A big fan of the Valducan books by Seth Skorkowsky, I was interested in other books by him and the release of a new fantasy series intrigued me. Mountain of Daggers is the first collection of short stories by him about the Black Raven. Who is the Black Raven? The Black Raven is the alias of Ahren, a thief and assassin who haunts a Medieval Fantasy world.
The book follows Ahren's journey from being a ex-sailor with a history of burglary work to becoming the most feared and respected rogue in the world. I can't help but wonder if I'm going to see more of his adventures in the upcoming Blackguards anthology being released by Ragnarok Publications.
The stories are deliberately modeled on the old Lieber-Howard mold where the protagonist doesn't have any real overarching narrative but a series of loosely connected stories which, if you read them in order, give you a rough sense of where his personality as well as ambitions are going.
Ahren, himself, is a difficult character to get a handle on. He's not one of the larger-than-life personalities you usually find in these sorts of books. He's stoic, reserved, doesn't talk much, and keeps his thoughts as well as history to himself. Rather than Conan or the Gray Mouser, I'd say he's closer to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.
He's a character who events happen to and he causes but doesn't really make an astounding effort to engage with his others. The exception is, surprising me as a reader, he ends up visiting his hometown out of the blue and we get a sense of what forces shaped him.
Even then, he keeps a lot to himself.
Ahren's character is an interesting one since he's the sort of fellow you could easily mistake for being a cipher than one the author is deliberately trying to leave mysterious. I confess, aside from the fact he's heterosexual with a particular fondness for girls who can pick pockets, I'm still not sure about what motivates him.
Is he doing this for the money, the thrills, or because he likes it? I'd kind of saddened we never really get to see what Ahren spends the fortunes he makes on, really. Women? Mansions? Gold-plated swords he can show off to his buddies? With Conan, you knew every copper of his went to pay for his alcohol and wenching habits. Ahren seems to horde his fortune like a Swiss banker.
The point of the book isn't Ahren, though, but his adventures and they are a delightful collection of Sword and Sorcery-esque romps in a more modernized environment. There's evil cults, wizards, decadent nobles, crazed witches, and petty criminal gangs who think they can make the Black Raven into a common legbreaker.
My favorite story is about Ahren being hired to steal a magical oar cap which can control the souls of the dead as well as the waters of a Venice-like city. Another favorite story seems to be a shout-out to the movie version of Conan and his, ahem, encounter with a witch. The stories are full of atmosphere, world-building, and amoral surroundings. The setting came off like a combination of Hyboria, Lankhmar, Renaissance Italy, and Gotham City--which is a good mix.
In conclusion, if you're interested in some daring heist fiction in a fantasy world then this book is a collection of several tales dealing with said subjects. They're, essentially, one long series of delightful chase scenes and action-pieces. I would have liked to get more from the protagonist emotionally but the character archetype is bound to appeal to some readers. This is a good book and one I read in a day, which is usually a good sign for a decent-sized 205 page novel.