Sword & Sorcery is not as popular as once was, but the few who still write in that ancient genre are usually above average writers. Robert Zoltan (a name that would fit in a fantasy setting,) the writer of Rogues of Merth, is no exception.
If you know your Fritz Leiber, then you already know the basics since this book is a collection of ten short stories following the exploits of the towering barbarian only known as Blue and the relatively more height-handicapped swordsman poet Dareon. And like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the two friends get dragged into all sort of troubles, travel to strange lands and dimensions, and have to save each other lives from the unearthly denizens they keep finding around every corner. I haven’t read Lieber in a long time, so perhaps I’m misremembering it, but I believe Zoltan’s duo is somewhat more subdued, with less wenching and outright antisocial behavior. Their close friendship is a more important focus of the story as well.
Some chapters were originally written as stand-alone stories first published in various magazines, but the rest has been written in the same style, up to the point that the author doesn’t assume the reader already knows the protagonists. Nonetheless, although there is no unifying plot, there is a chronological order and logical progression (as well as hints to hidden influences leading the two characters,) starting with how the two met, their troubles in the titular city of Merth and why they had to flee, their eventual return, and other adventures along the way and afterward. These go from standard Lankhmarkian kerfuffles of the cloak & dagger variety to (quite a few of these) travels beyond space & time to other dimensions and planes. All of them, of course, involve some element of sorcery and plenty of swords. They are all enjoyable and, although some are more memorable than others, none left me a bad taste, which is something hard to get nowadays.
Ironically since all the stories are good, and one would think that the more, the better, if there’s something I had an issue with was the book’s length. Or perhaps length is not the problem as much as the lack of an overarching plot to link together the various stories. After all, I’m talking here about a quite hefty 330-pages book, with ten longish short stories in a genre whose basic story & scene structure has been nailed down almost scientifically. There exists the risk of repeating oneself, not so much in setting (they all vary) or antagonists (they are indeed different, although always eerie and somewhat supernatural) as in basic scene structure: presentation, first encounter with minor antagonist followed by a small fight, exploration of the strange place they find themselves in, encounter with the real villain, final fight, and resolution.
This may be, if there is any, my main critique: that you may end up noticing a particular pattern in how the stories develop and are resolved. Interestingly, these resolutions (which almost always involves some manner of fighting scene) may be the only point at which I felt a hint of modern influences, because judging by everything else, these stories could have been written fifty, sixty, or more years ago (that’s a bonus in my book, by the way.) In this case, by modern influences, I basically mean roleplaying games due to the way action scenes are written, where it seems characters take turns at slashing/dodging each other, which lacks the brutal, visceral quality of combat scenes written by, let’s say, people from the 30s without an understanding of Hit Points or Armor Class. Then again, pretty much every fantasy writer alive writes like this, so it’s unfair to single that out as if it were a problem unique to this book.
Edit: The author, Robert Zoltan, has answered my criticism in the comments section.
So, do I recommend the book? Indeed, especially if you are a sword & sorcery fan. I hope the author writes more stories with these two characters, and if there are things I believe could be improved, the overall package is still pretty good. And if the author ever reads this, my recommendations are as follows: make the two protagonists more proactive rather than just stumbling into one bizarre situation after another, a central plot to tie things together, and sharpening those fighting scenes (or vary them with other kinds of resolutions.)
All in all, probably a 8/10
PS: Also, I should mention that all the art in the book is made by the author, and it’s quite good.