REVIEW: Dark Dreams of Nilztiria by D.M. Ritzlin

The follow-up to 2020’s Necromancy in Nilztiria, Dark Dreams of Nilztiria collects nine more sword & sorcery stories set in D.M. Ritzlin’s setting, Nilztiria. While several characters from the previous volume reappear—including Xaarxool the Necromancer, barbarian hero Avok Kur Storn, and Vran the Chaos-Warped (also featured in the 2023 novel, Vran the Chaos-Warped), the stories here are self-contained, and no prior experience with the characters or setting is needed to enjoy this volume.

Dark Dreams of NilztiriaDark Dreams of Nilztiria starts off strong with the cover story, “More Blood.” A warrior awakens in a phantasmagorical arena, with no memory of the circumstances leading up to his imprisonment. With no time to pause for reflection, he faces a series of increasingly strange opponents: twin martial artists, a jester armed only with his index finger, even a walrus. All the while, the colosseum echoes with a repeated cry for “Blood! More blood!” The nameless warrior battles his way to the arena’s bloodthirsty spectator but is unprepared for what he finds. “More Blood” boasts an intriguing atmosphere and a killer finishing line.

“The Necromancer and the Forgotten Hero” centers on a cat and mouse game between the necromancer Xaarxool and Acclain Dorso, the new magistrate in charge of the Bureau of Sorcerous Affairs in the city of Desazu. The pair’s rivalry has taken a nasty turn, with Dorso dispatching an assassin and a series of summoned monsters after Xaarxool. As he attempts to flee Desazu, Xaarxool brings some protection, however, in the form of legendary warrior Hyallbor. Revived 500 years after his death, Hyallbor finds himself ambivalent about his new lease on life. While resurrection is common in fantasy fiction, the exploration of necromancy from one of its subjects felt refreshing.

Like the story before it, “The Head in the Globe” stars another of Ritzlin’s recurring heroes: Avok Kur Storn. Wandering through the forest, the barbarian hero is approached by an alluring young woman who begs him to retrieve her father’s severed head from the top of a massive tree. Avok learns that the head remains quite alive, imprisoned in a glass sphere through the magic of Syrakoss, a warlock hoping to extort magical knowledge from the head. Avok discovers that reclaiming the head is the easy part of his task, as he soon finds himself caught in a struggle between two sorcerous heavyweights, dealing with treachery and a host of bizarre creatures. Fast-paced and subtly humorous, “The Head in the Globe” covers a great deal of ground in a scant 18 pages.

“Crowned in Madness” presents a dungeon delve from hell. After choosing the wrong victim to waylay, failed bandit Rythe finds himself press-ganged into the service of the arrogant wizard Altogg Keldoum. Keldoum’s band of mercenaries are on an expedition to loot a magical crown from a dead king’s tomb, but careless tavern chatter catches the ear of Verohssa, High Priestess of the BDSM-flavored cult of Tuntilla, the Sadistic Maiden. Disaster strikes deep within the tomb and Rythe is caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to preserve his own life while Keldoum and Verohssa struggle to possess the crown. Hapless Rythe’s constantly shifting allegiances add a welcome touch of wry humor to what is otherwise a very gory and grim tale.

The shortest episode in the collection, “Diabolical Symphonies” follows the ruthless sorceress Ytra as she prepares a powerful magical incantation to get revenge on her long list of enemies and rivals (including Xaarxool and Avok Kur Storn). Epic spellcraft demands rare components, and Ytra must go to great lengths to enact her mystical vengeance. Magic is fickle at best, however, and the stakes are high for Ytra as she grapples with ancient sorcery. This story is sure to be appreciated by readers left cold by the safely reliable, almost scientific depiction of magic common in much modern fantasy fiction.

Another story starring Xaarxool, “The City the Gods Abandoned” finds the necromancer stranded in the otherworldly city of Vantophai after a magical mishap. A local ruler immediately approaches Xaarxool, attempting to coerce him into assisting his takeover of Vantophai. Sorcerers are even more resistant to compulsion than cats, however, and Xarxool decides to extract himself from the situation in spectacular fashion. “The City the Gods Abandoned” feels a little on the long side, but Xaarxool’s magical MacGuyver-like solution to his plight makes up for the slower scenes.

The longest story in Dark Dreams of Nilztiria at 40 pages, “Inside a Dead God’s Skull” has a suitably epic premise. Maniacal sorcerer Rothalzeng embarks on a mission of conquest, using a religious cult and the giant corpse of a dead god to further his aims. It’s up to Avok Kur Storn, Xaarxool’s ally Lodianux, and others to stand against Rothalzeng. While “Inside a Dead God’s Skull” includes some of the most impressive imagery in the book, it suffers from an overabundance of named characters and some pacing issues. Exciting but overstuffed, “Inside a Dead God’s Skull” might have worked better as a full-length novel.

Where “Crowned in Madness” prominently featured a cult devoted to the goddess of pain, “The Curse of Ambition” focuses on a competing religion dedicated to Veshakul’a, the goddess of death. Dantorol, a young adherent of the cult, finds himself disillusioned with the apparent complacency of his church’s superiors. When an opportunity to seize power presents itself, he takes it. While Dantorol succeeds in growing the cult, he must deal with other, unintended results. While slightly on the cryptic side, this story is another example of the recurring theme of a Ritzlin character getting what they want, “good and hard” (to paraphrase H.L. Mencken).

“The Demon’s Oak” is another story dealing with religion. An oak tree outside of Desazu becomes animated, declaring itself to be Arnvar, the god of earth and nature. A cult soon springs up around the tree, but some suspect the self-declared god has an ulterior motive. Famed mercenary Vran is hired to remove his client’s daughter Ulrika from the influence of the cult, but his task is complicated by the hidden powers of the being inhabiting the tree and the unpredictable effects that result when magic is cast in his presence. “The Demon’s Oak” packs a lot of adventure into 36 pages, without the inconsistent pacing of “The City the Gods Abandoned” and “Inside a Dead God’s Skull.”

The stories collected in Dark Dreams of Nilztiria are grim and gory, but occasionally glimmers of wry humor shine through. Many of the shorts have ironic endings, where the protagonist gets exactly what they sought, but with disastrous results. And while many sword & sorcery authors demonstrate a strong preference for either sorcery or sword (e.g., emphasizing plucky swordsmen while casting wizards as the perennial villains), Ritzlin gives equal “screen time” to both brawny and brainy protagonists. It’s also entertaining how his cast of characters seem to wander through each other’s adventures, either appearing directly through cameos or via off-hand references.

While the sorceress Ytra is a fun character who gets to star in her own story and pain cultist Verohssa makes for an entertaining antagonist, overall women tend to occupy a peripheral role in the stories contained here. Apart from Ytra and Verohssa, women tend to be either in need of assistance (e.g., Ulrika in “The Demon’s Oak”) or absent entirely. Readers hoping to read about, say, a quick-witted rogue who happens to be a woman are destined to be disappointed. Ritzlin has an engaging cast of recurring male heroes, perhaps adding another woman to the mix could address this imbalance.

Delivering swordplay and spellcasting in equal measure, Dark Dreams of Nilztiria has much to offer fans of dark fantasy. While—as presented in this book—Nilztiria seems somewhat amorphous and undefined as a fantasy setting, Ritzlin’s characters are both distinct and appealing.

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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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