Some Things Need to Be Broken: Seeker’s Mask by P.C. Hodgell

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh


Cover by P.C. Hodgell

A friend once told me of his desire to see a movie with even more action than Die Hard. He envisioned a film with action from first frame to last. I bring this up because the third book of P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series, Seeker’s Mask (1995) is one of the most fast moving, packed-to-the-gills-with-thrills books I have ever read. It may not be the all-action nirvana my friend hoped for, but it’s about as close as I’ve ever found.

It starts in the rules-smothered confines of the Women’s Halls, and then whips Hodgell’s heroine Jame up and down the world before ending in the middle of a barbarian tribe’s fiery ceremony. Invisible assassins, gods, malign magics, and trips into people’s minds smash up against one another for the reader’s attention. If all I did was list the events in Seeker’s Mask, this article would be twice as long as I want it to be.

Jame is a Highborn of the Kencyrath, one of three species molded into one race by their god to fight against Perimal Darkling. The Highborn are the rulers and priests and the fewest in number. The most numerous species, the Kendar, are the soldiers and craftsmen. Finally there are the leonine Arrin-Ken, who served as the race’s judges until frustration led them to leave Kencyrath society in order to decide what needed to be done next in the war against Perimal.

Thousands of years ago, the High Lord Gerridon betrayed his people to Perimal Darkling in exchange for immortality. Two-thirds of the Kencyrath were killed and the survivors fled to the world of Rathilien.

In the previous book, Dark of the Moon (1985), Jame had reunited, after a decade of separation, with her twin brother, Torisen, Lord of the House of Knorth, and High Lord of all the Kencyrath. He and the Kencyrath armies had just emerged victorious from a great battle against the Waster Horde (read the review here). As the only other known member of the House of Knorth, Jame’s sudden appearance throws political calculations out of whack.

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Review of Sinister: Is Bagul the New Bogeyman on the Block?

Monday, November 24th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Irelyn Ozment's depiction of a "bad robot," November 2014

Irelyn Ozment’s depiction of a “bad robot,” November 2014

Anyone who has used the search engine Google more than once knows that it automatically generates ads based on your search terms that are then embedded into your search list. Aside from a little yellow “Ad” button, they look deceptively like more search results, tricking the unwary 2-a.m. web surfer into accidentally clicking on them and then being nightmarishly whisked off to some random retail site. The algorithm often creates nonsensical advertisements, proving yet again that we are still a long way off from AI (or even, in some cases, from I).

When I did a search for “Bagul,” aka Mr. Boogie aka ancient Babylonian deity who consumes the souls of children, the following three ads popped up at the end of my first page of hits (actual web links redacted, because I do not want to be responsible for you unleashing Mr. Boogie onto yourself or your family):

1. Bagul Store: Bagul: super cheap Hurry while stocks last!

2. Bagul – 70% Off – Lowest Price On Bagul: Free shipping, in stock. Buy now!

3. Bagul up to 70% off – Bagul sale: Compare prices and save up to 70%

If you’ve seen the 2012 film Sinister, the thought of having Bagul shipped to you for free should be absolutely chilling. Even if he is up to 70% off. Just 30% of Bagul will probably still mean certain death for you and your loved ones. In fact, someone inadvertently clicking on one of these ads could be the premise for Sinister 2, the sequel.

On the recommendation of several people (well, two — but since one of them was Black Gate ed-in-chief John O’Neill, that should count as several), I selected Sinister as my Hallowe’en 2014 viewing. After the last peals of “trick or treat” had long since dwindled away down the dark, cold streets, and our own little homespun Mrs. Munster (yes, that is what my 5-year-old specifically chose to be this year) and zombie cop had been tucked into their beds to sleep off their Hershey/Mars/Nestle comas, my wife and I inserted the Blu-Ray we’d rented into the player. My wife promptly fell asleep, but that has no bearing on the quality of the movie in question. For the next hour and fifty minutes, I was transfixed. I’ve got to concede: for this genre of film, this one is a high water mark.

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An Infinity of Worlds: Encountering The Madness of Cthulhu

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014 | Posted by G. Winston Hyatt

The Madness of Cthulhu-smallJonathan Mayberry observes in his introduction to The Madness of Cthulhu that H.P. Lovecraft has inspired a subgenre that “already has thousands of stories and hundreds of novels in it, not to mention movies, TV shows, toys, video and board games, and even live-action role playing.” Nowadays, it seems every other horror fiction outing can at least in part be described as “Lovecraftian,” an amorphous adjective that has come to mean so many things that one wonders if it retains any meaning at all. This, as Mayberry points out, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lovecraft didn’t give us one world — he gave us “an infinity of worlds.”

Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness serves as the inspiration for many of the authors in The Madness of Cthulhu. HPL’s reputation among science fiction writers (as well as critics) has always been, as S.T. Joshi states in the anthology’s second introduction, “ambivalent.” At the Mountains of Madness itself is a fine example of both the first-rate and the rather questionable aspects of HPL’s work.

On one hand, it’s masterful in concept and at times in execution. A fusion of Antarctic adventure, science fiction, and early-modern horror, it not only offers chilling passages with an escalating sense of dread and isolation, but also constructs a world horrifying in its implications about mankind.

On the other hand, it includes phrases such as “a myriad of grotesque penguins.” The Antarctic landscape is compared, between two characters, four separate times to “the Asian paintings of Roerich.” HPL is simultaneously brilliant and absurd, at turns deeply unsettling and unintentionally comical. Rather than sweep this ambiguity aside, The Madness of Cthulhu wisely embraces the spectrum of tone and content HPL can inspire.

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October Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1851216pr439k8tThe last few weeks have been particularly busy for me in my real life (as opposed to the one I lead as a dashing blogger-about-town on all things old school Swords & Sorcery) so this won’t be as complete a roundup as I’d like it to be. Fantasy Scroll #3 will have to wait until next month. As for Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I failed to read either issue last month, but looking at October’s authors, I see World Fantasy Award-winning (for the splendid “The Telling“) Gregory Norman Bossert, along with some other talented writers, so let’s just assume you should go check them out for yourself.

What I did manage to read were magazines I never miss – Swords and Sorcery Magazine (#33) and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (#22). I’ve been following the former since the third issue, so I never want to miss out on what happens next. As for HFQ, it’s consistently the best — and my favorite — magazine for heroic fantasy, which means as soon as it hits the electronic superhighway, I try to check it out.

Swords and Sorcery Magazine #33 presents us with its usual quota of two new stories. In ages past, Jonathan Nathaniel De Este, commander of Queen Isabella’s Dark Army and protagonist of Alex B.’s “Black Water“, “drank the Black Water and took the Darkness upon his spirit.” Every other man who did that found himself transformed into a bestial man or a complete beast. Only Jonathan has managed to hold onto a portion of his humanity and prevent himself from being changed externally as well as internally.

It’s an interesting story filled with grisly bits. There’s real potential for some exploration of Jonathan’s past and motives, but it’s not supplied. The mystery over his relationship to a picture of a princess is left only vaguely answered at best.

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Blogging Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, Part Seven – Temple Tower

Saturday, November 15th, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

BD06-01Temple_Tower_1st_edition_book_coverTemple Tower (1929) was the sixth Bulldog Drummond novel and marked a departure from the series formula. Having killed Carl Peterson off at the conclusion of the fourth book and dealt with his embittered mistress Irma’s revenge scheme as the plot of the fifth book, Sapper took the series in an unexpected direction by turning to French pulp fiction for inspiration.

Sapper also placed Hugh Drummond in a supporting role and elevated his loyal friend Peter Darrell to the role of narrator. The subsequent success of the venerable movie series and the future controversies generated by Sapper’s reactionary politics and bigotry obscured the versatility of his narratives and led to his being under-appreciated when considered with his peers.

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Monsters, Lobster Women, and Creepy Cats: Explore the Dark Side of the Circus in Nightmare Carnival

Friday, November 14th, 2014 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Nightmare Carnival-smallDepending on your perspective, a carnival or a circus can generate a host of pleasant or not-so-pleasant associations. You may have been thrilled by lions and elephants performing tricks, riding the Ferris wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl, or even eating popcorn and hotdogs.  Or perhaps you mainly associate carnivals and circuses with less pleasant things… like creepy clowns, freak shows, spooky fortune-tellers, and carnies. (No offense to the people that make carnivals possible!)

A newly released anthology, Nightmare Carnival, tends to present carnivals and circuses from this darker end of the scale. This new collection of dark fantasy and horror is edited by the inestimable Ellen Datlow, editor of scores of genre anthologies and the winner of many, many awards, including the Hugo, the Bram Stoker, the Shirley Jackson, and most recently the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Datlow continues to show her impeccable ability for spotting good and chilling stories with Nightmare Carnival.

I’m a huge fan of Datlow’s horror anthologies. I raved about her latest Year’s Best Horror volume just a few months ago at Black Gate. Some of her efforts are better than others, and Nightmare Carnival is definitely one of Datlow’s better anthologies. As usual, she has corralled an impressive list of authors, as well as a few lesser known (at least to me). I’ll discuss a few of the best stories here.

I’m not familiar with N. Lee Wood, but her story “Scapegoats,” the leadoff story, was excellent. It is mainly told from the perspective of Mae, “The Amazing Lobster Woman,” part of the World Famous Bishop Brothers Traveling Carnival. Through Mae, we become acquainted with the various characters of this train-traveling carnival/circus, particularly a gentle elephant named Madelaine. The story focuses upon the carnival’s arrival in a small town, where an unjust incident involving Madelaine ends with a local man’s death, and the unfair consequences for the carnival. I won’t spoil the ending, but the title should give you some idea. And let me say that the ‘scapegoat’ scene is fairly traumatic. However, the ending offers something of a just desert, at least by some moral compasses.

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Epic Fantasy from the Father of Sword & Soul: Abengoni: First Calling by Charles R. Saunders

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_105284GMwxHNOHAfter DAW killed the fourth Imaro novel, for nearly twenty years Charles R. Saunders’s published swords & sorcery output was limited to only a few short stories. Since 2006, starting with the reprinting of Imaro, new books from him have been appearing at a furious rate. In addition to new novels starring his established S&S characters, Imaro and Dossouye, he introduced a new pulp hero, Damballa.

Abengoni: First Calling (A:FC) is the first book in Charles R. Saunders’s foray into epic fantasy. From one of the masters of the 1970s golden age of swords & sorcery comes a project in the works for the past decade. And thanks to Milton Davis’s MVmedia, it’s seeing the light of day.

Full disclosure here: Milton Davis asked me to preview this book earlier this year and give him a blurb if I felt like it. Well, I jumped at the chance to read a new Charles Saunders book. That’s like asking if I want to hear some unreleased Led Zeppelin tracks before they hit the general public. There was no way I was going to say no. And before I go any further, I love the book and gave Milton this blurb I totally stand by:

“In Abengoni: First Calling, Charles Saunders writes the sort of epic fantasy I want to read. He tells the tale, with its large cast of sharply drawn characters and complex history, in a wonderfully spare and fast-paced style that doesn’t waste time getting to where it’s going. I can’t wait for the next book.”

When Saunders first created Imaro, his literary inspiration was Robert E. Howard. In this book, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is at work. He has specifically cited the two authors as his main influences. But in both cases, what he wrote was inspired by larger issues as well.

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In Praise Of Pavane

Monday, November 10th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Pavane hardcover-smallThe power of place. Where we’ve been, what we see, the lighting and the weather. These things hold us, sink roots into our nervous system; they unfurl massive Yggdrasils that coil within, then twist into memory.

So it must have been for author Keith Roberts, and his encounters with Corfe Castle, in southwest England. He built his story cycle Pavane around Corfe, almost as an homage.

I understand, I do, for I first saw Corfe – indeed, the only time I have ever seen Corfe – in 1976, in the rain, with my family. I was nine, but I have never forgotten that tusk of a castle, the last spike of it spearing skyward from a sharp, steep hill, the flanks yellow-green with shaggy, unkempt grass. A chain-link fence enclosed the base of the hill, and we could not get in.

My father was furious. Rain and all, he’d had plans to hike us up that hill, to see the ruin for ourselves, up close and appropriately personal. Instead, we never got out of our rented car – it really was the soggiest of days, British to the core — but I see that spike of mortared stone to this day, standing proudly in the storm and refusing, absolutely refusing to come down.

So it is for Keith Roberts, as his stories swirl around and finally come to roost at Corfe, a rebuilt Corfe, a Corfe in an alternate history where the keep’s motte and donjon have stood the test of time, and war now, against mighty odds, with Holy Rome.

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Self-Published Book Review: Spirit of a Kyrie by T. L. Rese

Monday, November 10th, 2014 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

If you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines here. I’ve run short on books that I’ve received in the past year, so anything new has a good chance of being reviewed.

Spirit of a Kyrie

I’ve been at World Fantasy this weekend, and I fell a bit behind in writing this review, so it’s a little later than usual. World Fantasy was great fun, where I had the opportunity to spend some time with some of the esteemed luminaries of Black Gate, including Mike Allen and John O’Neill himself. Nonetheless I apologize for the delay.

This month’s book is Spirit of a Kyrie by T. L. Rese. Kityrah is a young girl with ambitions curtailed by her environment. Growing up poor in the Sallarah Desert during a famine, she and her brothers beg and steal to help their family survive on more than their meagre wolly herd. Her older sister arranges for her to be promised to the son of a wealthy family on the Shores, but Kit is unsatisfied with that life, and instead steals away to seek a new one. Through a combination of ambition and boldness, she manages to join the knights. The story is focused on her rise as a Hopeful for each of the various levels of knighthood, starting with Ash, then Furian, and finally Kyrion. For each level, she must pass a difficult and deadly test, one which most of the Hopefuls fail, many dying in the process.

T. L. Rese’s world is rich and detailed and very different from our own. A lot of the difference is in the little things: Coals that you can carry in your hand or your pocket, but that burst into flame on command. The shape-changing weapons carried by the knights, each class of knight bearing a distinct and lethal set of weapons. The wollies who seem to be dog-and-sheep hybrids, and the fire-breathing eira birds. With so much of the world different, it’s not always clear what you should expect. This is especially true when the descriptions are too spare, and the reader is left puzzling over why things work the way they do, expecting the rules to be the same as those in our world when they are not. In a few places, it sounded like the things Kit was doing were physically impossible, and I couldn’t be sure whether it was just that the world was different.

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The Series Series: The Godless by Ben Peek

Friday, November 7th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Godless Ben Peek-smallA fresh, fascinating story hides in this book. The gods are dead — their bodies litter the earth — but their powers leak into the lives of mortal men and women. And sometimes, tragically, children. Deific power is messy. One sprouts extra limbs, trails plagues in one’s wake, or combusts and takes out whole buildings. It’s a curse, isn’t it, to bear such power?

Ayae, a young apprentice cartographer, took refuge in a city built on a dead god’s bones when her homeland fell. Now an army of fanatics marches on her new home and those fanatics seem to want to wake the dead gods. What will Ayae do now that she’s cursed with the local god’s power over fire? She could be a doomsday weapon or a loose cannon that destroys the people she cares about. Her best hope for help in mastering her powers is a man so old he remembers the world as it was before the gods died, fifteen-thousand years ago. He’s been wise. He’s been mad. He has done terrible things with the power that curses him. Ayae wants to trust Zaifyr, but he doesn’t always trust himself. The dead — human and divine — talk to him, and the dead have their own agenda.

Alas, the story is hiding, not in the sense of requiring a brisk readerly workout to piece the clues together, but rather in the sense of having been copyedited so poorly that it’s hard at times to figure out what the author is trying to make many of the sentences say.

I’ve written reviews before of books with lots of promise that could have used one last pass of polishing. This is not that.

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