Wednesday, March 20, 2019


When Games Workshop hurled Warhammer Fantasy millennia into the future, into the Age of Sigmar, the controversial decision closed the book on one of the most beloved heroic fantasy series in recent memory. Dwarven Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson’s search for a heroic death on the battlefield ended in cataclysm—without his death or the epic song promised by his Remember and companion, Felix Jaeger. Or so we thought.
For, many thousands of year after the world split into the eight Mortal Realms, Gotrek returns in Realmslayer, an audio drama written by David Guymer. For the first time in his adventures, the Slayer wanders the world without his ever-present companion, Felix. Gotrek mourns his lost human friend, long dead in the millennia since the cataclysm of the End Times. But when Gotrek learns of the Stormcast Eternals, human heroes plucked from the very moment of death by the god Sigmar to serve in his war against Chaos, the Slayer sets out in search of Felix. For no man known to Gotrek Gurnisson was more heroic than Felix Jaeger.
Gotrek’s search carries him through the Realm of Fire, into a conflagration of dwarves obsessed with fire and gold; Chaos cultists, rival princes scheming for thrones, a dwarfen loremaster who thinks Gotrek is the dwarfen god returned, a dark elf assassin, and the endless schemes of the Chaos God Tzeench. To get to the nearest chamber of Sigmar’s immortal heroes, Gotrek will have to do what he does best—hack a path through the servants of Chaos.
Games Workshop’s Black Library pulled out all the stops for Gotrek’s return, hiring Brian Blessed to voice the Slayer. A veteran of Shakespeare, Disney, I, ClaudiusFlash Gordon, and Star Wars, Blessed’s boisterous and booming voice is perhaps the only voice more dwarven than John Rhys-Davies portrayal of Gimili in The Lord of the Rings. As a result, Gotrek in the audio drama matches the larger-than-life portrayal found in the books. Yet Blessed’ restraint keeps Gotrek’s grumbling, grudges, and exuberance from falling into parody or hamminess. Realmslayer is worth a listen for Blessed alone.
With such an overwhelming presence in the cast, care must be taken by the other actors to not be overshadowed. In Realmslayer, the supporting cast stepped up to the challenge of sharing the stage with Blessed. Even the bit players fill their roles with sincerity and enthusiasm, without the ironic detachment expected of modern fantastic and geek-friendly performances. Particular standouts are the Joe Shire as the African-inspired Prince Jordain of Edassa and Penelope Rawlins as the waspish dark elf assassin Maleneth.
But a cast can only be as good as the script, and David Guymer’s script for Realmslayer is average at best. Sure, heroic moments abound, full of bloodlust and grim resolve—and plenty of opportunities for Blessed and Shire to bellow rousing speeches in the face of Chaos monsters. However, Guymer has been leading the transition away from Gotrek and Felix as Warhammer’s answer to Fafhrd and the Gary Mouser, instead recasting the heroes in the mold of epic fantasy, much to the series’ detriment. This process continues in Realmslayer, with the opportunity to reforge Gotrek into the Age of Sigmar mold. As a result, Gotrek spends much of the story as a fish out of water, completely alien to the new setting. This does allow a convenient entry point for newcomers to the tangled lore of Age of Sigmar and the Mortal Realms.
However, Gotrek is also used as an audience surrogate in a more meta manner. Age of Sigmar is still controversial in Warhammer circles, as it shattered a beloved fantasy version of Earth. As a result of the new setting—and Games Workshop’s search for more marketable and copyrightable terms than elves and dwarves—many of the once familiar elements of the original Warhammer Fantasy have been clad in new, unfamiliar names and terms. Gotrek spends much of Realmslayer grousing about the changes between the World-that-Was and the current Age, with the Age of Sigmar often found wanting. To the newcomer, Gotrek may come across as a surly oldtimer who prefers the world back in his day. To those more familiar with the Age of Sigmar debates, Gotrek echoes many a complaint against the new setting and game. Although used for levity or character building, these complaints are never dismissed or belittled in story, showing a rare level of respect to fans not present in many franchises.
Realmslayer is an enjoyable audiodrama carried by the performances of its cast. Like all things Warhammer, the audiobook is expensive at full price, but it is well worth an Audible credit.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Sword" and "Shield"

The Sword of Kaigen, by M. L. Wang, is one of the most ambitious fantasies of the year, which in turns, becomes the novel’s main strength and weakness. Grounded heavily in the school of fantasy that depicts historical Earth cultures in new settings, clothes, and names, Sword draws upon meticulous research of feudal Japan and West Africa to create a living world where a traditional warrior village comes under attack from its historical foe and modernity itself.
Two members of the Matsuda clan struggle with their standing in the village. Teen-aged Mamoru must learn to live up to his famous warrior father’s legacy while reconciling the romance of his duty with the uglier truth. Meanwhile, his mother Misaki tries to live up to the expectations of a warrior’s wife, even though her heart remembers her wilder and freer youth. As if to echo the storm in their hearts, invaders call a magical storm down on the village, and both Mamoru and Misaki must put aside their concerns to ensure the village survives long enough for the Emperor’s airplanes to drive away the foes. The ensuing character study and prolonged clash between magically-empowered samurai and Chinese-style magic-cultivating martial artists offer insight to each other without disrupting the frantic flow of battle. The result is one of the most impressive set pieces in recent fantasy that should not be missed by japonisme and action enthusiasts.
However, ambition begins to unravel the spell Sword weaves. The heavily historical worldbuilding requires frequent usage of the glossary to learn the meaning of terms that should be explained in the text, either explicitly or through context. What good is such an immersive setting if the reader has to pull away on a regular basis just to understand what is happening? Also, The Sword of Kaigen is a prequel to Wang’s Theonite series and tries to be three books at once. The story is keenest when it follows Mamoru’s struggles with warrior duties and expectations as they carry him into battle. The longest thread is Misaki’s character study as a mother struggling between the demands of her station and her spirit, only to find that neglecting one is to neglect both. Remarkably, given our times, Misaki never casts away tradition to follow her heart, but seeks ways to satisfy the demands of both. However, the time setting up Misaki’s childhood flame’s involvement in the main Theonite books becomes an unwelcome intrusion that only adds length to an already heavy tome. These science-fantasy and super-hero passages lack the vivid verisimilitude of those spent on the Japanese-inspired country of Kaigen, and are often at jarring odds with the rest of the book. Worse still, this heavy lifting for the main series extends the novel well beyond its natural and satisfying denouement. The Sword of Kaigen desperately needs an editor, not to make it readable, but to refine excellence into greatness.
That said, I still recommend it for the verisimilitude of the Japanese setting, the character studies, and the jaw-dropping battle.

The thirteenth volume of Aneko Yusagi’s Rising of the Shield Hero continues the adventures of the controversial hero. Naofumi Iwatani, the Shield Hero of the title, is an anti-hero summoned into a Dragon Quest-inspired blue-slime fantasy world from Japan. But it is not Naofumi’s often distasteful actions that have garnered the controversy, but the event that embittered him. For within days of his summoning to his new fantasy home, the princess of the realm falsely accuses him of rape. With his reputation sullied and dodging all the kicks he could ever want from the people he is supposed to protect, Naofumi is forced to rely on unsavory and immoral methods to keep himself alive long enough to face down the waves of monsters threatening the land. And, perhaps at the end of it all, go back home to Japan.
Over the preceding twelve volumes, Naofumi has managed to scrape together a handful of companions, clear his name but not his reputation, and knock enough sense into the Spear, Sword, and Bow Heroes to get them to stop treating this isekai portal fantasy world as a video game. But when a neighboring country continues to send assassins after Raphtalia, the Shield Hero’s trusted companion–for admittedly minuscule levels of trust, Naofumi decides to travel to its capital to put his foot down. There, the Shield Hero finds that the government freely welcomes his arrival–as an excuse to kick off a war. Now, to save Raphtalia and the citizens of this new land, Naofumi must overthrow the nobility before war and the next wave of monsters arrive.
Like KonosubaRising of the Shield Hero is a genre-savvy take on the saturated portal fantasy sub-genre. Instead of humor, Yusagi chooses a more realistic approach, exposing flaws in many isekai tropes, including slavery. Rather than soak Naofumi in unearned adulation, he receives unearned scorn, and the infinite blessings of most isekai heroes are now curses. Although Rising of the Shield Hero is billed as a revenge fantasy, it is instead the story of a spiteful man trying not to give in to his rage as he still tries to do the right thing, even as he is too damaged to do it in the right way. The result brings restraint and actual moral complexity to what would otherwise be a standard power fantasy.
At thirteen volumes, the plot is starting to meander a bit. Naofumi’s confrontation with the power-mad noble who wants Raphtalia dead lingers for too long and could have been condensed into a shorter, quicker tale. Which is a shame, as the translations are excellent, with an ear and an eye to English readability instead of the often confusing line-by-line translations that are the standard for light novels. A reader can actually tell which character is saying what line of dialogue, which makes Rising of the Shield Hero an excellent introduction into Japanese light novels. Provided the reader can excuse Wheel of Time-style traveling fantasies and frequent diversions from the main plot.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Manly Wade Wellman's Last Dangerous Vision

Campbell, Burroughs, and now Wellman, 2019 has been quite the year for rediscovering unpublished works.

(H/t: Adventures Fantastic)
Haffner Press is pleased to announce the upcoming release of an unpublished story by Manly Wade Wellman. Originally commissioned for the never released anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, “Not All a Dream”opens with poet/politician Lord Byron (1788-1824) musing over the status of his literary canon in years to come. Admiring the lasting legacy of John Milton, Byron accepts an offer to learn the truce place of his works in centuries hence—a nightmare vision gained by traveling into a dangerous future . . . 
How can you get a copy of this story? Well, if you’ve placed a preorder for Manly Wade Wellman’s two-volume omnibus THE COMPLETE JOHN THE BALLADEER, then you’re already set to receive it! (Congratulations, you wise, prescient reader!) 
Otherwise, you have between now and the release of THE COMPLETE JOHN THE BALLADEER on October 31, 2019 at the World Fantasy Convention in Los Angeles to place a preorder and receive “Not All a Dream” as an exclusive 32-page chapbook at no additional charge.
$90 for a two-volume limited edition hardcover set featuring the short story collection "Who Fears the Devil?" and five novels. While I wish Manly Wade Wellman's works were not limited to special editions these days, and far more accessible to readers, this is not a collection to pass up on.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Amazon Age

Brian Niemeier uses one of my tweets as a springboard into a fascinating look behind the scenes of his latest novel launch for Combat Frame XSeed:
Amazon, on the other hand, did not deliver the 30 day algorithm bump that many successful indie authors swear by. According to my numbers, the A9 algorithm pushed CFXS for only one day. 
That was despite a clear demand for the book, as IGG showed. The newsletter swaps did indeed train the algorithm correctly, filling my also-boughts with genre-appropriate titles. I even ran three AMS ads. But despite CFXS getting rave reviews, Amazon's algorithm didn't grab the book and run with it. 
We can only speculate as to why, but I suspect that Amazon has made changes to nerf the algo gaming strategy. They're constantly tweaking their algorithm, and they've previously blunted formerly successful strategies like free giveaways. Nick Cole has even reported diminished results from newsletter trades.
Brian's got a keen mind and is already thinking about the next development in the bookselling business, beyond the Amazon Age. But what is the Amazon Age? For that, let's look at the original tweets: