Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Hand that Holds the Crown" by Nathan Meyer from Return of the Sword

This is the story of a battle to the death between two armored warriors for the right to rule their land. More than just a duel or some sort noble spectacle out of Ivanhoe, the setup is clever and the point of view twists with the story, until the brutal clash of arms.

Meyer has written an awesome fight scene, pulling off the neat literary feat of giving us the fight from both men's perspectives in a battle that crackles with visceral force. HIs ease with the details of armor and sensory descriptions really bring the scene to life.

There's not a great deal of characterization or backstory here, but there were some tantalizing details that spelled out interesting motivations and history between the two combatants. "The Hand that Holds the Crown" is a rocking tale with much more to it than I can give away here. Check it out.

There were a couple of printing errors. One part seemed like it needed a section break, but it may be I was just catching on to the way the PoV would shift. It was hardly a distraction at all from the action, though. This is a story I will read again, and one of the best in an excellent volume of action stories. I hesitate to call this one fantasy, because it could very easily be historical fiction. The only magic is at the end, but it is of an entirely human nature. ;)

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Guardian of Rage" by Thomas M. MacKay from Return of the Sword

The next story in Return of the Sword is the prologue to a novel, though it tells a complete tale. It's a good action piece that brings us back to the Elder Darkness themes of swords and sorcery fiction. Jack, the hero of this tale is well drawn, a fighter as well as mystic, though I was so caught up in the chase and vivid setting (a dark ancient sewer) that I never quite got what exactly Jack was doing, the bigger picture. I'm sure the novel will help flesh that out.

Jack's situation has two major complications. First he's being hunted by a group of wicked cultists with freaky monsters at their command, who want the relic he possesses. Second, he has a six year old girl in tow, who's family were killed by the cult. The girl could have been more fleshed out, she was more of a complication than another human being, but that is an afterthought. As I said, the adventure and the gruesome details really held my attention. The story built effective tension with the chase through the dark sewers and the... creature .... thing. heh

The magic was well done, exotic, yet clearly presented. And it was essential to the story, which is in large part about Jack's meditative resolve being eaten away by his frustration and rage. Could be a very interesting character to follow.

Another fine story.

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
Thomas M. MacKay
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"To Destroy All Flesh" by Michael Ehart from Return of the Sword

This story has a lot of humanity in it. That's the best word for it. From the agonizing deaths to the moral question at its core, this story looks at the human costs of the magic, mayhem and pure human malice that make up heroic fiction. The hero, Ninshi, is Ehart's titular hero from the novel Servant of the Manthycore. In this tale, a group of mountain bandits stand between her and the herb she must have to free herself from the Manthycore's arcane shackles.

As complicated as that would suggest, Ehart handles it all skillfully. His choice for the point-of-view character works perfectly. We get the back story with just enough detail to set the stage, without burdening us with boring memories. And instead of two dimensional bandits, we get real human beings with circumstances that make this more than just a hack-em-up tale. I love those, but when a story delivers with theme, a textured world, and characters that seem alive, well that's a kick-ass story. This is one of them.

Ehart goes for the throat with a gripping, desperate fight right at the opening. From the stark clarity of that scene, the situation gets murkier and more complex, in all the right ways. I recently read Ken Follet's masterpiece Pillars of the Earth and though "To Destroy All Flesh" is orders of magnitude shorter, it manages to hit on some of the same historical and emotional revelations I felt during that novel.

The previous Servant story, "Stand, Stand, Shall they Cry" was good, but did not move me the way this one did. From his posts on the SFReader forum, I get the impression Ehart takes historical research very seriously. That's a strong selling point for me. Now that I have seen more of the sense of humanity in this character, I'm sold. I've ordered his novel Servant of the Manthycore.

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
Michael Ehart's blog
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Monday, April 14, 2008

"The Red Worm's Way" by James Enge from Return of the Sword

I'm already a fan of James Enge's stories about Morlock Ambrosius, a gnarled sorcerer whose magic seems largely to be the art of giving the semblance of life to golems... and their parts, though his knowledge of the world and its mysteries is also vast. In this tale, Morlock is down on his luck, and winds up sitting watch over a corpse to protect it from flesh eating creatures, some of whom might be the very townspeople who hired him to sit watch.

It's impossible to be impartial here, as a new Morlock tale was one of my chief points of interest in the book. See, I'm partial to the sorcerers. Even given the dark fates most sword and sorcery mages meet, I'd still go with the sorcerers if I were ever sucked down the magic vortex. Even as a skeptic, I've always quested for a sign of the supernatural. Maybe that's why fantasy has so much appeal. Enge's Morlock stories provide an excellent foil to the warrior tales so far in this volume. Where it's refreshing to have a hero who thinks his way out of trouble, like Sigurd from Jeff Stewart's "Mountain Scarab, with Morlock, all he has is his mind.

Any time magic is involved, the rules become an issue. James does a great job of establishing the kinds of things Morlock can do, just a twist of magic, without making Morlock a demigod. The world also benefits from the deft writing, plumbing historical periods and myths a bit off the beaten path. This particular story has a bit of italian flavor, and I get the sense in general that Morlock's world is roughly European, after the fall of the roman empire. It's a fantasy world, but this story has a rustic, old-world feel. The magic provides an extra layer of surprise, and as with other Morlock stories there are some pleasant switchbacks at the end of this one, particularly the crow coin. ;)

One great thing James does in this story, is deliver elements of Morlock's history, without telling us all the details. This let's us see into Morlock's motivations, while still giving him an aura of mystery, keeping the reader wondering about the "rest" of the story. I'm really hoping to see a Morlock collection or novel someday. I already see that knowing more of Morlock's past won't spoil these stories, it will enhance them.

For my money, Morlock the Maker is one of the truly iconic characters to emerge from the current struggling renaissance of swords and sorcery fiction. This story is another strong reason to pick up Return of the Sword.

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
James Enge's site, full of Morlockian goodnessEE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Storytelling" by E.E. Knight from Return of the Sword

I was a bit skeptical of an essay on storytelling in the middle of this anthology of swords and sorcery stories that is just cooking along. But as usual with Return of the Sword, I was in for a surprise. Knight strikes a mentor's tone, but leavens it with a ton of humor. My wife was giving me annoyed looks I was chuckling so much during the reading.

The best thing is that the humor highlights an excellent perspective on writing fiction, and the writer's life. I read an embarrassing amount of process books. Knight echoes and distills a great deal of advice I've read in other sources, while laying out the basic building blocks of storytelling in a clear, concise manner. It's an excellent essay, and I can't wait to discuss it and use the ideas there for our discussions at SFReader.

"Dump truck of despair..." what a hoot!

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"To Be A Man" by Robert Rhodes from Return of the Sword

Wow. Return of the Sword hits another high point with this tale of a red-maned warrior woman. As summaries go, I can't do better than this one from E.E. Knight's blog.

“To Be A Man” - The thief Vasili has enjoyed a rich and ribald life with his partner, the notorious Titania Brashnova. But when Titania finally goes too far, Vasili must attempt his greatest con yet: ending their partnership ... without ending himself.

So, I've been keeping up with Red Sonja through Dynamite's comics line and frankly I'm pretty disappointed with the stories, mainly because Sonja is so two dimensional. In this story we are treated to a lusty tale that recalls the passion and intensity of Howard's Swordswoman. Titania is way larger than life, but it's such a refreshing take. You see, instead of being a chaste ice-princess, Titania is an insatiable love-tiger.

This is the first story in the collection to use first person narration. I haven't been so keen on this style for a while now, but it works so well here. I just glanced at the first few sentences and I was caught up. Vasili's personality is so vivid, the narration confident and playful. In fact the humor in the story camouflages a strong theme and dramatic development of character as Vasili wrestles with his conscience. This story has a moral core that caught me off guard and lifts it from the realm of pure entertainment. It's sexy and mature, and that is part of the artfulness of the tale. What could possibly go wrong with being the partner to a beautiful, ass-kicking, sexually insatiable amazon? The answer may surprise you.


Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
Robert Rhodes
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

"Lair of the Cherufe" by Angeline Hawkes from Return of the Sword

If I didn't know better, I would say this is a story from the classic age of pulps. It has a fun style that reminded me of Fritz Leiber. Our hero, in this case, is Kabar of el Hazzar and the setting is a mythic middle east. The tale really cooks along, establishing character and setting while Kabar is being summoned by the local king, an old fighting buddy of Kabar's, whose daughter has been kidnapped. She is to be sacrificed to some gigantic monster in a volcano, unless Kabar can save her.

If there is one thing that puzzles me, its the presence of two other characters, Kabar's brother and a friend. They don't accomplish much and I think the story would be shorter and sweeter without them. However, looking at Ms. Hawkes website, it seems this is one of many stories featuring these characters, and in this case, her fans would probably like to know what's going on with these two. That's understandable, especially from an established author. It's an interesting group, and I could certainly read more of their stories.

There's another magic blade in this tale, the Singing Sword. That's pretty familiar territory, and in fact there are few surprises here. The hero is very confident and it comes as no shock when things go his way... mostly. =) But overall it is an entertaining yarn that stands out for its unique and fully-formed voice and its classic pulp feel.

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
Angeline Hawkes
EE Knight's Announcement
A Review

Monday, April 07, 2008

"Mountain Scarab" by Jeff Stewart from Return of the Sword

This is an excellent tale with the feel of the old Conan stories. It starts off in the midst of a caravan raid:
The first guard died with an arrow in his throat.

Bam! That got my attention.

We soon meet the northern sailor Sigurd, who is embroiled with a group of raiders. When a young woman is captured during the raid, he finds himself torn between his personal honor and the need to keep his skin. The plot moves along effortlessly. Each step makes sense, without giving itself away. The two leads, Sigurd and the girl Simone are fully realized, as well as a couple of supporting characters. The setting is concise and vivid. I could see the yellow firelight on the faces of the encamped raiders as they watch events unfold.

Unfortunately the beginning is a little uneven. My major gripe, really, is that the author uses the word "wiry" to describe the Peshmerga raiders at least three times. A little thing, but it cooled my initial excitement at the story's dramatic opening. When the hero first enters, I would almost prefer a more removed description. The word Valkyrion is cool, but it sounds pretty austentatious when the character is introduced, larger than life. When what we get is a believable, down on his luck viking/barbarian who relies on his wits as much as his axe.

But the story gripped my attention and I was eager to find out what would happen to Sigurd and Simone.

On the craft side of things, this story is told in third person omnitient. I was a bit jarred at first when the point of view would move between characters, but it worked. I found myself thinking that my only real problem with it is that so many people tell you not to write that way. It was good enough for Frank Herbert, though. Ultimately, I enjoyed being able to see the story from the different perspectives. I'd be very interested to read what others think of the story and its mode.

Buy the book! The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure
EE Knight's Announcement

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Infected, a novel by Scott Sigler

Back in the fall of 2005, followed an apple email to the new iTunes section with podcasts. A bit like a radio show, podcasts allowed me to catch up on things that my busy life (tm) left little time for. My mainstays are Democracy Now, Escape Pod, and Scott Sigler

Some time soon I will rant on the whole "webscabs" thing, but right now I can say one thing about it. Scott Sigler has given me four free audiobooks in podcast form. The fifth, Nocturnal is in progress. Scott's books simply kick ass and I freakin' love the guy. He's earned a fan for life, who will buy every book he puts out, the day it is released, no questions asked. Scott Sigler books are thriller-scifi-horror stew with gnarly fucking monsters, realistic characters, heroes, villains and lots--AND LOTS-- of violence. But we're not talking one dimensional gorefests here. Scott builds the horror with the bricks of real science and an intense narrative voice. 

Today, Infected hit the store shelves. It's Scott Sigler's first hardcover, so I am celebrating and honoring the future high overlord's demand for photos.

The Borders I got to in Stockton, CA. I know I'm not supposed to like the big chains, but I like this particular store.

What no Sigler?

Okay, Scott. For all the kick ass stories, here is me embarrassing myself in front of the internet and a friendly Borders clerk. Sure glad my wife loves me for my brains. =P

I humbly suggest that the bookstores get big stacks of Infected and display them prominently. The cover image is truly striking, and the book delivers.

Congratulations, Scott. You've been working your ass off to entertain us. The least I can do is buy your book.

Bryan Hitchcock,
Original Junkie

"Deep in the Land of the Ice and Snow" by Ty Johnston from RotS

This story didn't do it for me. The hero Belgad of the Thunder Clan, his opponents and other characters suffer in comparison to the preceding stories. I don't want to belabor the point, because it is a good action piece, and there's some twist to it at the end, but the story didn't bring anything new or deliver the goods with any particular flare. Wolves? That territory's been covered.

I was very intrigued by the witch Belgad is sent to slay. When I think of a witch in a frozen wasteland with an odd hut, I'm thinking Baba Yaga--something twisted and cool. Unfortunately, this witch is no Baba Yaga.

It will be interesting to read what other readers have to say about these stories.