Ask a published writer at any level and they’ll tell you writing is, in some respect, a colossal pain in the ass. (Can’t remember if I’m allowed to say “ass” here but let’s leave it and see what happens.) Superstar authors with massive advances and multi-book deals rightfully claim that it’s tough to maintain the passion when writing becomes the day job. Folks at the opposite end of that career spectrum point out how demoralizing it is trying to break in. We’re all at the mercy of luck, circumstance, editor whims, etc, and it can be tough. But we’re passionate about telling stories, so we keep doing it anyway.
Readers typically differentiate stereotypical High Fantasy (elves, dwarves, wizards-with-pointy-hats with a slant toward happy adventuring) vs. Low Fantasy (more “realism” & “earthier” milieu, with a focus on humans defending trenches at a battlefront or crawling through crypts to save a maiden or rob a god). The latter encompasses sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery and the contemporary-named Grimdark.
Why stop at regular Grimdark when you can go further? This post highlights two New Treasures that are arguably Grimdark, but still push the boundaries of what is expected. At the very least, they should appeal to dark fantasy readers who desire something fresh (whatever label the books deserve). To learn if these are right for you, read on:
Ten Low by Stark Holborn (Titan Books, June 2021). Cover design by Julia Llyod
I spend a lot of time browsing new releases online. But you know what? Nothing beats a trip to the bookstore. As I wandered through the well-stocked science fiction section of Barnes & Noble last Saturday I found no less than four new releases that insisted on coming home with me.
Perhaps the most interesting was Stark Holborn’s latest Ten Low, which The Book Beard calls “stunning… gritty, intriguing sci-fi/ Western brilliance.” Here’s a snippet from Publisher’s Weekly‘s warm review.
The House of Styx (Solaris, May 2021). Cover uncredited.
It’s been a genuine pleasure to watch Derek Künsken’s career take off. We published his third story in Black Gate 15, and he’s been a blogger with us since 2013, publishing nearly 200 articles here. But it’s his recent novels that have really grabbed the spotlight, including The Quantum Magician (2018) and The Quantum Garden (2019).
His latest is The House of Styx, released in hardcover by Solaris in May, and this one has breakout novel written all over it. SciFiNow calls it “Stunning,” Locus labels it “Wonderful,” and Library Journal proclaims it an “electrifying planetary adventure.” Here’s an excerpt from the rave review at Publishers Weekly.
The Best of James Blish (Del Rey, 1979). Cover by H. R. Van Dongen
The Best of James Blish (1979) was the twenty-first (and penultimate!) installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. (Only one more to go!) Science fiction author Robert A. W. Lowndes (1916–1998) provided the introduction — his only one in the series. Sci-fi artist H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) provides the ninth cover in the series, the most used artist of the series.
James Blish (1921–1975) was an American science fiction and sometimes fantasy author. He was one of the original Futurians, and besides writing oodles of short fiction and novels, he became also well-known for writing a series of Star Treknovelizations with his second wife J. A. Lawrence. According to Wikipedia, Blish is credited with inventing the term “gas giant” to refer to large planetary bodies. Blish is someone I had never read before, but whose name often comes up in discussion of classic science fiction.
Mars, We Love You (Pyramid Books, 1973) and its British reprint, The Book of Mars (Orbit, 1976). Covers: unknown (left), and Patrick Woodroffe (right)
The 70s was the golden age of science fiction anthologies, and especially themed anthologies. You didn’t find a lot of books collecting SF cat tales, mermaid legends, or vampire love stories in those days (not that there’s anything wrong with those, I hasten to add).
But take Mars, We Love You, for example. Originally published in hardcover in 1971, the heyday of the Mariner program, it was an affectionate look back at classic SF about the Red Planet. It was a goodbye to the pulp dream of Mars, really, in the cold new age of space probes, which closed the door forever on the SFnal vision of a sister world of planet-spanning canals, ancient Martian civilizations, and alien wonder. Though tinged with pulp nostalgia, and a yearning for a time when many of us still dreamed of finding intelligent life right here in our own solar system, Mars, We Love You is nonetheless a fine anthology that makes enjoyable reading today.
As you might deduce from the title, Perry Rhodan NEO is a newer rebooted take on the original Perry Rhodan series. It’s not so new in its homeland of Germany, where this version has been running since 2011 — although printed in its native language, of course. Having this particular series available digitally in English however, is definitely a brand-new development.
Despite its status as the world’s longest-running serialized science fiction story, it’s relatively unknown to most members of the English-speaking public. That’s not what drew my own interest though, as I first discovered Perry Rhodan back in its original English-language version decades ago, when it was published in paperback by Ace Books (when I was still in grade six?!). So, one might say that it had a fairly formative effect on my interest in the whole genre, or that it held some reasonably large amount of interest for me, at least…!
The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman (Tor Books, May 2021)
Christopher Buehlman has accumulated an impressive rep with some powerful horror novels over the past decade. Those Across the River was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, The Lesser Dead won the American Library Association’s award, andThe Suicide Motor Club made The Best Horror Books of 2016 list at the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.
His latest is an interesting departure — the kick-off for an epic fantasy series. One thing it has in common with his previous books? The critics love it. Here’s an excerpt from Paul Di Filippo and Adrienne Martini’s joint review at Locus Online.
One of the problems with writing about great works is there’s so little for me to add to the volumes and volumes written by writers far and away more knowledgable than I. Still, maybe I can bring a newcomer’s eye to books that have nourished the roots of fantasy, and maybe encourage a few others to pick them up. So I shall ramble for a piece about William Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest (ca. 1610).
The Tempest is believed to have been performed only a few times during Shakespeare’s lifetime, including once in 1611 for King James I at Whitehall Palace on Hallowmas night. It became part of the standard theatrical repertoire during the Restoration starting in 1660, but was edited to appeal more to upper-class audiences and support royalist policies. Finally, in 1838, when actor William Charles Macready staged an incredibly elaborate production using the unedited script, Shakespeare’s original became the preferred version.
Along with several other of Shakespeare’s final plays, including The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, The Tempest is categorized as a romance, fitting into none of the standard tragedy, comedy, or history categories. His later works, perhaps reflecting his own changing nature, changing tastes, and the growth of more elaborate productions, mix the comic and tragic, along with magic and mystical elements. The Tempest showcases this evolution brilliantly.
The Red Man and Others (March 2021). Cover artist uncredited
Back in May I was contacted by author Remco van Straten, who was promoting his new Heroic Fantasy collection The Red Man and Others, written with Angeline B. Adams. Here’s what he told me.
These are interconnected stories around a small but tough sell-sword, Kalia, her disabled forger girlfriend Ymke, and their teenage thief and con-artist protégé Sebastien, each with a grudge against the Brotherhood of the Wheel. In their attempts to get back at the cult, they find each other, and a new purpose for their skills. The paperback is illustrated throughout and also contains background material.
I’m a sucker for modern heroic fantasy, so I was glad to take a look. And what I found was a well-packaged collection that has already garnered some surprising attention.