Waters of Darkness is the new novel from David C. Smith and Joe Bonadonna, published by Damnation Books. Longtime readers of my column will recognize Bonadonna as the author of the well-received sword & sorcery title, Mad Shadows and the recent space fantasy, Three Against the Stars. David C. Smith will be familiar to Robert E. Howard fans for his series of Red Sonja novels in the 1980s.
The shade of Robert E. Howard lingers over every page of Waters of Darkness, the first collaboration by these two talented authors to see print.
The principal characters, Crimson Kate O’Toole and Bloody Red Buchanan, would have fit in nicely had this 17th Century swashbuckler first seen print in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1930s. A quest for fabled treasure sets these two buccaneers sailing for the Isle of Shadow in the far distant Eastern Seas.
They find themselves combating an evil priest of Dagon and the sorcerer in his thrall along the way and most of the crew of the Raven pays the cost for their having crossed paths.
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Three Against the Stars is the second book I’ve read by Joe Bonadonna. Unlike his sword & sorcery work, this marks a venture into pure space fantasy. My knowledge of the genre is admittedly spotty. I was unfamiliar with the works of Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith, who are both cited as influences, but part of the joy of genre fiction is that one does not need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all that has gone before since the influences are so pervasive, much of it strikes one as easily recognizable.
This tale of space marines calls to mind the works of Robert Heinlein, while the space war itself strongly reminded me of Malcolm Hulke’s early seventies Doctor Who serial, “Frontier in Space” with the Earth Empire brought to the brink of war with the lizard-like Draconian Empire thanks to acts of terror committed by the apelike Ogrons. What sets Bonadonna’s work apart from so many others who share similar influences is that he is able to authentically capture the fun and innocence without sacrificing intelligent commentary on war and imperialism.
This is an Airship 27 publication and art director Rob Davis does his usual stellar job of ensuring that their titles stand out as the most eye-catching on the market today. Laura Givens’s cover art perfectly captures the space fantasy artwork from publishers like Ace, Lancer, Del Rey, and Ballantine from decades past. Interior black & white illustrations by Pedro Cruz have a classy retro-style that one associates more with slicks than pulps. The decision to go with a more sophisticated style of illustration is well-suited to Bonadonna’s story, which has familiar elements, but offers a more philosophical dimension than one generally finds in pulp fiction.
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Growing up in the 1970s, the Ballantine editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series and the Ace Conan series were part of my steady diet. Seminal pulp fiction graced with stunning cover art by the likes of Neal Adams, Boris Vallejo, and Frank Frazetta. The cover art for the Conan books perfectly captured a bygone savage world that never existed in mankind’s past, but should have. While most Robert E. Howard fans have long since rejected these editions because of the sometimes gratuitous changes made to the original text, the impact of the Conan paperback series on the proliferation of the fantasy subgenre cannot be underestimated.
My own passion for sword & sorcery waned somewhere around the time that Robert Jordan took up his pen to tell bolder and ever more sweeping tales of the Hyborian Age for Tor Books that dwarfed the originals without ever capturing the same sense of wonder. I closed the book on that chapter of my life not long after starting junior high and never expected to revisit it. Flash forward to 2012 when I discovered Mad Shadows: the Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser by Joe Bonadonna and found that sometimes you can go home again.
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