Mystery in Tenochtitlan – Demon of the Air by Simon Levack

Some time back, while on holiday I perused the sale books at a local shop. They were stacked high and generally held no interest for me. One light orange coloured spine caught my attention. It was a book called Demon of the Air, by Simon Levack.

I pulled it out and read the back:

INTRODUCING A NEW DETECTIVE TO RIVAL DIDIUS FALCO.

Mexico, 1517. The Aztec Empire.

The Emperor Montezuma rules by fear. Temples run with the blood of human sacrifice. In this brutal world a free man can sell himself into slavery. Escaping a troubled past, Yaotl has chosen to become a slave to the Chief Minister, Montezuma’s unscrupulous right hand man.

Strange things are happening. The sacrificial victim Yaotl was ordered to escort as leapt to his death, uttering sinister prophecies before the priests could cut out is heart. The emperor feels threatened. Mysterious strangers have appeared in the East. Visions disturb his dreams. His soothsayers cannot interpret them.

When the soothsayers vanish, Montezuma senses a connection with the bizarre suicide, and orders Yaotl to follow the trail – in defiance of his own master. What Yaotl uncovers will unlock nightmares form his own youth – and threaten the future of everything he knows.

The novel is fast paced with one event leading into the next. Simon Levack interweaves the here and now with commentary on Aztec culture that enhances the narrative. Add in occasional, well timed flashbacks and one has a winning formula for an interesting story that is difficult to put down. I am not a speed reader, yet even so I mowed through Demon of the Air in short order as I felt compelled to read “just one more chapter“.

The end of the novel is bittersweet. No, do not worry, not a spoiler. Rather I had thought this to be a standalone story, whereas I discovered that, while the story does reach a conclusion, it also leaves a number of threads leading into a sequel. I was overjoyed at the prospect of more Aztec action, but also apprehensive of the wait I will have to go through to locate a copy of the sequel.

Sequels as it turns out. Some mild research reveals that the author written three more novels in the Aztec series: Shadow of the Lords, City of Spies, Tribute of Death. I look forward to reading all of these.

In conclusion, I found Demon of the Air to be a fascinating journey into Aztec culture and would recommend it to a wide range of readers as a true example of merging unlikely genres and settings into a compelling finished product. The subject matter has been extensively researched which makes it all the more believable to read.

This was something completely different. I enjoy the occasional novel with a historic setting and one like this, set in a culture I have sparse, probably inaccurate, knowledge of was intriguing to say the least. I parted with some cash and took it home from my holiday, unread, for it to take up residence on my accrescent shelf of Books Awaiting Reading. Demon of the Air languished there, partially forgotten until a recent reorganisation revealed it. The fates had thrust this novel back into my hands. Who was I to argue with such an auspice?

Demon of the Air is Simon Levack’s first published novel. Set in Mexico preceding the imminent arrival of Spanish explorers or conquistadores such as Juan de Grijalva and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, it presents a first-person account of life in Tenochtitlan through the eyes of a slave called Yaotl.

I have the Pocket Books paperback version of Demon of the Air, which weighs in at 413 pages*. The novel is no dry history, neither is it an alternate earth fantasy. Rather it is a murder mystery in a unique fascinating setting. The first few pages are dedicated to authors notes and some maps, thereafter one is immediately thrown into the action as Yaotl and a friend ascend the Great Pyramid, on their way to a sacrifice at the temple of the war god Huitzilopochtli.

I often find myself wearing a RPG game master hat when reading a book that engages me. I just cannot help thinking, “wow, what a cool idea” or “I am definitely using that next time we play” as I read. Sometimes I lie awake buzzing with ideas after reading an exciting story.

From a roleplaying perspective, Demon of the Air is a treasure trove of ideas. Tenochtitlan is a city like none other. Built on an island in the middle of a lake and bisected with canals, the possibilities for adventure and exploration may seem endless.

From a classic alternate earth RuneQuest III perspective, Aztecs should have been a fait accompli. There are accounts of such an Aztec supplement being considered in the Avalon Hill days. Alas talks about what could have been a radical supplement in its time never translated into anything material.

Reason enough for someone or a group of likeminded people with a passion for RuneQuest and Mesoamerican culture to publish a supplement.

For a detailed look at Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest III that does briefly touch on the Aztec theme, look no further than Michael OBrien’s detailed article on the subject at Black Gate.

* The book is technically 429 pages long but the last 16 pages are dedicated to the first chapter of the sequel: Shadow of the Lords.

Exanimate – Paradox Magazine

This is an ongoing series of articles discussing contemporary magazines which have ceased to exist.

Paradox Magazine was a speculative fiction publication edited by Christopher M. Cevasco that had a thirteen issue run. Their first issue was published in March 2003 while their final issue was published in April 2009, receiving a fitting eulogy at Back Gate Magazine.

The word paradox should be well known to most readers of speculative fiction and it is thus no surprise as to the existence, past and present, of other publications bearing this word in their title. The H.G. Wells Science Fiction Society of Romania publishes an inhouse magazine called Paradox, while a one off APA zine of the same name (formerly Just SF) was published in June 1982. Neither of these or any other publications with a similar name are covered within the ambit of this article.

The magazine’s speciality was more geared towards Alternative History, Period Tales, such as Arthurian, and Time Travel. i.e. Earth based as opposed to the otherworldly slant that often comes with traditional Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like many other similar publications, Paradox Magazine featured the occasional scholastic article, review and poem. One interesting differentiator was their substantial use of historic art, both on the cover and internally – an idiosyncrasy I quite liked.

I received my copy of Paradox Magazine issue 7 some years back, amongst an order of assorted back issues I was able to purchase from Neil Clarke, who publishes the successful Clarkesworld Magazine. As an indication of just how long this magazine languished on my Books to Read shelf, consider that Paradox Magazine was still an in print going concern when I received this specific issue!

The magazine has a glossy card cover in colour, depicting A Reading from Homer by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912). There is no artwork or other detail on the back cover. It is a standard sized “A4”, saddle stitched publication containing 56 pages of quality paper. Fiction in order of appearance is:

A Tear Like a Rainbow by Meredith Simmons. A tale of the US Civil War involving aerial reconnaissance through the use of lighter than air balloons and a young protagonist with a penchant for words starting with the letter i. Illustration by Roxell Edward Karr.

The Avowing of Sir Kay by Cherith Baldry . An Arthurian tale about Sir Kay, King Arthurs foster brother, seneschal and a Pentecostal vow. Illustration by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911). While I recalled Sir Kay from various works of fiction and the movie Excalibur, this view of him was different to what I had expected. I enjoyed this story.

A Monument More Lasting than Brass by Steven Mohan, Jr. An Alt History tale about the first return to the moon, many years after a disastrous Apollo 11 mission failure. Illustration by Jeff Ward. The author of many BattleTech novels delivers a “what if” scenario on a cold war backdrop in the time of US president Reagan.

The Tiger Fortune Princess by the late Eugie Foster. This short work is set in China and involves the Empress Meiying and a curse placed upon her daughter, the princess Wen-Xiu. Illustration by Wu Guxiang (1848 – 1903). The story reads like a folk tale, quickly putting one in the mindset of a Chinese narrator telling the tale to rapt audience.

A Taste of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick . This story takes the form of a letter written in the first person, detailing a horrific paranormal encounter. Illustration by Arthur Davis Broughton. The author is well published, and while I have not read any of her other works, it is my belief that A Taste of Ashes may fit within the universe of some of her works.

A Hand in the Stream by Darron T. Moore. Illustration by Jim Ordolis. This is a Time Travel piece about the leader of a team of time travellers from the future must return to a critical point in the past to collect certain objects of high value moments before they are destroyed, without of course causing any timeline continuity problems. The story flips between present and the main characters memories of certain events in her past. Enjoyable and quite credible in its context.

The Gods of Green and Gray by Paul Finch. A tale set in Roman occupied Britain, some years after the Romans quelled Boudicca’s revolt, this feature story takes up the final fourteen pages of the magazine. Illustrated by Allen Koszowski. This was my favourite story, although I freely admit my bias towards the subject matter. Well written with believable characters and a good mix of historic and fantasy elements, I could not put it down.

Other works include an essay titled Beyond the Barbarian: History in the Works of Robert E. Howard, by Patrice Louinet. If my experience reading and contributing at Black Gate Magazine has taught me anything, this would have been a perennial draw card.

Poems by Angelo Sphere (Prayer of Atigone) and the prolific Darrell Schweitzer (The Greatness of Scipio Aemilianus) are set amongst the various stories and advertisements, while regular departmental columns (editorial, book and film reviews and contributors’ biographies) round off the magazine.

I enjoyed the magazine, finding all the content to be well written and pertinent to the magazines by-line – “The magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction”.  If an opportunity to purchase other issues presents itself, I will definitely take it.

Badger Books – British Pulp Science Fiction from the 1950’s

Some time back, while scouring the shelves of a tiny book exchange, I came across a book tiled The Time Kings by JB Dexter. It was published in 1958 by Badger Books and contained 158 pages of small typeface on paper from the cheaper end of the publication spectrum. An old science fiction book from a budget publisher, I had to have it!

Information regarding Badger Books is pretty thin, limited to a Wikipedia page and what can be gleaned from the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB). They were an imprint of John Spencer & Co, London, who started out in 1947 selling pulp style magazines before branching out into budget paperbacks in the 1950’s.

The Badger Books imprint started out in 1954 with a number of books entitled Supernatural Stories which, apart from a detective story: Assignment in New York by Mike Lantry (E.C. Tubb), was the predominant theme of their publishing schedule until 1958, when they started to branch out into science fiction. Their first book in their SF series was The Waiting World by R. Lionel Fanthorpe.

The Waiting World by R. Lionel Fanthorpe. Cover artist unknown.

During the course of the following decade Badger Books published science fiction and supernatural books on a near weekly basis at their peak, with a handful of authors using various pseudonyms churning out quantity reading matter. They also covered, at a lesser volume, other genres such as romance, westerns and war.

My modest collection

The cover artwork is quite enticing, with shiny spaceships featuring prominently to engage the readers sense of wonder. Earlier novels had covers by a range of artists, including some prominent names in the field. By 1961 Henry Fox had become the principal cover artist for Badger Books, with most covers thereafter attributed to him.

The mid to late 1960’s were not good times for the pulp industry in general. Many magazines and budget book publishers were affected, on both sides of the Atlantic. Badger Books was no exception and they ceased publication in 1967.

Clear signs of wear on these vintage books. Space Void cover by Ed Emshwiller, Doomed World by Carlo Jacono, other artists unknown.

South Africa has in the past tended to import most of our English language published matter from the UK, so it is not surprising that Badger Books do turn up occasionally. These books are becoming something of a rarity, having been published with no mind for longevity. As with many such pulp publications, many may have simply fallen apart or have been thrown away along with other old read magazines and comics.

My own small collection barely scratches the surface of the 118, or 227 if you include the supernatural line, published. Hunting for these books in exchanges, markets and second-hand shops can prove quite exhilarating especially when one finds a new sample to add to a collection. If you see one, give it a try. It may well be the work of a hack churning out words to meet a deadline, but could as easily be a hidden, long forgotten gem.

Crimson Planet cover by John Richards, the rest could be by Henry Fox
By this time Henry Fox was doing most covers, although none of these are attributed to him at ISFDB.

Queen of the Orcs by Morgan Howell

I can be quite a picky reader, especially when it comes to fantasy about one of my favourite species – Orcs!

A few years back I was lamenting the lack of decent literature portraying orcs as protagonists. There were some excellent works available back then, such as Mary Gentle’s Grunts! and Stan Nicholls’ Orcs – First Blood series, but when compared to other works featuring the more favored fantasy races, these were very much in a minority.

Browsing on the internet on day I got to searching for other orc related literature, and courtesy of Google Books came across an author I had no prior knowledge of: Morgan Howell, who had published a trilogy called Queen of the Orcs.

Queen of the Orcs book 1: Kings Property

My proclivity for orc related fiction lead me to obtain this series eftsoons I was able to. No sooner had I obtained the series than I set to reading them .

The tale is about a young human woman named Dar. Born to poverty in what could be described as a feudal kingdom, she is effectively the lowest of the low. The story does not spend much time on her abusive childhood, but pulls few punches either. The reader quickly gets a feel for the grim nature of daily life in the kingdom.

Soon enough Dar is recruited (sold) into the army where she and a number of other young woman find they have to prepare food for a maniple or orcs who form part of the kings army.

As the army travels, Dar gradually discovers the orcs to be far more complex creatures than the brutal monsters that they are portrayed to be.

I do not wish to delve too much into the story as I fear doing so would inevitably cause some spoilers to become apparent.

Queen of the Orcs book 2: Clan Daughter

What I can do is highly recommend this series. The author has gone to a great deal of effort to describe a complex and different culture in the orcs, going so far as to dedicate a number of appendix pages to their language and specific notes of cultural importance.

Howell’s orcs are far from being pushovers. When battle comes they prove their fearsome reputation in gory detail.

Queen of the Orcs book 3: Royal Destiny

I was impressed with Morgan Howell’s work on this series. So much so that I did a little digging and found that Morgan Howell is a pseudonym, used by author Will Hubbell.

The previous iteration of this site did not delve into much detail about books, simply providing a Recommended Reading page. I write a very short recommendation and contacted the Mr. Hubbell, congratulating him on his evocative work.

While I have lost that specific correspondence, my recollection was that he chose a relatively female sounding pseudonym so as to better get to grips writing a story about a female protagonist. It certainly had me thinking the author was a woman. I would be greatly interested to hear from any female readers out there, to hear if the authors self set challenge was met, or if he perhaps missed the mark on occasion.

Moran Howell has gone on to publish another series in the same setting, entitled The Shadowed Path. While I have obtained that series I have not yet read them. A while after our initial correspondence, I received a short note from Mr Hubbell to advise me that he had written a stand along orc related novel in the same setting. This one, Called A Single Deed, he was going to self publish. It is not easily available where I stay but I do hope to order it some time, so that I can revisit the rich, well written orc culture Morgan Howell has created.

A Single Deed
Kings Property – Revised Cover
Clan Daughter – Revised Cover
Royal Destiny – Revised Cover

Grunts! by Mary Gentle

Grunts! Corgi/Bantam - Les Edwards
Bantam(UK)/Corgi Cover by Les Edwards

Possibly the original book depicting orcs as the main protagonists, Grunts! by Mary Gentle first saw publication in 1992. I am not one to make a habit out of re-reading books, yet this is one of the few exceptions I have made. Simply put Grunts! Is a very fun book to read!

Without giving too much away, the story starts off as pretty much standard old school high fantasy cannon. The Dark Lord is gathering his forces for the Final Battle. It is at this time that we meet band leader Ashnak of the fighting Agaku. Let us just say shortly thereafter things go pear shaped and then the story takes a sharp left and heads off into non High Fantasy territory. All in all an entertaining read that I can recommend to anyone looking for something a bit different.

But that’s not the whole point of this post. I am sure far more qualified people have reviewed this excellent book since its publication.

For me the most exciting thing about Grunts! (over and above the great read) was that it depicted orcs as the heroes. Well lead protagonists or maybe anti heroes if you like. It gave one a glimpse into what orcs could be about and came up with a bit of a standard for orcish names. Marukka, Dakashnit, Razitshakra etc all found their names used as time went by when I was Game Master in our local RuneQuest group. Suddenly orcs had names and eventually, after much winging on my side, the other core GM (Willo) caved and allowed me to play an orc. But that’s a topic for a future blog.

Roc cover - Romas
Roc cover by Romas

I think the key contribution Mary Gentle made by publishing Grunts! was to prove it could be done. There were punters out there eager for this type of novel. We were not out looking for a treatise explaining how orcs were misunderstood gentle creatures, but wanted to see them in all their violent glory, something Mary Gentle achieved.

So if you have not read Grunts! Yet, go out and get it. From what I can see on the net it has been republished, so it should be easily available.

Roc/New American library cover.
Roc/New American library cover.

For those willing to search about for old magazines, look for Orcs Drift by the same author. This is a sort story that was published in the old Valkyrie RPG Magazine (Volume 1, Issue 3 of 1994). It also saw publication on in Odyssey Magazine Volume 0, 1997 as well as the authors Cartomancy collection which was published in 2004.

This article was originally published XXVII April MMXII

Gateway Essentials
Gateway Essentials cover

Dragontales Magazine

Dragontales was an apparently one off anthology of short stories published under the auspices of Dragon Magazine back in 1980. The stories therein, at the time were original and had not appeared in previous editions of Dragon Magazine.

I picked this magazine up for USD1.00 some years back, along with a job lot of Dragon Magazine back issues. One of various reasons I bought Dragon Magazine was to read the short stories therein.

Little did I realise that the magazine, in excellent condition I may add, is apparently highly collectible, according to what people are asking for it on eBay anyway. That aside, is it worthwhile reading, or has its genre based fiction aged beyond readability?

Dragontales magazine cover

First and foremost the magazine has a striking wrap around cover depicting a priestess standing in front of a party of adventurers (one would assume) in an avenue of Mayan / Incan / Aztec / (Insert Alternate Mesoamerican Culture here) snake headed pylons leading up to a stepped pyramid type temple. Already impressive stuff, that set my GM’s mind scheming about plot ideas for our ongoing RuneQuest campaign.

In the sky/background of the picture one can see ghostly images of snakes – vipers by appearance – fighting warriors, distant landscapes and skeleton covered treasure troves. The artists signature is M Carroll.

Contents wise I felt it was a mixed bag. I did not enjoy the first story, The Wizards are Dying by John L Jenkin, at all. In fact it was so old school genre (1st edition D&D) based that I almost put the magazine away never to look at it again. But I persevered and took days to read a story that should have taken me a short train ride to work. It was the typical party gets together and makes their way (along with the obligatory stow away) off to stop a lich whose sealed tomb had been disrupted. Yawn. The story had a number of holes in it and was just not my cup of tea. That said the action did get better towards the end and well, I suppose it was a product of its time. It does explain why many a fantasy magazines writers guidelines vociferously state their disinterest in genre fiction.

Fortunately the rest of the stories vary from a bit, to remarkable better. Dragons Fosterling by Ruby S W Jung was light hearted and clever. Likely more so when it was published as I suspect there have been many takes on the same subject since.

Out of the Eons by Gardner F Fox was one of the stories I enjoyed the most. The story was a clever take on the standard hero with his goddess’ avatar wife. There were one or two small inconsistencies, or rather glossed over facts that had me paging back in case I missed a paragraph. Just a thought, but isn’t spelled Aeons?

Sir George by Carl Parlagreco was a decent attempt at fantasy humour writing. Bearing in mind this was written before the Colour of Magic saw light, or the likes of Craig Shaw Gardner, Tom Holt et al made names for themselves in this field. The story gave me a few chuckles, well worth a look.

Black Lotus Moon by Tom Moldvay was also a favourite. A tale of a protagonist thief, and betrayal at various levels. It was clever and well written. It may have been little risqué for its time, in its art and content, which I am sure helped push whatever boundaries existed at that time.

Some short work such as Honor (sic) Among Thieves by Roger Moore (Dragon Magazine Staff Member, not the actor), Ice Dreams by David F Nalle and Birth of a Wizard by Marie Desjardin were reasonable enjoyable but all too soon forgotten in my opinion. Call Me Albert by Martin Mundt was also an attempt at humour which alas failed as far as I was concerned. It was okay I suppose but also fell into the easily forgotten category. Writing humour is harder than one would think and I would point anyone keen to read fiction to a cowardly, reluctant protagonist to rather look up the excellent tales of Dao Shi by Iain Rowan, which are far superior.

Lastly, and defiantly the best story in the collection is The Darkness Hunting by Janrae Frank. It is a tale of an amazon warrior who has per necessity had to make her life amongst the strictly patriarchal society of planes nomads. Once again there have been plety of stories of woman living secret lives as men over the years, but this one, for its age, is still fresh and memorable. In my opinion that’s the mark of good writing.

In conclusion I would say Dragontales is a not just product of its time and the genre that spawned it. For sure there are aspects of D&D in more than one story, but at least three of the thankfully longer stories stand out on their own merits and satisfactorily span the decades since their writing to still be enjoyable today.

This article was first published XXIV December MMXII