Swords of Steel Vol 1.

Some of you may have seen advertisements in Cirsova for an anthology series called Swords of Steel. Well, if you enjoy Cirsova, I strongly recommend checking them out, and I’m not just saying that because they’ve advertised with us (but disclaimer, they have advertised with us; I was sent digital review copies of volumes 1 & 2, but also bought a physical copy of 1 and now intend to buy a physical copy of volume 2. Also, Howie K. Bentley is a Cirsova contributor with a short story, …Where There is No Sanctuary, in Cirsova #4.)

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The anthology specifically invokes Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness anthologies, as well as other Appendix N authors, in the introduction. Does it stack up? Well, to be honest, I haven’t gotten around to reading SAD yet, but I would say that this anthology is well worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of Cirsova’s Sword & Sorcery pieces.

I realized that I said SoS was “the real deal” in no less than 4 separate tweets. Sounds kinda canned, but no, this is really good. If you’re wary of promises of sword & sorcery goodness that have let you down in the past, fear not, because this anthology delivers.

Some of it is a bit darker and more grisly than what you’d typically find in Cirsova, but most of the stories are of the caliber and quality I’d be more than happy to have in my anthologies. Dave Ritzlin has done a fantastic job with this. It’s an annual anthology, so you should have no trouble keeping up.

The concept behind the anthology series is short fiction by extreme metal musicians, so I have tried to accompany each piece with a sample track from the associated band when I could find it.

Note that I’m excluding the poetry selections not because they aren’t good poems but because I don’t feel qualified to comment on them beyond saying “Yeah, that was pretty metal”, and poetry is such a subjective thing that folks who don’t like it will not be swayed and those who do like it may for certain particulars I would not be able to convey in brief.

Into the Dawn of Storms – Byron A. Roberts

The first piece is actually the first chapter of novel/novella. I have mixed feelings about chapters and excerpts either presented as a standalone story or as a serial, and this piece does not really stand on its own – it’s setting and atmosphere framing a prose poem which points in the direction that the story will eventually go. That said, I enjoyed it well enough that I would like to eventually read the book in its entirety, either serialized in Swords of Steel or as a standalone volume.

The Riddle Master – E.C. Hellwell

The Riddle Master was kind of the odd story out in this collection, as more of a gothic horror than a Sword and Sorcery story. It tells a time-worn tale of the devil’s promise to grant earthly desires to cocky and overconfident artist, but it does so in such a wonderfully atmospheric manner that it’s fun to see it hit each beat as you see them coming. This was probably one of my favorite stories in the anthology.

Also, prog rock doom metal? How freaking awesome is that! Of the bands, this guy’s is probably my favorite as well.

The Mirror Beguiling – James Ashbey

Sometimes if you can add enough flourish and weird, even a story about a simple fetch-quest going awry with some twists and turns can be a lot of fun. I’d happily read more adventures of Ruga Hawkshand if there are any more of them.

All Will Be Righted on Samhain – Howie K. Bentley and David C. Smith

One of the longer pieces in Swords of Steel, this tells the story of Boadicea’s daughter seeking revenge on the Romans and summoning the Rune incarnate Thorn to punish those who raped her and defeated her mother. Incorporating a lot of pagan mysticism and the Wild Hunt, this was a very colorful story but also marked heavily by Bentley’s penchant for carnage and gore. If you can stomach it, it’s fascinating, but a bit extreme for my taste. Pretty sure it gave me nightmares.

Headbanging Warriors – M Harold Page

Interesting little non-fiction/essay/prose poem piece about the rhythm of battle.

Journey in Somnamblia – Jean-Pierre Abboud

Rogue magicians near a city powered by magic try to do something magical. This one showed some promise, but I feel like it did not really have a payoff.

Eve’s Grave – Scott Waldrop

There’s some beautiful and haunting imagery in this, but I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it. I ended up skimming and skipping a bit in this lengthy prose poem which was vaguely reminiscent of Nick Cave and The Dirty Three’s Time Jesum Transeuntum et Non Riverentum.

Blue Mistress – Jeffrey Black

A guy on a ship fishes out a mermaid; the ship is attacked by a giant squid monster. While by most accounts, this was just an “okay” story, Black really captured the “weird” aspect of the mermaid queen in a way that you don’t see often.

Vengeance of the Insane God – Jason Tarpey

A wandering warrior arrives at a city founded by his ancestors to learn the art of smithing only to find that the king has gone mad and sold out the inhabitants to deep ones. While imperfect, this is one of the stories that I hope is part of an ongoing series or uses a recurring character. Plus, if next time I run a D&D game, I’m totally using the idea of forging swords using the ashes of ones ancestors; not only was it your father’s and your grandfather’s blade, but the carbon in the steel is their ashes, so the blade IS your father and grandfather!

This story is an expansion of this track. This is probably my favorite of the bands after Hellwell.

My Lord Barbarian, Andrew J. Offutt

My Lord Barbarian combines the wild high-octane action of heroic fantasy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the steamy romance of a bodice-ripper, and the drama and intrigue of an oriental historical novel with a degree of mastery that is cruelly undersold by its cheapo Del Rey mass-market 1st edition format.  I’d chop off my arm to write one book this good.

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This one took me a lot longer to finish than I’d like; rather than get grief from my girlfriend about the cover, I’d read it a couple chapters at a time at the gym on my lunch breaks.  A recent car accident threw my gym habit out of whack, so I went a few weeks without reading it, but overall, I think breaking it up allowed me to really savor this more.

Seven artificially created worlds are in the same orbital path in the habitable zone of the system’s sun.  The advanced space-faring civilization that created these worlds and connected them by automated transport ships has long since collapsed.  Humanity has recently emerged from its barbarism, lives in the immortal cities of the Ancients, benefiting from scraps of technology which they do not understand nor can they replicate.  Six of the worlds are “civilized”, with five kings swearing fealty to an emperor.  The Seventh “barbarian” world has just been united the Warlord Valeron.  The Emperor decides that it would be a great idea to have this guy marry his daughter Aleysha and take the imperial throne because of that old “reminds me of myself when I was a young edgeman!” reminisce that affects old warrior kings who had to hang up their armor.  Well, the Prime Minister Darcus Cannu isn’t having any of it; he arranges the murder of the emperor and frames Valeron, throwing the barbarian king in the dungeon to keep him out of the way until he can marry Aleysha and seize the crown of the Six Worlds for himself.  With help from Aleysha and her slave-girl Jheru, Valeron has to escape, prove his innocence, and unite the other five kings in liberating Aleysha and the imperial seat from the cunning Darcus Cannu and his loyal henchmen.

“Reduced to bows and axes, swords and bucklers and horses man might be, [Valeron] mused, but still we ride the untiring shuttle-ships of the ancients.  His eyebrows curved ruefully toward each other in the center of his forehead as he made the mental addition: Though we understand them not!” p12

There are many strands of the premise of civilization and barbarism that are explored in My Lord Barbarian.  One of the most prominent is the dreadful prospect of civilization losing its understanding of science and technology.  The peoples of the rather feudal solar “empire” are essentially squatters in the ruins of its forebears.  Science has become the god “Siense”, a god who wrathfully struck down the Ancients for abusing its gifts, and technology is indistinct from magic for most.  People pray to “Siense” that the transport ships, the lights, and other mechanisms of the Ancients don’t break down on them, because if they do, they are gone forever.  A clever scene illustrated this by the panic which ensued when, unbeknownst to him, Valeron accidentally flipped the light-switch for imperial capital.  Does this seem silly or preposterous to you?  Think about where we are today, with all of our technology and toys which we take for granted but most have no comprehension of their workings.  If your iPhone stopped working, could YOU make another?  Could someone you know make another one for you?  Probably not!  Consider that just 50-60 years ago, the average person had the technical know-how to keep most of the day to day mechanical and technological aspects of their life running.  Today we have people have panic attacks when they can’t access wi-fi, something which to most people is sorcery.

On a brighter note, this sort of sci-fi can lead to some amusing moments:

“I, Valeron Barbaros car Nadh called Mighty, Warlord of Branarius, command you to close.” p69

If your D&D game doesn’t have a barbarian playing around with an elevator, it should.

It is not enough just to take a throne.  One must hold it. p9

Another major strand is civilization and its trappings as a stabilizing force.  Emperor Velquan sees the warrior strength of Valeron as necessary to hold the Empire together after he is gone.  Cannu justifies his treachery because he fears that the brash, off-the-cuff and violent nature necessary in someone who would unite the “barbarian” world would ultimately tear the empire apart.  Ironically, Valeron shares this fear; can he, as someone who has solved his problems with his blade and bravery, rule in peace-time even though slave and king alike would unite behind his sword in a time of conflict?  Not only must he prove to his fellow kings that he is as “civilized” as they, he must prove to himself that he is worthy of their company.

This is played with further in the love-triangle involving Valeron, Aleysha and Jheru.  Aleysha is a lady.  She is beautiful.  She is polite and “civilized”.  Jheru is babe.  She is hot. She is mouthy and “barbaric”.  The character of Aleysha is introduced as a girl, young “Leysha”; her maturity to womanhood is something of a shock to those who remember her as the girl, but there is still that girlish innocence about her.  Jheru, on the other hand, is introduced to us straight off as a striking image of womanhood.  The situation in which she and Valeron first meet shows us something interesting about both: Valeron, mid-escape, feels naked and disempowered without his armor and shield, while Jheru, wearing almost nothing, is disarming, confident and fearless.

Valeron DOES like Aleysha, but it’s patently obvious that she’s not his type; he fears that he won’t please her because he feels too barbarous, too brutish.  He spends his nights on the rocky ground of a battlefield, she spends hers in the silken sheets of a palace.  He fears she is fragile and he might break her.  On the other hand, Valeron finds himself falling in love with slave-girl Jheru whose quick-wit, bravery in the face of danger, and full figure prove rather endearing to him: here’s a girl who can take what he can dish out! Now, of course Aleysha does prove Valeron wrong; she is strong and commanding and, being forced to grow quickly into the role of empress following the murder of her father, ultimately earns the respect of the Kings of the Six worlds.  And Jheru also proves to be a sensitive and intelligent figure who earns the admiration and affection of those around her.

Valeron, weighing between “civilized” obligations and “barbarous” emotion, struggles to make the best decisions for himself, for the empire and for those he cares about.  I’m not going to spoil things worse than I already have, but I’m sure you can guess that a big part of his character arc is about deciding whether he would make a worthy emperor and who would make him happy as his queen.

I could go on for greater length about the amazing descriptive prose, whether it’s about a sword-fight, a giant robot snake, or a pretty lady, but this thing is well into its third page.  Just check it out, alright?