Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews: “The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse” by Fredrik Brounéus

29 06 2012

via Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews: “The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse” by Fredrik Brounéus.

(Thanks to Mihai Adascalitei for allowing us to use this review)

’52 Stitches 2′ edited by Aaron Polson

16 06 2011
52 Stitches 2

'52 Stitches 2' edited by Aaron Polson, Strange Publications, ISBN-13: 9780982026656, $8.99

[Reviewed by KV Taylor]

As was the first volume of 52 Stitches, this second installment is a series of dark flash tales, originally posted for free at the 52 Stitches website run by Strange Publications’ Aaron Polson, one a week for an entire year. Why, then would one pay for a paperback — apart from the marvelous cover?

One very good reason I came up with while reading it was that these sharp little stories, none of them more than three pages long, could easily bring the bedtime story back into fashion for grown-ups. Ideally one would read one a night and it’d last a few months, but the problem there is that it’s like candy. You finish one and think, “Oh, that was good — one more won’t hurt”, and pretty soon you’re stuffed.

Fans of dark fiction on the fence about the flash phenomenon might find this a good starting point as well. The theme is just that, short and dark, which covers a lot of territory. Sometimes that can be disorienting and ends up feeling slapdash in an anthology, but these stories have something deeper in common that makes it work on another level: it might be called 52 Sucker Punches for the way it operates on a reader. If the writer’s job is to evoke emotion, it’s pretty impressive to land a jab in 500 words. Particularly when so many of them still hurt the morning after, as in this collection.

A few stories fall flat, but with the minimal time investment there’s not much disappointment — and there’s enough to delight in that it’s easy not to dwell. There’s dark, delicious humor (Michael Stone’s “The Rise of Azaliel and Lorcas”, Jonathan Pinnock’s “The Wrong Thing to Say”); mini descriptive tour de force (K. Allen Wood’s “By the Firelight”, Joe Nazare’s “Beside Himself”); small town horror and silence (Doug Murano’s “Fireboomers”, Alan Davidson’s “Thor’s Hammer”, Kent Alyn’s “The Slough”); intense gut-wrenchers that run the gamut from childhood innocence (Michael Colangelo’s “The Chronicles of Blackbriar”) to dystopian futures (Cate Gardner’s “Edible Flowers Perched Above a Dying Landscape”). Madness, hunger, paranoia, loneliness, love, war, holidays, and, as the chilling cover might imply, even dolls with bad intent.

Familiar themes, but each reworked into something quick, clever, yet lasting. Some of the stories are almost poetry, they are so prettily but exactly written. It’s a bedside table book, for sure — though there’s always the issue of what dreams may come to deal with, after this one.

(As an important note, 52 Stitches 2 is dedicated to the memory of one of the contributors, Jamie Eyberg. All proceeds from its sale go to the Kennedy and Brendan Eyberg fund.)

‘Disciple of a Dark God’ review

10 12 2010

'Disciple of a Dark God', by Edmund Glasby, 606pp, Matador, ISBN: 9781848763708, £7.99 PB

Review by Sam Kelly

Matador, it turns out, is Picador’s self-publishing imprint. I was quite surprised to find that out, since Disciple of a Dark God is one of the nicest paperbacks, physically, that I’ve handled in a long time – it’s solidly made, with a slightly heavier weight paper than most, and the cover art & design were very clearly done by someone with a real understanding of genre trends. Less so of swords, but impractical weaponry is also a long-standing fantasy tradition.

The book itself is very definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write (Leiber, Vance, early Moorcock, Howard…), and in general it’s energetically & atmospherically done. Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner (the last thing you could call him would be “hero”) is a historian turned assassin in the service of Xethorn, god of murder. This profession requires crypt-robbing, drinking in dodgy pubs, wearing a cool trenchcoat, investigating long-disused temples to chthonic deities, and long strenuous journeys to exotic locations. It could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign, and I’m sure I’ve seen stat blocks for death squirrels, the Eye of Evil, and that thing in Chapter 13 (whatever in Juiblex’s name it is) before. The plot structure is a classic bracelet fantasy; it consists of a sequence of plot coupons, each one at the end of its own quest, and intervening FedEx quests (“I won’t help you find the artifact you seek unless you go to this dangerous location and collect a randomly generated item for me”) to break them up. There are two main characters, Everus and his sidekick “Creeps”; others accompany them for a quest or two, until they meet some gruesome end, often at the hands of the main characters.

There’s one other characteristic of sword & sorcery novels that Glasby has kept (and exaggerated), however, and that’s the deal-breaker for me: this is the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time, and if I hadn’t promised to review it I’d have put it down halfway through, washed my hands, and gone to read some Joanna Russ instead. For more than half the book, every single reference to women is a joke about prostitutes, or a derisive simile; the first woman with a speaking part appears on page 368, and I can do no better than quote her first appearance.

The door was opened by a tall, curvaceous beauty.  She was outstandingly pretty; from her long, rippled hair which was a striking blend of rich lilacy-purple with flaming red highlights, to her eye-catching figure and modest but close-fitting clothes – all contributing to make Everus think she was a classy and highly expensive courtesan.  She looked about his age.

“You look a little surprised,” she said, her voice a little husky.

“I…I was expecting someone else.” Tilting his head, Everus glanced over her left shoulder, checking that there was no one else with her. It was then that he was pleasantly struck by the mild scent of exotic perfume. The aroma was delightful and highly arousing.

I would like to assure you that – unlike the author, I feel – I was typing that quotation with both hands and without suggestive music playing on the soundtrack. Carrie (and if you feel that’s an odd name for a fantasy character, you’re not the only one) is a sorceress, of course, rather than a warrior, and serves as a support character and rescue object.  Everus (inevitably) sternly refrains from sleeping with her even though she obviously wants it, and then his suspicions about her beauty are proved entirely justified when she turns on him and is revealed to have been a horrendously ugly succubus all along.

There is a second female character later on: Gwennifer Jannson, a competent and sensibly dressed general (though still described as a “slim brunette with long braided hair”) and it’s presented as entirely unexceptional for women to be officers; this would be a definite step forwards, if she weren’t there purely for Everus to impress, and if she survived longer than four pages.

I don’t want to risk giving the impression that the horrendous misogyny is this book’s only bad feature; it’s also rather classist and extremely fat-phobic. Glasby’s prose is faintly purple and occasionally rather clumsy, with sporadic outbreaks of passive voice. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book to women, anyone with female friends, or anyone else.

Pegasus Expansion – Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

26 11 2010

[Reviewed by P.G. Bell]

Pegasus Expansion - Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game. Designer: Corey Konieczka. Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games. Price: £25

Pegasus is the first extension for Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game, adding new rules, characters and playing boards to the original game. The Colonial fleet is no longer alone in its quest for Earth – the redoubtable Battlestar Pegasus is on hand to lend additional firepower and facilities. Nor is the action confined to the fleet, as players must endure the oppressive Cylon regime of New Caprica and make good their escape to claim victory.

Fantasy Flight Games have once more succeeded in capturing the tone and narrative structure of the TV series and fans of the second and third seasons in particular will find a lot to enjoy here.

In defiance of the extensions’ title, the addition of the Pegasus has very little impact on proceedings and is mostly used to maximise the human players’ defensive abilities during combat. It’s the additional characters and amended rules that alter the game’s structure, albeit subtly, encouraging players to be more ruthless in pursuit of short term goals whilst jeopardising the broader sweep of play. Admiral Caine can force a faster-than-light jump whenever she pleases, for instance, but should expect to lose civilian ships (and the valuable resources they carry) in the process.

More drastically, characters suspected of being Cylon infiltrators can now be executed. This is treated in the same way as a Crisis card, with players contributing their various skills to beat a target score. If a character is put to death, that player must reveal their Loyalty cards – if they are indeed a Cylon, they are banished from the fleet and must continue the game without any of the special abilities usually afforded revealed Cylons. If they are human, the fleet loses precious morale points and the player chooses a new character to play with.

Most striking is the addition of an entirely new character group: Cylon leaders. Operating unlike any other character in the game, they make no secret of their origin and must fulfil an independent (and secret) agenda in order to win. That agenda could depend on either the humans or Cylons eventually winning but will usually demand sacrifices from both sides. For example, the player’s Agenda card could call for the humans to win, but with the bare minimum of morale points remaining. Or it may cite a Cylon victory, on the condition that any hidden Cylon players are uncovered and their characters executed. Diplomacy and a good poker face are both essential.

These new features all serve as interesting embellishments to the existing gameplay but it’s the New Caprica phase, which now closes the game, that is the real “format breaker”.

Abandoned on the struggling colony world, the players must liberate the stock of surviving civilian ships from Cylon hands, readying them for evacuation before the Galactica returns to mount a rescue. It’s a short, sharp race against time as the Cylon occupation – in the form of a new deck of Crisis cards – moves to destroy the ships and incarcerate the players.

Complicating matters further is the fact that revealed Cylon players have a more direct and powerful influence on New Caprica than in the fleet, with as broad a range of actions and movement as their human counterparts. It’s also easier to execute characters during this phase of the game.

All hell breaks loose when the Galactica returns. Civilian ships are moved back to the main board one turn at a time, and must survive the massive Cylon fleet surrounding Galactica. Any characters or ships still on New Caprica once the game ends are automatically destroyed, and any subsequent resource points deducted from the humans’ total. To make matters worse, the Admiral can order the end of play at any time, so it pays to be absolutely certain of their loyalty to avoid an embarrassing last minute rout.

The Pegasus expansion is quite versatile and can be played in several combinations with the original game. On the downside, the extension modifies many sections of the original rule book, meaning you now have two manuals to consult as you play. It also increases the set-up and playing time; our session clocked in at over four hours.

Physically, it’s a shame the Pegasus board is so small (less than half the size of Galactica) but this is offset by the arrival of two moulded plastic Basestars, replacing the cardboard cutouts supplied with the first game.

Pegasus is a well judged addition to an already engaging game. And with Exodus, the second extension, due out soon, the Battlestar Galactica board game family looks set to go from strength to strength. It may be time to invest in a bigger table.

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

24 11 2010

Review by P.G. Bell

'Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game' by Corey Konieczka, Fantasy Flight Games, £30

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game sets itself the seemingly impossible task of recreating the tension, intrigue and action of the Emmy award winning series on a humble square of cardboard. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Players take on the role of the beleaguered Colonial survivors, fleeing the destruction of their homeworlds at the hands of the robotic Cylons and working together to pilot the Galactica and its fleet to the safe haven of Earth. But all is not what it seems; at least one of your number is a Cylon infiltrator, bent on bringing the fleet to ruin. Crucially, you could be a Cylon yourself and not even realise it.

Fans of the show are at a definite advantage when it comes to the board game, as it mirrors the series’ central concepts very closely. The game begins with players selecting a character from one of several classifications; political, military, pilot and technical support. They also receive a Loyalty card, kept secret from the other players, denoting whether they are human or Cylon.

Each character has access to different combinations of skill sets (represented by cards), allowing them to perform vital functions within the fleet, from dispatching scouts to chart upcoming dangers, to repairing areas of Galactica damaged during combat. These skills are also vital in overcoming the Crisis cards that are drawn every turn. These outline the latest disaster to befall Galactica, from Cylon witch hunts that can confine players to the brig (where they will be powerless to help overcome future disasters) to sneak attacks by the pursuing Cylon armada. A specific combination of skills is needed to overcome each crisis and players contribute their cards anonymously, allowing Cylon players to sneak counterproductive cards into the mix, deducting from the humans’ total. Failure to beat the target score on a Crisis card can quickly spell disaster for the humans, usually through the depletion of their essential resources; food, fuel, population and morale. If any of these is exhausted, the Cylons claim victory. Crisis cards also allow the fleet to prepare for faster-than-light jumps however, bringing it one step closer to Earth.

In a stroke of sly genius, the game deals a second round of Loyalty cards once the fleet has made it half way to Earth, meaning players who were previously human could suddenly be “activated” and switch allegiance. Certain characters receive a third loyalty card, meaning those players must fight even harder to win their comrades’ trust.

In fact, some of the most entertaining elements of the game take place off the board, between the players themselves. It certainly pays to know who your friends are; suspicions mount as the stakes are raised, resulting in ill-founded accusations and bids for power. If the President, with her suite of additional powers, isn’t seen to be effective enough in protecting the fleet’s interests, she may find herself voted out of office by her fellows. Similarly, the Admiral can be deposed in a coup and the Galactica’s nuclear deterrent placed in “safer” hands.

The political tugs of war only stop when the Cylon fleet appears. Then it’s all hands to the guns, in an effort to keep the enemy Raiders from destroying precious civilian ships. Combat is dealt with in time honoured tabletop fashion – with the die and miniature figures; in this case, lovingly detailed recreations of Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders. It’s a stronger will than mine that can resist staging miniature dogfights between turns.

In fact, all the physical elements of the game are of very high quality. The show’s aesthetic is present throughout, from typefaces to underlying designs and every card carries an appropriate image from the series.

Tying itself so closely to the show does mean the game limits its audience, however. I’ve played several times with people who didn’t know the series and, although they got to grips with the game’s structure, they struggled to understand the relevance of the characters, ships and situations.

The game is also quite a complex affair, requiring a lot of fiddly set-up before you can get started. It takes several rounds of play to fully master and, even then, you’ll find yourself constantly leafing through the rule book, checking minor details.

It’s well worth persevering though as Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game will reward you with challenging, immersive and constantly changing gameplay. Grab some fellow fans, slip a soundtrack CD into the stereo and take the fight to the toasters. So say we all!

‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

3 11 2010


'Sourdough and Other Stories' by Angela Slatter, 238+viiipp, Tartarus Press, ISBN: 978-1-905784-25-7, £30 hb


Review by Simon Marshall-Jones

It’s very difficult not to be enthusiastic about this book – not just about the writer and her stories but also about the physical book itself. And, it has to be said that, from this particular bibliophile’s point of view, what Tartarus Press have put together here is nothing short of superb and fully justifies the asking price. Sourdough and Other Stories is a lushly-produced hardback, with clear printing and a silk ribbon marker, and includes a full-colour frontispiece and decorated boards and spine – just the perfect thing to display on a shelf. It’s the sort of thing to stroke and make a complete fetish of.

But it wouldn’t be a complete package without the quality of literature within – otherwise it would be nothing more than mere distraction. Luckily, there are gems hidden between those beautifully-gilded covers. I’ve reviewed Angela Slatter before for Beyond Fiction (The Girl with No Hands – Ticonderoga Publications) and I came away highly impressed, both with the way in which she tells her stories but also by her erudition. The sixteen stories contained within this collection attests to both Slatter’s storytelling and her consistency in creating entertaining tales with deep, almost primeval, resonances. And she does this time after time.

The traditional fairytale is her starting point or, rather, what we have come to think of as fairytales. As I observed in my previous review, many of the most famous tales that have been handed down to us, transmitted by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, were corrupted and sanitised by a Christian, Victorian and patriarchal-oriented agenda, where women were often portrayed as not only being fallen but the begetter of evil deeds. The dangers were still there, but they were meant to show the child their rightful place,  as well as to educate and prepare them for their roles in adult life, through moral instruction.

Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan. All her female characters display strength of one kind or another, whether it be a refusal to bow down to the dictates of the patriarchal stage on which these tales are played out (Gallowberries, for instance), or the willingness of a young girl to sacrifice herself to atone for a wrong or in a time of need (The Navigator, A Porcelain Soul), or the power of a woman to transform and renew (The Angel Wood, Little Radish). Conversely, the men in Slatter’s fictional locale of Lodellan are often portrayed as the epitome of stupidity: greedy (the Robber Bridegroom in The Story of Ink), cruel and warlike (the Duke and Dante Velatt in A Porcelain Soul), weak (the king in Sister, Sister) and ultimately afraid of the innate power of women, hence their need to subjugate them (the town council and judge in Gallowberries).

Before you imagine otherwise, not all the women are saintly, however – there’s Gwenllian, the rich mistress who asked Blodwen to heal her horrific burns, giving her young child away as payment for her services. Through Blodwen, we learn of the consequences of going against nature, of denying the bond every woman should have with her child and that doing so without thought can sometimes have dire consequences. Then we meet the cruel, spoilt little rich girl fiancée in Sourdough, who, through her arts with potions, causes her husband-to-be Peregrine’s true love to lose their child. That dead child then turns up in a later tale, Lavender & Lychgates, a wonderful story of the scheming ghost of the spoilt girl to bring him back to life, in order to exact revenge against Emmeline (his mother and the girl who did go on to marry Peregrine) and her daughter. Slatter’s women are also more than capable of a darker magic, too, as is evidenced in the bloody The Bones Remember Everything, a decidedly hallucinatory tale. Additionally, they can also be viciously poisonous, like Polly using malign whispers to usurp her sister Theodora’s place as the king’s wife in Sister, Sister.

Ultimately, however, the wrongs that are perpetrated by these bad apples are corrected by other, stronger (in the moral sense) females. Women are portrayed as the real runners of the show, the glue holding society together and the life-givers (and life-takers in dire need, too). They may be downtrodden, vilified, rejected and outcast, but each possesses an inner strength, an inner conviction to go on and do what’s absolutely necessary. Just like the fairy-tales we grew up with, the ones given to us by our Victorian forefathers, these stories deal in archetypes; however, the difference here is that Slatter’s characters are not the stiff, cardboard cut-outs created to make a moralistic point – they are eminently believable and well rounded, thus enabling us much more easily to identify with them and their plight(s).

On top of this, Slatter is also a master world-builder, but a very subtle one with it. The central conceit is that each of the stories is connected in some way to the story(ies) that have gone before – characters, places and events turn up or are reused in some way. The connections are fluid, however: several names turn up in different stories, for instance, but sometimes their link to the first instance is tenuous and yet the connection is most definitely there nonetheless. This fluidity creates a subtly strong weave that helps us build a picture of the world where the characters live their lives and have their being in. The language used to delineate and map it out it isn’t extraneous or richly detailed – it’s precise and economical, yet is highly effective for all that.

Despite the fact that it’s all set in a fairy-tale world, there is that about Slatter’s writing that ultimately connects it to the world we live in. These are real people, the kind of people we know ourselves: they’re just dressed up in the finery (or rags) of a world that’s just beyond this one. It just as surely reflects our reality as the original fairy-tales mirrored the times when Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collated the ones that have come down the years since. Slatter, then, isn’t so much reinventing these tales as realigning them, rearranging them in effect to better fit the 21st century and the collective sensibilities we hold today. The world has moved on considerably since the triumphalist days of Queen Victoria’s Glorious Empire (of which Slatter’s native Australia was a part), but those Victorian retellings haven’t: Slatter is merely fitting them around today’s values. Another Angela (Angela Carter), as Jeff VanDermeer points out in his afterword, started that whole process of updating, re-envisioning and restoring the fairy-tale to its rightful place in our richly-embroidered cultural tapestry, and with something of its original earthy power. Slatter has confidently taken up that gentle torch and illuminated her own path through what, in lesser hands, may be considered something of a minefield – and, in this reviewer’s opinion, long may she continue to do so.

There be monsters!

1 11 2010

You ready for Monster Awareness Month? You sure?