A Look at Savage Scrolls (Volume One)
by Bill Ward
New from Pulp Hero Press is Jason Ray Carney’s Savage Scrolls (2020), an anthology of contemporary sword-and-sorcery fiction. And make no mistake, this is actual sword-and-sorcery, not sword-and-sorcery used as a vague descriptor, a marketing buzz word, or a broad umbrella term for dark fantasy or fantastic darkness or pseudo-fabulist progwave interstitial slip-hop ironically-referencing-a-loincloth wannabe litfic masquerading as sword-and-sorcery. No, Savage Scrolls is refreshingly exactly what it purports to be, and it does what it says on the cover – providing a collection of contemporary sword-and-sorcery from some of the best modern practitioners in the game.
Of course, one quick glance at the authors in Savage Scrolls is probably enough to communicate that point, especially for fans of Tales From the Magician’s Skull for whom the names Howard Andrew Jones, Adrian Cole, and James Enge always command attention. Indeed, those who have read TFTMS Issue 1 will have seen Jones’ Hanuvar tale from that issue, “Crypt of Stars.” In it, Hanuvar uses the bait of the fabulous treasures of his own family tomb to deceive and defeat his hated rivals, free and equip some of his captured soldiers, and lay to rest his fallen brother. Hanuvar is a wily, seasoned former general, who relies on wits over brawn to fight on in a one-man war against the empire that subjugated his people and defeated him on the battlefield, and his tales are tinged with irredeemable loss even as Hanuvar reaps his vengeance.
James Enge’s “Laws for the Blood” presents a drunken Morlock (my favorite Morlock) with the problem of a rampaging goose-shaped killing machine left over from a town’s legacy of mutual hatred. Enge offers some wry commentary on human tribalism – including a dualistic pantheon granting its worshipers the attractive condolence of always having someone to hate – in this short tale of weirdness and Morlock’s characteristic quirky charm. The final TFTMS alum’s contribution comes in the form of Adrian Cole’s “Tower in the Crimson Mist,” one of the ongoing series of adventures he is penning for Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis. Anyone who has read these tales knows what a first rate job Cole has done to capture the clean, swift energy of Kuttner’s prose, and remain true to his characters and world while opening up the possibilities for excitement on Elak’s road to the Atlantean crown. “Tower in the Crimson Mist” is old school sword-and-sorcery fun, with wild nautical threats, and a magically concealed lost city with a sinister secret – and sultry sorceress – at its heart.
Cole’s story isn’t the only act of ‘authorial ventriloquism’ in Savage Scrolls – in fact, Fred Blosser’s “Under the Basilisk Moon” revisits another Kuttner classic – Prince Raynor. Like Cole’s channeling of Kuttner, Blosser rip-roars straight ahead with a tale in which Raynor must rescue a princess from a den of pirates – with the added elements of betrayal, sorcery, and a time-freezing jewel thrown in. Elak and Rayor were both creations of Kuttner’s that seemed set-up for infinite adventures, but only got a scant handful each. It’s great to see them being given new life by modern practitioners of the art with a real love of sword-and-sorcery and a respect for its originators coming through in every line.
D.M. Ritzlin certainly loves sword-and-sorcery – you might be familiar with his press (and excellent blogsite), DMR Books – as his tale of Avok the Cytheran, “Slave Girls for Sacrifice” winkingly demonstrates with its, in editor Carney’s words, highlight of some of the “funhouse absurdity” of the genre with a straight up ‘loincloths and libidos’ romp. And ‘romp’ might also be a good description of Steve Dilks pedal-to-the-metal novelette “Tale of the Uncrowned Kings,” in which his warrior and rogue duo’s plan to rob a powerful magician backfires and launches them on a quest containing everything from pirates to airships.
For a bit more of a Klarkash-Tonian feel, there is Steve Lines’ “The Eyes of the Scorpion,” the first-person narrative of a geased quest for a dark necromancer reminiscent of Satampra Zeiros and the Arabian Nights. And “Born of the Serpent” from heroic fantasy stalwart David C. Smith, is a back-to-basics conflict featuring the perils of capture and escape and the sinister secrets of a lost race of shape-shifting serpentmen.
Eight tales of sinister sorcery and savage swords, with nary a piece of filler or cross-genre selection within their ranks. Publisher Bob McLain of Pulp Hero Press promises that Savage Scrolls will be the first of several collections offering undiluted sword-and-sorcery from today’s top flight practitioners and, if the standards of this first installment hold true, we may have another anthology series on par with Flashing Swords or Swords Against Darkness. For everyone looking for that classic feel of thews straining against eldritch peril, of wide open adventure beneath crimson skies, give Savage Scrolls a look.