"A Covenant with Death" by James Enge
"The Gray Mother: The Second Tale of Calthus" by Steve Goble
"The Gods Have Left Us" by Paul Jessup
"An Edge to a Sword" by Howard Lamb
"God of the Catacombs" by Trey Causey
"The Dragon's Scale: The Rise of the Necromancer Part 1" by S. C. Bryce
"The Dead God's Punishment" by Robert Burke Richardson
Flashing Swords is back with its Spring 2006 issue and seven stories. We open with “A Covenant with Death” by James Enge, a continuation of the saga of Morlock Ambrosius, the protagonist of stories recently appearing in Black Gate, according to the editor’s note.
Morlock Ambrosius is a lesser Guardian of the Realm, one of a number of Guardians tasked to assist Jordel, a Defender of the Realm. When the Guardians discover evidence of a warrior who has come to the Realm to kill a unicorn, Morlock and Jordel set out to save it from the hunter, who is engaged in a ritual dedicated to his god of death.
“A Covenant with Death” centers as much on the enmity between Morlock and Jordel as it does on their goal. Jordel resents Morlock’s noble birth and the ease with which Morlock gains knowledge. Morlock regards Jordel with disdain for his pretentiousness and his unwillingness to share important knowledge. While this offers interesting opportunities for characterization, it does little to drive the plot. And as a subplot, it seemed to substitute irritable bickering for real tension. All in all, “A Covenant with Death” was okay. It is probably of greater interest to people who have been following Morlock in other publications.
Steve Goble is next with “The Gray Mother: The Second Tale of Calthus.” Calthus is a resurrected warrior brought back from hell on a trek to return to the kingdom that ruled the world when he died. During his journey, he becomes entangled in a fight against a mysterious wolf god, who he must defeat or die trying.
Goble’s tale is a moody character study. The story is very rudimentary, and is rather more like a chapter at the beginning of a book than a whole story. Indeed, if it were a book chapter, it would be fine. But as a standalone short story, it falls shy. It will probably be of interest to those who enjoyed the first Calthus tale, but readers new to the character risk dissatisfaction.
“The Gods Have Left Us” by Paul Jessup is the story of a tribe being destroyed by a monster. They believe their gods have abandoned them, as their tribe is being killed one person at a time each night. After much argument, the tribe performs a ritual to enable one warrior to defeat their mystical enemy.
“The Gods Have Left Us” follows a fairly straightforward tribal trope. I wish the author had shown me the evil that led to the creation of the monster that preys on the tribe. The lack of this part of the story is what holds Jessup’s tale back. Instead of letting us see this, it is simply revealed to the tribe that it happened, which lessens the impact. The story simply becomes about the final fight and lacks a depth it could have otherwise achieved.
Next is “An Edge to a Sword” by Harold Lamb. Lamb is noted for his pulp historical fiction written from the '20s through the '40s.
“An Edge to a Sword” is a story about a Cossack named Ayub, though it’s narrated by a village boy, Gregory, ostensibly in the Russian steppes. Ayub comes to Gregory’s village to reside for a break from the wars against the Tartars. While there, the local land owner, Sayanski, to whom the villagers are beholden, repeatedly tries to get from Ayub the fine stallion he rides. Ayub is unaffected by Sayanski’s enmity. He sets up a hut and hunts and gathers for food. He tells Gregory stories, flirts with Gregory’s cousin, and works for the village smith when help is needed.
At Christmas, Sayanski shows a change of heart, giving Ayub a fine sword to replace Ayub’s own, lost in battle. Shortly after, a nobleman, Sayanski’s cousin Varslan, arrives at the village. Now it is Varslan who seeks to provoke Ayub. He brings about the final confrontation with Ayub, a great fight in Sayanski’s manor house.
Lamb writes a rolling prose. “An Edge to a Sword” follows the form of Russian folk or tall tales well and has a very convincing voice. The one complaint I have is that the narrator is a just an adolescent boy and his voice, while accurate, can be a little distracting when he is supposed to be feeling petulant. That is both to Lamb’s credit and Lamb’s fault for choosing a child narrator. However, that is as much personal preference as anything. This is a fine story and well worth your time to read.
Trey Causey’s “God of the Catacombs” is the story of Zakoji, an erstwhile mercenary trying to escape from a cursed city, Ghothrune, that puts everyone who lingers too long into a lethargy. Faced with a blizzard surrounding the mesa, Zakoji enters the dark, danger-filled catacombs beneath the city. He fights his way through subterranean dwellers, until they are driven off by a shining woman who leads him to face an even worse fate.
“God of the Catacombs” is a straightforward adventure through the dark underworld of a tunneled mountain. Anyone who has played a role-playing game will recognize this story or one very similar. The ending is interesting, but not entirely new. Still, Causey uses an interesting character, and his writing is reasonably crisp. For a well worn trope, “God of the Catacombs” is an entertaining story that is worth a read.
S. C. Bryce begins a series of closely connected stories with “The Dragon’s Scale: The Rise of a Necromancer Part 1.” Dermanassian, the desert elf, has been the star of previous Bryce stories. This time he is tasked by the god Asbeth to obtain a white dragon’s scale. Although Dermanassian tries to avoid making contact with the dragon, searching for shed scales about his lair, eventually, he is forced to confront it. After speaking with the dragon, he attempts to craft a suitable trade. In the end, he returns to Asbeth with a scale, to face an unpleasant shock.
“The Dragon’s Scale” is a laconically paced story, and in this genre, that is deadly. Sword and sorcery, especially when it has an RPG high fantasy feel, needs to be quick-paced, continually pushing the action and having something interesting happening all the time. Dermanassian is very cautious, but his caution means that he moves slowly, and thus so does his story. If you like Bryce’s Dermanassian stories, this is another for you, but someone who doesn’t know the character, or doesn’t care, will likely find the story cumbersome and, at points, dull.
The final story is “The Dead God’s Punishment” by Robert Burke Richardson. This is the third of a series of connected tales that started with issue 4 of Flashing Swords (Fall 2005). Melinda, the woman Phillipe is in love with, has been kidnapped, leaving Phillipe, Jack Nimble, and Jack’s protege/lover Avasa to rescue her. In doing so, they face a mob of crazed religious fanatics and the wrath of a strange being claiming to be the Dead God returned.
“The Dead God’s Punishment” is the fastest paced of the three. This comes at the price of having less of the biting wit the previous two had. Not to say that there is no wit, but it plays less of a role. Action is the name of the game in this story, and there is plenty of it. Still, the ending will leave you with a smile, and it certainly lays the foundation for more Jack Nimble hijinks to come. If Richardson can maintain the quality of his stories, Jack Nimble and the Platypus will certainly rival any pair in sword and sorcery fantasy for entertainment value.