Review: Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead

Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead
By Robert Hood
Publisher: Borgo Press/Wildside Press
Paperback: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4344-4589-6

Blurb: In a place where no stars appear in the night sky, a group of strangers whose ancestries reach back to an earlier apocalyptic disaster are brought together to track down a resurrected corpse that might hold the key to the End of the World. Described by science fiction legend Jack Dann as “one of the strangest and most interesting visions to come out of the modern horror/fantasy genres,” acclaimed author Robert Hood’s Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead is an epic tale of greed, dying magic, strange monsters, and a motley group of heroes, with a strange and breathless climax you won’t easily forget.

When I think of Fantasy as a genre, I don’t often get the modern Epic Fantasy image of Dwarves and Orcs and Elves questing through majestic forests in my mind. I’ve always been more drawn to the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, William Hope Hodgson, Robert E Howard, Jack Vance, M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock. Their fantasies were always so much more ‘otherworldly’ than the faux-Europes and other earth-analogues of modern Epic Fantasy. Their worlds were far-distant not only in ‘place’ from our own, but often also far-distant in ‘time’. Long past or far, far in the future, they were as foreign and exotic to the reader as if they really had just stepped into another country and culture.

Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, the debut adult-novel¹ from Robert Hood, has this Otherworldliness in spades. The ‘world’ of Tharenweyr is as strange and exotic a place as has ever existed in fantasy fiction. Indeed, it is not even a world but a solid firmament (or a ‘seed-like emanation’ as Hood puts it on his website) that exists separate from space and time as we know it. It has no sun or moon or stars. Not even the infinite void of space to stare into. Instead, Tharenweyr is locked within its firmament, a mysterious wave of energy that washes from the ‘Worldly Gods’ of the north to the ‘Dark Gods’ of the south and creating the semblance night and day.

The novel begins with Remis, a young and newly graduated spellbinder interested in starting her own magical artifacts business, who is being pressured (threatened, intimidated) into working for a powerful Merchant House. She’s also having horrible nightmares in which she finds herself trapped inside the body of a hideous corpse-like being. And then there’s Tashnark, the bastard son of a commercial slaver. He’s having dreams that he is the powerful warrior Bellaroth, questing across some strange otherworld that exists on the shoulders of a vast cosmic monster.

It is the chance meeting of Remis and Tashnark – their respective dreams unknown to each other – that sets the course of lifting Fragments of a Broken Land.. out of individual nightmares and into a fantasy who’s cosmic scope rivals anything by Lovecraft or William Hope Hodgson. Gods battling Gods. Ancient artifacts and the prophesised return of catalysmic events that will wipe Tharenweyr out of existence. And, as always, Gods using normal people as their pawns.

In the hands of Robert Hood Fragments of a Broken Land… becomes so much more than just a Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery adventure though. The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings Hood has evoked for the world and its people almost demand a denser tale. In this sense, Hood certainly delivers. At times Fragments of a Broken Land… can be a hard read. You need to concentrate a bit. Divest some of your attention in the book. But believe me, the effort is worth it; Fragments of a Broken Land… will have your brain spinning in Gnostically-induced circles.

One thing that really did stand out for me is Tharenweyr’s main city of Ko’erpel-Na. The characters of Fragments of a Broken Land… all have a wonderful depth — their sense of humour, of justice, the way they try and interpret their world and the way they react to it — but the city is just as much a character too. It reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar or M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. It’s dirty, it’s crowded and full of disease and poverty, but there is also a feel to Ko’erpel-Na that speaks of age and so many lives lived within its walls. The impression I got of the city and its people was quite vivid, quite ‘real’. It seems a place just begging for a million more tales to be told.

Overall, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead is a brilliant fantasy novel of the type we seldom get to read these days. Dense and exotic and full of ideas. It’s also full of sword & sorcery action too, and the type of cosmic horror that leaves you paranoid about your own reality. Really, what more could you ask for in a book?

Don’t believe me? Want to check it out for yourself? Mr Hood has three other Tharenweyr ‘Fragment’ stories to read for free on his website []. Definitely worth checking out as a teaser and to get a feel for the world before tackling the very worthy Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead.

Oh, and the cover by Bob Eggleton? It is brilliant!

1. Robert Hood is the author of 5 previous Young Adult Novels, 15 Children’s books, published 3 collections of his own work, and edited a further 5 anthologies.

Black Feathers: The Black Dawn, Volume One by Joseph D’Lacey – review

BlackFeathersBlack Feathers: The Black Dawn, Volume One
by Joseph D’Lacey
Published by Angry Robot Books
UK ISBN – 978-0-85766-345-0
US ISBN – 978-0-85766-344-3

Black Feathers is the first volume in a new horror series by Joseph D’Lacey. The story follows two main threads simultaneously. We have young Gordon Black, a thirteen year old boy living in a slightly alternate version of our own modern day. In Gordon’s England, the world is sinking into economic collapse and being ravaged by various naturally destructive phenomena like solar flares and earthquakes. The land is ruled with an iron fist by The Ward, a combination of brutally right wing political party and zealous corporate conglomerate, driven by a greed for money and power. The people of most countries have voted The Ward into control globally after the successful lobbying of the party to convince the populace that only The Ward can protect the people against the swift descent into Armageddon facing them all.

Concurrent with this story is the tale of Megan Maurice, a young girl living far in the future, in a green and pleasant post-apocalyptic land where people have returned to living with the Earth, putting back as much as they take out and revering the Great Spirit and The Earth Mother. Megan is approached by Mr Keeper, a very revered holy man among the people, and he tells her that it is her destiny to walk the Black Feathered Path. This is a path of Shamanic learning, where she puts herself in the path of the stories of the Crowman, for someone must keep the tales alive in order to never lose the knowledge.

By now I’m sure you’re getting the feel for where this book is going. Gordon’s family are abducted by The Ward, but Gordon escapes and goes on the run. He is told he must find The Crowman, a terrifying creature of modern legend who some say is pure evil and others say is a force for good. As Gordon runs, the world descends quickly into its destructive cycle as the Earth Mother shakes off the scourge of humanity and The Ward are desperately hunting Gordon, as he is prophesied to usher in the end times, which is something they can’t allow if they are to maintain their grip on power and profit.

It should be quite clear by now that this is a book with a very clear and unashamed agenda. D’Lacey has an affinity for the Native American mythology of the Earth and it manifests throughout this narrative. The thing is, D’Lacey is a brilliant writer and while the message is something of a sledgehammer throughout, the story, the characterisation and the sheer beauty of the prose make that okay. This is an excellent story, very well told.

The juxtaposition of Megan’s life with Gordon’s is adroitly handled, giving the reader a huge and encompassing view of everything while maintaining a personal and powerful focus on these two very difficult journeys.

There’s an almost YA feel to the book at times, as both the key protagonists are young teenagers. But this is most definitely not a YA book, as the horror of Gordon’s world is laid bare time and again. I was pleased that D’Lacey didn’t shy away from the depravity in the hearts of humanity when it’s pushed to the edge. The threat to Gordon as he seeks is constant and very real, and The Ward is only one of many enemies on his quest.

Megan’s journey is one of discovery, a strange mix of vision quest and genuine, physical seeking. Sometimes the two are blurred together and D’Lacey does a great job of letting us in on enough of the story while still keeping Megan’s discoveries fresh and engrossing.

The anti-corporate, love-the-Earth message is a little heavy-handed at times, particularly at the very end of the book. By then it was at a point where it really didn’t need reinforcing and the final pages could have been much tighter without that repetition. But that’s a small complaint. The end, however, is far from the end. There’s no real Book One resolution here – we are most definitely only at a stopping point in a far longer narrative. Certain things come to a head – things the reader has been sure of for most of the book, only unsure how they will manifest, but that is the nature of this kind of story.

The Crowman mythology here is excellent, especially for all fans of corvids. The crows, ravens, rooks, magpies and others play central roles in the growth of Gordon as he runs and the weaving together of modern and ancient myth is brilliantly developed. The Crowman himself is a wonderful invention.

You need to go into this book knowing that its message is central to its existence. If you accept that, you will enjoy a superbly written dark fantasy with some truly original ideas and a very clever culture-crossing hero’s journey. I’ll certainly be looking out for further volumes to see how D’Lacey develops this story and where it might ultimately lead.


2012 Stoker Awards Final Ballot

From Locus Magazine – The 2012 Stoker Final Ballot has been released by the Horror Writers Association:

Superior Achievement in a Novel

  • Bottled Abyss, Benjamin Kane Ethridge (Redrum Horror)
  • NightWhere, John Everson (Samhain)
  • The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
  • The Haunted, Bentley Little (Signet)
  • Inheritance, Joe McKinney (Evil Jester)

Superior Achievement in a First Novel

  • Charlotte Markham and the House of Darklings, Michael Boccacino (William Morrow)
  • Wide Open, Deborah Coates (Tor)
  • The Legend of the Pumpkin Thief, Charles Day (Noble YA)
  • A Requiem for Dead Flies, Peter Dudar (Nightscape)
  • Bad Glass, Richard Gropp (Del Rey)
  • Life Rage, L.L. Soares (Nightscape)

Superior Achievement in a YA Novel

  • The Diviners, Libba Bray (Little Brown)
  • I Hunt Killers, Barry Lyga (Little Brown)
  • Flesh & Bone, Jonathan Maberry (Simon & Schuster)
  • I Kissed A Ghoul, Michael McCarty (Noble Romance)
  • The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic)
  • A Bad Day for Voodoo, Jeff Strand (Sourcebooks)

Superior Achievement Long Fiction

  • Thirty Miles South of Dry County, Kealan Patrick Burke (Delirium)
  • I’m Not Sam, Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (Sinister Grin)
  • Lost Girl of the Lake, Joe McKinney & Michael McCarty (Bad Moon)
  • The Blue Heron, Gene O’Neill (Dark Regions)
  • The Fleshless Man, Norman Prentiss (Delirium)

Superior Achievement in Short Fiction

  • “Surrounded by the Mutant Rain Forest”, Bruce Boston (Daily Science Fiction)
  • “Bury My Heart at Marvin Gardens”, Joe McKinney (Best of Dark Moon Digest)
  • “Righteous”, Weston Ochse (Psychos)
  • “Available Light”John Palisano (Lovecraft eZine, March 2012)
  • “Magdala Amygdala”, Lucy Snyder (Dark Faith: Invocations)

Superior Achievement in an Anthology

  • Shadow Show, Mort Castle & Sam Weller (HarperCollins)
  • Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, Eric J. Guignard (Dark Moon)
  • Hell Comes to Hollywood, Eric Miller (Big Time)
  • Horror for Good: A Charitable Anthology, Mark C. Scioneaux, R.J. Cavender, & Robert S. Wilson (Cutting Block)
  • Slices of Flesh, Stan Swanson (Dark Moon)

Superior Achievement in a Collection

  • The Woman Who Married a Cloud: Collected Stories, Jonathan Carroll (Subterranean)
  • New Moon on the Water, Mort Castle (Dark Regions)
  • Errantry: Strange Stories, Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer)
  • The Janus Tree, Glen Hirshberg (Subterranean)
  • Black Dahlia and White Rose: Stories, Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco)

Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction

  • Writing Darkness, Michael Collings (self-published)
  • The Annotated Sandman, Volume 1, Les Klinger (Vertigo)
  • Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, Lisa Morton (Reaktion)
  • The Undead and TheologyKim Paffenroth & John W. Morehead (Pickwick)
  • Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film, Kendall R. Phillips (Southern Illinois University Press)

Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection

  • Dark Duet, Linda Addison & Stephen M. Wilson (NECON eBooks)
  • Notes from the Shadow City, Bruce Boston and Gary William Crawford (Dark Regions)
  • A Verse to Horrors, Michael Collings (self-published)
  • Vampires, Zombies & Wanton Souls, Marge Simon (Elektrik Milk Bath)
  • Lovers & Killers, Mary A. Turzillo (Dark Regions)

Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel

  • The Sixth Gun Volume 3: Bound, Cullen Bunn (Oni Press)
  • Rachel Rising Vol. 1: The Shadow of Death, Terry Moore (Abstract Studio)
  • The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone, Ravi Thornton (Jonathan Cape)
  • Behind These Eyes, Peter J. Wacks & Guy Anthony De Marco (Villainous Press)
  • Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood & Lisa Morton (McFarland)

There were also nominees for superior achievement in a screenplay.

Horror Writers Association members will vote to determine winners. The Bram Stoker Awards for the 2012 calendar year will be presented at the 26th annual Bram Stoker Awards Banquet held during the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend 2013 Incorporating World Horror Convention in New Orleans LA on June 15, 2013.

Congratulations to all the nominees!


The Twelve by Justin Cronin – review by Andrew Kliem

14bCroninThe Passage was one of the huge dark fiction success stories of 2010. Written by Rice University professor and author Justin Cronin, the manuscript ignited a bidding war before even being completed, resulting in a $3.5 million advance and a further $1.5 million for the film rights. In the publisher speak, that means they’re planning for it to be kind of a big deal. Thankfully it lived up to their expectations, climbing the New York Times best seller list and earning praise from such horror luminaries as Stephen King.

Now two years later, the sequel is upon us. The Twelve continues the story of a world in rapid and rather bloody decline, and for the most part it’s a worthy successor to The Passage. It moves at the same rapid fire pace, is written in the same elegant prose, and evokes the same sense of creeping dread. Unfortunately however, the niggling problems from the first story also return, including the frequent point of view switches and the sometimes ethereal plot devices, meaning if the first book wasn’t your thing then this one is unlikely to change your mind.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it is basically a post apocalyptic tale told on an epic scale. Think The Stand, but with genetically engineered vampires. Twelve death row inmates are infected with a potent new virus in a government super soldier program, and as so often seems to happen when bio-weapons are involved, things get a little out of control.

Rather than following directly on from the events of the first novel, The Twelve starts by taking us back to the beginning of the outbreak and introducing us to a group of new characters who will play key roles later in the story. It then proceeds to jump back and forward both in time and perspective, between these new players and those left at the end of the first book. Initially I found this rather jarring. There are a lot of narratives to keep track of and it can be confusing ordering everything correctly given the constant changes in time period. But as you make it further in, the story begins to take shape and all those disjointed threads gradually pull together.

Because new introductions are required, the book doesn’t burst out of the gates at the very beginning like many other sequels, but by the middle it starts picking up steam and then it never really stops, culminating in one of the more intricate and epic climaxes I’ve read recently. The writing also aids the sense of pace, striking a good balance between tight, punchy prose and delicate description.

With so many perspective shifts, no character really gets more page time than any other, so picking a single protagonist is difficult, but the person who ties everything together is a girl named Amy — the central character of the first story. Infected with a modified version of the vampire virus, she is seemingly immortal and it is really her quest that the other characters get pulled into. In The Passage, she was chasing Babcock, the first of the infected. Now she is on the hunt for the rest of the titular Twelve.

The plot has too many strands to really elaborate on here, but suffice to say there is plenty of tension, action and a surprising number of poignant moments. The vampires (or Virals as they are called) are also noteworthy. In the age of undead creatures who glitter in the sun, it’s nice to occasionally be reminded that vampires used to be rather terrifying. The Virals in The Twelve are more animal than man; leaping, powerful, blood hungry creatures that are virtually unstoppable for regular humans. They prefer decapitation and dismemberment to brooding conversation, which should have horror fans jumping for joy.

My one big criticism — and this was a problem I had with The Passage too — is that the book occasionally ventures into mystical territory. Conversations take place involving characters who are long dead, and there are a handful of events that happen for rather intangible reasons. This is loosely explained in the context of the story, but I can’t help feeling that it would have been a stronger book without these elements.

While this took away from my enjoyment a little, ultimately The Twelve was still an entertaining read. It treads that thin line between blockbuster genre fiction and quality writing and does so with aplomb. If you dug The Passage or just like a bit of post apocalyptic mayhem every now and again, you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

- Review by Andrew Kliem.

Review: Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times

witch-hunts-a-graphic-history-of-the-burning-timesWitch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times
By Rocky Wood & Lisa Morton
Illustrated by Greg Chapman
Publisher: McFarland
Paperback, 186 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7864-6655-9

Blurb: For three centuries, as the Black Death rampaged through Europe and the Reformation tore the Church apart, tens of thousands were arrested as witches and subjected to torture and execution, including being burned alive. This graphic novel examines the background; the witch hunters’ methods; who profited; the brave few who protested; and how the Enlightenment gradually replaced fear and superstition with reason and science. Famed witch hunters Heinrich Kramer, architect of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, and Matthew Hopkins, England’s notorious “Witchfinder General”, are covered as are the Salem Witch Trials and the last executions in Europe.

Way back when I had just started High School I discovered, in the library, graphic novel versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. There were also graphic novels of the life of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. They were brilliant. They not only introduced me to wealth of historical figures and to Shakespeare’s genius but they cut through all the hard work of the original texts. They presented art and history in a visual way that made the past exciting and interesting. It is something that stuck with me. It is something that helped pave the way for my own journey to becoming a writer and illustrator.

What has ‘Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times‘ to do with this?

Well, I think they’re much the same. On opening ‘Witch Hunts…‘ for the first time, I was struck with a wave of nostalgia. Like I was that little kid in the school library, just now pulling down one more book after all these years. Within a couple of pages —  or maybe it was only a couple of panels — I was hooked.

Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times‘ begins with a brief introduction, an overview that sets the direction and tone of the work. There’s a bit of time-jumping in the chronology of this section, but bear with it. ‘Witch Hunts…‘ very soon settles into a detailed chronological telling of ‘The Burning Times’ (roughly 14th to 18th centuries) and beyond to the horrors still perpetrated around the world today.

A couple of things struck me about ‘Witch Hunts…’. Firstly, the obvious knowledge of the authors is there in every word. It was sort of amazing to me, as I read, to see how much history they’d encapsulated within such short bites. To distil all that information down to just a few words shows a real depth and understanding of the subject matter. Also, I felt I learnt more, retained more, and enjoyed it more than I ever have any history text-book. HWA President Rocky Wood and Bram Stoker Award winning author Lisa Morton really have to be congratulated on achieving such a feat.

Secondly, the artwork by Queensland author/illustrator Greg Chapman is spot on for the work. The style is not that of the modern ‘comic’ — all mood, bold blacks filling 80% of a panel — but much more what I remember from those old Illustrated Classics in the library — less chiaroscuro, more detail, more character. Again, as with the authors, the research that must have gone into each and everyone of Chapman’s illustrations is mind boggling. To be honest, I’m no expert on any of this stuff, but every page looks authentic. The clothing, the hairstyles, all the little objects in the background. They mesh perfectly with the narrative, really drawing you into the stories that Wood and Morton are telling.

The overall narrative is one we’re all familiar with through the culture of horror-literature and -cinema: that despicable period of inhumanity that began with the Spanish Inquisition and spread as Witch Hunts and Witch Trials throughout Europe and the New World. But Wood, Morton and Chapman take us beyond that; back to the religious and biblical origins of ‘Witchcraft’ as an evil and as a sin in the introduction, then later beyond the 18th Century. They also delve deeper. They offer up an onslaught of historical events and incidents. Grotesque images by Chapman. Individual things that happened to individual people, and these people had names. Sure, I’d sort of read and seen TV docos on the sort of things that the Catholic Church did in the 15th Century, or what occurred in Salem. But never before has this history been shown to me on such a personal level. As I said, these people had names, and now I know some of them. That has to bring anyone closer to history, doesn’t it? Gets you right in there, and you begin to really understand what these people went through. Isn’t that what learning history is all about?

That’s where ‘Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times‘ really worked for me. It showed me stories of real people. All the horror and the torment they went through and all the madness of the people who’d condemned them. It certainly is graphic — Chapman’s illustrations are often more uncompromisingly gruesome than the text — but it serves to show a truth about our past that we should not shy from. In light of some of the religious and political events happening around the world today, remembering that truth seems, to me, an especially important thing.

Ultimately, ‘Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times‘ is informative in a way few non-fiction works are, and it’s great-looking too! Definitely a worthwhile addition to any horror reader’s or writer’s library.