Monday, December 31, 2012

Dowsing for Pulp - "Mad Shadows" by Joe Bonadonna

   I'm chagrined to admit I only discovered the existence of Joe Bonadonna this past summer when he wrote a great piece at Black Gate called "How I Met Your Cimmerian (and other Barbarian Swordsmen)".  If you're here and haven't read it, go do so before continuing on.  It's the detailed evolution of a S&S fan, his discovery of the genre's classics and how they hooked him for life.
   He's a man who started writing S&S back in the field's heyday in the seventies but with limited success.  That led him to abandon it for several decades until the renewed activity of his friend David C. Smith (and renowned S&S author) prompted him to try his hand again.  
   One of Bonadonna's previous creations was the magical dowser, Dorgo Mikawber.  According to the afterword in "Mad Shadows", he gave the character and his stories a "change of clothes, a different style and a whole new attitude".  Whatever Dorgo had been before, in his new, revived existence he had become the hero of a series S&S pulp detective stories.  2010 saw the release of "Mad Shadows - The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser".
   "Mad Shadows" has six chronological stories starring Dorgo the Dowser.  Armed with a saber and hefty, three-limbed dowsing rod, Dorgo provides able assistance to the city guard of the city of Valdar (a fairly typical hive of scum and villainy) and clients alike.  Unlike much S&S, Bonadonna's stories are filled with all sorts of non-human characters and species.  Death-dealing satyrs, magic throwing trolls and all other manner of beings populate Dorgo's world.  There's some similarity to Glen Cook's excellent Garrett novels (which are well worth your time).  Still, Bonadonna's world of Tanyime is his purely own and he builds it with lots of small details and bits of casually inserted character background.
   The first three stories, "Mad Shadows", "The Secret's of Andaro's Daughter" and "The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum" are the most straightforward detective tales.  Mostly confined to the urban environs of Valdar, Dorgo walks down its mean streets beset by brutal killers, is tricked by canny femme fatales and has the local authorities looking over his shoulder.  Save for the presence of the occasional gold-eating demons or magical gems these tales are of the same genus as Hammett's Continental Ops or Chandler's Marlowe stories.
   With the last three stories, "The Man Who Loved Puppets", "In the Vale of the Black Diamond" and "Blood on the Moon", Dorgo leaves the somewhat polluted neighborhoods of Valdar and ventures out into the wider world.  Again, Bonadonna skillfully uses old pulp elements.  There are demonic puppets, secret valleys and hidden treasures and moon-cursed werewolves.  
    There's a flatness to some of Bonadonna's writing as he's shooting for a sort of crisp, Hammettesque tone and it took until the middle of "Andaro's Daughter" till everything worked.  Maybe it was the accretion of  world-building detail or I just got used to Dorgo's voice but that's when it all came together for me.  It's also when Bonadonna brings on the full technicolor craziness with a scene full of man-eating demons.  This only gets amped up in each following story.  By the end of the book, events take on a terrific blood and adrenaline soaked hue that's left me hungry for more Dorgo.   
   The highlight of "Mad Shadows" is easily "In the Vale of the Black Diamond".  We're introduced to Yozinda Andovo.  When Dorgo ran away from an orphanage as a boy, he met and became friends with a girl named Yozinda.  Later at her prompting they ran away together and joined a mercenary company.  Now, years later, she's come to Dorgo for help in securing the legendary Black Diamond.  Purported to have healing properties, Yozi's searching for it to help her ailing brother.  Unfortunately, it lies at the bottom of the Severnus Tujeer - the Hidden Canyon deep in the heart of the Desert of White Dust.
   What Dorgo, Yozi and their companions find is monsters of varied and grotesque shapes, an ancient necropolis and alien beings.  As soon as they reach the canyon floor, the part encounter things an earlier adventure named "spiderworms".  Dorgo describes them as " pink worms roughly the size of goats.  Shaggy manes of coarse, black hair covered the backs of their vermicular bodies.  There was something of the arachnid about them, as well, for they had the legs, maw, and mandible of a tarantula.  With long eyestalks that twitched crazily back and forth, they drew close and closer".  The creatures get bigger, more ferocious and more baroquely designed from there.  After all the beasts and danger the ending is satisfying and more than a little mournful.
   While it's the least like a detective story I liked it the most.  I liked it on two levels.  First, in describing his relationship with Yozi, Dorgo fills in more of his personal history.  As the story unfolds, he emerges as more than just a tarnished urban knight in the Phil Marlowe.  As deeply important to him as his loyalty to his friends is, it emerges he possesses a deeper and less selfish morality.  In his afterword, Bonadonna stresses his goal was creating solid characters and that without them it all amounts to nothing.  On the second level, it's a fun and exciting story in the honorable tradition of hidden ruins in danger filled jungles.
   "Mad Shadows" is good stuff.  It's got no pretensions to be anything other than a worthy addition to the canons of S&S and there it's wildly successful.  In his afterword, Bonadonna lists many of the stories and movies that inspire his writing and I noticed a lot of my own favorites.  In addition to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber are obviously Hammett and Chandler.  What really caught my eyes were his inclusion of several Westerns, especially Randolph Scott's terrific collaborations with Budd Boetticher.  What I really loved was the source of the title for the collections - not a line from Baudelaire, but the title of Mott the Hoople's second album.  Anybody who references Mott can do little wrong in my book.
   "Mad Shadows" is a great set of stories.  I'm glad Black Gate made me aware of them and I'm even happier Joe Bonadonna's decided to re-enter the genre.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Books

   Black Gate's short piece on Jeffrey E. Barlough's new Western Lights novel, "What I Found at Hoole" made me want to catch on the series.  I've read several of the earlier books but in my transition to e-books over the past two years I've tended to not buy hard copies.  When a books, like Barlough's, don't exist in an electronic form I tend to shy away from them.  But, Christmas time being upon us I didn't hesitate to populate my Amazon wish list with them.

   I'm not going to get to all of these too soon but I love knowing they're on the shelf.  Right now I'm staring at "Space Eldritch" and "Prince of Thorns".

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Worlds Fantastic and Strange

  Earlier this week, Black Gate's editor, John O'Neil, posted an article about the Bantam Solomon Kane collection, "Skulls in the Stars".  I haven't looked at my copy in years (or any my old Howard books since the Del Rey's came along), but I was immediately reminded of the amazing maps drawn by Tim Kirk.  I dug them out and was happy to find I still like them.
   I'm a fan of maps, real and fantastic.  One of my most treasured books is an pre-WW I atlas my grandfather rescued from a house he was working on.  In its pages the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns still rule Central Europe and poor Anastasia remains safe in the Winter Palace.  For the time I'm reading I can almost believe a century of time hasn't passed since the book was published.
   Fantasy maps can help bring me into their author's worlds as well as my atlas transports me to pre-war Europe.  Sometimes the maps , sadly are the best part of a book with the names of strange kingdoms and landmarks calling out to me more clearly than their creator's words.
   For me, the best maps are more than just a picture in the front of the book.  They help foster the illusion that the author's world is a real one, one where things unknown lie over the horizon, where mysterious words hint at strange lands and customs.  Maps don't need to be super-detailed with every bit of blank space filled in and city-state named to be successful.  One of the best is below.

  The map from the Ace Conan editions is one of the most important and coolest maps for me.  I stared at the map for some time before I actually read any of the stories (it was my dad's battered, old copy of Conan the Warrior).  While the actual map of Hyboria is fairly lackluster, the superimposed map of the modern world made it mind-blowing for my twelve-year old self.  Suddenly Conan was elevated from a sword swinging warrior to someone who existed in some ancient, "real" time.  It was the first time I'd encountered that conceit in fantasy fiction and it's still one I'm a total sucker for.  Seeing that map I should have been ready for the wondrous mash-up of Cossack, Bantu, medieval and classical cultures that is Howard's Hyboria, but I wasn't.

   Several years later I came across Tim Kirk's rendering of Hyboria sans superimposition.  It's a beautiful map, rendered in thick, emphatic lines with well detailed mountains and I love what I assume is the "Tigress" in the bottom corner.  Without the modern map, though, even with REH's evocative kingdom names it looses some of it wonder.  Still, as I've written, I love Kirk's art.

      "Changa's Safari", by Milton Davis, is set in the lands straddling the Indian Ocean during the 15th century AD.  What I love about this map is that it refocused how I look at a certain part of the world.  In most maps the region's down and off center but here it's the focus of everything.
   One of Davis' goals with swords & soul is to throw off the usual northern European tropes in fantasy and create African ones.  The map pivots a part of the globe I've always sort of seen as secondary and makes it primary.  It left me just waiting to see what Davis would do next to reach his goal.

   And sometimes the map's as poor as the story.  From one of Lin Carter's "Thongor" books, this might have been drawn by a child (an untalented and fumble-fingered one).  It's as bereft of character as poor Thongor and Lemuria.  Carter was so caught up in trying to remind readers of John Carter and Conan that he never came up with anything that was uniquely Thongor.  The map's as sketchy and as lifeless as Carter's creation.
   Another great possession of mine is J. B. Post's "An Atlas of Fantasy".  It's one of those great seventies books like "Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials" or "The Atlas of Middle-Earth".  Post's book collects maps from myth as well as fantasy and science fiction.  Places like things like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia are also depicted.  It's a beautiful book collecting maps of many of my favorite books and stories alongside others completely unfamiliar to me.  If you like maps it's worth finding.
   All this being said, books don't need maps.  Being forced to couple the author's words with my own imagination to conjure up an image of the geographical layout can be far more satisfying than just looking at a picture.  A poor map can undercut whatever success the author's had working his/her magic in my brain.  The map in "The Sword of Shannara" springs to mind (and we can argue the merits of Terry Brooks some other day, but I readily admit to having a fairly unwarranted soft spot for at least the first batch of his books).  It's flatter and less interesting than any of his prose.
   I know there's a map of Jack Vance's "Undying Earth" out there but I don't need or want it.  It presents definite, concrete borders for a world that should only exist in Vance's fever-dream writing.
   So what do you think?  Do you like them or find them a hindrance to your own imaginations?  What are your favorite and most hated?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Issue #10 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Perhaps due to the low remuneration and its recent arrival on the scene, the story quality of "Swords and Sorcery Magazine" has never been quite as high as "Beneath Ceaseless Skies" or "Heroic Fantasy Quarterly".  I think there's only a single issue I totally disliked, but still, more often than not, the stories it's carried have been closer to adequate than excellent.  In the latest issue I felt a real positive improvement vibe going on.  I'd love it if it's a harbinger of things to come. 
   Issue #10's first story is "The Open Pouch" by Rebecca L. Brown, an alumnus of Issue #8.  It's a coming-of-age story and in no way a swords & sorcery story.  What it is is well told story of a young man maturing in Crosshawks Valley trying to find his own footing in his world.  It's one where all young men are given their "manhood" by a woman named Jennika whose societal function is to do just that.  She also serves as the town prostitute which only increases the dislike of the town's women for her.  There's no adventure or swordplay.  What there is is a well told tale in an intriguing world.
   In "Moon Over the Mountains" by Belle DiMonté the peaceful retirement of Kael the Silent is disturbed by the appearance of a great wolf that is clearly no plain, simple beast.  To be honest, very little happens in "Moon Over the Mountains" and it reads like a first chapter not a contained story.  Still, it works.  Enough is revealed about Kael, intimations of his past achievements, hints of his power and his importance as a historical figure, to leave the reader curious.  The wolf's entrance and subsequent events only increased my desire to know more about Kael and DiMonté's world.  
   So good going, "Swords and Sorcery".  It's never been a chore to read the mag but this month was a positive joy.  

PS - Belle DiMonté is the editor of "Into the Willows".  It's submissions pages says it's looking for stories of no more than 2,000 words, poems, reviews and music.  I haven't read anything in it yet but my cursory look made me add it to the magazine links.  Maybe it's another zine I need to start reviewing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Issue #109 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

   I feel sort of bad that I haven't kept up on reviewing the magazines for the last month or so due to my obsession with the fall political campaigns.  First, reading them is the one steady element of new fiction by authors I don't already know I get.  Secondly, by reviewing them and putting it out there, in some small way I'm contributing to the promoting and sustaining of the genre.  If I want the good people at places like "Beneath Ceaseless Skies" and "Heroic Fantasy Quarterly" to keep publishing I should be willing to do my little bit to help get the word about them out.  So, I'm wading back in with "Beneath Ceaseless Skies #109".

   Well, I came back to an excellent issue.  The Telling by Gregory Norman Bossert is about ancient ritual and custom in the face of death and a missing heir.  The Telling itself is the verse the youngest member of a household of a recently deceased lord must tell the estate's bees in order for them to remain at peace and in its service.  When Mel recites the old words they seem to rile the bees.  Soon Mel is striving to understand just what is going on with the bees, what the rituals actually mean and what his own future is.  Set in a timeless world reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast stories, "The Telling" is a beautifully strange story.
   The Scorn of the Peregrinator by John E. O. Stevens concerns the arrival of a messenger, a peregrinator, from the newly ascendant Nine Kings to a hamlet out in a sun blanched wasteland.  He brings with him the new demands to be made of the town by his masters.  The story's events are recounted to us by a young member of the tribe.  There's a terrific display of magic in the story, much centered around feathers.  Beyond some displays of Steven's very original presentation of magic and a confrontation between the narrator and the peregrinator not much happens, but it's an intriguing bit of storytelling.  Enough about the story's larger setting and events before its telling and outside its borders is alluded to that I want to know more.
   Both stories have enough going on that I would be more than happy, in fact I'd be very interested in taking further excursions into their worlds.  Once again, BCS, a tip of the hat for making stories like these available.

Monday, November 26, 2012

More (Moorcock) Covers That Awed Me.

   So many of the books I read as a kid I discovered in cardboard boxes my dad kept in the attic (eleven years after his death most of the paperbacks we essentially co-owned are still there).  I can't remember at what age I started dipping into those boxes but I can remember the feeling of wonder I got when I did.  From Asimov to Zelazny with all stops in between.  There were (are) probably thousands of books in those ancient boxes.  Rockets and wild aliens or brooding swordsmen and bat-winged monsters overhead held the promise of excitement and adventure.  At an early artists like Kelly Freas, and Vincent Di Fate were helping shape my imagination's landscape.
   Like so many readers, I suspect, when presented with a slew of unfamiliar books, we grab the one with the cover that grabs us first.  I don't do that much anymore, but in my youth, boy, oh, boy is that what I did.  Two of the strangest covers I found in the attic were for Lancer Book's Elric books; "The Dreaming City" and "The Sleeping Sorceress".

   These covers, a vibrant collision of psychedelic colors and a weird, almost rotoscope effect were like nothing else (well, maybe the whacked out Ballantine "Lord of the Rings" covers) in the attic.  First there's the girl with the Medusa hair on "Dreaming City" and then the one with the multi-hued afro on "Sleeping Sorceress" to catch your eyes.  Both are staring straight at the reader with alien eyes and arms and wrists held in odd, unnatural poses.  I doubt the dusky-skinned Elric matches anyone's imagined Elric but he and his dragon-winged helmet still demands your attention.  The rainbow plumage of the the winged skull on "Sleeping Sorceress" is beautiful.  The strangeness of the covers turned out to be a perfect match for Moorcock's strange, off-kilter S&S.
   Fortunately I started reading Elric at the same time DAW started publishing them.  Several trips to Paperback Booksmith in the Staten Island Mall rewarded me with all six original novels.  Michael Whelan's cover art is some of the best in the genre, striving for realistic characters set in believable, fantastic surroundings.  Five of the covers are great (let's all agree the pig-faced corpse ruins "The Weird of the White Wolf").  It's the final one, "Stormbringer", that is a monster.  I don't love the pteranodon dragon in the corner, but, dang, that's a fine, over the top and side-of-the-van worthy Elric.  Stormbringer overhead and Horn of Fate trailing behind, Elric's charging head on at the reader with a perfectly psychotic glint in his bloody red eyes.  I didn't know the apocalyptic story awaiting me inside that book but its cover portended dangerous craziness.  

   I am a little sad that in this day and age of e-books I don't care about covers as much.  I'm not buying in used-book stores, let alone Barnes & Noble, like I used to so the eyecatching ability isn't that relevant.  I know what I'm buying ahead of time with almost every book purchase these days.  I've read the reviews, gotten the recommendations and heard the podcast with the author.  It's the same thing with music.  I can barely recognize the covers of the last MP3 album I bought but the cover of my friend's brother's copy of "In the Court of the Crimson King" is still seared into my mind.  
   I love my e-books and I don't miss the feel of a book and turning pages.  That's because it's the words that I hold dear.  But I will miss the art, and I believe the day's coming when it will pass away into the e-ink ether, one more lost element of analog times.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" by Howard Chaykin, Mike Mignola and Al Williamson

   Despite my negative review of Fritz Leiber's "The Sadness of the Executioner" at the beginning of the year, I am a big fan of his two rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  They walk their own, often jovial, path through the corridors of S&S.  While moments of pathos and melancholy run through some of their adventures, mostly there's displays of cunning, high and low, witty badinage and lots of derring-do.  Twenty years ago several of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's tales received comic book treatment from the combined talents of Howard Chaykin,  Mike Mignola and Al Williamson.  
  In his great introduction, Howard Chaykin notes, what really triggered his love for the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories was his coming to believe they were S&S written for people who loved crime fiction.  Furthermore, Lankhmar was really "after all is said and done, only slightly more fantastical Manhattan - or at least the city south of 14th Street, circa 1935".  I don't know if that was Leiber's intention but I love the idea.  As a native New Yorker I can definitely see the conflation Chaykin sees between the Lower East Side's narrow streets, churches and synagogues and Lankhmar's Cheap Street and temples to the Gods of Lankhmar and in Lankhmar.  Despite the fantastic trappings, many of the stories could easily be converted to guns & trenchcoat stories.
   Chaykin also points out that like many archetypal New Yorkers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are immigrants who became the archetypal Lankhmarians.  More than the people born there they become woven into the fabric of the Lankhmar.  No matter how disgusted or fed they become up with the city, they find themselves drawn back by the pull of her, their greatest mistress.   
   Apparently, Chaykin did a monthly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser comic in the seventies.  He admits to not being satisfied with it.  In 1991 Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy and BPRD (I'm a BIG fan.  As I'm writing this I'm actually wearing a BPRD t-shirt) got the go-ahead from Marvel's Epic Comics line to illustrate his own Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.  Chaykin, who was already working on another project with Mignola, found out and asked if he could write the book.  He said yes and that was that (well, I don't know where Al Williamson fits in and neither Mignola nor Chaykin mention where he came in).
   In 2007 Dark Horse Comics collected the seven stories Mignola and Chaykin chose to adapt and collected them.  Back then it went for about twenty bucks.  It only took a quick flip of the pages for me to peel the bills out of my wallet.  That means I liked it.
   The selections made by Mignola and Chaykin are mostly from among the jewels of Leiber's Nehwon stories. The book opens with "Ill Met in Lankhmar", detailing how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser become boon companions.  It's followed by "The Circle Curse" and "The Howling Tower", adventures that occur during their journey to escape that darkness the city of Lankhmar had become for them at the end of "Ill Met".  On their way out of the city they meet the two wizards, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face who will become mentors and taskmasters for the heroes in later tales.
   The next three stories take place after Fafhrd and Mouser's return to Lankhmar.  First is "The Price of Pain Ease" wherein our heroes steal a house and rob the Death of Nehwon.  It's followed by "The Bazaar of the Bizarre".  Fafhrd, at the direction of both Ningauble and Sheelba must save Lankhmar, the Gray Mouser and all of Nehwon from the depredations of evil merchants from another dimension.
   The final story set in Lankhmar is "Lean Times in Lankhmar".  Almost like a couple drifting apart, Fafhrd and Mouser go their separate ways.  Fafhrd ends up aiding a priest of Issek of the Jug and Mouser ends up an enforcer and collector for a mobster.  Conflict between the two is soon inevitable.
  The collection ends with "While the Sea-King's Away".  Following the claims of a legend, Fafhrd is determined to find the lair of the Sea-King on the one day he leaves home and leaves behind his concubines to find lovers of their own.
   So those are the stories.  Any S&S fan's probably read them several times.  Was there really any need for comic versions of them?  I don't know if there's a need but I'm sure glad I spent my money on the collection.
   Not to take anything away from Chaykin's adaptations, but they work as well as they do because of their fidelity to Leiber's original stories.  Lots of Leiber's fun prose falls to the wayside, particularly, of course, the descriptive portions.  Some plots elements, such as the Street of the Gods and the proving ground it serves for up-and-coming deities, didn't survive the adaptation process.  I suspect a familiarity with the original stories helps in reading the comic, but still, Chaykin does them justice.
   What makes the book a keeper is the art and inking provided by Mignola and Williamson.  Their presentation of the city of Lankhmar is a perfect blend of the high and low.  As bright and shiny as the city can be, it's layered with grime and weathered by time.  Every bejeweled noble striding down the avenue is countered by a beggar scuttling along an alley.  It's all drawn with tremendous, often tawdry, detail.  Mignola's art is not quite as distinctive as his later Hellboy work, but it's still terrific.  While the colors are bright in a few appropriate scenes, more often the palette is muted and dark and perfectly suited to showing the daily struggle to survive Lankhmar's mean streets.
   I bought the collection new for about twenty bucks.  Now through the magic of Amazon you can have it for under a buck and quarter plus the usual $3.99 shipping.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Long Live Stasis!

   Well, looks like it's all done for another four years and I can stop obsessing about things I really can't do much about and I'm pretty grateful for that.  Now I can get back to blogging about S&S, Staten Island and trying to write more.  Woo hoo!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

   Fortunately, my wife and I survived Hurricane Sandy with power intact.  Though less than half a mile from the waterfront we live 186' above sea level.  If we ever flood the world's done for.
   My sister-in-law, her husband and their four boys (all under 8) are at present living with us, refugees from their blacked out New Jersey home.  Around us, where power was out mostly due to the great number of downed trees, is slowly being restored.  We feel inordinately blessed and secure.
  Unfortunately, much of Staten Island is low lying swampland. The East Shore, once a vibrant resort community, is filled with old bungalows long ago converted to full-time homes.  These small, fragile houses were devastated by the storm surge and thousands are displaced.In other places homes were smashed by falling trees or had siding and rooves ripped off by the powerful winds.  It's a nightmare.  
  So right now I'm cooking for eight, reading crime books and watching to see what we can do to help once the immediate problems (broken gas lines, downed power cables) are addressed.  I know my church has power and will be doing all it can.  I actually trust the local politicians (from Staten Island, not citywide, ie. the mayor) to work hard to ensure the borough's not forgotten in the shadows of New Jersey and Manhattan.
  It's going to be be a rough time and I suspect many of the destroyed houses will not be rebuilt.  I also don't trust a mayor whose idea of an appropriate response to such devastation is to hold the NYC Marathon to do well by the borough.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Silly Season Hiatus

   Every time I swear to myself I won't watch until the carnage is over but each time I'm drawn inexorably back in to the insanity.  By which I mean the elections.  No matter how hard I try I'm find myself watching and reading things I had hoped to avoid.
   In an earlier life I was involved in local politics and my degree's in public administration.  I used to swim in this stuff, I absolutely loved it.  Then I sort of got over it, but every November I find myself caught up all over again.  I read polls, political magazines, watch talking heads.  I'm a totally relapsed junkie.
   What it means for this blog is I don't expect to do much for the next two weeks.  Then, when the hurly burly's done, I can return to a nice normal life of reading and writing about plain simple heroic fantasy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 14 - Review


   Well, fall's upon us and with it the fourteenth issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.  It's got three new stories, one okay, one good and one excellent.  There's also a pair of poems, one each by Jessica Salmonson and Barry King.  The banner art, "Griffin Slayer", is by returning artist, Jonas Jakobsson.  
   In "Day's End at the Three Eels" by Al Onia, Daryan the Bold, in the final leg of a night's downward spiral of debauchery, ends up in the Three Eels tavern.  There he spends the night talking to a crippled servant and a blind scholar.  It's a mostly calm story about atonement and hope for better things by a man whose whole life has been spent in warfare.  Not an action story, instead it's about the rootless mercenary coming to day's end.
   "A Song for the New King" by S. Boyd Taylor tells of the poet Archimandrus who, at long last, receives a commission to write a coronation poem for the new king.  For years he has written and struggled to become a great writer and at the age of fifty he has finally been recognized.  This very short (just above 600 words) is a well written but there's very little to it and nothing of the truly fantastic.
   "Death and Dignity" by Michael R. Fletcher is the sequel to "Death at the Pass" from the HFQ's October 2011 issue.  In that story, millenium dead Khraen, demonologist and general of the long vanished Palaq Taq empire, was raised as part of a vast army of undead summoned by the necromancer Leben.  At the end of that story Khraen was free of all obligations and commands for the first time in his existence.  In "Death and Dignity", Khraen has struck out to the north, hoping to find sanctuary.  Unfortunately, he's being hunted down by a wizard and his sorcerer servant.  
   Fletcher's world is an exciting one.  It's a place of huge magics and tremendous battles.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the numerous magic users in the world and their ancient enmities.  Fletcher pulls a few nifty surprises, particularly with Khraen's hunters.  You don't need to have read "Death at the Pass" but there's no reason to deprive yourself of an excellent adventure.  This is good stuff and I was pleased to read Fletcher may write more stories in this setting.  
   I never really feel qualified to comment too much about the poetry in HFQ.  There's no reason not to read them and I did like "The Swordswoman" by Jessica Salmonson and its depiction of the final, unimportant heroics of the title character.  In Barry King's "Shadakar" a robber lord is run down for his many moral failings by a woman he took captive.  I liked it less.
   So there you go, another issue of HFQ.  I wish these folks well and hope they can keep things going for some time.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Death Angel's Shadow" - Enter Karl Edward Wagner in Red and White

   The last few posts I've written have been meta-musings on swords & sorcery.   "Griots" was largely about the developing field of African American oriented sword & soul.  "Amazons!" and "Sword and Sorceress" were as much about the wider topic of woman-oriented heroic fiction as specific anthologies. Important stuff to the growth and sustenance of what's been viewed as a somewhat restricted genre at times.  Still, I decided it's time to get to some of the stuff that got me hooked and inspired me to start this blog in the first place.
   I've written before that I'm a big fan of Karl Edward Wagner.  His stories and novels about Kane, mystic swordsman, cursed wanderer and utterly blackhearted rogue, were my gateway drug into swords & sorcery.  With a productive writing career hampered by personal problems and then ended by an early death, he only wrote three Kane novels, two collections of short stories and a few other less than essential short stories and bits of ephemera.  All are worth reading but it's in the short stories that Wagner really shined.
   More than any other practitioner of the genre, Wagner crafted stories that work as horror stories as well as S&S.  While there is a brooding, haunted tone to much of Robert E. Howard's stories, in Wagner's it is dominant and ever present.  Howard's S&S  sometimes lurched into horror but with Wagner it was a sustained effort.  Beside the ancient gods, alien races and evil sorceresses that fill the stories, there are werewolves, ghouls, vampires and all sorts of pulpy horror creatures as well.
   Wagner's primary literary love appears to have been horror.  Some of his best and most anthologized writing were his horror stories. His Lovecraftian tale "Sticks" has been reprinted in over a dozen collections since it first appeared in "Whispers" in 1974.  The two collections of his stories, "In a Lonely Place" and "Why Not You And I?" are both important and terrific books.  I've read "Where the Summer Ends" numerous times and it still creeps up and throttles me at the end.
   Beginning in 1980 he took over the reins of editing DAW's "Year's Best Horror".  From then till his death in 1994 he oversaw the creation of fifteen volumes.  He also edited a collection of medical theme horror stories called "Intensive Scares".  Then there's his list of 39 best horror novels.  I've never even heard of some of the authors let alone the books.  His knowledge of the genre was both deep and broad.  In the field of scaring readers the reader the man was all aces.
   Wagner was also a scholar and connoisseur of pulp and heroic fiction.  He brought this knowledge to bear in the creation of the three volumes of "Echoes of Valor".  In them he presented REH and others, often forgotten  or neglected at the time, like Henry Kuttner and Manly Wade Wellman.  Reading his forewords in those books it's clear he had a tremendous knowledge of the old pulp magazines.  He brought that same knowledge and love to trying to get pure, unadulterated Robert E. Howard into print.  In that he  had initial success but was ultimately thwarted by the hand of Sprague de Camp.
   Kane is a cynic's version of the Biblical Cain.  Not a brother jealous of God's love for his younger brother, he is instead the first rebel, a Luciferian liberator set on freeing man from divine dictatorship.  Made, then placed in a domed paradise by an overbearing creator, Kane rose up defiantly.  In the war against his god he murdered that god's favorite creation, Kane's brother.
   In retribution he was cursed with immortality.  Since that time he has roamed the world, sowing chaos where he treads and only able to die by violent means.  Kane is powerfully built man with red hair and beard but his most striking features are his piercing blue eyes, the Mark of Kane, the killer's eyes.  In "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul"  when someone sees Kane: "It was his eyes that bothered Troylin. He had noticed them from the first. It was to be expected, for Kane’s eyes were the eyes of Death! They were blue eyes, but eyes that glowed with their own light. In those cold blue gems blazed the fires of blood madness, of the lust to kill and destroy. They poured forth infinite hatred of life and promised violent ruin to those who sought to meet them. Troylin caught an image of that powerful body striding over a battlefield, killer’s eyes blazing and red sword dealing carnage to all before it."  This is the stuff of which killer dark fantasy is made.
   "Death Angel's Shadow" is a collection of three stories.  In each one Kane is fleeing some catastrophe and seeking sanctuary.  In the first, "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul", it's the destruction of the armies led by the dark priest Orted Ak-Ceddi as chronicled in "Dark Crusade".  The episodes putting Kane to flight in "Cold Light" and "Mirage" are described in just enough detail that you realize there's enough material for the focus of an entire novel.  In "Cold Light" Kane's band of bandits has been destroyed and in "Mirage" he was on the losing side of a royal coup.  One part of Kane's curse seems to be to never find a lasting place of rest and calm but to always be confronted by dark horrors both supernatural and natural.  Sometimes they spring from the many evil deeds of his own past.
   "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" is a S&S take on the old country house mystery.  The setting is an isolated manor house snowed in and surrounded by dark forests filled with howling wolves.  The story opens with the discovery of a horribly mauled member of Baron Troylin of Carrashal's household.  Before he dies he cries out "Death comes! A man! not a man! Death for all!"  The nobleman decided to winter in his country estate.  Later we discover his reasons for relocating his household for the season are less sanguine than a simple desire to get away from the pressures of court life.
   Red-bearded Kane is first seen fleeing from servants of Ak-Ceddi under the cover of a sudden blizzard.  Kane manages to elude his hunters but is nearly killed by the extreme weather.  Kane realizes the blizzard is unnatural, "a witch storm perhaps, for its abrupt ferocity" hints at sorcery.  Within the storm, something more dangerous than Ak-Ceddi's men is stalking him.  Because smells the "sour smell of damp wolf fur" Kane suspects it is a pack of wolves but the weather's severity makes that unlikely.  Only by chance does he arrive at Baron Troylin's castle and finds its gate unlocked.  By the time Kane's discovered he's nearly frozen to death.
   Soon, like any good mystery we meet the diverse cast, some of whom have hidden motives and secret intentions and all are potential suspects when the deaths start happening.  In addition to Baron Troylin, there is his beautiful daughter, Breenanin.  His son, Henderin, about whom bloody rumors are told, is clearly suffering from some madness.  He demands his meat at dinner be served raw and dripping with blood.  Then there's Lystric, the baron's physician and astrologer, who mistrusts Kane from their first meeting, claiming he should have been killed on sight rather than rescued.  The last player is Troylin's minstrel, Evingolis an albino with an unknown past.
  There are more deaths, ferocious, over-sized wolves, suspicions and accusations.  One of the players lets Kane know he knows much of his long, dark history.  Soon Kane finds himself one of the main suspects.  Before the story's done there is great violence and many bodies littering the castle and its surroundings.
   The next story, "Cold Light", is about inflexible black and white righteousness going up against blackest evil.  After centuries of carrying out his various evil plans Kane finds he's been hunted down by Gaethaa the Avenger.  Gaethaa is a man self forged into a steel hard weapon bent on destroying evil wherever found.  Heir to great wealth he came to despise the "pampered luxury and wasteful existence of his class".  After training he launches and unending war on evil, slaying robbers, wizards, tyrants and monsters.  Gaethaa sees the logical culmination of his quest to destroy evil in killing Kane.  However, there is an element of pride in seeking Kane as well, as he realizes "it will be a magnificent challenge".
   At the opening of "Cold Light" Gaethaa and his men have just finished off the Red Three, ogre brothers who have robbed and eaten the lands around their magically protected keep for years.  Gaethaa orders all survivors whom served the Red Three or faced the cooking pot executed for valuing their own lives above the enslavement and murder of their fellow prisoners.  Gaethaa tells his adjutant, Alidore, "mercy is commendable to be sure, but when you seek to destroy an absolute evil, you must destroy it absolutely."  Driven by such a severe view he seeks to bring justice to Kane for all the evil he's done.
   Several of the men who choose to follow Gaethaa have their reasons to help kill Kane.  One saw his family butchered by a pirates captained by Kane.  His right hand was lopped off by Kane himself.  Another had two of his sisters sacrificed by Kane in a failed sorcerous ritual.  No bones about it, Kane is one dark and twisted soul.
   Kane is met seeking refuge from his latest failed endeavor.  The band of robbers he took command of and led was recently destroyed.  Fleeing, Kane reaches the city of Sebbei.  Once the capital of Demornte, an oasis in the middle of the West Latroxian desert.  Two decades prior to the events of "Cold Light" it was struck by a dire plague that killed most of its citizens.  Now bleached bones litter the countryside.  The few plague survivors have settled in Sebbei where they spend their days with glazed over souls, mired in ennui.
   Rehhaile, a beautiful blind girl with mysterious psychic powers is the only citizen not sunk in to despondency.  Kane's vitality attracts her and she joins him when he sets himself in an abandoned lakeside villa.  As much as he tries to dissuade her she is drawn to "awful need for rest...the unanswerable longing for peace" that exists in him.  Later this allows Gaethaa to use her in his war against Kane.
   Gaethaa's journey to Sebbei is struck by one catastrophe after another.  When his expedition finally arrives only nine men remain.  Nonetheless, Gaethaa's confidence in his success remains unbowed and he boldly announces his intentions to the town's pitiful citizens.  Without hesitation or care, they tell Gaethaa where to find Kane.  The stage for confrontation is set.  In the end it comes down to Gaethaa and a wounded Kane facing each other across sword points: "(t)he men struggled on in silence then, voiceless save for panting breath and animal grunts. Gaethaa was a deadly opponent—a shrewd and skillful swordsman with wiry strength driving his long frame. In addition he was relatively fresh, while Kane was fatigued and bleeding from wounds suffered in recent combat. Still his endurance did not falter before the Avenger’s fanatical attack, nor did the lethal beauty of his swordplay grow strained. Relentlessly the two men slashed and thrust, parried and feinted—each confident that his attack would exhaust the other and soon bring an end to the stalemate".
   The rundown emptied out town, Gaethaa's vicious henchmen and the amoral antagonist at the story's heart all lend a sort of spaghetti western feel to "Cold Light".  It's a tribute to Wagner's talent that Kane possesses a brutal majesty that leaves the reader in his corner in the face of Gaethaa's icy resolve to destroy him.  
   The finale of "Death Angel's Shadow", "Mirage" is a Gothic tale complete with haunted forest, ruined castle and a dark and alluring woman of mystery.  Escaping a failed coup, Kane is severely wounded in an ambush before wandering into the haunted forest surrounding the long abandoned Altbur Keep and its surrounding village.
   As he stumbles through the empty village Kane is attacked by ghouls.  Backed against a wall he makes a final, hopeless stand.  Suddenly a women possessing "strange beauty" appears and drives them away.  Before he collapses into oblivion he hears her cry, "This one shall be mine!"
   Days later, Kane wakes in a bed being ministered to by the steward of a remarkably restored Altbur.  When questioned he tells Kane there were no ghouls only bandits.  
   Asked about the woman he saw the servant tells Kane it was his mistress and the lady of the keep, Naichoryss.  When she is ready she will send for Kane.  When she does we learn a web has already been spun for Kane.  Intrigued by her beauty he steps into it almost willingly even though it surely leads to annihilation.  Even as Kane sinks deeper into Naichoryss' clutches "(h)e even lacked the strength or curiosity to determine whether the door was locked; the possibility of escape simply did not occur to him".
   I wish Wagner didn't have the struggles he did and had been able to write more than he did.  I wish he was still writing new stories as he neared seventy.  Between his own work, his anthologies and promulgation of unedited Robert E. Howard, I believe Wagner was the most important person working in S&S during its renaissance in the sixties and seventies. 
   As much as I love Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock,  their characters often feel like actors playing at S&S.  They got caught up in deconstructing the genre a little too much at times.  Lin Carter was an important editor but at best a poor S&S writer.  
   Those things never happened with Wagner.  Neither are his stories simpleminded and  bad copies of REH.  While he worked in a straight line from Howard, Wagner forged his own bloody literary trail.  The Kane stories are masterpieces of the genre.  Compared to too many much of today's writing these tales are models of economy and pacing.  Gaethaa's journey to the city of Sebbei is a perfect example of this talent.  In only a few paragraphs, Wagner limns an adventure on which many present day writers waste hundreds of narrative choking pages.  Some of his stories are raging beasts capable of sharp, visceral blows and others slither up from behind and smother in darkness.  Ranging from horror to action to dark mysteries they provide some of the best examples of the potential of S&S. 
   The only recent editions of Wagner's Kane stories are the omnibus collections from Night Shade Books.  Used they range from around to way over one hundred bucks.  Fortunately, the old paperbacks from Warner Books are available for under six bucks.  Someone needs to get this stuff back out in reasonably priced mass market editions now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Issue #8 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Another month, another issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.
This might be my least favorite issue so far but that's because the first of its two stories is the weakest one they carried to date.    
   Called "Kaxzorus the Liberator", it's by Kyle Bakke.  The actual writing's average but the story is straight S&S boilerplate.  There's an evil wizard, evocatively (well, of REH) named Thursa-Thune, who's kidnapped children to feed to an amorphous blob in exchange for vast, demonic power.  Then there's our hero, Kaxzorus the Armesskvalann who ventures forth into the mountains to rescue the kids.  Along the way he happens upon an old friend who's conveniently learned the secret ways into old Thursa's keep.  You can guess the little bit that remains.
   I try not to be mean in any of my reviews or essays (and life).  It's too easy and doesn't serve any useful purpose.  I also know how hard it is to actually put something to paper and submit it, so I'd rather be encouraging than discouraging, but this story is so cookie cutter, so by-the-numbers, that I can only shake my head in disappointment.  So far even the most poorly written stories in the magazine have had something going on.
   "Shadow of Ragnarok" by Rebecca L. Brown is a much more welcome story.  Without giving away too much, since it's less about plot than mood and reflection, the story's set in days after Ragnarok when the gods are gone and the world is winding down.  Eldgrim is a Norse warrior who has sent his family south in the face of the fimbulwinter and survived the death of the gods never really expecting things to have gone the way they have.  Now he and his few comrades wait for the end that will leave nothing save one man and one woman.  Not a tale of action, it is one true to the gloom-laden northern thing that so permeates much of S&S.
   So read them, tell me what you think or not.  Say your piece or whatever.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


   So I like swords & sorcery a whole bunch.  I'm always on the hunt for new writers to discover and old paperbacks to build up my collection.  These days it seems the vast bulk of what I read is S&S.   Not that that's a bad thing.
   There are, however, authors I will drop everything else for, Tim Powers and Glen Cook for example.  James Blaylock is the other.
   The other day Black Gate posted about an e-book sale by Subterranean Press.  Checking it out I discovered Blaylock's seminal steampunk stories about "Langdon St. Ives" were there for $2.99.  So I bought them.  All of them; "The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives", "The Ebb Tide" and "The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs".  I always liked steampunk in the past.  It seemed written as much from a love of Dickens and Stevenson as from as of  clockwork technology and secret societies.  The little bit of contemporary steampunk I've encountered reads like mimeographs of the progenitive works of Jeter, Powers and Blaylock.  This stuff's the real deal (and funny as all get out).
   The next day I Paul DiFillipo reviewed a brand new (sort of) Blaylock YA novel called "Zeuglodon".  I remembered reading about that on Jonathan Strahan's site ages ago and how it wasn't finding a buyer and being depressed at the very thought of that.  It's a sequel to one of his earliest books, "The Digging Leviathan" and the first thing I ever read by him.  Well, eight years later it's in my hands and I'm a quarter way into it and it's great.  According to Strahan there's already a sequel in existence.   And looking at Amazon there's a full Langdon St. Ives novel at year's end.  Woo, boy!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sword and Sorceress - ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley

   The second great wave of swords & sorcery was in the sixties and seventies making it contemporaneous with great changes sweeping Western culture.  One of those changes was feminism and as in the rest of society it made inroads into even such minor things as S&S.  

   Women had always written S&S, C. L. Moore in particular helping lay its foundations.  Still, it was dominated by men in its creation and its consumption.  That reality led to several explicitly feminist anthologies looking to open wide the doors of something seen by many as a boys-only club.  

   The first was Jessica Amanda Salmonson's "Amazons!" and the second was   Marion Zimmer Bradley's  "Sword and Sorceress".  Salmonson only managed a second volume of "Amazons" but Bradley's spawned a series that ran to nineteen sequels before her death and six more since.

   Unlike Salmonson, Bradley introduces her book not with a call to arms but by informing the reader she could not envision female themed heroic fiction as simply stories that switched "mighty Amazon warrior for a hearty hero".  In fact her introduction to "Sword and Sorceress" reads like a direct response to Salmonson's fiery broadside.  

   First she states she believes no historical basis for any sort of matriarchal or Amazonian societies exists and then she attacks the very idea of the Amazon as an empowering image.  Quoting Abby Kleinbaum, she claims that in most classical stories Amazons were defeated and or raped.  They exist, not as bold women, but instead as some sort of male creation drawn into existence to prove men could conquer them.   

   But why, asks Bradley, is the image so persistent and even popular among women.  It and other cliches exist and lay the basis for much of the woman oriented heroic fantasy submitted to her, so why?  She never comes up with an answer why but I suspect she hoped readers would simply find an answer in the material.  My own belief is that, classical tales aside, the real case is that it is an empowering and artistically inspiring image that allows authors to examine and present women as adventurous and courageous as men.  

Marion Zimmer Bradley - hey, she lived on Staten Island once
Marion Zimmer Bradley

   Another trope she encountered and initially found distasteful was that of rape and revenge.  She actually hoped to include no submissions using it but found herself unable to.  At the outset of heroic fantasy, specifically in C. L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss" the theme was present.  She notes that she had once written that "(in heroic fiction) the seamy underside is always rape".  Her question was, and it's a significant one, what actually happens at story's end when the warrior claims his prize of treasure and the girl?  It's an good example of the sort of insights Salmson, Bradley and all the authors involved in these books were trying to impart to S&S.  In the end she included three such stories in "Sword and Sorceress".      

   Alongside Amazons and rape there are comical episodes, peaceful sorceresses and other things in "Sword and Sorceress".  What binds them together is the simple emphasis on women protagonists.  But Bradley was trying to do something more than just set the stage for female characters.  Her stated goal was to present female-centric S&S that felt real, that addressed both the female and male halves of the world.  Feminist propaganda is as awful as sexist male fiction she warns.  With tales by men as well as women she believed she reached her objective and kept it entertaining.

   Despite her excellent intentions, "Swords and Sorceress" is a surprising disappointment.  There are good, even excellent stories (would it surprise you Charles Saunder's story is one of them?) here but too many that are not.  Bradley's goal is broader and subtler than Salmonson's but the result is a book less exciting than "Amazons!".  Salmonson's punch-to-the-eye attach turned out to be just right for S&S, Bradley's less militant approach not so much.

   "Amazons!"'s authors took the traditionally male virtues of physical strength and courage and adventurousness and applied them to female characters and more often than not it worked.   Perhaps because she started from a less confrontational place, less looking to create warrior women, Bradley let in too much that's not particularly valid even by very wide definition of S&S.  She gives the reader too many stories that are simply general fantasy.  As such they too often lack the narrative drive and excitement that are among S&S chief hallmarks.  

   Eight of the stories qualify as S&S and all save one of the best are among them.  When she lets in the amazons and bold thieves the stories work better than where they're absent.   Both editors sought to bring women in from the roles of damsels in distress, maidens in need of conquering or sidekicks and out to center stage as heroes.  "Amazons!" however is true to the verve and action as well as the darkness of S&S.  Too often the tales in "Sword and Sorceress" are muted in tone and plot.

Phyllis Ann Karr

   That being said, "Sword and Sorceress" opens with the thoroughly respectable "The Garnet and the Glory" by PhyllisAnn Karr.  Her series characters, sorceress Frostflower and warrior Thorn, find themselves drawn into the Old Hills by the unknown and alien sorcerer Dathru.  More intriguing than exciting, "The Garnet and the Glory" features a struggle between differing types of magic and the different methods of fighting Frostflower and Thorn.    

   Glen Cook's "Severed Heads" is set in the faux-Arabian lands of his Dread Empire novels.  A girl is raped by a sorcerer and later he returns to steal the son born of that violent union.  In response she casts off the restrictions of her sex and takes on the skills of a warrior and seeks out her attacker and son.  Written with Cook's usual blunt brutality, "Severed Heads" is one of the better stories in the collection.   

   "Taking Heart" by Stephen L. Burns is one of the funny stories.  Slight and obvious, it's told from the perspective of Raalt.  A thief he's been imprisoned and is facing death for the theft of a jewel of great value, the Heart of Arrmik.  In the seclusion of his cell he is visited by fellow thief Clea who offers to free him for a share of the proceeds from selling the Heart.  He accepts, planning to outwit her at some point and renege on his promise of shared profit. There's no surprise in this story but the constant misperceptions of Raalt are amusing.   

   I wanted to like Emma Bull's "The Rending Dark" more than I did. It was her first professional sale. Two women, the Songsmith Kit and her more martially inclined companion Marya seek a warm bed out of the dark and snow in the town of Sallis. Marya is not a normal woman however. Her left arm is replaced with "lean bone and tendon and long, curving, cruel claws, all black and shining". That night they are forced to confront a secret darkness haunting the town that leaves Marya in fear of her own future. It's a tale with enticing sci-fi intimations but too much left unexplained (and not in a good, intriguing way).   

   Next is the second of Charles R. Saunders great woman warrior Dossouye stories, the first, "Agbewe's Sword", having appeared "Amazons!".  At the end of the first tale, Dossouye was fleeing the ruins of her old life.  At the beginning of the second she is beset by a pair of bandits.  After killing one and allowing the other to escape with his life, Dossouye encounters a strange song singer.  Soon there is love, dark magic and violence delivered in Saunder's usual vivid prose.

   Charles De Lint's"The Valley of the Troll" is another comic story.  Swords-woman Aynber and the insufficiently talented wizard Thorn Hawkwood make an attempt on the treasure of a troll.  There's humorous dialogue, a troll to outwit and bandits. Good stuff but nothing special.


Deborah J. Ross

   "Imperatrix" by Deborah J. Ross (written as Deborah Wheeler) has a wizard, and a hired swords-woman with the ability to tame great alien beasts called Weires.  There are strange realms of magic to be traveled by mystic roads and in the background an enemy in the form of the Imperator.  I found the story unclear, the characters less than engaging and the title a spoiler for a secret that isn't really very secret.   

   "Blood of Sorcery" by Jennifer Roberson doesn't work at all.  A prelude to her lengthy "Chronicles of the Cheysuli" series, it's a boring start.  Keely, a shape-changing princess, has been captured by an evil wizard. She has been raped repeatedly with the intent of impregnation.  Possession of their child will allow him to work his demonic magic and take control of the lands.  Tainted by his seed she is stripped of her native abilities but must still find some way to escape her captor.  It only left me sleepy.   

   Pat Murphy's "With Four Lean Hounds" is a fairy tale flavored story.  A young thief named Tarsia learns she might be the lost daughter of the Lady of the Winds, a mighty figure whose power stretches over the lands for both good and ill.  Deciding to seek the Lady out, Tarsia falls in with a minstrel she realizes has the same goal.  Really not S&S, it's an adequate story with an enjoyable heroine.  The ending's a little unclear but it works well enough.   The same can't be said for the next story.  

   Anodea Judith's "House in the Forest" is a dull, pointless story of a healer and a goddess.  It's inclusion is a mystery.

Diana L. Paxson

   The rape-revenge theme reaches its apex in Diana L. Paxson's "Sword of Yraine".  A group of girls, about to be dedicated to various goddesses, are captured by a group of bandits who invade the shrine where they live.  One of the girls is Shanna, daughter of a nobleman and a skilled if untested swords-woman. When the bandits decide to rape their prisoners Shanna sees it as her duty to free her comrades.  Despite her training, Shanna's less than bloodthirsty reactions are believably human.There is a brutality to the bandits' assault absent from Cook's or Roberson's stories and it's terrifying.   Not especially S&S but easily one of the best written stories in the collection.   

   Described in its introduction as a tall tale, Michael Ward's "Daton and the Dead Things" is delivered in colorful and snarky tones.  It is my favorite of the comical stories.  An adventurer in search of her runaway companion chases him to a ruined city and runs up against a very logically and literally minded cyclops.  It's one of the clearest S&S stories in the book.   

   Janet Fox, another alumni of "Amazons!", turns up here with "Gate of the Damned".  Swords-woman Scorpia falls in with a crusade being led by Baucis, King of Thurgia.  The king aims to free the demon ruled lands lying beyond the town of Abzu Rii, also known as the Gate of the Damned. A central focus of the story is Scorpia's relationship with the mercenary captain Telis, rooted in the loneliness of life on the road and an intimacy with death and violence.  There is also beastmen, battle and an ancient, sorcerous queen, so good stuff.   

   The longest story in the book is Robin W. Bailey's "Child of Orcus".  Set during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius, ex-gladiator Diana serves his wife, Messalina.  Diana is sent to investigate rumors of a cult of Orcus, god of death, that has supposedly discovered the secret of immortality.  Diana does indeed discover the cult and the nature of its secret.  Ultimately she ends up waging several bets with Orcus himself.  I didn't love the story but Diana's final action did make me love her.

   "Things Come in Threes" by Dorothy J. Heydt is ostensibly a humorous short-short tale but I wasn't able to tell.  It's a disappointing end to a book that rarely rises above the average.

   "Sword and Sorceress" is nothing more than an average anthology of S&S.  Too often, like in "Blood of Sorcery" or "House in the Forest" the stories lie flat and lifeless on the pages.  There are too fairly generic duos like in "The Rending Dark" who come upon a monster and have kill it.  The comic stories are at least funny but they're all pretty much one-note tales with nothing else.  Above all, S&S needs to be exciting and a lot of these stories just aren't.

   I've read elsewhere there was a dearth of stories for Bradley to choose from but that changed with the second volume in the series.  I'll probably give that one a chance down the line but I can't really recommend this one.  The highlights are easily "Gimmile's Song" and "Severed Heads" and both are available in anthologies you should own already.  I know this book was important in sounding the call for a new approach to S&S but it's just not that good.  Of course it's available cheap and any completist should get one anyway.