The River Kings’ Road: A Novel of Ithelas by Liane Merciel

rkr_cover Epic fantasy requires a writer to juggle complex plots where characterization often gets lost beneath politics and world-building. It’s rare to find a writer who can deliver intrigue, an exciting world, and well-rounded characters, but Liane Merciel succeeds beautifully with The River Kings’ Road.

Odosse is a young woman with only one wish: to make a good life for her infant son Aubry. Unfortunately, Odosse has neither husband, nor money, nor beauty to ease her way in life. When an Oakharne lord’s son is orphaned, Odosse is thrust into a conflict between the warring kingdoms of Oakharne and Langmyr, all for the sake of an infant not her own.

Merciel skillfully draws the reader into a dark story full of treachery and builds her world of Ithelas with care. In Ithelas, evil walks in the form of maimed witches known as Thorns. The Thorns’ powers can be bought for a price, and one act of violence purchased by Leferic, an Oakharne lord’s youngest son, sets off a chain reaction that soon spins out of his control.

The beauty of The River Kings’ Road rests with Merciel’s skillful portrayal of her characters and their motivations. Each action leads to a reaction so that the characters become intertwined in one another’s survival. Merciel guides the reader through her plot twists with enough sword and sorcery to satisfy the most hardened fan, but she also uses a dark edge that I’m glad to see returning to fantasy.

Merciel doesn’t rely on shock value for her horror. The Thorns’ zombies are unique and well done, and I found the plight of one of Leferic’s henchmen, Albric, to be particularly disturbing. Merciel probes the psyche and shows the reader how easy it is to fall into death and dishonor with one wrong choice.

My rating:

Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost

Writers workshop of horror So you want to be a horror writer . . .

Then you must first understand the genre and learn techniques from masters of the craft. The Writers Workshop of Horror places the expertise of some of horror’s finest authors at your fingertips, and Michael Knost has organized an informative collection of essays and interviews about the craft of writing tales of dread.

The Writers Workshop begins with Elizabeth Massie’s excellent piece on “Creating Effective Beginnings” and follows the process of crafting a short story or novel through Brian Yount’s “Ten Submission Flaws That Drive Editors Nuts.”

The essays aren’t dull, because each of the authors imbues his or her own special stamp on subjects ranging from voice to editing. Jeff Strand’s essay on “Adding Humor to Your Horror” was crafted with Strand’s wit, and I found myself enjoying his writing so much, I forgot he was teaching.

I was doubly delighted with both an essay and an interview with Ramsey Campbell. Mr. Campbell writes about rediscovering “awe and supernatural dread” with his essay “The Height of Fear.” Using such masters as Edgar Allan Poe, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, and other great authors, Campbell teaches the student of horror how to utilize prose to evoke sublime terror for the reader.

Michael Knost also interviews Mr. Campbell, giving him the opportunity to expound on the craft of writing horror. If Ramsey Campbell’s dark tales aren’t your speed, check out Gary Frank’s interview with F. Paul Wilson, who gives some nice tips about writing a series.

Tim Deal interviews Tom Piccirilli, who talks about the business of writing, and if you’re a Tom Piccirilli fan, you don’t want to miss Mr. Piccirilli’s essay on “Exploring Personal Themes.”

Lucy A. Snyder conducts an illuminating interview with Clive Barker where Mr. Barker discusses everything from collaborating on screenplays to his personal writing process.

The Writers Workshop was fun for me to read as a fan, because each author’s love of writing shined with his or her essay. While the Writers Workshop is about writing horror, the techniques and advice these ladies and gentlemen impart to the reader are applicable to all genres.

Good writing is good writing, and if you want to know how it’s done, listen to the masters.

My rating:

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale The Dragon sits on the fence about this one, my good Wild Things. I simply do not know, so I will render the tale as impartially as I can and let you decide:

Set in 1364, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the adventures of Manfried and Hegel Grossbart, two German grave robbers of dubious morals. They are as physically ugly as their dispositions and leave everyone worse for their passing. They have decided, these Grossbart Brothers, to journey to Gyptland where their grandfather allegedly disappeared while plundering the graves of Egypt’s kings.

In need of supplies for this great undertaking, Manfried and Hegel descend on the home of the turnip farmer Heinrich, who once injured both the Grossbarts when they were young. By page seven, the Brothers Grossbart have attacked Heinrich, murdered his wife and daughter with an ax, burned his two young children alive, and sliced the son’s throat.

This is but the beginning.

One quarter of the way through the novel, the I was hoping someone would come along and kill the Brothers, because I found them so vile. Eventually, I started giggling and glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. Midway through the book, I realized that even should someone come along and kill the Brothers, the Grossbarts would be too stupid to comprehend the meaning of their deaths. Three quarters of the way through the tale, I felt as bludgeoned as one of the Grossbarts’ victims. At page 400, I rediscovered religion and started praying for the end.

That the Dragon didn’t stop reading is a testament to Bullington’s prose, which is as dark as a fairy tale and suits the overall grim mood of the Grossbart story. The journey through the mountains and the encounters with the witches and demons were excellent. Bullington’s characters were well rendered, but there is no humanity in this novel. The world Bullington shows us is so ugly, it’s practically a caricature.

Only in one scene does Bullington give us a brief glimpse into Hegel when the Grossbart kills a young girl, who is mourning another dead child in the street. In a barely perceptible flash, Hegel hesitates as if he regrets the action he must take. Yet he finishes his gruesome task and justifies it as the Virgin’s will.

Neither brother has the least difficulty justifying their acts of violence or hate in this amoral fable. Religion is mocked and manipulated by cardinal, serf, and noble; violence permeates every aspect of life; and no bodily fluids are sacred. The Brothers cruise through Europe wrecking havoc, yet they always emerge emotionally unscathed.

The Brothers’ ability to rationalize their every act to themselves is why I believe the ending wasn’t as satisfying to me as it could have been. There was no catharsis when I was done. However, when I evaluate Bullington’s tale, I’m hard put to find an alternative ending that would have been satisfying to me. Hence my ambivalence about the novel as a whole.

Bullington’s research is impeccable, and his pacing keeps the reader engaged. Be forewarned, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart lives up to the disclaimer on the back of the novel, which cautions that the book contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence. The fight scenes (and there are many) are extremely graphic, and the retching references become so numerous, they’re almost comical by the end.

So I will give my subjective rating; however, I would be most interested to hear what others may have to say about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

My rating:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places The Dragon loves horror and things that bump the night, but the greatest horror is often revealed in our souls. Gillian Flynn pries into those Dark Places with finesse in this black mystery surrounding a family’s destruction.

When she was seven-years-old, Libby Day survived “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” by fleeing the carnage in her house to hide in the January snow. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and Libby, as the sole witness, testified that her brother, Ben, was the killer.

Twenty-five years later, Libby is approached by members of the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with solving notorious crimes. Members of the Kill Club believe Ben is innocent, but Libby isn’t interested in her brother’s exoneration until she finds herself out of money. For a fee, she offers to be the Club’s liaison and talk with persons of interest who might have been motivated to kill her family.

Gillian Flynn has a direct line to a woman’s black heart and she exhibits great skill as she plunges you into Libby’s tale. There is little that is likable about Libby Day, but somewhere though the pages, she starts to change. Flynn makes the transition so gradual, no word or sentence triggers the moment, but Libby becomes less despicable as she progresses from the destruction of her past toward the truth she once shunned.

Flynn strips away the veneer of polite society to show the people who live beneath everyone’s notice. Here are the farmers and families who were sucked beneath the undertow of predatory bank lending during the 1980’s farm crisis. Flynn shows us that sensationalist headlines often obscure ordinary events surrounding people whose lives simply skid out of control. This is middle America where a good beginning doesn’t equate a happy ending, and a bad beginning can sometimes bloom into a new life.

Dark Places is a riveting tale told with Flynn’s talent for the macabre and caustic wit and is the perfect read for a cold October night.

My rating:

Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe

Burn Me Deadly HC

The Dragon was so enthralled by The Sword-Edged Blonde, she couldn’t resist another trip to Neceda, and it was a journey well worth taking.

So come with me, my Wild Things, for here there be dragons.

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey for hire. For a fee he investigates missing persons, domestic indiscretions, and murder most foul. A good thing, because the case Eddie takes on in Burn Me Deadly is personal.

Eddie is returning from a routine job late one night when a beautiful woman begs him to help her. Against his better judgment, he agrees to escort her safely to Neceda, but before they reach the city, they are waylaid by unknown assailants. Eddie is left for dead beside the girl’s mutilated body in a secluded ravine.

Of course, Eddie isn’t going to let this slide. With no other clue than the intricate dragon design on his assailant’s boots, Eddie is soon searching Neceda’s wild streets to find the girl’s killers. Legends are involved, tales of dragons that burned through the skies and were worshipped as gods, but this is Neceda where nothing is ever as it seems.

Alex Bledsoe treats us to another adventure where he blends hardboiled detective fiction with heroic fantasy and somehow makes it all come together. Here there be dragons and their worshippers, gangsters, and murder for hire, yet Bledsoe infuses his world with a sense of realism through Eddie’s pragmatic observations.

Bledsoe ups the ante by bringing much needed adult observations and maturity to the fantasy genre. Yet Burn Me Deadly is neither stodgy nor plodding; this novel is a breathless run through the violent streets of Neceda. Younger readers will enjoy the fast-paced action while enthusiasts such as the Dragon will pleasure in Bledsoe’s nuanced story-telling.

With a deserved starred review from Publishers Weekly, Burn Me Deadly will be released on November 10, 2009. While you’re waiting, Alex Bledsoe shares what he learned about dragons and dragon cults with his research At the Fiery Altar: The Dragon Cult of Burn Me Deadly.

Go on, my Wild Things, go back to Neceda. You can tell them the Dragon sent you.

My rating:

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

Sword Edged Blonde Oh my dear, Wild Things, this novel made the old Dragon dance for joy. Yes indeedy, that was a sight. Long has she loved the mystery and fantasy genres, so she salutes Alex Bledsoe, who has combined two great genres and entertains us with a story that is simultaneously wicked funny and dark as a devil’s soul.

Gather close . . .

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey, a sword for hire, who understands the need for discretion. A routine case becomes extraordinary when Eddie is summoned by the King of Arentia to solve the murder of the royal heir. Queen Rhiannon has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and King Philip wants Eddie to find the truth, but the truth follows a winding path into an underworld of gangsters and corruption.

This is Philip Marlowe meets Thieves World, and Alex Bledsoe mixes the mystery/fantasy genres with savage grace. Bledsoe segues from Eddie’s past to his present so two tales intertwine with style, and while the plot is labyrinthine, Bledsoe’s clear prose and dynamic pacing keeps the story moving.

The characters are real with heartbreaking betrayals, and the dialogue snaps. While there were light moments that made me laugh out loud, there is nothing frivolous about this dark tale. Eddie’s encounter with the goddess, Epona, was written with a nightmare quality worthy of any horror novel, and a macabre limerick that forms a clue never leaves your mind. Bledsoe ties his clues together neatly at the end without being trite, treating the reader to one ah-ha moment after another.

Finally, I am delighted to find a fantasy for adults who seek substance over fluff! I’ll be watching for more of Alex Bledsoe and so should you.

My rating:

Martyrs & Monsters by Robert Dunbar

Martyrs & Monsters Come close, Wild Things – not too close, the Dragon has been known to bite – but do venture in, because she has a treat for you today. The Dragon never would have found this exquisite collection of Robert Dunbar’s short stories had this book not been recommended to her. Now the Dragon recommends it to you, because we all love to be frightened and we all love to love.

Robert Dunbar gives you the best of both worlds by bringing together fourteen stories with the unified themes of love and loss intertwined with the macabre. Relationships have many realities, and Dunbar manipulates those realities with skill to explore the darkest regions of love. The result is a collection of stories that you will want to savor again and again.

Reviewing any anthology is difficult, because I have to pick and choose which stories to highlight. If I had to choose my favorite example of Dunbar’s talent for distorting reality, I would tell you to read “Like a Story.” Young Kurt and his hero-worshipping follower, Max, are off to kill a monster. This is Bradbury gone terribly, terribly wrong. Dunbar’s prose pulled me so deep into these boys’ adventure that my heart was pounding by the end.

“Gray Soil” is vampires done right, gritty and dark, as a mother protects and nourishes her children even unto death. “Red Soil” continues the theme of familial love with the story of a young man who valiantly tries to save his sister’s life. Yet the crown jewel in this collection (for the Dragon, anyway) was “Mal de Mer.” Here is the tale of a woman slowly becoming unraveled, helpless before the loneliness ravaging her life.

Yet in all this Lovecraftian madness, Dunbar never loses sight of his characters’ humanity. This is dark fiction with a soul that will make you think about the characters and their moral dilemmas long after you put these tales aside.  Sometimes funny, more often poignant, and ever haunting, the Dragon found the stories in Martyrs & Monsters are worth reading again and again.

And so shall you.

My rating:

Twelve by Jasper Kent

Twelve Voordalak, voordalak, voordalak . . . ah, yes! Vampire. Hmm, even the Dragon is getting a little burned out on the vampire spin, but at least Kent does vampires right in his debut novel, Twelve.

The Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte is poised on Moscow’s doorstep in the autumn of 1812. In a desperate bid to stop the French, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki. The Oprichniki are twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe, each is named for one of Christ’s disciples, including the enigmatic Iuda. The Oprichniki promise they can stop the Russian advance with their unorthodox guerrilla warfare, and Aleksei and his comrades are desperate enough to accept their help.

Kent does an excellent job of writing about this period of the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russian. The historical aspects of the novel never overshadow or supersede Aleksei’s story, but instead enhance the supernatural portions of the tale to lend believability to the overall novel.

The vampires are not sparkly teenage stalking caricatures of young adult novels, but creatures of blood with a lust for killing. The entire novel is well written and accurate in both history and legend.

So why is the Dragon ambivalent about this novel?

Aleksei was a likeable character, all of Kent’s characters were well drawn, including Iuda. I certainly enjoyed the story; and I positively loved the historical setting of the novel. The sub-plot concerning Aleksei and Domnikiia never interested me, and I had difficulty believing there was actually anything between the pair other than lust. Aleksei proclaimed love, but his adoration was never accompanied by action. At one point, he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, so I didn’t buy into his angst over her well-being.

This is highly subjective, but I would have enjoyed Twelve better as a war story that focused on Aleksei, Maksim, Dmitry, Vadim, and their war against the French, then the Oprichniki. I would have liked to have seen a more focused approach on these four men and their betrayals without all the pretensions to romance with Domnikiia.

There was more than one occasion where I felt the scenes were ponderous with information. The plot and Aleksei’s thought processes were so meticulously detailed in some passages that Kent lost the emotion of the prose in lieu of an almost technical rendition of the facts.

In spite of this, Kent’s prose did have a very comfortable feel so that the novel’s defects did not prevent me from enjoying Twelve. I think that Twelve is well worth the read, and I will certainly look forward to Kent’s next novel.

My rating:

The Gentling Box by Lisa Mannetti

The Gentling BoxOh my Wild Things, come close, come close; the Dragon has a treasure for you.  I remember now what it is to be afraid . . .

It is the mid-nineteenth century, but the Age of Enlightenment has bypassed Hungary and Romania’s itinerant gypsy population.  Imre is a half-gypsy horse trader who lives with his wife and daughter in Hungary, but their happy existence is shattered when they receive word that his wife’s mother, the sorceress Anyeta, is dying.  Mimi insists they go to Romania to ease her mother’s final days and against his better judgment, Imre agrees to make the journey with his wife and young daughter, Lenore.

By the time they arrive, Anyeta’s body is dead, but the old sorceress’ spirit has taken possession of another woman’s body.  Anyeta contrives to seduce Imre from his family so she can destroy him.  Anyeta has plans for Imre and Mimi’s beloved daughter, Lenore.  Imre can stop the sorceress, but first he must overcome his own terror of using the gentling box.

Imre’s haunting tale grabs the reader by the eyeballs from page one and does not let go. In spite of his best efforts, Imre watches everything he loves slip away, and his struggle with his conscience is heartbreaking. Mannetti weaves Imre’s story with skill and her dark prose evokes the wild loneliness of the Romanian wilderness where Imre’s small family struggles against Anyeta’s evil.

I was delighted by the accuracy of Mannetti’s research both into Romany culture and the time period.  Mannetti recently won the Bram Stoker Award for first novel with The Gentling Box, and it is an honor that is richly deserved.

I warn you now: let no one disturb you when you read this novel, because you will not want to stop until you have devoured the last word.  I could not put The Gentling Box down and neither shall you.

Tshailo sim.”

I am replete . . . (hehe)

My rating:

The Mysterious Life of the Heart edited by Sy Safransky

Very few books have captivated me like The Mysterious Life of the Heart: Writing from The Sun about Passion, Longing, and Love.  In this anthology, The Sun Magazine has brought together previously published essays, poetry, and short stories that probes love in all its various guises for a journey replete with ecstasy, heartbreak, and all the moments in between.  This is a cerebral, accessible examination of the erotic, eviscerating effects of love on the body and the soul. 

A few of the highlights include the essay “Bleeding Dharma” by Stephen T. Butterfield where Butterfield honestly explores his feelings of grief when his wife walks out on him on their anniversary.  It is a brutal examination of the extraction of love and the horror of betrayal.  Butterfield masterfully walks the reader through the conflicting, bitter emotions that flay the spouse who is left to behind in the wake of an affair.

A direct counterpoint is presented in the short story, “Ten Things” by Leslie Pietrzyk, who writes of a woman whose husband has died young.  Pietrzyk’s character examines the subtle, powerful ways in which she knew her husband loved her.  Suniti Landgé writes an erotic short story of longing and infidelity of the heart and mind in her short story, “Small Things.”

Although every essay, poem, and short story in this anthology encapsulates moments of love, it is North Carolina author, Krista Bremer’s essay “My Accidental Jihad” that, to me, exemplifies marriage and love with its message of tolerance and mutual understanding.  Bremer shares her conflicting feelings of watching her husband, Ismail, undertake his month-long fast for Ramadan.  Bremer best describes their differences of religion when she contrasts Ismail’s God as “the old-fashioned kind, omnipresent and stern, uncompromising with his demands” with her more tolerant version of God, who “is a flamboyant and fickle friend with biting wit who likes a good party.”

However, as Ramadan progresses, Bremer contemplates the meaning behind the ritual as she watches Ismail’s strict observance of the fast.  He teaches her that the “greatest jihad . . . of our lives is not the one that takes place on a battlefield, but the one that takes place within our hearts,” and Bremer faces her own intolerance and self-absorption.  She is an excellent student of life, because by watching him, she looks inward to herself and incorporates the meaning of his fast to herself and their marriage.  She wonders: “Is love an endless feast, or is it what people manage to serve each other when their cupboards are bare?”

There is nothing superficial about this anthology nor are these writings so erudite as to be elitist.  You can read them to yourself, read them to your lover but if ever you have loved or been loved, then read them you must.  I have spoken many times about looking deeply into the world around us, and the writers showcased in The Mysterious Life of the Heart do just that.

My Rating: