Disclosure: This is a review of SKALD Vol. 1: The One True Volume of Kings by Aubrey Sitterson. Sitterson offered me a review copy, but I declined, opting instead to purchase it myself.
I was, initially, familiar with Aubrey Sitterson as a wrestling podcaster. I mean, I am still familiar with him as a wrestling podcaster/Youtuber (I’ve never actually watched it on Youtube, but Sitterson’s Straight Shoot is one of my favorite podcasts), but I learned (chiefly through that podcast) that he also wrote a weekly, serialized fantasy story called SKALD that he then podcasts. I’ve never listened to it. Instead, after the first 16 chapters were released Sitterson released an eBook version (available on Amazon), although the weekly podcast version has continued and has now amassed enough episodes that a second text volume is incoming soon.
SKALD works with many tropes that will be familiar to those who have read Tolkien and the fantasy genre that he spawned. High elves and wood elves, Halflings, and tinker gnomes all make appearances. I have found this sort of thing to be somewhat divisive. Many people (myself included) love when people play within the tropes. There is something interesting to someone trying to bring their own spin to a world that has grown into a weird multiverse over generations of Tolkien readers and Dungeons and Dragons players. SKALD, though, also shares DNA with classic sword & sorcery stories, like Howard’s Conan. It is brutal in spots. Gritty. Some spoilers: The story follows a man named Maul that was captured and tied to a magic tree by elves and escapes after befriending a giant cat monster. He views himself as the rightful ruler of men, although he has obviously not seen his perceived kingdom in many years. Maul is single-minded. He is a violent tornado that has made a pact and subsequently broken it with something ancient. His motivations are clear and consistent as he makes his way through the world, overcoming obstacles that stand in his way. Sitterson’s writing is compelling, moving you forward. The action is well written and frantic. There are a few typos that stood out to me, as well as a few instances where the repetition for emphasis made me wonder if it might have come across better when read, but nothing that hurt the overall flow of the story or my enjoyment of it.
The story. So, that’s an interesting thing. Maul is, to this point, a pretty straightforward character. He wants one thing: His throne and is not necessarily interested in being likable. That’s appropriate, though, for the sword and sorcery genre, where the protagonists are rarely true heroes. It also helps that Maul meets a slew of interesting characters along the way and their motivations appear to be consistent and, unlike Maul’s, obfuscated in secrets. Everyone wants something, and many of them want to handle the incredibly powerful Maul to their own ends, even if they are not clear yet. In this way, Maul makes an interesting contrast against the rest of the world that is also just looking out for itself, but – unlike Maul – feels it necessary to hide their true intentions. As mentioned above, the story is compelling, but it is also not clear that the story has a particular arc, although that may be in part a necessity since – as mentioned above – the story is written and recorded on a weekly, ongoing basis. That is also not to say that the story does not move forward or things do not progress, it simply does not move in a smooth arc the way one might expect if they picked it up looking for a novel. Instead, Maul’s is an adventure that crashes from one fantastic place to another, with a new obstacle standing in his way at each turn, much to Maul’s dismay. There is, then, a good chance that Maul will smash it. It’s a lot of fun.
I enjoy SKALD quite a lot. Sitterson’s imagery is evocative and reads smoothly. I also found that the volume, for the price ($2.99 on Amazon for, according to Amazon 151 pages) covered a lot of ground. Honestly, perhaps because it is serialized, it covers more ground in Maul’s world than many fantasy series do in whole series. It’s neat to see what sort of madness awaits Maul around each corner, and SKALD rarely sits still for long. It is not really a reservation, but the serialized nature of the story means that those looking for a novel, a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, may not find what they are looking for here. Those looking for a serialized, gritty fantasy world built on classic tropes, though, should find a lot to like with SKALD. Even though it is built on those parts, I never felt like it was terribly derivative, and Sitterson’s world is compelling and well built. SKALD Vol. 1: The One True King of Men is available now, with the second volume available in eBook version, too. The podcast version, published weekly is available for no money, in its entirety, as well, through iTunes and PodOMatic. Sitterson also operates a Patreon to support his production of the story.
If I was listing the games that defined my taste as a gamer, there are very few games that deserve more credit than the Gold Box SSI Dark Sun games. I don’t remember exactly when I first played it, but it’s hard to convey exactly how different Dark Sun was back in 1993 compared to other games that I played. Admittedly, the Ultima series was in full swing at that point (Ultima VII Part 2 came out the same year). Still, the first Dark Sun game was released in 1993, the same year that the Second Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons setting of the same name was released. It was different than anything I had ever seen, odd parts Tolkien and Mad Max: A world that had been destroyed by magic leaving behind a blasted wasteland filled with god dragons that walked among the people. Bonkers. I’m sure other games had done it before, but Dark Sun was the first game that I played in the mold that would go on to define Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. Except Dark Sun: Shattered Land was released in 1993, four years before Fallout and five before Baldur’s Gate. It was an isometric roleplaying game with full leveling and dialogue trees and it was unlike anything else I had played to that point until I played Shadowrun on the SNES (released the same year). The Dark Sun games were beautiful and brutal. I don’t know that I ever played very far into the games, honestly, but they made me reconsider what a roleplaying game could be and they introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons, generally (not coincidentally, Dark Sun and Shadowrun were my first two loves in the tabletop RPG world). How do they hold up? I have no idea, but they’re now available for $9.99 (for both) over on GOG. As a step in the CRPG DNA, I get the feeling that they are not as widely known and appreciated as some other games in the lineage, so I’m really glad some people may get their first look at these games now.
Two pretty rad bundles going on right now you might be interested in. The first, The Original Bundle of Nerves from Bundle of Holding, contains Don’t Rest Your Head, Dread, Kingdom of Nothing, Murderous Ghosts and Murderous Ghosts: Northampton State Hospital for $6.95. Dread, in particular, has developed quite a following for its Jenga-based central mechanic. If you pay more than the upgrade price you also get The Demolished Ones, Don’t Lose Your Mind, Don’t Read This Book, The Final Girl, Ocean and Spookybeans. If you are looking for a scary game to play over Halloween, you might well be able to be able to find something here.
If you’re in the market for something a little less spooky, you might check out Humble Bundle’s Udderly Gigantic Bundle, which includes way more comics than I am going to list here. I’ve been interested in checking out some of Top Cow’s ‘core’ stuff for a while, and this bundle looks like a good way to do it. The main, pay-what-you-want bundle contains eight volumes of Witchblade and six volumes of Artifacts (plus more), paying above the average adds (among others) Rising Stars and four volumes of The Darkness, and paying at least $15 adds Switch #1, IXth Generation issue 6, and three volumes of Sunstone. All of that to say, you could read this for a long, long time.
I continue to try to work through my video game backlog. It’s tough, but I still feel like I’m making progress. I’m most of the way through Pillars of Eternity and recently loaded up The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux. I don’t know what I expected from Ethan Carter, but it wasn’t this. It’s a gorgeous game that lets you wander its world uncovering the mystery of what happened. From what I’ve read, it’s also pretty short, which is nice for backlog purposes. Pillars, of course, is gigantic and makes me wonder about getting to the point where I am trying to beat a game not because I still have something artistically to get from it, but because I need to ‘beat’ it. Of course, on the playgrounds of yore, that was always the brag: I’ve beaten that game. But games were fairly short for the most part and I had more free time. I created a tab on Steam for completed games and – at 29 hours – I may be willing to cross Pillars off the list. I love the games that it is paying homage to, but I’m not sure I would have the time and patience for those anymore, either, to be perfectly honest. I’m also trying to read more, challenging myself to read more (and more outside of my comfort zone) to complete a book every two weeks for the rest of the year. That should break down most books into small enough chunks to be manageable.
What are your plans for Halloween? Gaming? Have you played Dread? Drop me a line in the comments.