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BY Rick Ferguson • POSTED ON Sept. 24, 2023

A renegade Union soldier breeches Hell to save a little girl in Ferguson’s sprawling fantasy novel.

In late 1864, the drunk and depressed Col. Erich Von Beck deserts Sherman’s Union Army ranks as they march through Georgia after killing his only friend, Sgt. Valentine Schmidt, in a drunken accident. He washes up at the farm of a fetching widow named Jenny Mabry, where his suicidal despondency lifts as he takes to Jenny’s bed and bonds with her 8-year-old daughter, Beatrice. When Bea is possessed by a devil, an itinerant monk convinces Von Beck to descend to Hell to retrieve her soul. A magic ritual duly deposits Von Beck in an underworld teeming with devils, demons, witches, ghosts, hellhounds, fauns, centaurs, imps, and a working class of damned human souls. The place is full of horrors (“One soul carried his own intestines piled in his arms. A leering devil decapitated another; the torso chased its own rolling head, picked it up, placed it back on its shoulders”), but also contains surprising amenities, including bustling towns, taverns serving great beer, and dragon-driven railroads and airships. Von Beck is joined on his quest to rescue Bea’s soul by succubus sisters Mezyss and Meänia and the shade of Valentine, now a font of occult lore; their travels through Hell’s nine circles get them into countless bloody fights with monsters and introduce them to mythical potentates like Lilith and the horse-fly devil Beelzebub. Also searching for Bea is the devil Marchosias and his master, the Magus, who wants to appropriate Bea’s innocent soul-power to seize Hell’s throne. As he becomes embroiled in various plots and power-plays, Von Beck slowly cottons to his identity as the legendary warrior Arturus, Guardian of Fate and Warlord of the Damned, who plays a central role in prophecies.

This first book in Ferguson’s Hellfire Saga series feels like a mashup of Cold Mountain, The Exorcist, and a steampunk rendering of Dante’s Inferno; its strands don’t always mesh well. Von Beck starts out as the antihero in a Civil War novel written in gritty, evocative prose: “Summoning strength, he pulled deeply from the brown rotgut in his canteen and scrambled into his uniform. Then he trotted Trudy through the camp, saber raised as he rousted his exhausted men from their salt pork and chicory and back into column.” But in Hell, Von Beck’s character is overshadowed by the bewildering spectacle swirling around him as he struggles to get his bearings amid the underworld’s lurid grotesquerie (“When the lictor’s abdomen split open to reveal a second mouth filled with razored yellow fangs, Von Beck heard madness calling”) and byzantine politics, and the grandiose destiny he’s groping toward doesn’t seem appropriate for the grizzled, disillusioned man we first met. Still, Ferguson’s worldbuilding is engrossing, with plenty of colorful, energetic characters to take up the slack—the tough-talking, ass-kicking, red-skinned succubae are a hoot—and action scenes that are well paced and riveting. The result is a devilishly rousing adventure story.

An entertaining pistol-and-sorcery fantasia set in a mesmerizing underworld.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2023

ISBN: 9781732566262

Page count: 474pp

Publisher: Mr. Phabulous, LLC

Review Posted Online: Oct. 24, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2023



BY Rick Ferguson • POSTED ON Sept. 4, 2020

In this fantasy sequel, a monarch continues to dictate the epic exploits of his life to a scribe.

King Elberon, about to celebrate his 65th birthday, sits on the Coral Throne in Tradewind City. The Astral Telescope has revealed that he’ll live to be 130 years old, but he’ll die in the bathroom rather than on the battlefield. Then again, Elberon may perish when the elf Lithaine, a former battle partner, arrives with an army in revenge for using him to “seal the breach between Hell and Woerth.” Elberon relates his life experiences to a scribe, recounting the mission in Hell with his warrior companions that resulted in a roll of the Fire Die, at Beelzebub’s behest, which selected Lithaine for imprisonment. Other major events remembered by the king include the Fall of Helene, an all-out war against Lord Eckberd the Pestilent; the rescue of Melinda the Blade, Elberon’s ex-wife, from Hell; and the Battle of Faerie Wood against the alien Crimson Hand. The monarch recalls that he, Lithaine, and the others in their party, Sir Malcolm the elf and Amabored the barbarian, had the overarching mission to stop Koschei the Deathless from returning to Woerth. To that end, they collected Koschei’s 10 powerful Phylaxes (or artifacts), such as the Mace of Malice and the Fell Phallus, to limit the dark lord’s reach. As Elberon explores his past, ruminating on deep personal regrets becomes unavoidable. He left Melinda for the shield maiden Cassiopeia of Collanna only to watch his second wife waste away from the disease known as “the creep.”

Ferguson strides high on his love for classic rock and tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons in this extravagant sequel. As fans of the previous volume, The Screaming Skull (2018), will remember, Elberon and company live and breathe enough debauchery to impress Mötley Crüe biographer Neil Strauss. Cassie, in perhaps the tamest example, asks Elberon: “What is it about good sex that makes you have to take a crap?” Ferguson’s imagination delivers a consistent deluge of outré concepts, like sex cannibals, but also devices useful to the plot, including “a rope ladder leading to an extradimensional panic room.” There are also music and film references aplenty sprinkled throughout, inserted for comedic effect if nothing else, as when Lithaine quotes Ripley from the film Aliens with the line “I say we nuke the site from orbit.” The most grounded and successful portion of the story is the depiction of Cassie’s illness and death. The cancerlike creep doesn’t allow for magical resurrections and causes the deterioration of body and mind. Here, the author drains all the overcooked bawdiness from his prose and creates genuine dramatic stakes that don’t exist elsewhere in the novel. Cassie has “skin like tissue paper” and the “shrunken limbs of an old woman,” images that are hard to digest whether readers remember a loved one’s illness or not. Frequently, the engaging adventure is chopped into nonlinear episodes, and it soon becomes clear that Elberon’s remembrances will carry readers into the next volume. Wherever the series goes next, fans will likely crave a smoother forward momentum and fewer curse-laden dungeon crawls.

This enjoyable fantasy invites fans to the literary equivalent of rolling the dice with friends.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-73256-623-1

Page count: 506pp

Publisher: Mr. Phabulous, LLC

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2020



BY Rick Ferguson • POSTED ON Nov. 12, 2018

In this debut novel, a so-called royal hero reflects on his life as upheaval awaits on the horizon.

King Elberon, lord of the Tradewind Isles, is about to turn 65 years old. He’s led an illustrious life of adventure and just learned from his friend Wilberd, who glanced through the Astral Telescope at the monarch’s future, that he’ll live to be 130. Yet Elberon thinks mainly of the companions who’ll attend his birthday party in nine days, including the warrior Amabored and his former love Melinda the Blade. “When I finally get them all together,” he thinks, “I’m going to kill every last one of them.” He then begins detailing his youth among the Free Kingdoms of the Woerth and even the Multiverse after he told his father, King Olderon, that he wanted to visit Redhauke, a cosmopolitan city ripe with crime and opportunity. There, he met Amabored, the elf Lithaine, and the mage Redulfo. Given additional strength by the Girdle of Gargantua, Elberon joined the trio, and they became guards for Saggon, Over-Boss of the Thieves Guild. But Saggon’s shipments of pipeweed contained a secret over which Melinda battled the group. During this time, Elberon first encountered the Screaming Skull (when Melinda attacked him with it) and became embroiled in closing the Hellmouth beneath the Blue Falcon Inn. Later, he drank a concoction called the Flaming Telepath, which brought him to the First Universe and a meeting with Jo Ki-Rin, a chimerical creature who warned that Elberon must accept a quest to save all of creation. The “monomyth” at the core of Ferguson’s series opener is the same one that fuels innumerable fantasies, from Tolkien’s work to the Star Wars series. The winning difference here is the author’s tone, which would make the foulmouthed, fourth wall–smashing Marvel character Deadpool proud. Elberon calls Woerth a “chamber pot of competing cultures and religions from dozens of different universes.” This gives the author the widest possible canvas on which to scribble his own multicolored brand of mayhem—and the narrative leeway to quote Pulp Fiction. He discusses not only the Multiverse, wherein, most likely, “some pimply teenaged loser sits in his parents’ basement drawing” dungeons “on graph paper and randomly inserting monsters, traps, and treasure,” but also author Michael Moorcock, who deals vibrantly with alternate realities in his Elric series. Even Ferguson’s key villain, Koscheis, has echoes in “Sauron, Voldemort, Lord Foul...or Vladimir Putin.” This isn’t to say that the story is complete silliness. The prose frequently lets rip some epic imagery, as when “a house-sized mushroom cloud of napalm condensed out of the atmosphere, balled itself up into a miniature sun, and surged forth with a massive sonic boom.” And while the main characters riff humorously on archetypes—and the minor ones mock everything else (Father Frito of Lay, for example)—they experience events deeply. Elberon’s regret over cheating on average Melinda with gorgeous Cassiopeia brings humanity to a cavalcade of gonzo exploits. Readers will likely return for the sequel, perhaps more for the king’s unpredictable narration than the plot itself.

A joyously coarse and self-aware epic fantasy.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73256-621-7

Page count: 492pp

Publisher: Phabulousity Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

Awards, Press & Interests

Favorite author

Kurt Vonnegut

Favorite book


Favorite line from a book

"So it goes."


Cincinnati, OH

Passion in life

Live music

Unexpected skill or talent

Drinking like Hemmingway

THE SCREAMING SKULL : Kirkus Best Indie Book, 2019

THE SCREAMING SKULL : Named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books, 2019


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