With the mainstream publishing industry suffering a slow, drawn-out collapse as a result of archaic business models, political co-option and assorted corruption, it falls to enthusiastic amateurs and small-time publishers like DMR Books to keep the fires lit and provide quality works to a small but dedicated audience. And not without success, as independent publishing continues to go from strength to strength.
The Godsblade was interesting but suffered a bit from its novel length format but Necromancy in Nilztiria gives us what we have been without for almost half a century: An honest to god S&S anthology in the vein of something like Clark Ashton Smith or Robert E Howard. Atavistic heroes fighting the forces of Chaos for gold and glory, inhospitable wilderness, nubile women, corrupt sorcerers, primordial beasts, antehuman ruins, it stays true to the roots of the genre, while leaving some room for other influences, oldschool D&D not the least among them.
We are transported to the world of Nilztiria, a place equally Zothique, Hyperborea, and Hyborean Age. Ruins that time has forgotten, impenetrable jungles, uncharted seas, forlorn isles and ancient crypts. The tone veers between the bombastically earnest, the archaic verbiage veering at times perilously close to parody, and the comedic, effecting an almost Vancian farciality (and indeed C.A. Smith was no stranger to this tone). Inject all of this with an adolescent hornyness and you have yourself a recipe for some damn fine S&S. And though it is certainly no match for Smith’s boundlessly imaginative sensual exoticism or Howard’s vibrant hyperkinetic prose, I’ll put it up against a Gardener Fox or a Lin Carter anyday.
Thirteen tales, spanning 200 pages. Let us tarry no further and dig in!
Please note that this review, like any review, spoils almost everything so be warned.
A Twisted Branch of Yggdrasil: Hrolfgar the Viking berserker is snatched from a pile of fallen outlaws, and made to serve the Sorceress Ytra against her rival, Xaarxool the Necromancer, who has something of Maal Dweb  or Ming the Merciless about him. Fighting alongside him is the ancient Atlantean Deltor, a smug, horny idiot. They are soon transported to the manse of Xarxool, and must pass his garden of alien flora, only to face the might of Xarxool and his undying bodyguard.
“Xarxool! Xarxool! I sense intruders!” enounced the head.
“Intruders on my ground? Where are they, Lodianux?” asked Xarxool.
“They are blundering about your garden,” said Lodianux. “Two men of unknown origin.”
“Unknown? But we are familiar with all the people of this planet as well as those of its nearest moons. By the horns of Iljer, this is unprecedented!,” said Xarxool.
“Indeed,” said the head. Lodiax furrowed his brow in concentration.”Their intentions are ill.”
“Undoubtedly. Skeletons! Cease your playing! I would hear a new song instead – the dying wails of mine enemies!”
Despite having one of the best premises and some great action this story is among the weaker of the collection. It ironically moves too fast. We are presented with moments of fantasy or great import like a frost-clad battlefield of slain foes, the berserker rage, being transported to another world, but we are barely given time to savour the moment before we are flung to the next (in the case of the Sorceress’s dwelling the two heroes are literally magically propelled to the fortress of Xaarxool). Indeed the conclusion, which ends in doom for the protagonists, like many of Smith’s tales, is over before we have a chance to savor it. Deltor the moron has fled and has been devoured by a carnivorous plant. Hrolfgar, in the throes of berserker rage, narrowly misses Xarxool and is instead cut down by his giant skeleton guard. A valkerie descends from the heavens to take him to Valhalla. The wizard muses on this. It should be a moment of transcendent wonder but it is over all too quickly, and Xarxool, its only witness is more bemused then awed. Still, for an S&S yarn, it is good and a great indication whether or not you are going to like the rest of the series.
The Lair of the Brain Eaters: The short story that made it into a contest entry. This one plays a bit with the sort of themes you would find in C.A. Smith Zothique tales, where characters are ultimately undone by their own flaws. Largott Phim, a temple guard turned nightwatchman of the necropolis in faroff Desazu after an illicit dalliance with a temple virgin (the hornyness motif) is about to suffer a bad day. The rumors of grave-robbing necrophiliacs turn out to be more then rumors, and soon Largott finds himself in pursuit of an unknown assailant, and through a secret entrance into the tunnels below the ancient crypts. The truth turns out to be far darker as he finds he is among the Yoinog, a cult of once-men who feed on the ensorcelled brains of corpses for magic power. The necromancer Obb Nyreb who leads them is disgusting in a direct visceral sense, lacking something of the languorous degeneracy of Smith’s Necromancers, but he works as the face of the Yoinog.
The solemn silence was broken by footsteps from Phim’s rear. He spun around. Two hirstute beastmen – much like the one he was hunting – stalked toward him menacingly. The deranged look on their faces indicated a great desire to blood the long spears they wielded. Phim immediately recognized the danger of his predicament. Apart from being outnumbered he had no room to swing his sword in these constricted passageways. He could thrust with the point of his blade, but the length of his enemies spears had him at a disadvantage.
He soon discovers another prisoner, a naked boob lady with red hair. After narrowly avoiding death at the hands of the Yoinog, she effects aid at a critical moment (the story is exciting, with sudden reversals and constant tension, and the action is tense and vivid) and thus they become fast friends. Like the previous entry, the conclusion is doom. The lady is quite abruptly killed by a thrown dagger, and Phim is left alone in the complex, quite unable to escape without her as a guide even if he wanted to. He has no recourse but to fight to the death. Would it have worked better if Phim had voluntarily remained behind, his lust eventually getting the better of him? Or would it have worked if he had remained behind so she could flee, his lust now having grown into something more noble? Regardless, the ending is still a thrill, as Phim resorts to eating the enchanted brains of the Necromancer for power, and ends up rolling a 00 on the potion mishap table, going out in a literal blaze of glory.
Born to Storm the Citadel of Mettathok: The story that cemented the notion in my head that this was going to be a good time. Ritzlin steps beyond the comforting tropes of sword and sorcery and instead takes us into the most death-metal fuelled science fantasy experience this side of the Black Plot music video. The nameless protagonist is born in wet tunnels of flesh, and herded out with his fellows, all of them diminutive grey moon demons, press-ganged by the thousands into a Demon Prince’s hordes, and ordered to lay siege to the Citadel of Mettathok, which has stood for generations. Unlike his companions, he is born with the gift of intelligence. Under pain of torture, and promised a mysterious reward if they live and bring back but a single head of Mettathok’s defenders, who are vastly formidable but cannot be replenished, the moon-demons set out.
We neared the summit of the horrible mount, anxious to strike. Misfortune befell us at once. Before any of us could swing a blade a torrent of noxious acid splashed down upon our right wing, taking us completely by suprise. A dozen of our troops screaming in agony as what remained of their desintegrating bodies writhed in agony. I glanced upward at the nearest tower and saw a monstrous face protruding from the wall, which I mistakingly took to be a stone carving. The face proved animate, opening wide its maw, and vomiting forth another quantity of the terrible hazardous substance. A half dozen more of us perished ignominiously.
Returning after doing battle against the terrible guardians of the citadel, one of which he manages to defeat by the strategic sacrifice of his comrades, the demon is rewarded with a terrible prize. He must mate for an age with the bloated mother demons that spawn his kindred by the thousands, passing on his genes to make an army in his image, countless of hundreds of which will now suffer and die to storm the impregnable walls of the Citadel.
Hunting the Lirpkinn: A farcical tale featuring the recurring protagonist Xedroch Loor, a fortune hunter somewhere between Cugel the Clever and Blackadder, and his hunt for the Lippkin, a leprechaun-like creature. Aided by two midgets, he trades his amulet against ghosts for an enchanted flute and an allergic powder, and strives to capture the Lippkin, compell it to hand over its treasure, and spend the money on ladies of the night. The story is excellently set up, as Loor’s initial attempts meet with failure, and he must resort to increasingly sophisticated schemes to capture the irritating pest, whose unrelenting mockery is a thorn in his side. The only weakness in the story might be the trade of his amulet, whose lack does not come back to haunt him in this, nor any other Loor story, and this is barely a quibble. The story ends on a perfect note, with the Lirpkinn’s supposed treasure turns out to be as small as itself. The faery-tale and farcical elements of this story make it more reminiscent of Leiber, Vance or even Sapkowski’s The Witcher, a welcome suprise and a wide range.
Loor turned to the dwarfs. “Nightfall is nearing, gentlemen. Let us make haste back to Pyktil. With any luck i’ll find a cheap trollop who will accept this treasure chest due to its novelty.”
The Infernal Bargain: The conan-like Avok Kur Storn of Cythera is washed overboard on one of his wanderings, and has several adventures. At first he is picked up by malevolent bird-men, but manages to escape by killing his goaler and soon washed up on the shore of a desert island, inhabited only by the hermit Ennek Taar. He foolishly trusts the sinister miscreant, and is poisoned, to wake up chained to a wall.
“What is the meaning of this?” shouted Avok. “Is this your idea of hospitality?”
“You will learn the meaning soon enough,” the hermit said ominously, and unfurled the scroll.
“Son of a whore! Fornicator of Beasts! I will trample your bones!”
The demonologist seeks to bargain Avok Kur’s soul with his patron in exchange for his own, which he has foresworn. The demon lord of course tries to murder the hermit, but he holds him at bay with an enchanted blade of dragonbone. Resigned, the Lord attempts to extract Kur’s soul from his body, but in a moment of inattention, Kur manages to get rip free his manacles, kill the Hermit, and gain hold of the Knife. The story ends with Kur coercing the Demon into flying him to the shores of Cythera, narrowly avoiding its attempts at treachery. The demon swears vengeance and departs.
The first story that is a straight conan pastiche, the action and atmosphere is good, although it is not quite clear why the Demon does not simply depart or fly away. The first part is also a bit weak, as Avok could have simply washed up on the island and have the tale start there, and Kur neither finds anything that helps his quest later, not loses anything or gains any vulnerabilities. Among the more straightforward S&S tales of this collection.
Spider-Magic in the Jungles of Jamboota: The second Xedroch Loor tale. Once again bereft of coin, Xedroch Loor has sojourned into the jungles of Jamboota to hunt Apes, a job at which he is terrible. He is narrowly rescued by Holvorr Kurr Torrg, another Cytheran, and thus another Conan. The two team up to find Torgg’s brother, who is a prisoner of the Spider Witch. From thereon out it is a straight S&S thrill ride, with the two companions playing off of eachother, pygmies riding pterodactyls, giant spiders, sensuous half-spider sorceresses and so on.
The maimed spider lurched towards Loor, it’s venom coated jaws snapping, while simultaneously striking out at Holvorr with two of its rear legs. The first merely grazed the barbarian, while the other hit him squarely in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Spurred on by the pain, Holvorr stabbed once more with the spear, this time forcing the point deep in the spider’s body. The power of the blow pushed the spider forward.
The story is exquisitely paced, allowing for brief moments to flesh out the characters, interspersed with fast-paced action, and the twists and turns that are a staple of the pulp fiction. Loor is soon captured, Holvorr fails in his attempt to rescue his brother, but then! the appearance of Gub Io, the half man half pteranodon foreshadowed in earlier interrogation of a pygmy prisoner, kept alive as an example to the tribe worshipper the sorceress as a god. Loor and Io team up once again! Holvorr, dying of poison, throws himself and the Spider Witch in the active volcano she uses as a lair! This rocks! Just writing about it makes me want to reread it again!
Undying Thirst For Vengeance. A very grim and solemn tale, illustrating Ritzlin’s wide range and potential. Dorzandur, fanatic of Flargesht, god of judgement and vengeance, climbs the tallest mountain on which his ancient fane stands, now forgotten. Harrowed by the elements, he repeats his solemn prayer to avenge the death of his family. After a great time, Flargesht appears. Dorzandur tells him of his plight, of the death and rape of his kin at the hands of Yomish bandits. Flargesht is moved and vows to grant him a boon.
“One night one of my captors collapsed in a drunken stupor close to my pen. I slit the Yomish Bastard’s throat with his knife and escaped.”
“Indubitably, you and your family have suffered a horrendous fate,” said Flargesht. “What do you wish be done?”
“That is simple! Destroy every last man, women and child of Yom!”
Flargesht refuses Dorzandur’s request, but grants his second one, to render him immortal, so he can avenge himself upon the nation of Yom himself. For as long as one Yomish man lives, Dorzandur is immortal. Soon he begins his predations, killing them once per month, targeting the women and children, until he becomes a dreaded legend. The story unfolds with an almost Ashtonian reverse as the evil man is finally captured, and after attempts to kill him fail, thrown in a prison, and soon forgotten. Doomed, forgotten, malnourished yet undying, he awaits the death of every last Yomsmen, hoping he will one day die, a fitting punishment for the sin of vengeance. Excellent story.
Slave Girls for Sacrifice: Another tale of Avok Kur Storn, possibly predating the earlier one chronologically. Captured by slavers along with his hawt countryman Exa, the story takes a turn for the fantastic as the caravan is itself raided by golems riding winged goats. After avenging himself upon his captor, Storn finds himself and Exa astride the back of the winged goat, and brought to the tower of Krynmora the sorceress and her Ursine companion Rexull, that she definetely has Bear sex with. The sorceress plans to sacrifice the slave girls so Rexull can regain his human shape.
A woman stood upon the roof, clearly awaiting the arrival of the winged goats. She was tall and lithe, with hair dark as a starless winter night. The garb she wore was nearly as revealing as that of the slave girls, but far from shabby. Sky blue strips of silk delicately enwreathed her body, accenting her voluptuousness for maximum tintillation. The rubies upon the slippers she wore sparkled with a brightness to match Niltztiria’s sun.
It has the distinction of being the horniest story in the entire collection, impressive considering the last story takes place on an island inhabited by mind-controlled female sex clones, but to its credit it is still a fast-paced and exciting story, and Avok Kur using a two-way magic portal mirror to outwit both Rexull and the sorceress is all good stuff. I would label it under guilty pleasure, and there is a sort of self-awareness and a wink to the whole that makes it all kind of charming. It is nice that whenever R.E. Howard was describing a near naked voluptuous blonde clutching Conan’s bronzed thews, someone was paying attention so that could be preserved for posterity.
The Consequences of Lust: A Xedroch Loor story that seems to be about the consequences of lust, before turning around and also turning it into a general scorn cast on the small minded and the dogmatic. Xedroch Loor is nailing a broad on the beach, only to belatedly discover that unlike everywhere else on Nilztiria, this village is incredibly prude. A near vancian superstition, that anyone having sex outside of wedlock is taken at night by a horror known as ‘The Night Rapist.’ Uh. That’s a bit on the nose for an S&S monster title. The girl is tied to a pole on the beach to await the Night Rapist. Loor considers the story to be bullshit and awaits the coming, only to face off against an actual Revenant, immune to his weapons. To make matters worse, tracking the monster to its lair reveals it is the village’s founder and 1st head of the church. Grimly, and with the villagers simply refusing to believe him he decides to take a stab at rescuing the girl. He finds she is long dead, and the monster is thrusting into her lifeless corpse in a twist that is quite grotesque. He almost dies, but finds its weakness.
The monster lurched after him, its erect member preceding it. It made a perfect target for Loor, who lay in wait just outside the door. His sword descended like a guillotine and sliced cleanly through the undead’s shaft. “Ha! How will you rape again now that you are dismembered,” mocked Loor.
After its death, the village headman decides to bury the origins of the identity of the Night Rapist, which would greatly weaken his own hold on the village, refuses to bury the girl, and offers Loor two sacks of silver in exchange for his silence. Loor sneers, but takes the silver and walks off, saying not another word. A tale that has some elements of farce, but is actually very bitter at its core. Loors heedless action dooms an innocent girl with consequences he did not foresee, and the interaction with the villagers and the hipocrisy of village headman serves as a denunciation of the potential cruelty, hypocrisy and corruption of these insular societies. It feels like a personal tale, something written from the heart.
The Valley of Eternal Midnight. Maybe the best story in the collection. A group of colorful swordsmen and a masked female priestess, under Halar the Haunted, make their way to Xarxool to bargain for an item in his possession, the Dawnbringer, so they may explore the Valley of Eternal Midnight. Xarxool is bemused but lends them the item under the condition he gets any of the grimoires in the place, and they take along his talking three-eyed head Lodianux. They set out across the Thuldroonian sea and venture to the dreaded Valley of Eternal Midnight, said to predate all mankind.
Rocks. The characters are built up. The greedy assassin Unak, the tormented Halar, the mysterious priestess, whose true identity will be revealed in time. It all works together. On their way to the sea, they face the terrible menace of the Cursed Men of Klaatzil. There is a terrible sense of foreboding to the whole thing that of course pays off. Soon they wander the eternal dark of the Valley, which is lifeless, and whose structures are hinted to be the ruins of a technological civilization. Halar is haunted by nightmarish images of his dead lover.
Facing the doomful circumstance manfully, Holk drew his weapon and bade his men do likewise. Thus began an uncanny battle.
The last few scenes unfold disastrously. The masked priestess, who turns out to be Ytra, is unmasked at a critical juncture, causing Loor’s familiar to retreat with the Dawnbringer, and casting them in darkness, at the mercy of the Treemen, whom they cannot defeat, bereft of sorcery. The cruel irony is that Halar manages to escape with a broken leg, with nothing to show for it but the nightmares of the valley of midnight, and yet one more brush with death. Sword and Sorcery to the bone, although the Tree men could have been a bit cooler.
Black Castle of Torture. Another great one starring Xarxool the necromancer. Following a wizardly plot to obtain the location of the Tomb of Yuordis from his deceased rival Mlom Jeddoon with the aim of trading it for mummies of the Omyrian dynasty from the wizard Extonfal the Undeceivable, the wizard Xarxool travels to Kornuous Pornuous, a demoniac citadel on the moon, to retrieve his rival’s soul from the demon lord that claimed it. This one is channeling high Clark Ashton Smith bordering on Rialto the Marvelous, complete with the sort of wodehousian absurdist dialogues, a tour of the bizarre tortures of the demon lord, farcical double dealings, daring escapes and finally a minor come-uppance. An excellent story, among the best in the collection.
Under the Horns of Iljer. A tale starring Vran the Chaoswarped, a man whose presence disrupts the fabric of sorcery. Strong elements of film noir and pulp combine with Sword & Sorcery. Chasing an underworld rival said to have teamed up with a cult to Iljer, the horned devil god, to the many dingy taverns of Deshazu, Vran is soon seduced by a dancing girl of legendary beauty. She coats her breasts with a paralytic, and soon he grows numb, only to have his rival Malicious Undrev show up gloating with his underlings. Soon he finds himself the prisoner of a cult planning to sacrifice him to the demon god.
I feel a lot of authors would bungle a story like this either by having it unfold too simply or making it too convoluted. There’s a brother to the dancing girl who helps Vran escape if he rescues his sister, but his sister is a cult fanatic and believes utterly in the leader.
“I have prophesied correctly. On the night when the moons are in vertigo, and the star of Shorroz wanes, he whose spirit is encased in darkness comes. You have come! You must be made ready, for the time of the ritual draws nigh!”
The story unfolds in a satisfying bloodbath, the action never stopping, the protagonist being capable but not so strong the tension is not maintained, and we end on a grim but satisfying note, as Vran leaves the sister sobbing over the crushed body of the cult leader, departing without pity while her brother does say she will eventually be alright.
The Isle of the Pleasure Slaves. The last Xedroch Loor story and another good one at that. Xedroch Loor once again washes up on an island after he is set overboard following accusations of trying to seduce someone’s wife. The island is inhabited by beautiful perfectly obedient women and a village of men. Once pirates, they found within the ancient ruins an old technological device that can create any form the person desires. The decadent captain has set himself up as king (King Grommfeld) with access to the Nypharium or limited service of one of the female slaves in exchange for labor. The entire island is driven only be the desire to fornicate. Loor, not knowing any of this, runs into a beautiful obedient boob lady and makes love to her, only to discover that he has done the fornicato with someone’s property. He is promptly captured, and the asshole king sentences him to a lifetime of hard labor. The one sexclone who does have a mind and dresses normally, called Defective, or Ive for short, is charged with overseeing Loor’s labor, and the two talk and gain rapport in a manner that is sort of normal and wholesome. What follows is an exciting caper to escape, ending up with a chase through the technological tower, a fight with the terrible guardian of King Grommfeld, and a cunning, quick-thinking plan by Loor to upset the sexdraulic despotism by flooding the market with sexclones. He departs with Ive, and, well…
“I mean I thought it was only going to be the two of us. What are we going to do with them?” She cocked her head towards the two pleasure slaves, who were evidently oblivious to the conversation.
“I suppose they’re my responsibility. I certainly can’t abandon them can I?”
“Don’t worry,” said Loor, draping an arm around Tiv. “I’m sure they’ll make wonderful company. Besides, they might even be able to teach you a few things!”
Orson welles clap. With a divers assortment of tales spanning the length of both traditional S&S both light-hearted and solemn, to the tales of horror and wonder more akin to the old weird tales or the Dying Earth series, Necromancy in Nilztiria is a great collection of new S&S that will delight any fans of the genre. It manages to stay true to the genre’s roots while doing some innovation of its own, avoiding slavish imitation. For 2020 this is nothing short of miraculous. Great collection.
May be checked out here.
 I have not reviewed any of Smith’s other tales, but Maze of the Enchanter and its companion piece The Flower Women are excellent.