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Black Gate #6, Fall 2003

Black Gate #6, Fall 2003
Black Gate
Black Gate publishes epic fantasy fiction at all lengths (including novel excerpts), articles, interviews, news and reviews.

They are looking for adventure-oriented fantasy fiction suitable for all ages -- including urban fantasy, sword & sorcery, dark fantasy/horror, "magic realism" and romantic fantasy -- as long as it is well written and original.

They buy first North American serial and electronic publication rights.

Black Gate

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Black Gate comes in again with a strong issue. For readers unfamiliar with this magazine, Black Gate is subtitled "Adventures in Fantasy Literature," a mandate that gives editor John O'Neill a wide spectrum indeed. The magazine has enough material in it for a good-sized trade paperback, there are no ads, the reviews of comics in particular are excellent, and you should not miss the comic that sometimes runs at the end, "Knights of the Dinner Table." (This issue's episode even mentions one of my favorite fantasy writers, Kate Elliott.) And of course Black Gate is not complete without another segment of a pulp-era favorite, in this issue Charles R. Tanner's "Tumithak in Shawm."

If pressed to point to a thematic arc, I would say "strong characterization." For the most part, adventure fantasy is not known for complex characterization or skillful prose. Each issue of Black Gate has sharpened its focus on these two elements of good fiction, while never abandoning the brisk pacing, imagination, and swashbuckling fun, strangeness, or horror one expects in an adventure tale.

There are six new tales in this issue, covering quite a range of moods and settings.

Leading off is "Looking for Goats, Finding Monkeys," by Iain Rowan. The tale is told in first person by a so-called wise man who travels around doing exorcisms. He knows quite well that he's a fake, but he's not a bad man. He thinks he's doing a public service of a kind -- well, at least he's not hurting anyone. So you just know he's going to encounter a real ghost... but you cannot predict what will happen next. This is a well-written, atmospheric story with a wry voice and very fine characterization.

Anne Sheldon's story is "The Flowers on the Harp." King Harken is given by an envoy a beautiful new slave named Griah, the last surviving child of King Rekared -- the king Harken had vanquished in battle. Harken frees her, not wanting slaves, and the young woman insists on staying in the castle, two unexpected turns that let us know that this is not the usual Evil Emperor sort of fantasy. Each evening Griah plays her harp, a sound so exquisite that it enchants his courtiers as intensely as it wrenches him back into memory he would rather forget. Back and forth between the present and the past we weave, the stitching the music of the harp, until we discover what happened in King Rekared's tower. This is not just a story of revenge, it's a complex and poignant story that explores justice, mercy, and emotional cost as well as how age, experience, and insight alter even kings.

For a thorough-going change of pace, we next encounter newcomer Kevin N. Haw's delightful "The Grand Tour." Take a bunch of average American tourists and send them to Hell for their vacation tour.and wait for the postcards. The ending made me laugh out loud. I hope to see more from Haw.

"Miller's Wife," by Mark W. Tiedemann, is a very strong character-driven story that contains plenty of action and a subtle element of fantasy. Egan Ginter is a guy on the loose, running from yet another failed relationship. He is loaned a house in a small town by a friend. When he arrives, he meets a few people at the local bar, and is startled when the barkeeper, a woman, asks him abruptly if he's married. He soon discovers that a very angry, desperate man is looking for his wife, who left him, looking for a way out of town. The last people who this wandering wife encountered ended up with their house burned down. When she shows up at Egan's borrowed place, he knows he's in trouble...

Tiedemann's strong suit here is his characterization, zinging the reader over and over with the truth of the emotional observations. The insight is particularly compelling in Egan and in the barkeeper, a woman named Bert. The ending is somewhat confusing, and could probably have used another graph of clarification, but that does not hinder the emotional verity of the story; the pacing accelerates to a firestorm of a finish. All in all a very good read.

Another good read is Karen Jordan Allen's "Rocks Under Water." Pete hates to be called Petey by his big brother Harry, who has been acting like "some hard-nosed stepfather from hell" ever since their father died in a boating accident. They live in Maine near water, and Harry thinks Pete's habit of talking to rocks is babyish. Even if their geologist dad did it, saying once, "Most people underestimate the strangeness of the world... if rocks do evolve a consciousness, their thinking won't be anything like ours."

Allen weaves the story tightly back and forth between the past and present as Pete launches his kayak after his brother, who seems to be testing him, trying to toughen him up. What happens is weird, exciting, and the boys' reactions are quite believable. A lot said in this short, visually intense story.

Last up is Rick Norwood's "Portal." The central idea is particularly nifty: in Ian Smithson's world, you can construct a portal between worlds very easily. Far too easily. When he does it as a small boy, his father, a serf (as is Ian before he escapes) punishes him severely to help him remember not to make portals -- because the things that come out of them are usually deadly.

The story begins with Ian, older, having taken a job with a traveling fair. His boss, Stolnesserene, is a pretty good guy -- he expects an honest day's work for honest pay. He doesn't interfere with his workers otherwise, even if they are escaped serfs, hiding from the serf-catchers working the crowd.

Ian gets his freeborn buddy Tod to cause a diversion so he can get safely past the serf-catchers with his basket of bricks. The boys work at laying a brick floor for Stolnesserene's act, get paid, go out on the town in the way boys will. Recruiters arrive, dressed in fine uniforms, and offer good money to anyone who signs up. Tod thinks the prospect of a nifty uniform and fighting in foreign wars is cool, but Ian doesn't. Meanwhile, Stolnesserene's act is set up, a box crystal maze with mirrors and cutting edges inside, and at its center a beautiful sword. People who try the Blade Maze to win the sword often get cut up, sometimes even losing fingers. But it's an honest maze in that sometimes some people, especially a strange man named Carver, who keeps returning to try, are able to touch the sword or even shift it.

Ian and Tod go back to the girlie tent that they hung out at the night before, where once again they encounter a young fellow who looks like a frog, and for the second time Froglike Fred tells Ian that he is going to be a great man... but he needs to stay with Tod to do it. Ian doesn't believe it, but later on he is quite concerned when Tod shows up, stinking drunk, having taken the bounty and signed up for a soldier.

Portals, fights, soldiers all mix together. The portals are even weirder than you can imagine, and Norwood does a superlative job with them. The story has just enough resolution to tie off the main conflict, but there are so many tempting threads hanging loose that one hopes, very strongly, that Norwood is writing a novel to which this piece is the opening -- or he will return to the adventures of Ian and Tod in a series of stories.

Altogether another satisfying issue for readers, like me, us who enjoy adventure fantasy literature.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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