Blog

Review of The Navajo Nightmare by Steve Stred & David Sodergren

I’ve always loved a good Western. I think it’s partly because the Western genre, for me, is very closely aligned with Epic Fantasy. Instead of swords, our heroes wield glinting silver revolvers capable of magically dealing death at impossible distances. Instead of taverns, there are saloons. Instead of warring fantastical kingdoms, we find the American Civil War. One thread that remains current through both genres relatively unchanged is the obsession with and value of gold. In addition, the great wastelands of the America Wild West fittingly conjure the mystical and fantastical landscapes sword and sorcery heroes often have to overcome on their quest. And speaking of quests, Westerns are rife with them, whether it’s a quest for revenge, as in High Plains Drifter (one of the most underrated films of all time), for some kind of holy grail, as in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or redemption, as in 3:10 To Yuma. In short, I think Westerns and Fantasies are two sides of the same coin, which is why I love them both. 

This intersection of Fantasy and Western is beautifully embodied in The Navajo Nightmare, a short novel by David Sodergren and Steve Stred. There is so much to say about this epic collaboration it is hard to know where to begin. 

Firstly, this book is divided into two halves, the first, “BEFORE”, written by David Sodergren, and the second, “AFTER”, by Steve Stred. I came to this book as a huge, huge fan of Steve Stred. He is not only an amazing author, but one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. However, I was unfamiliar with David Sodergren’s work, and so was intrigued to experience his writing for the first time. His prose blew me away. What could have been a hackneyed account of a dangerous gunslinger losing everything he holds dear, a trope we have seen before, instead became an earth-shaking story of loss, written with passion and conviction. Sodergren’s prose is elegant, and full of quotable lines from the very first, including the killer opening, “As is so often the way with truly blasphemous acts, it all started on a Sunday.” 

Within a few short chapters, Sodergren made me completely emotionally invested in Charles Andersson and his wife, Mary. The two have a son, little Jack, and they live in a yet-to-be-built house just outside of Packer’s Mill. Both husband and wife have demons in their past they’re trying to leave behind, and as we see in both the first and second parts of the book, this is a through-line for the entire story. To what extent can we escape the shadows we think we leave behind us? To what extent can we change? 

Within an equally brief space, Sodergren rips your heart out in a scene that is at once startlingly brutal and callous, yet also restrained, turning the camera away from the worst, which leaves the reader space to feel the horror and pathos of what unfolds. 

Following this calamity, Charles Andersson becomes a changed man, but Sodergren neatly sidesteps the cliché of him simply becoming hungry for vengeance above all else. What’s interesting are the deeper and more destabilising character changes that come over him. He moves from an entirely cool and level-headed man, who never lets emotions cloud his judgement, to one who is irrational, lost in the mists of his own feelings, distracted. It’s this excellent character work that sets The Navajo Nightmare up for greatness. The character work continues as the Nightmare who was once Charles Andersson begins to lose his grip on who he is / was, and reality, until we reach a hair-raisingly climactic shootout worthy of being put to film, or etched onto my brain for all time. 

The second half of the novel is no less potent. Though the two writers achieve a surprising synergy between their two styles, one can feel the difference when Steve Stred takes over. It’s not that one style is better than the other, merely that with Stred’s half of the story we feel a tonal shift. The title of “AFTER” is appropriate, because this is a world post-Nightmare, a cynical world, perhaps, in which everyone lives with the expectation that evil will come knocking eventually. It’s also a shift into that Epic Fantasy mode I described earlier. Sodergren’s part is High Plains Drifter, a mystical horror-thriller shrouded in trauma and the power of the past. Stred’s is Bone Tomahawk: a nightmare mission into a heart of darkness. 

In part 2, Tanner, a gunslinger who seems to have some kind of connection to The Nightmare, is asked to assemble a team by the feisty Linda St. James to track down and end the Nightmare once and for all. This “fellowship” of deadly fighters is a brilliant contrast to the single focus of the preceding part of the novel. There’s Hank, an ex-slave of gargantuan proportions and strength; Cutting Teeth, a Native American skinwalker; Carter, Tanner’s lackey, a young boy with a weird connection to his horse; and Linda and Tanner themselves. The assembly of the team certainly has the feeling of an old-school fantasy novel, or a legendary B-movie like Krull, and things only get better as the group sets off on a perilous journey towards Packer’s Mill.

It soon becomes clear that the team is being haunted by something. They’re tracking down a killer, but in turn being stalked. Each person believes that it is a demon from their own past. Stred cleverly uses this as a mechanism to get each person in the group to narrate their own harrowing backstory. Not only does this enrich the characters, but it also serves as a powerful way to explore the themes of The Navajo Nightmare more deeply. Each person is dealing with a trauma, and each person had committed sins they now have to confront. Each person is themselves a Nightmare, a creation of the bad (and good) choices in their past. 

For those who have read other books by Steve Stred, such as The Stranger, it’s no spoiler to say that one by one each person in the group is picked off. As they get nearer their destination, the truth of what needs to happen to defeat The Nightmare is unveiled. What I loved here is that Stred has no problem giving seeming “B-characters” their moment. This makes his narratives unpredictable and sinuous, surprising just as often as they deliver the gory goods we so want. The conclusion is satisfying and oddly sweet despite how harrowing what came before it was.

The Navajo Nightmare is a must-read for those who love westerns, who love horror, and who love quests into the darkness. This one will stay with me for a long time. 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA


I hope you enjoyed this review and want to read more, you can sign up to the Mindflayer’s Patreon (for only £3 p/m) where I release one article like this every month, as well as other exclusive content. Join other cultists and thralls on the journey to discovering the secrets of great writing! 

Become a Patron!
Blog, Games, Publishing

NEW BOOK & COVER REVEAL: DESECRATED EMPIRES

Hello everyone,

I hope you’re safe and well during these weird and unpredictable times. I’ve been hard at work in the creative laboratory, and I can now announce my next project, Dead World: Desecrated Empires, produced in collaboration with fabulous writers Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. In addition, we also have a fabulous artist, my own mother Linda Sale, producing some incredible illustrations! Here is a teaser of one I love:

Arcturus, The Black Hand, one of many intriguing characters to be found in Dead World!
by Linda Sale

But what is Desecrated Empires? I’m glad you asked!

Desecrated Empires is the ultimate RPG experience and must-have book for lovers of dark fantasy world-building. Set in the twisted and foreboding universe of Dead World, Desecrated Empires allows you to craft taut and immersivenarrative experiences using its unique, strategic rules-system. The “Era of Empires” story-arc, characterised by blood and betrayal, introduces a sophisticated “Competitive Team Play” model that will unleash the full cathartic power of your role-play campaigns. Take control of an adventurer and create your own unique legend, build a campaign as a Dungeon Master using Desecrated Empires’ omnifarious world-building toolkit, or utilise the special mechanics and tactical nuance of Desecrated Empires’ combat to command armies, build empires, form rebellions, lay sieges, and wage cataclysmic wars in a mythical world. 

Features: 

  • 11 Races (including esoteric or maligned races, such as Featherfolk, Plantfolk, and Undead); each Race hasmultiple unique origins that create further variation
  • 14 unique Classes, each of which offers a radically different style of play, from classic brute Warriors to masters of manipulation such as Illusionists
  • Every Class can choose one of two paths, empowering players with even more choice, and meaning there are 200+ potential adventurer Race/Class combinations
  • A progressive Skills system that allows adventurers to learn further crafts outside of their Class, including Blacksmithing, Alchemy, and Arcana; these aren’t static but also progress as you level and learn. 
  • A unique combat system that eschews the clumsier elements of role-play combat in favour of more strategic and tactical gameplay; imagine the precision of an RTS game inserted into a world full of lore and epic stories. 
  • A Bestiary & Diseasary with 100+ entries, each with beautiful descriptions and in-depth mechanics, including many monsters and characters entirely unique to Dead World’s strange universe. 
  • Detailed lore-descriptions of every item, from the humble “Rope” to legendary artefacts such as the “Bloodthirst Cowl”! 
  • With succinct and precise rules-wording, get your Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual all in one explosive volume! No need to buy multiple books. 

Here is the epic cover-reveal!

We anticipate Dead World: Desecrated Empires being ready in early 2021! We’ll keep you updated on our progress. Over 97,000 words are written so far, but we have even further yet to go. The whole thing is going to be beautifully produced and brimming with lore and magic!


To get announcements like this even earlier, you can subscribe to my Patreon. In addition, all of my Patrons gain FREE copies of my Kindles / eBooks, including this one!

Blog

Review of BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

Fantasy, and in particular the sword & sorcery genre, has had a rough patch. I think Neil Gaiman illustrated it perfectly when he said in his introduction to The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1999): ‘it is an irony, and not entirely a pleasant one, that what should be, by definition, the most imaginative of all types of literature has become so staid, and too often, downright unimaginative’. As much as I adore the works of Tolkien, they have become almost too pervasive in their influence. It is always the way that when one book or story is successful, it spawns imitations and, in the case of Hollywood, sometimes outright clones. It can be exceedingly difficult to break the creative influence of the our literary forbearers, but we must try to tread new ground (or at least, re-examine old ideas in a new way).

This brings me to Alistair Rennie’s BleakWarrior, published by Blood Bound Books in 2016. This is like no other sword & sorcery story I have ever read. BleakWarrior is equal parts Warhammer 40,000 and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Equal parts philosophical exploration and Tarantino’s House of Blue Leaves. It is violent to the extent it could make George R. R. Martin blush, and yet the murder and sex orgies are juxtaposed with dialogue that is unequivocally Shakespearean and emotionally rich. Take this sentiment from the eponymous BleakWarrior himself: “But surely a strain of consequence must bind our absent purpose to some singular aim.” He is questioning whether fate has brought himself and another character together, but the labyrinthine nature of his syntax gives us a measure of the madness that eats away at his soul. The book is full of rich (and sometimes hilarious) exchanges such as this that circuitously hint at deeper meaning.

BleakWarrior is set in a secondary fantasy world with maddening logic. It is most similar to the magical sci-fi, baroque universe of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series. It also follows Vance’s suit in the sense that many chapters from this book feel like they could be stand-alone short stories (and I believe the first part of the book to be published was a chapter called “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines” in an anthology of Weird Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer). These episodic instalments, however, add up to create a greater whole. Seemingly innocuous threads become critical components later on, and characters that seem disconnected from the whole tapestry suddenly prove integral. Given the nature of so many threads, there is certainly massive potential to expand this universe and take the story even further in subsequent volumes. BleakWarrior is assuredly standalone, but I could certainly stand to have more!

BleakWarrior also has shades of Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s most recent book Killing Commendatore, metaphorical concepts come to life. Alistair Rennie creates the “Meta-Warriors”, a cadre of assassins that embody strange concepts. The Gutter, for example, is a murderous psychopath who stinks like his namesake. But also, a play on words, because his preferred method of killing is gutting his opponents. Or Whorefrost (a pun on hoarfrost), whose semen is a lethal dose of sub-zero that freezes you from the inside (yes, you read that sentence correctly). Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart. It is as far from Tolkien’s world of innocent heroism as you can imagine. Here, bloody fights devolve into sexual orgies, scientists conduct experiments so immoral you have to laugh or else cry, and pussy-juice may or may not be magical.

I felt kinship reading BleakWarrior because in many ways it bears similarities with my own attempt to reinvent the sword & sorcery genre: Beyond The Black Gate. Beyond fuses a high-fantasy secondary world with ultra-violence and horror. Both BleakWarrior and Beyond The Black Gate feature insane killers that are steadily humanised by an agonising process of self-awareness. But what sets BleakWarrior apart from so many books, including my own, is the unique language Alistair Rennie has created to tell his story. It is at once parodic of traditional high falutin medieval fantasy lingo, but also an outstanding example of it. When the character Nailer of Souls, who as his name suggests consumes the souls of those he defeats in combats, tastes the spirit of BleakWarrior and announces: “Your soul to me is poison, BleakWarrior” – I could not help but shiver with the poetry of it.

Alistair Rennie is someone who understands that language gives meaning as much by its rhythm and sound than through signification. He feels the pulse of linguistic intercourse (and sometimes marries this with literal intercourse). In addition, the Meta-Warriors are literal embodiments of concepts, which means they are at once living breathing characters but also commentaries upon their own tropes. This means BleakWarrior creates a clever kind of loop, whereby it relentlessly satires itself but in doing so displays enough self awareness to then bypass cliché and achieve real epic grandeur.

Similarly, Rennie aligns the reader’s reason for reading with the reason for BleakWarrior’s actions: he does not know what or who he is and must find answers. There is a mystery at the heart of this book. What are Meta-Warriors? Why do they exist? And why do they run so counter to all the laws of the natural world? This mystery keeps us turning pages, just as it keeps BleakWarrior propelled into acts of dizzying violence. We feel sympathy for BleakWarrior because we, too, are in the dark: lost in a miasmal world we do not understand but are fascinated and sickened by.

I will not spoil how BleakWarrior ends, but suffice to say it does not disappoint. If you have been longing to read some high-quality sword & sorcery, then please look no further than BleakWarrior. It will repulse, titillate, raise hairs, and move you in unexpected ways.

Long live the Bastard Sons of Brawl!

X

Thank you for reading! If your appetite has been whetted, to purchase a copy of BleakWarrior, go to Amazon UK or Amazon US. To purchase a copy of my own Beyond The Black Gate (which will indebt me forever to you, dark scribe), go to Amazon UK or Amazon US

 

Blog

New Novel Coming November 2019: SAVE GAME

Hello friends!

Yes, you read the blog title correctly! I am bringing out a new novel, Save Game, in November of this year (just in time for Christmas… nudge nudge!). I’m excited about this book for so many reasons. It has had a long gestation period and it is unlike anything I have previously published, but I think should appeal to anyone who loves epic fantasy novels, video-games, RPGs, or underdog stories (or all of the above)! So, let me share the blurb!

Levi Jensen is, by all accounts, a loser. He failed sixth-form, never got to university, and works at a no-future fast-food restaurant. The only thing he’s good at is gaming. When his father starts dying of a new type of cancer, only treatable privately and at impossible expense, Levi’s one hope of saving him becomes the million-dollar cash-prize for winning the dark-fantasy video-game Fate of Ellaria. But Levi isn’t the only one with motivations beyond money for winning. And the price of success in Fate of Ellaria might mean the destruction of what little he has left in the real world.

Save Game is a heart-breaking story of an underdog against all odds, as well as a love-letter to the beauty of video-games. Inspired by the amazing and eclectic everyday people who inhabit the gaming world, and the pain of their real-world lives, Save Game aims to show the courage of those who feel they’ve got no place in reality.

In some ways, this book is my answer to Ready Player One. Many of you following me will know I’m not much of a fan of Ernest Cline’s work. I liked the intention behind it, but felt the execution amounted to references over substance – and a limited framework of ‘canon’ at that. Save Game for me is an attempt to tell a story with real emotion, that keeps the most important aspect of gaming at its heart: the players.

Many elements of the story are based on personal experience. I did live and work in Birmingham for a number of years, and while I did, my father was diagnosed with an aggressive sarcoma, which put him in critical condition in hospital for three months. Thankfully, after an incredible journey, he recovered and is still kicking ass today. I also spent years immersed in an epic, virtual fantasy world with two of my closest friends, and was a “games journalist” with GameSpew (and still contribute occasionally).

But if none of that persuades you, perhaps the cover will!

Look at that beauty!

So, look out for this novel early November.  Please let me know if you’re excited for this release in the comments below! I love to hear from people!

Currently, I am actively looking for Book Reviewers to do preliminary reviews. If you are a reviewer and are interested in looking at Save Game, please get in touch via Twitter or the Contact Form of this website!

Until next time, denizens of the deep!

P.S. Don’t forget that if you’re curious about my work, but not sure yet, you can get a FREE science fiction novel from me (plus loads of other giveaways and goodies) at my mailing list The Mind-Palace.