All over the world mysterious black stones appear. They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.
The story is told through multiple viewpoints: Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York. All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.
The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans. The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull. All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him. Or something.
This book is stark, staring bonkers. Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there. It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense. It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued. The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world. That does not appear. There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.
The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.
And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate. There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.
The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing
Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.
They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.
‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming. Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.
Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn. It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.
The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms. In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap. It’s a wonderful opening. With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest. They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber. Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?
The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know. It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story. The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.
A 40 minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.
I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.” This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety. Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit. Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.
Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.
Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.
“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers, elemental forces, and good versus evil.
It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.” He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated. He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it. He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling. What has this to do with his wider mission? Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces? What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?
This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling. Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency. In 119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building. Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity. Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice. But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.
The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche. They are powerful and transcendent. The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world. Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father. The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive. Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it as Black and those around him experience much more.