Book review and recommendation: Rogues of Merth

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.

7 thoughts on “Book review and recommendation: Rogues of Merth

  1. You make it sound quite interesting. I’ll have to put it on the wishlist for later.

    I still have to review it, but I read The Butcher of Greystone a few days ago, and I thought it was fantastic. I saw the ‘twist’ coming, like I suspect I was supposed to, but knowing the ending ahead of time was no obstacle to enjoying it. It was wonderfully eerie. The whole thing was masterfully crafted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Variety is vital. The best series by the best writers always have a mix of themes, lengths, plot types and so on. I really like REH’s The Striking of the Gong about Kull for just this reason. It’s very short and very strange, and unlike his other Sword and Sorcery stories.

    FYI, I reviewed Cirsova volume 2, issue 1 recently. I liked your story The Elephant Idol.

    https://paullucaswriter.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/review-of-cirsova-volume-2-issue-1/

    Alex is doing a good job of mixing up the stories and providing the variety you mention as so important.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks very much for the review and the compliments on the book and the writing. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate your time and consideration.

    I understand and respect your criticisms. I hope you don’t mind if I address just a couple of things that I see a differently.

    First, you mention that the basic story and scene structure are almost scientifically done. This is the opposite of the way I approach writing, which is by a very dreamlike, subconscious process. The stories are told in a traditional manner with a traditional story arc, but then, most stories are. And of course every writer has a way of writing that makes most of their stories seem similar in some manner. But when I think of each of the stories, I don’t see them following the formula you listed (to list each story and illustrate this would be tedious for everyone). The most one could say is that Dareon and Blue are faced with a challenge or threat, and in the end, survive. My concern with this criticism is that people will think they are going to read formulaic stories with a simple set up, monster or villain, and a fight. The stories are far stranger and more metaphysical than that, and sometimes, perhaps often, the real threat or challenge is not a monster or villain (I can think of at least four of the ten stories to which this applies), and the story is not always resolved by fighting (unlike in the Conan stories). In fact, Dareon and Blue often face something that is beyond their understanding and power, and they cannot win in this manner (actually, depending on interpretation, that accounts for at least eight of the ten stories).

    Second, along with that, I don’t see many of the fight scenes being especially long or unrealistic, with characters hitting each other back and forth like a role-playing game. In most of the fight scenes, especially if both characters are humans with weapons, they are incredibly short and resolved by wounding or death (or fleeing) after only one move. I try to bring my experience as a fencer to what scenes I can (especially when Dareon uses his rapier). I abhor long fight scenes, and to be honest, try to have as little fighting as possible in the stories, because I feel it is not interesting, and not a realistic way for people to survive in a hostile world.

    I hope you don’t mind me chiming in on this. It’s not something I would usually do, but I felt those two points were worth clarifying or debating. Somehow we’re seeing these things differently, but I am fine with that and respect the opinion of anyone who is being honest and thoughtful about things. Every reader will see the stories through their own personality and imagination, and I would have it no other way. If you are really interested in how I wrote the stories and my creative process, you might enjoy the latest episode (14) of Literary Wonder & Adventure Show— Rogues of Merth and The Founders of Modern Fantasy: A Conversation with Author and Illustrator Robert Zoltan

    https://dreamtowermedia.com/podcast/

    Thanks again for the thoughtful review!

    Sincerely,
    Robert Zoltan

    Like

    1. I may have indeed read them differently (or perhaps even wrong,) although I certainly picked a pattern but maybe I was unable to put it into words and so I missed the mark. In any event, I’ll update the post to mention that you have answered my claims.

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      1. Thanks for the reply. I don’t think you read them “wrong.” It’s just the way you saw it.

        As for a pattern you may be seeing: that’s my limited mind. 🙂
        That is one of the greatest hurdles in writing—to not be trapped in one’s own set mind patterns. That’s probably one reason I ended up using such widely different settings and ideas. I reject any ideas that seem staid or obvious or trite, or ones that don’t greatly inspire me. But even so, I am still limited by my thought patterns and imagination to a certain extent. And that also is why I try to write from a very dreamlike subconscious place, or one could say accessing the collective unconscious (as Jung talked about) or calling upon the muse (as the ancient Greeks would say). Only in that way can I hope to transcend my own limitations. Success varies. For the second book, I am simply trying to make things stranger, and deeper with the characters. To be honest, I am just happy and grateful to be “given” any decent stories to write. Really good stories certainly do not come easily. It’s a combination of work and grace.

        Liked by 1 person

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