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Frontguard Sword and Sorcery: John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis

Frontguard Sword and Sorcery: John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis

A Sorcerer of Atlantis (Hippocampus Press, 2021). Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

A Sorcerer of Atlantis: With A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts

John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis: With A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts, published by Hippocampus Press (2021), includes two autonomous works: the novel A Sorcerer of Atlantis, which relates the hack-and-slash and demon-haunted adventures of Brimm the Half-Savant and Snoori, his mischievous, short-statured, mustachioed sidekick; and the novella, “A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts,” a haunting gateway fantasy that evokes the trans-dimensional tales of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber and the psycho-cartographic tradition of Dante’s Inferno.

Although bound together, both works are distinct, excellent reading experiences. Nevertheless, both works might be equally labeled “sword and sorcery,” the pulp fantasy literary tradition of Robert E. Howard. Indeed, one of the joys of this book is how it showcases the dramatic range of that pulp tradition as it evolved after Howard. Put simply, Shirley’s book is no mere pastiche, the re-hashing of a passé sword and sorcery formula, although A Sorcerer of Atlantis does engage Weird Tales and Henry Kuttner nostalgia. Instead, Shirley’s unique work reminds us that the purview of sword and sorcery is a wide, unfolding, and dynamic literary conversation that is heating up today.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
(Tor Books, May 2021). Cover by Marie Bergeron

“Christophe the Insulter” was for years the single funniest performer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin, with one of the best cons… er…. shows: Pay me to insult your friends in front of an audience. The more you pay, the more I roast them. It was dark, it was brutal, it was wickedly funny and everyone went away feeling good — even the victims.

Interestingly, that sums up the writing of Christophe’s real identity as horror (and now fantasy) writer Christopher Buehlman; a man whose growing canon of work is filled with some of the most disturbing and dark portrayals of classic horrors — vampires, werewolves, demons (and angels, who are pretty scary, too), and necromancers — but also moments of just brilliant, wicked humor and you always close the back cover deeply satisfied. Consequently, I was deeply excited to read his first foray into mainstream fantasy — The Blacktongue Thief.

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A Hero Named Mayhem

A Hero Named Mayhem

Johnny Mayhem, man of a thousand faces, leaping from body to body, putting right things that had once went…no wait! That’s the television show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989 to 1993. Never mind. Decades before Sam Beckett went leaping through time, there was another bodiless adventurer doing much the same thing. His name was Johnny Mayhem.

Illustration from “My Name is Mayhem,” (Amazing Stories, September 1955). Artwork by Kotzky.

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Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Murder begets murder, everybody dies, usually badly, and the gods are bastards. Those are the lessons taught in The Saga of the Volsungs, the history of the doomed Volsung family. The historical events reflected in the saga took place between the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries AD, a period of great tribal migrations and unrest among the Germanic people of Central and Eastern Europe.

Starting around 1000 BC, tribes from the region now called Scandinavia began migrating south and west into present-day Germany, pushing out the Celtic tribes, before running up against the Roman Empire along a frontier that extended from the mouth of the Rhine River and all along it and the Danube River to the Black Sea. To the east, German kingdoms stretched as far as the Pontic Steppe in modern Ukraine and Russia. At the end of the 4th Century AD, the Huns came roaring out of the distant East and began conquering or driving out the German tribes in Eastern and Central Europe. The historic destruction of the Kingdom of Burgundy by the Huns in 436 AD is a major part of the saga, though scaled down from war to a family feud. It is in this age of chaos and death that the stories of the Volsungs were born. The oldest artistic representations of the Volsunga Saga are found in stone carvings in Ramslund, Sweden, but it wasn’t written down until the late 13th century, in Iceland. The more well-known German telling of the story, The Nibelungenlied, was written earlier, about 1200 AD. Wagner drew on both as sources for his epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

If the courtly tales of King Arthur and Roland point toward high fantasy, this German legend and its ilk point straight to sword & sorcery. There are no great heroes moved by devotion to home and family to pursue noble deeds, only murderers driven by greed or vengeance to commit deeds of great violence. Good and evil are abstractions that have no place in a blood-drowned age. The violence is direct and driven by personal motives far more often than by ideals or the needs of any kingdom.

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Explore the Beautiful Darkness: Worlds Beyond Worlds by John R. Fultz

Explore the Beautiful Darkness: Worlds Beyond Worlds by John R. Fultz

Worlds Beyond Worlds by John R. Fultz
DMR Books (182 pages, $12.99 in trade paperback, April 3, 2021)
Cover by Brian LeBlanc

Volume I: Transcending the Illusions of Modernity and Reason.: The first thing you must understand is that the One True World is not a figment of your imagination, and it does not lie in some faraway dimension. To help you understand the relationship between the True World and the False, you must envision the True World lying beneath the False, as a man can lay hidden beneath a blanket, or a woman’s true face can be hidden by an exquisite mask.

(Fultz, “The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria” )

You Want A Piece of Me?

The Brian LeBlanc cover of Worlds Beyond Worlds: The Short Fiction of John R. Fultz shows the revenant Chivaine displaying the trophy head of his enemy. As a reader, do you want to accept his challenge? You are invited to explore the beautiful darkness. The tile and cover set up expectations well, so get ready to explore planetary landscapes, witches, twisted creatures, and villainous heroes. Worlds Beyond Worlds is exactly what it says, a collection that takes the reader/protagonists into other worlds which are beyond even stranger ones.

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In 500 Words or Less: Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

In 500 Words or Less: Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

Never Say You Can’t Survive
By Charlie Jane Anders
Tor (240 pages, $22.99 hardcover/13.99 eBook, August 17, 2021)

Let’s talk writing for a minute.

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.

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Fringe Grimdark: Crimson Crown by BJ Swann, and Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu

Fringe Grimdark: Crimson Crown by BJ Swann, and Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu

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:

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IMHO: A SECOND LOOK — The Silistra Quartet by Janet E. Morris

IMHO: A SECOND LOOK — The Silistra Quartet by Janet E. Morris


Cover art by Roy Mauritsen

Janet Morris is a prolific author and has published a library’s worth of fantastic novels, enough to keep a reader busy for years. She has written everything from science fiction and heroic fantasy, to historical fiction and modern-day thrillers, many of them in collaboration with her husband, Chris Morris. Among her many novels are Outpassage, The 40-Minute War, The Kerrion Empire Saga, The Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy, and The Sacred Band. In addition, Janet and Chris were among the original writers who contributed to Thieves’ World, the shared-world fantasy series first published by Baen Books in 1979. In 1986, the duo created, Heroes in Hell ™, their shared-universe series of anthologies and novels; they also edited and contributed stories to this Saga of the Damned. That series was first published by Baen Books, and ran from 1986 to 1989. In 2011, Perseid Press “resurrected” the series, and it has been going strong ever since. But I digress.

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Vision Terrania: Perry Rhodan NEO, Volume One by Frank Borsch & Christian Montillon

Vision Terrania: Perry Rhodan NEO, Volume One by Frank Borsch & Christian Montillon

Perry Rhodan NEO (J-Novel Club)

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…!

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Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Title page from the First Folio

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.

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