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  • Writer's pictureL. D. Whitney

Sword & Sorcery Review: Gunthar: Warrior of the Lost World

In my Sword & Sorcery review for "Lord of a Shattered Land" by Howard Andrew Jones, I mentioned that Mr. Jones was my first Contemporary S&S read. Steve Dilks was my second. I can't remember for the life of me just how I ran across Mr. Dilks and his character Gunthar. It must have been a simple Amazon search for "Sword and Sorcery", but a las, that story is lost to time. What I purchased was a relatively cheap ebook edition of "Priestess of the Fire Gods" (which was sold under a different title at the time). What I found within those electronic pages was pure joy. The prose was more brisk than tyipcal Conan tales, more modern in style but still able to evoke a sense of otherworldly wonder and weird menace. There are four total Gunthar stories, none of them full-fledged novels, but tight, briskly-paced novellas. All four can be purchased individually, but they are also collected in a single volume titled "Gunthar: Warrior of the Lost World". If you are going to give these a read, I feel like this is the best option.

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Gunthar: Warrior of the Lost World

The book opens with afformentioned "Priestess of the Fire Gods". which I admittedly have much fondness for. Part of the is a certain sort of nostalgia when I suddenly realized something about the setting. The world that Gunthar inhabits is our world, but a far flung future version of it, a delicious mix of Thundar and Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique. That kicker here is that the writing style, prose, and pacing are inspired heavily by Lin Carter's Thongor series (though the plot is much tighter than "Wizard of Lemuria"). I can't discuss the specific detail of what REALLY hooked me, because that is pretty heavy spoiler territory, but I can say that it hinges on the presentation of the Old World and the techology left behind. In this story, Gunthar seems only a little more unique than your average Conan-clone, though there are hints at a deeper backstory. His friends and enemies both engage in appropriately entertaining banter and Steve never delivers too much exposition on the world building front. His descriptions of people, places, and things, are always vague enough as to tantalize the imagination. If I HAVE to be a big critic, this story probably has the weakest character development and prose when compared to the latter two stories, but I also feel like this is my favorite of the lot simply due to how the plot unfolds.

The second novella is titled "The City of the Black Flame" and is once again a slightly updated version of a solo-release. This tale is classic adventure stuff, with Gunthar and his allies being tasked with finding a lost city in a distant jungle. This story really harnesses Dilks' creativity and adds quite a bit to the world building. We are introduced to the concept of mutants, humans who's DNA was altered long ago when the world first collapsed, as well as some uniquely named fauna of this future-world. I must say that Dilks never over uses the fantasy names and that he does a great job of describing what they look like so you don't have to make it up in your head. "Black Flame" is slightly longer that "Fire Gods" and contains more character development and plot twists. One of my favorite scenes takes place when the characters are crossing a vast desert on their gazelle-like mounts and have a strange encouter with some mutant natives. The whole scenario was so evocative of the setting that I can't bring myself to spoil it any further. When finally the characters reach the eponymous city, we are greeted with some VERY pulpy characters and a not-too-deep exploration of the de-evolution theme that we sometimes see in Conan tales. Here again, I really enjoyed seeing how the setting plays into the climax. I thought it was all very fun and clever.

Next, we have "The Devil from Beyond" which leans far more into the classic Sword & Sorcery stuff and slightly away from the Weird Science aspect that stood out to me in the frist two stories. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was a noticable departure seeing as I loved the technology bit so much. Here too I noticed a substantial upping of Dilk's prose game. Now I am not a stickler for prose, typically finding my enjoyment in the setting, plot, and action more so than any one author's writing chops, but to some this is a very important aspect of their enjoyment. That is not to say that the first two tales were lacking, that is simply not the case. Only that I felt there was a marked difference. Gunthar is again at the center of the advneture and we continue to get hints of his personality and backstory, though I felt he was not the most memorable character here. To me, the stars of the show in "Devil" were the world building and Gunthar's sidekick Tullus Vantio. As the plot unfolds, Dilks adds a whole new sorcerous layer to the history of this dying Earth. Once again, these details are expertly woven into the plot itslef so I can't reveal much more. That said, the old world technology present in the first two novellas, while here, takes a noticable back seat to the themes of demons and evil magic. I have no doubt that some readers will prefer this approach, finding the science less enticing than I. My reaction was the opposite. While this was indeed an excellent story, it is my least favorite of the three as it lacked some of the post-apocalyptic flair found in the others. The other standout, Tullus Vantio, is probably the most fleshed out and endearing character in all four books, at least by my reckoning. Tullus first appears to be a roguish bard who sings songs no one likes, but he quickly reveals to have far more tricks up his sleeve. Throughout the entire story, Tullus is a fast friend that displays cunning and courage while giving a certain sense of levity to the situation. "The Devil from Beyond" is worth a read for his presence alone.

Capping off this omnibus is "Lord of the Black Throne", the very last (and most recently published) of the Gunthar tales, at least as far as I am aware. This one is tough for me, as I throughly enjoyed it but it is doesn't quite reach the heights of Gunthar's first two adventures. In fact, this novella is much less a fantasy adventure and much more of a war story. Overall, it really reminds me of Robert E. Howard's "Black Colossus" with a little bit of "Kings of the Night" mixed in for good measure. In fact, the entire vibe of this story is reminescant of Bran Mak Morn, with his brooding moors, swampy fens, degenerate races, and double-edged weapons. Still, it is not nearly as heavy and philisophical as the Last King of the Picts, maintaing a pulpy aire of joyous entertainment. The ancient technology is back in full swing, employed by both heroes and villains and this time is even more fantastical than before, though in the end I wish I would have seen more of a certain McGuffin in action. In this outing a necromancer leads his horde of warriors across numerous city states searchng for ancient weapons cached just before the End of Days. As it turns out, Gunthar is gifted these tools by the last queen of a dying population dwelling in the ruins at the center of a mutant-infested marsh. The battles and tactics here are large scale and described well, though I personally prefer more one-on-one and small scale conflict. Gunthar also recruits a number of friends mercenaries to the cause, each with distinct physical attributes, if not character development. There were a few instnaces in this one (out of four stories) where I occasionally had trouble keeping track of who was who, but it wasn't enough to majorly impact my enjoyment. We get some tantalizing clues about the events that led Gunthar to become a wandering sellsword raised by steppe-raiders, but nothing is answered in full. This ongoing affair with a double-identify serves to make Gunthar more unique than the average Conan-like character and is a welcome edition, I only wish there was more. After my earlier comments on the large-scale battles that are front and center in this tale, I do want to mention that the climactic battle with the evil necromancer is a psychadelic joy and really shows off Dilks sorcerous creativity. I especially enjoyed seeing a couple characters reappear in a clutch moment. Overall, while the large-scale battle/war style of this story was not my typical preference, there was much here for me to enjoy as a self-proclaimed "Gunthar-head".

Throughout my tenure as a Rogue, I have had the opportunity to interact with Mr. Dilks and even publish one of his stories in "A Book of Blades: Volume II." While it may sound like I am biased, I assure you I was a fan long before I ever had a chance to chat with the man. Steve is is still actively writing and seems to be something of a headliner for the magazine "Savage Realms". I do believe he is working on compiling a collection of his "Bohun" stories, a sort of Black-Conan-type character, that is pure S&S. If that is the case, It's safe to say that I will be first in the pre-order line.

"Gunthar: Warrior of the Lost World" is an easy recommend for Sword & Sorcery fan, especially for those with any nostalgia for Thundar, Lin Carter's Thongor, or fast-paced fantasy adventure. You can absolutely tell that Steve adores the genre as every word and story absolutely drips with Sword & Sorcery goodness. The e-book is available on Amazon for a paltry $5.50 USD, a mere pittance for the quality content within. Should you deside a paperback, it can also be purchased $13.89 USD. Regardless of the format, you have a Rogues guarantee you will not be disappointed.

NOTE: Shortly after writing this draft (which I am too lazy to outright change) Steve Dilks put his collection of Bohun stories up for preorder on Amazon, stellar news. Check out the second button to pre-order. He also told me that he is in fact working on the FIFTH GUNTHAR NOVEL where all my questions will be answered. Man is after my own heart, I swear.

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