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Black Gate #14, Winter 2010

Black Gate #14, Winter 2010
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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This issue of Black Gate, clocking in at 384 pages, is more book than magazine. The editor's lack of free time due to the day job during 2009 is the reader's gain, as in addition to fifteen stories there are three novellas, the latter printed at a slightly smaller (though perfectly readable) font.

Even the comic "Knights of the Dinner Table" is longer. (And a crack-up. See Neil Gaiman accused of plagiarism!)

The nineteen stories range between fantasy horror to humor, with most falling along the spectrum of dark fantasy. There's one with a contemporary setting, and one fantasy with sfnal elements. Several are sequels, most stand alone. A few stories are outstanding, and most of the rest are solid entertainment. Add in generous page count on reviews, and the issue is a strong one. Readers tempted to start subscribing ought to consider beginning with this issue, as the prices are going to go up. (Though so is the page count.) This issue is sold at the old price, and seeing that it's almost double the length of the older issues, it's quite a bargain.

"Dark of the Year" by Diana Sherman
Old Matai goes on a quest to discover his infant granddaughter's name, lest she be claimed by the terrible darklings. As Matai and the child make their way from their village toward the dangers of a battlefield, the quest -- and the stakes -- become more intense, until it seems that the entire world needs to know the child's name. This moody story sets the tone for most of the rest of the issue.

"The Hangman's Daughter" by Chris Braak
Cresy wakes up in terror, but does not want to tell her tough, hangman dad about her nightmares lest he lose the nascent respect he has for her, gained when she first came to live with him and she didn't react when he hacked off her hair. He cut her hair so no one can get hold of it; when she's strong enough to pluck a sword jammed into the floor, he will teach her to fight.

But first Cresy has to deal with the nightmares, and hints from the ape-like creatures called therians make it clear that the cause is supernatural. Cresy is friends with the servitor therians, and also friends with a gang of kids who hang out in the city center. She organizes the kids to help her solve the mystery of the nightmare Loogaroo who preys on kids.

I found my interest in the characters and the world superseding the central story. Cresy is a delightful character, strong and determined, with an equally strong moral center. We don't learn why her warrior father is employed as a hangman (or why those he hangs were condemned); we learn little about this fascinating city or about the therians. I hope that Braak will delve further into Cresy's story, and show us more of this world.

"The Bonestealer's Mirror" by John C Hocking
Here is a sequel I was glad to find, as I liked "The Face in the Sea" in issue 13. Readers will quickly pick up the thread of the saga as Brand and his seafaring companions land at Mord's Island, and when they find a boat full of blood, Prince Asbjorn feels obligated to investigate. Even when they encounter a spearman who warns them that the isle is cursed.

Mord protects a mad monk named Gildagh, who has given him dire warning that a demon desires his daughter Thyri. Along with the hero Brand is the tough maiden Asdis, met in the previous tale, who soon becomes the target of the demon. Brand, in love with Asdis, has to defeat the demon. Hocking's Norse feel is convincing, the pacing exciting, and the characters compelling.

"The Word of Azrael" by Matthew David Surridge
I have to admit that when I read in the biographical blurb that this tale was "initially inspired by the old Conan paperbacks which preceded each story with a snippet of Conan's bio," I groaned. I never got into the Conan stories, and their spinoffs seemed even more purple yet tedious.

Was I wrong! Within two pages, Surridge's deft, ironic voice had disarmed me. This was no mishmash of popping sinews and gouting ichor. We begin on a battlefield where seven kings and their armies died. The warrior Isrohim Vey wakens alone, except for the Angel of Death. The angel speaks a Word, and Isrohim finds himself healed, and sitting under an elm, reflecting that he would live until he saw the Angel again, and understood his smile.

What follows seems to be a series of iceberg-tip stories, that is, the climactic moments of what could have been longer tales. Increasingly intriguing tales. The reader begins to perceive patterns weaving them together into a tapestry of solid gold.

"The Mist Beyond the Circle" by Martin Owton
The younger sons who'd banded together to try farming return from cutting turf to discover their settlement has been raided, and the women either killed or dragged off. Led by cousin Aron, these young men who never regarded themselves as heroes... become heroes. A solid adventure story, even if somewhat predictable.

"Freedling" by Mike Shultz
Naia is a freedling bound to serve the all-powerful "sorcer" Cer Vassir. But when an accident causes the roof to fall in, pinning the sorcer by masonry, Naia is trapped with him. He commands Naia to fulfill her function and obey; with a more level playing field, Naia begins to examine the source of power. The magic of stonecraft and tattoos is intriguing in this taut story, as is the examination of power and art.

"The Renunciation of the Crimes of Gharad the Undying" by Alex Kreis
The title is almost as long as the story, in which a mighty Dark Lord writes to his people... would you believe a dark lord who says, "I am particularly embarrassed that I ordered the foul murder of Giles Sunbearer, who entered Castle Ironbound in a perfectly reasonable attempt to put a stop to my illegitimate reign"?

"Devil on the Wind" by Michael Jasper and Jay Lake
Another powerful story combining the considerable talents of Jasper and Lake. This isn't sword & sorcery so much as sorcery & sorcery, as Lena begins her tale with her fifth suicide. She is a Killaster Witch, who trades the promise of future glory to the devil within for present greatness. She's sent to chastise the defiant Prince Falloe of Ironkeep, whose priest-engineers encouraged him to defy the Witches. While dealing with this battle, she's got another, more private battle, arising from her past. High tension, vivid writing, and unpredictable twists crank to the max.

"The Price of Two Blades" by Pete Butler
Following a strong story can rob the next, but Butler's well-crafted, deceptively simple frame-tale holds its own with dark, convincing emotional resonance.

A wandering bard arrives at a village, and is curious about its cemetery, which is full of beautiful marble headstones of the sort that only the rich can afford. When he sees that most of the headstones share the same death date, he's determined to get the locals to give him the story, which is he is certain will ensure his own fame.

After some effort, the bard finally gets the locals to reveal the history of the cemetery, if he gives his word that he will tell it exactly as they tell it. Delighted, he agrees... and he hears the tale of the cost people paid in evoking magic, and the gods, to get rid of a bandit lord. The story builds to a solid double-punch that lingers effectively.

"The Girl Who Feared Lightning" by Dan Brodribb
Brodribb offers a dark fantasy with a humorous tone, featuring Cara the security guard, who works in beautiful Avalon. It turns out this perfect village is owned by Avalon the corporation. Avalon... has its oddities, Cora finds out when she stumbles on a corpse stuffed into a culvert, and a guy in a suit comes from the corporation and warns her not to call the police. He assures her that Avalon takes care of their own problems, one of which she discovers is a mummy who recently woke up. The mummy's problem is that it needs a human heart for a ritual, but the heart has to be uncorrupted. Where's it going to find that?

"Destroyer" by James Enge
Enge continues the adventures of Morlock the Magician, which got their start through several issues of Black Gate, and have been gathered into two books so far. In this tale, which largely stands alone, Morlock and his companions continue their journeying. This time they encounter the Khroi, three-eyed insect-like warriors. The Khroi require humans to serve as hosts for their eggs, but they are also determined to destroy Morlock, whom they regard as the Destroyer.

It turns out that the Khroi have been told that Morlock would cause their destruction, which is why they must destroy him first. This causes a fascinating debate between the Khroi leader and Morlock on dreams, foretelling, and predestination, echoed by conversations among the companions. Enge builds an imaginative world with intriguing details, but never loses sight of character development. Thend, the boy who is struggling to understand his own visions, is an appealing contrast to the mysterious Morlock who talks to dragons.

"The Natural History of Calamity" by Robert J Howe
This wry, stylish urban fantasy is narrated by Debbie, who is a karmic detective -- she senses where someone's karma is pent up, and can cause it to resume its natural flow. She only takes on ten percent of those who seek her help; she chooses to help a guy who is worried that his girlfriend Becky has taken up with a sleazebag named Michael who turns out to be part of Debbie's past. What's more, every encounter with Michael shipwrecks her own karmic balance. One of the things Debbie is going to have to investigate is herself; the tension mounts inexorably to a surprisingly poignant climax. I hope there will be more stories about Debbie and her karmic detective work.

"Red Hell" by Renee Stern
Brawling had gotten Kellen into most of his difficulties, ending up with him waking after a fight with an indenture mark on his forehead, and dumped into a labor transport. Red Hell is the mine where he's sent to work on his first day. After a horror of darkness and bitter coal dust, he is willing to do anything else, including work for an alien. As he struggles to regain the freedom he so easily tossed away, Kellen has to redefine many things, including the place of morality in a dangerous, amoral world. A compelling story combining tropes of science fiction and fantasy.

"The Lady's Apprentice" by Jan Stirling
Moral redefinition is also at the heart of this story, in which Nyla lives alone, serving the Lady (the Mother Goddess) by helping others. In return, she gains magical power. Nyla is sent to find the missing baby of a young woman who gave birth along the road. The best part of the tale is how Nyla uses her powers to outwit the sorcerer who took the infant.

"The Wine-Dark Sea" by Isabel Pelech
This absorbing, evocative dark fantasy is told from the point of view of Newyn, who was disfigured as a child by the local magic called lohan. Now she has become a masked assassin. A woman hires her to rescue her son from a submerged city tainted by lohan, which makes it possible for her to breathe the water, but increases the other dangers. Newyn's world is bitter, the city existing in eternal night though the sun still passes overhead; the people are creatures of horror, scrabbling for existence. Newyn's only comfort is a cantankerous burro... and she's got her powers. Images from that city should linger long after the reader closes the magazine.

"On a Pale Horse" by Sylvia Volk
Salsabil regards her father's mare as her sister, as they share the same name. This isn't a problem until she takes her sister grazing, and discovers a single-horned stallion following them. When she tells her parents, her mother bitterly tries to convince her father that by talking to Salsabil as if she'd been a son, he has caused their daughter to go mad.

Meanwhile, drought has brought the raiding Mutair down on Salsabil's people. Though they do their best to fight back, they are being driven out of their own lands, many of them killed, but meanwhile the mysterious horned pale horse follows them. It takes Salsabil to figure out what must be done.

This is a lovely story with a flavor of Arabian Nights.

"La Seņora de Oro" by R L Roth
A few years ago, my spouse inherited some letters written by one of his ancestors who was a silver miner just after the gold rush. Roth's epistolary story, which takes place between March and September 1850, is an eerie match in tone and (early on) in details as Tom writes to his wife Annie, telling her about his search for the gold that is supposed to save his family from want.

The story is fantasy-horror, the fantastic element serving as a metaphor for what happened to far too many gold rush miners who swarmed to California in search of a miracle. Hats off to Roth for a disturbingly well-wrought tale, pitch-perfect for the period.

"Building Character" by Tom Sneem
After that chilling tale, Sneen's tongue-in-cheek story about a character who resents the stupidity of his writer is a great change of pace. This guy is absolutely certain his writer is a thirteen year old kid, and after a series of dumb plot elements and terrible characterizations, he finally decides to take over the story for himself. Very enjoyable.

"Folie and Null" by Douglas Empringham
The issue ends on a light-hearted, punning note, as a pair of hapless adventurers come across a murdered wizard. The aptly named wizard's apprentice Folie joins Rhing in solving the case, as they encounter villains and magic.

More reviews and the comic "Knights of the Dinner Table: the Java Joint" (in which our heroes attend a con) round out a satisfying issue.

Copyright © 2010 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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