Saturday, August 24, 2013

Vacation and New Books

  The luminous Mrs. V. and I just got back from a nice roadtrip through the South.  Mostly it was just driving around checking out some utterly beautiful scenery.  If anyone every asks why you'd go to Arkansas, tell them it's because it's gorgeous.  I'm still debating whether the mountains of Arkansas or West Virginia are prettier.  
 We only had a few specific destinations in mind and managed to hit all of them.  The first was the Perryville battlefield in Kentucky. I get so much out of walking the hills and fields of the places I read about and experiencing a 3-D reality to then apply to the maps and narratives.

   Perryville's an interesting and pivotal, if somewhat less well known, battle.  It was actually a little difficult to picture nearly 40,000 men fighting and dying over the bucolic green hills.  The visitors' center is well done and the presentation did a good job explaining a confusing conflict.
   The next planned stop was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home in Mansfield, Missouri.  My wife is a major fan of the Little House books (and assuredly not the tv show).  When we traveled to Montana a few years ago we visited numerous Little House locations.  I'm not a particular fan but all site we've visited provided me great insights into the pioneer life of the nineteenth century.
   Our final historical destination was the Chickamauga battlefield in north Georgia.  Being one of the last major Civil War battlefields I haven't been to, this was my trip highlight.  
   Chickamauga was the only major victory the poor Army of
Tennessee managed to win over its various Union opponents. Strategically it led nowhere.  In fact, Union general Rosecran's defeat led directly to the introduction of U.S. Grant and W. T. Sherman to the region and the stunning defeat of Confederate general Bragg at Chattanooga a few months later.
   We also, really only as an afterthought, revisited Gettysburg on the second to last day of driving home.  We got there after the visitors' center closed so we just did the auto-tour.  I've been there twice before but it was the first time I drove up Culp's Hill.  There, we climbed the observation tower.  The vista was stunning and helped reinforce the difficulty of communications and simply seeing things across the battlefield.
   We did see other things (including Mammoth Cave, and Luray Caverns) but the above were the definite highlights.  If you never have, you need to get in your car and just travel around this country.  There's just so much to see and so many people to meet.  

   I just ordered and downloaded the new Morlock book, Wrath-Bearing Tree, by James Enge.  I still need to read the last one but hopefully soon.
   I also got the The Soul Within the Steel and Deathwind of Vedun, the last two books in T. C. Rypel's (and the man who called me an archaeo-bibliophile) Gonji series.  I think the first is next on my to-read list.
   Finally I've ordered and paid for Deepest, Darkest Eden, edited by Cory Goodfellow.  I was hoping to find it in my mailbox when I got home but no such luck.  As you can see it's got an amazing cover.  It'll look great alongside my copy of The Last Continent from a few years back.

   Swords & sorcery may not be as prominent as it was in the past, but dang, there is an overwhelming amount of great writing going on.  I really am going to try and stop buying anything new for the next few months so I can catch up a little bit.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Swords and Sorcery Magazine #18

   Good and eh in this month's issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.  Still, for something you get for free and the writers barely get paid for, you can't go wrong devoting a half hour or so of your life to reading Issue #18's pair of stories.  In fact, if you want to support S&S as a genre you should feel obligated to read the magazine.
   "Skullwitch" is by returning S&S Magazine alumna, Rebecca L. Brown.  Her previous stories, "The Open Pouch" (S&SM #10) and "Shadow of Ragnarok" (S&SM #8), were both fine pieces.  The only real action in either story is psychological.  "Skullwitch" is in the same vein, contemplative and a little moody.
   Brown's story is about a young man named Jaten and the prophecy about his life delivered by the Skullwitch, the town seer. At his birth she told his father, "Lasseus, we name your firstborn Jaten. Raise him well and he will make you proud. His first kiss will be given to a maiden's lips - and it will be her very first kiss and her last."   
   Faced with this prediction about his future, Jaten is unable to court the girl he loves from afar.  Burdened by fate he hates and curses the Skullwitch.  How the prophecy unspools is the heart of the story.  Again, Brown's not writing S&S here, but she is writing good stuff.
   Ivan Ewert's "The Fate of Donaldo" is a Lovecraftian Dream Landeques (really, more Lumleyesque) S&S story.  A daring thief named Faisha snipes a job offer out from under a another thief.  With a story of past daring and a quick sword, she convinces the sorcerer Vornak to hire her to deface the sanctuary of another wizard, Donaldo, and if present, steal from him a vial of mystical drug.  
   On its on the story's alright, I just never felt like the Dream Lands elements were really more than purposeless chrome.  The references to Leng and the Hounds of Tindalos were really just distractions.  There's also some clunky writing.  The opening paragraphs read: 
   "The gibbous moon shone upon the streets of Dorath Vur, her visage pierced by the great minarets which clawed hungrily toward the jewels of the stars. 
   Dorath Vur! City of greed, whose streets ran equally with filth and spices, coin and offal - Dorath Vur, the sweetly perfumed groin of the world. Its winds blew from the south and the sea this night, carrying the clean tang of salt waves and the sickly scent of beached idolfish alike, and through the winding harbor alleys stalked Faisha of Adorann."  
   It's all a little too purple, a little too much.  Still, there's a decent adventure in the story and a nice  bit of goofy detail at the end.  
   So that's the July issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.  Not the best magazine out there, but one which keeps chugging along.  Looking back at the last year and half of stories it's carried there are several really good ones.  Mr. Ellett really needs to be commended on supporting and publishing short fiction in a genre dominated by back breaking tomes.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 17 - Review

   Arriving via the interweb a few weeks late, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #17 is hands down the best showcase for new S&S short fiction around.  I haven't been reviewing Beneath Ceaseless Skies as frequently as in the past because it's been running mostly sci-fi the last bunch of issues.  Sticking true to its title, HFQ remains focused on, well, you know, heroic fantasy.  Again, it's a fine collection of rip roaring action, moody dark adventure and some poetry.
   Charles Gramlich's a man whose blog I read regularly but till now I've never read any of his fiction.  Well, that's changed and I know I'm going to track some of his other work down in the future.  Gramlich's "A Whisper in Ashes" opens the issue with a jolt of suspense followed by fire and blood.  The warrior Krieg, whilst traveling, comes across the remnants of a viking-style funeral ship.  From the direction of the burned ship's remains comes a trail of footprints.  The footprints, "small and slender, such as those made by a woman", lead to a beheaded and eviscerated bear.  The trail leads to a small walled town, a lord, his dog and his spaewife.  What follows from there is mayhem, wolf-fu and firey mayhem.  Gramlich's writing is clear and direct.  He creates a world reeking of that northern thing that doesn't feel like just one more retread.
   J. Kathleen Cheney's "The Nature of Demons" slows the pace down a little with a darker story of a man hunting a demon across the northern reaches of his country in the company of a tribal shaman.  Driven by personal tragedy, Doctor Antris, has tracked a demon who, until the story opens, has only made his way into women's beds with illusion and left unwanted children in his wake.  Now he has left a woman dead.  Cheney's story is a detective story set against a terrible past event, imminent winter and a rising apprehension on Antris' part that for all his years of hunting he really doesn't know the true nature of what he's seeking.
   Issue #17's last story is a blackly comic tale of faked identity and terrible witchcraft in ancient Japan.  "Jiro" is Peter Fugazzotto's first published story and it's a ball.  
   Failing to make his way in the world as an actor, Jiro steals a suit of armor with the intention of using it to convince villagers to pay him for protection and slip off in the night.  He hopes to make it back to the dull safety of his parents' pickled vegetable stand.
   From the his first encounter after putting on the suit of armor nothing goes right for Jiro.  An old man named Nardo sees through his disguise immediately.  The first town he stops at to try and con doesn't face mere bandits but a witch.  Finally, even the villagers and the witch plaguing them is more than Jiro anticipates.
   Finally come the HFQ poems.  The first, Don Quixote's Quandry by Colleen Anderson, is alright.  The second, "The Death of Conwynn the Wild-Eyed" by Colin Heintze, is a great piece on the fleeting nature of martial success particularly in a world of ever repeating warfare.
   Once again the estimable editors of HFQ have put together a great issue.   I BCS gets some more fantasy out in the next few issues.  In the mean time I'm planning to review the July and August issues of Swords and Sorcery Magazine together.  So keep reading and supporting the publishers and writers of quality S&S short fiction.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Black Bottle - Anthony Huso

   A few weeks back I became a member of the David Gemmell Award site.  I've only read the first few of his books and they were
pretty dang exciting (as if that's news).  Considering the DGA's efforts to maintain and awareness of Gemmell's books and promote heroic fantasy, I figured it'd be worth my while to sign up, so I did.
   Perusing the site, I discovered the Long List of nominations for this year's award.  I also saw it said if you asked for a book on the list they'd send you one provided you provided a short review.
   I read the list over and decided the less familiar authors would be the way to go.  I'm constantly torn between rereading the comfortable and familiar and striking out into new literary territory.  Almost at random, I read the synopses of several books before settling on three titles; Alexey Pehov - Shadow Blizzard, Anthony Huso - Black Bottle, and Jo Spurrier - Winter Be My Shield.
   Since the deadline for reviews was July, 31st and I requested a book on July, 10, I figured it was too late and sort of forgot about it.  Then on July, 25, a copy of Anthony Huso's Black Bottle showed
up in the mail.  It took me a few minutes to remember what it was.  Man, was I presently surprised with the book.  My review was posted at their site this afternoon.
   Here's what I had to say for the good folks over at DGA:
   Don't do what I did and read Anthony Huso's Black Bottle without having read its predecessor, The Last Page. Failing to do so deprived me of another book length exposure to Huso's idiosyncratic world of zeppelins, a bold king, a royal consort in possession of an evil tome, plots and more plots and Lovecraftian entities forever knocking at the doors of the world. Next to strange, wild science and near-magic, are tabloids papers, looming billboards, carrier pigeons and dry cereal in colorfully decorated boxes. It's a wondrous amalgam of Edwardian technology, modern commercial culture and things man was not meant to know.
   Presumably, in The Last Page, Caliph Howl, king of the rugged northern kingdom of Stonehold, died and was resurrected by his consort, Sena Iilool. Idolized, even worshiped, by many, she is also feared and hated by many. Black Bottle, only Huso's second published novel, starts with Taelin, a young woman from the southern Pandragor Empire, traveling to Stonehold, with hopes of do something, anything, to destroy the reputation of a woman she finds blasphemous.
   There is no way to do justice to the complexity of Black Bottle's plot. There are plots whirling within plots, some stretching back millennia. Stunning set pieces abound, ranging from entrail-trailing-witch-heads, to exploding-from-the-ground eel man monsters, to zeppelin destruction. In the end this is a story of insanely epic proportions rivaling the scope of Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands or Mignola's B.P.R.D. Stories. The story moves from political struggles over power sources and blasphemy and spiral into battles in pocket-dimensions, against unstoppable monsters and zeppelin pursuit over bottomless continental rifts and stark, empty desert.
   Stylistically, Huso's writing is reminiscent of the late Jack Vance's, having a similar penchant for the word less written. The story's near magic is called holomorphy which normally refers to complex mathematics, and, indeed, spell-like functions involve intricate mathematical formulas as well as blood. Sena Iilool's supporters are called a colligation, which in logic means to subsume isolated facts under a single general concept.
   Huso's writing isn't all strange, ornamental words. That's important in a book replete with so many strange concepts and jumping points of views. While much of the book is told by standard, omniscient narrator, there are numerous excerpts from books and journals. In fact, much of the deep underpinnings of Black Bottle's story are presented in those excerpts. Huso has a solid control of his narrative voices, making each unique for every excerpt and narrator. His prose is clean and not bogged down with endless bits of costume or gadget porn.

   I selected this book to read from the Long List figuring that the big name authors' free books would have all been given away already. Scanning the authors I didn't recognize, the little blurb for Black Bottle simply caught my eye for which I am extremely glad. If this is what Anthony Huso is doing in his first book I am truly looking forward to what he does next. 

   Now I have to go out and actually buy the first book.  I don't think knowing how things end will take too much away from reading it.  Here's hoping.