For several years now, twelve-year-old Erzelle has been the prisoner of the cannibal clan of the Red Empress, a riverboat full of death, misery, and degenerate ghouls, forced to play the harp during their infernal meals. This changes when the mysterious piper Olyssa comes aboard, in search of her long-missing sister. Olyssa and Erzelle leave a pile of corpses in their wake, the Famile decimated by terrible magic, and begin their journey together. As they quest for Olyssa’s sister, Erzelle becomes her apprentice in both music and magic.
But their travels are anything but quiet. They must fight cultists, charm the capricious vulpines (fox-people, basically), and invade the treacherous lair of the Grey Ones, who build terrible machines out of the walking dead. The more Erzelle learns of her new companion, the more she fears for their safety. For to find Olyssa’s sister is to delve into the origin of the Storms which ruined and transformed the planet, to unleash bizarre forces, and to go up against overwhelming odds.
In The Black Fire Concerto, Mike Allen (editor of Mythic Delirium magazine and the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series) invokes the weird pulp fantasy of old, spinning a series of inter-related adventures which would be right at home in old-school Weird Tales. His world is a very much changed post-apocalyptic Earth, full of magic and strange creatures, where danger lurks around every corner. This is dark fantasy, manifested in body horror and visceral imagery, flesh-eating ghouls and unsettling visions. His traveling duo, the seemingly ageless Olyssa and the young Erzelle, are a mismatched pair as fitting as those who once strode the pages of sword and sorcery novels and pulp magazines. It’s an almost refreshingly retro feel; though the modern sensibilities can be seen, this is the sort of eldritch nightmare H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith might have appreciated. Allen spins scenes of obscenely-repurposed mobile body parts, unholy constructions built of still-living flesh, armies of the shambling dead. He threads it all together with a musical motif that further pushes this away from the comfortable and familiar.
One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it lacks romance; the most powerful thread here is the love Olyssa has for her missing sister. Even after the enigmatic Lilla’s fate is discovered, that familial bond never wavers. It’s almost unsettling for something as pure and basic as family duty and connect to be the underlying core of such a bizarre story.
Honestly, this book isn’t my usual thing. While I’ve always been able to appreciate the Weird Tales mold of story, I’m not naturally drawn to such strange deviations. (For all that I love Simon R. Green, who gets pretty intensely weird at times). Were Mike Allen not a friend of mine (for full disclosure) I’d probably never have gotten too far into this. Dark fantasy isn’t my standard go-to genre. But I know a well-written tale when I spot one, and this is a strong effort, particularly for a first full-length book. (Though split as it is into three sections, with the first having been written as a short story in its own right, there’s a slightly episodic feel to things.)
The main weakness is that Allen tends to overwhelm the reader with imagery and immaterial creations, leading to a certain lack of grounding. The opening sequence in the Red Empress is extremely strong, the battle scene in the town later on is likewise well-done, but once the characters head off into the wilds, things get nebulous. There’s not as strong a sense of place and time. Furthermore, there’s a lot left to be revealed about the post-apocalyptic world our heroes travel through. What technology remains? What people exist? How are things structured? How prevalent and reliable is magic? How much resemblance does the greater world have to what came before, and what was lost? These are all questions that arise as Olyssa and Erzelle fight their way through ghoul-infested caves and towards the final confrontation with their enemy.
If Allen continues to follow these characters, he has a ready-made hook, setting and all, for a modern revival of an old genre tradition that’s mostly fallen out of favor in recent years. Certainly, he’s laid the groundwork and delivered their inaugural adventure with style and appeal. If you’ve been craving dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery with a female cast, weird stories that may or may not turn your stomach, then I have just the book for you.