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Welcome to Sword and Sorcery Reviews . My name is Christopher Rowe. This blog is mainly dedicated to reviewing contemporary short fiction in...

Monday, December 19, 2022

August Reviews

 August saw the release of new issues of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Savage Realms Monthlyand the ever-reliable Swords and Sorcery Magazine. I’m also covering two stories I overlooked in last month’s Book of Blades anthology.

Starting with Heroic Fantasy Quarterly’s Issue #53I’ll first consider Mike Adamson’s “Crown of Azt’nyr.” This is, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. A standard warrior-rescues-the-princess story somewhat redeemed by the fact that the princess turns out to be—crucially—magically adept at the end, this is over-written and under-edited.


Better is Gregory Mele’s “The Path of Two Entwined, A Tale of Azatlán,” which is at least

the third in a series. This piece makes use of cultural and historical motifs from the historic Southwestern United States and from Meso-America. For all that the accompanying illustration suggests that the invading “Tall People” in the story resembled something like Greek hoplites, they are Meso-American analogues. Our principal protagonist, on the other hand, is part of a confederation of tribes being suborned by a bad actor of a chief and a worse acting wise woman. There’s plenty of action here, and creditable worldbuilding, with only some slight distraction from a bit of unnecessary point of view shifts. But trust me when I say that’s slight. This is a good story. 


Finally, D.H. Rowe makes a welcome debut with “The Waking Gods,” a story that mines the rich mythic traditions of the Maori and South Pacific Islanders, complete with a swift sailing, loud boasting culture hero and a bevy of symbols and creatures nicely integrated into what is, at its bottom, the story of a warrior assaulting the strong place of a malevolent god. What’s more sword and sorcery than that? The hero, Hekili, is simultaneously obnoxious and charming, clever and thick, and Rowe (no relation) maneuvers character and plot towards a twist ending that I found very satisfying.

Savage Realms Monthly published their 14th issue this month (Amazon softcover • Amazon Kindle • Kindle Plus) with three new stories.


Alexander Hay gives us “A Walk in the Garden,” a story which may not meet strict definitions of the subgenre, but which has an interesting conceit at its heart. A wizard, Ashford, is the victim of a metastasizing cancer caused by his own magic and has chosen to spend his final days combatting a similar toxic growth in a sacred garden built millennia ago by “the First People.” That’s an excellent idea, and there are some very good lines in this piece. Unfortunately, it suffers from an undisciplined approach to structure, moving back and forth in time in a way that it’s clear the author doesn’t have control of—a pattern exists but when it’s subverted, it isn’t to good effect. There are also some distracting copyediting oversights.


Also disappointing, almost, it seems, by intention, is Richard Toogood’s failed attempt at satire, “Bellico and the Brain Predator.” The title lands with an intentional thud, but I doubt Toogood wants to lose readers as quickly as he lost me. This is thinly disguised reactionary stuff, delivered with the lack of panache and paucity of wit typical of such exercises in the flexing of non-existent authorial muscles.


Luckily, the issue is somewhat redeemed by the presence of debut author Simon Waltho, who gives us “A Hungry Season,” the story of an exciting incident in the life of an 11th century Saxon swordswoman named Ælfrith. We start with our heroine awakening on a remote hillock in the fens, just managing to remember being assaulted by someone she took to be a “Cornishman.” Events proceed at a swift pace as Ælfrith escapes her bonds, tracks her foe to his lair, discovers the corpse of an apparent witch, and uncovers a tremendous treasure in silver. The appearance of a genuinely original shapeshifting swamp hag lends spark to this piece, which is somewhat marred by its abrupt ending and brevity. A promising new author, here.


Swords and Sorcery Magazine has three stories to consider this time around.


Stephen C. Curro offers “After the Adventure,” very much a “told tale.” There are some wonderful lines here,  such as: “Mira ate stories, breathed them, wrapped herself in them like a snug blanket.” But the lack of action makes this a stretch to be considered sword and sorcery.


A Tree With Rotting Roots” by Jamie Lackey includes some genuinely frightening sorcery in the form a wood hag who has, essentially, offered asylum to a young woman who lashed out against an abusive nobleman with deadly effect. The knight sent to bring her to justice learns about the injustices prevalent in his society and the story takes a hard turn into something unexpected. This piece is somewhat marred by a rushed ending, but is worth your time.


Joshua Turner is a good line-by-line writer, as is evidenced in his story this month, “The Fishmonger.” I must admit to having a personal prejudice against dialect rendered phonetically instead of through the use of diction and context, so the “old salt” dialogue here threw me out of the story. Many readers won’t have that problem, though. This story does not benefit from being part of a series, depending too much on knowledge of previous entries. Here, a nobleman and his sorceress companion undertake a supernatural investigation that involves the disappearances of some fishermen and the possible appearance of a local god. 


I can make no excuses for having missed two stories when I reviewed A Book of Blades in my coverage of July.


The first, “How They Fall” by the writing team of Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, I simply overlooked. It’s listed in my notes as one to read, but I didn’t read it then, apologies. This is a brief but satisfying story set in the aftermath of a bloody clash between medieval-era armed forces. A veteran is in a celebratory mood for having again survived battle, and takes another surviving warrior, a young woman named Kaila, under his wing, simultaneously offering her advice and the permission to be glad to be alive. This is told with these authors’ usual combination of straightforward prose with flashes of poetry.


Much longer, and much more complex, is “The Blood of Old Shard” by John Fultz, which I mistakenly believed to be a reprint. This piece is divided into three sections, telling the story of a mighty general, Gnori, who finds himself captured by the necromantic enemies of his latest employer, the nation of Old Shard. Beginning with the protagonist in chains, the story starts moving steadily and, with flashes of brilliant action and meditative contemplation (the former closer to the beginning, the latter closer to the end), never stops. An exciting shipboard battle is turns from the expected to the horrific when a sea monster quite unlike any other I’ve read of intervenes. But the meat of this story takes place after Gnori’s escape and his subsequent life, along with a companion, on a deserted island. This is a very good story, but I cannot help but think it would have benefitted from being much longer, with more time spent on the island between Gnori and his companion washing ashore and the decision that is forced on Gnori at the end. 


My top stories for July 2022: “The Waking Gods” by D.H. Rowe and “The Blood of Old Shard” by John Fultz.


Wednesday, December 14, 2022

July Reviews

 We’re up to July now, and I found 18 stories across two magazine issues, three original anthologies (but see next paragraph), and one single-author collection. 

(Note: I’ve included the one s&s story I found in the Baen anthology Sword & Planet. That book is copyrighted 2021 but supply chain issues saw its release slip into 2022. I’m covering it and a book with an identical history, No Game for Knights, as back/fill catchup. I’ll look at stories from the latter book in my September entry.)


First up, the July issue (#12 • Paperback • Kindle • Kindle Unlimited) of Savage Realms Monthly. This magazine offered their usual three stories, but I only found one that I felt qualifies as sword and sorcery. According to the prefatory material, “Good for the Gander” by David Wesley Hill is part of a series, and a “what has gone before” paragraph tells us that the protagonist is an Old West gunslinger who has been transported to a fantasy world. There are lots of non-human characters and gunplay instead of swordplay, but if Jack Vance’s Dying Earth cycle can be considered sword and sorcery, so can this. It’s a stretch, but this is definitely closer than the other stories this issue. Much of the plot depends on an incredibly luck and unlikely shotgun misfire. The story itself is a bit of a misfire.


Unusually, the new issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine (#125) featured a story I didn’t think was sword and sorcery, so I’m just looking at two. I can recommend “For Mercy, For Death,” Matthew X. Gomez for fine characterization of two soldiers fighting in a war they don’t really understand. Like most soldiers, I suppose. As a person with a rural farming background, I especially appreciated this line: “Farming was for sterner folk than him.” Alas, the other story in this issue really fell short for me. “Lorelei” by Alex Sousa is not up to this magazine’s usual high standards in several areas, including dialogue, characterization, and even, I’m sorry to say, basic plotting. I know it’s a controversial opinion, but I really dislike “contemporary” dialogue in my s&s, and here I found “over-the-top” (1935) and “wow” (1890s in the sense it’s used here) and “suck it up” (1967). The profusion of names from a half dozen different real-world cultures (Russian, Latin, Romani, Greek, German etc) was also jarring, as were a couple of lines straight out of popular movies. I reluctantly advise readers to give this clumsy attempt at retelling a well-known legend of the Rhine a pass.


Now on to the anthology A Book of Blades (Paperback • Kindle • Kindle Unlimited • Audio), produced by the same team behind the popular Rogues in the House podcast. As ever, I’m only considering stories newly published, but there are quite a few reprints worth your time here—as either first or second (or subsequent!) reads. I highly recommend this book. Now, a brief aside. The small press is offering great sword and sorcery in the form of anthologies. But I really wish more editors and publishers would take a careful look at how anthologies are packaged by major publishers. What’s too often missing is apparatus, most particularly the provenance of stories. Copyrights for individual entries in an anthology should always be provided, along with where the reprints first appeared. Okay, onto the stories. “The Screaming Pillars” by Cora Buhlert is part of what I gather is a series of stories featuring Thurvok and his companions, the thief/assassin Meldom, the sorceress Sharenna, and a woman who, in this story at least, doesn’t have much more of a role to fulfill than being Meldom’s significant other. The story succeeds on its admirable deployment of humor, as the companions search for treasure in, well, a city of screaming pillars. Nice action sequence at the end. Chuck Clark’s “Ghost Song” is very exciting. It depicts a hunt for a magical panther called “the Hogato” and there’s a nice-bait-and-switch towards the end. Good piece! I got the sense that Kyembe of Sengezi, the protagonist of J.M. Clarke’s entry, “The Curse of Wine,” is a series character, though I can’t say for sure. This is another action-packed story leavened with humor. Vivid and vibrant, the only shortcoming I’d point out is that Kyembe is such an accomplished warrior and magician that he’s never really challenged, despite the fact that he wakes up from a bender as the story commences robbed of everything he owns. “The Gift of Gallah,” by Matthew John, is a nightmare punctuated by other nightmares. This story pushes the boundaries of form usually found in s&s and offers interesting insights on what makes a monster and what makes a father. Next up, S.E. Lindberg’s “Embracing Ember.” This is an entry in the author’s Dyscrasia series, and is, frankly, quite a challenging read. There are places where there’s what seem to be assumptions readers of this story have read the other pieces featuring this setting and these characters. The magic is interesting, with the personalities and abilities of a magician’s daughters being dealt out. However, I must offer one big caveat. I don’t really believe in “content warnings” as they’re often used in contemporary genre fiction, but if this story were to appear in some other venues, one for the repeated sex scenes featuring adolescents would certainly have been applied. Frankly, I found that aspect of this story very uncomfortable. Turning to something completely different, another piece with a welcome light and humorous tone is T.A. Markitan’s “Wanna Bet?” A pair of under-employed mercenaries throw in with a wizard who has a quite original map to a great treasure out in the wastelands. All, of course, is not as it seems. This is rollicking great fun and is worth the price of admission for a description of hornet goddess alone. L.D Whitney (what’s with all the two initial bylines?) offers “Last of the Swamp Tribe,” which depends on some stone age conceits and, drum roll, has mammoths! More megafauna, authors! Though it’s never really clarified who the villain is, this is strong stuff, featuring this great line: “The trees are an empire.” 


There are seventeen stories in We Who Are About to Die: A Heroic Anthology of Sacrifice (Paperback • Kindle • Kindle Unlimited), which is entry #6 in the Rogue Blades Presents series of anthologies published by RBE Books. Only four of them are sword and sorcery. I’ll start by looking at “For a Better World” by L.T. Adams. This is a story about the self-sacrifice of a band of orcs fighting against an imperial human power in an attempt to save their culture. There are some exciting action sequences, but the piece ultimately doesn’t quite overcome a clumsy beginning. Laura Garrity, on the other hand, offers a sustained (if depressing) tone and admirable characterization in “The Hammer of the Gods.” The story concerns the inevitability of state-sponsored violence and what it does to communities and families. Christopher Graham Hall’s “A World Without Monsters” is more military fantasy than sword and sorcery, but I’ll allow it on the merits of characterization. This is a good one, with some nice language (the sorcerer here is called a “dwimmerman”). It has horror and a historical(ish) setting going for, telling the story of a mercenary band entering a dark forest and being assaulted by nightmarish creatures. Finally, this anthology offers up “The Dragon Scale Agate” by Keith West. The characterization here is what makes this piece, featuring as it does a grandmother and a giantess attempting to save their homes and families from an environmental catastrophe caused by magic. I don’t usually care about spoilers of offer spoiler warnings (though I don’t go out of my way to include spoilers, either), but in this case I’m just going to say that this story includes something I’ve never seen in any other sword and sorcery story—maybe never even in any other fantasy story full stop—which is just harrowing.


The one story I’ll review in Baen’s Sword and Planet  (Paperback • Mass Market Paperback

 • Kindle) anthology is an excellent piece titled “Power & Prestige” by D.J. Butler that combines a mysterious disappearance with laugh out loud (and sometimes scatological) humor and some great worldbuilding. A pair of heroes reminiscent of Lieber are acting as a “jobber company,” which seems to be a combination of a mercenary company and, in this case, a detective agency. The various expression of humanity here reminds me strongly of Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin, and that’s high praise indeed as far as I’m concerned.


And finally, I turn to a single-author collection, Track of the Snow Leopard (Paperback • Kindle • Kindle Unlimited) by prolific sword and sorcery writer Dariel R.A. Quiogue. In doing so, I’ve definitely saved the best for last, because the three original stories in this collection are just terrific. The book mostly recounts the adventures of Quiogue’s recurring character Orhan Timur in a setting analogous to the Bronze Age steppes and their horse cultures, along with neighboring empires based on China and South Asia. There is a fully developed and worked out history here, with very deep time indeed on display. Quiogue is a master of action sequences and sharp dialogue, two skills that don’t always go hand-in-hand. The first Orhan story original to the book is “Palace of the Purple Lotus.” Orhan, as I gather he frequently is, is on the run and stumbles into the mysterious and idyllic palace of the title, which proves to be a luxurious and timeless trap. The mythologies explored here are underrepresented in contemporary s&s and are most welcome. The second, longer and more complex, Orhan story is my story of the month, “The Caves of Koro Shan.” This is full on Howardian action

combined with full on Burroughsian invention. The caves of the title are a vast underground realm populated by giant bats, an enormous turtle, and two warring civilizations of white apes. All if controlled by a sinister caste of sorcerer priests who will eventually threaten the world if they’re not stopped. That threat is alleviated, but something else even more dangerous arises. The last new story in the book is not, in fact, an Orhan story. “The Lions of Malakkaria” manages an epic, decades-spanning sweep in a comparatively short number of pages. The invention here is strong, as is the characterization. It’s also notable for its actual format, featuring a close third person focus on one of the “lions” of the title, an epistolary section in the middle of letters written by a person we learn will be the second lion, then a final, action-packed sequence that alternates points of view between the two of them. Betrayal, battle, the fall of nations, and a very personal tragedy make this another great one. Bravo for the whole book, highly recommended.


My stories of a very strong month are “For Mercy, For Death” by Matthew X. Gomez, “The Screaming Pillars” by Cora Buhlert, “The Gift of Gallah” by Matthew John, “The Dragon Scale Agate” by Keith West, “Power & Prestige” by D.J. Butler, and “The Caves of Koro Shan” by Dariel R.A. Quiogue.


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Summer 2022 Reviews

 The two magazines I read cover dated Summer only yielded two sword & sorcery stories, both of them in Cirsova. The new magazine Old Moon Quarterly (Amazon paperback  Amazon Kindle  Kindle Unlimited) had interesting pieces (and a fun cover!) but none ultimately fit the bill—one came close but was ultimately a historical ghost story despite the presence of some sword-swinging warriors. Curiously, this magazine has absolutely no apparatus. No masthead, no about-the-author sections, not even a table of contents! That said, these fantasy stories are excellent.

Cirsova Magazine of Thrilling Adventure and Daring Suspense volume 2, issue #11, Summer 2022 (Amazon paperback• Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited • Lulu paperback • Lulu hardback) has all of that and I wound up deciding two of the stories rated inclusion here. A serial novel starting in this issue, Vran, The Chaos-Warped, looks to be S&S, but I’m reviewing short fiction, not novels (thankfully, as the writing of that in the first few pages was just painfully bad). 


The first of the two stories is another entry in the Mongoose and Meerkat series by Jim Breyfogle, “Death and Renewal.” This story has some interesting world-building and scene-setting to recommend it, which just manage to elevate the piece above its ridiculous plot and confusing characterization. The presence of a fashion show in a sword & sorcery story is certainly unique and having a model part the curtains of the runway with the tip of a sword is a very nice touch. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the plot is stuff and nonsense, and there’s some creepy male gaze stuff going on from the male protagonist towards his partner that wasn’t present in what I read as a refreshing platonic friendship in the earlier entry in this series I read.


This is the second issue of this magazine in a row that features a story set in a alternate world version of the Upper Nile in a pre-modern setting that has the phrase “crocodile god” in the title. The similarities of the story last issue with Mark Mellon’s “Melkart and the Crocodile God” are mostly cosmetic, but they are very much present. There isn’t a lot of there there in this story, it being basically a bunch of context set up for a kind of muddily described fight scene in which the two figures of the title face off. I would guess this is a series entry except for a sort of “and he lived happily all of his days” vibe to the ending. Melkart is a kind of hyper-competent figure, which is usually annoying, but here he falls victim to the same hypnosis that most everyone else in the city does and has to be rescued by the minions of an elderly woman, so that was refreshing.

Monday, December 12, 2022

June 2022 Reviews


I found the first two stories I read for June in the premier issue of Rakehell (Amazon paperback  Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited) a magazine published by Young Needles Press dedicated to swashbuckling fiction edited by Nathaniel Webb which is well worth your time, attention, and money. When I think of swashbucklers, I think of Alexandre Dumas père, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rafael Sabatini and all three of those greats are called out in Webb’s introductory editorial. Not all swashbuckling stories are sword and sorcery, but some sword and sorcery stories (maybe even most?) buckle swashes with the best of them. I was delighted to find that two of the four stories here merit attention as part of this project.


I’m going to go ahead and state that here forth I will always refer to the writer Dariel R.A. Quiogue as Dariel R.A. Quiogue (as he is here) no matter what combination of middle initials (or identification as "Daniel”) editors, reviewers, or fans use. Let’s get on the same page, people! The page, in this case, being the one headed “The Temple of the Ghost Tiger,” that being the title of Quiogue’s venture into a jungle temple haunted by a...well, you can probably figure it out. The success this piece enjoys is based on its light and amusing voice, that voice belonging to the first-person narrator, who is a monkey. Specifically, a macaque, as makes sense in this energetic story based on Indian mythology.


J.B. Toner offers “When Your Only Tool’s a Hammer,” which is a straightforward adventure story about a barbarian who always chooses to fight for underdogs, and who has a lot more going on upstairs than a lot of characters described as barbarians who always choose to fight for underdogs.


For the first time this year, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, in their Issue #124, published a piece I don’t consider sword and sorcery (a story by S. Cameron David). So that leaves us with just two to consider.


Better With Age,” by Alex Beecher, is a short piece told from the point of a view of an itinerant swordslinger (who is never gendered, though I strongly suspect Beecher meant for the character to be read as male-identifying) who doesn’t quite get involved with a tavern brawl but definitely takes care of a problem involving a local bully and a magic sword.


Fritz Leiber’s famous barbarian thief and hedge wizard thief pairing of master sword fighters probably have as strong an influence on contemporary S&S authors as any other past master, and that’s certainly on display in “The Mouse that Roared,” the first of two stories by Geoffrey Hart we’ll look at this month that tip a hat to a famous fictional duo. Here we have the origin story of a gender-flipped Gray Mouser (and actually, origin-flipped, Souris—“mouse” both in French and in the tongue of the character’s people–is raised in a clan of barbarians in snow country) who doesn’t meet the promised gender-flipped Fafhrd in this tale, but does engage in a bit of derring do involving a sewer monster and an employer who forces the piece right up to the edge of parody. Fluffy, but fun.


The fourth volume in a (largely) sword & sorcery anthology series edited by David A. Riley for his Parallel Universe PublicationsSwords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy (Kindle paperback • Amazon Kindle) presents eleven stories, nine of them of interest for this project. I’ll consider them, as I usually do, in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.


Dev Agarwal’s “In the Iron Woods” is one of three, that’s three, stories in this book that center around soldiers escorting a princess on a perilous journey. This is the continuation—actually, apparently, it’s a direct sequel—to another story in an earlier volume of this series and unfortunately that makes for very rough going for a new reader at the beginning, when multiple characters with multiple names are meeting and conversing in what may or may not be a battlefront in the Holy Roman Empire. Thankfully, the rocky start is overcome with some good rendering of action. There’s no sorcery present, which probably technically lands this in the alternate history genre, but, hey, there’s a druid! That counts for something. Nothing is really resolved—a classic middle story problem—but the writing is good.


A story that, by contrast, definitely hits all of the sword and sorcery definitional points is “Slaves of the Monolith” by Paul D. Batteiger. The viewpoint character is a preternaturally strong young woman who is perhaps a shade too naturally gifted at armed combat travelling with some fellow villagers into a forbidden forest to investigate the deaths and disappearances of some of their neighbors. The resolution is pretty spectacular. This is vivid and energetic stuff.


While Andrew Darlington’s excellent “My People Were Fair and Wore Stars in Their Hair” doesn’t really start until page two, there are attack dirigibles circling a necromancer’s stronghold on page one so who cares? The author makes an unusual choice for sword and sorcery—the story is told in the present tense. It’s even more unusual given the span of time covered by the relatively brief piece. There’s some very humorous dialogue as well. This is one of the highlights of the anthology.


Our second princess-going-somewhere-with-some-soldiers story is “The Green Wood” by David Dubrow. It starts out with Byzantines versus Gauls and there’s no outsider hero here to shore up its sword and sorcery credentials, but there’s fighting and spellcasting aplenty. I do not know whether this is part of an ongoing series or not, but it definitely feels like the author at the very least intends it to be the start of one. The monstrous foes are interesting and original, but this piece is fatally flawed in that it doesn’t end. It just stops.


“Demonic” by Phil Emery rounds out the princesses and soldiers triptych with an interestingly told story from the point of view (largely, more on that in a bit) of a poet/swordsman who, in the tight third person voice, is basically experiencing the action as if he is composing a poem about what is happening in his head as things progress. Cool idea. Alas, it’s a cool idea undermined by what I call “thesaurus bashing.” I like nifty archaic words as well as—hell, more than­—the next reader or writer, but when they’re in the service of offering ancient and unknown synonyms for, as in one example here, “hangnail,” well, that’s just unnecessary. There’s also a brief sequence at the very beginning from the point of view of another character (who does not figure in the story thereafter) that undermines the narrative structure. The plot itself is fairly forgettable.


Geoffrey Hart’s second story for June is the amusing “At Sea,” with yet another take on a gender-swapped pair, this time not Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser but Asterix and Obelisk. The smaller woman here is, somewhat confusingly, named Mouse, but this is an excellent nautical adventure featuring rum, a fight with pirates led by a sorceress, and some tasty sounding roasted wild boar. This is a lot of fun.


Another story that nobody could possibly argue isn’t sword and sorcery is “The Whips of Malmac” by H.R. Laurence. In terms of plot and characterization, this is pretty standard fare with a barbarian hero, a lissome “Queen of Thieves,” and some nice heist-style reverses and reveals. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need. The cruelty of the sorcerous whips called out in the title is noteworthy.


Wendy Nikel’s “The Tracks of Pie Nereske” is workmanlike fare. There’s a magic amulet. There are some werewolf-like creatures. Ho-hum.


And rounding out the month we have “The Flesh of Man” by Frank Sawielijew. This, I must admit, is a very frustrating piece. Frustrating because there’s a really good, vivid, original story buried here in a story that is at least twelve pages too long. All the individual elements are great. The revisioning of a famous supernatural creature, complete with social mores and ecological impacts, is so good as to almost make this worth the price of admission. Another very welcome story element is that the barbarian hero has a living father, and they’re on good terms with one another! Whoever heard of such? Unfortunately, there’s just too much flab. What should have been the climax of the story is cut in half and separated by page upon page of dull action, which in turn makes what would otherwise have been a lovely denouement just feel tacked on. This story deserved much better editing than it got. 


Sunday, December 11, 2022

May 2022 Reviews

 Before I get into May, I need to play some catchup on a few things I missed from earlier in the year.


In February, two Kurval stories as by Richard Blakemore and Cora Buhlert were released as standalones. I love the conceit of these and the other stories Buhlert is unearthing by Blakemore. “Twelve Nooses” apparently fills in some backstory for Kurval before he becomes King of Azakoria and actually features no sorcery and almost nothing in the way of swords, but I mention it because of its place in the larger arc. It’s good work. The second story is “The Tear of Chronos,” which is a delightful piece of metafiction set on the day of Kurval’s coronation. It’s hard to discuss this one without spoilers, so I won’t.


In April, new author Kirk A. Johnson released a collection of stories titled The Obanaax: And Other Tales of Heroes and Horrors (Amazon Kindle)It offers four tales in the author’s richly detailed setting drawing on African and Middle Eastern history and mythology. While the collection could have used another copyediting pass, the energy and vitality here is startling and very welcome. My favorite of the four pieces has to be “The Oculus of Kii,” which is the pure quill stuff in terms of S&S. I can’t not love prose that features the word jackal as a verb. Humor (some scatological), quality sentence construction, and an undeniably rich imagination make Johnson an author to watch. [There’s a review of this collection by Robin Marx in the newly released issue #0 of New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine.]


And the last bit of catching up is a story I missed in April’s Thews You Can Use: A Sword and Sorcery Sampler which is available for free to new subscribers of the weekly Sword and Sorcery Newsletter. Nathaniel Webb’s “The Spine of Virens Imber” is given as “From A Book of Blades: A Sword & Sorcery Anthology” but appears here first (that anthology appeared in July). This piece apparently launches a new series featuring the bald and bearded Shar the Spearman, who is on a quest to recover the soul of someone very dear to him. Action abounds here, with some evil adversaries reminiscent of Elric’s fellow Melnibonéans imprisoning Shar. Demonic magic and some fine action make this worth reading. 


Now on to May!


Heroic Fantasy Quarterly issue #52 offered four stories in May. Of Ray Daley’s “Dragon Bait” I’ll just say that humor is subjective. For “Carpe Caput” (text plus audio) by Evan Dicken, I’m just going to paste in my reading notes: An excellent description of a sword: “Straight and wide-bladed in the old Imperial style, it was a little longer than Nastazo’s forearm. The sword’s sheath was colored the deep blue of an ocean sky shading into night. Branches of twining silver crisscrossed to form a stubby hilt, the pommel studded what

looked to be chips of sapphire.” Oh, this is great and perfectly conveys the tone, the mocking speech of the villain ends: “Your doom is sealed, and so forth…” This is just so good. An interesting pair of protagonists (he swords, she sorceries), an amorphous monster, a wildly original city, an attempt to revive a dead god, all told in brisk, efficient, and genuinely funny prose. The magic in this one is great.
 As you can no doubt tell, this one really pleased me. The story by Steve Dilks, “The Gift of Eons,” is notable for its fast pace and hints of Mesoamerican influences. The protagonist may be the reincarnation or descendent of an ancient king, or both, or neither. “Return to the Tower” (text plus audio) by Harry Piper is told in the first person and almost qualifies as a bildungsroman. There is some lovely and confident language here. Read this: “To see a thousand spears on the march, rising and falling like a vast wave, iron glittering under the sun. To see the golden campfires of an army spread out under the night sky like another field of stars. To forget yourself entirely in the shieldwall – to become one flesh with a thousand others. To have found, for a few brief hours, one’s place in the world.” This reminds me of Roy Batty’s dying speech in Bladerunner, and since that’s one of my favorite speeches in cinema, I can give this one an enthusiastic recommendation.


Savage Realms Monthly released their twelfth issue in May (Amazon softcover • Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited). “The Jade Tower” by Shephard W. McIlvern opens with some convincing desert imagery then rapidly shifts gears into a luxurious castle with a banquet scene and a little sex then moves again to a nighttime assault on the titular tower. There’s a missed opportunity here in that the protagonist is said at the beginning of the story to suffer trauma from the death of his mother but nothing is done with it in terms of plot and it doesn’t show in the hero’s characterization. I liked the fact that David A. Riley’s “The Carpetmaker of Arana” is about a working man who is worried about the fact that he’s not giving his family a good a life as his father gave him—very topical. The ending is absolutely shocking. I’ll here take the opportunity to mention something that this story made me think about. It’s mentioned early on that the main character and his wife have three small children. But then they completely disappear from the page and their fates should certainly have been

dealt with by story’s end. This makes me reflect on the fact that young children are almost completely absent from sword and sorcery, which of course makes a kind of sense, but is nonetheless an interesting characteristic I’ve never seen called out before. Now, this last one is difficult to talk about because it did not work for me at all. The thief Fex, the protagonist of Remy Morgesen’s “Sword in the Tomb,” is a profoundly unlikable character. That’s generally fine in sword and sorcery, but he smirks his way through the deaths of multiple people he callously uses to, basically, find and disable traps. I could almost hear the dice rolling as a “party” of characters explore an ancient ruin that seems to have been designed by the author with a role-playing game rulebook about traps and hazards open at hand as he wrote. Morgesen doubled down on this approach by using the wildly out of place phrase “meat shields,” which is, of course, straight out of video game culture.


Swords and Sorcery Magazine offered their usual three stories in issue #123. P.J. Atwater convinced me that he either has wrestling experience or has researched that martial art extensively in “The Wrestler’s Son.” This has an origin story feel to it and has some nice visuals. “Glamour” by Matthew Ilseman also features characters who, if they’re not already part of a series, certainly could be. The prose is strong here, stronger than the ideation, alas. I’ve talked about “proper noun soup” before, I believe, and how it can hamper story beginnings. But in the case of “Eliza Sky and the Lodestar Warrior” by Neil Willcox, those nouns and phrases are so evocative and original that I didn’t mind managing them at all. It starts as a criminal investigation and features a pairing of competent young women (I admit to occasionally confusing them because of the brisk pace and the fact that both of their names end with the same phoneme) who must eventually save their mentors from a powerful foe using their hard-earned skills and their native wits. Fun stuff.


Finally this month, I read an excellent anthology edited by Doug Draa for DMR Books, Terra Incognita: Lost Worlds of Fantasy and Adventure (print book • Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited). The book offers seven stories, but one of them, Adrian Cole’s “The Place of Unutterable Names,” is, as is no doubt obvious from its title, a Lovecraftian Mythos story. Neither do I classify S.E. Lindberg’s entry here as sword and sorcery. The remainder of the pieces hew variously closer to and further from traditional sword and sorcery. “Warriors of Mogai” by Milton Davis owes its considerable strengths to a setting steeped in African history, folkways, religion, and mythology. It tells the story of a boy named Koboye, who must undertake a difficult journey in an attempt to rescue his people. There’s what may be a were-hippopotamus, and for my money, that earns this story a hearty recommendation even beyond all of its other considerable merits. [Oliver Brackenbury conducted a lengthy and fascinating interview with Davis transcribed in issue #0 of New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine.] John C. Hocking’s “Necropolis Gemstone” is more of a pure secondary world(s) fantasy than a traditional sword and sorcery tale, but features an interesting first-person narrator, some shrewd observations about greed, and a very original monster. “The Siege of Eire” by J. Thomas Howard is a story utilizing the trope of a contemporary man thrown back in time or into another world who then discovers his competence and true calling as a heroic figure. In this case, the other world is a version of the underworld of Irish mythology. The story has a convincing narrative arc. The anthology is bookended by stories by two masters of the form. The book closes with “From the Darkness Beneath” by Howard Andrew Jones, who, as usual when things turn nautical, offers very convincing world building and details of setting. A ship is carrying a number of very diverse passengers and, unknown to anyone at first, an existential threat to the entire world. The main point of view character, a twelve-year-old girl, is deftly and convincingly characterized and the slow buildup and two or three subplots make this a deeply satisfying story. And finally for this book and this month, a new discovery of a veteran writer for me in “Shadow of the Serpent” by David C. Smith. I just purchased Smith’s award-winning literary biography of Robert E. Howard (Amazon paperback) and was happy to discover that the man clearly knows his stuff. From the title, which evokes the best of old school sword and sorcery, to the fascinating protagonist (to whom Smith is returning here decades after his last appearance), to the fascinating magic, provocative villains, and wonderful evocation of deep time, all of this is demonstrative of the raw wind of story that rises in the best of this genre. Highly recommended.


Stories of the Month: For me, a very strong May had these stories as standouts.


“Carpe Caput” by Evan Dicken

“Return to the Tower” by Harry Piper

“From the Darkness Beneath” by Howard Andrew Jones

“Shadow of the Serpent” by David C. Smith


From earlier in the year, be sure to check out “The Oculus of Kii” by Kirk A. Johnson


Saturday, December 10, 2022

April 2022 Reviews

Before I get started with discussion of April’s stories, let me note two things about standalones. First, I missed discussing “Twelve Nooses” and “The Tear of Chronos,” both from February and both as by Cora Buhlert and Richard Blakemore. I’ll pick those up soon. Second, I have yet to determine whether any of the four pieces in Kirk A. Johnson’s collection The Obanaax are new to 2022 or are reprints. I’ve reached out to the author and cover those (or not) once I’ve heard back from him. [edited to add: they are all new and will be discussed in a subsequent post.]


So, first up for April I’ll cover Savage Realms Monthly #11 (Amazon paperback • Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited), which featured three stories. “A Gentleman of Blades” by Matthew Gomez appears to be the first part of a serial following the adventures of a sort of gangster lord named Reynaud, him being the title character. It’s an able enough introduction to a new setting and set of characters, with the highlight of the piece coming at the very end, with Reynaud’s encounter with the person who serves as his Moriarty turning into something quite a bit more interesting than a faceoff. Jeff Shelnutt’s “The Spider’s Eyes” boils down to a pair of thieves who closely resemble Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser engaging in a robbery very reminiscent of that described in Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s entertaining, though the humor often fell flat for me. Finally, there’s “Stone Figures” by Chad A.B. Wilson. In the accompanying author interview, Wilson flat out states that this is inspired by a specific monster as it is presented in Dungeons & Dragons. The story is hampered by the overwhelming number of characters and place names in so brief a piece. The names of six people and two towns appear on the very first page, not all of whom/which actually appear in the story. Unlike the other two, this doesn’t feature a classic sword and sorcery outsider hero, the protagonist being a commander and hero in a queen’s army. 

Swords and Sorcery Magazine issue #122 featured three stories. Mario Carić is present with a tale involving a blind soldier and a pair of shapeshifters, “The Hunter and the Hunted.” “Nara’s Story,” by Ross Hightower, shades into young adult territory but does so most effectively. The title can be read in two ways, as the apprentice sorceress Nara is both the protagonist of this piece and herself a teller of tales. Her connection to spirits makes the magic in this story stand out, and the concluding battle is harrowing in its stakes. The highlight of the issue for me was Phillip Yeatman’s piece, “The Death of Rovanmoshon.” Solid worldbuilding and smooth prose make this story well worth your time, though only some swordplay at the end squeaks it into being sword and sorcery. It’s really a meditation on identity, and how we disguise our true identities from both others and ourselves. Here’s a great line: “He hadn’t been trained to think; the point of training was that he did not have to.”


The weekly Sword and Sorcery Newsletter produced an anthology of sorts in April with Thews You Can Use: A Sword and Sorcery Sampler. I haven’t yet been able to full determine which of the nine pieces here are a new for 2022 and which are reprints, though I’ve heard from the editor and around half the authors. The two I can say with confidence are new are flash pieces by the writing team of Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten and by Mario Carić, whom I believe is the only author so far this year whose shown up twice in one month! Both pieces are entertaining and take about two minutes each to read. Adams’ and van Straten’s “Across the River” is a twist ending piece, while Carić’s “Darkness Dreamer” briefly relates the fate of a mercenary wizard. Note that not all of the pieces in this sampler are flash fiction.


J.T.T. Ryder offered a standalone novella with Tomb of the Blue Demons (Amazon Kindle • Kindle Unlimited) this month that serves as a prequel a duology of novels set around 200 B.C. While it’s really more historical fantasy than sword and sorcery, both swords and sorcery are very much present in this story of a druid from the Isle of Skye traveling to Italia during the time of the Carthaginian wars. It meets most of the standards for being considered sword and sorcery outlined by Brian Murphy, with demons, dragons, magic, and clashing weapons aplenty. It’s skillfully rendered and serves to do what its author no doubt wishes of the piece: it makes me want to read the novels.


Finally, what’s certainly the story of the month for me and will no doubt be in the running for story of the year. Anne VanderMeer acquired “Sword & Spore” by Dominica Phettepace for genre fiction’s top marked, tor.com, and it was published there on the 6th of April. This is an absolute tour de force. An outsider, illiterate boy figures in the opening and an outsider, illiterate girl in the closing of this lengthy piece about outer gods coming to govern a world that’s only the latest of the “Universes” they have inhabited. Told from several points of view and bringing in some Mythos elements with much talk of fungi. There are gods, zombies, witches, and magic swords here rendered in prose that manages to be simultaneously subtle and breathtaking throughout. I can’t recommend this story highly enough.


The stories I most highly recommend this month are: “The Death of Rovanmoshon” by Phillip Yeatman; Tomb of the Blue Demons by J.T.T. Ryder; and “Sword and Spore” by Dominica Phettepace.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Spring 2022 Reviews

There were two magazines this year that have issued numbers labelled seasonally instead of monthly or with simple numbers, the first I’ll consider is CirsovaVol 2, Issue #10: Spring, 2022. (Amazon (softcover) • Amazon (Kindle)  Lulu (softcover) • Lulu (hardcover).


First, I’ll address the proverbial elephant in the room. I have been told, but have yet been unable to independently confirm, that the publishers and/or editors of this magazine have some connection with the notorious and execrable Theodore Beale (or “Vox Day” as the racist styles himself). I have also been told that the connection is tenuous.


I ultimately decided to review the sword and sorcery stories in this magazine because it is my project to look at all the sword and sorcery published this year. It seems probable to me that if someone in Beale’s camp undertook a similar task, they would ignore or excoriate fine work because of the politics of the authors or of the stories. But as Michelle Obama famously said, “when they go low, we go high” (of course, we saw how that worked out). I do not know the politics of the authors of four sword and sorcery stories in this issue of Cirsova, though the stories themselves certainly all evince the conservatism that sees the preservation or return to the status quo that, to be fair, mars much fantasy.


So, on to the stories.


Jim Breyfogle’s “The Flying Mongoose” is competently, if banally, written. It tells the story of a pair of would-be dragonslayers entering the service of a mountain full of smiths who are so close to Tolkienesque or D&Desque dwarves that the author might as well have just called them that. There’s an exciting aerial battle. This is apparently part of a series.


Another series story is Adrian Cole’s “Serpent God of Mars” (which actually has a hotlinked footnote reminding me of those captions in older comics: “See Adventures of Hawkman #61 –ed.” that sort of thing). Again, competent writing here. It has a lot of the trappings of sword
and planet but is essentially sword and sorcery at heart. It concerns an evil body-hopping sorcerer (who apparently barely survived the previous entry in the series) being hunted by a soldier who has mental powers, which stand in for sorcery.


The use of music and high magic are the highlights of an otherwise unremarkable story by Jeffrey Scott Simms, “An Ayre by Landor.”


Owen G. Tabard (nice last name for a fantasy writer) uses the mythology and history of ancient Egypt in “The City of the Crocodile God.” Another series story, but in this case that’s not really distracting. The climax depends upon a very fine point of plot that is easy to overlook, but to be frank, the prose isn’t vivid enough to bother reading carefully enough to “catch” it. The villain is defeated in favor of another villain secretly gaining ascendence.


All in all, I didn’t find anything reprehensible in these stories, which was a relief, and I will continue to read and review the magazine. At the same time, I’m not sure this issue is worth three bucks for the sword and sorcery content.


Now, on to something much more exciting!


Whetstone issued their fifth issue this past spring with nineteen (quite short) stories and one poem. The magazine can be downloaded for free at the previous link, and there’s more than enough here to reward your time.


Whetstone is a labor of love undertaken by editor and scholar Jason Ray Carney and his associates. It proudly proclaims its status as an “Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery” on the cover. The obvious sense of “amateur” here is the original borrowing from the French. The first attestation in the Oxford English Dictionary in English dates to a 1757 letter of Sir W. Freeman’s, who wrote: “We make a tolerable concert for Amateurs, and thus entertain ourselves whenever we have an inclination.” This clutch of sword and sorcery offered by Carney, his colleagues, and his cohort of writers is certainly entertaining, and I’m glad everyone involved in the project show that they “have an inclination” towards the form.


For the sake of time and space, I’ll not offer thoughts on every single one of the stories published. Suffice it to say, they range from serviceable to outstanding. The challenge of writing stories this short (almost all the stories come in at seven pages) in any genre is to make the pieces something more than theme and special effects. Or, here, something more than a fight scene with some set dressing thrown in. Pretty much all these stories match that description to some extent or another, but all of them also evince subtler effects and, thankfully, effects that are hella fun!


The poem by Anthony Perconti, “Black Hearts Beneath Red Skies” offers some lovely imagery in the style of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales but then adds a Lovecraftian Mythos kick in the final lines. Nice work. The god Hastur, who also figures in the Mythos (most fully in August Derleth) is given a complete makeover in one of my favorite stories in the issue, “Eyes and Teeth” by the Reverend Joe Kelly. This story, like all the best here, manages the neat trick of having a beginning, a middle, and an end in a very brief tale. Another that pulls that off is “Arena of the Death Cult” by B. Harlan Crawford, which very much has the feel of a first episode in a series, which I would welcome given the rich characterization of the two protagonists. Also, they fight a giant pig. “The Riddle of Spice”

by Patrick Groleau is delightful with its unconventional narrator/hero, his unconventional solution to a deadly threat, and some wonderful language to boot. Anytime you read of adventurers described as “skullduggers and road agents,” you know you’re in good hands. Great lines actually abound throughout the issue. One of my favorites is this: “If I was going to die, I suppose it ought to be strangely, if it could not be bravely.” That’s from J. Thomas Howard’s arena story, “Gladiators of Ill Satal,” which reminded me, in a way, of A Princess of Mars. It’s as if the first battles fought by John Carter and Tars Tarkas were told from the green Barsoomian’s point of view. Another of my favorite lines can be found in “The Smoke Ship” by Nathaniel Webb. “A fresh southwesterly breeze whipped past the burning cutter, making flame-reddened horses of foam on the water and snapping Farager’s hair around her face.” Flame-reddened horse of foam. That’s the real stuff right there. Some of the remaining stories don’t quite fit my definition of sword & sorcery, but they’re all honest and efforts, some of them making effective use of real-world cultures and histories for inspiration and others taking place in wholly invented settings.  


I very much recommend taking a careful look at this magazine and feel confident that you’ll be glad you did.


Bonus content: Earlier this year, Oliver Brackenbury interviewed Whetstone’s editor, the aforementioned Jason Ray Carney, in an episode of his So I’m Writing a Novel podcast. You can listen to the informative and interesting interview here.