Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Triumph of the Werewolf Warrior ~ A Review of "The Snake-Man's Bane" by Howie K. Bentley

I'm not the most well versed on the Sword & Sorcery genre, mostly for simply not having much of it available as I grew up, at least, in literary form. I was stuck with Epic Fantasy and little else, and I've never much cared for that genre. However, I have grown quite the taste for the old pulps and have quite enjoyed the appeal of tough swordsmen dealing with wily sorcerers in a world as mysterious as the threats they face especially from old comics, cartoons, and video games. It's been fun finally reading where they came from. Robert E. Howard might be the most famous writer of these stories, but there were also others of high quality. However, finding them in a purer form after the 1980s is a difficult task.

But that appears to be the case with a lot of older genres. They get co-opted or streamlined out of existence and replaced with . . . nothing, really. Those who enjoy the classics are stuck with revisiting older works, or nothing at all. There isn't any in between.

Until recently, that is. Given the recent revolution of newer writers ignoring tropes and genre conventions, and going back to the well that has been so ignored, readers are no longer at a loss as to newer works to pick up. Things have changed in a positive direction.

I was lucky enough to be given a copy of The Snake-Man's Bane by the author, Howie K. Bentley, for my honest opinion. I welcomed the chance to read more in this genre, and I wasn't disappointed. You can find it here.

This collection of six stories, mostly from various magazines and anthologies, is a simple 200 page book like the old anthologies, which helps add to the sharpness of the stories. Because Sword & Sorcery works best at shorter and more violent lengths, this was a nice touch. There are also a few surprises within its pages, but I don't want to spoil them here.

The first story is the titular title, The Snake-Man's Bane, which is also the longest piece included. A full novella about a man named Vegtam who gets himself involved with a plot involving a sorcerer and serpent men. This story is a bit too long for my liking as it takes a while for action to begin, but the writing pops and pulls you along for the ride as the plot gets weirder and more strange the longer it goes. And seeing that it starts with actual snake men, that's saying a lot. You will see battles with sorcerers and plenty of dead snake men by tale's end. Pure sword and sorcery, pure excitement.

Second is All Will be Righted on Samhain (co-written with David C. Smith) which starts with a bit of Roman history, mostly their conflicts with the Kelts, in a decently long prologue that is probably a bit different than the history you've heard of. Imagine a mad pagan world, and you'd be pretty close to it. The story starts off in present tense before thankfully ditching it in the first chapter after the background has been dispensed with. I can't say it wasn't distracting, but that is a personal taste issue. This is quite a dark fantasy tale focused on the aforementioned history between the two opposing forces, and quite a lot of sinister magic. A woman dabbles in dark forces and calls forth something rather disturbing . . . and dark. This was my least favorite story included here, due to a lot of events unfolding to where the reader already knows the forgone results, but it does end on a high note.

Following on that is The Heart of the Betrayer, a story that hooked me quite fast. In this one a warrior is betrayed by several of those he considers allies and ends up going on a quest of revenge. It is also in this story that we learn the previous stories are both related. I was unaware every work in this collection would all be linked, but that added wrinkle was nice. Otherwise this tale has a lot more action-packed than the last, with a protagonist I liked being around a bit more, and intriguing supernatural events with a vicious conclusion. It also leads into the next tale, the one story of these I have read before.

We then come to the story that was a part of Cirsova Issue #4. That might have been my least favorite issue, but it certainly was not because of this tale. . . . Where There is No Sanctuary was one of the best stories there and it fares no less worse here. The hero from the last story gets pulled into a demon-haunted tower from out of time. The ending is easily the best of any tale so far, but if you have not read it I don't want to spoil it. If you have not read issue #4, then you simply must read it here.

Thannhausefeer's Ghost is next which starts with a shipwreck. An amnesiac warrior is taken to the lord, the giant Thannhausefeer, and is forced to compete in games to survive. However, all is not as it appears. The battles get bloodier, and the stakes rise when the protagonist finally remembers just who he is and why he is there. It is not purely by chance. For a hint: the giant is definitely quite the monster. This was another great piece, with descriptive action and sinister villains. Pure sword and sorcery.

The collection concludes with Full Moon Revenant which is a bit different from the last few tales. In this one, a werewolf is running around the countryside causing chaos, and the werewolf warrior king, Argantyr, is the main suspect. He sends out a search party to find the real culprit, and things quickly go sideways. As a surprise, this might have been my favorite story here as it is ostensibly about what makes Argantyr so different from the monsters he fights, and the code he lives by in this demon-haunted world. It's not the most explosive tale in the collection, but it is thematically the most engaging. The perfect ending to this book.

All in all, this a fantastic collection of Sword and Sorcery stories, with all the blood and dismemberment you can expect to see from the genre. There is some sex, but nothing on the level from the George R.R. Martin acolytes where debauchery by the wicked is celebrated. Most of it is merely mentioned, or implied. The action and conflict is the focus. But, thankfully, these stories aren't defeatist in nihilism like many in the genre are today. The main characters act and accomplish things, even when it doesn't work out, and they usually get what they have fought for by story's end. You won't be reading pieces about nothing while the plot moves at a glacial pace. Your expectations for a satisfying tale will be more than fulfilled.

And that's probably the best compliment I can give to this book. Fantasy is about falling into different worlds from our own and going on an adventure, and that is exactly what The Snake Man's Bane promises on and delivers. I fell into this world and enjoyed my time there, smiling when the last story wrapped. If you enjoy action-packed sword and sorcery tales, the kind that has been missing for decades, then this is exactly what you've been waiting for.

Highly recommended.

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