Rogues are the best.
This is my personal opinion on the subject. Some people prefer paladins and shining knights but just about everyone I know likes Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker. Now, I like Luke Skywalker just as much as anyone else but there's just something about antiheroes which speaks to me.
A friend of mine said it was no coincidence that the nobility tended to favor stories of armored heroes fighting for noble causes while peasants liked clever people who used their wits to become rich. Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues is an homage to those sorts of heroes and the very origins of fantasy writing.
Conan the Barbarian and Bilbo Baggins share a common quality: they're both thieves. Modern fantasy is a house built upon those who work in shadows like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or countless other Sword and Sorcery heroes. Blackguards is an homage to these figures and what attracted me to Ragnarok Publications. Before I was a writer for them, I was a donater to their Kickstarter for this book and I hope you'll view my review in the context as a reader. If not, well, consider yourself warned.
The book opens up with a foreword by Glen Cook of The Black Company series. Honestly, this is isn't a great start. His introduction is a ode to vicious killers, monsters, and nihilism. Which is NOT what the vast majority of these stories are about. He even cites how Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream is a book about how even the most horrible evils can be heroes. Something completely not true. It's a misinterpretation of said book's themes akin to A Fish Called Wanda's, "The central tenant of Buddhism is every man for himself."
Thankfully, Joe Martin proceeds to write his own foreword which is a bit more appropriate to the content. Joe Martin talks about his love of Bilbo Baggins, lovable rogues, and those who use their wits over brawn. This fits well with the stories within and put me in the proper mood for reading about the Blackguards within. He even helpfully defines the word.
On my end, I don't like reading about the evil triumphing. The gray? Yes. The amoral? Certainly? The outright monstrous? Screw em. Even if the villains are worse than such heroes, all that makes me feel is that I'd like to see both jump off a cliff. Thankfully, Blackguards is full of many a Catwoman and Arsene Lupin while only a few Jokers.
Now for a short critique of the many stories within:
Mainon by Jean Rabe: The story of a beautiful Renassiance-esque fantasy assassin who is hired to protect a wedding feast from a killer prophecized to slay the groom. But, of course, things are more complicated than they appear. I love the protagonist and will have to check out any future works starring her.
|The black and white art within is quite impressive. Each illustration shows something about the characters within.|
The Subtler Art by Cat Rambo: A married couple goes to visit a luxurious retirement home populated by dictators, archvillains, and merchant princes in order to make a kill (or kills). The entire story is just a set up for a joke at the end but, thankfully, it's a funny joke.
Seeds by Carol Berg: The story of a drug-addicted renegade wizard who wants to keep his hand long enough to continue doing drugs as well as prostitutes. I have to give credit to the author for managing to capture both the patheticness of an addict as well as making him an interesting lead protagonist.
Jancy's Justice by Kenny Soward: I love GnomeSaga so I'm inclined to give Kenny props for this one, even though I don't remember the titular character all that well. This is a story of a thief with a soft-spot for children who goes to save a babe kidnapped millennium ago. My only complaint about this story is it ends abruptly before a proper climax.
Professional Integrity by Michael J. Sullivan: My favorite story in the volume involves two likable thieves, a young woman paying them to kidnap her, a curse, a con, and a delightfully twist-ridden mystery. This is exactly the kind of rogue-ish story I love and I will definitely be checking out his other works.
Troll Trouble by Richard Lee Byers: Another story I very much enjoyed due to its mostly-heroic scoundrel of a hero. The local Trolls have a problem with demonic possession, runaway brides, a evil witch, and an incubus. The way all of this gets resolved is just hilarious.
A Better Man by Paul S. Kemp: A group of thieves get hired to thwart some more thieves but everyone is hustling everyone else. I love this story primarily because of its two protagonists but also because it provides one of the more impressive women I've read in a story story--I'd love to read more about her.
The First Kill by Django Wrexler: An interesting story of intrigue, government action, and a submissive/dominant relationship between two killers. Django has an excellent handle on the leads and I had fun throughout.
Manhunt by Mark Smylie: The story of a renegade guardsman Batman on a cursed city. The final speech about how serving the nobility sucks but you can do some small part for the peasantry was the best part of the story, even if it had lots of well-written action.
Better to Live Than Die by John Gwynne: A rural take on a Robin Hood-esque band of forest bandits. Well, except for the fact they rob from the rich and give to themselves. The cynicism of the story shows that you don't need palaces for backstabbing on a scale similar to Game of Thrones.
The Secret by Mark Lawrence: My second least favorite story in this volume (you'll read about the least later). A helpless young woman gets murdered by an assassin who gets close to her. I'm not a great believer a person has to be good to be heroic as bad people can do impressive deeds. There's nothing heroic about the protagonist and I hope he breaks his neck on his ride home.
Friendship by Laura Resnik: A story of a secret order of killers on a place which reminds me of East Asia. The story has the uncomfortable subtext of the victim being the homosexual lover of the client, but I can't say it's not a believable motive in a homophobic society. It's also, mostly, about how people who get in (figurative) bed with criminals should not be surprised when they get diseased.
The Long Kiss by Clay Sanger: A horror story masquerading as a roguish one. A thief purchases a night with a beautiful prostitute, only to find out she doesn't speak the language. He uses the time to relate his horrifying deeds in full, only to discover things aren't quite what they seem.
The White Rose Thief by Shawn Speakman: A story about a retired thief turned bard. Rosenwyn is unique in this book since she finds being a thief as something to be ashamed of. However, that doesn't prevent her from getting caught up in the affairs of witches, nobles, druids, and dragons despite this. The story, seemingly, is a prelude for a longer one I would very much like to read.
A Length of Cherrywood by Peter Orullian: My ACTUAL least favorite story in the book. This almost made me throw the book across the room. It's about a disgusting human trafficker who kidnaps an innocent woman (who doesn't even get a name) while her husband is helpless to resist. When I realized the story had the slaver get away afterward with no hint to the woman's fate, I tuned the rest out. A repulsive story about a repulsive character.
A Taste of Agony by Tim Marquitz: A fascinating tale of survival on the mountaintops along with revenge, sorcery, and war. The fact the story stars an outlaw eunuch assassin is enough to get me invested just from the description alone.
What Gods Demand by James A. Moore: I want to say I *LOVE* The picture which accompanies this story. The artist should be commended. The actual story is good, too, dealing with a woman who has reincarnated in a new body like the X-men's Psylocke and has to deal with the repercussions. I also liked she was a strongly religious character and how it influenced her actions.
|Ragnarok's habit of illustrating their anthologies is one I wish more indie-publishers would do.|
Seeking the Shadow by Joseph R. Lallo: The story about how a blacksmith and an assassin form a pact for mutual advantage. It's a funny-funny story due to the blacksmith's dialogue and I wouldn't mind reading more about them.
Sun and Steel by Jon Sprunk: A story which is more military than roguish. It's a tale of magic, force-of-arms, steel, honor, and bloodshed. I enjoyed it just fine even if it doesn't have much roguishness.
The Betyar and the Magus by S.R. Cambridge: A Russian bandit during the Hungarian Revolution robs the wrong coach, finding himself in a very prickly situation. Hopelessly outmatched, the bandit has to use his silver tongue to convince said magus that he is more interesting alive than dead. Great story.
A Kingdom and a Horse by Snorri Kristjansson: A pair of rather incompetent Norsemen find themselves try to rob some villagers with varying degrees of success. The story was quite funny and I enjoyed it a great deal. It, oddly enough, reminded me of Asterix.
Thieves at the Gate by James Enge: A story which adapts the adventures of that original rogue, Odysseus. It's a perfectly entertaining and fine story but I can't say I find the attempt to liken piracy to conquest all that convincing. Still, it's worth it for the opening conversation about the importance of children to a dynasty.
His Kikuta Hands by Lian Hearn: A Japanese-flavored bit of fantasy which, surprisingly enough, involves ninjas. The conflict between the Tribe, their code of honor, and the locals is impressively detailed. I also loved the shocking twist at the end.
The Lord Collector by Anthony Ryan: A solid piratical fantasy tale on the high seas. It involves smugglers, priests, betrayal, codes of honor, Omerta (in its classical sense), and more. This is one of the best stories in the book and has a real meaty plotline to it.
Scream by Anton Strout: A story which jumps out of classical fantasy to urban fantasy. Scream is about a psycometric private detective who is hired to steal back a painting for a museum. It has one of the most hilarious scenes I've read in a book involving, of all things, the restaurant from "When Harry Met Sally."
If these stories weren't enough, purchasers of the ebook get a special bonus in an additional eleven stories. I've got to say this was an impressive gift by Ragnarok Publications and I loved every single one of them. Of special note are To the End by Rob J. Hayes, which is a chronicle of a character from his Ties that Bind series and The Lonesome Dark by Anthony Lowe. The latter is a tale about how revenge has its costs, even when you're just trying to be the one moral person in the world. Equally powerful is The Laughing Wind by Noah Hendrick which asks the question whether or not a single good deed can make up for a life of bad choices. Bloody Gratitude by Mike Theodorsson is just funny and depicts children as they truly are: complete monsters.
In conclusion, Blackguards is an amazing book. One of, if not the, best anthologies I have ever read. It's well worth the price and provides an immense amount of entertainment for every page. With rare exceptions, I enjoyed every single story in this book and would recommend almost all of them to other readers.