Hello, my darklings!

Well, it’s officially a new year. It’s hard to believe we’re already in 2020 and January is mostly gone but I’m back with my latest review of Grimdark Magazine #21.

Seriously, though…where in the name of all the gods does time actually go? I swear it was just Halloween last week…

The last time I posted an actual review was a little over two months ago on November 5, 2019. That’s wholly unacceptable, I know, but I have been spending all that time writing, I promise. In fact, there are several that need to be uploaded here to the site and I will get to that over the next few weekends. I’ll be back-dating them so that they reflect the dates they were actually published on Tangent Online, so here on my site, they’re going to appear before this Grimdark #21 review.

But first some news… 

A lot has happened over the last several weeks and I have got to share some really awesome news!

To start, sometime around the end of November, I began working with a close friend on a webcomic. Over the last month or so, we’ve been hashing out story arcs and episodes and began writing the script for the first issue. We’ve also found an artist and are working with her on the artwork. I’m really excited about this project—it’s a story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time—and will be posting updates about it here. I also just bought the domain name so, once I have that site created, I’ll announce it here, as well.

I also began serving as a slush reader for a pro-market magazine. I don’t know whether it’s appropriate to share the name of said publication so I’m going to refrain from doing so, but that actually was one of the reasons I didn’t pay much attention to the blog here. This was my first time as a slush reader and I really wanted to give it my best effort. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun.

As I’ve said before, I get a lot of enjoyment out of helping other writers. The reader-editor in me loves reading other people’s work and letting them know what works well and making suggestions what might improve the story. And because I’m such a “detail dork,” I do pick up on internal logic fails and small details that are often overlooked but affect the story’s effectiveness as a whole. So, slush reading suits me just fine.

But this is why my reviews often come across more as critiques.

Which brings me to today’s review of Grimdark #21.

There are three stories in this issue of Grimdark. One of them, “The Undying Lands” by Michael R. Fletcher, is a reprint. As per Tangent Online’s guidelines, I did not review Fletcher’s story for publication on that site but I intend to go back and add that here when I can.

The other two tales are originals so they’re the two I concentrated on for Tangent Online (click to read it) and are the ones included below at the moment.

“Guardian of the Grove” by M.L. Spencer

Photo by Arnie Chou from Pexels

Aridashar and Castigere are the last of a sacred order, the Guardians of the Grove, who are sworn to protect the gods. A traitor, Vax, leads a group that has systematically carried out the order’s decimation, his intent to kill the gods and open the world to the ravening creatures of the Aether. Having followed Vax and his Arsonists to the abandoned Hauskrad Keep, the two remaining Guardians have to face off against Vax before he destroys the world.

Spencer doesn’t waste any time getting into the action, dropping us into the middle of a knife fight in the opening sentence. Now, I know that it’s considered a best practice to open with conflict. Conflict is what makes a story interesting, it draws the reader in. But, one has to be careful in the approach. Starting with a knife fight already well underway, like the one Spencer has chosen, bogs the reader down in too much detail too soon. In this story, it has the effect of disorienting the reader rather than creating interest and tension.

Of course, once you get past this initial opening, the narrative succeeds in creating the interest at which the opening fails. The sad part is that it all just falls apart at the end.

Why?

Well, it’s simply not at all clear what happened. The climax, the resolution of the conflict with Vax, is obvious. The problem lies in the the denouement. Once Vax is dealt with, there’s only few sentences to go and the story’s over.  Unfortunately, those sentences are vague and seem to contradict each another, yet the reader is expected to draw a satisfactory conclusion from them. This just doesn’t work and makes the story feel incomplete and unfinished.

I mean, we’ve been introduced to this world-ending event. Aether is now leaking in to the world and ripping parts of it away, all thanks to Vax. Oddly, this isn’t ever satisfactorily addressed. We’re left to wonder if Aridashar actually saved the world or if it was all in vain. The hole to the aether isn’t healed by his actions so what was the point?

And that’s what the story is missing—a point to the struggle. The way it reads to me, Castigere’s sacrifice and Aridishar’s actions are absolutely meaningless.

In addition to this, I see huge issues with the story’s internal logic and worldbuilding when it comes to the gods and the aether. First off, can a being that requires mortals to protect it and can be destroyed so easily be called a god? What reason would mortals have to worship them as gods if they can’t even care for themselves or are so weak they can only do one task?

While they do not take an active role in the story, the explanation we’re given of the gods’ nature and their role in the world is relatively flimsy. The part we’re told they do play isn’t very impressive—it takes all of the gods (who are trees) to do nothing more than hold the world together and keep it from slipping into the aether. That’s it. And, for being divine beings, they present no challenge whatsoever to the Arsonists bent on destroying them. Once the group lured Aridashar and Castigere away, killing the god was apparently easy. Based on the narrative, they don’t even fight back.

Frankly, I just could not buy into the story’s premise at all.

“Bloody Roots” by Alex Marshall

Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

Professional thief Khang-Ho has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle. At the suggestion of his partner-in-crime, Eldamar, he’s taken a job escorting a bunch of pirates to the cursed castle Myo’tab on the shores of Ito Cay. But once they make landfall, Khang-Ho soon realizes that he’s fallen in with a bunch of crazy cultists instead—cultists intent on destroying the world.

This story is a part of Marshall’s Crimson Empire series. Now, I have not read anything by the author aside from this tale in Grimdark #21.

That being said, I love the idea behind “Bloody Roots.” It’s absolutely fantastic. And, too, the opening paragraphs are absolutely on point. They drew me in, setting a nice, eerie tone. I read them while grinning in anticipation of a lovely tale of dark magic, death, and cemeteries—some of my favorite things to think about, honestly…

Seriously, if I were to rewrite the lyrics of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, it would be a totally different song. And probably very disturbing for most people…

Anyway, the twist on mandrake lore is quite interesting and I really, really like the idea of a giant mandrake root being used as a weapon. The island of Ito Cay is also a very intriguing setting, as is its history. The tales the characters tell each other about the conflict between the Empress and everyone else are great and really add to the sense of place.

Unfortunately, though, the story has a few problems.

To start, it needs editing, both proofreading and developmental. In terms of proofreading, there are both incorrect and missing words littered here and there. The writing also really needs to be tightened up overall and some passages either omitted or clarified. Frankly, it was a truly frustrating read.

There are quite a few paragraphs that I had to re-read several times before I could make sense of what was happening, and this completely ruined my enjoyment of the story. To give an example, there are two major problems with the scene where the group stops to eat at the entrance to the bone labyrinth.

The first issue lies in the way that it’s written. It doesn’t describe a group of people taking a snack break, which is obviously the intent. Instead, it reads almost like Khang-Ho is being forced to eat a very strange last meal as the unwitting sacrifice, parts of which were supplied by different members of the crew. It’s not until after they start moving again that we learn that everyone was eating.

Second, this particular action is not at all set up well. The paragraph above this picnic ends with the captain, having sensed Khang-ho’s desire for an explanation to the captain’s cryptic rhetoric, saying to the bosun, “Let’s shine some light on the situation, shall we Missus Sweetbreads?” Then they all pull out drink and hardtack and, without speaking a word to one another, Khang-Ho (and presumably the others) partakes.

Based on the captain’s words to the bosun, you’d expect some sort of discussion during this meal, even if they don’t reveal their purpose for being on Ito Cay. But that doesn’t happen. They just eat in silence and the captain’s statement about “shining light on the situation” is never addressed again.

Now, I realize that, after re-reading it multiple times, this passage could be interpreted as the captain simply asking the bosun to light a lantern but, even so, that doesn’t fix things. The contextual cues available around it point to a forthcoming clarification to assuage Khang-Ho’s annoyance at the captain’s cryptic answers. There’s also no indication that he intended for them to stop and eat. It all just happens rather awkwardly.

Finally, there are issues in the story’s internal logic. The cultists plan to kill the gods and their planet with the scream of this one giant mandrake growing in the center of Myo’tab Keep. I really just don’t see how this would work. The example given of the damage done by an infant-sized mandrake root wiping out all life on the island makes sense itself but, if you were to multiply that effect according to the size of the adult mandrake tree as described, it still wouldn’t be enough to kill everything on the planet or the planet itself as planned, let alone touch the gods, who one would assume don’t live in the physical realm.

It’s also made very clear (both in the story and in folklore) that it’s hearing the sound that does the damage, not the vibration it causes, since deaf individuals and vegetation are unaffected by it; this is, after all, the reason Khang-Ho tries to stop his ears with mud but worries it won’t be enough to stop him from hearing it. So I have to question how this would possibly kill the planet, which seems to be the intent considering the captain says they intend to “kill the star.”

Now, I suppose “star” could mean sun instead of planet but the premise still wouldn’t work for three reasons:

  1. sound can’t travel through the empty space (a vacuum) that lies between stars and planets unless that space is filled with interstellar gas and dust to give the sound waves something to vibrate (and even then only if the molecules of that gas and dust aren’t too far from each other);
  2. sound loses strength the farther it travels until it finally runs out of energy altogether and likely wouldn’t reach the sun (nor would it reach the ears of every living thing on the planet, for that matter); and
  3. like the planet, the sun doesn’t have ears to hear the scream anyway.

As for killing the gods, not in this particular tale nor in any actual herbal folklore I’ve read (another interest of mine) is there any mention of the mandrake’s scream affecting spirits. Logically speaking, this makes sense because spirits don’t hear with physical ears and have no physical form to harm (temporarily taking physical form aside, of course, but even then they’d just abandon the physical body and return to being a spirit).

Since a god is, in all technicality, a spirit and usually dwells on another plane, realm, or dimension (unless the narrative states otherwise which, again, this one doesn’t), it doesn’t make sense that the gods could possibly be affected, unless the story stipulates this is possible and gives a reason. Since the story does not give such a reason, it renders the premise invalid by negating a large part of the reasoning that the cultists and Khang-Ho have for their actions.

My Final Thoughts

Honestly, for me, both stories missed the mark, although Marshall came closest to hitting the target. Both have their good points, but I found that the bad far outweighed the good.

I’m really curious to see what others thought of the stories in January’s Grimdark #21. If you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know in the comments!