Sean Crow: The Godless Lands

Sean Crow’s Godless LandsCapture

Began reading this new entry in a certain type of fantasy I’ve been enjoying of late. Sean himself told me recently he is an adherent of David Gemmell’s work like others are to Tolkien. Gemmell is of course a master of nuance and the gray tones of moral ambiguity. Creating characters of the heroic mold tending toward the grimdark vectors of the great outsiders who hold to no religious or social creeds or dogmas, but rather harbor within themselves a moral compass of unique disposition challenging the universe on its own ground situation by situation. Call them existential heroes who choose life over death, honor and integrity over the imposed morals of State or Religion.

Sean’s characters so far follow in this mold. We find a world that has been inundated by a small apocalypse of disease, The Blight. It’s a world of fear and dread, ruled by a contingent of feudal lords and their Inquisitorial Knights who control access to food and shelter in cities that enforce strict compliance to a regimen of cleansing and purity.

The prologue and first chapter introduce us to Arlo, Ferris, and the Doves. Arlo is a man caught in the circumstance of being the head of the Doves, the Inquisitorial enforces of purification and cleansing of the city of those who once they catch the dread Blight must be mercifully eliminated. It’s a grim task and Arlo is a man who is not evil in the absolute sense, but has been assigned a task, one he does not relish but knows must be done. Arlo has himself lost a wife and loved ones to the Blight so knows the sorrow of this dreaded disease.

Ferris is a Dove, or an ex-Dove, a man who has seen death aplenty, but has chosen to live outside the city in the godless lands where there is no protection or safe haven. Ferris is a coward, but as in Gemmell’s character Rek of Legend, he is a coward on the side of life, a man who chose to protect the innocent and certain of the diseased from the dread execution. We meet him on a road outside the city in a forest where a woman and her child are running from Knights. Ferris unknowing why he does it helps them evade the law chasing her down, and offers her a small reprieve and help to find better safety. Ferris will question his own motives and like Rek in Gemmell come up with no satisfactory reason why he is the way he is. This is as far as I’ve gotten so far, but it’s enough to keep me reading. One thing I will say is that even if there are shades of Gemmell in the work I’m not going to look for such things from here, only that his mentioning of Gemmell as his “Tolkien” or go to writer of inherited influence brings such thoughts to mind.

Just finished Sean’s novel today. Very enjoyable read. As previously stated the novel started out with the escape of a young woman, Bethany, and her daughter, Katrina from an unwanted marriage in the aristocratic town of Brightbridge. Bethany and her daughter run into Ferris on the road outside the town where they are being tracked by a group known as the Pathfinders who are scouts under Arlo’s command. Arlo we remember is a knight under the command of a half-crazed aristocrat whose tendencies to violence are quick and deadly. Yet, Arlo, being a man of loyalty and honor serves his lord with the utmost zeal to the point that he’s gained a reputation as the “Death Knight” in the local environs for his zealous and officious slaughter of whole families who have come into contact with the plague known as the Blight.

The story revolves around the escape of mother and child, a tale of two towns and a farm where their destinies are entwined with others who have escaped before and sought in the godless lands a refuge against the madness of aristocrats, the plague, and the cruelty of enslavement. The story will run the gambit of half-crazed aristocrats, cannibals, mercenaries, and innocent men and women seeking to escape the plague ridden cities where cruelty and mayhem have led to inhuman depths of depravity. Brightbridge is controlled by Arlo and his mercenary forces of death, while another town, Riven, is controlled by a sadistic giant named ‘The Butcher’. The Butcher is the son of a doctor who succumbed to the Blight and died leaving his son whose apprenticeship in the arts of healing have taken a darker turn toward sadism and torture and the worship of a dark god of cannibalistic cruelty named the ‘Hungry God’.

In Sean’s novel the deadly ‘Death Knight’ of Brightbridge, and the ‘Butcher’ of Riven, will both leave their respective towns for different reasons. The one in search of his Lord’s runaway bride and daughter, the other in search of a new supply of meat for the Hungry God. As one can tell this will lead both parties into a collision course with the refugees of a Farm where people from both towns have fled to begin new lives in the godless lands. Throw into the mix another group of survivors known as the ‘Withered’ – those who have survived the plague only to succumb to a dark and terrible zombie like state of insanity, and who seek to murder all those who are still normal humans.

I don’t want to spoil the reading pleasure of prospective reader’s mind with more plot and narrative details, only to say that you will be introduced to the members of the Farm who will play a major part in the coming clash between the deadly Deathknight Brightbridge and the Butcher of Riven. Like all novels there are twists and sub-plots, many POVs to delight our curiosity and move the tale along toward its denouement. Sean’s a storyteller with a sure eye to detail, and provides just enough information here and there without overly pounding the reader with infodumps. All in all this was a tight, compact tale which gives us just enough characterization and depth to enrich and pique our interest without bogging us down in an overly wrought tale of description gone mad. Sean has an eye for both psychological and external description to keep us reading, and yet knows just how much is too much guiding the reader into a good balance of strategy and action.

From what I’ve read this novel grew out of several tales that Sean had written in collusion with a painter friend, stories of various characters in the novel that would contribute to its overall design. It does have that visual appeal, and strangely the tale although written before our current COVID-19 crisis seems apropos in its theme shaped by a politics of cruelty and torture, freedom and normalcy. The novel has the medieval feel, and yet as one reads through it one will detect a sense that this is a civilization that has fallen from a more advanced and productive technological one based on a knowledge of the sciences. I’ll leave the reader to explore the threads of that on their own. Unlike many thick books of fantasy this is one that can be read in a couple of evenings. And even though there are other books that are projected to come in the same world, this one can be read as a stand-alone tale without having to worry about sequels. I like that. Too many writers have gotten into the habit of writing long overly wrought worlds that never seem to end. It’s refreshing to see a stand-alone tale that has a good beginning, middle, and end in the old style. Sean is a new voice in a field that is becoming saturated by cliched ridden world-building and stories that seem to endlessly repeat certain tropes over and over again. Sean’s doesn’t. It presents us with a tale about the common people who no matter what background, whether aristocrat or street urchin come together in a wilderness and forge a new life of cooperation and survival in a world of ruins. I like that, and think you will too.


Buy it on Amazon: The Godless Lands
Visit Sean Crow on Good Reads: here

Mike Shel: Aching God – A Review

CaptureAching God by Mike Shel is a slow burn, a novel that gathers its steam along the way in an adventure that is as old as fantasy itself. In the beginning we meet Auric Mentao, a retired member of the Syraeic League, a soldier and swordsman whose prowess and intelligence had carried him through many adventures in the service of his Queen. Living quietly on the edge of the seat of power where his farm lies under the protection of Lady Hannah in Daurhim we first meet Auric arising from a nightmare. A nightmare that will immerse us in a scene of his greatest disaster and the cause of his retirement these three years. A man who suffers from what we’d now term PTSD, or the trauma of an experience so dreadful and shocking to his system that even now he can barely cope with existence. And, yet, he must, for now he has been summoned by Queen Geneviva, Imperatrix and monarch, to the court to once again take up arms and perform the duty of a Knight and Soldier. Continue reading

Ed McDonald’s Black Wing: A Review

BlackWingThoroughly enjoyed reading Ed McDonald’s Black Wing, a work set in a fantasy world where Deep Kings and Nameless Demi-Gods vie for control in a eternal war that has been ongoing for millennia with no signs of stopping. It’s a fast paced hot and gritty novel full of action and a noirish and grimdark cast of characters. The main character is a Bounty hunter Ryhalt Galharrow, a Captain in the Black Wing’s a small mercenary organization run by one of the Nameless: Crowfoot. 

Ryhalt is a fallen aristocrat, a man who after killing a rival long ago in his youth, driven out of his family – disowned and exiled, has made his home on the edge of the Misery. The Misery is a no-man’s land of toxic and terrible magicks, a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separates human civilization from the Kingdoms of Old Dhojara where the Deep Kings and their minions hold sway. The Misery itself was produced by the destruction in the last great war by a Nameless who blasted it with a dark and voidic magick which left the lands scarred and poisonous, a region where strange and bewildering creatures roam so full of vile and degrading corruption that humans who venture too far into those realms are usually never heard from again.

Continue reading

Smoke and Flame

Even now the thought of her sends him god-ecstatic,
dawn of sun-fire glint upon his desert mind commingling;
and he comes to her inside a dance of molecules;
a fiery djinn of the morning’s light reddening to desire.

—Ghazal of Istanii Mir

The summer winds were on them as they traveled across the wind-swept dunes; dervish djinn whirled their plumes of dust across the bleak horizon: a shadowblur of the day turned night. They call this wind andhi, ‘darkener of sky’. Even the squat eyed sun sat there in the horizon’s thin veil like the King of the Djinn, his red pupil sinister and without mercy barely piercing it’s thickening curtain with his fierce intelligence. Movement among the dunes was like traveling among the labyrinths of Jazael, each step leading them deeper into the gloom where the demon herds of Istarii roamed like agents of chaos. Even as the sun closed his deadly eye across that vast swath of silence and dust they knew there would be no rest for them this night. Continue reading

R. Scott Bakker: The Darkness That Comes Before

“The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?”
― R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness That Comes Before

Rereading R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series again after so many years, and I must admit it has not lost its power to mesmerize and enchant. A grim and gritty epic unlike those lightbound fantasias of the Tolkien variety where elves and dwarves and hobbits wander among the bewildering array of ancient Middle-Earth. No. This work is closer to the ancient warlike Sagas of the Norsemen, a rugged tale of war, vengeance, and revenge. A tale that brings with it its own unique world and history, a world in the throes of conflict and apocalypse.

In the beginning we are introduced to a young warrior Monk, Anasûrimbor Kellhus a former Dûnyain, and heir to the ancient Kings of ancient Eärwa. Trained as a child up in the arts of sorcery and the “Logos” he has of late been troubled by dreams of his father. His father Anasûrimbor Moënghus is a Cishaurim Priest and former Dûnyain monk who lives in the Shimeh: the Holy City where the prophet of the ancient Inrithi, Inri Sejenus’s Ascension to the Nail of Heaven took place. It is also the home of the Cishaurim sorcerors. I’ll leave much out for those who have yet to read this work. Moënghus has a plan for his son, and uses his sorcerous skills to call him out of the citadel of the Ishuäl, a hidden fortress in the Demua Mountains. Kelhus begins his trek out of the Dûnyain of the North seeking his father… Continue reading

Directions and Revisions: Where I’m heading in my project…

The beauty of flames lies in their strange play, beyond all proportion and harmony. Their diaphanous flare symbolizes at once grace and tragedy, innocence and despair, sadness and voluptuousness.

—E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

Steven Pressfield in The Warrior Ethos posits a world in which combatants, serving for hire, have been cut loose from the traditional rules of war and are no longer bound by the standards of honor that have governed Western armies since Troy and before.

Does a fighting man require a flag or a cause to claim a code of honor? Or does a warrior ethos arise spontaneously, called forth by necessity and the needs of the human heart? Is honor coded into our genes? What does honor consist of— in an age when the concept seems almost abandoned by society at large, at least in the West?

Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

As I begin to structure my own thematic one of the central questions will be just that: If notions of a Code of Honor no longer hold then are we bound by anything? Will the warriors of the future in which a mix of machinic intelligence and post-humanity co-exist side by side what are the rules that will guide conflict, battle, and war? As I’ve looked over much of the Sword and Sorcery, the Epic War Fantasy novels, and the darker plunge of late into Grimdark Fiction (I want even mention the supposed goody two shoe Noblelight opposition…), I think of a planetary world that the ancient magians, astrologers, and Gnostics called Anereta (The Destroyer). Of course they were thinking of the influence of Saturn and its melancholy death hold over fate and destiny, etc. But what I’m posing is the notion of a planet where war is the only constant, a planet specifically isolated for the purpose of War Games among the Galactic Landsraad (or Great Houses). A planet that becomes central to the galaxy’s economics of gaming, chance, and gambling. A place where human, post-human, and machinic intelligence vye within the boundaries of mistrust, paranoia, and dishonor. In other words to put it simply to put what is happening on our planet at the moment into a test case scenario. Because if one looks around all that our world runs on is just that: dishonor, paranoia, and mistrust. Sadly.

And, yet, to make such a scenario work one will also need to pit the age old war between optimist/pessimist: those who hope for change and a better world (the Good Just Society of Socrates in the Republic in which he argues with Glaucon against tyranny and violence); and, the hopeless, despairing thought of the most darkening form of pessimism, cynicism, and nihilism. Obviously this will need to be handled not in some allegorical or morality play style, but rather in a space opera mode of hard science fiction, etc., that incorporates the latest cultural and scientific thought along with the contemporary issues of our planet concerning the End Game of our Species. Among other things how to raise issues of race, gender, and other pertinent issues without seeming merely pathetic pre-critical, and yet show through actions and words this conflict among various contemporary ideas and battles surrounding these delicate subjects. One can never please everyone on such things, all one can do is deal with these issues through both a personal and impersonal mattering. So much goes into such an undertaking the mind boggles. Being as old as I am I may never conclude such a project, and yet it’s what interests me and will keep me going… for that reason alone it’s worth attempting.

In many ways like others of my generation both Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Tolkien’s Ring cycle, and other works that attempted both philosophical and epic frameworks to play out their game of thought and feeling deserve a hell of a lot of credit. I couldn’t even begin to register all the great and lesser lights that have influenced my mind and heart. Let’s say I’ve been a fanatic reader in my life and leave it at that…

Revisiting R. Scott Bakker’s Epic Fantasy Series

“No one’s soul moves alone, Leweth. When one love dies, one must learn to love another.”

—R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness that Comes Before

Among other re-readings decided it was high time to revisit R. Scott Bakker’s epic work from the beginning… if you’ve never read it, it’s an intelligent person’s epic fantasy – making you think through many issues in ways that force you to look at yourself and the world in new ways:

“No soul moves alone through the world, Leweth. Our every thought stems from the thoughts of others. Our every word is but a repetition of words spoken before. Every time we listen, we allow the movements of another soul to carry our own.”

What’s interesting is in this early dialogue between Kelhus and Leweth we already begin seeing Scott’s early fascination with what he’d later term the Blind Brain Theory on his blog Three-Pound Brain. Leweth has left behind civilization and become a recluse supposedly to forget his wife’s death and the misery of war and civilization and other men… but as Kelhus will put it, Leweth is lying to himself:

“No, Leweth. You fled to remember. You fled to conserve all the ways your wife had moved you, to shield the ache of her loss from the momentum of others. You fled to make a bulwark of your misery.”

The point here as in his Blind brain theory is that humans hide from themselves the truth about their own deterministic actions. We think of ourselves a free-willed creatures who can choose and say what we like, while the truth is we are determined by those pre-conscious processes of the brain that have already determined and shaped our lives. In the old school of ancient notions, we are in the hands of the Fates, the Norns, the Wyrd Sisters who control the strings of who and what we are long before we consciously enter into the picture. That is, our brain empowers us to fall for our own delusions as part of its own mechanisms of survival and propagation. Intelligence is cold and reptilian in that it hides from us the truth, and gives us the illusions we need to continue its existence. We are puppets on the string of hidden processes we will never even know exist. At least up till recent sciences have begun documenting just how the brain is doing this….

Just started rereading the series for the second time. It’s a whopper with several thousand pages over two full trilogies… if you haven’t read it you should. It’s the Grimdark anti-Tolkien epic of our times! It’s a work that forces you to think, to delve into the darkness of our world, the cynical, pessimistic, and nihilistic corners and shadows of human existence that for the most part we pretend do not exist; and yet, we always discover too late, do exist. It’s also an entertaining and diversionary work of brilliance that will change your ways of doing and being, thinking and living…

It’s a world scarred by an apocalyptic past, evoking a time both two thousand years past and two thousand years into the future, as untold thousands gather for a crusade. Among them, two men and two women are ensnared by a mysterious traveler, Anasûrimbor Kellhus—part warrior, part philosopher, part sorcerous, charismatic presence—from lands long thought dead. The Darkness That Comes Before is a history of this great holy war, and like all histories, the survivors write its conclusion.


Bakker, R. Scott. The Darkness that Comes Before (Prince of Nothing) Overlook.

Buy it and the others here on Amazon: First Series and Second Series.

Brian Murphy on The Black Company by Glen Cook

The_Black_CompanyThe Black Company greatly amplified the latent cynicism and pessimism in the works of Howard and Wagner. Surveying an ocean after leaving a city swamped by corruption and violence, Croaker observes its serenity, but with a jaundiced eye. “We looked at a world never defiled by Man. Sometimes I suspect it would be better for our absence” (Cook 40).

The Black Company is an important transitional work in the development of fantasy fiction. A handful of authors borrowed its bleakness, gray morality, and grit, and blended it with elements of sword-and-sorcery and high fantasy to create a new subgenre. Popularly known today as grimdark, this subgenre often takes the form of lengthy novels or multi-book series featuring large casts of characters in high-stakes adventures, but grounds these high fantasy hallmarks in harsh, gritty environments, peopled with morally compromised protagonists. In many ways, grimdark is sword-and-sorcery wildly amplified—mercenary heroes become disillusioned, amoral beings, and the frequent but often stylized combat of sword-and-sorcery transformed into shocking scenes of graphically depicted carnage and suffering. Grimdark amplifies the pessimism that underlie Howard’s cataclysmic Hyborian Age tales and often presents a nihilistic view of the world, in which heroes rarely make a difference and often don’t live to fight another day.


—Brian Murphy,  Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery

The Cursed One

“My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye…”
– Robert Browning

We’d been riding all day, lost among these ancient trees; this forest where sun and moon no longer cast their light, and a gloom-born mist settled on the company like an unbidden curse.
We came to a fork in the leaf-strewn path where a choice had to be made.

Orrin Ironfist spoke first: “A wretched thing this is…”

“Aye,” Grimner Longknife moaned.

I’d been eyeing some movement in that thick fog just ahead of us, a figure seemed to be standing there like the knotted gnarl of a tree; else it was an illusion, a momentary madness of my mind. It moved again, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from that blanketed cloudy haze. He held a walking staff of ash, and moved cautiously toward us. Continue reading

Queen of Thieves

My tale continues…

Queen of Thieves

Coming home, the locks broken
And the doors wide open
It’s all gone, it’s all gone now-

—Ballad of the Thief

Talia was leaning against a pole in the fruit stall, munching on a crouder – so sweet and bitter, smacking her lips, and licking the juices dripping on her fingers; the syrup like amber, thick and tasty. She’d been there for a while studying the crowd, looking for the mark. Bulgy the dwarf was over by the winch-stand playing his lute. The young girls all fawning over his jokes and antics. But his mind was seeking too: his bushy brows and flashing eyes, shifting and turning, swaying and bulging with laughter; the bellows of a beard puffing up from his belly in red rivulets, shining in the sun like a festering fire needing to be put out. She almost laughed, but caught herself as she saw the mark she’d been looking for wander past toward the slave pits.

Jesper Tul bought slaves for the Patricians. His body-guard was a few paces back of him; a tall Varángōn, steeped in the old ways: a killer at heart, wary and eyes that unceasingly scoped the market for thieves and pickpockets. But Talia was used to his kind. The one weakness they had was the young boys. And that was Bulgy’s card to play. She pulled here cowl down, the soft feathery weight of the hood falling gently over here inky bangs, her mousy eyes sparkling full of intensity. She set the plan in motion, whistled an old lay Bulgy was fond of, and his ears perked up. He remained where he was playing the lute; and, yet, his stubby hands and feet were beginning to dance a little more expectantly. Continue reading

Særima

Særima. Place of beginnings and ruins. The city where I emerged like an orphan from long exile. Sitting between the vast ocean of Tam’ir and the Great Emptiness – the desert with no end; my home, my city. Caught in the nightmare grip of those who do not belong. Those who came from elsewhere; from the watery abyss, in their black ships. Took what was ours; and drove my people across this void, this silence – to this ruinous wasteland of leprous decay, this rotting jungle of filth and corruption we now call home.

Maybe we are all orphans; all exiles, in one way or another. The last remnant of a Lost Kingdom by the sea; our lives and memories lost among broken spires and fallen walls. Yes, even now, as I sit here in this iron black prison, lost among the stone tombs of Ala’mbra, I remember my ancient home: the Palace of Ta’rif; the golden spires of the Mu’da Fir; the glowing cobbles of the Forbidden Temples, where the Drakomir worshiped the Old Gods. Like a fine diamond set on the crown of the Ausländian Empire it was the refuge for all the oppressed and forgotten peoples who’d escaped the floods of the Long Sun. All gone; all in ruins… I will not forget her; my city, ever.

The debris of past worlds, conflicts and wars, the temptation to conquer and dominate… forever we fall before such ruins of mind and intellect, our desires riven of their power to sustain us give way to the lusts of fame and glory, corruption and decay. We darken the past with the stench of our broken promises, the covenants we hold against the day of judgment. Like children we break the toys of foreign climes, cities and habitations of beauty and splendor, till nothing remains but the obscurity of things. Emptied of her people and her pride, ashes and flames; bitter conquest and blacker nights she enters the tenebrous shores of oblivion. Unable to defy time, mere playthings for the gods of chaos and destruction, we seek to keep at bay those that would deign to kill us; never vanquished, yet always at war…

Death’s Mask

Finally began my latest tale… a Grimdark Fantasy to allow me to work through many of the pessimistic themes I’ve been studying for so long this year. Just a snippet from the opening…

Death’s Mask

My first thought was, he lied in every word…
—Sayings of the Outcasts

Watching over the world like an indifferent god, the sun treats the impermanence and fragility of human lives with utter indifference and contempt.
– Book of the Nine

I studied his malicious eyes, seeking in that hoary darkness some sign of deceit, death prone maggot of the lower streets; this cripple, beggar, thief was known to me from womb-days past. We were both of the corruption, born of shadows and broken stones, creatures of the towers long hiding. Even now as I stretched my neck upward to the harsh steel sky where the bone moon shed her skin like a defrocked maiden I listened to the old man as he croaked his tale.

“We know these things. We do! We seen these things, and more; oh yes, we seen too much. We did. They came you know. The ones who do not speak. They came…”

He rambled on in that curved tongue like a swarthy rat chirping from its hole in the wall. I let him go on; it mattered not, I’d heard it before. I knew the tale. I knew where it was going. We both did. And, yet, I let him go on as he must; it was all he had left. These old tales; old illusions. How many deceptions we all live by. We all tell ourselves it’s truth we seek, when what we truly seek is a great lie against the world. We don’t want to know the truth. The truth kills, maims, tears us from our self-deceiving lies; our past. Most of all we don’t want to know that past… the pain is too real. Continue reading