Reviewing the New Edge of Sword and Sorcery


Skallagrim in the Vales of Pegarna

By Stephen R Babb

There must be something about musicians and the so-called New Edge of Sword and Sorcery. Most of the writers I’ve read so far in the genre have been musicians one way or the other. Rob Poyton, Steve Dilks, Howie Bentley, and now Stephen (call me Steve) R Babb. He’s bassist in prog rock band Glass Hammer, whose current lead singer used to sing for Yes. So much for rock reminiscence. What’s Babb like as a sword and sorcery author?

Skallagrim In The Vales of Pegarna begins with its titular hero as much in the dark as its reader. Much like Jason Bourne, he is suffering from amnesia, and part of the drive of the novel is his quest to recover his identity. More of it is his pursuit of a blue eyed, blonde haired, nameless girl—is she an illusion or a reality? Our amnesiac hero doesn’t seem to know, but he’s beset by so many problems—ghouls, night gaunts, tentacular monstrosities, sexy nymphy nymphomaniac temptresses—he has little time to ponder.

We begin in a darksome alleyway in a Lankhmar-esque city—Lankhmar-esque, but it’s nickname is the Dreaming City, so a nod to Moorcock there. There’s another nod coming, when Skallagrim, a thief fighting indeterminate enemies, receives a screaming sword that plunges from the heavens and which he sues to fight them off. Yes, a singing blade. The name of the sword is Terminus. A reference to Gene Wolfe’s Severian stories? Well, why not? Skallagrim’s soon rescued by Erling, another, greater, thief and swindler and generally morally ambiguous character, attended by Hartbert, an ogrish companion. These are the good guys. The bad guys are worse. 

Soon Skallagrim is off on a quest to rescue the enigmatic aforesaid female. Dark vales, dark towers, dark monsters, all await him, but they’re a lot more difficult than usual. It reminds me in places of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ ‘Lure of the Basilisk’; all the tropes are there, but with an extra level of grit. If you ever spent far too much of your teenage years blundering round forests and mountains in the middle of the night, ghouls or not, you will realise that Mr Babb knows what he’s talking about. As a rule I don’t like too much realism in my fantasy, but in this case it stiffens the spine and sinews in the indisputable way that distinguishes generic fantasy from sword and sorcery, New Edge or otherwise. 

Among its detractors, prog rock has a reputation for songs that are too long and too complex for the average audience: more The Lord of the Rings than Conan. Although Babb is an avowedly Christin fan of Tolkien and CS Lewis, I don’t think this applies to Skallagrim, (although the falling action could have been trimmed a little). The book wears its influences on its sleeve, Moorcockian references and Icelandic saga references give way to Lovecraftian references. With its ghouls and its night gaunts and impossibly vast horrors it could be regarded as Cthulhu Mythos, but its horror is earthy rather than cosmic. Oh, and it turns out the nameless girl’s name is a Dunsanian reference.

9 out of 10 

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