The Secrets of Castle Drakon: A Thorstruck Press Anthology #1, Thorstruck Press, Kindle, £0.99, Website
Reviewed by Dave Brzeski
It’s an interesting idea for an anthology. Apparently, Thorstruck Press simply gave eleven authors the title and asked them to come up with a story.
Richard Rhys Jones opens, with a tale concerning Jacob Carpenter, a reporter, who can’t remember much that occurred before his eighteenth birthday, due to a war injury. Jacob seems to be something of a Carl Kolchak type, in that he occasionally chases stories with a paranormal element. He made his name as a journalist on a story involving a haunted chapel at Buckley, which turned out to be a hoax. This time he is invited to Castle Drakon, to report on an occult ceremony that is to take place. He soon finds himself unpleasantly trapped in Dennis Wheatley country. I liked it enough to add Richard Rhys Jones to that ever-growing list of authors to keep an eye out for.
Sadly, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Jeffrey Blackmer’s ‘Zeara ga Mouche’. It’s a fairly ordinary science fiction story, concerning a mission to a dangerous, distant world, to pick up some fungus that, as unlikely as it seems, functions as the source of a universal viral vaccine. The method of reaching this world—through one of many portals in Castle Drakon—read like it was tacked on, simply to make an existing story fit the anthology’s concept. People die, and in the end, a survivor wonders if the whole thing hadn’t been pointless—a viewpoint I have some sympathy with.
I liked ‘Brotherly Love’, by Jillian Ward quite a lot. It’s an odd little tale about Larry and Barry Bolton, twin brothers and estate agents, who take on the task of selling Castle Drakon—a place with a very bad reputation. Barry is sick of his brother’s bullying and dishonest ways, and the current owner of the property might just be able to help him with that. I felt, however, that the story could have really used a decent copy-editor, as there were a number of errors.
Having reviewed Bev Allen’s first novel, Jabin, some time back, I was looking forward to her contribution to this anthology. I’m very happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. ‘A Solemn Curfew is both amusing and dark. Quine is the cook in charge of vegetables in the vast kitchens of Castle Drakon. Underappreciated by the head chef, he finds himself in a constant struggle to get his skills noticed, and thus properly rewarded by the lord of the castle. Never before have I been forced to break in the middle of a story because it made me so hungry! Quine knows that mushrooms are very popular with his Lordship, so when Hurl, the merchant, shows him some very strange, and interesting mushrooms, well, perhaps his life will take a turn for the better… I really liked this one a lot. So much so that it’s the first item that I’ve added to the BFS suggestions list of short stories published in 2014 to be considered for nomination for the British Fantasy Awards this year.
Elaina J. Davidson’s ‘Ancient Illumination’ may actually be the 2nd story I add to that list. It’s a fascinating cross between a post holocaust tale and high fantasy. The five remaining people on the planet Drakonis are following the lead of Brennan, as she tries to find sanctuary from a dying world. They soon discover they aren’t quite alone. Among their number are the last survivors of two ancient bloodlines, on whom rest the future of their race.
‘Director’s Cut’, by Suzanna Burke took a few pages to draw me in, but once it did, I was hooked. Chris Manning, one-time actor turned movie director and, as it happens, the seventh son of a seventh son, is in search of a location for his next film. He’s seen the place he wants in dreams. Eventually, he finds it, in Transylvania. Once he convinces the somewhat unfriendly locals that he’s not looking to make yet another Dracula movie, he finds himself on the path to his destiny. It’s very nicely written. I found myself annoyed that I was forced to stop reading, due to my brain’s growing insistence that I needed to sleep. Unfortunately, when I picked it up the next day to finish it, the ending left me somewhat deflated, with an overwhelming sense of, “Is that it?” Having said that, Suzanna Burke’s writing is of such a high standard that I will definitely check out her other work.
One of my rules, as a reviewer, is that I will simply not bother to review a book if I can’t find anything good to say about it. I don’t enjoy trashing people’s work. Had it not been part of an anthology, I would have ignored ‘Satan’s Band’, by Paul Rudd. A metal band are to play at a wedding held in Castle Drakon, which turns out to be infested with vampires. It’s obviously influenced by the film, ‘From Dusk to Dawn’, but with the sex and violence amped up in such a juvenile manner that it bored me rigid. It reads as if no one could be bothered to edit it. Frankly, I had to force myself to finish it.
‘The Blood Red Rules of War’, by Hannah Warren, has an interesting concept. The contrast in writing styles between the first two parts is obviously intended to draw attention to the huge difference that reaching adulthood during the Great War made to the protagonists. Sadly, the execution didn’t quite match up to the idea. The first part, set in 1908, details fifteen year old Agnes’ first encounter with twins Elle and Jacques Dragoncourt, and her subsequent very brief stay at Castle Drakòn. It’s almost painfully slow, with long, drawn out descriptions of clothes, furniture, food—all the minutiae of the life of the spoiled offspring of French nobility. It drags so much that I almost gave up on it before the events which led young Agnes to leave castle Drakòn after just one day. We then skip forward to 1917. Agnes and her best friend are now qualified doctors and want to help with the war effort. They discover that Castle Drakòn has been converted to a temporary hospital for the wounded. This part is written in a much more concise style, albeit Hannah Warren does not skimp on the gory details of the dead and dying. The problem is, there are several blatantly anachronistic phrases, which pulled me out of the story. At one point, Agnes says, “No way.” Elle refers to a “gay couple” decades before the term was current. It could have been a great story, but the editing, or lack of, let it down.
Joanne Sexton’s ‘The Dragon’s Mate’ is a curious thing. I can only describe it as lightweight fantasy. A girl runs from Castle Drakon, accused of murdering one of the evil sorceress’ sex slaves. The real reason for the death of the young man is never explained. She meets a dragon, who is really a man. Guards are sent out to capture them. There’s no real conflict in this story. The sorceress’ men all switch sides at the drop of a hat. The sorceress, herself, isn’t really all that evil. A plan to swipe her spellbook goes without a hitch. Imagine one of your favourite fantasy novels, rewritten so nothing really ever goes wrong for the heroes. The ending is left open enough for a follow-up, but I don’t think I’ll bother. It’s well-written enough, but lacking in any substance.
In Ted Geering’s ‘Sleeping With the Gods’ a rich, fat girl, spending halloween night alone in Castle Drakon on a dare from her sister, is transformed into a beautiful young woman and transported to Olympus. It’s a light-hearted tale, which might worry some readers when they read about Maia losing her virginity to a god, who basically date rapes her. She shrugs this off with no more than mild annoyance. Ted Geering seems a little confused about the Greek pantheon. He has Mercury, (the Roman name for Hermes) with the winged feet and Hermes, with the winged sandals as separate Olympian gods. Icarus also, at some point, evidently got promoted to godhood. It’s not awful, but neither did it really grab me.
Finally, we have ‘My Sweet Matryoshka’, by Poppet. The true heir to castle Drakon returns and he’s not happy about the way the current incumbent is running things. It’s told in a portentous prose style that I found a little wearing at first. This slackened off somewhat as the story progressed, though, and it wasn’t bad. Poppet’s version of the ‘Order of the Dragon’ is intriguing.
No one is listed as the overall editor of this collection, and it’s easy to believe there wasn’t one. The quality of editing varies from story to story. Interestingly, the best stories also seemed to be the best edited. The Kindle formatting was disappointing. For one thing, there’s no active table of contents. The only way to jump to a specific story is to run a search on the title. Also, there’s no page break between the stories, which meant, in most cases, I found the title of the next story on the bottom of a page, with the small illustration and name of the author on the next.
Looking back, this appears to be an overwhelmingly negative review, but I still recommend that people should buy the book. It’s just 99p. Each of the three best stories, by Bev Allen, Elaina J. Davidson and Richard Rhys Jones would be worth that paltry sum on their own.
Since I wrote the bulk of this review, it has been announced that Thorstruck have sadly ceased trading. Most of their books seem to be finding good homes elsewhere, but apparently this one is now permanently out of print. I’m very hopeful that the best of the stories in the book will eventually be republished somewhere.