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By Guy Quartley

IR Rating:
Though as a collection it never truly coheres, Guy Quartley’s DRAKOMUNDA will thoroughly please fans of Lovecraft, Howard, and the golden age of fantasy-horror.
A short story collection about necromantic artifacts that traverse the ages in a magical world constantly poised between civilization and chaos.

Blending the themes of Howard’s Hyborian Age (imagining a post-mythic, pre-ancient history) and Lovecraftian horror (in which human beings live in the shadows of terrible alien powers), Guy Quartley’s DRAKOMUNDA weaves an eons-long tale of a world in constant turmoil. In nearly every story, civilizations clash—one often seeing another as less civilized and more barbarous. But the true danger lies in the subtle influence of storied artifacts and dark forces that long outlive the mere mortals who briefly possess them.

DRAKOMUNDA reveals its well-imagined world with powerful descriptive prose. With eight stories to tell, the text is light on character work (and plot is mostly inconsequential), but descriptions of the world itself never fail to evoke beauty, dread, or both. The natural world in particular is rendered with arresting specificity: characters traverse fields “choked with thistles, docks, nettles and greenbriar,” or “[clutch] tussocks of grass” as they scrabble up a cliff face. Human endeavor is often dim, or partially reclaimed by nature, as where “buckled walls [hang] with curtains of palsied creepers.” The potent vocabulary and fluid rhythm keep the prose uniformly compelling. The stories themselves are rarely revolutionary, but they deliver what’s promised: fast-paced, viscerally-bloody, sword-and-sorcery combat; horror, of both the inching-dread and grisly-revelation varieties; and plucky heroes, some cleverer than others, hoping to keep afloat as they’re buffeted by forces beyond their understanding. Plot is secondary to atmosphere here, but even so, there are more than a few twists and surprises to keep a reader turning the pages. Often a sudden change of perspective (either between the stories, or within one of them) is both powerful and chilling.

DRAKOMUNDA has its flaws. The prose is commanding overall, but there are still noticeable grammatical issues that demand line-editing (including a few repeated ones: homophones like its/it’s, lets/let’s, bearing/baring, raised/razed; and incorrect positioning of predicate adjectives in phrases like “the ajar shutter”). However, the bigger editorial issue is structural. The stories clearly share objects and themes, but it’s unclear whether these themes are meaningfully developed. The stories are not obviously arranged to do so, and they are not told chronologically. This makes it hard to justify certain decisions in ordering, as well as the larger decision to include certain stories at all. The middle section of DRAKOMUNDA, for instance, has several stories in a row that are variations on the narrative of a small group of survivors traversing the landscape while avoiding enemies and managing group dynamics—yet one such story would have been more than sufficient. The problem may be exacerbated by the lack of payoff: there is no evident narrative or thematic climax for the text as a whole, so it’s difficult to determine any meaning from the ordering choices. (Note that the table of contents lists one story that is not in the actual text, so this may be partially a publication error.)

DRAKOMUNDA also has problems handling its female characters. The second story in the collection, for instance, features an abysmally-written romance between two women. The protagonist herself is strong and likeable; the melodrama between her and a sexually-dominant, whip-wielding anti-heroine is neither. On the one hand, it features the worst dialogue in the text—especially in a jarringly-modern voice that is tonally disjunct from the medieval setting: “You and I are finished. Understood? We are done, sister. Am I getting through with this, honey?” On the other, it traces a psychologically (and emotionally) implausible arc, forcing its characters from muted coercion to romantic love in three days. This includes heartfelt avowals in which the characters apparently fail to realize their own absurdity: “I’ve had you for three days. Three! I’m not letting you go now! Fate brought us together.” Their deeply uncomfortable sexuality ultimately feels framed by the male gaze; the anti-heroine especially feels more like a male fantasy of a dominatrix than anything else: “Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. I’m an expert at both.” Across the eight stories, there are plenty of physically (and mentally) strong women, but they typically appear as objects of desire for male focal characters rather than as focal characters themselves. This is a kind of counterpoint to the recurring motif of aristocratic women forced into sexual slavery. Especially given the strength of the writing elsewhere, the weakness of the writing here and the repetition of these motifs stick out.

Though as a collection it never truly coheres, Guy Quartley’s DRAKOMUNDA will thoroughly please fans of Lovecraft, Howard, and the golden age of fantasy-horror.

~Dan Accardi for IndieReader

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