Book Review: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

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Disclaimer: Spoilers for Promise of Blood’s ending and minor spoilers for The Crimson Campaign. Read the review for Promise of Blood here.

I read Promise of Blood within the span of three-four days. The Crimson Campaign, in contrast, I read over six adrenaline-fueled hours. For three-quarters of Campaign, my heart was in my throat, my eyes nearly skipping through the words because of how badly I wanted to know what would happen next. And a whole lot happens, let me tell you that.

The Plot and Characters:

Like Promise of Blood, this sequel continues following Adamat, Taniel and Tamas as the former two deal with the fall-out of Promise’s ending. Tamas, meanwhile, begins from a place of strength, quickly lost when the Field Marshall makes a grave tactical error against the Kez, leaving him trapped far behind the enemy lines and with no certain way back. So it is that Tamas’ section of Campaign is an adrenaline-fueled retreat through enemy lands with some unforgettable battles, a dash of subterfuge and a lot of great banter with his bodyguard and my favourite Knacked soldier, Olem. A bit more focus is placed on the relationship between Tamas and Vlora with some heavy, emotional scenes between father and surrogate daughter (that’s what they are, really), which I was all for!

Taniel’s story here, the beginning of it, was difficult to read. After the physical and emotional torture that was Promise’s finale, we find Two-Shot in a mala-den, drugging himself for everything he and his possessions are worth. It’s a sorry state to see him in but it makes the journey of him getting back to his feet all the more satisfying. I had a few issues with the way Taniel would occasionally get into the dumbest fights (for good reason, granted) with people who far outranked him. It does fit who he is as a character, hot-headed and brusque but my sense of him was, he’s also clever enough to know where the road he goes down on might lead but he goes down it, regardless.

Adamat meanwhile is keeping a low profile, trying to outsmart and outplay Lord Vetas, the mysterious, cold-blooded antagonist working against the interests of the new government. In his attempts to thwart the evil mastermind and free those Vetas holds hostage, Adamat makes an alliance with my favourite Priliveged, Bo, who is as scary as he is entertaining!

Nila’s in the novel, too! Again, her PoV is tiny compared to the others but I was pleasantly surprised by the route Brian decided to take this former laundress in! Her relationship with a certain spell-slinging character, in particular, is something I quite enjoyed..but on that point, I’ll return when I review the third book!

Solid writing where dialogue, action and general plot direction are concerned. I breezed through the novel in an evening. And a night. It set my imagination ablaze even more than Promise of Blood and for that, I am happy to praise it to high heaven.

This was an excellent second instalment to McCllelan’s Powder Mage trilogy. Not only does it develop previous storylines, it manages to throw in a few surprises while showing a piece of the greater world outside of Adro. A few accounts were settled, a new villain established and a veritable sea of blood was spilt! 5/5 stars!

This review took me a while. Nevermind that I wrote 3/4ths of it the day after I wrote the review for Promise of Blood. Blame it on my lazy ass, or on doing fifty things at once, all day, every day. I’m lame, I know! I’ll try to finish up the last book of the trilogy very, very soon and re-read Sins of Empire in order to FINALLY read Wrath of Empire. 

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

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(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Senlin Ascends (review herewas an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!

Plot:

Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.

In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!

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Themes and Characters:

The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.

The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.

What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.

Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.

Conclusion and Score:

I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations  Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.

It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.

The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars!  I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!

Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!

 

The Intentionally Unhelpful Villain #02: Acts of Villainy

Grandma's Special Herbs

Journal Entry The Third

My brother, the big-time villain. Who does he think he is, smacking me around, placing chains of iron around MY person, threatening and cajoling me!

I’ll find his daughter, I will. The question is…where do I begin?

I’ve been in a perpetual dream prison for years. The answer is obvious — I begin in a restaurant.

The former village of Woodstick is now known as ‘The Capital.’ I have no doubt as to who renamed it so, and much as I’d like to badmouth this city, I cannot. He has done well in creating a city of lights, sinister as they may be…or advisers have, despite my wily brother. What well his direct underlings tap into in order to survive that child-like whimsical nature, I fear imagining.

The restaurant I picked was a fine place. Colourful, filled with military types in shining white. Their faces turned pale as soon as they saw my face–but they weren’t really seeing mine, were they? I sat down, unperturbed by this misguided attention.

I ordered a steak and waited for the fun to begin.

What my brother never understood, despite all his infuriating successes is this: True acts of villainy are small things. They pile up and up, a great stack of nasty deeds which push men to madness. This cook, for example. I have now returned his steak seventeen times. The last waiter to ask me to leave left a trail of digestive fluids all the way out onto the boulevards of the Capital.

The cook will snap. He’ll start off with acts of spite. Spitting in the soup. Putting sugar in the sugarless desserts (as if there is such a thing as sugarless desserts, bah!), putting too much salt in the stew. Then, it’ll be allergens. Peanut paste to those allergic to peanuts, if precognition is anything to go by.

It will end with poison. He’ll sprinkle some on a wedding cake. But he is no poisoner, and so a single drop will fall on his index finger. He’ll rub his nose, or eye, or put the finger in his mouth for all I care, and it’ll do him in. I only see parts of the future and the last bit I see is him falling all over the six-foot tall poisoned cake.

A pity, that. It is my brother’s wedding. But oh well. I have illustrated my point well enough.

So much spite drawn out of a mere cook’s heart, and all of it — because of a bad night filled with steaks. This is the essence of evil. My niece was quick in learning this lesson. The question is, just where has she been practising it?

There will be a pattern. All I need do is discover and follow it.

The Intentionally Unhelpful Villain #01: Help?

Journal Entry The First

Let it be writ:

Today, an oaf of a man, a woodcutter through and through, passed by my cabin.

“Where go you, axeman?” I said.

“A good day to you, villain!” he said, scratching his beard. “I am on my way to cut a little girl and her granny out of the tummy of a wolf. Bad business for the timber business, wolves eating one of my biggest clients and whatnot.” He sighed. “‘Tis the third time this has happened over the past season. Say, care you join me?”

“I’m good,” I said. I wasn’t, but I was going go be. Snicker.

He nodded, and turned around, tugging at his axe, skipping two steps at a time. Little did he know, a single step was worn out and slippery. It was this step, in fact, which his foot gave way under.

He flew into the air for a few glorious moments. Then, he fell to the ground, the head of the axe burying itself in his chest under the monumental weight. I got up, cackled at the sight, then sat back in my rocking chair.

Sometimes, it’s good to be partially precognisant.

Journal Entry The Second

The axeman pulled the axe out of his chest this morning. He seemed displeased with me. Nothing new under the sun.

“Listen here–” he said. The air shimmered behind him, and a shape enclosed in black iron grasped and threw the oafish man far away into the air. The axeman was silent, be it surprise or shock.

His form was gaunt, the face that appeared behind the iron helm an unnatural shade of white. Save for the difference in colour, it was familiar insofar as my own.

“Villain,” he said.

“Villain,” I nodded. “Have you come to free me from this prison, brother?”

He shrugged. “Something like that.” His fist went flying towards my face.

Partial precognition sucks.

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain #17: Face-off! (Part 1 Finale!)

At last, I overcame my treacherous body-snatcher of an ex-wife!

I write this in mine own hand after mine magical quill refused to watch.

What madness had she concocted upon the land, upon my people, my great empire? Such questions did I ask myself as I sharpened poisonous, were-hare claws. Mine Legion of Librarians, once strong in number, now reduced to a mere few dozens all looked upon me, their faces taut with great joy.

Sven, my Prime Librarian went positively ashen in the face. Perhaps, seeing the young and loyal, and newly appointed, Head Librarian on mine majestic feminine heels made things clear to him, the disloyal cur!

But the thought of Sven, of anyone, vanished in an instant as I saw it. Mine glorious, majestic, magnificent body!

‘Wife!’ I screamed in her voice, quite prepared to defeat her with vocal might, alone.

She looked at me with what I perceived as fear, but now, upon great contemplation and use of mine great faculties, was relief. She ran towards me with this expression, the clatter of my beloved armor now a sound to fear. I half-crouched, ready to strike back at her.

Her/mine lips fell on mine/hers. (This whole business of body snatching confounds even mine great mind.)

Then, I was looking down on her, and I was back in the body that belonged to me, and once again I felt true power resting on mine fine, strangely lengthy fingers!

I studied her face, contemplating how best to dispose of her when she spoke.

‘Thank the gods you showed up! I didn’t think I would handle another day of this!’

‘…Wot?’

‘Look…’ she sighed. ‘I’m sorry I stole your body and tried to usurp your empire. I realize now, ruling is no easy feat. All these decrees, edicts, pronouncements, they are a bore!’

She circled me, shifting like a panther as she walked towards Sven. ‘Besides, I… I don’t know how to tell you this, Maus, but I’ve fallen in love.’ She took his hand in hers, smiling at me. Brr, I felt the cold outside of the armour cool by a score degrees. ‘Besides, I never meant for this to be permanent. I just needed to know if you had the little monster locked away somewhere. Now that I know you don’t…’ she shrugged.

I had summoned mine spiked helmet — a fashion statement if ever there was one — but removed it. ‘I have very many little monsters, woman. Which one eludes my glorious collection?’

‘You really should cut the grandiloquence a bit, Your Darkness,’ her voice was rich with mockery, but she tilted her head, confused. ‘You really don’t remember?’

‘You better begin making sense, woman, else I’ll–‘

‘Our little monster? Don’t the words mean nothing to you?’

A faint memory shifted somewhere behind a door forced shut.

‘Have you really forgotten our daughter, you egomaniacal despot?!’

Huh. Words rolled out from my mouth in a metallic voice. ‘Well, former wife, you have had your fun. With this in mind, I reckon us two have had a good enough reunion not to force this for another century or few. Enjoy the lad with my most heartfelt good wishes!’

But she didn’t seem in a mind to enjoy anything too much at all as much as to pull my spine out of my mouth, and so I snapped my fingers and sent both her and Sven far, far away. Somewhere tropical, with loads of sharks, preferably. She’ll manage, no doubt, the minx.

Huh.

I have a daughter. It’ll be mine. It’ll all be mine.

 

Well, that was a strange conclusion to a strange arc to a strange piece of really lazy fiction meant to mock fantasy tropes. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and we’ll pick up with Part 2 soon!  -Ish.

Baaai!

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain #16: Musings

Diary Entry #220

Catch up to what’s happening with the Unintentionally Helpful Villain by checking out The Unintentionally Helpful Villain #15!

Sven, mine Prime Librarian, is a self-made man! I know that to be true, for I saw him rise from the dirt and mud and turn most humanoid. How he hath accomplished such a task, I couldn’t possibly imagine.

My newly appointed Head Librarian is a kind young man, begging me to show mercy to Sven, to use instead this great wrath that so beats inside this unknowable female chest against mine ex-wife. He even tells me Sven was the one who sent him to aid me in my time of grave need.

Poppycock.

A Head Librarian need must be made of harder stuff, as Sven was.

Hmmmm. It would appear I need must do a rather unfortunate something when mine original body is returned me.

Diary Entry #222

Long has the Head Librarian ridden on mine were-rabbit back, and longer yet have I ran, but at last the stench of several dozens of moldy Librarians is felt within the air. At long last, I shall close mine mitts betwixt the throat of the vile body-snitching ex!

Strange how this entire journey has changed me. I have learned much — sometimes, turning the enemy to ash between your boot need not be seen as the only move left to a man of action.

Turns out, tearing throats when shifting into a rabbit is even better for that! ‘S all about that personal touch, you see.

Now, I sleep. Tomorrow, I face the wife, kill Sven, and destroy this wretched piss-hole of a country.

Or at least all the rabbit hunters in it.

(Top) Ten Things I would do if I were a Sentient Sword in a Fantasy Setting

Another Monday, another Top Ten List! I’ve been reading and thinking about magical weapons, sentient swords, talking scythes and so decided to do another one of my favourite little lists!

  1. If I get an arsehole of a wielder, I’m going to pretend that I’m just your normal, every-day magical sword. No sign of sentience from me, nuh-uh. Then, when he’s in the middle of a fight–snikt! and off go his hands.
  2. I would make sure not to get thrown away into a forgotten quarry by some reluctant master. Millenia spent talking to rocks, devoid of tasty  blood? No, thank you!
  3. I would be a fantastic instructor to youths who’ve never held a weapon in their lives before. Face anyone–anyone!–and I’ll use the pipsqueak to gut whatever instructor, family member, or fellow student of the sword he’s going up against.
    I like to throw my pupils head-first unto oceans of blood. It builds character.
  4. I would encourage, listen to and do just about everything but tolerate defeatist attitude.
  5. Teaching heroes is, of course, another purview of mine, and I would put my back into it. So to speak.
  6. I’m not saying I would enjoy sating my blood thirst…I’m not saying that I wouldn’t, either.
  7. I would make a great gift. Not a ‘ha-ha’ kind of gift, more like a ‘I murdered everyone at my birthday party and it was epic’ kind of gift.
    It’s the little things in life.
  8. If ever a strong-willed man or woman with principles takes hold of me, I might be in trouble. Naturally, I’ll do my best to betray and murder them horribly. Not because I’m evil, but because I’m a free spirit, and loyal to who I am!
  9. I would not tolerate any Dark Lord or Evil Master or Ancient Forger’s soul to snuggle up in my biz! No other sentient creatures and souls are welcome in my house, thank you very much.
  10. I would accept kitten sacrifice as a price for my use! Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’s a valid currency where I come from!

Thank you for reading this list! We’ll be back next week with the third part of Adventurer’s Mishaps! If you’d like to give me some feedback–the comment section is below, and I’d be all too happy to implement any good advice in the blog! 

Adventurer’s Mishaps: Assassin’s Blade

Welcome to Adventurer’s Mishaps, a new short fiction series on this blog, inspired by my love for role-playing games akin to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).  Today’s entry follows the story of Liadrin, whom we shortly met last week. If you haven’t read last week’s ‘Mishaps,’ click here to take a look.

Liadrin drew the dagger out of the guard’s neck, holding his body as it fell to the ground without a sound. Capable guards were impossible to find, nowadays. Countess Morrgiana’s were a new breed of rabble altogether — messy, inattentive pigs. This one had crumbs and jam all over his collar. Like children with sticks, these — and only marginally less likely to hurt themselves if they tried.

The body would be found, she had no doubt; it was meant to. If no messenger was to be had, you drafted the message on a warm body; that way, no one could ignore it. Not for long.

She was worried, however. With mercenaries this ill-suited for guard duty, the Gods only knew how long it would take them to find a corpse, even one in such an evident place. She looked over the balcony’s edge, scanning the ground below. No one in sight. The assassin sighed.

If you can’t bring attention to the corpse, bring the corpse to attention, Liadrin thought, as she dragged the body over the marble railing. The fall would attract attention, no doubt. Attention was good.

She moved upwards with the alacrity of a shadow, and just as silent as one. Torches flickered and died out as soon as Liadrin neared, providing her with an even deeper cloak of darkness. She didn’t use magic, but she might as well have, such was the nature of her skill.

Yells sounded from below, muffled by distance but clear enough to convey undiluted fear and surprise. Liadrin’s smile widened, a couple of daggers flashing by in the dark.

Two guards stood on the sides of  her supposed target’s living quarters. One of the men held a heavy crossbow, just as the assassin’s information had pointed out. He had the time to give out a surprised yelp, not even loud enough to awaken his colleague before one cold blade sucked the life out of him. The man on Liadrin’s left groaned in his sleep. He would never awaken.

Footsteps sounded on marble steps, somewhere far behind; good, they were coming. Perhaps there was hope for these men yet.

Liadrin hardly appreciated making a showpiece of the craft but her master’s needs demanded that she stand on the spotlight. The assassin relit the torch on one side of the doors to the Countess’ private rooms. She positioned the heavy crossbow in as evident a way as she could, before opening and passing through the door.

Morrgiana slept in her bed, undisturbed by all the commotion. Without so much as a flinch, Liadrin dragged her awake by the hair, forcing the young woman to her crumbling feet despite the Countess’ horrified screams. Even hauled off her bed in the middle of the night, she was in beauty, Liadrin couldn’t deny. Obvious, then, why King Lekaved had taken her as his lover…the assassin couldn’t fault his taste.

“Please, please, please let me go. I-I promise I’ll be good, I’ll do whatever you want, I-I have jewels and gold, and trinkets with little magicks in them and you can have–”

Liadrin pulled on the girl’s dark hair even harder. “Shut up, you little fool,” she said, her voice as cold as the north seas. “You and I will share in the romantic  view of Kiern at night. The gem of the East, in all its glory is worth appreciation. Move!”

The last word Liadrin underlined by shoving Morrgiana through the glass archway, onto the ground

“Why-Why–?”

Liadrin forced the woman–little more than girl, really–to her feet, ignoring the cries of pain and the tiny pieces of glass that embedded themselves within the Countess’ skin. “With bedfellows such as yours, must you ask?”

Blows fell against the wooden doors to the bedchamber. They wouldn’t last long, but Liadrin had ample time. She forced Morrgiana to turn around with one hand, taking a bone blade out of its sheath with the other, and held it to the younger woman’s pretty face.

Morrgiana’s sobs rocked the woman’s petite body. “Please don’t. If you know about–about Lekaved, you know I could make him do anything.” Her voice grew desperate, histeric. “The King’s ear, I could have it listen to whatever you want. Anything you want, please!”

“I want you,” Liadrin whispered, “to look at the city. Take it in, all of it. Do you see the lights, over there? Have you wondered what it’s like, being one of these lights? Have you ever imagined life out there? Not this pretty little thing you have here, this mimicry, built on marble and the bones of your King’s starved subjects?” Her voice fell to a whisper. “You would think my touch a kind one, and so soft, compared with some of what is there.

But it is beautiful, isn’t it?”

Wood shattered into splinters somewhere behind them. With a well-practiced flick of the hand, Liadrin’s blade left a mark down the side of Morrgiana’s face, from her temple all the way down to the edge of the jaw; far from a deadly wound, it would leave a deep mark on the Countess’ beautiful face. Liadrin removed her grip from the woman, leaving Morgianna to her wailing, and moved next to her, between the arched doorway and the balcony railing.

She glimpsed backwards, to see several guards, one of which pointing the crossbow at her back. Yells mixed into one, calling for her to put the dagger down. Liadrin lifted the blade higher, as if to throw it at one of the guards, her lips curling in a blood-curdling smile.

The guard holding the heavy crossbow squeezed the weapon’s trigger, releasing its loaded metal bolt. Time came to a standstill. Liadrin repositioned her body in that single moment, with preternatural speed that would’ve allowed her to avoid it entirely, if she wished.

That wasn’t part of the job.

Time resumed, and the bolt pierced Liadrin’s body, puncturing muscle, shattering bone, tearing organs to pieces. The force propelled her over the edge. As she fell towards the lake below, Liadrin smiled, despite the burning pain. As blackness overwhelmed her, one thought alone swam above it.

Her task was complete.

**********

Liadrin awoke to the warmth of a fire and one of the worst itches she’d ever felt; a sure-fire way to know that you were alive, and recently gone through serious healing. Without opening her eyes, she said, “Klaus. Your divinations proved as helpful as ever.” Her voice was husky with strain, her mind clouded with exhaustion. “I see your healing arts are as formidable as I’ve heard. You will forgive me if I don’t look forward to the next time I need one of those.”

“I’m sure I’ll find some amount of forgiveness within me,” he humored her. There was strain in his behind the chuckle. “You pulled it pretty close, Lia. A few millimeters higher, and not even the energy within that trinket you gave me would’ve been able to save you.”

Her smile widened. “I know.”

She heard the priest grumble an indecent comment under his nose, then say more loudly, “You should rest now. It’ll take you more than a short nap to recover from this.”

Liadrin nodded, then opened her eyes. The human flinched at her iris-less gaze before getting a hold of himself. “You are ready for your part?” she asked, her fine eyebrow lifting up in what bordered mockery.

Klaus nodded gravely. “You know as well as I do, there really is no other choice.”

 

This is where we’ll leave the tale of Liadrin (for now, anyway). Something tells me that we’ll see her again, at one point or another. Things are heating up, in Adventurer’s Mishaps, and I have so many ideas, and we’re going ever-deeper in the rabbit’s hole! 

Hope to see you again next time! 

 

 

 

Adventurer’s Mishaps: No One Appreciates a Bard!

Welcome to Adventurer’s Mishaps, a new short fiction series on my blog, inspired by my love for role-playing games akin to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).  Today’s entry is all about the hard life of a bard, as you might’ve gathered. Let’s get started!

“No one appreciates a bard! Here I’m at, a week after I trapped–single-handedly, I may add–Single-Handedly, I tell you– that black monstrosity that’s been terrorizing your piss-poor countryside, and not a dime off tonight’s meal, and a tenth of the official prize for the dragon paid besides! All evening I get ‘Thank you for this , Master Musician,’ ‘Thank you for that, My Lord Minstrel,’ but is there a single coin in my hat, is there a–BARMAID!” Luzwig waved the half-filled tankard, spraying drops of ale across the faces and beards of the villagers that had gathered around from the entire village, expecting to meet their savior.

Any man would’ve noted the storm brewing amongst that crowd; any man save for one as intoxicated as Luzwig. The people of Isthvaan, normally as meek as sheep, had been marinating in the newly-arrived bard’s tirade against King and country for a little over two bells’ time. Where warm smiles and kind words of gratitude had welcomed the bard earlier, only vicious glares and deep frowns were left.

The little gnome’s stay in the tavern had started well enough, with a few merry songs and an ancient epic retold with such mastery as to leave even those men most devoid of imagination speechless. Then, the tiny guest of the ‘Old Lady’ had requested–nay, demanded–a drink. Then, he had called for a second. And then for another one, and one more besides. That had been an hour past.

“Where’s that damn gir–what was I on about? Right, right, the small-minded pettiness of small-town folk. You won’t find smallness so…so…” the bard seemed to fall into a reverie of which only the harsh screeching of a nearby chair could pull him out. “…Tiny,” Luzwig finished. Some semblance of clarity returned to his eyes. The tiny orbs of violet focused on the face of a youth, strangely familiar to him, and sharpened. “Have you a clue of the intricacies of weaving spells into song? The years of study that went into mastering the lyre and the flute, the horn and the harpsichord. Touching the hearts and minds of your listeners, like plucking the strings of a harp, is no easy matter. Here, I’ll show you.” The gnome took to unpacking one of his instruments with care that didn’t reflect his intoxication.

In the silence, murmur broke out like the aftershocks to an eruption. “We gon’let him play us for fools now?”

“Mean-spirited drunk, that one! Throw ‘im out!”

“Not a coin to his name, and yet this one expect us to believe he’s who he says he is? I say cut off his tongue, see him spew that filth without it…”

“No knee-licker is going to disrespect My King in the ‘Lady’, while I’m standing in it! Grab the Trickster, and let the river spirits do away with him!”

The first string notes silenced the growing voices of discontent as if they’d never been there. Music filled the overcrowded common room, found its way through skin and flesh and bone, and, like draconic claws, sank into the villagers’ hearts.  Discontent, pain and hurt flooded the men’s hearts. Anger soon followed, but not towards the bard.

The gnome did not see who threw in the first fist and soon enough, it hardly mattered. One moment, nothing but the music and the baited breaths of the villagers broke the silence; the next, the soft stringing of melody was drowned out in the melee that erupted through the ranks of men.

***

Luzwig closed the door to the small village inn behind him, and hummed a small spell, locking it tight. Then he whistled, a sharp, clear sound that reinforced the doors and windows and walls of the establishment.

“A pity, that,” Luzwig said, before disappearing.

Several hundred feet from the village, a human woman, clad in a black mantle, awaited in the darkness. Her stance exuded of deadly calm, like a serpent awaiting the opportunity to strike.

Before the gnome had removed the invisibility spell off himself, the woman said, “All went well, I take it.”

He almost tripped in surprise.”H-how did you know?”

“How does anyone?” She didn’t await Luzwig’s response, throwing a purse of coins that the gnome hastily caught.

He weighed the pouch thoughtfully, then asked. “Liadrin…what was that whole thing for? If whoever you’re working for now wanted a couple of villagers dead, surely there would’ve been less expensive ways to go about it. More direct. Less a pain in the ass.”

Liadrin’s lips twitched into a humorless smile. “Sometimes, a cut is all the more painful when it comes not from outside, but from the inside, where you would least expect it. My employer will be pleased by a job well done.” The woman turned her back to Luzwig, saying “I’ll be sure to recommend that he use your services again, should he require…a softer touch.”

Before the gnome could respond, Liadrin took a few steps away, and vanished from sight. Luzwig glanced around, frowning, then took one last look at the small village of Isthvaan, a place whose importance he couldn’t have understood if his life depended on it.

“A pity, that,” he repeated in a low mumble, as he began to walk to Keirn. “If only that old miser, Lekaved, had seen fit to pay me more. I bet I’d be somewhere far away, with loads of booze and far away from that bloodthirsty bitch.”

He could’ve sworn, then, that he heard laughter.

 

Thank you for reading! Join me next week for more Mishaps! This series will run through the whole gamut of classes of D&D–I Hope– and while each adventure will be its own story, there’ll also be an overarching storyline running through and connecting each character!

Book Recommendation: The Walls of Air

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Ah, recommending the second book of a trilogy, that’s a new one for this blog!

The Walls of Air is the second novel in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy. The second book of a trilogy is always a bit tricky; you have to find a balance between answering some of the questions that the first novel set up while setting up the final stage of the final book.

Barbara Hambly manages to do just that in an admirable way. Our main characters — Ingold, Rudy and Gil — all face considerable challenges and each of them grow and change; some in ways that you’d expect, while others might surprise you. What Ingold goes through at the end of the novel, in particular, changes him into a much darker, more cruel version of himself; a version that was only hinted at, previously.

I won’t go into detail, but it’s an understandable transformation which feels very much ‘earned,’ if you will.  Appropriate. So it is with Gil and Rudy, whose transformations are more gradual and less…contested.

The Walls of Air features two storylines:

The first storyline deals with Rudy and Ingold’s journey to Quo, the Magical Capital/College of the world. I didn’t quite fancy Rudy as much as Ingold or Gil in the first book, but this storyline had me rooting for him time and time again. Our San Fran wizard’s apprentice is quite a charmer, that’s for sure.

Gil has some problems of her own in the Keep, overshadowed only by her proclivity to scholarly work, and her ability to see patterns early enough to make her brilliant but late enough not to resolve the tension over Rudy and Ingold’s quest.

Hambly’s prose is once again splendid. I read it with such ease that it’s a challenge not to lose myself and any notion of time when I’m within the confines of Darwath’s fantastic world.

I could say so much more about it…but I’m afraid to spoil a great experience for you. I’d really rather not do that, so you go ahead and read it!