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The Series Series: The Barrow by Mark Smylie

Friday, April 18th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Barrow-smallThe book mugged me. It was supposed to stay safely several weeks down in my queue while I kept commitments to other law-abiding books that had been waiting patiently for review. Then up walks The Barrow, brazen as you please, distracts me by flashing its jacket copy, and steals two weeks of all my attention right out of my calendar. But what else can you expect from a book full of gangsters, extortionists, rabble-rousers, mercenaries, slumming disgraced nobility, and assorted other low-life types?

I haven’t quite figured out how Mark Smylie pulled it off. The book has some obvious excellences, and some obvious failings, and some oddities that might be mistaken for one only to turn out to be the other. I’ll need to read more of Smylie’s work to figure out what tipped the balance in the book’s favor.

I found most of the characters somewhere between off-putting and odious, and nearly every time the body count went up by one, I was relieved at not having to put up with that character for one page longer. It’s as if Smylie had set himself the task of outdoing George R.R. Martin for grittiness of characterization, and overshot by twenty miles.

There are readers who love that sort of thing; I’m not usually one of them. As the endgame of the novel came in sight, there were only three characters I cared about at all — the enigmatic hero Stjepan Black-Heart, the cross-dressing street fighter Erim, and the disgraced noblewoman Annwyn. I kept coming back to my two snarky rhetorical questions: How are these two women going to survive ten more minutes surrounded by all those sociopaths? And when is Stjepan going to have a male friend who does not suck?

Only it turns out those are the questions that matter most, and several of the glitches I had mistaken for goofs on the author’s part ended up being the keys to the story’s other puzzles.

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The Dungeon Dozen

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

DDcoverNext copyThe first roleplaying game I owned was the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes, as you’re all probably tired of hearing by now. Among the many memorable features of that boxed set was that some of its printings (including my own) did not include dice. Instead, these sets included a sheet of laminated paper chits printed in groups that mimicked the ranges of polyhedral dice (1–4, 1–6, 1–8, 1–10, 1–12, and 1–20).  The purchaser of the game was instructed to cut them apart and “place each different type in a small container (perhaps a small paper cup), and each time a number generation is called for, draw a chit at random from the appropriate container.”

This I dutifully did, taking several small Dixie Cups from my upstairs bathroom for the purpose. Leaving aside the disbelief-suspending flower print of the cups, this method of random number generation was awkward and decidedly un-fun. Consequently, I set out to find a proper set of dice with which to play D&D, a quest that took me to a local toy store, which had them hidden away behind the counter. I bought that set – made of terrible, low impact plastic – and rushed home to use them. I wanted to be a “real” Dungeons & Dragons player. For all their faults, those dice were, in many ways, what sealed my fate as a lifelong roleplayer. There was something downright magical about those little, weirdly shaped objects that captured my imagination almost as much as the game itself.

I am fascinated not just by dice, but also by randomness. I’ve come to believe that one of the real, perhaps fundamental distinction between “old school” roleplaying games and their latter day descendants is the extent to which randomness informs game play. As a younger person, I went through a period when I intensely disliked randomness and used it as a bludgeon against games, including D&D, that I decided I disliked. Older, if not wiser, I no longer think that way. Indeed, I celebrate randomness as a vital part of what makes a RPG enjoyable for me. Randomness is frequently a godsend, providing me with a steady stream of ideas and inspiration when I find myself at a loss for either (which is often). Randomness also enables me to be surprised, even when I’m the referee, which is no small feat after more than three decades behind the screen. In short, I love randomness.

Therefore, I suppose I’m predisposed to love a book like The Dungeon Dozen by Jason Sholtis. This 222-page book is a compilation of the many “flavor-rich yet detail-free” random tables available on Sholtis’s eponymously named blog, accompanied by a great deal of black and white art provided by Chris Brandt, John Larrey, Stefan Poag, and Sholtis himself.

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March Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1551226jPhPhKow (1)This is really the March and first week of April short story roundup. While Swords and Sorcery Magazine came through with two new tales, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly did not come out in a timely enough fashion to suit my schedule. Then Beneath Ceaseless Skies spent all of March publishing science fantasy issues. It’s all right if you’re inclined to read that sort of stuff, but I’m here to write about fantasy, preferably of the heroic kind.  Actually, most of those stories in BCS really do look all right, but the arrival of a new story by Raphael Ordoñez in the April 3rd issue made me include it in this week’s post.

I joke about Beneath Ceaseless Skies’s neglect of heroic fantasy in favor of steam punk or sci-fi, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking I don’t love the folks over there and everything they’re doing for speculative short fiction. Every two weeks, they publish a very well-polished magazine with stories by great writers from all over the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum. There are few platforms getting as much new material out in front of the public (and for as little money). And if, like me, you don’t like what’s in one issue, there’s a great chance you’ll find something in the very next one.

So, after all that praise, let me start off with a story from BCS #144 I didn’t love: “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a writer unfamiliar to me. In a world peopled by exiles from some unknown calamity, in a country ruled by the Institute of Ormodon, a woman mourns the loss of her golem-daughter.

Hall-Warden Ysoreen Zarre has been sent to retrieve the remains of a golem from Erhensa, an exiled sorceress. All golems, whomever makes them, belong to the Institute. Having learned of the thing’s existence when it “died,” the Warden was dispatched to collect it. For the Institute, it is something to be studied and understood. Erhensa, though, considered the golem a daughter and is reluctant to submit to the Institute’s demands. Her maneuvers around the Warden comprise the rest of the story.

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An Age of Random Portents and Incoherent Miracles – Echoes of the Goddess by Darrell Schweitzer

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Goddess is dead. The Earth is very old. The fabric of time itself has worn thin. Who knows what might be glimpsed through it? — Opharastes, After Revelation

oie_543314pkYzAsIcWhen the Goddess who reigned over Earth died her body shattered and the pieces, resonating with her power, rained down over the world. Wherever they settled they caused great changes in both the people and the land. In some places new realities were created. In others, images of the Goddess herself appeared and lingered on for years until the dawn of a new age and the emergence of a new deity.

Echoes of the Goddess: Tales of Terror and Wonder From the End of Time (2012) by Darrell Schweitzer is a collection of eleven stories written over the past thirty five years and set between the earliest days of the Goddess’ death and the last days before the new age.

One of the best things to come out of reviewing books is that I’ve finally read a bunch of the authors that I somehow managed to overlook for years, despite their large catalogs and great reviews. Steve Brust and Andre Norton are two of those recent “discoveries” as is today’s author, Darrell Schweitzer.

It’s hard to fathom that I’d managed to read only two stories (“Those of the Air” in Cthulhu’s Heirs and “The Castle of Kites and Crows” in Swords Against Darkness V) by a man who has written around three hundred of the things, several novels, and numerous works of non-fiction. Nonetheless, for most of my reading life, Schweitzer existed as little more than a name I knew.

Last year, I bought his The White Isle (1980) because it was cheap, there was some mention of a comparison to Lord Dunsany, and the cover looked cool. The novel is a dark (very dark!) take on the Orpheus and Eurydice story. It’s a powerful and bleak story of love and blind obsession set in one of the most despairing worlds I’ve ever encountered. I reviewed it last year at my site and promised myself to keep my eyes open for more of Schweitzer’s work. When Echoes of the Goddess showed up as an e-book, I snagged it at once.

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Tribulations Herculean and Tragic: Beyond Wizardwall by Janet Morris

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Beyond Wizardwall

Woe betide the soul who loves too much, wants too much, dares too much.

I finish my reviews of the 5-star, Author’s Cut editions of Janet Morris’s classic of Homeric Heroic Fantasy, the Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy, with the third and final book, Beyond Wizardwall. This was the toughest of the three to review because there is so much that happens and so much ground to cover. This is also the most dramatic, tense and emotionally powerful of the three books. Let me begin with a little recap in Janet’s own words:

Heavy snows had put the war against Mygdonia and its Nisibisi wizards into hiatus. Niko’s commander, Tempus, called the Riddler, had employed magic to bring his mixed cadre of shock troops (Rankan 3rd Commando rangers, Tysian ‘specials,’ hillmen of Free Nisibis, and Niko’s unit of Stepsons) back to Tyse for the winter. Fighting had ended inconclusively, with the Mygdonian warlord Ajami still at large.

They ride into Tyse triumphant and settle in to wait for spring, content with the season’s work. All except Niko. Everything in this excellent novel revolves around Niko (who is also known by his war name, Stealth), for what trials he endures and what tribulations he suffers are Herculean and tragic and form the core of this novel.

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Book Review: Gold and Glass by E. Catherine Tobler

Sunday, April 6th, 2014 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

If you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines here.

250_bigfinal_GG_Anubis1_ETobler_CovArtSince I’ve started reviewing self-published books, I’ve received a lot of submissions that aren’t really self-published. Usually these are from small presses and imprints where the authors are expected to do a lot of their own marketing. Up to now I’ve kept to a slightly stricter definition of self-published, but I decided to make an exception this month.

Gold and Glass by E. Catherine Tobler is published by the Masque Imprint of Prime Books. Prime Books is a well-respected independent publisher, mainly known for their anthologies. Masque is their fairly new digital imprint, which, while it does publish general SF/fantasy, focuses largely on genre romance. So it’s not surprising that Gold and Glass is a steampunk romance.

The main character, Eleanor Folley, has for years been haunted by her Egyptian mother’s disappearance in the desert of her homeland, shortly after they discovered the remains of the Lady, a mythic figure from the ancient past. The Lady wore four rings that may have opened a doorway to another time, through which Dalila Folley vanished. Eleanor’s father, the archaeologist Renshaw Folley, believes that Dalila is dead, but Eleanor is not convinced. She has spent years searching Egypt for some sign of what became of her mother, but was forced to return home empty-handed after a falling out with her partner, Christian Hubert.

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BattleLore: You Got Your Goblins in My Hundred Years War!

Saturday, April 5th, 2014 | Posted by Jeff Stehman

Battlelore-smallWhen I set up our first game of BattleLore (no easy task), my wife wasn’t in the room. The game ready, I said, “Do you want to play the French or the English?”

“French.”

I know my wife so well. Still, I’m not a complete bastard.

“It’s the battle of Agincourt.”

Pause. “Maybe I can change the outcome.”

She did and decided this was a strategy game for her. Stepping back even further in time, she proceeded to stomp me at Chevauchee and Burgos. A funny thing happened at Burgos, though. I brought goblins to the party. They were eager to charge into battle, eager to flee. The latter was my undoing. Failing to provide a clear path of retreat for units that retreat with haste can be… messy.

Dwarves then weighed in on the side of the French, and eventually a giant spider showed up, first for the French, then the English. (Fickle creatures, arachnids.)

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The Series Series: Forever in the Memory of God and Other Stories by Peadar O Guilin

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Forever In The Memory Of God-smallHow did he pull it off?

The stories in Peadar O Guilin’s Forever in the Memory of God are in some ways old-school weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith style, heavy on disturbing imagery and sanity-shattering trauma so far over the top that it risks going beyond gallows humor and straight into comic absurdity, and yet it works. Every time. Even for me, and this is usually not my kind of thing. What these stories have going for them that the old pulp classics didn’t is striking characterization, a flesh of psychological realism animating some surprising configurations of plot bones.

The characters in the three stories here collected find themselves in dire predicaments. These characters — not all of them can be called heroes — bring their own moments of insight and blindness, laughter and grief, to their struggles. O Guilin keeps them struggling against plot twist after plot twist, all the way to twisty endings that gave me that wonderful readerly shock followed by a sense of inevitability: What?! Oh, but of course!

In the opening story, “The First of Many,” a young woman, born into the Rememberer tribe in a post-alien-invasion Earth, is the first of her kind to be a host organism to the larval young of the slug-like conquerors. She copes with the gradual loss of her arm and her privacy in her own mind — as the larva learns to read her thoughts and chemically manipulate her emotions — with a gallows humor that will be familiar to anyone who has lived with a chronic illness.

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Firefly, A Retrospective Part 8 — A Look at Serenity

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Serenity poster-smallAs some of you know, I just finished a seven-part blog on this site about the Firefly television series. We laughed, we cried, we stared at Jayne’s hat… and now it’s time to move on to the movie.

I consider Serenity to be part of the television show. Like the second season we never got, but compressed into a feature film.

It begins with a little voice-over narration telling us about this fictional world, centering on the war between the Alliance and the Independents. Then we see River as a child in school, but it’s a dream. She is back in the Alliance lab that messed with her brain. Simon is there, posing as a VIP on an inspection tour. He breaks her out of the facility.

I’m glad the movie starts with this scene, because although we’d heard about how Simon freed River in the TV series, we never got to see it. And this makes a terrific set-up for the rest of the movie.

And then the movie does something clever. The scene of Simon and River’s escape is paused in mid-action, and shown to be just a recording. It’s being viewed by the Operative (he’s so cool he doesn’t even need a real name) at the lab where the escape happened. The Operative wants River back because she may have learned the secrets of the Alliance leaders and that cannot be allowed. So the chase is on.

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Star Trek Continues with “Lolani” and Soars to Warp Eight

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

lolani 3Last year I gushed about a lovingly crafted fan-made original Star Trek episode, “Pilgrim of Eternity,” and concluded by writing that I hoped the same team would make more.

And lo, it has come to pass. As a matter of fact, I somehow missed news of a Kickstarter (or Kirkstarter) in October AND the release of a second episode, “Lolani,” in February. According to the Star Trek Continues web site, a third episode has been filmed and is already being edited. The Kickstarter raised enough money for three additional episodes (of which the “in edit” episode is the first) and — if I’m not mistaken — gained the funds to construct a replica of the Enterprise engine room to add to their existing sets.

If you’re a fan of the original Star Trek series, you MUST watch “Lolani.” Even moreso than “Pilgrim of Eternity,” it feels like a lost episode. It’s not just the sets and the effects, which are truly astonishing in their faithfulness, it’s the pacing, and the music cues, and the fadeouts, and the story beats, and the writing — and the actors. These people understand who the original characters were and inhabit them — and I swear that this script could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest entries in the original run.

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