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Black Gate #3, Winter 2002
New Epoch Press, 224 pages

Black Gate #3, Winter 2002
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

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Over a hundred years ago, Henry James observed that there are two tastes for imaginative literature: the taste for the emotions of surprise, and the taste for the emotions of recognition. It is my contention that the science fiction and fantasy genre, at its best, combines them both; the familiar can be both true and comforting, the strange will of course pique and surprise, but also take familiar aspects of our culture and extrapolate therefrom, overlaying it with a palimpsest of the possible -- all while entertaining the reader with a ripsnortin' story.

I love good adventure fantasy fiction, and have for forty years of indefatigable reading. But note the modifier: too frequently during the past decade or two various venues claiming to offer fantasy adventure short stories have disappointed me with what appeared to be retreads of old pulps. If I want old pulp fiction I will dig up old pulps, wherein the ads sometimes are stranger than fiction, when viewed through contemporary lens.

Black Gate promises to be what I've been looking for. Note that the subtitle for Black Gate is 'Adventures in Fantasy Literature' and not 'Adventure Fantasy'. In his editorial, editor John O'Neill states that epic fantasy is "what we do best but there is still plenty of room... for a diverse range of fantasy genres." The reader will find that this statement is as true in this third issue as it was in the previous. There is indeed a wide range, from horror to science fiction to a quiet, beautifully written story that could have appeared in a mainstream magazine without causing a blink. What I also read for in this issue was the range of accessibility; that is, could the reader new to the genre find something exciting, but would a longtime reader of fantasy whose tastes have become more sophisticated be pleased?

The answer is yes. I suspect a literary critic would opine that, at least in this issue, the more accessible (and to longtime readers more predictable) stories tend to be dogged by more pedestrian prose, but then new readers usually don't notice those things either. Certainly accessible is the first story, "Iron Joan," by ElizaBeth Gilligan. In this tale Joan appears in a small village with her son, having recently married an unpleasant sailor hailing from the place. The inhabitants are distrustful, knowing that Joan comes from an exalted background, but as she settles in, working hard and asking for no help, they come not only to accept her but to rely on her; when her father at last comes for her, the villagers close in, regarding her as one of their own. The new reader will find potent this tale of the outcast redeemed and coming into power; the older reader will recognize this familiar storyline from those usually found in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies. But this series is popular for a reason. There is a strong appeal to female readership young and old for stories that empower women. If the father in "Iron Joan" is a somewhat stereotypical one-dimensional villain often seen in that type of story, and the ending can be predicted if you've read enough of them, Gilligan wisely avoids the worn trope of great magic powers coming to she who wishes hard enough (and deserves the most pity) that renders some of those tales mere wish-fulfillment. The real backbone of the story is Gilligan's presentation of the characters of the village, their sense of community, and just what that means.

The second story, Elaine Cunningham's "The Knight of the Lake," concerns a young Lancelot who is brought by Viviane to be apprenticed to Oberon. They soon argue about might versus magic, and Oberon takes him to the mortal realm, where they are beset by Saxons. The story is briskly paced, told in a prose that perhaps is meant to evoke Dunsany ("And she was wondrous fair"), though without any of his grace; a young reader will enjoy Lancelot as a wild child, identifying with him instantly.

Mike Resnick's "The Sandman" is the next offering, one of two detective stories. This one features Resnick's continuing character, Detective John Justin Mallory, his middle-aged assistant Winnifred, and the delightfully self-involved cat-woman Felina. It seems Winnifred once traded an old dream to the Chinese Sandman for a new one, and now she wants it back. The Sandman, knowing that old things gain value when we want them again, uses Winnifred's old dream to leverage Mallory into stealing an amber egg containing a Pegasus from beside the Grundy's bed. The Grundy -- Mallory's greatest enemy -- lives in a huge, nasty castle in the Middle of Central Park, guarded by trolls, leprechauns, and other magical beings who are long on threat but short on actual courage or brains. After dealing with Grundy, he returns to watch in his magic mirror movies that were never quite made, until the Sandman shows up demanding his Pegasus. The story is amusing, the characters vivid; new readers ought to be charmed, and longtime readers perhaps won't think this one of Resnick's greats, but will be thoroughly entertained.

In issue #2 Harry James Connolly made his fictional debut with the nifty "Whoremaster of Pald." In this his second story, he returns to Pald, this time to tell the story of Jebul, a cart-puller, who encounters a magical sword that cannot be defeated. Connolly spins this story out in vivid prose with evocative detail, a deft hand with character, and fast pacing. You cannot guess the end until it hits you.

The next story is a spectacular change of pace. One of the best stories in the issue, Ellen Klages' "A Taste of Summer" gives us Mattie, a little girl at a lakeside resort with her family, back in the days when a quarter could actually get you an afternoon's worth of sweets to enjoy. Mattie is not quite enjoying this vacation because the other kids are either too young or old, and her birthday is coming. Her father, busy repairing a boat engine, gives her some change, and despite an incoming storm permits her to walk into the little town to buy something. The storm swiftly blows up into something dangerous, and Mattie takes refuge in the ice cream parlor, where she meets Nan, the owner's sister, who is actually a chemist. Nan takes Mattie down into the basement, where she conducts flavor experiments; there, while the storm rages overhead, Mattie is delighted by a taste of a flavor called "Summer's afternoon." The story is subtle, beautifully written, with eddying complexities that are not pattly explained. Though the story could easily be labeled mainstream -- or even science fiction, with its element of chemistry -- the adventure is a real adventure, the sort that a nine-year-old girl might just have, and remember as especially magical all her life.

Darrell Schweitzer's "A Dark Miracle" is a short, moody piece that read more like a chapter from a novel than a self-contained story. Set near Salem just after the famous witch trials, it concerns Goodman Hawkins, who is summoned by a mysterious creature to the side of the woman who has lured him into adultery. He arrives to find Caroline dead, killed by her husband; the creature, a demon, looks on and chuckles as Hawkins tries to figure out what to do next. Events overtake and then pass him by, leaving him with terrible realizations. The ending is told, not shown, and as such is not as satisfying as it could have been, but the story does evoke mood, and neither new or old reader can tell where it's going to go.

Michael Gist's "Tav-Ru's Troth" opens with Tav-Ru roaring with frustration at a cruel and indifferent world. Born different and considered ugly, he wanders around a far-planet landscape until met by a gorgeous woman named Wiy who had heard of him when small, and came seeking him needing his extra-sensory help in solving the mysterious murders of people in distant farm villages. "Something" in him responds with instant loyalty to her appeal for help. The mystery murders are particularly nasty, and the ending has the sting of a good horror story; new readers ought to enjoy that, but getting there is a rough ride for readers resistant to an overload of clichés and even contradictions. (The story opens with Tav-Ru howling, but on the next page we're told that he neither lamented his condition nor envied others theirs. And later on the page is this unfortunate image: "Standing with legs slightly apart, the woman's hands knotted on her hips.")

In contrast, the next story, Jon Hansen's "Three Nights in Big Rock City", the second story featuring a detective in a contemporary setting that is filled with elves, dwarves, and other magical creatures, is light-hearted and well written. Joe is actually a female, but being a dwarf, she has a beard, and so is taken for a male. A beautiful elf named Bridgit hires Joe to take back a cherrywood rod from a thieving mage called Tamalar, who is currently hanging out at an expensive gambling joint. Joe arrives, meeting a troll named Ox, an old friend of hers who doesn't want trouble. Ooops. Joe keeps you guessing at what will happen; the ending is a satisfying double-whammy, underscoring the always comforting message to those of us lacking elven beauty that handsome is as handsome does. I hope Hansen plans to write more about Joe's adventures; I liked this one better than the Mallory tale, which dipped into silliness at times. Hansen kept the wisecracks wise-ass wry, pulling off a highlight of the issue.

The next story, "The Haunting of Cold Harbour," is up there with the Ellen Klages as my tie for best story of the issue. It ought to appeal to all readership; its virtual gaming world will be breathtakingly innovative for a new reader, and though I am really tired of gaming and VR stories, Todd McAulty managed to catch my interest and hold it. The story opens with the protagonist, Sammy Ron, about to blow up a hotel room. His associate discovers something nasty there instead of the target, and as a result Sammy blows up the entire hotel. We don't yet know that we're in a virtual world; clues begin to come in: Sammy's spectral looks, his regard for rats as his children. Right when we find out that kids are being tortured horribly to death, we find out that this world is in fact a virtual one, one of many that mushroomed in the early 21st century. McAulty, instead of then perpetrating the old clichés of VRdom (where everyone always seems to be young, terminally cool, and conveniently single) develops with commendable speed the realistic motivations of believable humans. Like Jessica, who couldn't have kids, and so invested time, money, and love in her virtual son, nurturing him with a maternal love so intense the crossover between what is real and what isn't no longer holds meaning. The existence of Cold Harbour is threatened, there's a nasty killer on the loose, and Sammy has to call on some very strange beings indeed, including some AIs who may or may not be "real" (what exactly is real, anyway?), in and out of the virtual world. The pacing is frenetic, the voice strong and vivid, the characters fascinating. I reached the end wishing that this were a novel. Hard to believe that this is McAulty's first fiction sale.

The next story is actually a segment of a longer work, "Ringard and Dendra," from Brian McNaughton's Throne of Bones. In each issue Black Gate features a reprint; this collection was published in 1997. Those who like their fantasy dark will find plenty of horror in this story of Ringard, who is the protagonist, and Dendra, a strange girl, as they run through nightmare landscapes. The central part of the tale concerns the Bower, a ring of graceful trees that isn't even remotely like the numinous woods of Tolkien-inspired fantasy. The ending, perhaps, is a trifle weak, at least for a short piece; but those whose tastes run to terror might find their appetites whetted enough to read the entire book.

The last story is more science fictional than fantasy, told from the POV of a young dragon named Braveheart, whose kind was developed by 'the doctor'. The dragon is instantly devoted to the doctor's young daughter K-katie upon hearing her laughter (oldtime readers will inevitably be reminded of Pern and imprinting) but there is trouble in paradise: the doctor's funding will be yanked by the university bigwigs if the dragons cannot fly, or prove themselves useful in some way. I suspect even a young reader knows what has to happen next, especially when a stranger drives up and asks K-katie for directions, and K-katie (presumably never warned about strangers) blithely trots off alone, except for Braveheart, to help. The writing is pleasantly heartwarming, interesting when Braveheart identifies things through smell -- though not always consistent, as when the doctor is described as whiffing strangely of yeast when he drinks from a bottle, but on another page Braveheart is "half drunk" from the scents of flowers. Still, the story is upbeat, bringing the fictional portion of the magazine to a positive closing.

Other features include reviews of gaming venues, novels, and sister magazines that contain fantasy. What I considered the highlight of the reviews was Victoria Strauss's excellent take on recent fantasy novels for young readers. There are far too few places where one can find good reviews of children's fantasy, and even if Black Gate's adult readership isn't looking for good YA fantasy for themselves, surely they might want to share their favorite genre with a sibling, niece or nephew, or the child of a friend? Here's where one can find expert recommendations of what's currently out there.

At $9.95US, Black Gate's price might seem steep, but what you get is a trade sized book, and being ad-free, there is no filler. The Table of Contents is the first thing you see inside the cover; the next page is the editorial, and the stories begin right after. Printed in a clean, easy-on-the-eyes font, each story runs without break from beginning to end, a piece of production juggling that this reader deeply appreciates. Illustrations nicely match the mood of each piece, and the reviews occur at intervals between the stories. The appeal is broad, the emphasis strongly on story and character; there is a perceivable place for this magazine in today's market. If you like adventures in fantasy literature, I recommend Black Gate.

Copyright © 2002 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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