Taking the Prize for Strange Worldbuilding: Jon Sprunk’s Book of the Black Earth

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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Blade and Bone, the long-awaited third book in Jon Sprunk’s Book of the Black Earth series, finally arrives next week. Here’s Sarah Avery from her enthusiastic review of the first one, Blood and Iron:

Of all the wild re-envisionings of the Crusades I’ve seen lately, Jon Sprunk’s Blood and Iron may be the wildest. His alternate-universe Europeans are recognizably European, but the opposing culture they face is that of a Babylonian Empire that never fell. And why has this Babylon-by-another-name persisted for thousands of years, so powerful that only its own internal strife can shake it? Because its royals actually have the supernatural powers and demi-god ancestry that the ruling class of our world’s Fertile Crescent claimed…

Jon Sprunk’s book takes the prize for strange worldbuilding. The Akeshian Empire is approximately what the Akkadian Empire might have looked like, had each of its major cities lasted as long and urbanized as complexly as Rome did… Blood and Iron is overall a strong book, full of powerful imagery and a vivid sense of place, with intriguing historical what-ifs and a sense of moral urgency to match its sense of moral complexity.

Here’s the description for the third volume, Blade and Bone.

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

WZRDFRTHST1968As I wrote last time, this excursion through the bookshelves of my younger days was inspired by the recent death of Ursula K. Le Guin. I haven’t read much Le Guin outside the Earthsea books; most of her work hasn’t appealed to me. But the Earthsea books, especially the initial trilogy — A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972) — did and, I was glad to find out, still do.

In my article, “Why I’m Here: Part Two,” I described the Elric books as being like samizdat passed around between my friends and me. With so few books actually out there, we fellow fantasy fans read anything we could find, and in turn got it all into everyone else’s hands and read everything they passed along to us. After The Lord of the Rings, I’m sure there were no books as read, and read as often, as Le Guin’s three slender volumes.

There are several whys. The easiest is they are way cool, at least the first and the third. The second is more of a Gothic, and lacks the dragon-battling and dark magic of the others, like this:

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Gods, Mortals, Sons, and Daughters: Storm Seed by Janet and Chris Morris

Monday, February 19th, 2018 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

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While Storm Seed is the final volume in the iconic Sacred Band series to appear in a brand-new, Author’s Cut edition, it isn’t the last book in the series. The story takes place after the Sacred Band has been disbanded, after the events in Beyond Wizardwall and The City at the Edge of Time. Storm Seed follows on the heels of Tempus Unbound, and precedes the epic story of The Sacred Band.

Once again Team Morris delivers another outstanding novel in their classic “Chronicles of the Sacred Band,” as I always refer to them. Crisp prose, engaging characters, and a well-crafted plot carry this one right to the very end. This is Heroic Fantasy on a grand and epic scale, inspired by ancient mythology merged with a “lost” history of the world. All the tropes of the genre are here: wizards, witches, magic, ghosts, gods, dragons, and so much more. But these ingredients are used with a weight of reality to them, and in a manner I can only describe as “uniquely Morris.” Storm Seed is a story about love and loyalty, family and comradeship. And for all the elements of the fantastic, this novel is grounded in the veracity of its characters, and in the human drama and dynamics of their relationships. Almost everyone has a quest of their own to undertake, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace as the various events take one twist and turn after another until all the characters and plot-lines come together.

It seems like a reunion as so many characters from previous novels return to share the stage. Team Morris does a splendid job of giving the members of their cast equal time; almost everyone has a storyline of their own. Tempus the Black and Niko, his right-side companion, are here. Also present and accounted for: the goddess Jihan, the powerful Froth Daughter; Randal the allergy-prone wizard; Roxane the witch you really don’t want to get involved with; Cime the wizard slayer who is a real force to be reckoned with; Kama, Tempus’ daughter and warrior. The Sacred Banders Strat, Crit, and Gayle are also here, as well as Enlil the Storm God, Abarsis the Slaughter Priest, and even Strat’s Ghost Horse.

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Future Treasures: The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin

Thursday, February 15th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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Peadar O’Guilin has been one of our most prolific and popular contributors. He published his first story with us, “The Mourning Trees,” in Black Gate 5 (Spring 2003), and followed it with “Where Beauty Lies in Wait” (BG 11), “The Evil Eater” (BG 13), and “The Dowry,” which appeared as part of our Black Gate Online Fiction catalog.

His fourth novel The Call (2016) was an international sensation; here’s Howard Andrew Jones from his 2016 interview with Peadar:

What I discovered was a novel absolutely deserving of the hype it has received — a dystopian YA story about a fractured society, with heroic teenaged protagonists who are realistic AND don’t whine. There are moments of chilling otherworldly horror owing to the frequent presence of the fae folk, the force behind the terrible situation facing these Irish children. And there’s excellent pacing and characterization, and growth…

After keeping the world on tether hooks for the past two years, Peadar has finally revealed a sequel, The Invasion. It arrives in hardcover from David Fickling Books on March 27. Here’s the description.

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New Treasures: Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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As Rachael Acks, Alex Acks published some two dozen stories in places like Lightspeed, Shimmer, and Mothership Zeta. For novels he uses the name Alex Wells; his first, Hunger Makes the Wolf, was released last March by Angry Robot, and it got praised by a whole lot of people I respect. E Catherine Tobler said “It has a wonderful weird west vibe and some of the phrasing is simply delicious… Alex crafts a host of fascinating characters here – the Weathermen, the Bone Collector – and I reckon you’re going to love their adventures.” And at Tor.com, Liz Bourke said “It’s a science fiction Western thriller, and it is great, and I’m really, intensely, eagerly looking forward to the sequel.”

Well I have good news for Liz: the sequel has arrived. Blood Binds the Pack was released last week, it sounds as engaging as the first, and I ordered a copy as soon as it was available. Here’s the description.

War is coming to Hob Ravani’s world. The company that holds it in monopoly, TransRift Inc, has at last found what they’re looking for — the source of the power that enables their Weathermen to rip holes in space and time, allowing the interstellar travel all of human society now takes for granted. And they will mine every last grain of it from Tanegawa’s World no matter the cost.

Since Hob Ravani used her witchy powers to pull a massive train job and destroy TransRift Inc’s control on this part of the planet, the Ghost Wolves aren’t just outlaws, they’re the resistance. Mag’s miner collective grows restless as TransRift pushes them ever harder to strip the world of its strange, blue mineral. Now Shige Rollins has returned with a new charge — Mr Yellow, the most advanced model of Weatherman, infused with the recovered mineral samples and made into something stranger, stronger, and deadlier than before. And Mr Yellow is very, very hungry.

Blood Binds the Pack was published by Angry Robot on February 6, 2018. It is 496 pages, priced at $8.99 in paperback and $6.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Ignacio Lazcano. Read the first two chapters here.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Book of Three-smallBear with me for a bit. With the death of Ursula K. Le Guin a few weeks ago, I began thinking about her Earthsea books. They were among the earliest non-Tolkien fantasy books I read. I loved them as a kid, I’ve read them three or four times since, and have fond memories of them. I’ll be looking at the first, A Wizard of Earthsea, next time. Thinking about those books got me thinking about a series I actually read even more times and have even fonder memories of: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

Beginning with The Book of Three (1964), Lloyd Alexander created what has to be one of the first genre-fantasy uses of Celtic mythology (yes, Alan Garner had turned to Celtic themes in his Alderly Edge books, but those books are set in contemporary Britain, not a secondary world). Specifically, he drew on that complex and complicated compendium of Welsh tales, the Mabinogion, for inspiration and names. In this book, the four that follow, and a later collection of short stories, Alexander reworked the idiosyncratic legends into something any modern reader of fantasy would recognize immediately. Gone are the stories of women made from flowers, a human prince trading places with the god of the afterlife, and a king who is gigantic enough to wade to Ireland, and instead, a much more straightforward of a boy learning about the perils and responsibilities of heroism. Considering his intended audience was elementary school readers, it makes perfect sense to simplify, and to introduce a greater degree of coherence. I also imagine many young readers, like I was, were intrigued enough by Alexander’s books to track down the real legends.

In addition to being one of the earliest glosses on Celtic themes, The Book of Three is one of the first times Tolkien’s dark lord trope seeped into the genre. Instead of being a fairly benign lord of the afterlife as he is in the Mabinogion, Arawn is reconfigured as a mostly standard issue dark lord. The original’s mythic paradise, Annwn, is reconstructed here as a dread realm. Rereading The Book of Three for the first time in at least ten years, I was quite happy that I still enjoyed it, but seeing it with older eyes exposed gears and wires I hadn’t paid a mind to before.

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Future Treasures: Flotsam by RJ Theodore

Sunday, February 11th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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I’m not familiar with Parvus Press, and that looks like an oversight on my part. Their first book, Scott Warren’s Vick’s Vultures, the opening volume in the Union Earth Privateers space opera series, arrived in October 2016; it was followed by two releases in 2017. According to their website they have a total of five releases planned for 2018:

Parvus Press LLC was founded in 2016 by two lifelong friends, Colin Coyle and Eric Ryles. John Adamus joined us shortly thereafter as Managing Editor because a publisher without an editor is like a world without dogs. You can live with it, but why? We are a publisher of speculative fiction, passionate about great stories, and committed to publishing the next generation of great creative minds. Parvus has sold over 10,000 copies of our titles to date and will release four novels and one amazing anthology of short fiction in 2018 for your reading pleasure. We are headquartered in Northern Virginia and look forward to meeting you all soon!

Their first title of the year, Flotsam, is the opening novel in the Peridot Shift trilogy by RJ Theodore. I received a copy in the mail a few weeks ago, with this friendly note from Colin tucked inside:

Enclosed, you will find Flotsam, our fourth release. It’s a wonderful blend of space opera and steampunk bound together with a dash of magic. It’s a great read for anyone who appreciates bold characters and adventure. I hope you’ll consider giving Flotsam a read.

The entire Parvus Press line-up looks exciting, and I’m very much looking forward to diving into the world of Flotsam. It arrives in on March 27. It is 402 pages, priced at $14.99 in trade paperback and $6.99 for the digital version. The beautiful cover is by Julie Dillon. Sign up to read Chapter One here, and get all the details at the Parvus Press website.

Vintage Treasures: Solomon Kane 1: Skulls in the Stars by Robert E. Howard

Saturday, February 10th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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I’m treading a little on Bob Byrne’s territory with this lengthy post, so I hope he’ll forgive me.

The first Robert E. Howard character I discovered wasn’t Conan, but Solomon Kane. The story was “Skulls in the Stars,” originally published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales, and which I read in the 1969 Centaur Press collection The Moon of Skulls. Kane is about to cross a great moor when a lad from the village he’s just left races up behind him, urging him to take the longer swamp road instead. When pressed, the boy tells him why.

“It is death to walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his victims.”

“So? And what is this thing like?”

“No man knows. None has ever seen it and lived, but late-farers have heard terrible laughter far out on the fen and men have heard the horrid shrieks of its victims.”

Well of course, that just serves to fire up our doughty hero (“A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go.”) And go he doth, right out onto the moor with the creepy horror and everything.

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Future Treasures: Warhammer 40k: The Magos by Dan Abnett

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

The Magos Dan Abnett-smallThree years ago, as I was commuting three hours a day to a job I hated, I found a way to add a little joy to my tedious morning drive. I started listening to the Warhammer Audio Books produced by Heavy Entertainment for Black Library.

And man, what a delight they were. Not just readings, these were full-cast audio dramas, with wonderfully produced sound effects and professional voice actors like Toby Longworth, Gareth Armstrong, Jonathan Keeble, and many others. I’d pull into the parking lot with the sound of ricocheting bolter fire and space marine battle cries echoing in my ear, and it made getting out of the car and starting the long walk into work a little easier.

I enjoyed virtually all of those action-packed audio dramas, but I think my favorite was Dan Abnett’s Thorn and Talon: From the Case Files of Eisenhorn and Ravenor, an anthology of tales of the dedicated Imperial Inquisitor Eisenhorn and his apprentice Ravenor, as they came up again Chaos plots, strange warp artifacts, and more dangerous things.

That was my introduction to the tales of Inquisitor Eisenhorn. Although truthfully, if I’d just listened to my friends Howard Andrew Jones and John Denardo, I could have saved myself a lot of time. Way back in 2009 Howard raved about Abnett’s Eisenhorn omnibus, a fat volume collecting all three novels of the Eisenhorn trilogy and a handful of shorter works:

Dan Abnett wasn’t satisfied with creating a fabulous lead character in an action-packed space opera; he sent him to fantastic places and provides a series of detective/investigative stories full of logical turns, surprises, and plenty of action.

And in his 2016 article ‘In Defense of Media Tie-Ins,” John wrote:

One of the best set of books I’ve ever read — in any genre — was the Eisenhorn trilogy by Dan Abnett. The books are set in the richly-imagined Warhammer 40K universe… Abnett is a one of the most skilled master storytellers you’ve never heard of. This is the series that I point to when anyone is quick to dismiss tie-in fiction… I don’t play the game, but that didn’t stop me from losing sleep because I couldn’t stop turning page after action-packed page, or cheering when a bad guy finally got his comeuppance.

The long-awaited fourth book in the Eisenhorn series finally arrives next month. The Magos, a fat 720-page volume, collects a dozen Eisenhorn short stories and a brand new novel. Here’s the description.

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Unbound Worlds on a Century of Sword and Planet

Friday, February 2nd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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Who doesn’t love Sword & Planet? No, don’t send me a bunch of declarative e-mail; it was a rhetorical question. Anyway, there’s only one kind of person who doesn’t love Sword & Planet: someone with no joy in their life.

But it’s perfectly okay to not know where to start. Despite celebrating its 100th birthday last year, Sword & Planet is not as popular as its sister genres (Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Six-Gun, Sword and Sandal, Sword & Sextant, Sword & Slupree….). And that’s okay, we love it just the same. But what is Sword & Planet? Matt Staggs does a fine job recapping the rich history of this venerable sub-genre at Unbound Worlds.

Mash together fantasy’s sword-swinging heroes, and the far-out alien civilizations of early science-fiction, and you’ve got Sword and Planet fiction. Arguably the brainchild of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sword and Planet tales usually features human protagonists adventuring on a planet teeming with life, intelligent or otherwise. Science takes a backseat to romance and derring-do… Where Sword and Planet can really be seen today is in the influence it has had on popular culture. The lightsabers, blasters, and planet-hopping heroics of Star Wars probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Sword and Planet. Neither would Avatar or Stargate.

Interested? Matt also recommends some classic titles by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Kenneth Bulmer, Chris Roberson, and others. Here’s a few of his recs.

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