REVIEW: Tales From The Magician’s Skull – No. 10

First debuting in 2018, Goodman Publications’ Tales From The Magician’s Skull has reached its landmark tenth issue. While the arrival of new magazines dedicated to short fantasy fiction is not uncommon, Tales From The Magician’s Skull distinguishes itself from its fellows via its specific editorial focus and high production values. Directed by editor Howard Andrew Jones, the magazine is dedicated to never-before-published stories written in the classic pulp Sword & Sorcery tradition.

Tales From The Magician’s SkullIn addition to digital formats, the magazine is available in high-quality physical volumes manufactured via traditional offset printing (rather than print-on-demand). This tenth issue boasts a vibrant cover painting by veteran paperback cover and comic book artist Sanjulian, and each of the nine stories contained within have been given their own accompanying black and white illustration. Interior artists include Jennell Jaquays, Brad McDevitt, and Stefan Poag.

In an essay titled “Defining Sword-and-Sorcery” (collected in special issue No. 0 of Tales From The Magician’s Skull), Jones describes his vision of the S&S sub-genre and what distinguishes it from other varieties of fantasy. He highlights the outsider hero as one of the hallmarks of S&S: the protagonists often exist on the margins of society as wandering barbarians or thieves, rather than comfortably ensconced nobles and townsfolk. S&S heroes tend to live by their wits and martial ability, with magic either unreliable as a tool or outright malignant. And rather than lofty ideals or nation-level politics, these heroes tend to be motivated by earthier, more immediate concerns: the acquisition of wealth, romantic desire or lust, or the simple will to survive another day. Jones also emphasizes the breakneck pacing of S&S stories and their focus on violent action. All of the stories contained in this tenth issue demonstrate these qualities, making Tales From The Magician’s Skull an easy recommendation to readers who enjoy an abundance of action and peril in their fantasy.

The magazine’s cover art is dedicated to “The Demon Rats,” by C. L. Werner, a prolific author of licensed fiction set in the various WARHAMMER settings. The story involves Shintaro Oba, a disgraced samurai who finds himself tasked with exterminating a suspiciously coordinated horde of iron-fanged rodents intent on destroying a temple’s library of scriptures. He receives some assistance from an alluring shape-shifter with her own agenda. While Shintaro Oba has appeared in previous stories, no prior knowledge of the character is required to enjoy this adventure. Both the premise and characters are colorful, but some of the names feel awkwardly constructed in Japanese.

Perhaps the simplest story in the issue is also one of the most effective. “Green Face, Purple Haze” by Marc DeSantis is about an American soldier in the Vietnam War who finds himself magically transported to a fantasy realm with its own battles raging. Gunpowder fails to work, robbing him of the technological advantage of his assault rifle, but his modern military training and indomitable fighting spirit serve him well in the conflict between humans and the bestial urks. Although the specific words of the modern US Marine mantra “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” do not appear in the text, this story entertainingly celebrates that ethos. With its focus on the unchanging nature of war and visceral combat descriptions, this story in particular has a lot to love for grimdark enthusiasts.

Many of the stories collected in this issue are grounded and gritty, but others venture into much stranger territory. “The Sorcerer’s Mask” by Jason Ray Carney, managing editor of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Pulp Sword and Sorcery, involves an unnamed thief unjustly cast into a vast dungeon by a paranoid immortal wizard. The Rogue must rely on his wits and the aid of an enigmatic soothsayer to effect his escape, and there is a sense of grim inevitability leading up to the final confrontation. The story moves quickly despite its vivid detail, covering a surprising amount of ground in a mere six pages. “A Simple Errand” by Grimdark Magazine contributor Matthew John also involves a prison break, but one where a sorcerer (or “meddler” in the story’s parlance) frees a barbarian warrior awaiting execution in order to put him to work on a dark mission: killing an alien god on another world. This adventure is packed with hallucinatory imagery worthy of Roger Dean’s cosmic prog rock album artwork.

A surprise highlight of the issue was “The Black Pearl of the Sunken Lands,” by Cynthia Ward. In this story, a headstrong youth named Bruko vows to reclaim a legendary lost treasure to prove himself worthy of the affections of a beautiful maiden. This familiar premise is freshened by the fact that the protagonist is a nereus (aquatic humanoid) and his sidekick in the endeavor is an intelligent dolphin with blades strapped to his fins. It’s a simple thing, but the underwater setting makes a significant difference in the feel of the story. Ward’s sly humor further enhances the piece; the object of Bruko’s affections makes it pretty obvious to the reader that she’s not especially interested in marrying Bruko, and the dolphin companion proves to be more intelligent than the hero he’s accompanying.

The stories in this issue all share brisk pacing and an emphasis on swordplay, but their heroes are diverse in nature. In addition to Werner’s samurai hero, African-inspired and Native American warriors (in “Nzara” by D. J. Tyrer and “The Silent Mound” by Charles D. Shell, respectively) also have opportunities to shine. One of the toughest and most physically imposing characters herein is a woman: Dakagna, heroine of the grimdark-inflected “Dakagna and the Blood Scourge” by W. J. Lewis. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Jade, the heroine of Jeffery Sergent’s “The Eye of Kaleet,” who uses guile to survive situations where she is clearly outmatched martially.

The issue concludes with a brief appendix entitled “The Monster Pit,” giving various monsters appearing in the fiction game statistics for use with the publisher’s Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. This is a fun addendum for players of DCC RPG or other games with systems largely compatible with early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but the page count it occupies is minimal, meaning that non-gamer readers are unlikely to feel alienated or slighted by the non-prose content.

Ten issues and nearly five years in, Tales From The Magician’s Skull continues to deliver fantastic action-adventure tales in an appealing and polished package. Previous issues included a number of established names familiar to fans of contemporary Sword & Sorcery—Adrian Cole, James Enge, John C. Hocking, Violette Malan—but the most recent installments have also begun incorporating exciting newer voices as well. The magazine enjoys near universal acclaim among Sword & Sorcery readers and has become a sort of Holy Grail venue for S&S writers looking to showcase their work, but—like the sub-genre itself—one still gets the feeling that Tales From The Magician’s Skull isn’t quite getting the sort of wider recognition its quality deserves. Whether this is due to difficulties in promoting short fantasy fiction in today’s increasingly entertainment-saturated market is unclear. Perhaps the magazine’s association with a role-playing game publisher and each issue’s appendix of game statistics lead some fantasy readers to assume that Tales From The Magician’s Skull is an RPG magazine, rather than an original fiction magazine with some bonus RPG content. Sword & Sorcery tales are full of scrappy underdogs doing whatever it takes to survive, but like those heroes it’s nice to see the underdogs rewarded in the end with glory and gold. Other Grimdark Magazine contributors (cf. Matthew John’s Robert E. Howard: Godfather of Grimdark? and John R. Fultz’s The Mud, The Blood, and the Years: Why “Grimdark” is the New “Sword and Sorcery”) have remarked upon the considerable amount of shared DNA between Sword & Sorcery and grimdark fantasy fiction. Grimdark readers are encouraged to give Tales From The Magician’s Skull a look, perhaps it will become a new favorite discovery.

Read Tales From The Magician’s Skull – No. 10 edited by Howard Andrew Jones

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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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