One of the more enjoyable independent author creations I’ve come across lately, while navigating the regional convention scene, is Jack Holder’s Demon Riders, a small collection of interconnected short stories that form a loose, episodic fantasy novel. The premise is a simple one: a post-apocalyptic America where the remnants of humanity have reverted to a semi-medieval society, in which demons, gods, and other mythical creatures run rampant, some getting along with the surviving human population better than others. Of these creatures, malicious demons – hailing from some hell-like netherworld called the Pit – are the biggest problem. To protect the rest of us, we have the Riders, a ragtag Ronin/Magnificent Seven-esque band of traveling warriors, led by an enigmatic, hardass old curmudgeon called simply Harsk.
Holder’s first three paragraphs, in my opinion, form a textbook study in writing a strong opening, introducing the reader to a world of dark fantasy. It puts you there immediately, by engaging all the senses, through a distinct point of view that leaves you wanting to find out more:
They always got boys.
Harsk took another drink. The tavern was home to him and his Riders, as much as anywhere was. There were barely enough lamps to bathe the taproom in a pale glow. The chairs were scattered around, to or three leaning against a wall to hide a missing leg.
He breathed deep. There was a lot to be said about the truth of a scent. Sights could be blocked, sounds muted, tastes overwhelmed, but the scent will always remain. Like the cigar smoke that hung in the chairs, the ash long sunk into the seats. Or the beer stains of a lager the bartender broke out for a new birthday, or one of the serving girls having a baby. There was blood from a bar fight, and there was old rain soaked into the roof, the scent of iron mixing with musty wood. It spoke of a place that had grown settled in the dirt, and was happy being humble.
It was perfect.
After an opening like that, you should know right away whether or not this book is your glass of beer.
Early on, while replenishing the ranks after a devastating skirmish, Harsk encounters a young woman who it turns out is pregnant with the spawn of a demon. Rather than killing her and it, as pragmatic wisdom would suggest, Harsk takes her along, under the protection of the Ride.
While Harsk is an enjoyably gruff, vivid enough heroic figure, the true heart and soul of this book lies with Kait, the half-human, half-demon progeny of that unfortunate girl we meet in the first scene. Kait grows up among the Riders, struggling with her duel nature, all while learning to hunt demons and defend humans who hate and mistrust her. Over the course of the stories, we get to know her as a scrappy adolescent, an awkward teenager, and finally as a seasoned warrior, all while still struggling to find her place in the world. Admirably, Holder gives Kait – and us, the reader – few easy answers. We get the sense that her struggles – like our own – are a lifelong process.
The short-story series format hearkens back to the heroic adventure writers of classic pulp, such as Howard, Moorcock and Leiber, yet Holder’s stories refreshingly never quite fall into any recognizable “demon of the week” formulaic pattern. In fact, late in the book, one story shifts the focus onto some side-characters, putting a humanized face on the background culture in an unexpectedly poignant manner, and features no violence at all in the central emotional dramatic conflict.
There’s a simplicity and transparency to Holder’s imagination, which is both a strength and weakness when it comes to his writing. The world through which his heroes and monsters ride often seems to spring straight from his own weird daydreams onto the page, largely unconcerned with lofty, detail-heavy world-building. That sort of thing can be great, but isn’t always necessary, and chokes up too much contemporaneous fantasy writing into a bloated, pretentiously portentous slog. Sometimes, a glance is more evocative than an in-depth, Tolkien-esque explanation. I appreciate a yarn that just drops us into its setting with its characters, sink or swim, so long as I get a sense that the author has everything fully realized in their own mind. That said, there are times, particularly early on, where Holder strays too far into under-writing. He throws together a lot of disparate elements – Wild West, post-apocalyptic, medieval, magical realism, etc – with no cohesive sense of internal logic, as to how this world might have come together as it has, or how it sustains itself. The only reason I knew this was a post-apocalyptic setting is because, in one story, we find out that the state of Texas still exists, at least by name/geographically…and in some vague sense, the author’s impression of the local culture there, hinting at something that feels like it’s supposed to be social commentary, but which never quite resonates.
While Harsk is vividly painted enough, I’ve read plenty of characters like him. We’re told plenty about his harsh attitude and the cruel, unforgiving existence he leads, but beyond the aforementioned strong opening, Holder never quite internalizes what it’s like to be Harsk, in a truly visceral, psychologically palpable way, as with the best examples of such a grimdark archetypal characters (such as Conan, Ned Stark, or Roland the Gunslinger, to name a few similar fellows). It’s all the more fortunate, then, that the greater part of the book focuses on Kait, who Holder really seems to like and find most engaging, as did I as a reader. The world she lives in is all made up, built for pure escapism for the writer/reader’s enjoyment, but her feelings of displacement within it, of hostility, frustration, anger and confusion, all feel very real, often painfully so.
As the saying goes – in the case of both Kait and Harsk – any hero is only as strong as their villains. Holder’s demons are indeed a cruel, perverse lot, and he more than convinces us of the need for people like the Riders to stand against them. The circumstances of Kait’s conception is appropriately despicable and gut-churning, even though we only hear about it second-hand, and not in graphic detail. Whenever it comes down to brass tacks, the stakes feel real here. Yet not all of these demons are the simplistic manifestations of pure evil they first appear to be, even Kait’s father. It’s in their startling complexity where we find some of the book’s most intriguing surprises, as well as some unsettling moral ambiguity in our heroes.
Overall, the prose of this book flows smoothly and straight-forwardly, except for some abrupt shifts in character POV, which are at times jarring and momentarily confusing. The overall narrative voice ought to appeal particularly to young adult-readers, though Holder doesn’t shy away from strong language or adult content, where called for. In fact, the fourth story involves an appropriately pervy encounter with an incubus, which was where both the book and Kait as a character come into their own and hit full stride.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the lovely illustrations in this volume – both the cover piece by Alana Fletcher and the internal drawings throughout by Eric Muller. Rather than mere eye-catching decorations, the latter in particular come to feel like an integral part of the storytelling experience, complementing the prose and blending nicely with the overall imagery. Muller’s rendition of Kait presents the character as at once menacing, quirky, cute, and relatable. I like and relate to Harsk better in Muller and Fletcher’s artwork than I do in Holder’s prose. The character as drawn makes me think of Kris Kristofferson playing a hard-boiled Wild West Gandalf.
But I also enjoy watching Holder’s prose as he gets better and better, and I look forward to where he goes from here as a storyteller…especially since the final story ends on something of a cliffhanger, with multiple loose ends unresolved, which leaves the reader wanting more.
You can currently order Demon Riders as an e-book from Amazom, coming soon in paperback.
Want more from Jack Holder and his lovely illustrators? Check out arcaneinkdustries.com for new free stories every week.
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