Review: The Brand of the Warlock

Publisher Description:

A hooded man, his face marred by a mysterious black brand, walks the Plain of Savlos. Some say he has the power to summon demons. Others say he is the only one who can vanquish them. His name is Konrad, and he has a secret….

Once an ordinary soldier, his life was forever changed by a fateful meeting with a dying sorcerer. Now he is all that stands between civilization and the creeping evil of the shadow world. The Brand of the Warlock is the first book in the fast-paced sword & sorcery series THE COUNTERFEIT SORCERER.

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Review: The Brand of the Warlock by Robert Kroese

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Brand of the Warlock. I encourage you to check it out!

The Brand of the Warlock is a clever and compelling fantasy novel, thick with mystery and suspense, dark magic and demons! A unique dilemma afflicts the main character, who persists through wit and sheer moxie, capturing the reader’s curiosity for what he will do next. This entertaining sword and sorcery story kicks off The Counterfeit Sorcerer series with both magic and intrigue.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Suspense

The pacing of this story is fantastically executed. While I would hesitate to call it “fast-paced,” it certainly never felt plodding. Each event starts with a steady build of tension and pays off with concise, intense action.

The story begins with a simple question: how did the main character end up in prison?

The initial scene creates interest through well-crafted dialogue between the prisoner and the chief prosecutor. They each attempt to manipulate the other in order to get what they want, but their back-and-forth is not without risk. The chief prosecutor has been forced to release this prisoner and fears retribution from the powerful sorcerer he locked up. Likewise, the prisoner fears miscalculating the situation and being returned to his cell. They each are trying to get what they want without tipping their own hand.

At the end of the chapter, the prisoner Konrad is free, but it is revealed that he is not the sorcerer. This revelation deepens the mystery, raising additional questions.

The novel continues in this manner. Dialogue is compelling and never lacks some kind of conflict to create interest. The twisty revelations cause the reader to re-evaluate the information previously revealed. The question of Konrad’s past is slowly answered, but his desire to reunite with the girl he loves continues to draw him into the greater conflict around his mistaken identity until he is fighting demons in their own world!

Wit and Moxie

Konrad’s character delivers a lot of the entertainment value for this story. He is clever and resourceful, and fate seems out to get him. However, no matter the setback, he maintains his stalwart focus on his goals, finds allies to help him, and does the right thing.

His greatest talent is his wit. He devises clever plans and convinces others to participate. While he can certainly formulate a good smart-alecky comeback, Konrad’s character is genuine. He lacks the sarcasm and rude manner popularized by Marvel and Sherlock, whose characters insult their friends just as smoothly as their enemies.

These qualities make him both entertaining and sympathetic. His trials can be attributed to bad luck and not a bad attitude. This is the kind of character I can cheer for!

Setting

The Brand of the Warlock’s setting is not necessarily unique for the sword and sorcery genre. I do not mean to fault this setting in any way, but rather to point out that it, like every element of this story, is carefully constructed without being overbuilt. Veszedelem, the demon world, is interesting in its mechanics, partly because there is no tedious explanations of minor details.

One set that I particularly enjoyed was the haunted ruins. When they were first introduced, I thought it they were simply part of a generic fetch quest – part of developing Konrad’s reputation in his mistaken persona. I was pleasantly surprised to find it return as the stage for the larger conflict!

Every scene, character, and event contributes to this story in a meaningful way. There didn’t appear to be a single element of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. There was enough description to create a clear picture in my mind, but it never weighed down the plot.

Everything served the story, and the story was entertaining!

The End

This story did have one weakness that I feel must be addressed. The story laid the groundwork, established settings, built the tension, developed characters, and brought them together. Everything was primed for the climax. Then the book ended.

There had certainly been some big confrontations prior to the end, and Konrad’s quest to be reunited with his love is completed. However, there wasn’t the payoff that the rhythm of the story had led me to expect.

Part of this is due to the presence of too many antagonists, all of which entered the story too close to the ending. There wasn’t time to build the sense of necessity to their conflicts that would provide resolution. So much of the story was driven by the mystery of Konrad’s predicament of a false identity that the information about his antagonists’ characters came too late.

This situation does put the same pressure on a reader as a cliff-hanger, and the rest of the series is available and may provide resolution and live up to the promises this story made. That said, this story certainly has you reaching for the next book in the series!

Check It Out!

The Brand of the Warlock is a well-crafted story, with every element contributing to the driving suspense, and a tone of sincerity. While the abrupt ending is disappointing, it is preceded by a tightly woven tale and promises even more entertainment in the rest of The Counterfeit Sorcerer series!

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Review: How Black the Sky

Publisher Description:

Pierce – a brash young man with rare blessings of strength and really bad news.

Axebourne – the fatherly berserker with infectious laughter.

Scythia – calm and motherly, her Circlet of Knowing reveals secrets.

Agrathor – a mighty spearman with an electric personality
and a terrible skin condition.

Ess – Second only to the First Great Master of Convergent
Reality Theory. Pierce thinks she’s hot.

They are Gorgonbane. Once mercenaries, now heroes, they are the only thing standing between Overland and the horrid Monstrosities of the Underlord. His lust for power has reached its peak, but the coming invasion may not be exactly what it seems…

The world of Chasmgard is a place with endless secrets and a strange cosmology.
A deep red sun crawls across a canvas of black, and nobody remembers why. Landlocked by a depthless Chasm, Overland and the Underlands have always vied for power and land.

In How Black the Sky, we join a band of legendary warriors who may just be at the end of an age.

Multiverse Books

Each novel and short story in the Multiverse comes with a map and basic world statistics for use in roleplaying and other non-commercial gaming scenarios. We have included only basic stats that should be adjustable for any use you have!

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Review: How Black the Sky by T. J. Marquis

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed How Black the Sky. I encourage you to check it out!

How Black the Sky is a fun, heavy metal romp following a band of warriors through epic battles to defend against an invasion of Underworld monsters! The action-driven plot underscores a refreshing, brawlier representation of Christianity than is typically seen in fiction. This story serves as the first in the Hero’s Metal series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Heavy Metal Action

Heavy metal is not merely a genre label for this novel. According to his forward, T. J. Marquis intentionally designed his characters around the members of a heavy metal band and drew thematic inspiration from progressive metal.

This certainly comes through in the intense action sequences, which describe not only the efforts of the team, but also focus on the skill of an individual (like a solo) and how they interact with the others in friendly competition, pushing forward the power of the band as a whole.

As a result, the battles are driving and densely choreographed—an entertaining combination of brute force and complex skill, cool people doing cool things. Moreover, the imagery is reminiscent of a heavy metal concert, with grandiose settings, cool weapons, and showmanship.

Post-History Fantasy Setting

The mechanics of Chasmgard are unique and interesting. They certainly go beyond the typical fantasy / post-apocalyptic setting and are deeper than a mere color change for the sky. Underland is not merely beneath Overland—it isn’t underground—but is layered. Underland has its own sky, with a moon that moves across it, and yet it still maintains a physical orientation, below Overland.

Overland itself has a post-history flavor. There are ruins and legends (for example, the sky wasn’t always black, but was once blue) that hint that the world wasn’t always in its present state.

I shy away from the term post-apocalyptic only because it isn’t yet clear that it was a catastrophic event that caused this and the term tends to be applied to settings that are or were the real world. While the latter could be a possibility, this first book makes no explanations, for even the characters themselves do not fully understand their world’s history nor the particularities of how it works. 

The result is a tantalizing mystery for later works in the series.

Plucky Pierce

Pierce, the main protagonist, was my favorite character. While significantly younger than the original members of the Gorgonbane group, he holds his own in both bravery and skill in battle. However, his humility, positive attitude, and inquisitiveness make him fun to follow in the story. I hope to see more of him in future stories.

Pierce serves as a vehicle for the audience to learn about the other characters, since he is the new guy in the group. If Gorgonbane is a band, then Pierce is a fan who has stumbled into a dream-come-true opportunity to work with them. His interactions and the stories that they tell him develop the audience’s knowledge of these established heroes.

This first Hero’s Metal novel does spend a lot of time on this, but as all of the characters are, as I mentioned, cool people doing cool things, I found the stories of valor forgivable since they are entertaining. One weakness that does result is the lack of tension due to half of the tale occurring in retrospect and the other half shaded with the suspicion that these awesome characters will likely survive to the next book.

The Glorious Paths

A most thought-provoking element of How Black the Sky is the Overlander’s religion The Glorious Paths. This is a uniquely executed reflection of Christianity, and I found it intriguing how it put forward a different aspect of God’s character in this depiction than commonly seen by depicting Him as “the Blacksmith.”

While most Christian fiction emphasizes the attribute of love (sometimes to the detriment of all other characteristics), Marquis’s Blacksmith, while loving, is unavoidably sovereign.

In the Great Sanctuary stands a sculpture of the Blacksmith, and on his anvil humanity is being forged: “Their legs were elongated into a tapered shape like the blade of a longsword, and the woman’s arm was stretched out to one side in a partial crossguard.” Everything, including the fighting and conflict, occurs at the Blacksmith’s will to “temper” his servants and prepare them to walk the Glorious Path.

This process is not necessarily pleasant. The people on the anvil grit their teeth, grunt, and scream. But the Blacksmith has a vision for them beyond the immediate process. The Overlander’s God is not only fully in control, he is also intentionally working to prepare them for a purpose beyond this life. His followers are “the weapons that would one day slay Oblivion itself.”

Pierce in particular wonders if he will be deemed fit to serve after “this time of shaping and testing.” I appreciate how this portrayal imparts the biblical beliefs that God’s ways are not our ways and this present life is merely a shadow of what is to come.

The idea of salvation is not touched on in this book, and the morality is rather hazy, but I look forward to seeing how these ideas develop as the series progresses!

Check It Out!

How Black the Sky is an enjoyable adventure full of hardcore action, valiant warriors, and thought-provoking themes. A great start to the Hero’s Metal series!

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Review: Corona-Chan

Publisher Description:

Stuck inside? Quarantine got you feeling down… or even worse, BORED? 

Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love is here to rescue you from the existential horror of indoor life, by offering you a glimpse into other worlds of wonder, whimsy, and warped humor.

Tales of high adventure, escapist fantasies, and thrilling stories of suspense await within, from some of the keenest and most rebellious minds in pulp fiction, with a foreword by the infamous Daddy Warpig.

With 200,000 words of exciting fiction, most never before published, including four books, Corona-Chan is serious about spreading the love!

Read it today!

The complete catalog of collected chronicles:
“Quarantine” by artist Jesse White
Anacyclosis by Brian Niemeier
“A Song of I.C.E. and Fire” by Jon Del Arroz
In the Forest of Wast by Alexander Hellene
“Exiled in the Desert” by John Daker
“Iron and Steel” by KP Kalvaitis
“Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan
Immortal Thunder by Matt Wellman
“Bringing down the Mountain” by Nathan Dabney
“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn
“Going Native” and “Warrior Soul” by Manfred Weichsel
The Battle of the Turasa Nebula by Yakov Merkin
“An Eye for Eligos” by Alexandru Constantin
Adventure Constant (full-length novel) by Jon Mollison
“Star Support” by Val Hull
“The Age of Petty States” by Rawle Nyanzi
And
The Crown of Sight by David V. Stewart

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Review: Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love organized by David V. Stewart

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Corona-chan. I encourage you to check it out!

Corona-chan is a fantasy / sci-fi short story anthology spearheaded by David Stewart and featuring 17 authors and their works that delivers adventure in a kaleidoscope of settings, characters, and tones, sure to leave you looking for more! Every tale has something to offer: action, suspense, heroics, and even the weird. This anthology is full of entertainment value. It can “rescue” you from boredom in the ordinary and mundane (no quarantine required)!

Don’t Skip the Forward!

Daddy Warpig’s foreword to this anthology is a gem. It starts off the collection with humor and the very focus on entertainment value that he touts: “Put entertainment first, put the audience first, and stop worshiping things that don’t matter.”

This anthology delivers on that promise of entertainment!

His comments certainly philosophize about writing and its purpose, particularly regarding the stated goal of this anthology, but if you are expecting the boring, puffed-up, academic air of superiority usually associated with traditionally published anthologies, you are in for a pleasant treat!

“Tales” vs. “Short Stories”

In my initial description of this anthology, I called Corona-chan a collection of short stories. However, that is not a term used in the anthology itself. That would be “tales.”

This is, perhaps, a more appropriate label, as the “short story” has almost become a genre unto itself, piling expectations of form and story events on top of those within the primary genre. In particular, it pushes an element of surprise or a “gotcha” moment. I find them disorienting at best, off-putting at worst, and nearly always unsatisfying.

It was such a breath of fresh air to read stories—written for adults—that were each “sized to fit” without also being twisty or gimmicky. Instead, they are complete stories with momentum, build, and even foreshadowing. They just don’t take as long to read!

Jon Del Arroz’s “Song of I.C.E. and Fire” is a particularly good example of this. Reading on my Kindle (with my font size at a reasonable setting), the story was only 26 pages long. But it is undeniably a complete story with engaging action, sympathetic characters, and a satisfying “got the bad guys” conclusion!

Compelling Plots

None of these tales could be accused of wasting my time when it came to getting the plot up and running. They were all fast-paced without skimping out on either character development or immersive settings. Even when the action slowed, there was a momentum that continued, pulling the reader forward with anticipation. This momentum continued to build, never leaving me stagnant or tapped out.

This resulted in a series of very entertaining stories, united by a common, engaging pace.

“Anacyclosis” by Brian Niemeier stands out in this regard. The central drive of his main character is simple, but that allows it to be both sympathetic and quickly communicated. The action that grows out of this drive builds rapidly before falling off. At that point, I was invested in both the character and his situation, and a sense of anticipation pulled me forward. When the action was not there, the story did not stall. I pressed forward, eager to know what would happen next.

Efficient Character Development

The stories in Corona-chan vary a great deal in length. However, even the longer tales were extremely efficient.

Character development is particularly important in this regard. Rather than waste time and space in their stories with scenes that served no purpose except to introduce their characters, the authors threw their characters into action to demonstrate their mettle. This resulted in characters who were quickly sympathetic, especially in those stories which had limited point-of-view characters.

I really enjoyed the character development “Star Support” by Val Hull for this reason. The situation was unique, featuring a woman at a call center for space ship technical support. I found her particularly relatable in her office job, dealing with the public and overbearing management. When she is suddenly thrown into an intense situation a mere six paragraphs into the story, her character begins to emerge and grow beyond her job. I couldn’t wait to see how she would handle the next complication that came her way!

Effective World Building

The stories in this anthology also shared a tendency for effective world building. Not that there isn’t a place for lengthy anecdotes about a world’s system of government or readers who will obsess over details of a magic system, but due to the length limitations there had to be minimal ponderous descriptions of elements irrelevant to the story at hand.

That is not to say that there was nothing to hint at a bigger universe, however. Science Fiction and Fantasy are largely defined by the worlds that they immerse us in! Settings, political situation, timelines, etc. were all hinted at with tantalizing brevity. I finished several of these stories with my appetite whetted for more.

So many of the stories are worth mentioning here, particularly those stories that obviously came out of a larger established concept such as “Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan. The longer, “full-length” novels that the anthology boasts – “Immortal Thunder” by Matt Wellman, “Adventure Constant” by Jon Mollison, “The Crown of Sight” by David V. Stewart, and “The Battle of the Turasa Nebula” by Yakov Merkin – had significantly more space to work in, but I found that they were similarly streamlined.

“The Battle of the Turasa Nebula,” in particular, exposed me to a complex world with characters from opposing factions, who had intricate histories relating to each other and the larger political powers.  However, I never felt like I was being over-burdened with extraneous information. Merkin gave me just the information I needed to understand the characters, their motivations, and the action and only when I needed it. This resulted in a suspenseful story in which both parties were sympathetic and compelling, and when it ended, I was eager for more from both them and the larger scope of the conflict.

Weaknesses

I would like to touch very briefly on a couple of weaknesses in this anthology. I did not find these to be disqualifying in their scope, but in the spirit of complete honesty, I want to acknowledge them.

Thrown Together

It is sadly apparent that this anthology was thrown together in a very short amount of time. This in itself is not bad, but it is the cause of an unfortunate lack of polish. There were many errors that could easily have been caught with a bit of review, even with a word processor. Of course, the number and types of errors fluctuated between stories, some having minimal problems and others having an abundance.

That being said, most of them were forgivable and decipherable. I did not find them so distracting that I could not enjoy the experience.

Lacked an Explanation of Context

I enjoyed Daddy Warpig’s foreword, as I said in the beginning of this review, and the tone of humor and even irreverence it lent to the collection.

However, the anthology lacked the standard formal introduction: a word from the editor to explain why these particular stories were included and in the chosen order. Even the formatting, particularly the attributions and calls to action following each tale, was irregular. Obviously, this also has to do with the haste involved in Corona-chan’s implementation.

I found the tales to be unified in many of the components I have discussed, but I felt this almost coincidental. Perhaps the shared elements could be explained by the term “pulp,” which appears in the tagline, “Infectious Tales of Fantasy and Suspense Designed to Spread the Pulpdemic.” However, as someone who had no context for the term at the time of reading, this only highlights for me the need for some official comment, some explanation of what makes these tales qualify for that descriptor.

Again, I understand that there was not time for this kind of curation, let alone explanation, but perhaps then the claim that it was “designed” to do anything is a stretch.

Check it Out!

Those frustrations being recognized, Corona-chan: Spreading the Love succeeded in delivering entertainment. Furthermore, it is an excellent collection featuring this group of authors, whether you have never read any before or are familiar with all of them.

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Review: Ghostblade

Publisher Description:

Giant monsters roam the land. 

Civilization is frozen in a savage age. For one young hunter named Alden, power and survival are one and the same. The ancient evil that once ravaged his village and murdered his ancestors has returned. At the same time, politics hurls Alden into gladiator pit battles for control of the throne.

When Alden takes possession of a cursed sword promising untold power, the hunter is determined to save his people by slaying every giant monster standing between him and the throne. But the angry ghost trapped inside the blade has other ideas.

The first entry in a thrilling LitRPG light novel series!

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Review: Ghostblade by Adam Lane Smith

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Ghostblade. I encourage you to check it out!

Ghostblade is an adventure-packed light novel in the shōnen vein that delivers a unique and entertaining spin on some of the best elements of that genre: tenacious characters, dynamic action sequences, and thematic elements of diligence and community. Beautifully illustrated by Ashion. This compelling first installment of Adam Lane Smith’s The Savage Hunters series has certainly whetted my appetite for more!

This review contains minor spoilers.

Earnest Protagonist

Alden is a virtuous main character with a desire for self-improvement, grounded in a strong sense of community. While this is a common character trope in the genre, Smith’s execution, particularly in tying Alden’s character development to a stronger thematic message about what it means to be a man, lends Alden a more mature tone than is typical among shōnen leads.

I found myself rapidly gaining a respect for the young hero. He aspires to become a better hunter in order to protect his village, and it is clear that the needed growth is in experience and not in repentance or common sense. This avoids some of the cringy scenes typical of young protagonists. Alden might make poor decisions, but they were always from a pure motivation that I sympathized with, never from internal flaws or faults inflated for cheap character improvement down the line.

As a result, Alden comes across as a lifelike character, and it is easy to believe that his peers respect and trust him in a leadership position.

Vivid Action

This light novel is chalk full of captivating action sequences. Each conflict is vividly described, with all the involved characters taking active roles against the monsters that they face. Even in the gladiator-style tournament, the battles did not run together monotonously. They were all fresh, through different beasts, tactics, and characters.

Alden’s fights, in particular are always multi-faceted. They incorporate conflict on multiple levels, from the basic struggle for survival in the arena, to the political competition for the throne, to the over-arching clash of order and chaos.

Unfortunately, the complex nature of these conflicts can make the handful of scenes starring other teams and their battles a bit tedious. Although this, too, is a common element of shōnen-style tournaments, I have always found them to drag on a bit too long. Smith successfully hooked me into his story; I was invested in Alden’s team and their objectives. That made it hard for me to find interest in the battles of the other characters. Take that with a grain of salt, however, because I am not a sports fan in real life, either: I never could see the appeal in March Madness, for example.

Gameplay-based System

I enjoyed Smith’s choice to incorporate an RPG-based levels system into his world. I thought the LitRPG concept was well executed and worked beyond the simplistic “give the reader a quick understanding of everyone’s relative power.”

Not only did the clear levels give a sense of objectivity to the character’s abilities, but they also emphasized their need to improve if they wanted to be able to protect their community. In this way, they raised the stakes from the very beginning. Balanced against the character development as they were– particularly Alden’s diligence and desire for self-improvement – meant that, even though the hunters’ levels were not high, I believed they had the moxie to succeed.

Furthermore, the skill trees inserted an additional sense of hope, particularly to the over-arching conflict against the ancient threat, by offering the characters opportunities of growth tailored to combat it. They might not be ready for that just yet, but it offers a tantalizing promise of more epic action to come!

Setting Put to Work

Ghostblade has a very polished feel to the whole work, with a clear attention to detail from plot and character to grammar and word-flow. The setting is no exception here.

Often a story’s setting, particularly in fantasy genres, is more a consequence of plot or an exercise in artistic description than a functional aspect. While I can’t claim to know if Smith intended to put his setting to work in the service of storytelling, it certainly came out that way.

The story has three major settings: the village, the corrupted forest, and the city.

The Village – Order and Vigilance

The early descriptions of the village and surrounding terrain convey nobility in simplicity and hard work. Here is the first glimpse we are given of Alden’s home:

“The front door made of dense, woven wool opened onto a dirt floor and a large rectangular hall.”

This seems relatively straight-forward, and yet it is representative of a consistent picture Smith creates of this setting. Handicraft permeates the scene, from the woven front door to the bone structure of the house itself. Things may be simple, from the dirt floor to the open space, but there is a strong connection between the people who live there, even though none are present in that first scene. Someone made the door, someone – ancestors no longer even living – built the house. A strong sense of heritage exists – a legacy of hard work manifested in every item in Alden’s home.

This generates a sense of belonging, further emphasized by the oversized dinner table and the meal set aside for Alden, and contributes to a feeling of security. This village is a safe place, with a strong wall and competent hunters standing watch. So safe, in fact, that none of the buildings have actual doors.

Not only does this accentuate Alden’s character as we are first introduced to him, but it also sets up the major conflict of the series: the return of the Scourge that nearly drove the village to extinction. The community’s safe and connected lifestyle contrasts sharply with the corrosive and invasive nature of the enemy.

The Forest – Chaos

“Looming skeletal trees seemed to reach for the band from the corner of Alden’s eye. Every so often, the abrupt cawing of a raven would tear through the forest, and the hunters would jerk in their saddles.”

The second setting further emphasizes the dichotomy between order and chaos. Where the village represented the safety, security, and happiness possible within order (particularly demonstrated by the wedding), the forest embodies the constant strife, fear, and loss of self that is perpetuated by chaos.

Alden and his friends must be constantly on guard because the Scourge is not only physically corrosive and viscerally repugnant, but also threatens them on a spiritual level: “The Scourge already burned in Jincra’s flesh and spirit to a degree which terrified Alden.” While it is yet unclear exactly how this spiritual aspect might manifest (assuming the physical corrosion was halted), it is easy to imagine how it could jeopardize the relational security within the community.

Note: I think it is fair to categorize this conflict as order vs chaos, at least in this first installment in the series, rather than the typical good vs evil. Although the characters interpret the corruption as having a malicious intent towards them, I do not see it depicted in this story as having a particular direction to its consumption. It seems more like an invasive sickness that must be driven out before it reaches a vital organ, as it eventually would if left to its own devices.

The City – Laxity

The third setting, Ceralahn City, stands in contrast to the village in a different way. While the village was a safe and secure place, it was not so by chance. The community was constantly vigilant, posting lookouts against outside threats and intentionally working to pass on their traditions and beliefs to the next generation – safeguarding against a different kind of chaos.

However, the city, on the other hand, is not a place characterized by simplicity and a tight-knit community. Smith never faults the city for this, necessarily. There is no a commentary on rural vs metropolitan. Rather, the city seems to represent a society distracted by various affairs. Its people reject the threat of an outside evil, preferring instead to believe their own events, such as the political tournament, are the driving force of all motivations. The people are divided into their own tribes and factions; therefore, the city lacks any sense of unity, even in something as simple as clothing, which is always richly described. Furthermore, the ending (without going into detail) reveals that they are blind to the chaos unfolding within their own walls.

Even Alden and his team must constantly remind one another that their true purpose is not necessarily to win glory and political power through the tournament, but to gain allies against the true threat that they face.

Smith’s skillful composition of setting puts it to work for the story in both plot and thematic avenues. I know I’ve spent a lot of words here, but it was a treat for me to discover such a uniquely integrated setting!

Check it Out!

Ghostblade is a brilliantly entertaining adventure, with compelling characters, vivid action, and subtle setting all in service to an engaging story. Accessible whether you are familiar with light novels or not.

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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City

Publisher Description:

Once upon a time, short fiction was the mainstay of science fiction and fantasy readers. Titans like Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance worked their magic on magazine and pulp pages, delighting readers with strange visions and pulse pounding action. In 2016, editor P. Alexander dared to bring those days back with the launch of Cirsova, a magazine of science fiction and fantasy fiction.

DMR Books is proud to present a collection of one of Cirsova’s rising stars, Schuyler Hernstrom. These stories will take the reader across strange and sweeping landscapes of adventure. Life and death, blood and desire, greed and sacrifice, all and more are contained within. Classic barbarians and classic rogues are here, along with Dunsanian knights and witches, sentient computers and savage beasts. This collection includes all of Hernstrom’s stories from the first three years of Cirsova along with three tales that have never appeared in print before.

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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom

This review originally appeared on David Roome’s blog:

https://www.davidroome.com/2020/05/short-story-book-club-mortu-and-kyrus.html

Recently, Alexandru Constantin announced the Short Story Book Club to advance robust discussion and criticism of fiction. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read, review, and blog more, so I thought I would join in. The story is “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” by Schuyler Hernstrom, which is found in The Eye of Sounnu.

Spoilers below.

Setting

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and it left me with a lot to think about. The primary thing I admire about it is how developed its setting is given its length. The author does something effectively that I consider a hallmark of good worldbuilding, where he mentions many interesting details in passing (and I’m not talking about just tossing out fantasy-esque names for common things—I hate that) but does not exactly explain the worlds history or many general facts about it. The result is a world that feels very large, since the reader begins asking questions and filling in the blanks.

The details provided, however, are grounded and specific, and the world is easily imagined. One of my favorite images was how one of the nomad warriors wore shoulder armor made from pieces of the exoskeletons of giant centipedes that lived in the desert.

From various conversations, especially between the main characters Mortu (a muscular barbarian warrior) and Kyrus (a Christian monk who has been transformed into a monkey) the historic struggle of humans versus the alien Illilissy can be assembled. The aliens came to the world, interbred with humans creating the northern barbarian race (that Mortu is a member of), and eventually left after being defeated by them, leaving behind technology ranging from Road Warrior style motorcycles and trucks to entire cities with decidedly more advanced technology.

This legend left me with many questions. Were the Illilissy actually extraterrestrials or simply more technologically advanced humans? Did they create all of the technology, or is some of it a remnant from the human side of the war? Is the story set on a future Earth? I assume the answer to the last question is yes, given the fact that Kyrus’s order is specifically Christian, as well as some of the place names lake “Zantyum” (Byzantium?) and “Amerza” (America?).

I love these questions, however, and I’m happy that Hernstrom created them. I feel like a visited a real place, big enough to have mysteries and aspects of its history that are not clear-cut.

Two Moralities

I’m a sucker for setting, but the other notable aspect of the story is the back-and-forth between the pagan Mortu and the Christian Kyrus.

It’s always welcome to encounter explicitly Christian characters in works of fiction, especially in stories like this one. While Mortu always sees things as black and white and acts decisively, Kyrus argues for a nuanced Christian morality between boasts about his intellect.

The conflict reaches a climax when, after discovering the sinister and abusive actions of the citizens of the White City, Kyrus argues that they should get external forces involved, while Mortu decides that justice is best served by killing everyone himself. Of course, Mortu only kills a dozen or two before some actions they took earlier end up killing everyone else indirectly.

The problem is, I’m not sure what the purpose of this moral conflict was, since it seemed like the author portrayed both sides as correct in some way. I could see an argument that the author intended Mortu’s pagan approach of relying on his personal conscience to determine right and wrong and how to deal with it as the correct morality. However, Kyrus is certainly a protagonist, and not an uncharitable caricature. And I think that the author intended him to be a likable character, especially since the narrator often takes his viewpoint.

Perhaps contributing to to this interpretation is the fact that the character Nathia’s role in the White City’s abuse is ignored. While she revealed the problem to the protagonists, she evidently did nothing about it for twenty years, and she furthered the abuse by helping new children into the city via the caravan. One could argue that she was forced to do these things against her will, but she did defy orders in the story to warn the protagonists. Why didn’t she rebel earlier? In the end, Nathia is forgiven Mortu’s wrath because she had a change of heart and because she is a beautiful young woman. A more objective morality would not let her off the hook so easily.

Another possibility is that the author is using Kyrus’s ramblings to depict and argue against an overly-philosophized, stunted morality, while Mortu has the law written on his heart.

Complicating things, I didn’t discern any growth or change in either Mortu or Kyrus’ views. I have no problem with flat-arc characters, but if there’s no development and ambiguous interpretation, the moral conflict seems to serve little purpose other than the occasional joke.

At a higher level, if we take Alexandru Constantin’s view (from his original blog post) that this story is a “direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy,” it’s unclear to me on what basis that assault is being made. With God-revealed morality from Christianity? With philosophy? With arguments from conscience or what is natural? All of the above? Let me know what you think!

Even though this aspect of the story left me dissatisfied, it provoked interesting analysis.

Other Criticisms

In addition to the above points, I have a couple of smaller criticisms, but these are mainly based on personal preference.

I think the story would have been stronger with a single viewpoint character. This might have clarified which side of the moral conflict between Mortu and Kyrus the author intended the reader to take (if he did intend a correct side).

Also, descriptions tend to get in the way of the pacing of the story. As I mentioned above, specific details like the centipede armor really flesh out the world. But more generic observations, like the colors of everyone’s hair and clothing or the appearance of sunlight or starlight in a specific instances, often interrupt the story’s drive and diffuse tension.

Final Thoughts

“Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” is a great story on many levels. If the other stories in The Eye of Sounnu are half as good, it’s well worth picking up for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. It also provides a lot of material for discussion! I’m looking forward to reading what the other #ShortStoryBookClub bloggers have to say about it.

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