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Review of Brian Barr’s Serpent King: Shadow & Light

In our modern world, we have many advantages, but one major disadvantage is sometimes knowing too much. By this, I mean that it is more and more difficult to surprise a modern reader, gamer, or film-viewer because each of us sits at the heart of a constant information flow. Speaking with a good friend of mine the other day, we were both lamenting how the advent of YouTube, whilst useful, has led to video-game worlds feeling smaller and more predictable. Gone are the days of trying to find a cure of vampirism in Oblivion and not knowing even the first place to start. Now, all the info is available online. Of course, one could resist the temptation to look, but there is not that same sense of communal excitement at the possibilities of the unknown, except, perhaps, when you encounter a Dark Souls title. Those games still manage to hide a wealth of secrets even as they are being plumbed to the nth degree. 

Dark Souls isn’t the only exception. There are other great works out there that surprise and awe us with their lack of conventional storytelling, and the way the keep their cards close to their chest. Serpent King, by Brian Barr, is one of those artefacts; it is a powerful and imaginatively vast novel set in the far flung galaxy of the Dracos Constellation. 

The narrative predominantly follows Razen Ur, a Commander General in the Nagan Empire, and his son, Zian Ur, born in mysterious circumstances, and gifted beyond natural means. Yet to say this is to deny the scope of the book, which also involves the mysterious priesthood of the Plumed Serpent, the occult gatherings of the Shadowsnakes, the internal politics of the Imperial Family and the Emperor of Naga, and the colonisation of the outer worlds of the Dracos Constellation. Barr describes this novel as “science-fantasy”, which fairly accurately invokes the superb blend of science-fiction action and world-building, mixed with an undercurrent of something far darker and more magical. 

In this novel, it is snakes, not monkeys, that have evolved to intelligent, bipedal form: the reptilis sapiens. In this way, there is also an element of “alternative history” about the book, a depiction of how evolution might have played out a different way, and what civilisation would have looked like if that were the case. Although inhuman, Barr’s cast of characters are disarmingly sympathetic, and that is where the power of this novel comes in. The Nagans are clearly a metaphorical representation of empire-building cultures, particularly the Roman, British, and Spanish empires. Yet, whilst Barr exposes and satirises the xenophobic thought patterns and brainwashed jingoism of these cultures, he also shows more morally upright, sympathetic, and “human” figures caught in the midst; these aren’t bad people, they are individuals with loves and losses doing their best under an oppressive regime. This really shows how dangerous and potent writing can be, because before long, Barr had me sympathising with Razen Ur, the relatively humble Commander General of the Nagan fleet. Razen is troubled by his impotence, a human concern if ever there was one,and unwilling to shed any more blood than necessary during his conquests. He is a devoted husband, and a kind father. Yet, he is also a mass-murderer who has brought more worlds to heel than any of his contemporaries in the military. Barr allows the moral ambiguity of all of this to breathe, which makes his work rich and compelling. 

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the choice of writing about an empire of bipedal snake-people as simply a flight of fancy, or perhaps a “cool” sci-fi idea, I think there is a lot more going on. Snakes, firstly, are almost universally a symbol of knowledge. Interestingly, one of the recurrent motifs throughout the novel is that of two entwined “proto-snakes” (snakes that never evolved from their slithering form) around a caduceus. In the real world, this symbol is emblazoned on every Western ambulance, hospital, and medical centre. The emblem has its roots in Hermetic principles: the two wings crowning the caduceus symbolise the winged feet of Hermes / Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Of course, Biblically, snakes also represent knowledge, for it is the serpent that persuades Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit that brings “knowledge of good and evil”. Interestingly, the sub-title of the book is “Shadow and Light”. Things in shadow are darkened to us, things that are in light are revealed. Shadow often represents “evil”. Light, “good”. There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Naga, the Empire of the “Reptilians”, therefore, is not just a cipher for the empires of human history, but could well be construed as an extended metaphor for the battle between good and evil, for secret knowledge, and for a path through the middle all of these contrasts, a path that only people with a certain mindset, and certain tools, can tread. 

Having previously been impressed with Barr’s re-imagining of the King In Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers, I anticipated some occult elements in Serpent King, and I was not disappointed. There are layers beneath even the simplest interactions in this story. Hints that seem innocuous are actually gateways to greater narrative truths that Barr deftly hides from us until later stages. I do not know what Barr’s influences were, but many scenes remind me of the occult practices outlined by Kenneth Grant and, though he is often purely regarded as a fictional writer, H. P. Lovecraft. Beneath the civilised surface of Naga and these “cold-blooded” reptilian snakes, who are all about duty, honour, and logic (and have even named one of their choicest weapons “logic bombs”), is something far more emotional, dark, and irrational. Whilst it would be easy to construe the Reptilians as a kind of nod to the Illuminati conspiracy theories of lizard-people ruling the stars, I think Barr has done something even cleverer: he has shown that deep down we’re the snakes, traitors to our own warm-blooded nature, hiding behind a veneer of science and reason, when the reality of the universe is very different indeed. 

In many respects, Serpent King is also a coming-of-age story. Much of the book follows Zian Ur as he is tutored by different masters, demonstrates his supremacy in the fighting ring, and finally is appointed to a high rank in adulthood; all while his father, Razen, continues to conquer in the name of the Emperor off-world. The coming-of-age elements are so well done, that one can easily forget how many other facets to this novel there are. And, one becomes fondly attached to the places and characters Zian interacts with as he grows up, to the point of nostalgia in later parts of the book. 

Zian is also a fascinating character, and Barr manages to reflect how different he is from all the people surrounding him simply through dialogue and action alone. This is partly achieved through the sheer contrast between Zian and his father Razen; the two are endlessly juxtaposed. Whereas Razen makes for an incredibly human and empathetic portrait; Zian is much harder to understand. We fear what Zian is capable of, but we also root for him. Barr goes into great detail about the slow but satisfying process of how Zian unlocks his full potential, and again, clearly demonstrates a knowledge of how occult practice works, and how certain practices can lead to an expanding awareness and deeper insight. This culminates in an incredibly satisfying evolution and climactic battle in which Zian must use all that he has learned to survive. The ending of this novel is apocalyptic, sad, arguably bleak, but also strangely satisfying. I’m not sure I can think of a comparable ending in any other book I have read, which is saying something. 

Serpent King is weird, and wonderful because of it. It will transport you to another universe, make you care about an empire of snake-people, and then dash your expectations to smithereens. It is a book of magic, with hidden meanings, but above all that: it is a compelling story of awakened potential. 


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The Year In Review: 2020

Firstly, a very happy holiday season to you all: whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah just past, the Solstice, or one of a myriad of other occasions I have failed to mention, I hope you have the best one possible. And, very importantly, I hope that the New Year which awaits you in 2021 is truly awesome and brings all you want and deserve. 

I hope you can forgive me for reiterating what millions have already stated, but this year has been tough. Really tough. And in all kinds of different ways: financially, emotionally, hell even physically. For many, it’s been far worse, and some have even lost their lives. However, I’m ever an optimist, and I must be grateful that despite everything many of my friends and loved ones have held on; I am still able to do creative things, my business is still running, and I’ve managed to survive.

Not only that, but some truly remarkable things have come to pass despite all the setbacks and weirdness of life in varying degrees of lockdown; and I’m not just talking about things I’ve done! As an editor and indie publisher, it’s amazing to see great writers and artists and creatives of all sorts achieving their goals through the pain and uncertainty that’s afflicted us all. I wanted to do a round up of some of those things and perhaps even share some plans with you for the future! 

Let’s start just by giving you some stats. This year I have… 

  • edited over 300,000 words!
  • facilitated the publication of five brilliant books by new authors:
    • The Age of Wellbeing by David Green: a comprehensive examination of the state of wellbeing in the modern world, and what we need to do to improve it.
    • Hecctrossipy Book 1 by Bia Bella Baker: an amazing YA fantasy novel that will transport you to an intricate and mind-blowingly detailed new world. Get ready for more than a few surprises!
    • What Do They Really Know? by M. S. Morgan: a brilliant review of UFO sightings made by RAF personnel in the UK over the last fifty years by a senior investigator. Unlike many books of this nature, he takes a completely impartial and unbiased view of the evidence, using his experience as a detective to reveal some surprising truths.
    • From Liverpool With Love by Joan Collins Owen: a heartbreaking story of love in the face of encephalitis. This biography of an amazing woman and her fight to hold on to the man she loves will have you crying, make no mistake!
    • A Thing With Feathers by J. John Nordstrom (coming Feb 2021 from The Writing Collective): this is an amazing tale of romantic-era love in the modern world, at once funny, literary, human, and heartrending.
  • written over half a million words of non-fiction and fiction (some ghost-writing)
  • launched a Patreon (The Mind-Vault) that has over 2 hours of videos on it now, plus about 30,000 words of fiction and commentary; I update it every month with loads of stuff. Right now there are videos on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an extract from a VERY dark novel I abandoned, and a video on some upcoming projects for 2021.
  • joined a writer’s mastermind group, Let’s Get Published! 
  • co-created a new course with Christa Wojciechowski on how to use the five-act structure to improve your fiction (which is available to anyone who signs up to Let’s Get Published)
  • announced my new novelDark Hilaritywhich is coming January 31st 2021, as well as an exciting new project, Desecrated Empiresan RPG and world-building experience like no other, which is coming later that same year!

And I sometimes wonder why I’m so knackered! I’ve also read some amazing books this year. Here are a few highlights… 

A brilliantly written tale of black magic, spirituality, and loss that can’t but rend the heartstrings. I also marks the beginning of an exciting new series. Definitely one to check out if you like creepy-town tales and well-developed characters. 

This deft horror is subtle and creeps up on you. Stred is swiftly becoming one of my all-time favourite horror authors, who knows how to turn on the skin-crawling creepiness. 

This really surprising novella is The Matrix meets something infinitely more twisted. This is not just a sci-fi, but also a psychological thriller, in that the technology in this book serves to highlight the perversion of human minds. Noir and Mendes build an incredible world here and just give us a toe-dip into it. Definitely looking forward to more from them. 

Headcase is a wild and funny romp through vampires, werewolves, demons and other monsters living in our modern world. Expect buckets of gore, one-liners, and a hell of a lot of sex magic. This is really fun and I can easily see this gaining a cult following. 

Dungeon Party was the big surprise of 2020 for me. It is one of the most psychologically rich books I’ve read in a while. It follows a group of nerds who love playing D&D together, until one of them is spurned by the DM, and decides to go rogue. There are very real-world consequences for this and the interaction between the game-world and fantasy world are profound. If you liked my book Save Gameyou’ll probably really enjoy this. I found the resolution to be slightly too neat but the climax that comes before it is really awe-inspiring. The wild-card of 2020! 

Okay, I’m massively biased on this one, but my father’s epic narrative poem is unbelievably good, and I’m not the only one saying it! If you like Dante, visions of hell so vivid they scour the brain, commentary on the state of the modern world, and also a personal journey from cancer to recovery, then you will love this. There’s only one word for it — masterpiece.

  • Tome by Ross Jeffery

I don’t need to say much about Tome, because Ross Jeffery is making waves with his fiction. Tome is my favourite thing he’s written and a truly remarkable book that combines so many elements I love: prisons, dark magic, cosmic horror, Christian theology, and finally a little dose of The Exorcist. It’s a tour de force but not for the faint of heart. 

The Ash is one of Soule’s best books yet, a horror with bromance that features a stellar cast of characters, some despicable, some virtuous, and all entertaining as hell. The Ash is all about a policeman trying desperately to find his way home during an apocalyptic event, but like Odysseus, he keeps getting diverted. This homecoming tale (a voyage and return if you will) is really quite powerful. 

I have probably missed off a few people. If you are one of them, I sincerely apologise. It has been a busy and confusing year!

There are also many books I’ve read which I can’t speak on yet, but the reasons for my secrecy will be revealed in time! Suffice to say, I had an incredible trip to Glastonbury and raided the bookstores there for some fascinating esoteric tomes which I think are going to feed into some new writing. 

Outside of the writing sphere, my mother, Linda Sale, has also been hard at work creating a shopfront for her beautiful artwork (some of which features on the front covers of many books!). You can check it out here.

I would also like to take this moment to thank each of my Patreon subscribers, who have kept me going not just with their financial contributions but also with their feedback, encouragement, and creativity. These Thralls and Cultists are: Kelly, Edward, Tom, Christa, Erik, Iseult & Michelle. You are AMAZING people. Thank you.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the truly incredible reviewers who have supported my work with such tenacity. Without them, I would truly have given up long ago. These awesome people include but are not limited to:

Kendall Reviews

Dan Stubbings

Meghan’s House of Books

Thank you all. You rock.

So, that’s my year in review. I’m curious, what have you done this year that you’re really proud of? We’ve all achieved things this year, even if it’s just holding on and surviving. Let’s share our success stories and celebrate that we came this far, even through adversity!

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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!

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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