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".

 

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.