I’ve seldom read Sci-Fi / Fantasy anthologies. However, the anthologies I’ve read typically include works by authors whose books I’ve already sampled and loved, or authors who I know by reputation, who are known to write well.
Such was the case with the dark fantasy collection of stories, entitled “Sky Breaker: Tales of the Wanderer.”
The premise of the anthology was fascinating. An ominous tear in the sky, that transcends time and worlds, begets smaller tears, seemingly linked to a mysterious, portentous figure known as “The Wanderer”.
With such a promising proposition tying all eight stories together, combined with the eminence of the authors involved, I was enthused to try this anthology out. I’m very pleased that I did. It was excellent.
I’m a huge fan of H.L Tinsley’s “Vanguard” series, the first book in which – “We Men of Ash and Shadow” – was chosen as one of 10 finalists from 300 entries to the 7th Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. With her penchant for bleak and gritty settings, witty, ironic, tight, and hauntingly descriptive prose, building suspense and angst, damaged, morally grey characters, and of course, some of the best opening lines in fantasy, Tinsley does not disappoint with “Something Wondrous”, the last short story in the anthology, a simply brilliant, creepy story.
“Tuesday was generally a good day for the inmates at Waterscut. It was the day they got to go out. Granted, dredging the canals around the alkali factories was unlikely to be most people’s idea of a good time. But the other people didn’t spend eighteen hours a day every day in a cramped cell with one bucket and three other men.”
It doesn’t get much bleaker a setting than a prison, and Tinsley brings us to the penal institution of Waterscut. There, Carmellia Larkin is firmly part of one of the criminal enterprises that operate within the prison. But there are things more dangerous lurking within Waterscut than the prisoners, and you might want to risk death than paying a trip to the prison infirmary, and the baleful Doctor Porter.
Bookending Tinsley’s “Something Wondrous”, is the first story in the anthology, the haunting “Swampers”, by C.F. Welburn. Decorated author Welburn (Quarterfinalist Epic Fantasy Fanatics, Readers Choice Awards 2019, Fantasy Focus Top Five Books, 2019), best known for “The Ashen Levels” Pentalogy, gives us a a stabby, sweary, dark, and ultimately heartbreakingly poignant entry to the anthology.
In “Swampers”, Ewin tries to keep his job and his boss Gower off his back, take care of his son Jenri, make his wife Leyre happy, and ensure his workmates like Breeg and Badger stay out of trouble. But it’s Ewin who has to worry about trouble finding him. The mysterious Rent that dominates life in Ewin’s world is not going away. And tragedy lurks when Yacob, the young boy whose death decades before started the Rent, won’t seem to stay dead.
Story number two, “Darkwhale” by J.E. Hannaford, might be my favourite amongst eight incredible stories in the anthology. Known for her gorgeous prose, exceptional knowledge of science, mythology, and all things oceanic, and outstanding character work in her “Black Hinds Wake” duology (comprised of “The Skin” and “The Pact”, Hannaford whisks the reader off to a spectacular world on the seas, where people bind to whales, and ride them as their steeds.
But poor young Tom Surfborn is a bit of disgrace, because he’s failed to speak to a whale, and might be consigned to riding hogs instead.
“In the remembered history of his family, no one else had needed five attempts to pass their Whalerider test. Five seasons of pointing fingers and whispers, of hints and suggestions that he should head inland and try his luck with the hogs instead. Not that he had anything against the Hogriders. They were fierce and brave, mounted on beats of war, defending the edge of the marshes against the outside world. But the Surfborns had always been Whaleriders. Until him.”
But Tom’s courage and tenacity in not giving up on his dream to live up to his family heritage, will be put to the test. For dangerous creatures lurk beneath the waves, and the Rift is endangering not only the Whaleriders, but life itself.
“Dakwhale” was a phenomenal read, and only whetted my appetite to read more of Hannaford’s books.
Derek Power provides the third entry in the anthology, and it’s full of humour, a nice, lighter counterpoint to the darker shorts in the book.
Power’s best known work is described as “Blending Celtic mythology with modern day settings, the Filthy Henry series is a comedy-fantasy collection charting the cases of Ireland’s first and foremost fairy detective: Filthy Henry”.
I’m fairly confident that the “Filthy Henry” series is hillarious, because “Topher the World”, though there are still the sinister undertones consistent with the overarching plot involving the Wanderer, kept me chuckling throughout.
Protagonist Topher Drunkenson (no, the last name is NOT a typo, indicative of the tongue-firmly-in-cheek nature of the writing) wakes up on top of a holy mountain, after a bender. The mountain is sacred because of the presence of the god, Drom the Confused.
But a maniacal sword-wielding religious zealot takes offence with Topher’s presence on the hallowed ground, and is intent upon killing Topher. But there are even bigger concerns for our inebriated hero, as nothing and no one in Topher’s orbit are what they seem.
Longlisted for British Science Fiction Awards (BSFA), author Damien Larkin writes blistering science fiction, focusing on tense and violent military engagements, alien Contact, and an alternative History. He’s best known for the novels “Big Red” and “Blood Red Sand”.
True to his main books, Larkin paints the pages in blood, with his entry “The Righteous Old Guard”. The essentially story-long action scene in this short is brutal, gory, and absolutely thrilling, taking one’s breath away.
Once a youthful soldier in service of the Dead God, a now-aging Janus still believes in cleansing the land of heathens, and destroying the Rift in the sky by doing so. Janus remains faithful to the precepts spouted by the High Priests.
“Eternal lord, sitting within your palace of flames, hear our words. Burn fear and temptation from our bodies. Scour us clean of filth and impurity. Strengthen our hands that we might strike down those who oppose you.”
But as Janus and his colleagues wreak slaughter amongst who they believe are idolaters, something stronger and more terrifying than the Dead God awaits Janus and those who believe they are fighting a righteous war.
The publisher of “Skybreaker: Tales of the Wanderer”, is veteran and savvy author, C. Marry Hultman. Hultman is the author of three full length novels: “Face of Fear”, “These Walls Will Fall”, and “All the Children Shall Lead.”
Hultman also submitted a fabulous entry in the anthology, entitled “Ocean Cloud”. I absolutely adored the concept of the setting in this story, featuring the wheel-chair bound King Orr of Whisle, who rules over an imperilled realm floating amidst the clouds. For since the emergence of the tear in the sky, dangerous creatures have been emerging, to threaten Whisle.
“It must be as long as the body and looked like a serpent with thick barbs in deadly rows on either side. At the end sat a thick ball that reminded Orr of a weight a blacksmith might use.
‘It killed ten villagers and five of our soldiers before we could take it down,’ Hahne said and rapped her knuckles on the creature’s head.”
But the worst creatures can come in the most benign forms, like that of a simple cat.
David Green has penned two somewhat different fantasy trilogies, one “Empire of Ruin”, which leans towards the epic variety, the other “Hell in Haven” which is considered urban fantasy noir.
This experienced, character-driven writer does a wonderful job of not only atmosphere and tone (including putrid rain), but also making the reader care about the down-on-his luck protagonist of his short story, “Bring Down the Sky”.
I love those morally grey characters, and you can’t get much more grey than an assassin and thief. That’s exactly who Elodin is.
But the next employer who has a job for Elodin’s particular blend of skills is none other than the eponymous Wanderer. And it’s a job Elodin dare not refuse, from the foreboding figure that can stare into the depths of Elodin’s very soul.
“Hissing laughter oozed out from the hood’s black maw. ‘Oh yes, I know ALL about you ELodin. You took your first life age eight, murdering your killer of a father. Revenge for your mother, a noble gesture. Life on the streets suited you, made you strong, resourceful. Cold. A virtue, in your line of work. You’ve stolen to eat, thieved for pleasure. You’ve killed for pay, took lives for love and revenge, and done it so often, stained your soul so, so much. Darkness smothers it’s lightness now, so what’s one more life?'”
Finally, Lee C. Conley, author of the fantasy horror “Dead Sagas”, adds a very well-written, fast-paced yet character-driven, white-knuckle nautical jaunt, full of battles, heroism, and poignant loss, in “Stormchild”.
Stormchild is a naval ship, and along with the rest of a beleaguered fleet, must confront a host of enemies, including a sea monster, that come out of the Rift.
All that stands in the way of disaster and death are the wits and superior leadership skills of Ulfgar, Stormchild’s captain, and the bravery and self-sacrifice of Stormchild’s crew.
“The enemy ships floundered in the storm, disorganised, unprepared. He would turn the dark seas to a crimson froth with their filthy blood. He looked over the open deck below him. His marines stood on the deck in ranks, their muskets slung at their shoulders. He turned to his first officer….The crews were making ready, scurrying back and forth securing lines and hauling ammunition and powder. Sailors were loading the deck guns and piling shot, whilst overhead his full sails snapped and cracked in the cold gusting wind.”
At the end of the anthology, there is an epilogue, which attempts to satisfactorily wrap up the overall story of the Wanderer. Be prepared for a great twist.
Combining cosmic horror, the surreal, combat, death, glory and triumph, the eerie, the psychologically disturbing, hope and hopelessness, desperation, valour, audacity, murder, revenge, religious fanaticism, absurdity, and so many more compelling themes, this anthology was an amazing reading journey.
When I rate anthologies, I do so on the sum of the parts, rather than the individual merits of the stories contained therein. Since the authors have chosen to, rather than write their own books, combine their stories with other authors, I judge them accordingly.
Five stars for this incredible anthology! Read it, for a taste of the works of the authors who have assembled to bring you this book, then go read their other works!