God in Black Iron by Matthew Gomez

A review

God in Black Iron is a collection of short stories and flash fiction covering epic fantasy, SF and grimdark genres. I bought the print version (because I like a physical book to hold in my hands,) and I have to say that it is well produced, with a great cover painted by Luke Spooner.

This being a self-published book, it would be stretching the truth to say that it was error-free. You will find the occasional missed inverted commas, clunky sentences and typo. With self-published books like this, I’m kinda forgiving of these imperfections. We can’t usually afford editors as the return on putting our books out there wouldn’t allow us to recoup the cost. As long as the underlying stories have value and serve to transport me into another world for a brief time, then I’m happy. Matthew Gomez has great writing chops in this respect, and has put together a great collection that’s easy to read and altogether entertaining.

You’ll also find a few regular tropes, such as sell-swords and guns for hire, but this is what you buy into with Gomez’ style. He’s creating a pulp-comic book vibe that you’ll either be into or you won’t.

.I will also make mention of the generous scattering of ink drawings by Ran Scott. These are superbly sketched and fit the genre perfectly.

So, here’s a run-down of the stories:

Limitless

This is a suitable opener with a hard-boiled/noir feel. It’s a story about a cyborg PI-cum-fixer, given the job of finding a missing stripper. The world could well be Earth in a not too distant future. There’s crisp dialogue and characterful descriptions which create an immersive feel; from the street scenes to the bar where Tom grabs a beer.

A handful of cliches rear their heads in there but, in a way, this fits with the pulp-like vibe.

It’s good to see an MC that is not invulnerable — he bleeds.

There’s also a nice twist at the end.

A call of vengeance

This is a very short tale, where the clue is in the title. A brief introduction outlining a summoning is described. The next scene depicts a brother and other-worldly sister who are clearly involved in sinister occult practices. It’s a fairly typical tale of arcanists getting in over their heads. As such, the tale didn’t quite work for me as too many characters were featured in what is essentially a flash fiction story. It was too short to contain the breadth of their competing desires.

God on Black Iron.

The title story. I’m expecting something special if it has taken on this mantle, and I think it fulfilled this role. There was the feel of a Conan story here, where two adventurers/hired hands are called in to investigate the disappearance of a count’s wife. Gomez’s descriptions really do plant you in the story. His thumbnail sketches of the characters give you enough to care what happens to them and add a sufficient level of intrigue, even if many of them had the characteristic of squinting all the time. I liked the fact that Viona, the female lead had a generous streak, over-tipping servants and inn-keepers. It made me wonder what had caused this generosity. Heinrik, a big hunk of muscle had enough character, with his scarred body, to make him a bit different than the usual trope.

I felt the scene where the guards came to fetch them at the inn could have been cut. This would have given more word space to get into the characters even more, and add explanation for the Count’s description regarding the loss of his wife.

The search for the woman and the subsequent discovery of a ritual sacrifice was a little hackneyed and co-incidental, although I liked the iron golem and the concept that he was used as a conduit for the transferral of a malevolent god to this plane of existence.

I had lots of questions about why the Count would not have discovered clues to his wife’s disappearance in his own cellar, and the ending was a bit predictable.

However, the strength of this story was in the immersive narrative and rapid pace of the story.

Nothing like getting rained on

Another quick read involving another man-woman team. This one’s urban fantasy, so there’s hard-boiled dialogue and a touch of magic. Once again, the story entertains from a character point of view and acts as a small window into the life of the MC. It isn’t the kind of short with an ingenious plot twist, and maybe it could have done with something to make the reader think ‘what happens next?’ Or maybe the ending could have raised a question or too for the reader to ponder. That said, it’s a quickie that propels you from beginning to end with its pulp-like vibe.

A Long Journey’s End

A general observation with these stories: there’s a good smattering of female MCs and antagonists with intriguing backstories.  There could perhaps be a bit more originality with the names. This one is called Ariadna (similar to Arianne in ‘A call for Vengeance?)

The story features a journeywoman sword-master returning home.

She pays in silver coin (a bit profligate?) We have a typical bar-room scene of unwashed bodies and stale beer — then again, maybe I ought not to be too critical of this, as it does raise a bit of nostalgia for sword and sorcery tales of yore in this reader’s heart.  One rogue carries a shield and sword. In an inn? I suppose this is possible but seems  bit incongruous. Such weapons are usually left outside or employed on the battlefield. I felt that Weasel-face recovered a bit too quickly from his broken jaw, lending a cartoon-like nature to the skirmish that our MC finds herself in. I’m also not sure why she spares the rogue leader — might he not regroup afterwards and call another gaggle of his henchmen together to take revenge?

This all said, there’s a heartening ending, which emphasises the relationship of Ariadna with her father.

The Whalebone Cane

Another (very) short story. A transaction in an antique shop with an unexpected discovery. This could be the script to a youtube pulp 10-minute film. It certainly works in that respect.

Crystal, Brass and Copper

An intriguing title, so I won‘t give away the reveal. This one reminded me a little of Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Best Served Cold’ in that it features a vengeful female. Nuff said.

I walk alone

A fast-paced piece of flash fiction. Three ruffians follow a lone woman into a disreputable part of town. But who is the hunter and who is the hunted? The present tense of the story aids with the immediacy and impact of its delivery, although there’s a couple of slip-ups with the tense towards the end.

Sword of the legion

The story asks the question, ‘Can a warrior’s soul live on after death?’ Apparently it can if a barbarian wizard performs the correct ritual. There’s a quite original twist to the story if you can get through the expected tropes of a gladiator-style combat, men with missing teeth and stinking prisons.

Paid in blood

A revenge story with a gothic twist. I liked the female character in this. She’s described as a woman with a cadaverous face hidden behind a veil who ‘carries an umbrella with a handle the colour of bone.’ The only confusing point was when Carson (a sidekick) seems to be killed twice.

Hello Scum

The scum in question is a small-time drug operation hoodlum. It’s nice to have a story from the pov of a criminal such as this. The plot is gripping enough to carry you to the end, but the real joy is in the settings and hard-boiled characters. The vibe is that of a not too distant dystopian future, with characters based in a city where bionic limbs and grafted-on goggles are the norm. Tasty stuff.

Throwing a dog a bone

Possibly the best story in the book. We revisit Tom and Sunny, the brother-sister team from the earlier story, Limitless.

The theme of people who are fused to metal in some way is repeated, and I get the sense of why this collection is called God in Black Iron. This story works on all levels: the plot unfolds rapidly and seamlessly, the characters have enough about them to draw you in and the dialogue is crisp and snappy. The tale ends neatly and satisfyingly, leaving me thinking that I could read a novel based on Tom and Sunny.

The price of an offer refused

Another sequel, this time the swords-woman, Ariadna. She’s established herself as a teacher, but her previous encounter in A Long Journey’s End has produced consequences. This is a gratifying development of the characters in the first story, and fleshes out Ariadna’s character, making her different enough to attach the reader to her fate, however it may play out. She has a slightly irritating sensation of developing balls of fear and ice in her stomach, but this aside, the unrolling of the story through her eyes is entertaining.

Muddy Stars

This one features another mercenary-cum-contract man. Or should I say contract demon? A witch approaches him in a bar and offers him a job. This story structure is becoming a common theme, so you’ll either find it true to genre or a bit ‘samey.’ Once again, characterisation carries the day.

Comes a Slayer

A slightly unwieldy title, but describes the arrival of a lone dragon hunter to a frontier village plagued by a dragon. It’s a longer tale, much of it taken up with the traveller’s interaction with the local populace. This serves to introduce us to his character and backstory, which is intriguing enough. That said, the story might have been leaner for dispensing with one or two of these encounters. The reason this dragon hunter is able to operate alone is revealed and provides a satisfying conclusion. If this was a D & D scenario, the hero would certainly have levelled up!

What Price a Brother’s Blood?

Another tale featuring a gun for hire. Once more a meeting in a bar commences the story. A repeating motif perhaps, but genre sometimes dictates that’s where these things happen. Anyway, it’s a quick story with a moderate twist at the end. The theme? Perhaps, the lengths people will go to for money.

Galatea in the Garden of Eden

Another near-future story featuring the return of Tremblay from a previous story. It’s a satisfying enough, noir tale featuring our hired hand with his partner, T’anna. The story is heavy on atmosphere and attitude, together with the obligatory character possessing bad teeth.

Old Ties

Possibly the weakest story so far. There’s a subtle twist on the usual cold-hearted, sword for hire trope, but the clunky sentence structure intruded significantly on this one. A final editorial sweep would not have been amiss to clear this up.

Serpent of Smoke

A rapid-fire, Howardesque story of thievery. Two rogues unexpectedly find themselves on the same mission to rob a mansion of its riches. There are additional rewards beyond a treasure guarded by the entity alluded to in the title.

Ashton and Marcus: The Mead Trap

The final story in this collection features two dimension-hopping bounty hunters, headed toward a renowned tavern that produces the finest mead and vodka made from blue potatoes. The style is comedic, from the first person pov of Ashton, and it is the narrator’s style that propels this story along as the two, slightly inept, companions face off all manner of undead antagonists. They team up with two females, intent on getting to the bottom of their husbands’ disappearance in this strangely empty, snow-covered locality. There are some nice touches; like a demon’s head trapped to Ashton and Marcus’ truck, which enables them to realm-hop. There’s also a heady mix of conventional fire-arms, medieval weapons and occasional arcane mastery. The two lead characters are vulnerable and inept enough to leave you thinking they might buy it at any second, yet skilled enough to give you confidence they could survive long enough to avoid a killing blow. It’s an action/adventure romp with no exceptionally original features, but the entertainment value is high and provides a fitting end to this collection.

 

Whenever I finish a book, I always reflect over how long I’ll remember the storyline(s), and there’s certainly some characters in Gomez’s ‘God in Black Iron’ that will endure in my head for some time. Perhaps there are a few that could form the basis of a whole novel! If you like your fantasy varied, hard-boiled, at times humour-filled and reminiscent of Jim Butcher on steroids then this collection is for you.

You can purchase God in Black Iron from Amazon

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