The Return of a Classic Fantasy Hero: A Review of T.C. Rypel’s Dark Ventures

The Return of a Classic Fantasy Hero: A Review of T.C. Rypel’s Dark Ventures

Gonji 6 DARK VENTURES-small Gonji 6 DARK VENTURES-back-small

Dark Ventures by T.C. Rypel
Wildside Press (212 pages, $14.99 in paperback/$4,99 digital, March 16, 2017)
Original cover painting by film director Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many authors were churning out their own versions of big, iron-muscled barbarian heroes like Conan of Cimmeria. There were exceptions, of course, like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and Jack Vance, to name three authors I’ve always favored. But then along came T.C. Rypel, who hit the ground running with something different, something uniquely his own… his character of Sabatake Gonji-no-Sadowara, the half Scandinavian and half Japanese samurai.

Gonji was truly a breath of fresh air in the genre of Sword and Sorcery, although I think Rypel’s novel are much more epic and actually closer to Heroic Fantasy in scope and theme. His setting wasn’t some imaginary world filled with ancient gods, powerful warlocks and fanciful kingdoms, but was instead deeply rooted in and around Romania and the Carpathian Mountains of the 16th century. Perhaps a parallel world, but close enough to the Europe of that era to lend it a flavor of historical reality. Besides the non-barbaric character of Gonji, who was introspective, poetic, and humble, as well as a total bad ass with a sly sense of humor, what also set Rypel’s novels apart from so many others was the fact that he worked gunpowder and firearms into his stories, right along with the sorcery and creatures and other elements of the fantastic. And like Robert E Howard’s Solomon Kane before him, Rypel made it all work, too.

[Click the images for bigger versions.]

Gonji’s first outing was The Deathwind Trilogy, which includes:

  1. Red Blade from the East
  2. The Soul within the Steel
  3. Deathwind of Vedun
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Gonji 2 The Soul Within the Steel-small Gonji 2 The Soul Within the Steel-back-small
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Rypel is not only a master storyteller, his characters live and breathe and bleed; his characters are memorable, his dialogue spot on, and his human drama written with real emotion. He can write a well-choreographed action scene like no one else, and his Siege of Vedun in book three is one of the best battle scenes I have ever read.

Rypel quickly followed up his trilogy with two more novels: Fortress of Lost Worlds (book 4) is an action-packed, powerful and almost psychedelic voyage through time, space and alternate dimensions. His fifth book in the series, A Hungering of Wolves, is an amazing fantasy with one of the best clan of werewolves I’ve ever read about, and it pretty much closes Gonji’s saga up to that point, tying up loose ends while also leaving the door open for future adventures.

Out of print for many years, this classic series of Heroic Fantasy was finally revised, expanded and republished over the last few years by Wildside/Borgo Press, and this is great news for all of us Gonji fans, and a wonderful opportunity for newer and younger readers to meet this amazing character. The beauty of Rypel’s work, besides the characters and storytelling, is the fact that he didn’t go in for what I call “The Cecil B. DeMille School of Biblical Dialogue,” where every character speaks without using contractions or even a form of slang, where every line of dialogue sounds like a stiff and formal announcement. No, Rypel’s dialogue rings true, with just enough of a modern touch to keep it from being outdated and old-fashioned; each character has a distinctive voice. And Rypel’s prose moves along with a pace that never falters. He knows when to crank it up for action scenes, and when to slow it down for more quiet and intimate scenes of characters interacting through dialogue. Rypel knows how drama should be written, and how action should be written, and he excels at both. His work is as fresh today as it was 30 years ago, and that’s a living testament to his talent.

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Gonji 5 A Hungering of Wolves-small Gonji 5 A Hungering of Wolves-back-small

And now a sixth volume in the saga of Sabatake Gonji-no-Sadowara has recently been released, called Dark Ventures, and it is something quite different from the previous five books. This is an excellent entry point into Gonji’s world, and a fine place to start if you haven’t experienced the other novels.

In Dark Ventures, Rypel has given us two fine novellas and a “teaser” — sample chapters from a forthcoming Gonji novel. These novellas, as well as the teaser, take place at different points during Gonji’s adventures and time spent in Europe. But rather than set each story in chronological order, Rypel has done something different, something that is totally “Rypel.” He starts out with a revised and greatly expanded opening chapter of his fourth novel, Fortress of Lost Worlds. This tale, called “Reflections in Ice,” tells us more about what happened to Gonji and his companions as they traveled across the Pyrenees during a horrendous snowstorm, pursued by the undead warriors and assassins of the Dark Company. Death stalks Gonji and his comrades on their perilous journey, taking its toll on the men, forcing them to fight every step of the way. Rypel makes you feel the clash of swords, the tragic losses, and the breath of every icy wind that blows across the mountains. In the end, all alone, Gonji reflects on his past life as he prepares to confront the horror that awaits him in a lonely ice cave.

This is the perfect set up for the strange and haunting journey that follows. This one is called “Dark Venture,” and it takes us back in time where we meet a much younger Gonji, dishonored and newly-exiled from his home. He sets sail on what turns out to be one of the most horrifying adventures he’s ever experienced. Packed with action and powerful human drama, this is truly a nightmare of a voyage where Gonji and his shipmates are trapped in a Hell born of evil magic, bizarre creatures, and more twists and turns than a roller-coaster.

The third part takes us even further back in time, to before Gonji was even born. This is the opening of the forthcoming seventh volume in the samurai’s saga, Born of Flame and Steel. Here we finally get a glimpse into what is to come. This is the story of how Gonji’s mother, a shipwrecked Viking shield maiden meets his father, Lord Sabatake Todohiro-no-Sadowara. This is a powerful, rousing tale set in feudal Japan during a time of an almost apocalyptic upheaval, when the world is being attacked by the “kaiju” — the first appearance of those giant monsters we’ve all come to know and love. Rypel has cleverly combined not only the origin story of Gonji’s “birth,” he’s also given us the origin of the daikaiju — who make their first appearance in Japan and their first attack against Mankind.

These chapters from the next Gonji novel are the perfect introduction to the first novel in the trilogy, Red Blade from the East, completing the circle that leads us back to Europe and Vedun, where we first met Gonji back in the 1980s. We fans of Gonji are hoping that Rypel gets the opportunity not only to write and publish even more novels of his great samurai, but to tell the life story of this totally unique and non-traditional Heroic Fantasy character. “Dark Ventures” also includes a generous Dedication page (in which, in full disclosure, my name is mentioned), plus an excellent Foreword that is full of insight and information on this amazing saga. There’s also a great, definitive series creation/publication history in the Afterword.

The return of Gonji Sabatake is a cause for epic celebration.

Our previous coverage of T.C. Rypel includes:

For Gonji Lovers: A Hungering of Wolves by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Gonji: Fortress of Lost Worlds by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Gonji: The Deathwind Trilogy by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Joe Bonadonna’s last article for Black Gate was Sailing Against the Tides of Perdition: Pirates in Hell, edited by Janet and Chris Morris.

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t.c. rypel

Wow—what a review, Joe! Is anyone surprised that my gratitude has me groping for some verbal expression beyond “thank you”—?! But, then, that tired old phrase always serves when sincere feeling breathes fresh life into it. And I’m surely feeling it sincerely.

This is a wonderfully concise review that manages to spring-load your tersely accurate review of the contents of the new DARK VENTURES (which is all I was expecting) into a tight and tantalizing overview of the Gonji series to date (an unanticipated bonus). Mighty fine synopsizing of a complex narrative!

This is now officially the go-to review for the series, as far as I’m concerned.

It was very up-front and honest of you to cite your inclusion as a dedicatee in DARK VENTURES, I thought. Now some might see that as some sort of diluting element—“Hah! SURE he likes the book. He shares in its dedication!” But what matters is that you and I know you came by that citation honestly, as a powerful supporter of the Gonji books since you came by them back in the 1980s Zebra editions. And you’ve never held back your criticisms of narrative content that didn’t work for you. Your reviewing has thus acquired authoritative weight over the years.

So I thank you humbly for taking the time out of your own crowded writing agenda to pen this piece. I’ll display it proudly on the Gonji Fictional Character FB page, my own Ted Rypel page, and elsewhere.

Arigato from Gonji and his time-and-space-flung cohorts!

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