DMR Books has quickly established itself as one of the premiere sources for new and reprinted fiction written in the pulp sword & sorcery and science fantasy traditions. They’ve released a number of anthologies in recent years, including the Swords of Steel series of dark fantasy stories written by heavy metal musicians and the horror-themed Samhain Sorceries. Rather than reprints or specially solicited authors, Die By the Sword is intended to be the first in a series of anthologies featuring all-new sword & sorcery tales gathered via open calls for submissions. This initial volume includes eleven stories by both previous DMR contributors (Howie K. Bentley, Matthew Knight, etc.) and newcomers. The gorgeous cover artwork is provided by underground comix and paperback veteran John Pound, who may be most well known among readers of a certain age for his work on Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids line of trading cards. Alas, the cover is a reissue of a painting from 1980 and no lion-headed warriors appear in this book.
Die By the Sword starts off strong with “Ardax in Antillia” by Dariel R.A. Quiogue. Hailing from the Philippines, the prolific Quiogue has been popping up frequently in fantasy and adventure-fiction venues, including the first installment of Rakehell magazine and issue zero of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine. As with those outings, Quiogue blends historically-inspired settings with swordplay and monsters, creating stories that bring to mind the classic Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventure movies. “Ardax in Antillia” involves a pair of gladiators who, after their escape from a Roman arena in Iberia, encounter a beautiful maiden condemned to be sacrificed to the cruel Atlantean gods. The fast-paced tale that follows is packed with visceral combat and fun aquatic monsters.
“Rites of the Black Goddess” by Paul D. Batteiger is another outstanding story. Fresh from the Crusades and Jerusalem, war-weary lord Morcar returns home to find his domain usurped by an arrogant Norman count. Through the aid of steel and decidedly unchristian magic, Morcar immediately sets about regaining his birthright. While most of the stories in Die By the Sword pair gritty combat with a dark outlook, this violent and moody piece is especially likely to appeal to grimdark fans.
Sharing a setting with the author’s 2022 novel Frolic on the Amaranthyn, Chase A. Folmar’s “The Sorcerer’s Scion” is another tale that emphasizes shadowy atmospherics. The bulk of this short chronicles the final hours of sell-sword Kulvrak—found killed under mysterious circumstances at the story’s outset—hired to rescue the daughter of a deranged herbalist from a nightmarish garden in squalid Old Iskalruun. Folmar cites classic Weird Tales scribe Clark Ashton Smith as an influence, and this story similarly delivers both lush prose and tense strangeness.
Inevitably with anthologies, some stories are less successful than others. Neither Howie K. Bentley’s “Secrets Only Dragons Know” nor “The Key to the Blood Pyramid” by Matthew Knight quite worked for me. The former involves Eldol, a warrior Briton who joins forces with a tribal witch in a quest for revenge against treacherous Saxons. The witch is demonstrated to have an agenda of her own, but muddy storytelling and an overly cryptic ending ensured that the titular dragons kept their secrets to themselves. “The Key to the Blood Pyramid” holds together better as a narrative, but the over-the-top vampyre-slaying magical armor-clad dimension-crossing protagonist (previously seen in 2019’s Karnov: Phantom-Clad Rider of the Cosmic Ice, by Knight, Bentley, and Byron A. Roberts) reminded this reviewer of a well-meaning but over-exuberant guy at a game store telling everyone within earshot all about his “cool” high-level Dungeons & Dragons character.
Among many strong stories, the highlight of Die By the Sword for me was Gregory D. Mele’s “The Heart of Vengeance.” Like Mele’s previous contributions to Tales From the Magician’s Skull No. 6 and Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Pulp Sword and Sorcery issue 5, “The Heart of Vengeance” takes place in the Aztec-inspired setting of Azatlan. After warrior lord Helomon Twelve-Vulture loses his kingdom to a treacherous cousin, he embarks on an epic quest of retribution. He gains the mystical assistance of the skull-faced priesthood of Xokolatl, Lord Death, but is left with a troubling prophecy: all other victories will be Helomon’s, but should he seek the life of his usurper cousin he will not live to see the completion of his revenge. This central tension—is revenge worth one’s own death?—plus the intriguing setting combine for a very compelling dark fantasy tale.
Also worthy of note is the final story in Die By the Sword, “The Sacrifice” by Elias Varsity. Deceived by an alluring woman of the night, arrogant Greek wanderer Cleofas finds himself pinioned by a marble statue in an isolated ruin. His arm trapped in an unyielding stone fist, the harsh Mediterranean sun threatens to drive him delirious before an ignominious death of thirst. His only possible salvation lies with a cloaked, misshapen lurker that speaks in riddles. The shrouded figure offers him escape, but at a terrible price. A nasty little grimdark fable that deals quite directly with hubris and the punishment thereof, “The Sacrifice” lingers in the brain.
Die By the Sword is a strong collection of stories from fascinating newer voices. While not every story hit the mark with me, it is important to emphasize that NONE of the stories in Die By the Sword are boring. Violent action and fast-paced storytelling are ubiquitous, there is a generous serving of horror, and the stories are peppered with crowd-pleasing operatic themes like self-destructive revenge, desperate rescue missions, and rulers in exile. In addition to its reprints, DMR Books has devoted a great deal of effort to showcasing newer pulp sword & sorcery and dark fantasy authors. It’s exciting to see DMR casting its net even wider with open calls for submissions, and it is this reviewer’s hope that the proposed series continues.