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text SPOILER ALERT! 2018-10-30 16:42
Bloodsong Trilogy by Asa Drake (aka C. Dean Andersson)

I’ve always been an avid reader; a quiet moment to me means a chance to get a chapter or two in.  Back in the 80s while I was in the Marine Corps we had lots of down time on weekends, and thankfully a lot of Marines were into AD&D, so there was that.  Heck- once we even brought our books with us on a week-long field deployment so we could finish a module featuring a vampire named Strahd von Zarovich.  Good times.

 

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I always wonder how much this one would be worth without all my notes marking it up...[/caption]

 

One slow Saturday I went to the PX to find something to read.  I’m a longtime fantasy fan (who isn’t these days, but I’m old so I can stake my claim!) who loves a good hack-n-slash featuring a female protagonist.  Back in the 80s that type of novel was in woefully short supply.  That day I came across two titles that seemed to fit the bill: The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (also a former Marine- Semper Fi!) & Werebeasts of Hel by Asa Drake (aka C. Dean Andersson- a former Airman, but I won’t hold that against him).

 

Now, as much as I tried to like Moon’s book, I couldn’t.  The titular character was female practically in name only- she was asexual to the point of almost becoming her defining trait and the story plodded along like a broke down mule in knee deep mud.  Even back then I understood the issues with female leads in SF/F and making her a fully-fleshed person with loves, hates, needs & desires would’ve been tricky at best, but it didn’t even seem like there was an effort made there.

 

Then I read Werebeasts of Hel.  

 

Even though it was the third book of the trilogy, there was enough backstory involved so it wasn’t hard to follow.  Most importantly, I was now dying to read the first two.

Built from Norse mythology & history and billed as the “Heavy Metal of Fantasy” by Publisher’s Weekly, all three books even featured cover art by Boris Vallejo!  In the 80s that was pretty much the Seal of Approval!

 

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Starting with Warrior Witch of Hel, the story arc centers upon a woman named Freyadis whose village was raided by the evil sorcerer, King Nidhug, who served Hel, Goddess of Death.   With her husband and infant son killed & her daughter Guthrun taken captive, Freyadis was subjected to various abuses, bound to a tree and left to die, her infant son’s corpse tied to her breast.  Never passing up an opportunity, Hel offered Freyadis a chance to return as an undead Hel warrior if she would pray to her as she died. 

 

Nidhug, of course, has betrayed Hel by stealing a relic of her power called the War Skull for his own ends.  After enduring even more of Nidhug’s depravities- including in gladiatorial combat- and finding her daughter in Helheim, Freyadis- now known as Bloodsong from her arena fights- is tasked by Hel to recover the War Skull and bring Nidhug down in exchange for freedom.  Must’ve been a Tuesday.

 

Along the way Bloodsong finds allies like Huld- an elf-blooded witch in service to Freya, Jalna- a slave unfortunate enough to catch Nidhug’s attention & Tyrulf- the warrior in Nidhug’s army who’s attracted to Jalna.  Bloodsong also has a very nasty surprise waiting for her when she reaches Nidhug’s fortress.

 

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The second book, Death Riders of Hel, picks up a few years later: Guthrun is discovered to be a witch and studies with Huld while Bloodsong and her friends have forged a life in the aftermath.  A new threat arises from Thokk- a Hel-witch determined to both finish what Nidhug started and convert Guthrun to the dark side.  Thanks to her mistress, Thokk has a way of striking at Bloodsong where it’ll hurt her the most.  Bloodsong forms an alliance with a tribe of shapeshifting berserkers and is willing to pay any price to save Guthrun from becoming a Hel-witch.  But will the lure of darkness be too great for Gudrun to overcome, especially when being lured by a familiar presence?

 

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Werebeasts of Hel takes place years later, but unfolds much the same way.  Years of peace after defeating Hel, life goes on, friends & lovers… then, BOOM!  Third time’s the charm, eh?  An old adversary returns to lead Hel's armies- one who knows Bloodsong's weaknesses and she's hard pressed to stand against him alone.  This time Odin himself provides a little divine assistance and Bloodsong has to forge an alliance with an altogether new breed of creatures to help stop Hel from conquering them all.

 

The best thing about these books is they are what they are.  Nothing fancy or elaborate- it's all straightforward, fast-paced, in-your-face adventure: here's the situation, now let's do something about it!  It’s a gloriously grim & gory Nordic hack-n-slash with good doses of horror and a few splashes of romance tossed in for variety.  This is a bleak, icy world teetering on the edge of apocalypse.  Death lurks around every turn, defeat is all but certain, friends are lost, sacrifices appear pointless and at times it takes all the heroes have just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

 

It’s fucking great!!!  My copies of these are lovingly well-worn for good reason.  I’m glad I found ebook copies to help save them even more wear and tear.

 

Now I’ll admit the omnibus edition doesn’t thrill me at all.  Though the alterations fleshed a lot of things out it was also watered down and a lot of things were added that just flat out confused me.  But it’ll probably do for you if you haven’t read the originals.  If you can find the originals or individual ebooks, get ‘em!  You won’t be sorry!

 

4.5/5 stars

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review 2018-09-26 17:37
Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan
Theft of Swords - Michael J. Sullivan,Tim Gerard Reynolds

This epic fantasy includes a little breaking and entering, plenty of snarky insults, political intrigue, magical beasts, and a chaotic neutral maimed mage. For me, the tale started off fun but not particularly special. It wasn’t until about a quarter of the way through the book that the tale grabbed me. Royce and Hadrian are a lot of fun. They’ve known each other for years and each is well into their adult years. This was a nice break from all those epic fantasy adventures that feature teen/young adults bumbling through their first adventures.

Royce was my favorite because we have the same dark sense of humor and have to sometimes be talked into doing the right thing. Hadrian is an enthusiastic believer in honor and all things good. It’s a very good thing these two have each other to balance things out. Each has a history veiled in questions and half truths. I look forward to Book 2 revealing more on this note.

The one weakness to this tale is the ladies. It’s not all bad, but for the most part they are comforters and romantic interests and need to be rescued. Arista shows promise with her wit and ability to grasp politics. Also young Thrace has a shining moment at the end of the novel. The ladies aren’t the worst I’ve seen in epic fantasy but I did want just a bit more from them.

There’s a big fat mystery with the elves. Ancient conflict and truces are eluded to and I expect that will become a big deal later in this series. There are a few elvish slaves in some areas of the human realms, but no elves roam free… or if they do, they can pass for human. The maimed mage Esra provides most of what we know about the elves. He’s ancient and was imprisoned for perhaps 900 years (if I recall correctly). Esra is a big enigma. I don’t know what he wants and he might not know either. He has to keep his head down as he’s still a wanted criminal.

Then there’s Myron. I adored this character because of his wide eyed wonder of the bigger world. He grew up in a monastery and had never been off the grounds. He had seen a few horse but never rode one and he’s never seen a woman. As he gets swept up into the adventure, he provides several chuckles. I too wish there were blue horses.

By the end, I had fallen in love with the main characters. I really look forward to adventuring further with Royce and Hadrian. 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Tim Gerard Reynolds gave a great performance for this book. He had distinct voices for all the characters and his female voices were believable. He sounded like he had a lot of fun narrating this story too. I did notice a few short repeats but there were no other technical issues with the recording. I loved his voice for Myron (always full of wonder), his skeptical voice for Royce, and his honorable voice for Hadrian. 4.75/5 stars.

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review 2018-08-06 22:26
Starless by Jacqueline Carey
Starless - Jacqueline Carey

I’ve just been on an adventure with Khai and Zariya. The desert sand is still wedged in creases, the sea salt adhering to my hair, and some jungle forest mystery patch is making it’s home in the shady part of my imagination. I’m a long time fan of Carey’s works but Starless may have surpassed them all.  The plot was unexpected, the characters unforgettable, and the settings deadly beautiful.

A beautiful mythology wends it’s way through the plot. The stars, children of the sun Zar and he three moons, were cast from the heavens ages ago. Now these stars reside throughout the world, each gifted and bestowing their gifts upon mortals. Sometimes this is through direct interaction, sometimes through objects like rare seeds or a magical pearl.

The story is told through Khai’s eyes. He grows up in a desert fortress being trained by the monks on a variety of skills. He was born with a destiny: to be the Shadow to the Sun Blessed, Zariya. Once we’ve gotten to know Khai good and well (several years have passed), he goes to the royal palace to serve as Zariya’s body guard and confidante.

Since I had already fallen in love with Khai, I wasn’t sure I would bond as well with Zariya. Her world is so very different from the desert fortress but she has not been without her trials. An affliction challenges her daily. On top of that is the endless intrigues, making it difficult to trust anyone other than her Shadow. Zariya, being the last daughter of the last wife, believes she is destined for a simple marriage and child bearing. However, prophecy steps in and drags Zariya and Khai off on a world-saving adventure.

If Jacqueline Carey were ever to write horror, she would send a tremble through the entire genre. The creepy critters from the sea that threaten to decimate the world are truly things of nightmares. I thought the ants from the 3rd trilogy in the Terre D’Ange Cycle were scary; however, the critters from Starless take the cake.

I loved the gender fluidity of Khai’s character. The desert people call it ‘bazim’ (not sure on spelling). Khai grew up among only males but once he moves to the palace, he spends most of his time in the women’s quarter, guarding Zariya. There he learns about women and starts questioning his own gender-based roles in society. It’s all very well done. As Khai interacts with more cultures, each shares their take on the matter, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes bluntly. Khai grows by leaps and bonds and I loved his character all the more by the end of the tale. 5/5 stars.

The Narration: Caitlin Davies did a great job with this book – a truly top notch performance. She provided so many different accents, keeping all the characters unique. Plenty of emotions, subtle and not, were on display in this tale and Davies gave them all their due. I especially enjoyed the valiant Mayfly. 5/5 stars.

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review 2017-02-16 17:02
Magic's Pawn / Mercedes Lackey
Magic's Pawn - Mercedes Lackey

Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior's path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his if left untrained may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil can not master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin'a'in Adept, Vanyel's wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone's ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril...

 

Oh, what a validating novel this would be for a child who had no sports talent, but was being forced to participate anyway! Every boy convinced by his father to set aside his violin or book in order to fail dismally at baseball or hockey would be able to relate to Vanyel. Music is everything to Vanyel with academics running a close second, but his father only wants him to become a brutal swordsman.

Others who may relate: those who excelled in their own small pond (small town or small school), but find themselves out-shone by talented peers when they arrived at university. Vanyel is considered smart and musically talented at home, but once he is sent to his Aunt Savil at the school for Herald-Mages, his talents fall short of the mark.

Also a book for a youngster (in the 1980s) struggling with his/her sexual orientation. The good thing that comes out of this new situation is that Vanyel realizes that he is interested in boys—that’s why bedding girls at home was never alluring to him. And although some people are prejudiced against him for his orientation, the author makes it clear that they are “provincial” and not to be listened to. I was pleasantly surprised to find this viewpoint expressed so unequivocally in literature from the 1980s.

Like most teenagers, Vanyel is very self-centered. It goes with the territory, but it does make the kid hard to like (at least for a woman in her 50s). However, it was also disappointing that the instructors at the mage school made so little effort to see behind the arrogant pose that Vanyel used to protect himself. The situation improves as the book progresses, with Aunt Savil realizing that there is a great deal more to her nephew that she had previously realized and that maybe her brother was even thicker than she had thought. This is also a pretty standard plot device—I think of Simon in The Dragonbone Chair, who also starts as a self-involved teen (with fewer talents than Vanyel), but eventually becomes a person of character.

I had to wonder at the addition of the horse-like Companions—in order to become a Herald-Mage, one must be “chosen” by one of these superior, magical beings, who reminded me very much of the Houyhnhnms from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe in the next book, I will figure out why the Companions are necessary to this world.

Book 244 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

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review 2017-01-10 16:49
The Knight and Knave of Swords / Fritz Leiber
The Knight and Knave of Swords - Fritz Leiber

Dark Horse's republication of Fritz Leiber's immortal tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser reach a turning point with this new edition of Leiber's final stories of the two intrepid adventurers. Their journeys have taken them from one side of Nehwon to the other, facing life-risking peril at every turn. Now, in a set of stories that show us Fafhrd and the Mouser both on their own and together, they will face some of their most challenging obstacles, and - against assassins, angry gods, and even Death himself - the duo must battle for their very lives. With a mixture of high adventure, moving drama, and broad comedy, The Knight and Knave of Swords is a perfect endpiece to Leiber's stories of the stalwart comrades.

 

 

 

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Cranky Old Men edition

We’re old, we’re gray, get off our lawn.

A somewhat unfair assessment of the last FatGM book by Fritz Leiber, who died 4 years after it was copyrighted, at age 81. A few statements within the first few pages seemed to indicate that he was writing to placate fans of the series—you know us fans, we are always clamouring for more adventures of our favourites! I imagine that it’s hard to scrape up enthusiasm for a project that feels rather forced on the writer, especially after 50 years of writing these adventures.

Fafhrd and Mouser are reluctant adventurers in this installment. They would far rather settle down with their current lady-loves, go on the odd commercial venture, and live comfortably for the rest of their lives, but when your life is entwined with nosy gods there are bound to be interruptions.

Leiber was obviously concerned with issues of mortality while writing this, as Fafhrd and Mouser end up with a spell on them, making them elderly in outlook before their time. His earlier beautiful vocabulary gets much coarser in Knight and Knave and I don’t think he got the same delight out of writing about these two rascals anymore.

It was rather sad to watch the decline of the barbarian and the cut-purse, just as it is sad to watch the subtle decline in an elderly relative.

Book 238 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

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