Blog

Review of The Order of Eternal Sleep by S. C. Mendes

The Order of Eternal Sleep is the sequel to S. C. Mendes’s disturbing masterpiece The City. Set in 1913, three years after the events of the original, The Order of Eternal Sleep wastes no time plunging us back into the occult weirdness that gave The City its unique flavour of crazy. I described The City as a “conspiracy theorist’s wet dream” and The Order of Eternal Sleep is a worthy inheritor of the title.

We begin by picking up pretty much exactly where we left off after the events of The City. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers, as there are many terrifying surprises laid up in store for anyone enjoying these books for the first time, but this is a sequel, so it will be necessary to divulge some narrative information for context.

Max Elliot, the famous detective who lost everything in the case of the Chinatown Surgeon, is still missing. John McCloud, the man who once rescued Max and who semi-adopted Ming, a survivor of The City, is trying to carry on with a normal-abnormal life as a homicide detective. McCloud and Ming have become estranged after one too many rows, for which he experiences deep regret. McCloud is looking to retire, worn out by the darkness and the horror of his profession and his own failings. This is when, a week before he’s due to step away from the force, he’s sent to investigate a case of suspected arson and, in the basement of the house where six people have been reduced to ash, discovers a black shrine—along with something else totally horrifying I’m not going to spoil for you.

From there, the story simply does not let up the pace. Whereas The City was definitely a slow-burner, a kind of inexorable, incremental descent into a realm of madness and epiphany, The Order of Eternal Sleep is an explosive thriller that doesn’t lose sight of its intellectual roots and its 1910s setting.

The genius of Mendes’s writing is that he has a knack for making very complex ideas seem simple, whether these are nuanced emotional states, philosophical concepts, or occult principles. His stories contain layers. We can enjoy The Order of Eternal Sleep as a fast-paced period-piece detective yarn with some black magic thrown in. Or, we can look under the surface and see how Mendes explores—often from very esoteric angles—the primary questions of human experience.

To give an example of the layers of this story, a secret order—no spoiler here as they are mentioned in the title!—plans to perform the Rites of Eternal Sleep that will usher in the dawn of the Black Sun, an epoch of world-changing calamity and chaos (the reasons for this are more sophisticated than the stereotypical “evil people doing evil for the sake of it”, which is another way Mendes distinguishes himself). Reading this novel historically for a moment, we know that in the year 1913 the world teeters on the brink of World War I. Could it be, then, that Mendes is implying the catastrophes of the 20th Century were brought about by the performance of dark rituals, as other occult authors—including Kenneth Grant—have suggested? Or is this simply the conspiracy theory in me going into overdrive?

If you want another example of subtle depth: look at the dates Mendes gives us in the chapter headings. Think about it long and hard. Why are those dates significant? When the answer comes you’ll realise what he’s doing. I once described Mendes’s novels as “puzzle-boxes”, and one must treat them with the same respect!

I’ve already alluded to the villains in Mendes’s novel, but it’s worth devoting more time to describing how brilliant they truly are. They are terrifying and imposing, but most importantly, they are clever. Unlike most “evil” characters in stories who seem like little more than plot devices to be wheeled out at appropriate moments and overcome, Mendes’s villains seem to be genuinely interfering with the trajectory of the story. They show up and change things, often in devastating ways where we wonder how the heroes can possibly come back from such a setback. The villains are intelligent: they anticipate and predict their adversaries, and remain one step ahead. After all, if there really was a secret society trying to take over the world, one that had maintained its secrecy for centuries, it’s unlikely they would be foiled within a few weeks by one or two nosey investigators. The stakes, therefore, are very high in The Order of Eternal Sleep and though we spend a lot less time in The City in this book than in the former (which I think was a wise decision so as not to re-tread too much ground), the scenes of interrogation in this book are utterly nightmarish.

All of this connects to a broader point which is that Mendes’s characters are incredibly believable, grounded in a totally realised psychology. For example, John McCloud reflects upon his distance from Ming and Mendes tells us, “The desire was followed by a pulling undertow of hypocrisy.” With this metaphor we see the human condition encapsulated: we want things but often act in direct contravention of our conscious desires, sabotaging them; the unconscious undertow is too powerful to escape. Mendes uses all this psychological understanding to craft some moments of pure dread. The techniques his villains use to break the human spirit are very real indeed, exploiting weaknesses in the human mind, making us question whether we could withstand such pressures.

Mendes outrageously tempts the conspiracy theorist in all of us. He touches on pretty much all the major theories: that the world is being controlled by a secret order, that the pyramids were not burial sites but used for more esoteric purposes, that there are occult ways of amassing wealth, wealthy people have a way of infinitely extended their lifespans, and so on. And though he does it all with a sly wink to the camera, he makes it all alarmingly credible: “You feel it… When water runs over quartz, it creates electricity.” Little knowledge-bombs like this take us back and force us to ask uncomfortable questions. I mean, why did the Egyptians build twenty-four 30-ton sarcophagi out of quartz near a source of running water? Why have we never found a body inside them if they were for burial purposes (when Egypt is in no short supply of mummies!)? Google the The Serapeum of Saqqara and you’ll see what I mean.

Similarly, there is a ritual scene near the middle of the novel that is so disturbing it made every hair on my arm stand on end. The reason it was so potent is that Mendes doesn’t settle for the cliches like most authors attempting to write about the occult with little to no experience of it. Mendes’s understanding of magical principles and ancient occult orders makes the ritual feel hair-raisingly believable. This furthers the reader’s questioning of what could be real in our world that we take for granted (reassuringly) as being mere fiction. The character Valbas observes, “Interpreting ancient cultures through your modern paradigms can only reveal half truths.” Mendes asks us to open our minds a little, to consider that our own perspective is limited, and whether there might not be a grain of truth in the stories after all. The time-period of his novel serves to emphasise this point further, as at the beginning of the 20th Century there was a greater degree of uncertainty about our reality and about the past despite the Age of Reason being well underway—in many ways, we have become more close-minded in our modern time and chained to our so-called scientific truths.

To say a few more words about the 1910s setting: Mendes doesn’t overplay it and weigh us down with historical references. He gives us just enough detail at one or two crucial moments to make the setting come alive. For example, in one amusing scene, a character called Detective O’Neil observes that though the six bodies were burned to a crisp, the teeth survived. McCloud responds, “Well, unless you think taking a fistful of teeth down to the local dentist is going to give us a name, it doesn’t help the situation.” Of course, this is an era before the concept of “dental records” or identifying bodies by their teeth! Mendes slyly pokes fun at this idea we take for granted in the modern world.

Thematically, there are two central polarities Mendes explores throughout. The first is flesh versus soul. The adage “the flesh is weak” is repeated frequently, and as we go deeper and darker into the wilder lore and occult mechanics of the book we realise just how transient the flesh is in the cosmology of Mendes’s universe. So, if the flesh is nothing, what are we? What endures after we die, if anything? What is really “living” inside us? This profound anxiety about the condition of our existence is reflected in this aphoristic quote at the start of Chapter II: “Every man believes he will be the exception to the rule of life.” Ironically the “rule of life” is “death”. And of course, no one is the exception.

The second polarity explored is conscious versus unconscious. Throughout, characters espouse their conscious views only for their unconscious to betray them and reveal their true intentions and desires. We see Mendes explores this duality a number of ways: literally through the minds of his characters, metaphorically through the concept of “demonic” possession, and symbolically through the geography of a world divided into the “surface level” we know and the deep hidden world of The City. But whereas Mendes’s original novel spent a great deal of time excavating the unconscious by taking us on a tour through a warped underworld that was both a physical place and representative of the human psyche’s buried half, in The Order of Eternal Sleep he takes a slightly different approach. Much of the story explores liminal spaces—places between being awake and asleep, between leaving a destination and arriving at another, between knowing and not knowing, between living and dying. Mendes doesn’t settle for simply setting up a juxtaposition, but rather attempts the more daring feat of exploring the strange and unsettling territory between these two states. I always think that “dream sequences” in stories have to be deployed sparingly, but The Order of Eternal Sleep is an exception because—as the title would suggest—dreams form the very foundations of what the story is about: are we awake or asleep? And what happens when we wake up? When we’ve woken up from the dream and seen the strangely beautiful nightmare of reality, what do we do?

If we are tracking an over-arching narrative, it feels like whereas The City described an unconscious that was still buried and repressed, in The Order of Eternal Sleep that unconscious is beginning to emerge and drive towards the surface. This makes me wonder whether in the third book we’ll see a final integration of the two halves—or perhaps a complete catastrophic severance of them! And to re-iterate: there will undoubtedly be a third book, it seems, as the ending to The Order of Eternal Sleep, whilst complete and satisfying, certainly sets up a final dance between good and evil. Although, knowing Mendes’s ability to warp perspective and challenge conventions, I highly doubt it will be as straightforward as that.

The Order of Eternal Sleep is an incredible, unique book—a rare combination of both imaginative scope and haunting reality. Head on over to Amazon and buy your copy now, thereby joining us down here in the secret city!

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Blog

Review of Incarnate by Steve Stred

Steve Stred is one of the most prolific writers alive today, to such an extent that his latest full-length novel release, Incarnate, caught me by surprise—in more ways than one. Bearing a cloven hoof upon the cover I wondered, at first, if it was connected in any way to his epic Father of Lies trilogy, but on further inspection, the book is standalone, and although the cloven hoof is not a red herring, and there is certainly a demonic presence in the tale, there is much in Incarnate that is new for Stred’s writing, and in all the right ways. 

Stred has a trademark minimalist style that allows you to fill in the blanks. His prose is intentionally straightforward, no-nonsense, which allows him to create believable and credible worlds and people. I always know I’m in a Steve Stred novel from word go because the family or friendship dynamics are spot on and well-thought out, without any need for painstaking exposition. This is the case in Incarnate, where Ryan, along with his parents Craig and Nora, form a family unit that is instantly relateable and likeable. They decide to make a stay at a house that, as local legend would have it, has been haunted due to a séance gone wrong. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, please stay with me, because while many of these ideas and elements are well-worn, Stred makes them new, and offers a number of surprises. 

The demonic presence, known as The Watcher, and who soon comes to terrorise our happy family, is no generic demon, but an insidious being with uniquely disturbing methods for hunting. Though there is an element of the “haunted house” tale here, it bears far more kinship with Shirley Jackson’s legendary masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House than any shlocky TV re-run. Stylistically, Stred has reached new levels, this being his most fluid, evocative, and supple prose. Consequently, the house holds a fascination that works upon the minds of Ryan and his family, and subsequently upon us. Stred furthers this fascination by deploying an ingenious meta-device of including excerpts from an old book written about the house, a book which seems to be speaking to its reader directly, in order to further inveigle us in the history and “mind” of the house. This was one of my favourite elements of the story, and the mystery of the author of the book becomes a compelling thread woven through Incarnate. 

As I said before, however, Stred often uses familiar tropes, but he always handles them in unique ways. For example, most horror authors utilise claustrophobia to heighten their horror. For example, they set their story in a cramped underground basement, a collapsed cave, a locked room, a prison cell. The horror is concentrated by virtue of the concentrated space. Notice, too, that those previous examples are largely urban. Stred, however, as someone who I know from interviews and his afterwords, clearly has extensive experience as an outdoorsman, shifts his horror often to nature and expansive, large spaces. We see this in much of his work, such as The Stranger and The Girl Who Hid In The Trees (the latter was the first book I read by Stred) in which great forests form the backdrop for the horror. Stred seems to know that whilst we dream horrors will come and find us in the dark recesses of the city, real horror actually dwells out there, in the wilderness, where no one can hear us scream. Of course, there are many famous horror stories that do use rural spaces, including classic Slashers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Friday The 13th to an extent. However, often they rely on the incompetence of city-folk entering this rural space to generate mishap and tension. Stred pits extremely competent and intelligent people against the wild, and they still get royally messed up by it. 

So, whilst the horror is centred around the house, Stred makes the house the epicentre of a wild and dangerous world that borders ours both literally and metaphysically. There is an incredible, double-meaning line in which he invokes this liminality, “…only those who’d travelled these lands knew and understood.” By “these lands” he means the forests and lakes and wild spaces, but he also means the worlds beyond our own, the world from which creatures like The Watcher have emanated. Stred makes us aliens to our natural world and shows us our impotence against it. 

What further intrigued me about Incarnate, however, was the use of dream. This links thematically, of course, with contacting others worlds and planes. Often, in horror, dreams are used as a cheap scare to shock the reader during quieter moments. And whilst Stred does wrongfoot us one or two times, he also uses the dreams to further this idea of the house, and The Watcher, possessing their victims, and taking over their minds. In one stunning sequence, Ryan is dreaming he is in the woods, and the dream ends with a moment of transcendental horror, “Ryan knew what he was looking at. It was his window. The window of his bedroom. Within the window was the silhouette of a boy, of himself, one hand out in front, palm on the glass.” This moment is so incredibly well-written it cannot help but make the hairs stand on end. Ryan is the Watcher in his dream. We are left to wonder at the deeper meaning of this. 

As a final point, the climax to Incarnate is one of the best Stred has written. It is at turns moving, horrifying, sad, and uplifting. In fact, bizarrely, it is possibly one of Stred’s most optimistic endings, though, if you are new to Stred, I should warn you that it is certainly not happy in the traditional sense! 

You can get your copy of Incarnate here: 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

In addition, I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Steve Stred about his writing. The interview will become available exclusively to my Patrons on November 12th, here: https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer Sign up at any tier level to get access to this interview, plus other interviews with occult authors, such as S.C. Mendes! 

Blog

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. 


If you enjoyed this review of this occult novel, then appropriately you can sign can sign up to the Mind-Vault as either a “Thrall” or “Cultist”, and get access to secret knowledge from beyond the stars. Your Mindflayer overlord compels you…

Become a Patron!

Blog

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!

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