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Black Gate #15, Spring 2011

Black Gate #15, Spring 2011
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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Black Gate first appeared in print as a quarterly zine. That idea evolved over fifteen issues to the present form, a book-length anthology that comes out when it comes out. The previous issue, at nearly 400 pages, was so successful that the decision was made to stay at that length. For the amount, the price is quite reasonable, and the online subscription is half that. There are plans for issues compatible with Kindle and other e-readers.

Judging by Black Gate's consistent quality, moving away from the pressure of seasonal publication has been a good one. The Table of Contents promises a special Warrior Woman issue. The reader wanting exclusively female heroic or magical tales might better reach for the latest volume of Sword and Sorceress; here we've got a broad range of fantasy adventure fiction, from horror to comedy, at a variety of lengths. This spectrum, along with the regular columns, is another of Black Gate's strengths.

"A River Through Darkness and Light" by John C Hocking

Though Hocking's story is not listed among the eight 'warrior women' stories, it could have been. It's clear that Lucella, a tough warrior woman, and the first-person narrator Archivist, have history together, as they travel in search of a hidden stash of ancient scrolls, accompanied by a scholar and an old soldier. Unfortunately, they are chased by bandits bent on vengeance... and then there's the demon.

This is the first story of this particular series to appear in Black Gate, but Hocking's work will be familiar to readers of earlier issues; in fact, I think of Hocking's stories as characteristic of Black Gate: a strong blend of the old sword and sorcery action and mood, but with modern attention to character development, especially of the women. Lucella, like Asdis in Hocking's Norse tales, can hold her own in a world of heroes and demons. Dark and vivid, shot through with moments of humor, this story is a promising opening to the issue.

"The Shuttered Temple" by Jonathan L Howard

The only one brave enough (or stupid enough, as her friend Hartas the cartographer comments) to take on the Prythian priest's commission to steal something from the deadly Shuttered Temple is an impecunious thief named Kyth the Taker. So far, no one has survived the attempt.

Kyth is required by contract to travel with the monomaniacal priest Brother Tonsett, whose dour company is not much of an asset, especially as he refuses to listen to Kyth, whose success depends on her sussing out the mind of whoever built the building she must enter in order to do her Taking.

Kyth and Tonsett argue about religious faith as they slowly make their way into the temple that no one has survived leaving. The result is a tense tale bewitchingly mixed with action and head games. The story's tone is light and biting, leaving me with hope there will be more about Kyth the Taker in future issues.

"The Oracle of Gog" by Vaughn Heppner

This was a more traditional S&S tale, featuring Lod, who reminds me of a cross between Conan and Elric of Melniboné. An evil deity Gog, son of Magog, sends his monster-son Kron to kill mighty-thewed Lod as a result of a vision, causing the slave used as rat-bait to begin the hero-warrior's trade.

"The Gifts of Li Tzu-Ch'eng" by Derek Künsken

Though he is famous in both history and legend, what finally happened to the warlord Li Tzu-Ch'eng is not known. A possible path is hinted at in this tale, which begins when Li is approached by a woman, Nü Wa, who claims to be a messenger of Heaven. She offers Li four gifts. When the reader discovers that Li may only use three of the gifts -- the fourth will be used against him -- and one of the gifts is love, it's clear that this will not be a straightforward tale of swords and war. Bittersweet in tone, well-wrought in imagery with dialogue that evokes Louis Cha and Cao Xueqin, this story complements Jonathan Howard's Kyth with its musings on the nature of heaven and the motivations of gods.

"Groob's Stupid Grubs" by Jeremiah Tolbert

Offered next is a total change of pace, a comical fantasy in which the goblin Groob lives below the Devouring City, where he is trying to raise a brood of grubs that will prove smarter than the usual line of goblins. His dream is to build a city beneath the City, where goblins could "walk amongst themselves without fear." But nobody seems to be cooperating. Groob makes goggles so that he can scavenge Topside in daylight, where he encounters a new threat...

"The War of the Wheat Berry Year" by Sarah Avery

Stisele, the "Bastard Traitor of Imlen," was supposed to rule Miaaro, but she wants to set things right -- by leading the peasants in a war of liberation. This means facing in battle someone she'd once valued.

There is a lot of story hinted at here, of which we catch tantalizing glimpses. Though the personal conflict comes to a resolution, there is so much backstory left off-stage that it is difficult to make out character or motivation except in the briefest sketches; in the editorial comments, a novella about Stisele is promised for a future issue, leaving me kind of wishing that it had seen print first.

"Into the Gathering Dark" by Darrell Schweitzer

At first, when I saw that this was another tale of True Thomas, I settled in for a familiar ride. The story of Thomas has seen many versions, especially in the last thirty years. But Schweitzer does not inject this last tale of True Thomas with modern sensibilities. Exquisitely poignant, it is one of the best stories in the issue, beautifully rendering all that was best in the tales of Elfland, "neither of Heaven or of Hell," of a century ago.

"An Uprising of One" by Jamie McEwan

Unfortunately, when kings take to nasty pastimes like conducting their own tortures, there's not much anyone can do about it -- unless one is a clever, well trained prince good with blade and magic. Tanek is the hero, but even heroes can have weaknesses, in this case the beautiful, serious Elegwyn Pillay.

This is a more traditional tale; Elegwyn is the standard passive and pure heroine needing rescue, and I would have liked to have seen more of Tanek's relationship with his father, but overall it's briskly paced and full of heroic actions.

"Eating Venom" by Harry Connolly

Two of the three noble Holder brothers embark on a dangerous quest to eliminate a basilisk that is destroying the countryside. But that is only the beginning; then comes a challenge to the third brother, which brings out the partly hidden tensions between them, between their women, and in the household, as viewed by the servant Altane.

Harry Connolly's first story appeared in Black Gate 2, following with another (unrelated) in issue 10. With each story his control over craft has made exponential leaps -- he's been publishing a terrific urban fantasy series -- but his ability to sketch complex characters with a deft line or two has been in evidence from the fist. This story is no exception.

"Roundelay" by Paula R. Stiles

Oler, a sorceress, sails to the Mouth of Hell in order to confront the Queen and demand the return of her imprisoned husband, Loka. However, before she can face Hell, she's got to convince her own ship's crew. Stiles deftly weaves back and forth in time as Oler inexorably carries out her quest. With a strong flavor of Greek myth, this tale packs quite an emotional punch.

"Dellith's Child" by Nye Joell Hardy

  "But, as our mother used to say, Fair? Fair is for farmers. This is the sea."  

In this world, ship-owning families never set foot on land, and the female captains inherit the ability to see ley-lines, crucial on the vast oceans. The first person narrator, Grady, is visiting his sister Dellith on her ship. At first he's delighted to learn that she has a son... until he sees the sea monster she calls by her son's name. Then the whole world goes askew. Grady is a sympathetic hero in a fascinating world, the tension never flags, and the ending is unpredictable. This was one of my favorites.

"Apotheosis" by Rosamund Hodge

Truth is stronger than magic.

Hodge, whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (and most notably in the intensely powerful "I Have Heard the Angels Singing, Each to Each," Coyote Wild August 2008) appears for the first time in Black Gate with a strange little tale, in which three brothers set off to walk across the shallow Commotionless Sea to a factory where they will purchase a new god for the city of Ipu. Before they can purchase the best, they see how gods are made.

This story carries on the theme of gods and the supernatural, but with an oblique hint of the numinous.

"The Vintages of Dream" by Jon R. Fultz

In this dark, sparkling little fantasy, a thief sets out to rob a sorcerer who possesses a large number of expensive glass bottles in which he has captured his dreams. This thief knows he can make himself wealthy selling the proceeds... Drawback? Greed comes in many forms.

"The River People" by Emily Mah

There are mean girls even in fantasy land, which can be emotionally destroying -- or can impel a heroine to greater goals, and efforts, than she might otherwise have envisioned.

Sora and her blind mother are outsiders among the River People, barely tolerated. Sora wants to be adopted into one of the River People's clans in order to better their lives, but when she's confounded, she undertakes a challenge that changes everything.

The story is a bit predictable for the long-time reader, but the worldbuilding is nifty.

"Cursing the Weather" by Maria V. Snyder

The maltreated servant Nysa is forced to work for an evil innkeeper in order to pay for the potion to preserve the life of her mother, who exists under a curse. Nysa is sufficiently terrorized that, though she is half-starved, she doesn't seem able to pinch herself any of the food she's constantly delivering, a situation that caused this ex-waitress from the days of Evil Bosses, before equal rights, to raise an eyebrow or two. However, Nysa proves an adept pupil when a weather wizard comes along and takes an interest in her.

"Purging Cocytus" by Michael Livingston

In this horrific tale whose setup borders on science fiction, Danny's grandfather has been in cryonic suspension but is now revived and has been returned to the family. The fantastic enters when Danny begins to have nightmares that the reader gradually recognizes as echoes from Dante's Inferno. Powerfully and beautifully written, the story propels the reader, as well as Danny, to the inexorable and irresistible end. Again the theme of death and beyond comes up, this time with very dark overtones.

"The Laws of Chaos Left Us All in Disarray" by S. Hutson Blount

In a fantasy so dark that it, too, borders on horror, the female warrior Hautbee is one of the escorts for a rich woman making a pilgrimage to a feminist Temple. But this is no peaceful journey, as they are pursued by deadly magical critters. This is a fast paced tale -- so fast it feels like the middle of a book -- that comes to an unusual end, opening the way to a whole new set of questions.

"Word's End" by Frederic S. Durbin

Only one of the two warrior heroines can survive.

They have both been sent to World's End by their gods. One is a killer, the other has a purpose outside herself. Who will prevail? Who should prevail? In this grim world, the answer is not predictable; yet another bleak commentary on the Big Questions.

"The Lions of Karthagar" by Chris Willrich

Weatherworker Bim the Damp is called to meet the opposing army's weatherworker, Muy Who Sings Storms, on the outskirts of Karthagar, City of Peace. This odd city is rich with treasure—built at the edge of the Red Waste. Both armies have come from opposite directions, without knowing the other was there. The two weatherworkers, initially enemies, discover an affinity for one another, which complicates matters, especially when they find themselves within the mysterious city. Meanwhile, they discourse on the meaning of war.

This is another favorite story, stylishly written, with excellent characterization and lapidary imagery.

"What Chains Bind Us" by Brian Dolton

This story gives us as dark a paradigm as Durbin's, underneath an absorbingly twisted mystery. Yi Qin the conjurer, commander of ghosts and twin to a dead sister who possesses secrets, is sent to help elderly Liang Zho, who is haunted every night by whispering spirits. Her conjuring is managed by using her own blood, but no matter how much she takes, she can't get rid of the spirits.

There is a door open in the Silent Mountain, the abode of the dead, enabling spirits to cross into the world of the living, and Yi Qin must close this door. But first, she must discover why it opened, uncovering a tale of death and treachery.

"A Pound of Dead Flesh" by Fraser Ronald

In this world evocative of ancient Rome, Brude and Drust, former legionaries, are offered a commission to deliver a locked box to a necromancer from whom it has been stolen. Unfortunately, as can happen when outside agents are hired to deliver things, there's a reason outsiders are chosen to do the deed. But Brude and Drust disagree about their expendability, and as even necromancers know, old soldiers have not survived by being stupid. This last of the short works is briskly paced and breezily told.

The issue ends with a long excerpt from The Desert of Souls, by Howard Andrew Jones. Two selections from the adventures of Asim and Dabir have already appeared in Black Gate, whetting the appetite of any reader who loves the flavor of Arabian Nights tales mixed with a more contemporary feel, specifically complex characterization and dry humor. This selection should win more readers to Jones's book, ending another solid issue on a high note.

Copyright © 2011 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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