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.

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Another (great) review for Bloodwood

The central group of The Raiders of Bloodwood are a lovely bunch though, and the fact that they’re mostly just normal people makes their interactions and their journey the real highlight of the story. The small moments when they’re travelling together, telling stories around the campfire at night, or helping each other down a steep hill without falling down, make for some of the best moments. Mana gives you a chance to get to know them, to see them as regular people so that you come to like them and care about them; and so that you begin to worry about them when their lives come into danger.

UK based blogger Amy Walker posted a beautiful, in-depth review of The Raiders of Bloodwood – and she really liked it!
And I an particularly happy that Amy actually appreciated my choice of characters and the way I wrote them. I might start to think that I am actually really good.

You can find the complete review on the Trans-Scribe Blog.


A memory called Empire

My insomnia keeps raging, and so I am filling my long nights with books and movies – because you can’t go on writing without a pause. A good opportunity to catch up with titles I have overlooked or left behind in the past years.

And right now I am really enjoying Arkady Martine’s A memory called Empire, that is the sort of smart, fun space opera that I have always liked. The reason, really, why I read (and sometimes write) science fiction.

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Flame and Crimson, a review

Having just finished Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson: a History of Sword-and-Sorcery, published in 2019 by Pulp Hero Press, I can now expand on my initial post of a few days back. I am doing this because I think this books deserves a wide circulation, and so we need to talk about it, and because I got wind of some less-than-positive opinions going around, and I’d like to address those, too.

So, for starters, let’s see what you get in the package.

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Hope & Glory review and a bit about utopia

THE world is undergoing immense changes. Never before have the conditions of life changed so swiftly and enormously as they have changed for mankind in the last fifty years. We have been carried along—with no means of measuring the increasing swiftness in the succession of events. We are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the storm of change that has come upon us.(H.G. Wells, The Open Conspiracy, 1928)

40651289_1844226848964225_7031900626594299904_nThe first full review of Hope & Glory is in and it is just great – you can read it here, on the Ars Rolica blog. It’s in Spanish, but as usual Google Translate is your friend.

The review really made me happy and I was particularly happy of the fact that the reviewer started out cautious and a little diffident, but finally was captivated by the setting.

All the elements are perfectly interwoven with each other and, as I said before, once that initial caution is saved, it is very easy to get carried away by the exciting combination of genres that Hope & Glory presents.

… and I thought, we made it!

I am extremely grateful to Ars Rolica for their great and in-depth review of our game; I am sure I can speak for my long-suffering partner in this adventure – Umberto Pignatelli, that had to put order and numbers on my somewhat sprawling world – and the guys that did art and graphics. Thank you, Ars Rolica!

There was also a bit that caused me to pause, and laugh, and then an idea for a post, and here I am… Continue reading