East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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A Bloodless Origin

It’s the Christmas weekend, the countryside is silent and dreary under a blanket of cold mist, and there is very little to do but eat (in moderation), read (an old Warhammer Fantasy novel) and wait for New Year’s Eve.
In the general desert of the media landscape, I chanced upon the announcement of a new Netflix series, The Witcher: Blood Origin, and I thought… why not?

Now, I know very little about The Witcher franchise – I never played the video games, the stories always seemed to me to be extremely derivative of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and I was not able to go past the first episode of the TV series – with all the sympathy for Henry Cavill, but no, sorry, I can’t stand the bard guy, and the series is clearly not for me.
So this new miniseries came as a complete surprise, and really, going blind into it?
Four episodes featuring Michelle Yeoh and Minnie Driver?
Why not?
I will probably miss all the connections and deep lore, but at least I’ll be able to enjoy the series on its own merits.


Now, The Witcher: Blood Origin is just what it says on the tin – an origin story, telling us how the world in which the main series takes place came to be. It features political intrigue, world-shattering magic and seven warriors that plan to take their revenge on the bad guys that have usurped the throne.

So, yes, it’s basically The Seven Samurai crossed with Chushingura, with added elves and magic.
And here’s where the problems begin.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 The Seven Samurai is a master class in writing economy and storytelling.
At 207 minutes, it clocks almost exactly the same as The Witcher: Blood Origin if we take away opening and end titles.
It takes about one hour to Kurosawa to set up the premise of the story, and introduce the main characters – and he does so in a masterful way (hey, it’s Akira Kurosawa!), handing us each character, their psychology and their style, their function in the band of warriors.
Once this is done, in an interesting and exciting way, we plunge into the action, and for the remaining two hours the action won’t let up, while still taking time to develop the characters in surprising ways.
The Witcher miniseries takes almost three episodes – that’s two hours and a half – to set up the story and bring the seven characters together. Which leaves about fifty minutes for the expected big action payoff.

That so much time is spent in introducing and bringing together such bloodless, flat characters, is the main let down, for me.
The actors are good, but they are given very little to work with. A lot of the development seems rushed, and a fair chunk of dialogue is below par. There’s a lot of walking around – with or without horses, animals that seem to have the uncanny ability to appear and disappear at will.
The seven heroes are your standard band of seven, with a characterization that does not seem to go deeper than your standard D&D character sheet.

The politics of the series is interesting, but underdeveloped – and while Mirren Mack in the role of the delusional Princess Merwyn is interesting (and often visually striking), once again she does not have much to do. We get there are social class issues at work, undermining the elven civilization, but it’s pretty sketchy.

And that much of the weight of the story ends up being carried by Minnie Driver’s voice-over is a sign of how underwritten and rushed the whole thing is.
We are supposedly looking at the end of a world and the beginning of a new one, but nothing feels as thrilling as it is supposed to be.
We follow characters we do not care about as they set in motion events we do not care about, in a world we do not care about.

Then there are some very minor pet peeves of mine, writing-wise – such as the fact that we get people that say “send them to the clay” instead of “bury them”/”kill them” (which is a fine if heavy-handed bit of worldbuilding), but then will answer “okay!” to some questions, the anachronism grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
But that’s only me – it’s a silly detail, like the horses coming and going, or characters popping in and out of the story.

So, what about the good stuff?
Well, as I said, the actors are good (Sophia Brown, Francesca Mills and the already-mentioned Mirren Mack in particular), and do their best with the poor writing.
The action scenes are few and far between, but they are not bad.
The locations are beautiful, and the costumes are fine (Princess Merwyn’s outfits and make-up are great, and more than compensate her Ikea-furnished apartments).
And talking about Ikea, I particularly liked the design of the elven civilization’s brutalist architecture. And the alien design of the monsters is excellent, if not over-the-top original.
And of course, I’d pay a first-class ticket to watch Michelle Yeoh breath, so I’m on board on this.

Sadly, the good bits sprinkled in the mix are not enough to grant this story the minimum of interest and excitement that would make spending almost four hours watching it.
But hey, it’s the Christmas weekend, and I had nothing better to do.
A missed opportunity.

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Belated Review: Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Issue #1

I am definitely late at the party, but recently the Bundle of Holding did a quick deal offering the digital “Starter Collection” for The Tales from the Magician’s Skull, for a very reduced price, and with the opportunity of doing a little charity on the side.
And so I went and bought the deal, and now I have the first seven issues of a magazine that I’ve been keeping an eye on for quite a while – both curious to read the stories, and hopeful to one day sell them one of mine.
So, now I have the opportunity to study the market, and enjoy hundreds of pages of good sword & sorcery.

How good, you ask?
Well, here’s the idea – I will post a quick review of each magazine, covering every story, as I read through this (digital) stack.
Starting now, with Issue #1.

Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Issue #1 is an 88 pages PDF file.
The cover is excellent, and the magazine is fully illustrated throughout with ink sketches.
Past the index, very reminiscent of old pulps in its layout, we get an editorial from editor in chief Howard Andrew Jones, and then a full listing of all the places around the world where you can get yourself a paper copy of the magazine. I am pleased … well, OK, “pleased” to notice that Italy once again stands out for its absence.
A page is dedicated to the supporters that Kickstarted the mag.
Then we get to the stories.

What Lies in Ice, by Chris Willrich
A long story set in arctic waters, and featuring a large cast of characters, offers a nice overview of a whole world through the different histories and personalities of the “heroes”. Presented as “A Gaunt and Bone” adventure, it promises more stories featuring the two adventurers. Echoes of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, which for me is reason enough to enjoy the ride.

The Guild of Silent Men, by James Enge
A new Story of Morlock Ambrosius is always good news. In this case, we deal with a murder mystery of sorts, and the plot is ingeniously handled.
The compact length of the story is also a plus. Morlock is his usual dour self, and that’s how we like him.

Beneath the Bay of Black Waters, by Bill Ward
“A Tale of Shan Spirit-Slayer and the Banner General Bao”, that is, an oriental fantasy story, with a nice touch of almost-Lovecraftian horror. Good action and an exotic, Wuxia-like feel, and a couple of quite interesting characters. This is one of the two or three favorites of mine in this issue (you figure out what the others may be).

Beyond the Block, by Aeryn Rudel
This is a nasty (in a good way), gruesome piece told in first person, with a plot reminiscent of both the old Roger Corman Poe Movies and the classic EC Comics.
What more could we wish for?

Crypt of Stars, by Howard Andrew Jones
A tale of vengeance and freedom in a conquered empire, this one features strong characters and an intriguing setting, that feels at the same time familiar and exotic.

There Was an Old Fat Spider, by C. L. Werner
Featuring a giant bug in the accompanying illustration, this story of revenge and witchcraft has a vague flavor of Warhammer Fantasy in its German-sounding names and early Renaissance feel. Not a bad thing in itself.
Feels predictable, until it is not. Quite nice.

The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest, by John C. Hocking
Grave-robbing, intrigue and betrayal for this last story in the magazine, a nice conclusion to a very solid selection.

All the stories are from quite good to outstanding, and offer a mix of settings, characters and atmospheres that guarantee that every reader will find something to really really like.

The magazine is rounded up by a hefty appendix providing D&D stats for all the creatures and most of the spells seen in the stories, turning the Magician’s Skull into a game accessory if you feel so inclined.

Quite a good start, and one that really makes me curious to see what will come up in Issue #2.


Dreams of Fire

I am finally free to share the news that my new novel for the Descent, Legends of the Dark line will be available next summer through Aconythe Books.
It’s called Dreams of Fire, and it’s gonna be hot.

We’ve got dwarves, we got orcs (but not your father’s old orcs), we’ve got necromancy and rock-magic, we’ve got swordsmen-poets and more dragons you can shake a stick at.
And volcanoes.
It’s going to be a blast.

Check it out here if you want more news.

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The Conan Re-Read 4: Red Nails

It felt right to end our overview of Robert E. Howard’s Conan with the final Conan story, and the one that gave our podcast its name: Red Nails, published between July and October 1936 in Weird Tales. This was my friend Germano’s second choice, and is one of his favorite Conan yarns – while I have always been somewhat cold towards this story in particular.

I first read this story in English, in the paperback of the same title, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, and I agree with Wagner when he says that our knowledge that this is the last Conan story often colors our reading experience, the shadow of Howard’s death weighing heavy on the text, somehow causing us to dislike the story.

Art by Ken Kelly

The story is set in the jungles at the far south of the Hyborian continent, where Conan follows piratess Valeria, herself on the run after killing a man who tried to rape her. After an encounter with a “dragon” (actually a dinosaur of some sort), the two adventurers reach a strange city; here they get entangled in the feud between two factions that in the last fifty years have been killing each other for control over the city. The arrival of the two foreigners – and their involvement in the feud – is the unforeseen event that causes the situation to precipitate, in a series of betrayals and murder attempts that leave Conan and Valeria as the two sole survivors.

Art by Oliver Cuthberson

Red Nails was to be the last Conan story, and the last fantasy from Howard – in 1936, Weird Tales was owing the author 1350 dollars (over 27.000 dollars in today money), and Howard had decided to leave the field, and move on to writing westerns – a genre in which he was enjoying a great success and regular payments.
Maybe the decision to leave Weird Tales and fantasy behind explains some of the characteristics of Red Nails – a story Howard himself described as his raciest and darkest.

Art by Mark Schultz

The people of the lost city of Xuchotl are engaged in a turf war that has been dragging on for five decades, and is fueled by the twisted culture of the citizens – that in various scenes describe in almost obscene fashion the pleasure they got from torturing their enemies.

“Tolkemec warred on both clans. He was a fiend in the form of a human, worse than Xotalanc. He knew many secrets of the city he never told the others. From the crypts of the catacombs he plundered the dead of their grisly secrets—secrets of ancient kings and wizards, long forgotten by the degenerate Xuchotlans our ancestors slew. But all his magic did not aid him the night we of Tecuhltli stormed his castle and butchered all his people. Tolkemec we tortured for many days.”
His voice sank to a caressing slur, and a far-away look grew in his eyes, as if he looked back over the years to a scene which caused him intense pleasure.
“Aye, we kept the life in him until he screamed for death as for a bride. At last we took him living from the torture chamber and cast him into a dungeon for the rats to gnaw as he died. From that dungeon, somehow, he managed to escape, and dragged himself into the catacombs. There without doubt he died, for the only way out of the catacombs beneath Tecuhltli is through Tecuhltli, and he never emerged by that way. His bones were never found, and the superstitious among our people swear that his ghost haunts the crypts to this day, wailing among the bones of the dead. Twelve years ago we butchered the people of Tolkemec, but the feud raged on between Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, as it will rage until the last man, the last woman is dead.”

Red Nails, chapter 3

To complicate matters, the obviously evil Tascela, a sort of vampire femme fatale who rules over a portion of the city, has singled out Valeria as her next victim, with the purpose of drinking her life essence and preserving her own youth. Tascela’s attitude towards Valeria is patently homosexual in nature – another example of the “extreme” themes Howard is dropping in his story.

She came down from her dais, playing with a thin gold-hilted dagger. Her eyes burned like nothing on the hither side of hell. She paused beside the altar and spoke in the tense stillness.
“Your life shall make me young, white woman!” she said. “I shall lean upon your bosom and place my lips over yours, and slowly—ah, slowly!—sink this blade through your heart, so that your life, fleeing your stiffening body, shall enter mine, making me bloom again with youth and with life everlasting!”
Slowly, like a serpent arching toward its victim, she bent down through the writhing smoke, closer and closer over the now motionless woman who stared up into her glowing dark eyes—eyes that grew larger and deeper, blazing like black moons in the swirling smoke.

Red Nails, chapter 7
Art by Mark Schultz

The presence of an immortal evil woman as an antagonist in Red Nails signals the story’s debt towards the works of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs – here mixed with the classic “standard Conan plot” featuring a lot city,a woman in peril, a strange monster and some human adversaries.
But this take on the story is much more nihilistic and dark than the usual commercial Conan story, and the sense of decay and despair is impossible to ignore.

Once again Howard provides us with a strong female character, seriously undermining some critics’ claim of generalized misogyny or sexism in Howard’s writing. When he wanted, Howard was more than capable to put on the page fully-developed female characters that were not just ornaments or “men with boobs”.

For sure, in his last outing, Conan goes out with a bang, and Red Nails is enjoyable and masterfully written . despite a few choices that almost seem to be tongue-in-cheek send-offs of the fantasy genre.

“There’s more than one way of skinning a panther.”

Red Nails, chapter 1

As usual, I have provided the link to the online text of the story, above, and here are the links at the three issues of Weird Tales in which it was serialized.




And here is an audiobook version is that’s your preferred mode of access.


The Conan Re-read 3: The People of the Black Circle

My second story choice was a no-brainer from the beginning: The People of the Black Circle, from September-October 1934 Weird Tales, is the first Robert E. Howard story I ever read, forty years ago, when I first bought a copy of the Italian translation of Conan the Adventurer.
So, my first meeting with Conan, and the story that sold me on the character, the world, and the author.

Art by Karel Thole

This novella-length story is probably Howard’s most accomplished in terms of pure plotting and writing. It features a wide cast, a large number of moving pieces, and the plot has been compared to an Elizabethan drama by none else than Fritz Leiber (a writer that knew something about Elizabethan dramas).

Inspired by the adventure/intrigue stories of Talbot Mundy, The People of the Black Circle is set on the mountain-rimmed border of Vendya – the Hyborian equivalent of Mughal India, and it opens with an impressive set piece about the agony of emperor Bunda Chand, whose soul is being tormented by an evil sorcerer. The sorcerer Khemsa, a servant of the Black Seers, worked his dark arts on Bunda Chand on orders from Kerim Shah, a Turanian spy. Such is the torment the emperor is suffering, that he asks his sister Yasmina to release him by killing him.

The king of Vendhya was dying. Through the hot, stifling night the temple gongs boomed and the conchs roared. Their clamor was a faint echo in the gold-domed chamber where Bunda Chand struggled on the velvet-cushioned dais. Beads of sweat glistened on his dark skin; his fingers twisted the gold-worked fabric beneath him. He was young; no spear had touched him, no poison lurked in his wine. But his veins stood out like blue cords on his temples, and his eyes dilated with the nearness of death. Trembling slave-girls knelt at the foot of the dais, and leaning down to him, watching him with passionate intensity, was his sister, the Devi Yasmina. With her was the wazam, a noble grown old in the royal court.

The People of the Black Circle, chapter 1

This theme of death as a release we already found in The Tower of the Elephant, and acquires a darker meaning if we consider that, at this point, the author’s self-inflicted death is about two years away.

Art by Gary Gianni

Yasmina now wants to find those that caused her brother’s death, and travels to the border to seek the collaboration of a bandit king who’s said to be quite effective in achieving results: Conan the Cimmerian. The local governor has seven of Conan’s men in prison, and hopes to reach some sort of agreement with the barbarian. But when things precipitate, Conan makes a grab for Yasmina, and with the girl on his shoulder, makes for the hills.

Here things get complicated – Conan is simply trying to get back to his men, but is attacked and captured by a not-necesarily-friendly tribe, that refrain from killing him simply because in the past he saved the life of their chieftain. On the Cimmerian’s tracks are the Turanian spy – that wants to get a hold on Yasmina; the Vendyan army – that want to recover their princess; and Khemsa and his lover, who have decided to ditch the Black Seers and go solo, using captive Yasmina as a pawn in their bid for power and riches.

Art by Gary Gianni

Nothing goes according to plan: Khemsa kills Conan’s friend, and incites the tribesmen to kill the Cimmerian; Conan and Yasmina escape, Yimsha hot on their heels, but are intercepted by the Black Seers, that kill Khemsa’s girfriend, cast the sorcerer in a ravine, and steal Yasmina. With his dying breath, Khemsa provides Conan with the information and equipment he needs to get into the citadel of the Seers, and Conan goes on, with the Turanian spy Kerim Shah in tow, because after all the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Conan faces the Seers and makes short thrift of them – and of Kerim Shah, two-faced backstabber that he is.
All’s well?
Not exactly – because now Yasmina’s troops from Vendia find themselves faced with the Turanian cavalry, and the battle is decided when Conan’s raiders join the fight on Yasmina’s side.

Art by Ken Kelly

Whew, that was complicated!

But you never feel lost or confused, reading this story – the prose is crisp, the descriptions are impressive and just right, and the characters are absolutely perfect. Yasmina is not just another pretty face, and Khemsa is probably the best bad guy in the whole series.

A sorcerer in the service of more powerful sorcerers, Khemsa is motivated by very mundane needs, exemplified by his lover, who is as greedy, amoral and ruthless as he is. Khemsa does not dream of world domination, but just of acquiring enough wealth and power to enjoy the good life with his girlfriend.
Yet, he is the sort of guy that can dismissively order an hypnotized man to kill himself, and that at death’s door manages to turn Conan into the weapon of his revenge.
That’s some first-class evil, but elegant.

“I have no more use for you. Kill yourself!”

The People of the Black Circle, chapter 3

The story is very tight, with no filler, and yet there is so much going on that it turns out to be one of the longest in Conan’s canon – and one of the best sales in Howard’s career, getting him 250$ (that would be over 2000$ in today money).
It features an interesting mix of action, intrigue, gruesome sorcery and exoticism, and would make for a great movie – but of course we’ll never get one.

Art by Margaret Brundage (who else?)

The link at the top of this post leads to the Wiki Commons text of Howard’s novella. For those interested, online scans of the three issues of Weird Tales that featured The People of the Black Circle are found in the Internet Archive




And here is an audiobook version for those of you that would rather listen than read this excellent story.