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 [http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/]. 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.
Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Paperback: 332 pages
Publisher: Redrum Horror (June 30, 2012)
Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Black & Orange (2010), has a new tome – Bottled Abyss - that will no doubt earn him a second bronze haunted castle statue next year.
Bottled Abyss takes on the well-worn trope of exploring the meaning of life and death and binds it to classical myth, namely the legend of the Ferryman. But instead of focussing on the myth or blatantly trying to re-invent it (although he does twist it into fresher territory), Ethridge poses the question of “if you had the power of death, how would you wield it?”
Ethridge masterfully touches on themes of grief, loss and redemption through each of the main characters, but primarily via Herman and Janet Erikson, whose marriage is in turmoil after the tragic death of their daughter Melody when she was hit by a car driven by criminals.
Since her death, Janet has resorted to drinking heavily and distanced herself from the world. The tale enters supernatural territory when Herman goes looking for their missing dog and finds it near death. A strange man with an oar-like cane saves the dog by letting it drink from an equally strange bottle. The dog coughs up a coin and a price must be paid to a gargantuan beast from the depths of the River Styx.
And so begins the cycle of a “death-for-a-death”.
The beast, known as The Fury, is probably one of the most horrific monsters I’ve ever come across in horror fiction and it was fantastic to see a creature that wasn’t your oh-so-common shambling zombie!
Temptation also plays a big part in the plot as Janet and Herman come into possession of the bottle and realise its power. A single drop of the waters from the River Styx is enough to conjure a coin from anyone and summon the beast and Janet suddenly has eyes for the man who took her daughter’s life.
Without giving too much more of the plot away, the character viewpoints are constantly shifting from Janet and Herman and their friends, married couple Evan and Faye, and we even get to go inside the heads of the people who have the misfortune of coming into the contact with the waters and face-to-face with the Fury.
This may irk some readers, but I found it enthralling as I got to know more about each character through their interactions with the bottle.
Ultimately the story is about choice as well and its repercussions, with Janet and the others falling victim themselves to the bottle’s promise of salvation and like with any Hell of any mythology, the chance of escape is unlikely.
The suspense, characterisation and plot of Bottled Abyss will definitely grab you by the throat and hold you until the final page, dragging you deep into the cold waters of the River Styx. So get yourself a copy and dive in because you won’t forget this journey anytime soon!
The Author provided a copy for review.
Review by Greg Chapman
Steven P. Unger has been a traveler and writer from the time he learned to type with two fingers on a manual typewriter in the basement of his parents’ house in Ferndale, Michigan. He still travels, writes and types with two fingers.
Worldwide fascination with Dracula, like the bloodthirsty Count himself, will never die. Completed and comprising approximately 35,000 words and 185 photographs, In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is the first and only book to include … pictures and descriptions, in memoir form, of every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or his historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler.
It’s not often that, as a reviewer of dark fiction, I get the chance to review a travel guide. Even less often do I enjoy reading travel guides at all. In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is most certainly an exception.
Almost equal parts memoir, travel guide, history lesson, and an examination of fact and fiction (most particularly the Dracula myth), author Steven P. Unger weaves us effortlessly through the various styles. One minute you’re with him, standing on the fabled Borgo Pass, and the next you’re fascinated by the area’s historical links (or lack thereof) with Bram Stoker’s most famous novel.
Unger’s travels focus only on places mentioned or verified as inspiring the fictional Dracula, or those of the historical Vlad Tepes. In this way, he avoids most of the more ‘kitschy’ tourists haunts that have been created in the novel’s wake. Instead, his destinations include the less gaudy, but so much more interesting, Whitby Abbey (the real Carfax Abbey), Poienari (the real Castle Dracula), and the Reading Room of the British Museum. It is in these places that Unger discovers links between Dracula and Vlad Tepes that even Bram Stoker had no prior knowledge of.
The text is well broken up by an abundance of photographs too. Evocative images of bleak Romanian landscapes and abandoned abbeys do much to help keep you engrossed in the words. My only disappointment while reading was that all of the pictures are black and white. Sometimes I’d turn a page and just wish an image was in colour – it is a minor and selfish quibble, and does more to reflect the good choice and placement of photos than any real deficiency with the book.
Overall, the tone of the writing is never dry or overly academic. Unger sucessfully conveys his own wonder and disappointment at the places he visits, and his investigations into their legitimacy as part of Dracula folk-lore are always full of surprises.
The final section of the book, ‘Part V – Nuts and Bolts: A Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail‘, somewhat dispenses with the memoir and historical portions of the narrative. Instead, it focusses on the practicality of following Unger’s journey. This section of the book – a collection of travel tips on topics including: money, security, public transport, food and accomodation costs, and health – will prove indispensable to those who wish to visit the places that inspired Stoker’s Dracula.
I don’t plan on going anywhere far, but nevertheless, I found this book fascinating. There were so many ‘I didn’t know that!’ moments. And Unger’s own personal fascination with the history (fact or fiction) behind Dracula’s origins was certainly infectious enough to make it feel like I was there with him.
In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is a book I very much enjoyed reading, and even if you’re not a traveller, it certainly should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the origins and ispirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Darkness On the Edge of Town
Author: Jessie Cole
Publisher: Fourth Estate – HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780732293192 (pbk.)/9780730493853 (ebk)
Published: July, 2012
Jessie Cole was born in 1977 and grew up in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales. In 2009 she was awarded a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development, and her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and the Big Issue. Nowadays, she lives in her childhood home with her two sons.
My dad, he collects broken things…
Where other people see junk he sees potential…
My dad collects broken people too…
Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.
When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s bush home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.
By the time I’d finished reading Varuna Award winning Jessie Cole’s first novel, Darkness On the Edge of Town, I still really had no idea why it had been titled after a 1978 Bruce Springsteen album. Yeah, sure, there are some goings on at the edge of town, but its not really a Darkness.
Maybe it was that title, coupled with the front cover quote from Robert Drewe – ‘So frighteningly real, it grabs you and shakes you.‘ – and the lines in the back cover blurb about a ‘haunting tale‘ and ‘gripping and unrelenting tension‘ and its ‘disturbing yet tender observations‘, that had my expectations going but I didn’t find the novel particularly dark, haunting, unrelenting or disturbing.
If you can put the misdirected marketing aside though, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a very good first novel.
Set in and around a rural town the novel opens with Vincent, late thirties, single dad, driving home from the pub. As he rounds the final bend to his house, he comes across an overturned car. Lights still shining and engine running. At the side of the road squats a girl, looking “kind of crumpled and broken“. In her arms she holds a baby. “Its body was limp, its eyes closed.”
It is the appearance of this girl, Rachel, into the lives of Vincent and his sixteen year old daughter Gemma, that drives everything to come in the novel.
The story is told from the alternating first person accounts of Vincent and Gemma. Vincent’s chapters are written in a simple, almost ordinary, prose and this very much sums up the nature of Vincent himself. Unfortunately, Gemma’s voice is very similiar and I couldn’t find much to distinguish them. There is a gentle poetry to this simplicity of no-nonsense prose though, and it keeps you turning the pages.
Another thing that keeps you turning the pages is the building of various tensions. Vincent’s need to help Rachel and bring her into his house has ramifications for just about everyone in the small town. From his daughter Gemma, just turned sixteen, and how this new, damaged, house guest changes her view on her own relationships; with her father and with her potential boyfriend. Threats and jealous ravings from Vincent’s ‘current’ girlfriend Marie. The gossip that fills the town. And Vincent’s own quickness to anger, his innner turmoils questioning the morals of his decision to allow Rachel to stay at their house, and indeed, to sleep in his bed.
There’s a constant thread of the ‘threat of violence’ throughout Darkness On the Edge of Town, too. It is another one of those tensions, probably the major theme, and the author makes a concerted effort to crank it up towards the end. Unfortunate then, that I can’t say it ever really pays off. The climactic scenes seem as constrained as the rest of the prose and fail to lead to the promises of the title, the blurb, or even the story itself.
Overall, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a well written novel. I read it quickly, and effortlessly, and at no point did I want to put it down. But it never seems to address its themes in any real depth, or at least not enough to make me really feel for any of the characters. What they go through over the course of the story you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but for me the author failed to fully convey that. Which was a shame, because after everything that happened to Vincent and Gemma and Rachel, I really did want to feel something for them.
Marius don Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.
And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
Lee Battersby is one of Australia’s leading speculative fiction authors with more than 70 short stories published across the globe. He’s also been at the helm of many of magazines as editor, including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Midnight Echo, so he definitely knows what makes a great story.
His first novel, The Corpse-Rat King is the very definition of a great story; the perfect concoction of old world fantasy, intrigue, adventure and full-bodied characters that sweep you deeper into the story with each turn of the page.
I’m not an avid reader of fantasy books, but when I was presented with the opportunity to “beta-read” (sort of an advanced-advanced reader copy) I jumped at the chance simply because I knew it was Battersby. I’m glad I jumped.
The Corpse-Rat King centres on Marius Helles, a man who has made a living out of pillaging riches from fallen soldiers on battlefields throughout the war-torn realm of Scorby. But all that changes when Marius’ young apprentice is run through by a pair of soldiers who catch him the act. Instead of going to his charge’s aid, Marius plays dead amongst the other corpses and this act of cowardice brings Marius to their attention. The dead, mistakenly believing he is their king, issue a decree that Marius must deliver unto them a king and, to make sure that he does, they turn him into one of the living dead and so begins his quest.
From there, Battersby uses his exemplary world-building prowess to place us alongside Marius as he journeys across the kingdom in search of the seemingly impossible. With each step, we see Marius slowly realising his failures and flaws in life and his efforts to reconcile with the people he did wrong. If anything, Marius’s quest is secondary to the main plot, which is Marius coming to terms with the type of man he was in the past.
The realm of Scorby is a character in itself with Batterbsy offering the reader a richly detailed history of its kings, mythology, temples and taverns. While not as epic as Middle Earth (and it doesn’t pretend to be), it’s certainly a very realistic and memorable landscape.
But there are many good doses of adventure to be had in this novel. Some of my favourite scenes include Marius competing in a very unique and dangerous poker-style game in order to secure funds for a place on a boat and an underwater (yes underwater) meeting with a long dead, but still very mad, king and his favourite and also, long-dead horse. Batterbsy also adds a pinch of tongue-in-cheek humour to the mix, which only serves to make us sympathise with Marius even more.
The Corpse-Rat King is intended to be the first in a series of books and given the apparent finality of the ending, it will be very interesting to see where Battersby’s plans to take us with book two.
Lee Battersby is one of those writers which writers aspire to and with The Corpse-Rat King he has once again cemented that reputation. Highly Recommended.
- review by Greg Chapman
Editor: Lincoln Crisler
Publisher: Damnation Books
ISBN: 978-1-61572614–1 (eBook)
Published: 13th April, 2012
Corrupts Absolutely? collects twenty brand-new stories from veteran authors and newcomers, each with a unique perspective on what it might really be like to be superhuman in today’s day and age. In the center of such a roiling mass of uncertainty and excitement lies one important truth: the fight against good or evil is never as important as the fight for or against oneself.
Given I was raised on comic book superheroes like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, The Teen Titans and others, the meta-human fiction anthology Corrupts Absolutely? was always going to have instant appeal for me.
Edited by dark fiction author Lincoln Crisler, Corrupts Absolutely? Sets out to take comic book heroes beyond the confining rectangular borders of comic pages into a prose format and, when taken as a whole, the stories pack as much punch as The Incredible Hulk on a bad day.
Borrowing from some of the more adult comics and graphic novels of the 1980’s, like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, the heroes (and villains) in these 20 tales are as human as the rest of us, with troubled pasts, crises of conscience and revenge on the mind. The theme of the anthology centres on how power can corrupt and each story rides that theme like a speeding bullet into catastrophe (ok enough of the metaphors).
From the very first tale – Tim Marquitz’s “Retribution” about a nuclear-powered man who exacts explosive revenge on a Middle Eastern village on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks – you know immediately that the interpretation of what is a “hero” in this volume, will ride a very thin grey line indeed.
In my view, the strongest tales are in the first half of the book. Bram Stoker Award-winning author Weston Ochse’s piece “Hollywood Villains”, about a young man who can make anyone do anything not only forces you to sympathise with the villain as he psychically torments some of Hollywood’s more unsavoury characters, but makes you feel that his victims deserved it.
Jeff Strand’s “The Origin of Slashy” focuses on the victim of a rape who decides to become a vigilante and kill men with sex on their mind. The matter-of-factness of Strand’s writing adds considerable impact and there’s certainly no hero in sight in his story.
Edward M. Erdelac’s “Conviction” is a fantastic gangsta style tale about a young man trying to distance himself from the wrong people, only to be pulled back in. Erdelac captures the language and character of Abassi exceptionally well and provides imagery that lasts well after the final sentence.
Other standouts included the darkly atmospheric “Mental Man” by William Todd Rose, Joe McKinney’s “Hero”, “Crooked” by Lee Mather, “Acquainted with the Night” by Cat Rambo and “Max and Rose” by Andrew Bourelle. “Gone Rogue” by Wayne Helge, a humorous tale that reminded me of the film Mystery Men was a welcome addition to break up all the angst.
The only downside to the anthology was that there were possibly a few too many stories that reminded me of a certain rich billionaire with a mechanised suit.
All in all, Corrupts Absolutely? was a great escape, providing very interesting pastiches of heroes and villains. Hopefully Mr Crisler might consider putting together a second volume in the not too distant future?
- review by Greg Chapman