A Book of Blades Highlights the Current Vitality of Sword & Sorcery
Rogues in the House Podcast (2022)
In the introduction by Matthew John, one of the hosts from the Rogues in the House podcast, we read a survey of the key sword and sorcery figures: Robert E. Howard, Frank Frazetta, Karl Edward Wagner, Fritz Leiber, Scott Oden, Howard Andrew Jones, and more. Supplementing this list, we see the classic sword and sorcery iconography of the cover (art by Jesus Garcia). With these, we are setup for transporting reads about tough and rough heroes in visceral and weird stories. The stories that follow satisfy the promise.
Contemporary sword and sorcery writer, John C. Hocking, author of the lauded Conan pastiche novel, Conan and the Emerald Lotus, opens the anthology with “By the Sword”. This story demonstrates how pithy writing can lend an otherwise bloody, rough, and hard-edged narrative thrilling grace and elegance. Hocking's is a visceral tale of revenge that doesn’t waste words, making it all the more memorable.
“Ghost Song” by Chuck E. Clark, associate editor at Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery, is a story of his serialized S&S character, Turkael. This story brings the gritty savagery, is like the unholy literary offspring of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It follows young Turkael as the proud hunter makes a name for himself as a warrior in his tribe. There is a sorcerous monster that must be brought to the justice of the spear.
L.D. Whitney’s “Last of the Swamp Tribe” is an antediluvian tale that brings to mind the nostalgic paradises of William Morris. In the rich evocation of the prehistoric, it conjures the savage beauty of Charles Saunders‘ Imaro. Whitney uses his archaeological background to paint an untamed picture of the stone age, where spear and fang dominate in Edon. Fans of animal companions rejoice, for Greywind is one wolf to be remembered in annals and praised in paeans.
T.A. Markitan brings a menagerie of the grotesque and weird in “Wanna Bet?”. Tarvish and Arden have a genuinely affable relationship which is highlighted by Markitan’s pleasant prose. Despite some levity, the characters are morally gray and face dangerous foes, such as a giant centipede and a grim, supernatural agency. This dark yarn of friendship and hearty fun is fit for any fan of fantasy.
“The Serpent’s Heart” harkens back to the historical adventure of Harold Lamb. The story is one of Dabir and Captain Asim from Howard Andrew Jones’ novel, The Desert of Souls, and its sequel, The Blood of the Old Ones. This is historical adventure, bringing the ancient Chinese to interact with the ancient Arabs in a first-person point-of-view telling from Asim. Jones is a master of pulling readers into the world of his story with his precise and clear prose. The fact that this is set in a historical milieu, not a secondary fantasy world, adds variety to the anthology's offerings.
“How They fall” by the duo Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, known for The Red Man and Others, brings the horror of war to the reader with Kaila experiencing the latter half of her fist battle. It is detached and almost otherworldly in the visceral bluntness. It is also largely, as the title promises, about people who die gloriously in war. The brevity of the tale packs a punch . The use of a female protagonist may remind the readers of classic C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. Though where Jirel seemed the exception, both sexes in unforgiving battle is the norm here .
“The Breath of Death” is a story told in first person by the hand of Jason M. Waltz, notable for his association with Rogue Blades Entertainment. The story is overflowing with poetic gloom of the survivor of battle guiltily reflecting on those who have perished. The story emphasizes a world-weariness and perseverance with a hellish grit anyone familiar with the genre will recognize as pure sword and sorcery.
S.E. Linberg turns the heat up in a different manner with “Embracing Ember”. This story is from the point-of-view of an alchemist. It involves his daughters, though unnatural, and is tinged much with fire and sexual tension. Lindberg plumbs to the base of human nature in this tale of eldritch darkness and weird peoples.
J.M. Clarke’s “The Curse of Wine” pairs the style of Charles Saunders with the excesses of Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The promise of the title’s serious theme is explored by Clarke’s deft story-telling capability. Kyembe is a character that can also be found in “Vapors of Zinai” of New Edge Sword & Sorcery #0.
“The Gift of Gallah” by Rogues in the House host Matthew John tells a tale of a cursed and tormented being. It calls to question the nature of gifts and their provenance and as is more typical of sword and sorcery than other genres, not all ends on a happy note.
“Crawl” by Scott Oden features one of the most relatable characters in the whole collection. Oden is known not only for his gritty details but also lovely character work in books such as A Gathering of Ravens. This is a tale of survival for a woman in dire straights. Her first encounters in a new stage of her life is deadly, but comes with unexpected help. It is impressive that Oden can weave a tale which feels both hopeless and heartwarming at different points.
Nathaniel “Nat” Webb is editor of Wyngraf and Rakehell magazines, focusing on cozy fantasy and adventure stories, respectively. “The Spine of Virens Imber” begins with Shar in chains and ready to be sacrificed. Shar has the bravado and character to be likable instantly. He must face dark sorcery, but his biggest enemy is his lack of will.
“The City of the Screaming Pilars” by Hugo award-winner Cora Buhlert, is a tale reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith. It involves a dead city with gods that still prey on visitors seeking the riches of the once great place. This story involves a party as in much Dungeons and Dragons fiction. But the quest here is purely personal and small scale. It entertains, excites, and enthralls.
Jason Ray Carney is editor at Spiral Tower Press which publishes modern weird fiction, as well as a Senior Lecturer at Christopher Newport University and editor for The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. His story in A Book of Blades is “Two Silvers for a Song of Blood” is a tale of the Rogue, which has appeared in places like issues #2 and #3 of The Cromcast Chronicle. The Rogue seems to be immortal and his only name is his sobriquet, akin to the characters from Glen Cook’s The Black Company, and like Cook, Carney doesn’t disappoint when it comes to dark, insightful and enjoyable reads .
“The Blood of Old Shard” is the final story and one by the prolix John R. Fultz, whose latest collection is Worlds Beyond Worlds from DMR Books. This is the longest of all the stories, though barely so. A macabre tale of vampires and responsibility, it is bloody entertainment, and a good way to end the story section of the book.
There is a portfolio of sword and sorcery art after the stories, predominately featuring the art of Gilead, but also Lorelei Esther, Ursa Doom, L.D. Whitney, Sara Frazetta, Morgan Gala King, and Hardeep Ajula. Short and almost seeming an afternote, I would have appreciated if these works were spread throughout the anthology. Even so, it is a good reminder that sword and sorcery goes beyond literature and permeates other aspects of art.
Overall, A Book of Blades displays the breadth of contemporary sword and sorcery. The stories showcase gritty realities and things beyond reality. The stories in this collection span from glorious and triumphant to melancholic and more realistic in their depictions of death and struggle. The skill of modern writers bring dubious magic and sharp blades to bear in an entertaining fashion in common with the classics of sword and sorcery, but with voices interested in what the genre can achieve through revision, experimentation, and inclusivity of the New Edge. Readers will find our genre is alive and its future bright, just like the blades of the heroes within. The addition of audiobook narration by Ember Lin further brings the stories to life with a breath of magic.
About the Reviewer: Liam Hall is a student of the humanities, with particular interests lying in anthropology and philology. He lives in Idaho with his wife and two daughters, whom he regales with poetry and weird fiction written by himself and others. When not writing and working he makes videos about speculative fiction on YouTube.
About Spiral Tower Reviews: The authors who maintain the pulp genres of sword and sorcery and cosmic horror merit support. Financial support is key but there are other ways the cash-strapped can show support: engaged reading and thoughtful analysis. Literary movements emerge through the interactions of editors, authors, publishers, and amateur literary journalists. Learn more about contributing your review here. We are happy to work with first time reviewers.
Previous Spiral Tower Reviews:
Skelos 1 Balances the Pulp Tradition and Neo-Pulp, review by Ricky Broome
Tanith Lee is the Empress of Dreams, review by George Jacobs
The Razor Sharp Prose of Howard Andrew Jones' For the Killing of Kings, review by Chase A. Folmar
Imagining Primordial Heroes and John R. Fultz's Worlds Beyond Worlds, review by J. Thomas Howard
Technology Meets Magic in Adrian Cole's Dream Lords: Rebellion, review by George Jacobs
The Eye of Sounnu and the North Star of Neo-Pulp, review by J. Thomas Howard
Narrator as Character in Melion Traverse's, "A Song for Sir Ava", review by Chase A. Folmar
The Mythic and the Barbaric in Schuyler Hernstrom's Thune's Vision, review by Luke E. Dodd