Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Guest Review: The Trophy

If you have a minute, sail over to talkwargaming.com and check out my new guest review on the Imperial Guard short story The Trophy by Nicholas Alexander.


Cold Blood

Cold Blood by David Guymer. An Apocalypse short story, originally published by The Black Library, July 2013. Approx. 27 pages.

Death is descending upon the prison colony on the moon of Ixus IX. The fallen sons of Olympus, the Bloodlords, are swooping down for what promises to be an easy feast of sanguine nectar. Meanwhile, the destroyer ship Bloodhammer maintains a deliberate orbit above; with a minor god lurking in its bowels champing at the bit for the moment to vent its unholy rage.

However, although both the descent and approach upon the penal colony were executed with precision, what was found with the prison habs was not the bloody banquet anticipated. In fact, it was a horror that posited the ultimate dilemma for the thralls of Khorne.

How would they fare against a foe that would yield no blood?

That right there is your paper-thin story premise. Cold Blood does not read as a character-driven tale; it is a play by play analysis of a tabletop scenario. This is fine, assuming the author has put together some solid action. Glad to say, Guymer delivers in this tale.

Cold Blood bifurcates between two parties; alternating between the assault on the penal hab by Circios and his group of assault Marines and the actions of navarch Ladon aboard the Bloodhammer. For Circios and his squad, we watch as they descent into their inevitable bloodlust; beginning with edgy, hostile anticipation and ending with them succumbing to the full rage of it. Aboard the Bloodhammer, we are treated to a mental duel between Ladon and his Warpsmith, Sabaktes. The bickering takes an interesting, entertaining turn when we realize how wrong things are going down on the surface of the moon.

The prisoners are all dead. And what awaits them is beyond dead.

As Cold Blood is a story focusing on combat rather than emotional journey, it is critical that the "units" are done proper service. For the Bloodlords, the former "Spears of Olympus", Guymer paints the Traitor Astartes as avian scrappers, from their swooping, stabbing spear attacks to the birdlike contours of their armor. They are haughty and deliberate, at least until totally lost to lust. On the other side of the table, Guymer does a stellar job playing up the physical descriptions of the Necrons. This is important, as the Necrons have no emotional component to present, it becomes a challenge to make reading about them enjoyable. The focus here is on their frightening physical presence, their unnatural motions, and their unquestionably lethal technologies. There is also an added bonus here; an appearance by an honest to goodness Lord of Skulls. Now while this feature should be cause for celebration, and although Guymer does admirable work describing its fierce armament, its role ultimately feels somewhat obligatory and tacked-on. As if the only reason it showed up is by request of the BL overlords, hoping to bolster sales of the tabletop units. Which is exactly their prerogative. You can almost imagine a note saying "make sure you stress how big it is and also make sure it uses its three primary means of armanent". All I'm saying is the story could have worked fine without it, and a separate story revolving around a Lord of Skulls causing merry havoc would have done this beastly contraption more justice.

If anything detracts from Cold Blood, it is that the arc focusing on Ladon and Sabaktes remains unfinished. After a thrilling scene midway through where the Bloodhammer goes at it with the prison hab defense arrays, the focus returns to Circios and company and stays there. Five more pages would have done wonders for this story.

Other than that, this is as solid a short as you can ask for. The technical descriptions resonate legitimacy (the few opening paragraphs, focusing on Circios' descent to the surface of the moon, are quite excellent), and there are some classic fight sequences; especially when Circios goes toe to toe with a tomb spider. Great stuff.

Here's what it is:
When you read a Black Library tale, you are either getting a story or a commercial. Cold Blood is a commercial, but it is presented in an excellent manner. It's always fun to read stories told from the view of Chaos Marines, and it is a real treat when an author can properly handle necrons. Cold Blood is worth checking out.

Final Score:

82/100


Cover Score:

What can I say? It's a silhouette of a Lord of Skulls, set against a smoldering backdrop. It is not even a flattering angle of the Lord of Skulls either, making it pretty hard to read. Why they didn't use another picture, even an older one, only they can tell you. If this was a print work in a bookstore, this cover would do no one any favors.

Cover Final Score:

9/100 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bleak Seasons (Black Company Book 6)


Bleak Seasons by Glen Cook. Originally published April 1996. Approx. 261 pages (Tor omnibus edition).


Where we left off:
The end of Dreams of Steel left us with two significant plot twists. One, that Lady was pregnant, was a fairly easy guess. It was a possibility that the sickness she felt throughout the book had something to do with her increasing closeness with the Deceivers and their Kina cult. But in all honesty, it was all the symptoms of morning sickness. The humor herein, of course, was that this alpha wizard, not so long ago on the cusp of world domination, had no idea how to identify that there was a life developing inside of her.

Pictured: a book obviously not included in the Library at the Tower of Charm.

Now, the second twist was actually a bit of a shocker; it turns out that Lady was never intended to be the reincarnation of Kina. That Deceivers had, well, deceived her. She was simply being cared for as the vessel which was destined to deliver the true Kina avatar; her and Croaker's daughter. The final chapter, in which Lady reveals this turn, is so masterfully done and emotionally powerful that it is striking.

Where we are now:
I am afraid that most of this review will have to revolve around deconstructing what it is that turns so many people off about this book. I hate the thought of that; preferring instead to focus on plot progression. The thing is; there is precious little of that here. Bleak Seasons is not so much the next chapter in the Books of the South/Glittering Stone saga as it is a recap of previous events from a different perspective and the introduction of new characters.

First things first. In Bleak Seasons, we have our third new Annalist/Narrator in as many books (assuming you count Case in The Silver Spike). Our new Annalist is Murgen, which is no surprise, as he was stated to be apprenticing for the role since his character was introduced in Shadow Games. A lot of reviewers don't like Murgen's narration. I don't know why; I think he is a great narrator. He has some of Croaker's gallows humor and sarcasm, and he is far more descriptive of smaller details (the potential downside being page count gets devoured painting pretty pictures rather than moving the story). 

Murgen's tale mostly focuses on his time trapped behind the walls of Dejagore during the siege laid upon it by Shadowspinner and his vast army. Now, just to reiterate, if you've read Dreams of Steel, you already know the outcome of the siege. This is not to say that an inside view of the happenings isn't welcome; especially since we all know that there were plenty of problems within the walls. To put it bluntly, something in Mogaba's mind snapped, and he was displaying some pretty egregious acts of brutality; including starving "non-essentials" (read: civilians), mass killings, and rumors of cannibalism. A rift has grown between Mogaba (who has assumed Captaincy based on the fact that everyone believes Croaker and Lady to be dead) and his Nar contingent and the fellows of the "Old Crew", which Murgen has assumed leadership of. 

The scenes of everyday horror within the walls of Dejagore are very well executed; but there is a problem other than the fact that we all know the outcome already. This recipe feels very familiar; in fact it is distinctly similar to elements of The Silver Spike. Both Case and Murgen are farm boys turned Imperial troops turned deserters, and both have a wide sarcastic streak. And in both novels, a lot of the story focuses on the simmering tensions within a walled city that everyone is trapped in (Dejagore and Oar).

It really seems that the true focus of spending so much time in Dejagore is to introduce a new religious/ethnic minority into the mix: the Nyueng Bao. The Nyueng Bao are a solitary folk from the swamplands who got caught up in the siege while in the midst of a pilgrimage. The Nyueng Bao are a sort of amalgamation of Eastern Asian ethnic tropes, with a primary focus on a strict code of honor. Murgen is actually quite enamored with this group and their customs, and a lot of the Dejagore chapters center on his forging and cultivating relationships with them.

But there's more going on here. A lot more. I've been oversimplifying things.

The Dejagore chapters are not simply flashbacks or entries in the Annals. Cook has decided to do some experimenting with this volume, and one of the devices that he introduces is Murgen's "time-hopping". See, for some unknown reason, Murgen has been suffering spells where he blacks out and relives previous events. Thus, we have a few timelines going on here. Although most take place in Dejagore, some cover a mission at a place called the Grove of Doom where the Company ambushed some high-level Deceivers. The majority of remaining chapters focus on events in Taglios some four years after Dejagore. In these chapters, Croaker has resumed his role as a military dictator known as the "Liberator", while Lady continues raids along the Southern provinces, taking back villages and whittling down the Shadowmaster influence. Croaker and Lady still claim to be working towards a sole goal of destroying Longshadow and eventually resuming the trek to Khatovar. But really, their agenda focuses on finding their daughter and killing Narayan Singh, as well as the traitors Mogaba and Blade (yes, he turned out to be a snake too). 

What can be considered the "present time" amid all this time hopping is a point a few weeks after the events four years post-Dejagore. I get that this device is off-putting for some, but I really think Cook handled it well. Early on in the book, we are as much in the dark as Murgen is. As some chapters begin, we have no idea where in time he is, and that's the point. But as he begins to understand what might be causing these jaunts, it becomes easier for us to place him as well. Later on, he gains the ability to use the mangled, comatose wizard Smoke as a vehicle for his spectral journeys, giving the Company an invaluable spy tool. 

Again, I don't understand why some people don't take to Murgen's narration, but it all comes down to personal taste. So, knowing that, if you read the first few chapters and find yourself not liking it, just stop reading. Bleak Seasons, like the first Black Company book, is narrated 100% by the Annalist. We have none of the third party chapters as featured in the previous five books.

Well, that is not entirely true. We get one chapter from One-Eye's Annals (yes, you read that right), even though it has been "neatened up" by Murgen. There are also a few vague chapters, all italicized, describing some lone figure stranded and suffering on the Plain of Glittering Stone. And one more note on the narration, Cook throws in a few chapters done in second person perspective, where Murgen directly addresses the reader. I really like how those were done, and would've enjoyed a few more chapters like them.

So with all the praise I keep lavishing on this book so far, it would seem a shoe-in for one of the top entries in the series, right? Well, it all comes apart in the end, especially since there is no ending. This isn't even a complaint that the book ends in a cliffhanger; it just doesn't end at any tangible point. Once you turn the last page, you will most likely think "where's the rest of it?" And this isn't just griping about a lack of a climactic final battle; simply go from Murgen doing some spying to some plans being ironed out for a final showdown with Mogaba to, well, the last page. 

Considering the negatives weighed against the positives, it is understandable to a degree that this book is often poorly received. I can only imagine it being more so when it was first release, as rabid fans had waited roughly six years for its arrival. But you have to also focus on the merits, it is still masterfully written, even if the story really doesn't move much this go round. Oh well, looks like big things are on the horizon in She is the Darkness. 

Here's what it is:
The third book of the South, first of the Glittering Stone, and first featuring Murgen as Annalist is still an enjoyable entry, although it does little but introduce new characters.


Final Score:

83/100

Cover Score:

This is my least favorite of the Swanland Black Company covers, but it is still excellent. His usually dark tones and flair for detail show through. As for the character depicted, I have no idea if it is supposed to be Lady, Soulcatcher, or someone in She is the Darkness. To be honest, it kind of looks like a female drow warrior. For the classic edition, it bears mentioning that this is the first book to feature a cover by someone other than Keith Berdak. This time around, we have an interesting cover by Nicholas Jainschigg. It is well put together, with a nice color arrangement, and it showcases the mysterious white crow that pesters Murgen throughout the book. Well done.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):

90/100

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worms Of The Earth

Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in Weird Tales Magazine, November 1932. Approx. 42 pages (with pictures), DelRey edition.


Worms of the Earth has been regarded as one of Robert E. Howard's greatest stories for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is probably his most successful venture dabbling within the Lovecraftian mythos. Second, although it features one of Howard's more hotheaded and bombastic protagonists, Howard infuses some real gravitas into the proceedings. Part parable and part creepfest, Worms is one of the more enjoyable yarns you can spend an hour reading.

Worms begins quite memorably as we witness the crucifixion of a Pictish criminal undertaken at the command of Titus Sulla, Roman governor of Eboracum. In attendance to the act is a Pictish emissary. Sulla makes sure to turn the execution into a spectacle, further rubbing salt into the moral wounds of the conquered populace.

What Sulla fails to realize is that the emissary is none other than Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts. And on this day, he has decided that his people have suffered their final indignity at the hands of the Roman interlopers. He sets some plans into motion, including tasking the Gaels with some harrying skirmishes. But, for the purpose of tendering justice unto Sulla, he decides to go with an unconventional method.

Riding westwards towards the gloomy fens of Wales, Bran seeks the assistance of the half-human witch Atla in contracting the services of some true nightmare creatures: the legendary (and titular) Worms of the Earth. These fabled Worms are subterranean denizens, the descendants of a people driven from the landscape by Morn's Pictish ancestors. Any retained humanity in them is dubiously questionable at best. And, of course, as in any bargain there is a price. Not surprisingly, one may expect a terrible price for a terrible service.

It is well known that Howard was a friendly correspondent of Lovecraft; and he has dabbled in Lovecraftian tales. Although I like most of Howard's horror offerings, I always thought that the horrifying, disconcerting, and cerebral nuances of the Lovecraftian mythos were out of his comfort zone. But he really delivers in Worms. He makes the wise choice to stress atmosphere over cheap shocks. The scenery is what gets you here; the claustrophobia of descending the tunnels under the barrows; the pervading, lonely desolation of the fens. Also, the true horrors of the Worms, including their sickening physical appearance, is mostly kept just out of view, so as to maximize the horror factor.

Howard's dialogue is superb here, although a lot of the bombast has been curbed. The back and forth verbal sparring between Morn and Atla is enjoyable, but best of all are two scenes; one where Bran Mak Morn issues both a decree and a challenge to the Worms, and later when he hears the last words of a dying legionary.

Sadly, it seems that any discussion of Howard's work needs to be prefaced with some apology of sorts for the racial views the he and many of his contemporaries seemed to have. I am personally not much of an apologist. This generation needs to accept that people close to a century ago had very different mindsets. Or did they? While it is seemingly passé to stereotype based on race these days, it is more than commonplace to judge and perform character assassinations based on political affiliation, geography of birth, social class, or religion. Point being, bigotry in all its ugly forms is supposed to be wrong, no? But I digress. I will just say this to anyone willing to put down Howard due to his perceived views; this masterful story was published when he was just 26 years old. (Some of) The youth of today need health care laws rewritten to keep them tethered to their parents' insurance until they are that same age. Enough said.

The reason I mention the racial aspect is because some readers/reviewers take umbrage with Bran Mak Morn's racial pride. He looks down upon the Gaels and other Caledonians for their mixed bloodlines. Now, is this a racial superiority complex? I think not. It seems fairly common that conquered people hold tightly to cultural pride; on the simple basis that they believe everything else is being torn away from them and diluted into a larger, communal, collective pot. Bran Mak Morn can expound until he is blue in the face on the purity of the Picts; in the end it is simply the injured pride talking. 

And we all know that pride comes before the fall. 

In essence, that is the pervading message of Worms of the Earth. To salve his impotence as his people's savior, Bran Mak Morn makes a deal with a Lovecraftian Devil. Regardless of the theological construct, the Devil must still have His due. And this is something that Bran Mak Morn realizes too late in Worms of the Earth. You will get what you bargained for, even if you do not get what you wish for.

Well, as they say.....


Here's what it is:
Legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard crafts a creepy tale of the tragic decision of a desperate king, and the creatures and horrors that are unleashed as a result.

One last thing:
As mentioned, this is one of Howard's more popular works. I own the DelRey Bran Mak Morn edition, but there are plenty of other compilations out there that you can find Worms of the Earth in. One I found is this: The Cthulu Mythos Megapack. There's no illustrations in it, but you get 40 old time tales for 99 cents. You really can't beat that.


Final Score:

93/100


Cover Score:


I really like Gary Gianni's work in this volume, from the cover to the interior illustrations. They are one of the reasons that I am glad to have the DelRey compilation. This is exactly how I pictured that squat, powerful, swarthy Bran Mak Morn looking. My only complaint on the cover is that a little more contrast in the color scheme would have helped make the figure stand out. The closer you look at the figure, the more you realize that it looks like something that would have worked better as a pencil or pen sketch, but ended up being painted after being selected as the cover piece.

Cover Final Score:

82/100

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Silver Spike (Black Company Side Novel)

 The Silver Spike by Glen Cook. Originally published September 1989. Approx. 216 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

HachiSnax note: Regarding continuity, I try to be diligent in listing books in the order they were published. I am assuming that The Silver Spike was published after Shadow Games and before Dreams of Steel, but since I am reading from the omnibuses, this time I will just stick to that format of continuity. Therefore, it is indicated as Book 6, even though it may be considered a Book 5, or not even in the Black Company sequence, since it features only former members and people within the same world. Either way, enjoy. Cheers, Hach.

Quick recap: Following the climactic battle in the Barrowland, the soul of the Dominator was trapped within a silver spike that was nailed into the sapling scion of the god Old Father Tree. The remains of the Black Company, now under a dozen members, decided to forgo accepting further commissions and fulfill their original duty of returning the Company annals to Khatovar. Newly elected Captain Croaker allowed for those wishing to renounce their Company membership to do so. Taking him up on this offer were Silent and the Torque brothers, who opted to follow Darling (aka the White Rose). Also dissolving his membership was resident badass Raven, who tried to follow Darling's group, but was ultimately rebuffed. Sulking all the way, he left with Case, with whom he had forged as close to a real friendship as someone like him could.

The Silver Spike focuses on four central storylines. Over the course of the novel, they converge, divert, and ultimately crash into each other.

First, we have the travels of Raven and Case. This gives us our only first person POV account in the book, told via a journal kept by Case. Case makes for an entertaining "annalist"; his sarcasm less of Croaker's dry cynicism and more youthful wise-assery. He is still a likable narrator, representing the poor farm boy who enlisted in the military to see the sights, learn to read, and be anything other than a potato farmer. Raven, on the other hand, has sunk to drunken lows. Only the reawakening of a familiar evil gets him back on the straight and narrow.

Next, we have the adventures of Darling, who, along with her Silent admirer (haha, I know, bad joke), as well as the myriad weird creatures of the Plain of Fear, still hunt the evils that trouble the lands. They are joined in this effort by none other than the venerable sorcerer Bomanz, who, like Raven, has been alerted to the reawakened evil.

This awakened evil is none other than the seemingly indestructible Limper, one of the last remaining original Taken. Despite a thorough decimation at the hands of Croaker at the end of the Barrowland fight, his head survived, full of unadulterated malice. Another survivor of that battle, the lesser demon Toadkiller Dog, braves the attacks of the godlike sapling to dig up the Limper's remains. His original plans involve revenge on those that have wronged him, especially Croaker and the Lady. However, his plans change later on, thanks to the actions of our final group....

Last, but not least, we have the "Spike Hunters", a quartet of low-level thieves and ex-soldiers with a poorly thought out get-rich scheme: to steal the silver spike and sell it to the highest bidder. Most of the focus of this group's story revolves around Smeds Stahl, a former Imperial soldier and general layabout that gets caught up in this half-baked plan concocted by his cousin Tully. They enlist another former soldier, Timmy, and a seasoned hunter, Old Man Fish, to head to the Barrowland and find the spike.

The Spike Hunters are actually successful in freeing the spike, yet something is wrong. The entire landscape has been razed, all the people massacred as the Limper cuts a murderous swath across civilization. They finally return home to Oar, hoping to plan the spike auction, when they begin to realize just how much they are in over their heads.

These hastily assembled plans have a tendency to omit calculations regarding the true natures and capabilities of powerful forces. The crew, laden down with looted treasures from the slaughtered areas, didn't anticipate the large Imperial presence the events triggered. This makes circulating word about the spike difficult. Also, they hadn't considered that the crowds of wizards flocking to Oar (word of it's presence did get out), including a detachment from the Tower at Charm, had absolutely no intention of participating in a civil auction. There were all people of dubious moral fiber (who isn't in Cook's world?) for whom killing the competition poses a simpler resolution.

As Oar starts to stew, Raven and Case are closing in on Croaker and the Company. Unbeknownst to them, the Limper and Toadkiller Dog are close behind, being constantly harried by Darling and the creatures of the Plain. Circumstances force a reunion of sorts, and the knowledge of the freed spike has all heading back North; the Limper hoping to absorb the Dominator's essence, and Darling working with Father Tree to purge it from this plane permanently.

The remainder of the novel focuses on the events unfolding around the four groups as we approach the inevitable climax in Oar. The Limper meanders slowly but surely on, sidestepping and barreling through traps. Raven and Case find themselves embroiled in "The Cause", a cause that neither feels fully invested in. Darling, Silent, and Bomanz do what they must to defeat the evil, and the Spike Hunters find themselves slowly unraveling. Fish establishes himself as the shrewdest and toughest of the group, Smeds becomes a fast learner, Timmy is sidelined with a malady brought on by touching the spike barehanded, and Tully falls into his old (unreliable) ways.

Even though Cook is in fine form in this book, The Silver Spike is still the weakest installment in the series so far. Don't get me wrong, there is still a good deal of the brilliance contained within. One such example is this line, which so succinctly summarizes the Limper's twisted mental state:

"It had become so self-centered, so self-involved, as to be the hub of a solipsistic universe."

Seriously, it is damn hard to find writing on par with that in most contemporary fantasy works. The first-person bits by Case are also a highlight; he usually starts off his entries in his low-born dialect, and then you see his intelligence showing through. And, as the pressure cooker of Oar reaches a bursting point (all exits become sealed, there are riots, a cholera outbreak, and the infection that affected Timmy begins to spread as well), Cook crafts extremely palpable tension. You can feel the noose tightening on the Spike Hunters as the Empire gets closer to finding them, as they feel their options running out, as if you were one among them and your rear end was in the sling as well.

Where The Silver Spike falters mostly is in its climax. It is, for lack of a better term, anti-climactic. It comes off as obligatory and tacked-on, and lacks the epic grandeur of the battles in previous books. Time would have been better spent dedicated to storyline resolutions for these characters, since we will likely not see them again in the series.

Other than that, it would have been nicer to see more nastiness being done by the Limper and Toadkiller Dog. But maybe Cook wanted to keep the focus on Oar, and the evil that man can do to his fellow man with relative nonchalance.

Here's what it is:
The Silver Spike is a greatly appreciated book that brings us up to date with (and allows us to bid farewell to) a group of characters that we had grown to love/hate earlier in the series. While not perfect, it is still a solid book, and now it is time to get back to Croaker and the gang!


Final Score:

85/100


Cover Score:

This is the last of the books in the omnibus that bears Swanland's greatest cover. I will say this, though: I really like Berdak's cover for this book. Matter of fact, I found a copy of The Silver Spike at a used bookstore last week (was tempted to pick it up but the guy was asking way too much), and I realized how good it really looks in the flesh. It seems to be easy for people these days to poke fun at Berdak's designs (I think this is the last he did in the series), but if you really look at them they are pretty good. His covers that feature the god trees are superb.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):

99/100

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Swords & Dark Magic

Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery. A fantasy anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders. Originally published June 2010. Approx. 517 pages.

It's very rare that I actually finish an anthology cover to cover. Usually there are only one or two authors with contributions that interest me, and maybe one or two that I never read before will spark my interest. Often, though, there is too much that fails to compel me. It takes a certain flair to write a good short story. Still, seeing this anthology at the library, I was more than a bit intrigued by the list of authors represented. So, hopefully I will be able to finish reviewing them by their due date. Let's see how these stories stack up....

Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson (37pgs):
Not many better ways to start an anthology than with an entry by Erikson, author of the popular Malazan series (which may well be next year's reading challenge). Let me start by saying that I do not know if this story ties into the Malazan world in any form. In Goats, we have a quintet of weary soldiers returning from the Demon Wars. Their badges identify them as Rams, but in their decimated state, they are no more than Goats. They come upon a piss-poor town known as Glory (hence the title), which has the means to quench their thirst and whet their sexual appetites, but little in the way of food, lodging, or stables. Their are guided, however, by the oh so helpful townsfolk towards that oh so ominous keep a little over yonder. Of course there is evil in the keep. Evil in the form of demons. Then again, these Goats have just returned from a campaign spent killing demons, so the odds are not so sharply skewed.
This story is a lot of fun. And it's meant to be so. The banter is a little too playful at times, the fighting a smidge overdone, but still wonderfully choreographed. An exercise in delightful excess. Erikson's writing is engaging from page one on, and you can see some of the inspirations he's taken form Glen Cook (who he has mentioned as an inspiration) in his sentence structure, and in how he names the actors in this bloody play. Some reviews say this story gets off to a slow start; it doesn't. The time in Glory in enjoyable, and is reminiscent of the scene in so many horror movies where the last place the group finds before heading into "The Woods" is an antiquated gas station manned by inbred hillbillies. Kudos also to Erikson for making an engaging group that is mixed male/female. Would like to see more of these Goats one day.
Score: 89/100

Tides Elba by Glen Cook (35pgs):
Not only does this anthology boast a Glen Cook story, it is a Black Company short as well. While stationed in a city called Aloe, recently brought under the Lady's wing, Croaker and Company spend the days drinking, playing tonk, and satisfying baser needs. However, everyone whiffs trouble brewing, and, sure enough, the Company is graced by a visit and mission by their least favorite of the Taken, the Limper (who is still stewing with vengeful rage at the Company). The mission, as it is, is to find a woman by the name of Tides Elba (pronounced Tea-dace), who is of some unspecified importance to the Rebel movement.
The rest of the narrative is comprised of Croaker and his friends doing some detective work to try and find out who Tides Elba is, and thereby guess her importance to the Lady. Also, they are seeking to screw the Limper over before he has a chance to screw them. Because it's a certainty that that is his plan.
Cook's writing for the Company is on point as always. Croaker, Elmo, One Eye, and Goblin bitch, complain, taunt each other and crack wise. There is conniving, more conniving, and some sharp-eyed guesswork. Black Company tales work well in the short story format as well; it bears remembering that Chapter 3 of the first book had appeared as a standalone story before the novel was published. Always a good time with Croaker & Co. (the timeline of the events in Tides Elba probably occur between Book 1 and Shadows Linger).
Score: 91/100

Blood Sport by Gene Wolfe (16pgs):
Gene Wolfe is one of those authors that I just need to get around to reading more of. Fiercely intelligent, he writes with a mystical, lyrical fluidity. However, he also often teeters into the obscure, and things start to seem muddled. That is what forced me to put down his "The Knight" a few years ago, but his "Sun" series remains on my to read list. Wolfe's contribution here is a very short tale, and a very imaginative scenario. A weary, melancholy narrator tells a wandering traveler his tragic tale, of when he was a younger knight playing in the "games". These games are actually a live version of a chess variant, where oftentimes bested players were slain. He tells of the promising start of his career, and of a pawn that bested him several times (how Wolfe realizes the physicality of the pawn piece is amazing; I wish he had time to do this for every game "piece"). However, their kingdom soon falls to the hands of marauders, and this same duo finds themselves allies in first retaliating against the raiders, and then journeying to a mystical palace where a prophesy is to be realized.
Wolfe's switches up his style (again) as the narrative goes from linear to uncharted waters (the palace/prophesy finale). And while we can not exactly pinpoint why the ending transpired as it did, it is nice to watch the developing relationship of this incongruous pair, even if you can tell from the outset that things will not end well. I will say this, there is a very touching paragraph at the end, where Valorius tells the travel where each direction will take him. It might not seem poignant on its own, but spoken from a narrator as tinged with regrets as he, it tears the heart up.
Score: 88/100

The Singing Spear by James Enge (11pgs):
Here we have a very short entry from an author that I have never read before. A little research shows that Enge's Morlock Ambrosius books are held in high regard though. Turns out this Morlock Ambrosius (aka Morlock the Maker) is a great fighter (of course) and sorcerer, with a gift for making tools and items with wonderful properties. In this tale, the titular spear, which itself imprisons a vicious demon, has fallen into the hands of a marauding pirate, sending him on a spree of bad actions (but mostly killing). At first, Morlock is hesitant to help, being preoccupied with drinking himself in and out of stupors. However, when the stakes get raised by way of his bartender getting involved, the gloves come off. There is a great premise here, and excellent writing throughout, but Enge fills this tale (and I'm guessing his other writing) with too much of what I assume he thinks is smart, cheeky humor. It doesn't work for me, maybe for my younger me, but not middled-aged Hach. Morlock is presented as one of those stock anime tropes, like Ryo from City Hunter, who seems silly and all throughout the episode, and then is picking off people with pinpoint precision at the end. You get tired of things when you see them coming twenty miles away. A good cup of tea, but not my cup of tea. Score is my take, add 20 points if you are a previous fan of Enge.
Score: 73/100

A Wizard in Wiscezan by C.J. Cherryh (33pgs):
Cherryh is one of those authors whose works I would always see chunks of stuff by during lunchtime visits to the bookstore. One of those authors I would swear to start reading one day, I just had to figure out where to begin. Well, I am glad this anthology gave me something to introduce me to her work. Wizard is one of the longer entries in this work, and it is a solid read. A duke has acquired lordship of a wharf town through some rather sneaky means, and it turns out that the real danger behind him is a nasty, dark wizard. Making the business with the wizard even nastier is the fact that he is in cahoots with a demon. But there is also a resident master wizard, with some charges under his wing. One of his charges, a journeyman illusionist named Willem, is tasked by a lord from a neighboring town with aiding the local king in taking Wiscezan back from the corrupt duke. Wizard is many things in one well-written tale; a coming of age tale, a well-thought out commentary on the politics and machinations of sorcery, and some rousing sword action to boot. Cherryh's style is commendable; she is not too sparse, nor overindulgent. The effect is one where you can see the events transpiring around you; therefore, when there is spectacle, you see it, and when there is confusion, you feel it too. Very well done. Would gladly read more tales with Willem and Tewk in the future.
Score: 90/100

A Rich, Full Week by K.J. Parker (29pgs):
Maybe I don't need to keep pointing out the authors that I am reading for the first time in this anthology, since honestly, this is my first time out with most of them. Parker, like Enge, is an author whom I was just not familiar with before this anthology. However, many reviews of this compilation highly laud this tale, and the author's other works seem rated very high as well.
I'm pretty torn on this story. A Full, Rich Week is about a wizard dispatched to a farming town to address a situation involving the living dead. What does Parker do right? World-creating. The world of "Week" is very ordered; where "wizard" and "magic" are just colloquialisms for philosophy and undefined sciences. There is a patriarchal order, akin to a Catholic construct, replete with schools, commissions, and all sorts of officiating governing these sciences. The way that Parker describes applications of magic are excellent as well; there is extensive use of imagination, theory, and geometry. Also, the "creature" being hunted presents an interesting take on the traditional zombie mythos.
Now before I go on to what doesn't work in the story, I will say this: prepare for a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. The main character, a Father (wizard) in this Order, provides the first-person narration. And he is admittedly not a very nice person. Nor is he the best at what he does, also self-admittedly. There is nothing wrong with having a main character who is, for lack of a better term, an asshole. There are jerks in every calling; an no one said heroes all have to be brave, kind, noble, etc. My problem isn't with the personality type; it is with the eventual (mostly inner) dialogue. I get that this wizard has hang-ups over his upbringing in a coffin-like turf house on a farm, and over his poor scorings at the equivalent of wizard school. But there is a level of nastiness and condescension within the narrative which seems to transcend the established parameters of the character. I have no problem with sarcasm, but what starts out as disdain goes towards trope-bashing and some nasty commentary on social class. But maybe that is the point; maybe the point of the story is that the Father is the bad guy that becomes good by the end. All I'm saying is that there are certain points where it seems less an inner monologue and more an author making fun.
Where Rich Full Week falls apart is at the end. The two main parts of the story; which deal with the narrator's two dispatches, are linked plot-wise. Going from there, the ending is fairly well telegraphed, which results in a rushed, half-page ending, with a truly groan-inducing last line.
Overall, very rich world, very intelligent writing, but also a very unlikable lead, nasty dialogue, and a cornball ending.
Score: 65/100

A Suitable Present For a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix (16pgs):
My readings of YA material are few and far between (I just never get the time, although I know there are so many good YA offerings available), but I have Nix's work set on the horizon for my next venture. That being said, with his specialty being in the YA department, I didn't really know what to expect in this entry. Here we have a short tale, featuring established characters Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz (a knight and a "sorcerous puppet" which is an enchanted, very powerful magical entity; a papier-mache doll brought to life, and capable of sorcery and strong physical feats). In Suitable Present, Sir Hereward is convalescing a broken foot, when he comes upon an archaic tome suggesting that a "birthday present" is due for his dear Mister Fitz. However, the present selected has a nasty surprise inside. I really can't give away any more particulars, as it is really a short story.
As I started reading Suitable Present, my first thought was that I really wasn't in the mood for any light-hearted, cheeky writing. But Nix has such an enthusiastic style that it is infectious and irresistible. The worlds he creates in his head are obviously his playground, and he seems to gleefully romp around them. He is very playful with naming things, but also employs some fairly "big" words. It's all about contrasts; writing with a light touch on heavy subjects, comedic notes during dangerous moments. So many authors can't pull it off, Nix does. It still does get a little typical at times though.
The story resolves quickly, then leaves an open-ended segue to the next adventure. Maybe I need to follow up on this pair, but I think these tales are best told in small doses.
Score: 83/100

Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock (53pgs):
Smack-dab in the middle of this anthology is a new Elric novella. I can see this being a source of much rejoicing for diehards. I was a little hesitant, however. I mean, I love classics by the masters (I've read a good deal, but I won't lie and say that I've read all of Appendix N), but for some reason, on previous attempts, I just couldn't get into the Elric tales. So it was a little daunting for me, this 50+ page novella a hump I had to overcome. Now, I can say that I am glad for it. Whether it was the writing of this particular tale, or if this is just the right time for me to start with Elric, I tore through this story, completely immersed as the pages melted away.
In Red Pearls, Elric is traveling with companions Moonglum and the beautiful Princess Nauha in a ship, destined to travel off the edge of the world and embark on a trading expedition in the World Above (or is it the World Below). There, they meet with the myseterious Lady Fernrath, an albino of pure Phoorn blood whom Elric has met in either the past or the future. Fernrath possesses a mystical sword which Elric covets, a sword of light, a stark counterpart to his own dark sword Stormbringer. the price of this majestic blade? The treasures which are the titular Red Pearls, tucked away in the fortress of fellow Phoorn Addric Heed, a brutal slave trader who scourges the seas in a mysterious living ship.
Moorcock pens this tale with a style that is lyrical, fluid, and ethereal. You get caught up in poetic descriptions that make for excellent world-building. And then there are the characters. I can see Elric being a polarizing character. he is the epitome of "quiet-cool", tall, lean, dressed all in black, and totally bad-ass. He has a living sword that consumes souls, for chrissakes. Then I see people reviewing Elric books recently, ridiculing him as "emo" or "goth". Why, because he is taciturn or because of his style of dress? Is it because he is distant and of haughty demeanor? What I am thinking is that Elric might be a tough sell for some fantasy fans these days, since it is true fantasy: lofty notions, larger than human characters, spectacular magic. Today's fantasy seems more geared towards historical fiction with fantastic elements. But these trends are cyclical, and some things never go out of style. But I digress. This novella is a fine way to pad out the center of this anthology.
Score: 89/100

The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon (24pgs):
Whenever I hear Tim Lebbon's name, I usually associate it with tie-in fiction (Aliens, Star Wars), and movie novelizations, two genres which I do not often dabble in (save Warhammer stuff). I really did not know about his standalone or horror works, and knew nothing of his Echo City tales. Deification occurs in the Echo City mythos, but prior reading is not necessary. I will say that I really enjoyed the majority of this short. Read on....
Jan Ray Marcellan is a priestess of the deity Hanharan, and on this day she is overseeing the transportation of a very dangerous person to a special gaol. Said person is the titular Dal Bamore, en route to stand trial for, and presumably be crucified for, acts of heresy. Of what heresy is he guilty? Bamore is something both hated and feared, scarce and dangerous. His very being can instigate waves of dissent and revolution. He is a sorcerer. A sorcerer in a place where magic is sort of a dark urban legend.
The story alternates between two events; focusing on the ill-fated prisoner transport and in the recent past, following Bamore's interrogation/torture, which is when Jan Ray realized the enormity of what she was dealing with.
Lebbon excels in action scenes, and brutal, colorful descriptions of blood, gore, and violence. It is deliciously gruesome. There are also some genuine moments of real tension (and that is praise that I do not hand out lightly). Jan Ray makes a likable hero, but Bamore makes for quite a hammy villain, all full of snide, condescending contempt. Baddies who continuously sigh and say things like "so typical" are kind of corny in my opinion. But the deification angle is well done, as is the whole concept of religion vs. magic. You can't beat this for the amount of bloody action you get in less than thirty pages. Not for the squeamish.
Score: 85/100

Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg (25pgs):
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with Silverberg's name; I had heard of Majipoor, but I had no idea of the scope of the tales of it. I was very impressed by the list of accolades on Silverberg's author intro, so it was exciting to see what kind of tale was in store.
In Dark Times, we meet Ghambivole Zwoll, a tentacled sorcerer of the Vroon race. He runs a struggling shop in a marketplace that showcases many arcane wares and services.  is commissioned by an arrogant aristocrat (rich, but still rather low ranking on the highbrow totem pole) to concoct a potion to help him seduce a beautiful young lady of quite high social standing. A bad idea to be sure, and things pan out in interesting ways....
That's all I can really say without ruining everything. To be honest, it is all fairly predictable, and the ending is downright silly. But Silverberg writes with such skill and enthusiasm that you can't help enjoy it. The story is more about him romping in the playground that is his created world than anything else. He has fun creating odd races with weird appearances and extra appendages. He gleefully names mystic ingredients for magical potions. And the whole tale is written with genuine good humor.
So in the end, immensely readable, good-natured, well-written, but predictable and a little silly.
Score: 76/100

The Undefiled by Greg Keyes (14pgs):
I am mostly familiar with Keyes from his Thorn and Bone books, as well as some tie-in fiction. Undefiled features another of his established characters, Fool Wolf. From what I can gather, Wolf is a shaman/warrior of sorts, who is possessed by a powerful, malicious female spirit. They maintain a perpetual inner dialogue, as she champs at the bit, looking to be unleashed and cause horrifying acts of violence and mayhem. With glee. He is also apparently traveling with a female (love interest?) named Inah.
In Undefiled, Fool Wolf and Inah find themselves captive in the land of QashQul, so named for the opposing gods that rule over it. Wolf is offered freedom by the Qash people in exchange for a service; to retrieve a sword used in the sacrificial rites which preserve their vitality. Wolf accepts and sets off....
This is a short story packed with a lot of grand ideas. Keyes weaves a poetic, spectral tale of gods interwoven into all physical things, and the symbiotic relationship that results. There are also a lot of dark themes, and somewhat of a dark tone tempered by dry sarcasm.
I really couldn't bring myself to sympathize with Fool Wolf; yes it is humorous that on appearance he isn't much more than a laid back horndog. And his literal inner demon makes things very interesting, even if her dialogue is overblown and hammy. But I needed a few more sentences of backstory to actually give a hoot about him. This should be a given if you are throwing a tale of an established figure into an anthology; give a little something to help new readers get acquainted. As it is, when I think of shaman + wolf + lazy lecher + demonic possession, I immediately think of Rose Estes' Mika-Oba books.
I appreciated this tale a lot more on the second reading. Being as though it is so short, you can afford a quick re-read. This helps Keyes style to set in and gel a little better.
Score: 77/100

Hew the Tintmaster by Michael Shea (38pgs):
Veteran author Shea gives us a decent length story here set in Jack Vance's Dying Earth universe. It is even billed on the back cover as being a "fully authorized" Cugel the Clever story. First things first; I have not read anything by Shea, and I was never able to get into Vance in my younger days (I know, pure sacrilege, maybe a revisit is in order), so I wasn't excited for this story. To be honest, I started this tale and then walked away from it for about two weeks, delaying the review even more. I'll just say it now; this is not my type of story. It is well-written (but I am in no position to confirm it being Vancian), but.....
Esteemed sorcerer Kadaster enlists the services of warrior Bront and master house painter Hew (hailing from the land of Helix, where colors are very important in social class) to travel to another realm. They will recruit help in a town called Minion, and from there journey to the mysterious Crystal Combs, where Hew will undertake a very special painting task.
This is a fairly light-hearted tale. Shea obviously loves writing in this world, and he is a sound wordsmith. Color is a motif that permeates the entire tale, peppering descriptions throughout. He also accomplishes a difficult task; successfully writing physical comedy. He creates a sound villain in a spooky "future wraith" as well. But a lot of the storytelling is forced as well; especially with the overly earnest, or corny, dialogue.
As for the Vance aspect, I'd love some reader feedback. This should be billed as a Dying Earth adventure, not a Cugel one. Cugel appears in a supporting role so minute it is damn near a cameo. Other than that, does Shea tap Vance's vein? All I know is that I personally do not feel compelled to run out and get anything further by either. Plus, even if I was an established fan, I imagine I'd feel ripped off by how little Cugel is in the Cugel tale. Not my cup of tea, feel free to add more points if you are a Dying Earth fan.
Score: 72/100

In the Stacks by Scott Lynch (48pgs):
Wow, what a pleasant surprise this story was. This tales centers around four wizard aspirants at the High University of Hazar, and focuses on them passing their fifth year final exam. The task at hand for a passing score? Simply returning a library book to the Living Library.
Sentient libraries in magic schools are not a new concept, and I had honestly thought that no one would top Pratchett at depicting them, but I was wrong. Lynch writes with a furious delight here, and satisfies all the criteria for a story in this anthology; magic, swordplay, some humor, some gruesome violence. His concepts and theories are solid, and well realized. Pacing is stellar; I cannot stress this enough. This being one of the longer entries in the book, I barely noticed as page after page flew by. Maybe the words were infused with the same thaumaturgical sentience as the grimoires in Stacks.
There are some weaknesses to this tale, however. The quality of the characters never rises to the lofty standards of the settings. There are trope and/or uninteresting; sufficiently resourceful or useless as each situation necessitates. Our protagonist, Laszlo, who possesses more quality of character than magical ability, is a slice of amicable milquetoast. And finally, the ending sequence feels very much tacked-on and unnecessary, as if the concept itself was insufficient on its own merits.
Still, I highly recommend this tale. I do not know if any of the people or places tie into Lynch's Locke Lamora stories.
Score: 86/100

Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe by Tanith Lee (34pgs):
Two wandering adventurers, so close in appearance that they might be brothers, converge upon the mystical city of Cashloria by way of opposing banks of its roaring Ca river. After enduring similar encounters with brutish soldiers of the local ruler, the "False Prince" (both scenarios ending with thoroughly dead guards), they are charged by said Prince with a geas. The pair is charged with retrieving a lost garment of legendary power; a robe with magic properties. The theft of this robe has caused the prince to age at an exponential rate, and led his mind down its bitter path. Of course, there are obstacles to bar retrieval of the garment; challenges which have claimed the lives of the last fifty brave adventurers that have tried. And there is also the matter of that odd mansion in the labyrinthine woods....
From the opening lines of this story, veteran scribe Lee hooks you with lush descriptions and world-building. This is pure fantasy; evocative, fantastical, and immersing. To be honest, when I first met the two leads, I thought that their dialogue was a little overwrought, like a forced attempt at cleverness. But once they get together, they make a great pair with a great rapport. The magic is, well, magical, and the swordplay (and other action) is brisk and engaging. There is very little to complain about here, other than the last line being a forced proverb. Still, one of the better tales in the book. And it gets my vote for having the best story title with the playful dedication to C.S. Lewis.
Score:87/100

The Sea-Troll's Daughter by Caitlin R. Kiernan (30pgs):
This is a very interesting tale that Kiernan brings. Like Cook's Tides Elba, there is no real swordplay or grand displays of magic here (save communicating in dream states), but the world she has crafted is one where these things, as well as monsters, are integral facets of society.
A stranger has arrived in the small fishing village of Invergo. A fighting woman from the southern lands, who claims to have succeeded in an unbelievable task: that she has slain the sea-troll who has for so long plagued the village on the bay. She is met with doubt and disbelief until the corpse of said creature washes up on the shore. Then it is turned into a public spectacle. Meanwhile Malmury, the heroine, spends her days at the local tavern, drinking and embellishing her tale further and further each day as she awaits her promised reward.
Eventually, a very much feared crone comes to warn the villagers that their actions have inevitable consequences. There are other trolls which may take umbrage with the murder of one of their own; and, more immediately, said sea-troll has a daughter (sired upon a human woman), that may have her own ideas about payback and settling accounts.
The basic life lesson in The Sea-Troll's Daughter is simple; that the "monsters" are quite capable of fairness and humanity, while the more "civilized" people are often petty and, well, monstrous. But while not thematically groundbreaking, this is a well-written tale that sticks with you. Kiernan's scientific pedigree coupled with evocative, haunting storytelling really brings this world to life. The characters are well fleshed out as well; especially Saehldr, the titular daughter of the troll, Dota, a kind-hearted, responsible barmaid, and Malmury, our boastful, whoring, hard-drinking "hero".
Solid concept, solid execution, detailed, gruesome descriptions. Good job.
Score: 88/100

Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham (7pgs):
You know, I really don't know what to say about this story. Not at all. It's a decently written tale, but there is no real point to it. If it was all some set up to a great knockout of an ending, I could get it, but nothing. Thieves focuses on a character named Septavian (I have no idea if he appears in any of Willingham's graphic novels or printed fiction), who is a master thief and swordsman of a specific order. Apparently he is so well known that this story begins with an excerpt from his compiled history. In Thieves, Septavian and his cohorts have decided to rob the estate of a local wizard. The story begins as his partners in crime are dead and dying. Septavian then speaks to the master of the house. There's some action, then it's over. Seriously, that's it.
Like I said, the story is written in an engaging enough manner, and does feature swords and sorcery. Willingham writes with a real flair, even though the story it ultimately unnecessary. I don't dabble much in comics, so I haven't read his Fables works, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was he who drew so many of my favorite classic D&D pics:



So, yes, not a bad story but there is also no reason for it.

Score: 63/100

The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie (25pgs):
Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy is stacked on a certain shelf in my mind labelled both "To Read" and "What the Hell is taking you so long to get to this????". It was a real challenge not to skip to the end of this anthology just to read this story first. So, that being said, what a great way to close this book! This little gem combines all the ingredients that make good fantasy; swordplay, magic, memorable characters, and even some well-placed comedic touches.
I am assuming that Abercrombie was trolling a bit when he made the story structure of Fool Jobs. It is about a band of hired ne'er-do-wells sent on a mission to a village to grab a 'thing'. Literally. This lethal septet is led by Craw, who's been doing this longer than he can remember and who is getting weary of catching the missions left pooling around the lower portion of the totem pole.
As mentioned before, all the components work here. There is enough description to satisfy feasible world building. We get an abundance of swordplay, depicted in such a manner that the results become vivid red splatters dashed across our imaginations.
Best of all is how Abercrombie writes for the characters. Let me say now, this band has its share of stock personalities. There is the quick, sneaky one, the quiet, lethal one, the knife pro, the tough as nails girl, and some big, burly, irritable lugs. And yet, it is Abercrombie's attention to the details of the workings of the inner mind, all those nuances, that grant his characters immediate authenticity. Craw is an efficient thug (for lack of a better term), but he has worries, dreams (red socks!), and fixations. Certain situations, such as the nervous anticipation that precedes a potentially deadly fight, are rendered so realistically that you can feel your stomach knot.
So there you have it; simplest plot structure, stock character types, and a predictable ending. But all made great with realistic, sympathetic characters, and good action scenes. Nice closing piece.
Score: 88/100

Final Thoughts:
This one took me quite a while to finish, but I am more than happy that I did. I recommend this anthology highly for event he most casual fantasy fan, and here's some reasons why:

  • It features some real A-list authors.
  • It features all new works, not rehashes of previous ones.
  • While some things aren't my taste per se, there are no poorly written stories here.
Highly recommended. And now I have a decent sized list of authors I need to read more stuff by.

Cover Score:

To be frank, the worst thing about this book is the cover. The background color is a nauseating green mess. Our heroic pair looks like an intrepid duo of LARP-ing, photogenic, Marketing Department workers. This is the kind of cover you'd expect on a self-published title, not an anthology of this caliber.

Cover Final Score:

36/100