions of her kingdom, but in reality she’s searching for Caim.  If she can’t find him, she at least hopes to find some word of him.  She carries his child, something that would give Lady Philomena apoplexy if she knew.  What Josie finds is squabbling nobles, starving peasants, and an invading army.

Most of the book focuses on Caim.  The land he travels is blighted, with the Sun never shining, even on the longest day of summer.  The people barely manage to survive, and those that do, do so by the sword.  If Caim is to reach his destination, he’s going to have to do it over spilled blood.

Sprunk’s handling of the characters shows greater depth than in his previous works, not that those works didn’t show depth of character.  They did.  It’s just that Sprunk is maturing as a writer, growing and expanding.  Much of the territory over which Caim travels is bleak, and the story reflects that.  While Caim struggles to understand his feelings for Josie and his conflicting feelings for Kit, Josie is wrestling with her feelings for Caim as well as the attractive young nobleman who joins her guard.  All of this is in addition to the deaths that Caim and Josie have on their consciences, and knowing that they both have to make decisions that will cost people their lives.

To my mind, though, it was the minor character of Balaam who was one of the most fascinating.  Favored servant of Caim’s grandfather, Sprunk shows us enough of the choices the man has made to paint a picture of regrets and internal conflicts.  This is more than just a bad guy from central casting.  This is one area in which Sprunk’s skills can be seen to have matured.  None of his villains are truly evil except for one, and even with that one the evil is understandable.  Instead, Sprunk gives his villains motives, and noble motives at that, at least from their point of view.  Balaam at one points says that if he’s a killer, at least he’s a killer for a cause while Caim is a killer for profit.  While Sprunk doesn’t beat the reader over the head with them, he does raise some philosophical issues for which there aren’t always easy answers.  Honor, duty, and sacrifice all play a role in the story.  Without them, this would be a far lesser book and a far more generic plot.

There’s plenty of action and combat, and Sprunk handles it with finesse.  Fans of action oriented sword and sorcery will find plenty to cheer about here.

I don’t know if Sprunk plans on returning to this world.  He leaves enough loose ends that further volumes could follow naturally.  I would especially like to see more of Josie.  By the end of the book, she has grown into the role of Empress and is a woman not to be trifled with.  There is still enough unresolved intrigue for at least one novel centered on her.

Shadow’s Master is scheduled for a March release.  I haven’t been in a bookstore in a few weeks, so I don’t know if it’s on the shelves or not.  Barnes and Noble and Amazon both list it, but Amazon shows a release date of March 27.  I’ve seen Pyr books in B&N before their release date, so you may be able to snag a copy sooner than the end of the month.  This one is an example of why Pyr is one of the best publishers of fantasy and science fiction around.

Realms of Fantasy: A Review of the June 2011 Issue (Plus a Small Suggestion)

Realms of Fantasy, June 2011
$6.99 print, $3.99 pdf

I’m not sure why, but I can’t seem to find copies of this magazine until the month after the one printed on the cover.  With all other publications of a monthly or less frequent nature, the date on the cover is always in advance of the month it hits the stands.  Which is all besides the point.

What is the point is the fiction.  But before I get to that, I do want to thank the publisher for going to a different cover stock.  Unlike the previous issue, the ink on this one didn’t rub off on my hands.  (Now to start lobbying for an epub format…)

This is the one-hundredth issue, which makes it something special, especially since it’s been canceled twice in the last few years.  To celebrate, this issue has one hundred pages.  (One hundred two actually, but why quibble?)

There are the usual columns:  Folkroots, Gaming Reviews, Movies, Artists Gallery (a gorgeous spread featuring Petar Meselkzija, with whom I was not familiar), Graphic Novels, and three book review columns, with one devoted to general fantasy, one to YA, and one to paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  There’s also a letters column devoted to the anniversary, a list of facts about the magazine, and an editorial by Shawna McCarthy, which I’ll comment on later.  A new feature, of which I heartily approve, is the poetry.  The inaugural poems were by Ursula K. LeGuin, who will be hard act to follow for whoever has the poetry in the next issue.

Well over half the magazine (54 pages if my arithmetic is correct) is fiction.  So how does it stack up?

There are seven stories of varying length.  Leah Bobet leads off with “The Ground Whereon She Stands”, in which a park ranger in Idaho wakes up one morning to discover plants growing from wherever she puts her feet.  I’m not spoiling anything when I say the hedge witch she goes to for help turns out to be the cause of the problem.  Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson gives us a protagonist who survives in a post-apocalyptic world by hunting dust angels in “Escaping Salvation”, which is a place, not a spiritual condition.  This one could almost have been science fiction, but the authors do give enough information about the apocalypse to set it firmly in fantasy territory.  Sharon Mock’s poignant fairy tale is the cover story, “The Economy of Powerful Emotion”, which in a way reminded me of the story of the King Midas and his golden touch.  Thea Hutcheson describes “The Good Husband”.  Patrick Samphire’s “The Equation” pits those who use science against those who feel the magic.  Euan Harvey goes to ancient China to tell a tale within a tale within a tale, all wrapped up in a nasty little knot at the end that’s “Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy”.  Wrapping up the issue, David D. Levine tells of a woman plumber who must free an undine trapped in a condemned house before it’s destroyed.

That’s a quick synopsis of the contents.  Here’s my take on them.

“The Ground” was the most literary of the contents, with lots of lush description, bordering at times on being overwritten.  One thing I found annoying was the never-ending litany of different plants growing from the protagonist’s feet.  It was almost as though the author were showing off her botanical knowledge.  Not being familiar with many of them, I had no idea what they should look like or if there was any particular symbolism associated with them.  I also found the way the characters responded to the situation to be a bit casual and relaxed.

“Escaping Salvation” was the longest and also the most violent story.  Dust angels are hostile and form during sandstorms.  If you can kill them (before they kill you) and cut them up before they fall apart, their limbs have commercial value since they can be grafted onto human flesh.  The story moved at a good pace, balancing action and character development, with a nasty human villain.  I found the ending to be a bit bleak for my taste, but it was one of the more enjoyable stories for me.

“Economy” was brief and consisted of 38 chapters, most only a few paragraphs.  RoF is known for being fairy-tale centric, and while that can become wearing, this was one of the better fairy tale treatments I’ve seen in a while.  Not based on any fairy tale I’m aware of, the story starts off with the curse being laid on a princess, that her tears will always be diamonds. Much of the story concerns the prince who saves her.

“The Good Husband” contained some effective writing, which is probably why I finished it.  The viewpoint character is a female land spirit with human form who needs a man to husband her, and in doing so, husband the land.  She finds him in a drifter who is sent to the farm by the neighboring women.  (They know the score; if the spirit’s farm prospers, so does everyone else’s.)  Too much of the story was about the spirit pining for the dirfter to take and ravish her and was concerned mostly with her emotions.  This sort of thing might appeal to some readers (I suspect mainly women), but it didn’t do much for me.

“The Equation” was a first person narrative which consisted of mostly dialogue or the protagonist’s thoughts.  It used the old trope of science versus magic, but it didn’t really break any new ground.  According to the brief bio included, the author’s work is available on his website.  I might check it out because he isn’t bad as far as style and construction goes and has been published in some professional markets.

Euan Harvey’s “Wisteria” was the highlight of the issue for me, and not just for the great illustration.  It was the closest thing to sword and sorcery in the magazine, and one of the few where the action wasn’t solely emotional or internal.  The structure of the story, with nested narratives, will require attention, so I don’t recommend this one right before turning out the light at bedtime.  Harvey had a story in the previous issue, and I have to wonder if he’s going to go for a hat trick and get one in the next issue.  I hope so, because his stories seem to be more to my taste than most of the other stories in the two issues he’s been in. 

“The Tides of the Heart” was entirely predictable and somewhat contrived, with the conclusion wrapping up all the problems so neatly.  Two of the three columns on the first page really didn’t have anything to do with the main plot, just served to introduce the character, which probably could have been done more concisely.  I’ve enjoyed some of Levine’s other work, so this one was a bit of a disappointment for me.

So of the seven stories in this issue, I liked three of them, which is less than 50%.  Unfortunately the contents of this issue were very much what I think of when I think of a typical issue of RoF.  A lot of stories which deal with emotion, usually from a feminine perspective, or stories where the style of the writing is emphasized as much as the story itself, or a combination of both.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I look for other things when I read fantasy.  I don’t really care if the viewpoint is male or female, but tales of action, adventure, and the threat of physical danger appeal to me more than stories that are mostly in-depth looks at the emotional lives of the characters. 

I realize that an editor does two things when she or he selects the contents of an issue of a fiction magazine.  First, editors choose stories they think will appeal to as many readers as possible.  Second, to a greater or lesser degree, they choose stories they like and that resonate with their own personal tastes and biases.  Both of these things are done with the goal of attracting new readers, thereby increasing circulation and the accompanying revenue.  If an editor has been at a publication long enough, and there are enough readers whose tastes are compatible with the editor’s, then the second item (the editor choosing stories he/she likes) will often set a tone for the publication which would be different from the tone if the magazine hadn’t yet attracted a core audience.  And that tone and the associated content won’t be to every potential reader’s taste.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

Shawna McCarthy edited Asimov’s back when I was in high school.  As a courtesy to Ms. McCarthy, I won’t say how many decades years ago that was.  I realized back then that her tastes and mine would probably diverge more than they converged.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  I’m sure there are some reviewers who will absolutely love this issue and think it’s one of the best, and I’m sure a number of the people who read it (and this review) would agree with that assessment.  I’m not of that opinion.  There just wasn’t that much here for me.  I prefer the previous issue to this one. 

In her editorial, Shawna McCarthy asked what the readers wanted to see more of, but then followed the question with “Don’t say sword-and-sorcery – we would publish more of it [if] we received better submissions in this vein, believe us.”  For now I will believe her, although I have to wonder if her idea of better submissions and mine would have much in common.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough.  My purpose is not to bash RoF or Ms. McCarthy, but to provide enough of a description of what did and didn’t work for me and why that someone reading this review will have a good idea as to whether he/she would enjoy the issue.  Let me make the Small Suggestion alluded to in the title.  If Ms. McCarthy wants to see better sword-and-sorcery, let’s give it to her.   From the way she worded her statement, I suspect she gets a lot of requests for more S&S or has been catching flak for not including enough.  I’d like to see RoF succeed with the new publisher, but if I’m going to continue buying it, I want to see more issues like the previous and fewer like the current at the very least.  Even that won’t guarantee I’ll keep reading.  More heroic adventure fantasy, sword and sorcery, call it what you will, that will guarantee my paying my money to read it.  So let’s see if we can send her some so good she’ll have to buy it.

Blogging Kull: Delcardes’ Cat/The Cat and the Skull

Spoiler Alert:  This is not one of Howard’s best stories.  The plot is fairly straightforward, if unbelievable.   Kull goes with Tu, his chancellor, to see the talking cat of Delcardes.  The cat is reputed to be thousands of years old.  During the conversation, Delcardes asks Kull for permission to marry a nobleman from a neighboring kingdom.  This sends Tu into paroxysms of fury because Delcardes is of the nobility, and it is against custom for nobility to marry foreigners.  Howard seems to have developed a fondness for this plot device since he used it in the unfinished draft that precedes this tale in the Del Rey edition.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, tells Kull where he left a left (in his scabbard) and that a courtier is coming to tell Kull that a surplus has been found in the royal  treasury.  Tu insists that this is trickery.  Kull is a little more gullible, and in the end Saremes accompanies Kull back to his palace.  Attending Saremes at all times is the slave Kuthulos, who wears a veil covering his face and neck at all times.  Saremes and Kull often sit up all night talking philosophy, but Saremes refuses to tell Kull much about the future.  Personally I found her reasoning a little thin and had trouble believing someone like Kull could  have been taken in by them.  Howard even says that Kull has his doubts, yet he goes along with everything the cat says.  Except the continued proddings of Saremes to try to convince Kull to let Delcardes’ marry a foreigner.

Then one day, Saremes tells Kull that his Pictish friend Brule has been captured by a monster while swimming in the Forbidden Lake.  Kull immediately takes off to rescue Brule.  After battling several monsters, in what are better than average action scenes, Kull is captured by a giant snake and taken deep under the lake into a cave in which the surviving members of the lake men are living.  They don’t exactly buy Kull’s explanation for why he’s there.  The situation is about to degenerate into a bloodbath when Kull learns that Brule was never in the lake at all.  After pledging to leave the lake men in peace, Kull returns to the surface.

When he gets back to the palace, he finds the place in an uproar.  Seems the king has wandered off somewhere without telling anyone where he was going.  In the ensuing chaos, Kull hears a beating sound and discovers that Kuthulos has been tied up in a secret passage.  The man masquerading as Kuthulos is none other than the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom who swears to destroy Kull before he escapes.  It seems Thulsa Doom is a servant of the serpent people.  Yeah, those serpent people. Anyway, it turns out that Saremes can’t speak at all, but Kuthulos can literally throw his voice.  He was the one telling Kull to allow Delcardes to marry her foreign lover and all the signs given in the opening scene were tricks.  Only after Thulsa Doom took Kuthulos’ place was Kull told to go to the Forbidden Lake.  Kull graciously pardons Delcardes for her scheming and allows her to marry whomever she wishes.

When published in the Lancer edition, this story was entitled “Delcardes’ Cat”, which is the name of the draft.  There aren’t many differences between the draft and the finished story.  The chancellor Tu is called Ku for the first page or so in the draft, then his name changes.  The only other significant change is the late addition of Thulsa Doom.  Howard added him as an afterthought in the first draft. 

Several things struck me about this story.  First, that the physical description of Thulsa Doom was a whole lot like that given for Skull-Face in the story of the same name. In fact even the name of the slave is similar.  Skull-Face was called Kathulos.  Patrice Louinet reports in “Atlatnean Genesis” (Kull, Del Rey, p. 298, 2006) that this was the original name in the first draft and was later modified for the final story.  It is useful to keep in mind that this story was written at about the same time that Howard was working on “Skull-Face”.

Another thing that struck me was that this is the second story in which a woman has deceived Kull and he’s blown it off and pardoned her.  The first was “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune.”  That’s not something Conan would have stood for.  Not even once.  While he might not have killed the girl, you can be sure Conan wouldn’t have been so forgiving. 

In spite of its flaws, this story definitely shows Howard at his most poetic.  Consider the following quotes (page nubmers are from the Del Rey edition):

“Twilight was stealing down from the mountains of Zalgara when Kull halted his horse on the shores of the lake that lay amid a great lonely forest.  There was nothing forbidding in its appearance, for its waters spread blue and placid from beach to wide white beach and the tiny islands rising above its bosom seemed like gems of emerald and jade.  A faint shimmering mist rose from it, enhancing the air of lazy unreality which lay about the regions of the lake.”  p. 97

“At first the king thought it to be a huge octopus for the body was that of an octopus, with long waving tentacles, but as it charged upon him he saw it had legs like a man and a hideous semi-human face leered at him from among the writhing snaky arms of the monster.”  p. 98

“” ‘You come like the herald of all your race,’ said this lake-man suddenly, ‘bloody and bearing a red sword.’ ” p. 104

While not a major work, and certainly not the best plotting Howard ever did, this one is still worth reading, if only for the passages like those quoted above.  “The Cat and the Skull”  shows Howard beginning to master his form and hints at greater writing to come.

The Adventures Fantastic Interview: William Ledbetter of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

William (Bill) Ledbetter is an author, member of the National Space Society, and one of the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.  In his spare time he administers the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest.  He sat down with me at ConDFW to discuss writing in general and sword and sorcery in particular.
AF:  How did you get involved with Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?
BL:  Adrian and David had started it up several months before they approached me to help with some of the editing.  I was really busy and worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the agreement, so I instead do the editing on one story per issue which includes all the interfacing between author and the team.  That’s pretty much what I do for the magazine, and I really enjoy it.
AF:  What type of stories would you like to see more of, both as an editor of a magazine and as a reader?  So it’s kind of a two part question.
BL:  Considering the kind of fiction we print, we tend to get a lot of stories that are almost D&D adventures somebody wrote down. I think the stories need to be a lot more cohesive and have more of a plot than just going from one adventure to the next hacking and killing.  Even though we like the swordplay and barbarians fighting each other at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly; we still need a full story arc and we like to see how all of this affects the characters.  Some of the ones I’ve liked the most come at it from a different tangent.  We had one called “Living Totem” and one called “The Last Free Bear  Both of these take place in the ice age in very cold, icy environments and are both from the point of view of a lone traveler on a quest.  But neither of these characters are your standard barbarian or sword and sorcery type hero.  They’re very sympathetic characters.  One of them is dealing with a polar bear that’s intelligent, and they end up realizing they’re working towards the same goal, and they end up working together.  I like to see unusual twists or takes on this type of fantasy.  So anything that’s out of the ordinary, things we haven’t seen before, is probably going to get our attention if its well written. 
AF:  Adventures Fantastic is a blog that focuses a lot on heroic fantasy and historical adventure, and in that type of fiction you often have barbarians as central characters.  What qualities do you look for in a barbarian?
BL:  That they have more human qualities than just the urge to kill or get rich or revenge.  One of the stories I was just telling you about, some people have come and stolen the guy’s family, and he was just trying to get them back.  That’s kind of a common trope that’s been used before, but the author did good job making the character believable.  Of course there is still a lot of fast paced action and combat in the story.  That should satisfy just about any fan of the genre, but the protagonist was doing it for his family, not glory or honor..  Any plot driven by human, realistic motivators, gives the character a lot more depth.  I think a barbarian with depth instead of a mindless killing machine is a lot more interesting.
AF:  Do you think that we may be beginning to see a renaissance or resurgence in sword and sorcery, or do you think the market is about saturated?
BL:  (laughs)  I read a lot of sword and sorcery back when I was in college, which has been a long time ago, and even then there were people saying, “Ah, it’s gonna die out”, and it really never has.  It rises and falls.  Most of the fantasy fiction winning awards right now isn’t sword and sorcery, but I think there’s been a solid base all along.  I don’t really know that it’s having a resurgence, but I keep talking to people who say they’d like to see more of it.  That’s one of the reasons why Adrian and David decided to start this magazine.  They couldn’t find the type of fiction they liked to read, and they knew a lot of people who were having the same problem.  So there was a void in the market they wanted to fill.  I think HFQ has done a pretty good job of that. 
AF:  You also write.  What do you have in the pipeline, what’s available right at the moment, and coming out in, say, the next six months from you? 
BL:  I’ve been working on a novel that’s devoured up most of my writing time, but have a few new short stories in the pipeline.  Oddly enough most of those aren’t fantasy.  The novel I’m working on is science fiction and I just finished a story about two guys on Mars.  Probably my last fantasy piece was a fantasy pirate story, and that one sold to the anthology Sails and Sorcery.  That’s still available, and you can buy it online.
AF:  Is that the one with the mermaids on the cover?  I have a copy of that.
BL:  Yeah.  And the floating ship.   There are some great stories in there.  My story “Thief of Hearts” got some pretty good reviews, so I was really happy with that.
AF:  What about science fiction?  Is there science fiction available?  The question wasn’t meant to be limited to sword and sorcery.
BL:  Oh.
AF:  Adventures Fantastic doesn’t just focus on sword and sorcery.   It also does some science fiction.
BL:  Some of my science fiction is still available too.  I have a story called “Medic” that’s at Baen’s Universe.  Baen’s Universe closed down, but the archives are still there.  I think you can buy stories one at a time for .99 cents.  I have a horror story in Something Wicked, a South African magazine.  Those are all still available if you order them online.  You can go to my website, http://www.williamledbetter.com, for a list of all my published works.  Most of those still available have links at each story.
AF:  Last question.
BL:  Okay.
AF:  If you were conducting this interview, what one question would you ask that I have not? 
BL:  Wow.  Let me think here.
AF:  This is your chance to talk about anything you want.
BL:  I guess it would be a question for our readers.  You asked me what we were looking for.  Obviously, the kind of fiction we want to read, the sword and sorcery, the quest type fiction, stuff like that, but we also want to know what the readers want.  What do you want to see more of in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?  I’d invite our readers to send us some notes or emails.  If there’s something you’d like to see more of, if there’s a particular writer you really like and you want more from them, send us an email and we’ll try to make it happen.  If we just wanted to read this stuff ourselves, we wouldn’t bother making the magazine.
AF:  Thank you.
BL:  Thank you.