European Review of Speculative Fiction

Andor Bochenkov

 

Title: Valducan Series – Dämoren, Hounacier, Ibenus

Author: Seth Skorkowsky

 

If there’s a difference between Urban Fantasy and Horror, it’s in the intimacy of the violence. Seth Skorkowsky will make you cringe in all the right ways. Disguised as a supernatural adventure, his Valducan series will keep you up late into the night long after the adrenaline gives way to terror. I tried reading the whole series in one go and made it halfway through Ibenus before my lizard brain called a timeout. Why? Because Skorkowsky crafts the details finely enough to make your skin crawl and his central conceit, that demons have invaded our world and live among us feels almost true. That verisimilitude accompanied by lots of obviously well researched details relies on a fine hand attuned to swap the slow and fast, the intimate and epic. As a result, the pace for each book drives mood and tone as much as they deliver plot. The Valducan series creates an atmosphere of existential dread that proves both unrelenting and untenable: you read to be rid of the shadows lurking behind you, to find some comfort in what you pray will be closure and safety, if not a happy ending.

The series starts with Dämoren which should read like a gunfighter meets monsters adventure. It starts out with the right kinds of clichés – the gruff hero, the mysterious past that worries the supporting cast, monstrous monsters and danger with an exclamation point. If the book had sound effects, there’d be a 90s style record scratch as Skorkowsky runs the whole narrative off the rails and plunges the reader into the heart of hell. The clichés evolve into living breathing characters who befuddle one another make painful mistakes and get people killed. The demons of Valducan should sicken the strong of heart and for folks who nauseate easily, read this with ginger ale by your side table. The heroes might not be much better and this takes a simple premise, hunter vs hunted and becomes a moral passion play that pits obsessed, perhaps even mad modern paladins against beings of ageless hunger and rage. Dämoren dares us to question whether we should tolerate evil to prevent evil and to what degree we can address moral or ethical questions under duress. Skorkowsky showcases every imaginable form of physical and emotional coercion leaving the reader to supply moral context. There are protagonists here, but they might murder one another before book’s end. There are villains too, some antagonists, others plot drivers and such. But the world itself, the physics of demonic possession and the nature of the Valducan’s spiritual bond with their weapons delivers the most visceral impact. In a world where malign spirits seek to worm their ravenous way into our reality through innocent flesh, is there any price we should not pay to prevent this? Dämoren both asks and answers that question.

Hounacier picks up where the last book left us – emotionally crippled and wishing we never knew the truth. Skorkowsky then shows us the next level of Hell, when he pits his most intelligent, successful and one intuits powerful hunter against the brutal truths of a pitiless universe. Readers experience first-hand what it means to be powerless before the horror of invasion and possession. Here’s a hero or rare self understanding and control, one whose only weaknesses are love and perhaps regret for not exploring it more in a world that punishes such extravagances. He’s traveled everywhere but cannot avoid the reckoning at home. Nor can we, because Hounacier drags us kicking and screaming past the vault of sanity into the monsters’ worlds. It shows us what we have most feared, that it’s so much worse than we expected. These things from beyond know us, are the worst of us and they shape our lives, have crafted and molded our world to be a playground for their pleasures. They love and breed – they make children who covet our world and bodies. In a fittingly Lovecraftian sense of powers beyond human scope toying with our flesh, the novel tears apart any comfortable assurances you might have had about luck, fate and safety in the Valducan world. Only the stained knights whose brutal, often sociopathic existence makes their own messes stand between you and the End. Skorkowsky shows proper understanding of indigenous spirituality and Voodon, bringing the colorful and dangerous world of the Crossroads and its menagerie of Powers to vivid and, at times, painful life.

Ibenus seems like a nice distraction from the Valducan series’ prior descents into betrayal, torture, madness and hard won redemption. Don’t be fooled, Skorkowsky only wants you to relax long enough to gut punch you with a whole new level of angst. Ibenus ups the game for the series by giving readers a front row seat to watch the dance between would be knights and their weapons. This time the horror creeps up slowly, masked by break neck pacing and an international cast of scary hooligans and beasts. The main villain turns out to be human frailty – whether in trusting the wrong person, loving the wrong woman or simply choosing emotions over the strict protocols of the knighthood. Not to worry, Skorkowsky provides another set of spiritual no-win situations as characters have to choose between what’s mandated and what’s right. In this world saturated with the prospects of looming assassination, the hunters always hunted, no choice matters except locally. Every path leads to death or madness, perhaps delayed by the stalwart efforts of the Valducan knights. Ibenus delineates how large a price each knight must pay to stand between the world and its demons. That’s what the Valducan series delivers: a horrific landscape of deeply flawed choices that cannot set the scales right. There is only survival and regrouping, a waging of battle between epic forces, some ruthless in the extreme, others malicious beyond reason. All the good comes from humanity whose sacrifices and compromises transform the series from a cracking good set of reads into a moral tempest. For it is by human light that ancient beings find meaning and while we are led to believe some presences, alien and monstrous, have found a way to battle demons in the material plane, it’s the steadfast courage of the knights who dare love and trust in a world devoid of both that we draw hope.