The Bonds of Blood: A Review of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

I was beyond honored to receive an ARC of Scourge to review. I have been a fan of Gail Z. Martin since her debut novel, The Summoner, and for every year since I have not missed a release. Waiting for another novel from Ms. Martin is like waiting for the latest season of your favorite show. You’re not sure how it could get better. It just does, and with each passing episode (or page) you become more heavily endeared to the characters and settings. Getting into the rich worlds of Gail Z. Martin is a privilege I hope everyone will take advantage of.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Spoiler Free Review

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst has everything the adventurous seeker of a swashbuckling good time could hope for: forbidden magic, a household of undertakers unwillingly drawn into a war they cannot see for a purpose they cannot hope to understand without further aid, a rich cityscape woven into a larger world map full of corruption to be overcome. While the Valmonde brothers fight for their lives and livelihood on the ground, the Lord Mayor of the province of Ravenwood plays a dangerous game of political intrigue, holding a loose-canon blood mage in the palm of his hand the way a desperate man clutches the stock of a gun, full of amazement at the raw power and afraid to use it. Unknown to all is an even more elaborate game that not even the Lord Mayor is privy to, and over it all is yet another rich pantheon of guild gods and goddesses that demand loyalty from their artisan worshipers, driven before a frightening pantheon of Elder Gods that will not be denied.

The Valmonde brothers, Corran, Rigan, and Kell, are worshipers of Doharmu, the only Guild God of the Bakaran League who doubles as a Guild God and an Elder God, the only god that requires no sacrifice because all must go to Doharmu in the end. As Undertakers, the Valmondes perform the ritual rights of burial, sending the souls of good men, women, and children on to the After, and sending the scum of the earth to the Void where they belong. The Valmondes are Martin’s most endearing family, held together by ties of family and blood that even the worst tragedy cannot tear apart. When Rigan discovers the grave magic of his order is fueled by more than ritual, Rigan must find a way to control the dangerous weapon his being has become before he loses control entirely, or else forfeit his life to the witch hunters in Lord Mayor Machison’s employ. Corran fights to defend his home and brothers and friends from vicious monsters attacking the city that seem to spring from the ground. Corran soon discovers the city’s guards seem more interested in stopping the hunters than protecting the people from the monsters, and behind it all is the cruelty of a blood mage worthy of any GrimDark tale. Between the fight of the Valmondes and the Lord Mayor’s machinations are the innocent people of Ravenwood. Gail Z. Martin stretches her legs as a mastermind of political intrigue with a cast of characters whose greed knows no bounds, and gives voice to one of her most vile monsters.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst offers the reader a popcorn-popping page turner that will brook no interruption!

No Holds Barred! Spoiler Alert!

Do Not Proceed If You Haven’t Read It!

WAIT. WHERE AM I?

Scourge has something for everyone from casual readers to veteran scholars of epic fantasy. Though Martin isn’t known for gross sex scenes and even her horror scenes lack a little bit of brute force (this isn’t the creepy death-ridden landscape of Deadly Curiosities) Martin has surprised me of late with a few characters that make me question my moral compass. Vedrand Pollard from the Ascendant Kingdoms was the start of the trend. To this day I can’t quite figure out if I hate him or not. Lord Mayor Machison, for all that he ends his reign of terror on a down beat, also seems to only be doing the best he can with what he has. Sure, Machison has zero conscience and doesn’t see himself for the butcher that he is, but that’s the beauty of his character. No one, no matter how awful they are, considers themselves to be wholly evil. They will always find a redeeming quality in themselves. Though Machison will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, he is not at first prepared to sell his own people out wholesale. Machison is at war as much with himself as he is with his rivals, and Martin’s walk with Machison down the dark road of utter insanity and desperation that culminates in Machison’s final fall from grace leads me to wonder: when the Hell did we wander into GrimDark country?

For those who are unfamiliar, GrimDark is a genre of fantasy that may or may not include protagonists whose moral compass points due south and and whose monsters make better heroes than the beautiful people. Those who understand GrimDark will understand why I don’t entirely hate Pollard and why Machison is easily the most compelling character in Scourge.

Unseasoned fantasy readers may find Martin’s political intrigue hard to follow at first, but with Machison at the rudder, you’ll soon get your bearings.

Oh. now that’s just not fair.

I have so little to criticize in this latest gem from one of my favorite authors, for whom I am a legacy reviewer and would be happy to continue writing reviews as long as she keeps writing novels! But for the love of all that’s GrimDark, not Blackholt!

Haha! You thought I was gonna talk about Kell. Well…I can’t talk about Kell…I’m not crying, you are!

I tried to make my peace, but I cannot leave this alone! Blackholt is easily one of Martin’s most vile bad guys. Pentreath Reese might have been a mad man–and a vampire!–but he was at least partially on a leash. Blackholt is a loose canon. He works on a cash-only basis but to Blackholt, wealth is immaterial. Preservation of the balance is Blackholt’s sole motivation, though it cannot be denied he’s married to his work. Martin let go of the leash a little with Blackholt and has proven yet again that the monster is truly at his worst when he speaks.

It is Blackholt’s treatment that left me in agony. One can only hope that this is not the last we have heard of a monster as powerful as Blackholt, and if that is the end of the blood mage, I hope that the next time we get a gruesome character as unstable as Blackholt, we get to hold onto him a little longer. There was a great potential of emotional depth and depravity that is hinted at but never followed through with.

I know…I’m weird. I like the bad guys. I’m sure I’m alone in this. For all that he was a shade of black that I want wrap up in like my favorite sweater, he was the bad guy, and he got what every bad guy deserves, and no one can say it was not satisfying to see the Valmondes in their moment of triumph!

Back In The Safe Zone: Closing

It is my sincere hope that we have not heard the last of the Valmonde brothers as they strive to pull Ravenwood, and the rest of Darkhurst, back from the brink of destruction. Scourge is a bright beginning to an all new realm that combines the familiar comfort of The Summoner and the Winter Kingdoms with Martin’s latest work in the realms of urban fantasy with her Deadly Curiosities novels. Gail Z. Martin is a veteran author with an on-going bibliography that, Oj and Ren willing, shows no signs of stopping.

You can pre-order Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst here!

Stock photo of Gail Z. Martin, author of Scourge.
Gail Z Martin is the author of Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

Gail Z. Martin is the acclaimed author of The Winter Kingdoms Novels, The Fallen Kings Cycle, The Ascendant Kingdoms, and The Deadly Curiosities novels, as well as the author of several collections of short fiction from her various worlds and realms. She released the Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook in 2017, and is an anchor author for several anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @GailZMartin, disquietingvisions.com, and the Ghost In the Machine podcast to name just a few of the ways you can find out more about this talented, prolific author and brand manager.

Want to get in on the goods and get to know Gail, join us at The Shadow Alliance on Facebook. DM me at @SquealingNerd on Twitter to get you an invite! We still have a few t-shirts and tote bags!

I designed the -shirt for fantasy author Gail Z. Martin's grassroots marketing group, the Shadow Alliance. It is a digital composite design that utilizes some of the effects of her cover art for The Summoner, runes, and text that reads, "Gail Martin's Shadow Alliance. Forged in Iron and Blood, Straight Outta Edgeland".

 

Dark Corners Presents: An Excerpt of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

A full moon on a twilit sky highlights "The Hawthorn Moon: A Sneak Peak Event" on the banner for Gail Z. Martin's book tour artwork.
Gail Z. Martin’s book tour event, The Hawthorne Moon.

Dark Corners is proud to host Gail Z. Martin on her Hawthorn Moon book tour this sweltering summer. This year, we’re featuring one of Ms. Martin’s latest offerings, Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

An Excerpt from Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

By Gail Z. Martin

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Chapter One

A HEAVY IRON candleholder slammed against the wall, just missing Corran Valmonde’s head.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Try not to make her mad, Corran.”

Rigan Valmonde knelt on the worn floor, drawing a sigil in charcoal, moving as quickly as he dared.

Not quickly enough; a piece of firewood spun from the hearth and flew across the room, slamming him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt in pain.

“Keep her off me!” he snapped, repairing the smudge in the soot line. Sloppy symbols meant sloppy magic, and that could get someone killed.

“I would if I could see her.” Corran stepped away from the wall, raising his iron sword, putting himself between the fireplace and his brother. His breath misted in the unnaturally cold room and moisture condensed on the wavy glass of the only window.

“Watch where you step.” Rigan worked on the second sigil, widdershins from the soot marking, this one daubed in ochre. “I don’t want to have to do this again.”

A small ceramic bowl careened from the mantle, and, for an instant, Rigan glimpsed a young woman in a blood-soaked dress, one hand clutching her heavily pregnant belly. The other hand slipped right through the bowl, even as the dish hurtled at Rigan’s head. Rigan dove to one side
and the bowl smashed against the opposite wall. At the same time, Corran’s sword slashed down through the specter. A howl of rage filled the air as the ghost dissipated.

You have no right to be in my home. The dead woman’s voice echoed in Rigan’s mind.

Get out of my head.

You are a confessor. Hear me!

Not while you’re trying to kill my brother.

“You’d better hurry.” Corran slowly turned, watching for the ghost.
“I can’t rush the ritual.” Rigan tried to shut out the ghost’s voice, focusing on the complex chalk sigil. He reached into a pouch and drew a thin curved line of salt, aconite, and powdered amanita, connecting the first sigil to the second, and the second to the third and fourth, working
his way to drawing a complete warded circle.

The ghost materialized without warning on the other side of the line, thrusting a thin arm toward Rigan, her long fingers crabbed into claws, old blood beneath her torn nails. She opened a gash on Rigan’s cheek as he stumbled backward, grabbed a handful of the salt mixture and
threw it. The apparition vanished with a wail.

“Corran!” Rigan’s warning came a breath too late as the ghost appeared right behind his brother, and took a swipe with her sharp, filthy nails, clawing Corran’s left shoulder.

He wronged me. He let me die, let my baby die— The voice shrieked in Rigan’s mind.

“Draw the damn signs!” Corran yelled. “I’ll handle her.” He wheeled, and before the blood- smeared ghost could strike again, the tip of his iron blade caught her in the chest. Her image dissipated like smoke, with a shriek that echoed from the walls.

Avenge me.

Sorry, lady, Rigan thought as he reached for a pot of pigment. I’m stuck listening to dead people’s dirty little secrets and last regrets, but I just bury people. Take your complaints up with the gods.

“Last one.” Rigan marked the rune in blue woad. The condensation on the window turned to frost, and he shivered. The ghost flickered, insubstantial but still identifiable as the young woman who had died bringing her stillborn child into the world. Her blood still stained the floor
in the center of the warded circle and held her to this world as surely as her grief. Wind whipped through the room, and would have scattered the salt and aconite line if Rigan had not daubed the mixture onto the floor in paste. Fragments of the broken bowl scythed through the air. The iron candle holder sailed across the room; Corran dodged it again, and a
shard caught the side of his brother’s head, opening a cut on Rigan’s scalp, sending a warm rush of blood down the side of his face.

The ghost raged on, her anger and grief whipping the air into a whirlwind.

I will not leave without justice for myself and my son.

You don’t really have a choice about it, Rigan replied silently and stepped across the warding, careful not to smudge the lines, pulling an iron knife from his belt. He nodded to Corran and together their voices rose as they chanted the burial rite, harmonizing out of long practice, the words of the Old Language as familiar as their own names.

The ghostly woman’s image flickered again, solid enough now that Rigan could see the streaks of blood on her pale arms and make out the pattern of her dress. She appeared right next to him, close enough that his shoulder bumped against her chest, and her mouth brushed his ear.

’Twas not nature that killed me. My faithless husband let us bleed because he thought the child was not his own.

The ghost vanished, compelled to reappear in the center of the circle, standing on the bloodstained floor. Rigan extended his trembling right hand and called to the magic, drawing on the old, familiar currents of power. The circle and runes flared with light. The sigils burned in red,
white, blue, and black, with the salt-aconite lines a golden glow between them.

Corran and Rigan’s voices rose as the glow grew steadily brighter, and the ghost raged all the harder against the power that held her, thinning the line between this world and the next, opening a door and forcing her through it. One heartbeat she was present; in the next she was gone, though her screams continued to echo.

Rigan and Corran kept on chanting, finishing the rite as the circle’s glow faded and the sigils dulled to mere pigment once more. Rigan lowered his palm and dispelled the magic, then blew out a deep breath.

“That was not supposed to happen.” Corran’s scowl deepened as he looked around the room, taking in the shattered bowl and the dented candle holder. He flinched, noticing Rigan’s wounds now that the immediate danger had passed.

“You’re hurt.”

Rigan shrugged. “Not as bad as you are.” He wiped blood from his face with his sleeve, then bent to gather the ritual materials.

“She confessed to you?” Corran bent to help his brother, wincing at the movement.

“Yeah. And she had her reasons,” Rigan replied. He looked at Corran, frowning at the blood that soaked his shirt. “We’ll need to wash and bind your wounds when we get back to the shop.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

They packed up their gear, but Corran did not sheath his iron sword until they were ready to step outside. A small crowd had gathered, no doubt drawn by the shrieks and thuds and the flares of light through the cracked, dirty window.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” Corran said, exhaustion clear in his voice. “We’re just the undertakers.”

Once they were convinced the excitement was over, the onlookers dispersed, leaving one man standing to the side. He looked up anxiously as Rigan and Corran approached him.

“Is it done? Is she gone?” For an instant, eagerness shone too clearly in his eyes. Then his posture shifted, shoulders hunching, gaze dropping, and mask slipped back into place. “I mean, is she at rest? After all she’s been through?”

Before Corran could answer, Rigan grabbed the man by the collar, pulled him around the corner into an alley and threw him up against the wall.

“You can stop the grieving widower act,” he growled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corran standing guard at the mouth of the alley, gripping his sword.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial did not reach the man’s eyes.

“You let her bleed out, you let the baby die, because you didn’t think the child was yours.”

Rigan’s voice was rough as gravel, pitched low so that only the trembling man could hear him.

“She betrayed me—”

“No.” The word brought the man up short. “No, if she had been lying, her spirit wouldn’t have been trapped here.” Rigan slammed the widower against the wall again to get his attention.

“Rigan—” Corran cautioned.

“Lying spirits don’t get trapped.” Rigan had a tight grip on the man’s shirt, enough that he could feel his body trembling. “Your wife. Your baby. Your fault.” He stepped back and let the man down, then threw him aside to land on the cobblestones.

“The dead are at peace. You’ve got the rest of your life to live with what you did.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, as the man choked back a sob.

Corran sheathed his sword. “I really wish you’d stop beating up paying customers,” he grumbled as they turned to walk back to the shop.

“Wish I could. Don’t know how to stop being confessor to the dead, not sure what else to do once I know the dirt,” Rigan replied, an edge of pain and bitterness in his voice.

“So the husband brought us in to clean up his mess?” Corran winced as he walked; the gashes on his arm and back had to be throbbing.

“Yeah.”

“I like it better when the ghosts confess something like where they buried their money,” Corran replied.

“So do I.”

The sign over the front of the shop read Valmonde Undertakers. Around back, in the alley, the sign over the door just said Bodies. Corran led the way, dropping the small rucksack containing their gear just inside the entrance, and cursed under his breath as the strap raked across raw shoulders.

“Sit down,” Rigan said, nodding at an unoccupied mortuary table. He tied his brown hair into a queue before washing his hands in a bucket of fresh water drawn from the pump. “Let me have a look at those wounds.”

Footsteps descended the stairs from the small apartment above.

“You’re back? How bad was it?” Kell, the youngest of the Valmonde brothers, stopped halfway down the stairs. He had Corran’s coloring, taking after their father, with dark blond hair that curled when it grew long. Rigan’s brown hair favored their mother. All three brothers’ blue
eyes were the same shade, making the resemblance impossible to overlook.

“Shit.” Kell jumped the last several steps as he saw his brothers’ injuries. He grabbed a bucket of water and scanned a row of powders and elixirs, grabbing bottles and measuring out with a practiced eye and long experience. “I thought you said it was just a banishing.”

“It was supposed to be ‘just’ a banishing,” Rigan said as Corran stripped off his bloody shirt.

“But it didn’t go entirely to plan.” He soaked a clean cloth in the bucket Kell held and wrung it out.

“A murder, not a natural death,” Corran said, and his breath hitched as Rigan daubed his wounds. “Another ghost with more power than it should have had.”

Rigan saw Kell appraising Corran’s wounds, glancing at the gashes on Rigan’s face and hairline.

“Mine aren’t as bad,” Rigan said.

“When you’re done with Corran, I’ll take care of them,” Kell said. “So I’m guessing Mama’s magic kicked in again, if you knew about the murder?”

“Yeah,” Rigan replied in a flat voice.

Undertaking, like all the trades in Ravenwood, was a hereditary profession. That it came with its own magic held no surprise; all the trades did. The power and the profession were passed down from one generation to the next. Undertakers could ease a spirit’s transition to the realm beyond, nudge a lost soul onward, or release one held back by unfinished business. Sigils, grave markings, corpse paints, and ritual chants were all part of the job. But none of the other undertakers that Rigan knew had a mama who was part Wanderer. Of the three Valmonde
brothers, only Rigan had inherited her ability to hear the confessions of the dead, something not even the temple priests could do. His mother had called it a gift. Most of the time, Rigan regarded it as a burden, sometimes a curse. Usually, it just made things more complicated than they needed to be.

“Hold still,” Rigan chided as Corran winced. “Ghost wounds draw taint.” He wiped away the blood, cleaned the cuts, and then applied ointment from the jar Kell handed him. All three of them knew the routine; they had done this kind of thing far too many times.

“There,” he said, binding up Corran’s arm and shoulder with strips of gauze torn from a clean linen shroud. “That should do it.”

Corran slid off the table to make room for Rigan. While Kell dealt with his brother’s wounds, Corran went to pour them each a whiskey.

“That’s the second time this month we’ve had a spirit go from angry to dangerous,” Corran said, returning with their drinks. He pushed a glass into Rigan’s hand, and set one aside for Kell, who was busy wiping the blood from his brother’s face.

“I’d love to know why.” Rigan tried not to wince as Kell probed his wounds. The deep gash where the pottery shard had sliced his hairline bled more freely than the cut on his cheek. Kell swore under his breath as he tried to staunch the bleeding.

“It’s happening all over Ravenwood, and no one in the Guild seems to know a damn thing about why or what to do about it,” Corran said, knocking his drink back in one shot. “Old Daniels said he’d heard his father talk about the same sort of thing, but that was fifty years ago.
So why did the ghosts stop being dangerous then, and what made them start being dangerous now?”

Rigan started to shake his head, but stopped at a glare from Kell, who said, “Hold still.”

He let out a long breath and complied, but his mind raced. Until the last few months, banishings were routine. Violence and tragedy sometimes produced ghosts, but in all the years since Rigan and Corran had been undertakers—first helping their father and uncles and then running the business since the older men had passed away—banishings were usually uneventful.

Make the marks, sing the chant, the ghost goes on and we go home. So what’s changed?

“I’m sick of being handed my ass by things that aren’t even solid,” Rigan grumbled. “If this keeps up, we’ll need to charge more.”

Corran snorted. “Good luck convincing Guild Master Orlo to raise the rates.”

Rigan’s eyes narrowed. “Guild Master Orlo can dodge flying candlesticks and broken pottery. See how he likes it.”

“Once you’ve finished grumbling we’ve got four new bodies to attend to,” Kell said. “One’s a Guild burial and the others are worth a few silvers a piece.” Rigan did not doubt that Kell had negotiated the best fees possible, he always did.

“Nice,” Rigan replied, and for the first time noticed that there were corpses on the other tables in the workshop, covered with sheets. “We can probably have these ready to take to the cemetery in the morning.”

“One of them was killed by a guard,” Kell said, turning his back and keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“Do you know why?” Corran tensed.

“His wife said he protested when the guard doubled the ‘protection’ fee. Guess the guard felt he needed to be taught a lesson.” Bribes were part of everyday life in Ravenwood, and residents generally went along with the hated extortion. Guilds promised to shield their members from the
guards’ worst abuses, but in reality, the Guild Masters only intervened in the most extreme cases, fearful of drawing the Lord Mayor’s ire. At least, that had been the excuse when Corran sought justice from the Undertakers’ Guild for their father’s murder, a fatal beating on flimsy charges.

Rigan suspected the guards had killed their father because the neighborhood looked up to him, and if he’d decided to speak out in opposition, others might have followed. Even with the passing years, the grief remained sharp, the injustice bitter. Kell went to wash his hands in a bucket by the door.

“Trent came by while you and Corran were out. There’s been another attack, three dead. He wants you to go have a look and take care
of the bodies.”

Rigan and Corran exchanged a glance. “What kind of attack?”

Kell sighed. “What kind do you think? Creatures.” He hesitated. “I got the feeling from Trent this was worse than usual.”

“Did Trent say what kind of creatures?” Corran asked, and Rigan picked up on an edge to his brother’s voice.

Kell nodded. “Ghouls.”

Corran swore under his breath and looked away, pushing back old memories.

“All right,” he said, not quite managing to hide a shudder. “Let’s go get the bodies before it gets any later. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”

“Kell and I can go, if you want to start on the ones here,” Rigan offered.

Corran shook his head. “No. I’m not much use as an undertaker if I can’t go get the corpses no matter how they came to an end,” Corran said.

Rigan heard the undercurrent in his tone. Kell glanced at Rigan, who gave a barely perceptible nod, warning Kell to say nothing. Corran’s dealing with the memories the best way he knows how, Rigan thought. I just wish there weren’t so many reminders.

“I’ll prepare the wash and the pigments, and get the shrouds ready,” Kell said. “I’ll have these folks ready for your part of the ritual by the time you get back.” He gestured to the bodies already laid out. “Might have to park the new ones in the cart for a bit and switch out—tables are
scarce.”

Corran grimaced. “That’ll help.” He turned to Rigan. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Kell gave them the directions Trent had provided. Corran took up the long poles of the undertaker’s cart, which clattered behind him as they walked. Rigan knew better than to talk to his brother when he was in this kind of mood. At best he could be present, keep Corran from having to deal with the ghouls’ victims alone, and sit up with him afterward.

It’s only been three months since he buried Jora, since we almost had to bury him. The memory’s raw, although he won’t mention it. But Kell and I both hear what he shouts in his sleep. He’s still fighting them in his dreams, and still losing.

Rigan’s memories of that night were bad enough—Trent stumbling to the back door of the shop, carrying Corran, bloody and unconscious; Corran’s too-still body on one of the mortuary tables; Kell praying to Doharmu and any god who would listen to stave off death; Trent, covered in Corran’s blood, telling them how he had found their brother and Jora out in the tavern barn, the ghoul that attacked them already feasting on Jora’s fresh corpse.

Rigan never did understand why Trent had gone to the barn that night, or how he managed to fight off the ghoul. Corran and Jora, no doubt, had slipped away for a tryst, expecting the barn to be safe and private. Corran said little of the attack, and Rigan hoped his brother truly did not remember all the details.

“We’re here.” Corran’s rough voice and expressionless face revealed more than any words.

Ross, the farrier, met them at the door. “I’m sorry to have to call you out,” he said.

“It’s our job,” Corran replied. “I’m just sorry the godsdamned ghouls are back.”

“Not for long,” Ross said under his breath. A glance passed between Corran and Ross. Rigan filed it away to ask Corran about later.

The stench hit Rigan as soon as they entered the barn. Two horses lay gutted in their stalls and partially dismembered. Blood spattered the wooden walls and soaked the sawdust. Flies swarmed on what the ghouls had left behind.

“They’re over here,” Ross said. The bodies of two men and a woman had been tossed aside like discarded bones at a feast. Rigan swallowed down bile. Corran paled, his jaw working as he ground his teeth.

Rigan and Corran knew better than most what remained of a corpse once a ghoul had finished with it. Belly torn open to get to the soft organs; ribs split wide to access the heart. How much of the flesh remained depended on the ghoul’s hunger and whether or not it feasted undisturbed. Given the state these bodies were in—their faces were the only parts left
untouched—the ghouls had taken their time. Rigan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself not to retch.

“What about the creatures?” Corran asked.

“Must have fled when they heard us coming,” Ross said. “We were making plenty of noise.”

Ross handed them each a shovel, and took one up himself. “There’s not much left, and what’s there is… loose.”

“Who were they?” Rigan asked, not sure Corran felt up to asking questions.

Ross swallowed hard. “One of the men was my cousin, Tad. The other two were customers. They brought in the two horses late in the day, and my cousin said he’d handle it.”

Rigan heard the guilt in Ross’s tone.

“Guild honors?” Corran asked, finding his voice, and Ross nodded.

Rigan brought the cart into the barn, stopping as close as possible to the mangled corpses. The bodies were likely to fall to pieces as soon as they began shoveling.

“Yeah,” Ross replied, getting past the lump in his throat. “Send them off right.” He shook his head. “They say the monsters are all part of the Balance, like life and death cancel each other out somehow. That’s bullshit, if you ask me.”

The three men bent to their work, trying not to think of the slippery bones and bloody bits as bodies. Carcasses. Like what’s left when the butcher’s done with a hog, or the vultures are finished with a cow, Rigan thought. The barn smelled of blood and entrails, copper and shit.

Rigan looked at what they loaded into the cart. Only the skulls made it possible to tell that the remains had once been human.

“I’m sorry about this, but I need to do it—to keep them from rising as ghouls or restless spirits,” Rigan said. He pulled a glass bottle from the bag at the front of the wagon, and carefully removed the stopper, sprinkling the bodies with green vitriol to burn the flesh and prevent the
corpses from rising. The acid sizzled, sending up noxious tendrils of smoke. Rigan stoppered the bottle and pulled out a bag of the salt-aconite-amanita mixture, dusting it over the bodies,
assuring that the spirits would remain at rest.

Ross nodded. “Better than having them return as one of those… things,” he said, shuddering.

“We’ll have them buried tomorrow,” Corran said as Rigan secured their grisly load.

“That’s more than fair,” Ross agreed. “Corran—you know if I’d had a choice about calling you—”

“It’s our job.” Corran cut off the apology. Ross knew about Jora’s death. That didn’t change the fact that they were the only Guild undertakers in this area of Ravenwood, and Ross was a friend.

“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon with the money,” Ross said, accompanying them to the door.

“We’ll be done by then,” Corran replied. Rigan went to pick up the cart’s poles, but Corran shook his head and lifted them himself.

Rigan did not argue. Easier for him to haul the wagon; that way he doesn’t have to look at the bodies and remember when Jora’s brother brought her for burial.

Rigan felt for the reassuring bulk of his knife beneath his cloak—a steel blade rather than the iron weapon they used in the banishing rite. No one knew the true nature of the monsters, or why so many more had started appearing in Ravenwood of late. Ghouls weren’t like angry ghosts or
restless spirits that could be banished with salt, aconite, and iron. Whatever darkness spawned them and the rest of their monstrous brethren, they were creatures of skin and bone; only beheading would stop them.

Rigan kept his blade sharpened.

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Scourge is available for pre-order on Amazon and at your local purveyors of fine parchment products.

 

A Gathering of Ravens, a Simple Review from a Humbled Reader

Some Spoilers Ahead

For those of you who are tired of ordinary fantasy, fed up with the same spry elves with gorgeous hair, and bored with the same old, tired, almost-always male protagonists and below-average intelligence bestiaries:

Welcome to Grimdark

Grimdark is that section of speculative fantasy and science fiction that just doesn’t go anywhere. Cross-platform plots, mixed bestiaries, unicorns in space, and a host of morally bankrupt protagonists make it difficult for Barnes and Noble to parse it by shelf section, so the readers and writers of Grimdark have created a class all their own.

Arguably, it was Michael Moorcock’s harsh criticism of his predecessor, Tolkien, that may have sparked the movement, but it is also found as far back as Mervyn Peake (Moorcock’s own inspiration) where we first begin to see the signs of decadence in a setting ruled by a monarchy no one would be sad to see die off in a genre traditionally ruled by monarchies whose protagonists are sworn to uphold them. In Peake we see the rise of the kitchen boy destined to be greater than he is, no matter who he has to drown, starve, maim, or humiliate to realize his endgame. Peake and Moorcock gave us the beautiful people we can’t love and villains we don’t hate.

Grimdark is defined by protagonists who are morally ambiguous. Sex is in your face, and not everyone enjoys it. Damsels save themselves. Elves are perhaps perverse and decadent while Orcs are the only beings you can trust. Anything Warhammer.

Leading the way in the pop culture front, often characterized as “Low Fantasy” is George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Baker, and the traditional Grimdark go-to’s: Glen Cook, Richard A. Knaak, and of course Michael Moorcock. Down here among the plebeians, we’re happy to promote the-up-and-comers: Michael Fletcher, Dyrk Ashton, and the inimitable Scott Oden. In fact that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today.

Let’s talk Grimdark: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden

I am sitting in my living room holding my copy of A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden for a selfie.
The pink says “cutie pie” but the hair cut says “We muster at first light.” I’m holding my advanced reader copy of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens.

If you were looking for a historical Grimdark fantasy tale that is one half-shaved head away from Ragnor Lothbrok, look no further than A Gathering of Ravens, set for publication June 20, 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. Scott Oden is no self-published novice. He’s a veteran author known for his previous works, Memnon and The Lion of Cairo, which I hope to pick up before the year is out. Scott Oden returns to his place among the scholars with A Gathering of Ravens, a novel set in medieval Scandinavia, England, and Ireland that tells a fast-paced, epic story of vengeance, oath breaking, kin slaying, and unshakeable faith. Fans of the History Channel television show Vikings will find a lot to love in this novel, especially if you have made it to any of the later seasons.

I was fortunate to be among the few who were given an ARC of AGoR, and let me tell you, my friends, you are in for a treat. Oden does not handle this novel like a traditional fantasy or traditional history novel. He blends the singular combination of a race of mythical people that spans three separate historical civilizations with a creature from the beastiaries we love to hate: orcs. Oden’s main character, Grimnir, is the last of a cursed race called the kaunr, so hated by the Norse that they are called skrailinger, and that wrecked such havoc during the Norse and Danish invasions that they are even known in England as the orcneas, and in Ireland as the fomorach. Mythically, they were the children of Ymir. According to Oden’s notes at the end of the novel, traces of the kaunr could be glimpsed in Grendel from Beowulf, and among the Fomorian of Irish legend, from which Oden takes their Irish name. Oden cleverly weaves these scraps of legend into a race of creatures bred for war and destruction, but with a keen sense of clannishness and bonds of blood that cannot be forgotten no matter how poisonous that particular blood relation might be. Hated and marginalized, the kaunr are wiped out, leaving only Grimnir Baelegyr’s Son and one other hated half-blood relative, Bjarki Half Dane.

Caught up in Grimnir’s quest for weregild (blood for blood) is Etain, a woman hiding as a Christian priest to escape a vengeful husband and devote her life to God. She has a role to play in Grimnir’s fate that she cannot escape, and must use her faith in God to hold onto her humanity as the last of her innocence is stripped from her.

As a story, Oden’s pacing for this novel is unmatched. In only 319 pages, Oden’s characters cross three countries and two timelines. The novel is episodic yet never strays from its original story arch. Oden’s characters are infuriatingly bull-headed (both of them) yet where Grimnir’s stalwart refusal to give up is unhealthy, Etain’s steadfast faith is a testament to her character as a human being. Her refusal to give up that faith against the onslaught of pagan magic surrounding her seems naive at first, and one expects her to break eventually from it. However, Etain soon learns that her faith is a shield and her greatest weapon. Etain is literally the embodiment of, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not falter.”

As a member of a race nearly forgotten by man, Grimnir’s own faith infuriates Etain, who is convinced that even Grimnir can be saved if he finds God. Grimnir does not compromise. He is everything you could possibly hope for in a strong protagonist, except for the part where he literally does not care about anyone but himself, not even Etain really.

The battle between the two faiths has no clear-cut good or evil, one true God or Allfather. No matter who is worshiped, everyone is going to Hell. Every character in the novel is the protagonist of his or her own story. For those who are looking for morals and happy endings, you’ll find it here but juuuuust barely. Characteristic of true Grimdark, no one is truly good or truly evil in this novel, which will draw many in the current market that made a hero out of Walter White and never got past the second book of Paradise Lost, but it may repulse traditional fantasy readers who are looking for Aragorn and Frodo. Grimnir killed them and he is not sorry.

Conclusions

As the fantasy market continues to prove itself as glutted and pretentious as all pop culture markets, Grimdark is a genre of fiction by the people for the people. When the industry stopped giving us what we needed from fiction, Grimdark authors wrote it themselves. You will be able to find A Gathering of Ravens on sale on Amazon in June. As a belated birthday present to me, please do yourself a favor and pre-order this novel. Scott Oden is proving that the independent publication industry is here to stay while deserving a wide readership among those who frequent the New York Times bestseller lists for their nightstand book pile.

Once again, thank you for this book, Scott. It took me forever to finish it because I did not want it to end.

Walking the Moonbeam Roads: Review of Nightmare’s Realm

Since the dawn of sentient humans, we have been obsessed with dreams.

We are perhaps the only beings in the known universe with the capability to question and interpret our dreams. Mankind searches for itself behind closed eyes, casting probes out into the expanding and contracting multiverse of infinite possibilities, asking questions we are not even aware we’re looking for answers to. We have sought deep within our own subconscious to uncover hidden truths presented to us in flashes of color, barely-remembered feelings, and alien vistas. No dream is perhaps more highly interpreted and picked apart than one’s nightmares. It is in nightmares that we run from our pasts, pursue our own self-punishment, and search for our place in the infinite cosmos.

Some of the greatest horror authors have been inspired by the snatches of mystery and half-understood disquiet following them during the wakeful day that gives way to oppressive treks through nighted forests. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was plagued by night terrors throughout his youth, and many of his characters dream strange things themselves. Fantasy and Speculative Fiction author Michael Moorcock wrote of Prince Elric, who travels the multiverse on the moonbeam roads and visits with demons on the dream couches of decadent Melnibone.

And now a new class of writers of the weird explore the depth of their psyches in the latest compilation by Dark Regions Press, Nightmare’s Realm.

A Review

A sickly green foreground mist envelopes two nightmarish figures. One is a female with a veil half covering her face. The other is a death-like creature with the exposed skull of a bovine. They both wear red and black.
Cover art for Nightmare’s Realm by Dark Regions Press, featuring stories from award winning authors and edited by S.T. Joshi

Nightmare’s Realm itself is well assembled, and there is an impressive A-list of authors including Ramsey Campbell, Nancy Kilpatrick (whom I’ve met–she’s a lovely lady), and Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as an award-winning lineup of fiction writers who have stepped out of the waking world to bring us this talent-fueled, fast-paced, eclectic read, and there is no better way to kick off the compilation than with an introduction by editor, S.T. Joshi, the career scholar of the weird tale, as well as a poem by Joshi’s chief subject, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “To A Dreamer”.

The editors at Dark Regions Press have not only presented a masterful compilation, but they have successfully curated a collection of stories that tackles both the practical nature of dreams, specifically nightmares, and embraces the speculative and the weird tale in its purest form.

Sanity Needs Not Apply

One of my favorite aspects of Nightmare’s Realm is how many stories use the most common tropes of nightmare worlds to rob their characters of agency. In dreams, especially nightmares, we rarely have control over our own actions. From the very first story, “The Dreamed” by Ramsey Campbell, we see not only an example of the speculative or weird tale, but also the first example of lack of agency in a dream, in which the main character is trapped at a hotel in Greece that consists only of a travel agency, a single room, and a few restaurants. The author emphasizes an aspect of dreaming that I have often experienced myself: the feeling that I can’t open my eyes. I can see, and I can know what’s happening around me, but it’s as if my eyes are shut and I can’t move them. Campbell illustrates this perfectly while ratcheting up the tension to truly frighten the reader. It’s a great step off on the right foot.

Another of my favorites that perfectly sums up a dream scenario is the last story of the anthology, “An Actor’s Nightmare” by Reggie Oliver, in which the identity of an actor is fully subsumed in a coma. In this story the most impressive aspect is that everything is huge. The opera house is massive with floor upon floor of dressing rooms, wings upon wings of stage, row upon row up on eave upon eave of boxes and seats. I worked in restaurants for twelve years. There are still times that I dream I’m selling Greek food (yes, Greek food) in a Chinese restaurant (the one I worked in, but before it was remodeled, the way I remember it as a child) that was the size of an airport, where I can’t find my tables.

Death and Grief

Several of the stories deal with how a nightmare seems to represent trauma. Though not pure psychoanalysis, the nightmare tales dealing with trauma and death take a very philosophical tone. Nancy Kilpatrick’s story seems to deal with Frued’s theory of the underlying wish, in which the meaning of the dream can be interpreted as a subconscious wish for some sort of outcome. In Kilpatrick’s story, the narrator spends time with the first of this anthology’s many useless therapists (beginning to see not everyone was as fortunate with their therapist as I was) in trying to workout the underlying meaning of the dreams of suicide. Many of the stories operate on Freud’s level of dream interpretation, which speaks to past events rather than Carl Jung’s theory that the subject level dream analysis reveals individual transformations. My favorite of these is “Purging Mom” by Jonathan Thomas, in which the narrator is beset by dreams that his mother is trying to kill him from beyond the grave. Thomas deals with the grief of the son with dreams of the mother as Freud would have dealt with it, with the mother representing the literal mother, and dealing less with the identity of the dreamer, as Jung would have done. “The Wake” by Steve Rasnic Tem also deals with death and grief manifestations in dreams.

Spec Fiction, Sci-Fi, and the Weird Tale

For the philosopher, the multiverse traveler, the dream realms are places of fancy and endless possibilities. Following our dreams, whether they’re pleasant and quaint or a living Hell, leads to enlightenment and growth. Thus it is with the speculative stories of Nightmare’s Realm.

My favorites in the weird tales genre involved delving into the dream realms in search of answers, a seeker looking to alter the events of their lives…or to just get some damn sleep. “Sleep Hygiene” by Gemma Files, “In the City of Sharp Edges” by Stephen Woodworth, and “The Art of Memory” by Donald Tyson feature dreamers who venture willingly into their dreams and nightmares, each hoping to conquer their own demons for their own ends, a derailment from the previously discussed aspect of dreams in which the narrator has no control over his or her journey. These narrators take matters into their own hands in a very un-Lovecraftian attempt to regain control of their lives as a whole, though in a very Lovecraftian fashion, this does not always have the intended outcome.

The speculative tales venture far out into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy with stories like “Dreams Downstream” by John Shirley, “Cast Lots” by Richard Gavin, “Dead Letter Office” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and “The Barrier Between” by W. H. Pugmire in which each author explores the nature of dreams through the subject of a dreamscape, not necessarily the dreamer. Other speculative tales examine the “dreamer” through an entirely different lens, such as epilepsy in “The Fifth Stone” by Simon Strantzas. “The City of Sharp Edges” also explores this, as the dreamer is not just a seeker, but also blind.

The most speculative of these stories is at once the essence of Michael Moorcock and a moving tribute piece, “Kafkaesque” by Jason V Brock. This is by far one of my favorite stories of the entire anthology. Fans of David Bowie will recognize the chapter titles as well as the end, and give the obligated nod to the departed Starman, who was perhaps the greatest dreamer of us all.

 Conclusion

When I asked Dark Regions to allow me to read and review an arc for the anthology, I did not dare think they would allow me to lay my eyes on such an exploratory, philosophical compilation. Nightmare’s Realm will ask you to dare to do more than dream as you read these stories. I am proud to have been chosen to preview this wonderful collection. I hope you enjoy Nightmare’s Realm as much as I did. You can purchase a pre-order of Nightmare’s Realm on Dark Regions Press’ official site.