Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: Tales From the Magician's Skull

Tales From The Magician’s Skull is a magazine of sword and sorcery fiction drawing deep from the vein of classic pulps like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. For those unfamiliar with the term, sword and sorcery is a darker, more personal brand of fantasy. In contrast to Tolkien-inspired high fantasy with its epic heroes performing feats of great magic amid world-shaking plots, Sword and Sorcery concerns heroes of often gray morality just trying to survive in a dangerous world where magic, if it exists, is usually dangerous and mistrusted. This is not to say there is no heroism in sword and sorcery, just that it is on a smaller, individual scale.

In addition to classic pulps, Tales From The Magician’s Skull (or just The Magician’s Skull for short) also takes artistic and literary influence from mass-market paperback fantasies of the 70s and 80s, and also with that most quintessential of fantasy creations- Dungeons and Dragons (and other role-playing games of a similar theme). The magazine fully embraces this connection by providing gaming statistics for monsters, spells and magical items featured in each story, all of them formatted for Dungeon Crawl Classics, the flagship RPG from the magazine’s publisher, Goodman Games. DCC, as it’s abbreviated, emulates the style of classic 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons from the late 70s and early 80s.

D&D itself was heavily by influenced sword and sorcery fiction. The original edition of the game included Appendix N, a list of the literary works that had inspired its main creator, Gary Gygax. Appendix N includes most of the classic authors you’d expect, such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, J. R. R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Michael Moorcock. But there are also more diverse and unusual writers such as Fletcher Pratt, Sterling Lanier, and John Belloir. The Magician’s Skull reprints this short but seminal list at the back of the magazine so readers can follow their own literary journeys. 

Another excellent inclusion in The Magician’s Skull is an extensive appendix of used bookstores from all over the US where readers can find those Appendix N classics along with other bibliophilic treasures. I’m pleased to see that the Dawn Treader from my own hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan is in there. Though, sadly, no sign of the Book Barn from Niantic in my current state of Connecticut (I’ll have to have them rectify that in a future issue).

An example of the extensive illustrations found throughout TFTMS. Drawn by Brad McDevitt

 Lastly, The Magician’s Skull also features a directory of “Kindred Souls”- groups, gaming and otherwise, from around the world who share the editors’ tastes in classic sword and sorcery. 

The authors featured in this first outing are all old hands at sword and sorcery. Several of the stories are but single episodes in the long careers of established characters, though you don’t need to have read their other adventures to enjoy these tales.

The magazine is abundantly illustrated throughout with full-page drawings for each tale along with architectural plans for some of the tombs, towers, and other buildings.

As to the stories themselves:

What Lies in Ice
By Chris Willrich

A tale in the long-running adventures of Willrich’s rogues Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone. Whilst on a ship sailing through ice-choked polar waters, the heroes and their shipmates find themselves trapped behind a cursed black tower sealed in an iceberg. Deciding they should meet the tower’s horrors head on rather than wait to be their prey, the crew enters the structure to uncover its secrets. 

Floor plan of the iceberg-locked tower by Doug Kovacs 

The Guild of Silent Men
By James Enge

A murder mystery featuring Enge’s crooked-backed wanderer and master of strange magicks, Morlock Ambrosius.
The Silent Men is a guild for those who have no friends. A place of belonging for those who do not belong. Naturally, of course,  they’re hated and mistrusted by all the other city guilds and treated little better than vermin. So when the dual leaders of the Silent Men are murdered, no one outside the guild is interested in investigating. No one except Morlock, who knows what it is like to be hated and mistrusted. 

Beneath the Bay of Black Waters
By Bill Ward

The Fish-Gutter Gang has been spreading their deadly drug, Black Pearl, throughout the city of Long He. After an extensive investigation, Imperial Commissioner Shan Wu-Tsi and General Bai Guan have finally tracked down the source of this man-made plague. A source that is far worse than they expected, for rooting out this evil will lead them to the lair of the demonic fish-beings hiding beneath the surface of the city’s harbor.

The monsters from beneath the bay, illustrated by Ian Miller

 Beyond the Block
By Aeryn Rudel

This story begins with the death of the protagonist. But as you’ll find in many tales of sword and sorcery, death is far from the end. 

Crypt of Stars
By Howard Andrew Jones

The war is over and the Volani people have lost, crushed under the expanding onslaught of the Dervani. Now the conquerors ransack the ancient island-tombs of the Volani, determined to uncover the riches they believe lie within. To this end they have tortured and enslaved the Volani, forcing them to hunt for the resting places of their honored dead. The captured people have little hope of escape, until the day a hero whom every thought dead turns up unexpectedly alive.

There Was An Old Fat Spider
By C.L. Werner

Karl Rohlfs has been shunned and brutalized by everyone in town. Just to survive he must debase and degrade himself daily. Then comes the day he enters the twisted, dark woods on the king’s land and finds the spider. It is old, weak and barely surviving. But it is enormous, and- when it actually does manage to catch prey- it is deadly. In this creature, Karl finds a kindred spirit. And a way to avenge himself on his tormentors 

The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest
By John C. Hocking

Someone has been robbing royal tombs and Benhus- who some call the King’s Hand- along with his assistant Thratos have been ordered to investigate. 
It does not take them long to find the culprits, but in the process they also discover that aristocratic tombs are sometimes guarded by far worse than mundane locks and magical wards.

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