Published in February by small press DMR Books and edited by D.M. Ritzlin, Swords of Steel turns out to be a unique anthology that takes us back to the art of traditional fantasy storytelling by painting heroes and villains as dark as the realms they inhabit. What makes this collection stand out from others you’ve read is its exclusive contributions from members of the heavy metal community including musicians and song writers. Bands like Bal-Sagoth (UK extreme metal), Cauldron Born, Manilla Road, Solstice and Twisted Tower Dire are represented here.
It makes sense that author David C. Smith provides the introduction. Recognized for his writing in sword and sorcery, Smith gives an insightful primer to the gathering of work and provides a flawless explanation why these writers are perfect for the task. “The raw sensibilities of the dark, inner landscape of the heart, so essential to this fiction, is the same territory explored by heavy metal musicians – dangerous, confrontational, brutally honest.”
Into the Dawn of Storms by Byron A. Roberts (Bal-Sagoth) is a cohesive mixture of magical fantasy and classic pirate fair. With a vivid flash of swashbuckling sword fighting and dreams of foreboding danger, a grizzled captain embarks on a mystical journey. Unfortunately, this installment is only the beginning, written more like a first chapter to a larger picture than a stand-alone story. This could leave the readers unsatisfied and asking for more – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if Roberts ever decides to publish more.
In The Riddle Master by E. C. Hellwell (Manilla Road), readers will appreciate the desires of aspiring writers and to what extent some are willing to go to fulfill those dreams. On the other hand, as readers, we are returned to the age old dangers of making a pact with the devil and the inevitable confrontation over one’s soul. Some stories never grow old.
First impressions might lead one to think that The Mirror Beguiling by James Ashbey (Solstice) is a retelling of the classic German fairy tale Snow White. But don’t be so hastily detoured, as this formidable short adventure quickly turns into a twisted hero’s journey with an unexpected ending that will leave readers and loyal fans satisfied.
Though some of the stories in this assemblage have poetic moments, Dream Death by Sean Weingartner is one of two contributions in the truest form of poetry. This is also perhaps the most direct concurrence in the lot tying the fields of heavy metal music and fantasy literature together. It is my personal opinion that ALL lyrics can embody poetry verse in its purest form. I’ve yet to see a lyric that does not become poetry when put on paper. However, not all poetry can be put to music. Thankfully, Weingartner has written a dark verse that readers will have a difficult time not noticing the rhythmic melody behind the words.
All Will Be Righted on Samhain by Howie K. Bentley (Cauldron Born) and David C. Smith (provided the introduction) is an epic adventure reminiscent of the meticulous work found in many classics. This is one of two extended short stories in the collection, more of a novelette bordering on novella length which includes a heavily detailed prologue before we get to the meat of the story. The attention to detail is what inevitably brings this story to life.
Headbanging Warriors by Black Gate contributor M Harold Page is an essay on the correlation between heavy metal music and the worlds of fantasy and horror. Page’s interpretations of the fiery gyrating stage presence as artists “swing their tresses in time to the pounding shields and crashing war chant” bring the two medium together. Though this article is not fiction, its theme does go hand-in-hand with rest of the collection.
Journey in Somnamblia by Jean-Pierre Abboud (Borrowed Time, Funeral Circle) gives readers a look into the frightful passage of a small band of mages through a forbidden forest. The story has the look of a classic fantasy adventure with dangerous spells and enchantments, but the symbolic characters bring more to the theme than probably intended. It turns out, the four travelers must work together in harmony to become successful, not unlike the members of a cohesive band of musicians.
Eve’s Grave by Scott Waldrop (Twisted Tower Dire, Walpyrgus) is a trance like journey through a dark fantasy underworld of madness with varying styles of prose and poetry. Using the unique mixture of allegoric ramblings from the beguiled narrator and some poetic allusions in the style of Homer’s Iliad, Waldrop takes the reader on a spiritual odyssey.
In some collections, Stygian Dusk and Black Lotus Slumber: In the Tower of Thoth-Amon by Howie K. Bentley could be included amongst works of flash fiction with its descriptive verse. But here, it represents the second of two poems in the book. The vivid experiences of the narrator’s journey through a wizard’s tomb are as entrenching as the protracted title suggests.
Blue Mistress by Jeffrey Black (Gatekeeper, Scythia) is a deep water voyage that agrees with the character of seasoned captain Beiran Stormchaser who says, “Some things belong to the sea.” While searching for the crystal caves of Xalxattear, the crew of the prophetically named Orphan get drawn into a high-seas battle with an underwater beast over a mythological “deep-dweller” queen.
If you’re looking for an epic adventure with a storied setting, the anthology’s final installment Vengeance of the Insane God by Jason Tarpey (Eternal Champion, Iron Age, Graven Rite) should fit the bill. This tale of a young barbarian warrior and his spirited sword is another novelette length journey with multiple chapters or parts that will keep you reading till the very end.
For those also interested in the visual aspect of heavy metal stage performance, it should be pointed out that the brilliant cover art is the handiwork of Martin Hanford who also provided some interior artwork along with Logon Saton, Eva Flora Glackman-Bapst, Scott Waldrop, Bob Byrne, and Erin Klarer.
A pleasant old-school deviation from the current fantasy trends, DMR Books’ first publication is printed in paperback with no digital editions to date. At a compact 6.5” x 4.25” in size, Swords of Steel is a small book of blades and magic deceptively heavy with a lot of metal.