REVIEW: A Book of Blades: Volume II

Last Updated on July 11, 2024

Sequel to 2022’s A Book of Blades, A Book of Blades: Volume II is the second anthology of fiction curated by the crew of Rogues in the House: The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Podcast. It includes 14 Sword & Sorcery-themed short stories by as many authors, with striking cover artwork by Jesus Garcia and internal illustrations by Gilead. Writers featured here have appeared in the pages of short fiction venues like Tales From The Magician’s Skull, Old Moon Quarterly, and Savage Realms Monthly, so this anthology also serves as a broad survey of more than a dozen authors active in the indie S&S scene.

A Book of Blades" Volume IIAs a Sword & Sorcery anthology, most of the stories deal with either lone heroes or small bands (here frequently drifters, tomb raiders, or mercenaries between jobs) thrust into deadly situations, relying on their wits and weaponry to defeat supernatural threats. The protagonists generally aren’t embarking on epic quests, they’re seeking riches, revenge, or simply attempting to survive. The tone is almost universally gritty and violent across the collected stories, with several selections comfortably grimdark in everything but name. This review focuses on A Book of Blades: Volume II’s darker entries.

“Breaching Earth’s Womb” by S.E. Lindberg is one of the most grimdark and all-around weirdest stories included in A Book of Blades: Volume II. When tainted pregnancies result in several expectant mothers being eviscerated and consumed by insectoid parasites, golem midwife Nurse Leech must leave the relative safety of home to ward off a larger disaster. Her desperate journey takes her across a blasted land ravaged by an ongoing struggle between immense, godlike beings. Lindberg is fascinated by the concept of the ancient Greek bodily humors and the maladies thought to result from imbalances between them, and this story shows the same bizarrely compelling gooey, squidgy body horror of the other tales in his Dyscrasia Fiction line.

“Beasts of Waste & Desolation” features the Viking-era orc hero of Scott Oden’s grimdark Grimnir trilogy (A Gathering of Ravens, Twilight of the Gods, and the forthcoming The Doom of Odin). Back in Jutland after slaughtering “whiteskin” humans abroad, Grimnir encounters a crone doing her laundry in a shallow pool. Recognizing her as a deadly water spirit in disguise, he helps himself to her banquet while participating in a high-stakes game of riddles. The story that follows is an entertainingly predatory tête-à-tête in which two lethal killers circle each other, simultaneously probing for weaknesses and coiling to strike.

“Cries from a Sleeping City,” by Grimdark Magazine contributor and Rogues in the House podcaster Matt John, is another adventure featuring barbarian mercenary Lachmannon (previously seen in issue 10 of Tales From The Magician’s Skull). The wealthy ruler of Zanzara hires a tavern full of sell-swords to scour the tunnels beneath the city, searching for the mythical Queen Vashka, thought to be an imprisoned immortal sorceress. Initially skeptical of the task, Lachmannon quickly learns that the tales of Vashka are true. To survive, he must fight to escape a nightmarish subterranean hellscape filled with cannibalistic “eaters” and unseen lurkers that use body-invading tentacles to drive their victims insane with bloodlust. The story is fast paced, with a fun menagerie of monsters and a dark streak a mile wide.

John R. Fultz’s “Return of the Quill” is another moody standout in A Book of Blades: Volume II. The necromancer Grimsort, one of eight Sorcerer Kings ruling a conquered city policed by revived corpses, is persuaded to allow a traveling acting troupe to stage a play in his domain. His fellow tyrants plan to sacrifice the massive audience as fuel for a demonic summoning, but Grimsort finds himself unexpectedly swayed by the actors’ bravura performance. While not particularly lengthy, this story is rich with gothic imagery and fascinating characters. Its celebration of the power storytelling can have even over the most hardened heart also appealed.

A Book of Blades: Volume II concludes with “The Horror from the Stars,” by Steve Dilks. Like Charles Clark’s “The White Tower” at the very beginning of the anthology and “The Geomancer’s Son” by J. Thomas Howard, this story involves a close encounter with a threat from outer space. (The Sword & Sorcery subgenre predates the firmer separation of fantasy from science fiction to which modern readers have grown accustomed, and I have a particular soft spot for warrior vs. alien stories.) “The Horror from the Stars” begins with Bohun arriving in the city of Ibn-Shahk, determined to reclaim his abducted wife from the sultan’s harem or die trying. He’s warned of a string of mysterious disappearances since the sultan’s retrieval of a “fallen star” from the desert, and soon comes face-to-face with the sadistic otherworldly intelligence behind the throne. While Bohun’s final triumph felt a little too easily attained given what we’re shown of the alien’s capabilities, both the action and horrific elements are exciting and cinematically presented.

While some contributions are reprints from other venues and I was slightly disappointed that the artwork didn’t directly tie to the included stories, A Book of Blades: Volume II feels like an enthusiastic labor of love. Brisk action is the hallmark of these stories, and there’s more than enough here to justify the purchase for fans of grimdark fantasy.

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Robin Marx

Robin Marx

Born in Spain and raised in the United States, Robin Marx has lived in Japan for more than two decades. He works in the video game industry, handling localization and international licensing. In addition to over a dozen video games, his writing has appeared in a number of role-playing game supplements. He lives with his wife and their two daughters. You can link up with Robin over at: https://mastodon.social/@RobinMarx

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