Review of Tales From the Magician’s Skull #1
There is a revival of the Sword and Sorcery genre afoot. TFTMS is the most recent artifact of the movement. It acknowledges Appendix N as its main influence; given that its publisher, Goodman Games, claims the same about its Dungeon Crawl Classics role-playing game (and the inclusion of game stats for DCC at the back of the magazine for each story), this is no surprise. Appendix N is hot right now.
One of the appendices from the back of Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Master’s Guide, it was a list of books that were suggested reading for background on the game. I and most of my friends thought it was a good starting point, but hardly definitive – there were notable and unforgivable omissions (how the hell can you leave out Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane?).
When the Old School Renaissance started forming at the end of D&D’s 3rd Edition and beginning of the 4th, many of the blogs took to exploring Appendix N. As a tone of dogma formed among some of the blogs and The Way The Game Was Meant To Be Played was pushed by certain factions, Appendix N took on holy significance for many.
This is deserving of its own post, probably, but to make matters brief, the DCC game came about by claiming to return to the roots of the game, the source material, and re-imagining the game. Just a few years later, as a literary movement movement was forming ostensibly around an older form of stories, Appendix N again assumed an almost Torah-like quality for many.
TFTMS is where the two Appendix N movements meet. There was a Kickstarter to fund it; I went in at the Order of the Skull level, for two reasons: a promise to feature Sword and Sorcery, and the editorship of Howard Andrew Jones. I have read several stories and books by Mr. Jones, as well as many of his essays (mostly at Blackgate Magazine), and I am a fan of his. All the Appendix N references are just window dressing and ad copy to me; I want great, or at least solid, S&S, and Mr. Jones is someone I trust to deliver it.
A couple of months ago, I received the magazine, right on time. Here is my brief review of each story, and then a summation of the magazine as a whole. While I will discuss each story and how much I liked it, I am not going to have a rating system (such as, “5 Broadswords”). I think they’re kinda cheesy, and insulting to authors who put sweat into a story.
Be advised: spoilers follow!
The first story is “What Lies In Ice” by Chris Willrich. There is evidently a previous story or two featuring two of the characters, but it was not necessary to have read it. The story opens with a captain driving his crew to oar after an iceberg with a tower in it, following it to clear the rest of the ice closing in on the ship. The captain picked up two passengers (the duo featured in earlier stories) previous to the story starting. Icebergs don’t move faster than a rowing ship, but it is a magical iceberg, so OK. This is one of a few things that drew me out of the otherwise well-written story, like when they make it into the tower, which is leaning in the ice, but the lean does not affect their movement around the stairwell winding up its interior. As a sailor all my life, the ship handling does not ring particularly authentic, either, but the author does not try to bluff his way through so it is a minor thing.
That is nitpicking; the story is good. The characters are interesting, and there are a lot of dynamics between the characters and action in the tower. I was not too impressed with the easy way Gaunt got the big iron head arguing with itself, or the big-ass brain at the bottom of everything or its predictable demise. But good S&S is character driven, which this story was, and there was a variety of obstacles to be overcome. The atmosphere was good. Not real sure about the last few lines of the story, though.
The story had a “Jewels in the Forest” (Leiber) feel for me, and it was effective.
The second story was the “Guild of Silent Men” by James Enge. It is a Morlock Ambrosius story, an ongoing character that I have not read anything else of previously. It is more sorcery than sword, a murder mystery with a magical solution. The investigation was interesting, and it did not feel contrived. I liked Morlock, and the background of his world, as well as the other characters we briefly see. I found myself genuinely moved at the story’s conclusion. But it was short in length and action. Again, the writing was very good.
Next is “Beneath the Bay of Black Waters” by Bill Ward. It is an Asian fantasy, featuring an intriguing duo, evidently another set of characters that have previous stories about them I have not read. The action starts right off the bat with a raid on a gang that has been selling a new drug in the streets of Long-He. This is traced back to a race of fish-men. The duo kill a bunch of them and return to Long-He and prepare for an invasion, which comes that night. All the fishmen are led conveniently into a trap that blinds them and they are wiped out.
The writing here was good, and I like the characters, but the story-telling had a lot of holes. The fish-men were getting their drugs – in fact, their eggs – among the population of the city, and now that their distribution has been wrecked, they want to kill the city’s population instead? The speculation at the end has the characters wonder what will become of the inhabitants – will they change into fish-men? If that is the case, why would the fish-men want to kill their future brethren? If that wasn’t the reason for pushing the drugs, what was? The silver? There was no obvious use for that, so the plot to me kinda fails, and the whole draw-them-all-to-the-same-place-so-we-can-spring-the-trap was not strong.
Some good qualities and writing, and lots of action, but this story falls flat for me.
Next is “Beyond the Block” by Aeryn Rudel. A man who tried to free his sister from the sorcerous tyrant she is married to is caught and to be executed. He is brought a foul brew from his sister, which he takes. He is beheaded, but not killed. His head is taken to a tower, and his body eventually reanimates and grabs the headsman’s axe and wreaks hell on the guards as it comes for the head. Then they go after the sorcerer. The avenger fails, and his sister is killed. The tyrant gloats and is about to dispose of the crippled avenger, but the sister rises up and kills the tyrant. She took the draft, as well.
The short story doesn’t have much substance, and begs the question, Why? Why didn’t she just take the draft herself and strike out? The distraction caused by her brother’s blundering did little, as she was already around the tyrant all the time. The whole felt like it was just a set-up for the sister’s last line admitting she made two drafts. Still, some of the description was pretty good.
Next is Jones’ contribution, “Crypt of Stars.” An involved plot with a lot of characters, featuring an aging don’t-wanna-be-a-hero who feels a responsibility to the people he could not save from imperial invasion. Some of the people have been sent to an island of royal crypts to dig for riches to support the imperial efforts of conquest. Hanuvar Cabera, another series hero (I did read what I assume is the only other story with him, it was included in the package), is here to free his people. Characterization and plot have always been strong points with Jones, and they are in full force here. There is weirdness and vivid description.
I am writing less about this one, but it is my favorite in the collection. Of them all, it has the most classic S&S feel with conflicting motivations, plans going wrong, strange enemies, and things getting settled by steel. I don’t want to spoil this one for you – read it!
The next story is “There Was an Old Fat Spider” by C. L. Werner. It has a strong Germanic fairy tale vibe. A man who has low standing in the village and is abused, draws his enemies to a massive spider to be killed. When people start disappearing, a knight is sent to sort things out. I do not know if the knight, Rudolph Goettinger, has been in any previous stories. The man makes his move against his greatest tormentor as the knight is watching him at the inn. The knight follows them, being suspicious. This is a little too convenient. The ending is a little too pat. There is no swordplay, and the sorcery is of the deus ex machina sort. Not very strong, but as with all of the stories, the writing itself is good.
The final story is “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest” by John C. Hocking. It starts of with a duo moving through a cemetery looking for grave-robbers of the wealthy. It is atmospheric right off, as they find some slain grave-robbers, and action swiftly finds the duo. There is a brief mystery afterwards, but it is explained quickly as they find themselves at the opened entrance to the tomb of the King’s sister. They enter to find a necromantic ritual being performed, which they disrupt. The dead sister wreaks havoc among the defilers, and approaches the duo. They flee, and in an unexpected moment, the younger seals his master in with the ghost as he shuts the entrance. There was some foreshadowing of it, but it was a bit of as surprise. Still, not quite sure why the closed door stopped the dead sister from getting out. A minor quibble with a very strong story.
The interplay between the master and the viewpoint character was well-done, and there was solid action, and horror.
Overall, this is an outstanding magazine. Not every story had strong swords & sorcery elements, and this is my biggest disappointment. Still, I may have had unreasonable expectations going in. Not every story in Appendix N is Sword & Sorcery, and maybe some of the authors were going for the other influences in that list of books. I have to admit also that the Appendix N fetish wears on me; but then again, it has invigorated a lot of interest in older and older-style fiction, so that is on the whole a good thing.
Overall, the magazine is excellent, even if every story wasn’t. It is not a bad thing for your reach to exceed your grasp; that is incentive to try again. And as the initial foray into S&S, the magazine is very strong.
I recommend it!