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Black Gate #5, Spring 2003

Black Gate #5, Spring 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

Once again Black Gate faithfully fulfills its mission statement: 'adventures in fantasy literature.' While this perhaps is not the strongest issue to date, these days especially, there's a lot to be said for sitting down with a series of entertaining stories with clearly defined good guys and bad guys—and a chance that the heroes might win.

The weakest stories in the issues are the first two. "The Mourning Trees," by Peadar Ó Guilín, is built around a compelling idea: sweet-smelling trees, created as a weapon during a recent mage war, nourish themselves by drawing people nigh so they can catch and slowly digest them. Children seem to be the easiest victims. Moya, a poor and abused young housewife, is determined to save her darling boy Owen, recently grabbed by a tree—even if it means daring the city, and the magic rumored to be stored under the powerful and mysterious university. There are some good moments, but the story is fairly predictable, and the writing especially in the first half is rough with clichés.

"Stand at Llieva," by Joseph A, McCullough, will appeal to readers who like lots of detailed blood and guts. Stevan is part of a force of fewer than 100 men left to defend a walled city against an evil emperor called The Talon, who supposedly has the best magic defenses as well as countless hordes. You'd think an evil emperor whose sole interest appears to be conquering would budget for the latest weapons tech, but his purple-clad minions have only arrows against Llievea's muskets. After a magic blast, the defenders are forced to fall back to the Cathedral, where they are hoping for the miracle. When the minions attack, Stevan must ring the cathedral bells, though he doesn't believe in miracles... slight story, colorful hack'n'smash.

The issue hits its high point with the third story, "There's a Hole in October," by Todd McAulty. Those who read his debut story, the superb "Haunting of Cold Harbor" in Black Gate #3, will be expecting another riveting tale and this one does not disappoint. The time is a cold October during which a local rash of child murders have taken place, the place the Canadian side of the border just above Michigan, the problem a young man, Pierre, who intends to cross the border with 1500 bux worth of "pure," in order to solve his financial problems. Pierre is extraordinarily nervous as he sits brooding in a coffee shop before commencing the final run to the border, a nervousness much heightened by painfully realistic waking nightmares of failure. This is not the time for Pierre to be approached by a seven–year–old boy named Eric who begs for a ride, with the entire coffee shop listening.

Pierre finds himself agreeing to take not just Eric but several other kids, ranging from three to seven years old; he feels sorry for them, there are those murders, and obviously their last ride had abandoned them flat. He starts to drive, and about the time he discovers there is something not quite right about the kids, they pass a horrible wreck—and the three–year–old informs them that the dead driver is their previous ride... the pace accelerates from there. McAulty's characters are memorable, his voice sure, the story impossible to outguess—the ending carries well beyond the last line.

And is tough to follow. Wise placement put S.C. Smith's "The Dead Man..." next, a very short short just long enough to set the scene and unlimber its punchline, which successfully breaks the tension following the McAulty story.

The exquisitely illustrated "Law and Justice," from Michael H. Payne, is set in the world of his novel The Blood Jaguar. Leopard has just finished handing over the Autumn to his beloved winter counterpart, and sets out to visit a village elsewhere in this new Earth. The village is comprised of animals that make buildings, signs, and jails, call one another 'Lord' and 'Lady'—evoking the whimsical non-logic of The Wind in the Willows. Leopard comes across animal youths squabbling, one bullying, one victim, and one defender. By the next morning, Leopard is surprised to discover that the defender, goaded by the bully into attacking, has been condemned to death. Lord Tiger, who represents Law, is there to oversee the execution; Lady Squirrel, who oversees Justice, demands that the bully be killed instead. Leopard, who doesn't want to see youth destroyed, is forbidden to intervene, but compassion makes him desperate.

The story would probably best appeal to the same audience as Kenneth Grahame's classic. Young readers would enjoy the animal children's voices, and would overlook the patness of the resolution, which makes the other avatars look less than intelligent, or the clichés (eyes blazing, smiles touching things, and 'racist vitriol' among creatures of species, not race, use of the word 'okay' far from any hint of America); the more sophisticated reader will probably find the story pleasant but slight.

The writing in Jennifer Busick's "La Desterrada" is far stronger, as are the characterizations; what kept an eminently readable story from being outstanding were a couple of crucial logic flaws. 'John Martin' is a fire magus, taken prisoner aboard a Spanish privateer, and given the choice of death or service. Our magus, who was born in Massachusetts, has a bleak future, but loyally determines to betray the privateers to the English. When an English sloop attacks, the cannon-fire makes it nearly impossible for the magus to act; by the time of the next encounter, the key characters learn enough about one another, and their motives, to render once easy choices difficult. The end is quite satisfying, despite those logic flaws I mentioned. One concerned a promise, and the reason not to trust it was so unclear it felt like auctorial manipulation. The second flaw was far more common in stories set in our past, with the addition of real magical talents: if humans had been born with such gifts, I do not believe the Roman Catholic church, to name one religious tradition, would have 'automatically' condemned female magi. It makes more sense they would have found a way to incorporate such gifts, as they did literacy and scholarship, and thus harness them. But the Church makes a convenient scapegoat for story motivation.

"North," by Brian A. Hopkins, is a lovely story that ought to be reprinted for young readers. It concerns Joey, who lost his eyes by age three from cancer, and his mother by age six. His father took him to the north of Canada to get away. A hike at Christmas begins with a pleasant and quite instructive encounter with an Indian named Samuel. When disaster strikes, Joey is the only one who can act. The tale is simple, the sensory details vivid, and the father's and son's emotions resonate without being labored.

The idea behind "Barbarian Instinct," by Don Bassingthwaite, has been popular at least since Mallory first set it in print with the sub-story of Beaumains and Linet (and La Cote Mal Taile and Maledisant). Put a bitchy female of class up against a stoic male who is loyal and true and throw them into adventure—in a good writer's hands, the battle-of-the-sexes chemistry can still work, especially for readers new to the genre. Bassingthwaite starts a little heavy on the background data, and his bitchy female, Cacia, tends to read somewhat shrill, but once the adventure begins the pace picks up and the ending jumps the fence with flair and wit.

"Two-Skins," by Shawn L. Johnson is a poignantly satisfying tale of a boy forced into the arena to fight against a wild animal while humans watch him die. Interspersed with his wait for what he knows will be his first and last battle is the story of his people, who have been conquered by the humans. One by one we get to know his family through the tales of their coming-of-age rituals, while Ranu is brought to the arena, wounded, weak, and alone, his family dead. We learn that Ranu failed his first attempt to bond with his spirit animal, the Great Wolf—and it's a wolf sent to tear him to pieces for the entertainment of the audience. Johnson keeps the pace accelerating and the emotions intense straight to the end.

Winding up the fiction is an unabashedly purple reprint from the pulp era, "Tumithak of the Corridors." No one writes like that any more, and perhaps just as well ("…the steady beat and throb of some gigantic machine…") but its quaintness, if unfamiliar, is part of its attraction for the reader with more modern tastes.

The magazine rounds off with reviews of gaming, comics, books, plus a new feature—a letter column. Do not miss the comic at the end, brought to you by "Knights of the Dinner Table." If you are an inveterate fantasy reader, make certain that your beverage of choice is placed upon the table, and not imparting a healthy sip, or the rain in Spain will be delivered all over your copy.

Copyright © 2003 Sherwood Smith

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

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