Featured Book Review: The Hounds of Ash and Other Tales of Fool Wolf by Greg Keyes

Among lovers of old-fashioned fantasies, there is talk these days of a return to a true pulp fiction. The desire is for writers to create new stories echoing those published eight decades ago in Weird Tales, the magazine which introduced the world to Conan the Barbarian and the best works of H.P Lovecraft. The reason for this talk is a feeling that fantasy has lost its soul in recent years. That the modern angst and introspection which permeate modern fantasies are robbing readers of the fun which comes from reading fantasies in the first place. 

Personally, I don’t agree with the argument that modern fantasies are missing anything by combining modern sensibilities with traditional fantasy forms. But just as there is a place for fantasies which feel totally modern, there is also a place for those which hue to the older models of the genre. 

Such is the new short story collection The Hounds of Ash and Other Tales of Fool Wolf by Greg Keyes. 

Keyes is the author of the fantasy series The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone and a number of other genre books. For this collection of swords and sorcery stories, Keyes reaches back to a character he created years ago called Fool Wolf, a cowardly and lazy warrior who would just as soon run away from a fight as stab someone in the back. Of course, you really can’t fault Fool Wolf for being like this. When he was a kid, his idiot shaman of a father placed a powerful totem inside Fool Wolf’s chest to lead the boy to a great destiny. Unfortunately, the totem turned out to be a bitch goddess who likes nothing better than to take control of Fool Wolf’s body and do bloody things which would make even Hannibal Lector blush. 

So Fool Wolf wanders the world, attempting to both contain the evil goddess inside him and find a way to remove the totem. Along the way his thievery and love of vice, and the occasional possession of his body by the goddess, brings him trouble time and again. This alone would make the stories fun to read. But Keyes shows his true talent at storytelling by mixing in an easy, effortless humor to each tale which makes Fool Wolf all the more human, and his adventures all the more satisfying. 

For example, in one story Fool Wolf meets Uzhdon, a mighty demon slayer who is a hilarious stereotype of all the noble, heroic, bone-headed, you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me swordsmen who populate the fantasy genre. Fool Wolf is appalled to learn that not only does he have to fight this giant of a man, Uzhdon is also protected by his own totem. Unfortunately, the god protecting Uzhdon will only allow the demon slayer to be killed in a fair fight–something Fool Wolf has no intention of doing. So our hero’s solution is simple: Push Uzhdon out the window of a really tall tower. When Uzhdon returns later in the story–remember, he can’t be killed by cowardly means–Fool Wolf convinces this true fool that the push was all part of some vague heroic plan. He then proceeds to push Uzhdon out yet another window. 

This collection of stories is a fun read, and should be forced into the hands of anyone who pines for the good old days of pulp fiction. The Fool Wolf stories were originally published in Dragon magazine and this marks their first collection in a book format. That said, even those who’ve already read these stories will be glad they picked up the book, as Keyes has written a new, three-part story which brings back all of the series’ best characters and wraps up all the various plot lines surrounding Fool Wolf’s life. As such, this collection of stories reads in many ways like a novel and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves classic swords and sorcery style fantasies. I also hope Keyes will consider bringing back Fool Wolf in some new stories, or perhaps even in his own novel. 

As a side note, this edition of The Hounds of Ash is published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is Canada’s largest genre publisher. The book is very nicely put together, with top-notch cover art and design. My only complaint was that the last third of the book contained a few too many typos and grammatical mistakes, which at times distracted me from the story. While these problems weren’t enough to keep me from enjoying the book or recommending it to others, I hope this quality control issue will be addressed in future releases.

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