Saturday, December 21, 2013

Book Reviews-Wolfsangel, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Demon Shield

by M.D. Lachlan
Wolfsangel is a somber historical fantasy tale of the origins of the titular German rune and of the werewolf legend. It intertwines this with Viking action adventures and the ongoing battles among and between the Norse gods the Aesir. This was enjoyable but in a far different way than I had expected. Although there are a few scenes of extreme violence and horror, the book tends to avoid those to concentrate on mental agonies, worries and magic, much of which is wielded by women. So the action is actually relatively infrequent or at least I thought it was. M.D. Lachlan is the pen name for author Mark Barrowcliffe.

The Aesir are among my favorite gods to read about simply because they are almost all serious bada$$es. War and battle are their primary focus. This tends to be true even of those deities who represent more peaceful elements of human existence such as fertility, farming, love, travel, etc. The Norse eschatological myth, or Ragnarok, is similar to other Indo-European myths and indeed to some things that are described in Revelations. There will be horrible wars. Humanity's violence, lust and lawlessness will exponentially increase. Families will dissolve in violence and incest. People will murder and rape each other with glee. There will be seemingly endless winters which kill off large numbers of people. Eventually all the bonds restraining evil entities will dissolve. The forces of evil, giants, demons, etc will meet the Aesir and their chosen human heroes from Valhalla in the Final Battle. Unlike Revelations however the "good guys" are doomed to lose. Odin, AllFather, King of Gods and Men will be killed and eaten by the wolf Fenris, who is said to be so large that his lower jaw scrapes earth while his upper jaw reaches heaven. Other wolves will swallow and eat the Sun and Moon, putting out the world's lights. The fire demon Surtur will burn the world, indeed the entire universe, destroying everything. But the world will be reborn with new even more powerful gods. This fate can't be changed.

The father of Fenris, the evil trickster god Loki, was banished from Valhalla when he admitted his involvement in the murder of Odin's son Baldur. Loki was bound with his son's entrails at the center of the earth and placed beneath serpents dripping venom onto his face and eyes. There he will stay until Ragnarok. 

In Wolfsangel the Viking King Authun has a vision that a Saxon woman has a son destined by the gods for great things. He leads a suicide mission (for his men, not himself) to raid the village and seize this child to raise as his own. Authun is surprised when he finds twin babies instead. But he takes them both and returning to his land, raises one boy Vali, while giving the other, Feileg, to the witches. Vali eschews raiding and direct violence, preferring to win via tactics and trickery. Vali's considered the biggest coward in the North. Because Authun has a well earned reputation for being the hardest and most brutal man in the North, the prospect of a "weak" son inheriting his kingdom causes political and personal problems. Feileg is sold to wild men and literally lives as a wolf. As both brothers grow to adulthood it becomes apparent that there are magicians and non-human entities that watch them. Each brother has powers that are dangerous to their enemies...and their friends.

Wolfsangel has some interesting points to make about the nature of good and evil and whether one is possible without the other. Odin, who raises strife for his own amusement and is the patron god of berserkers, hanged men, and magicians, is perhaps not "good" at all, while Loki, who constantly torments and tricks the Aesir but rarely harms humans, may not be as "evil" as some might think. Or maybe eternal beings are by definition beyond good and evil. Even in the Abrahamic traditions we have God acting in ways which are opaque to humans. In a theme shared with Christianity and some other religions Odin sacrificed himself to himself and hung dead on a tree, his side pierced with a spear, for nine days and nine nights. He did this to gain more knowledge, particularly the runes. Wolfsangel suggests that the experience and the knowledge may well have driven Odin insane and made him even more brutal than before.

This was a good book, if not quite what I was expecting. it was different, I'll say that. It moves at its own pace. It will definitely take a moment to figure out what's going on. Hints are given throughout the story but I didn't think they were obvious ones. Magic is not shown as something easy that works quickly. It's slow, painful and may work in quite different ways than the practitioner intended, if at all. It's mostly associated with women and may be related to childbirth. The shamans wielding magic always have to pay a cost.

Sundiata, An Epic Of Old Mali
by D.T. Niane
The Mali Empire was a West African multi-ethnic superstate that lasted roughly 400 years. It was famous for its wealth, legal administration, education (Timbuktu was a center of learning), music, culture and war making abilities. It had standing armies with chain mail clad knights and specialized infantry famed for skill with spear and bow. The leading group of the Mali Empire was the Mandinka people. Eight current states of West and North Africa make up the former Mali Empire. The founder of the Mali Empire was a historical figure who has since taken on legendary qualities. His name was Sundiata. This is, as was traditional among his ethnic group, a combination of his mother's (Sogolon) and father's (Maghan Kon Fatta) names. It translates into English as something close to "Son of the Lion" or "Sogolon's Lion". That's a pretty cool name for a prince if you think about it. Anyway the story starts when a king of Mali (Maghan Kon Fatta) receives a hunter/griot in his court who has the gift of prophecy. The fellow is smooth. In fact he's so smooth that he may not only be a messenger from God but perhaps supernatural in origin himself. He tells the king that his true successor is not yet born. No the king must marry a supremely ugly hunchbacked woman. This woman will bear him a son who will lead the Mandinka to heights of power not yet dreamed of. Well the king thanks the visitor for the prophecy and doesn't pay a lot of attention to it. 

Some time goes by and the king is holding court outside when he receives some visitors from the outskirts of his empire. They are accompanied by a hunchbacked maiden (Sogolon) of surpassing ugliness. Sogolon is as ugly as the king is handsome. In fact she's so ugly people call her buffalo woman. Heeding the prophecy the king decided to marry her. She bore him a son, Sundiata, who was as ugly as his mother. Sundiata did not walk until the age of seven and apparently could not talk. Now the king already had a wife, the beautiful and ambitious Sassouma, and an heir, her son Dankaran. Neither was pleased with Sogolon or her son. Both made fun of them and tried to undercut them at every opportunity.
Shortly before the King died he told the seven year old Sundiata that he would be king after Fatta's death. The King also expressed that wish to his nobles and counselors. However when he died Sassouma convinced everyone to ignore those wishes and install her son as king instead. And she then conspired to kill Sundiata, his mother and his sisters. Eventually Sundiata and his family had to flee the royal court. And this starts an epic tale of magic, intrigue and plotting which sees Sundiata travel many lands and gain much wisdom and experience before eventually returning home to liberate his people. This is taken from oral traditions. It's a very short book without a lot of dialogue. My edition ran less than 100 pages. It's reminiscent of stories like The Illiad or The Silmarillion in that via a mix of legend and history it communicates the particular cultural values of one group of people as well as telling the common Hero's Journey that is found in every culture.

Demon Shield
by Bruce King
There are slightly different explanations among monotheistic religious traditions as to why Satan and his demons/devils war against God and despise man so much. Islam's take, which is echoed elsewhere, is that Satan and his rebellious angels were jealous of the gifts and love which God gave to man, whom they considered a lower form of being. Upon being ordered to love and serve man, Satan and company scornfully refused and initiated a war in heaven, which of course they lost. Being consigned to eternal hell and blocked from God's glory made them if anything angrier and more jealous of man, who having an eternal soul, has the possibility to join with God in heaven, something that is forever denied to Satan and his minions. So from pure spite the evil forces of the universe attempt to profane, mock and destroy God's shining achievement, humanity, and drag human souls down to hell with them.
That is the story told in Demon Shield. This was the writer's first novel but it certainly didn't read like it. Unfortunately the publisher went out of business shortly after this book was released. I never did get any other books by the author, though having re-read this, I would certainly like to do so. This book remains out of print. However if you like grim visceral pulpy horror that hearkens back to Stephen King's grimier stuff -- Bruce King wrote a note giving thanks to Stephen King and hoping that the book would scare him -- you might want to pick this up if you can find it online or in your local used book store.

A yuppie couple, Angelica and Robert Marsten (she's a bookstore manager, he's a law student and public defender paralegal) moves in next door to an abandoned church which has, via evil magic, become home to a Satanic entity. Via some stupid decisons, bad luck and personal weaknesses, the entity is able to start scaring, influencing, and ultimately possessing the wife, Anjelica. Ultimately mayhem ensues but the book takes its sweet time getting there. The demon is much more interested in savoring human fear and corrupting the human soul than it is in just killing humans, though obviously it enjoys that too. This particular demon's primary initial tool happens to be lust so the book is full of explicit and nasty sexual situations which become more and more outre. Demon Shield is subdivided into four parts , Foreplay, Penetration, Obsession, and Release. This is truth in advertising. If prurient in your face horror is not occasionally your thing, this is simply not the book for you. But if you love possession stories and battles with the devilish, this is worthwhile.

The couple's only hope is Merin Whitley, a magician/exorcist who has previously tangled with demons and has the literal scars to show for it. He lost his wife in the last serious dust-up. Merin is worn down from his long battles. Once he enters the fray he realizes that this demon is the one he's struggled against before.This is pretty hardcore horror that definitely won't appeal to the Twilight or True Blood crowd or anyone who's looking for misunderstood monsters. The monsters here are not misunderstood in the least bit. They are Evil. They don't like humans. Period. They don't like dogs either. The Marstens have a devoted Rottweiller which tries to warn them of what's going on.
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