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Black Gate #4, Summer 2002
New Epoch Press, 224 pages

Black Gate #4, Summer 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

Recently on the Tangent newsgroup at SFF.NET there was quite a discussion going concerning the state of speculative short fiction publishing. Some opined that there are too many "literary" stories appearing not just in print but on Scifi.com, one of the leading e-markets. Many drew a distinction between 'good' adventure fiction and these effete literary effusions that are really mainstream stories -- naturally, everyone's idea of what constitutes 'good' differing, sometimes wildly. The argument splintered, as on-line interactions tend to do, lines being drawn this way and that until the mental map of the discussion resembled interlocking demilitarized zones.

But the overall implication, even if no one quite spelled it out, was that many felt that well-written adventure stories is an oxymoron; that stylish, artistic prose gets wasted on those mainstreamy stories in which nothing happens... and conversely the adventure stories are written in prose straight from Thog's Masterclass.

As this discussion was still winding down, I received Black Gate's new issue, and thus I couldn't help reading with that in mind. While none of the stories hit me with the éclat of Todd McAulty's and Ellen Klage's stories from issue three, I did not find any Thog prose in this issue. The magazine seems to be finding its voice; well-written adventure stories that are not afraid to explore both character and idea seems to be the emerging mandate.

The issue opens with a story that will cause anyone who has read H.P. Lovecraft to laugh out loud. Michael Kaufmann and Mark McLaughlin's "The Loiterer in the Lobby" is a first person story from the point of view of Nathaniel Whereabouts, a student at Miskatonic University. He needs a part time job, and sees this ad:

"NEED CASH? Available most evenings? Well-groomed? Professional manner? Quick typist? Computer skills? Interested in extra-dimensional devil-gods? Steady work is just a phone call away!"
And that sets the tone. Naturally Nathaniel responds to the ad, which turns out to be for an agency called Forbidden Works, run by a Miss Ghoorish who you can almost see, if you look away fast enough. He is sent out on several jobs, realizes that something mysterious is going on, which leads to the inevitable clash involving some very odd women, hideous mutations, an enormous insect-headed god, and a string of pizza delivery personnel. Even those unfamiliar with Lovecraft's oeuvre should enjoy this clever story.

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"Stranger Ev'rywhere", by Tina L. Jens, is apparently a portion of a longer work, which would explain the epilogue tacked on which has almost nothing to do with the story. In the 80s, Emma Bull kicked off a new sub-genre in which rock bands made bad Sidhe-stomping music through sheer energy and genius. There's been a plethora of magic-making bands since then; Jens takes the trope and twists it, giving us a band of ghosts, but they don't save the world for the home team. The magic they make is both limited and damaging.

Miss Mustang is the proprietor of a bar that attracts losers (another familiar trope) both alive and dead. She's particularly worried about a regular named Harpsicrazy, who is trying desperately to hang onto a semblance of normalcy, becoming violent when he loses that connection. He's also a musician. An encounter with a smugly cruel college student sets him off; the ghosts assemble to draw off Harp's explosion, and all hell breaks loose. Jens does not wrap everything up neatly and easily; the epilogue goes a step further, introducing a character we've never seen, a story element that was not hinted at before, and another direction to the narrative, perhaps diffusing the resolution of the main story a tad too far in order to end on a plaintive note. Overall the story is vivid, Jens has an excellent ear for dialogue, and she's at her best with her heartfelt portrayal of blues.

I believe that "Night of Two Moons" is popular fantasy author David B. Coe's first entry in short fiction. The story opens with Carthach, a mage-warrior, wandering a battlefield while thinking of the next day's attack, which he is to lead. The story is dramatic, grim, moody; on the surface it's an adventure story concerning a war between two kingdoms, but the story is really about bravery and cowardice -- treachery and motivation.

Cory Doctorow is building a reputation as a writer who consistently delivers unpredictable stories in supple, evocative prose. In "Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)" we begin with a band, but the similarity with the Tina Jens story stops right there. When the Eight-Bar Band (named because they can play about eight bars before they have to pause to let the never-ending war planes roar overhead) finishes, we discover we're in a post-holocaust world. The protagonist lives amid the rubble of a city in which most inhabitants had been destroyed by a plague, following which the government promptly blew up the city so the enemy couldn't move in and take over the buildings as planned. Brad's specialty is using a pole to cause avalanches that usually reveal caches of canned food from the crumbled apartment buildings. His band buddies are a hulking intellectual named Timson, Hambone, who is brain damaged but good with percussion, and Steve.

A catalyst by the name of Jenna appears. She wants to join the community here, not to get a man, but to start civilization again: she carries a precious hoard of seeds. With some difficulty, she convinces many of the people to start gardening. But a new Eden is not so easily attained, and the serpent here is Lyman, a leader of a militaristic gang bent on stockpiling enough weapons to fight any comers. Lyman thinks people should be drilling, not gardening, and being an action kind of a guy, shows the budding gardeners just what he means.

Things look grim, until Jenna discovers that the lump at the back of poor Hambone's head is a pilot jack... and the story takes off from there. Excellent pacing, and the characterizations are engaging; some might tag Lyman as a stock villain, but then that personality type has a lot of "stock" reactions in common. Another fine entry from Doctorow.

In "Far from Laredo," by Daniel W. Hill, the place is Laredo Texas, the time 1879. Or at least, the place was Laredo, Texas. Charles Duke finds himself in a world with a sickly orange sun, facing a man named Farlan Trew who has summoned a hero to get rid of demons. Three of them. Duke insists he's just a businessman -- payment for services rendered. Trew tells him that since he's here he must use his magic to get rid of the demons, and as for payment, he can have as much gold as he can carry. Duke doesn't trust such quick agreement, but nevertheless he sets out to do the job, his 'magic' being a pair of sawed-off '73 Colt Peacemakers, and his wits. What follows is a short, colorful story with the distinctive flavor of the tall tales from the Old West. Hill is writing another story about Duke, which I want to read.

Anyone who recognizes the name Gilles de Rais will immediately suspect that Patrice E. Sarath's "A Prayer for Captain La Hire" is not going to be a light-hearted comedy. It's ten years after the Maid of Orleans was captured by the English and burned at the stake, and some of her less fortunate companions are wandering Europe in search of a living, in search of meaning, or both. La Hire is getting long in the tooth for mercenary work; physically and emotionally battered. He receives a message from his old colleague-in-arms, Gilles de Rais, and despite some disquieting rumors, and the warnings of his friends de Metz and de Poulengy, sets out to see what de Rais needs. Sarath finds a nice balance between an accessible modern tone and period paradigm; she's done her research and knows how people of that time talked and thought. A swift, unpredictable roller coaster of a story, highlighted with just the right amount of wryness, this was one of my favorites in a strong issue.

My favorite is Bill Johnson's bravura "Mama Told Me Not to Come." The story opens with a warrior in the midst of battle with an unnamed foe, with whom he converses before dealing a death blow. After that he prays over the dead guy, using forms from half a dozen religions "in order to cover everyone and everything." The scene widens to include his trusty sidekick Iago, who takes care of logistics while Sir Linux fights -- and fights and fights. He goes to a bar, and just about the time the reader has sussed out the story (oh, right, we're in some kind of computer wargame world) Johnson jumbles the elements and the story gleefully takes off at right angles. Players, Makers, Daemons, and Voices are not what you assume they are, and furthermore, the dividing line between QuestWorld, ours, and what might be another dimension to both of them also makes a few tectonic shifts. The writing is splendid, the characters engaging, and the story satisfies the adventure-craving reader without ever becoming predictable.

There's one more story, a reprint called "Scatheling," by Nancy Varian Berberick. The story is steeped in northern mythology and ought to please readers who like RPG epic fiction; there are also comics, poetry, and various sorts of reviews. The issue is 208 pages -- a book, really -- and that means 208 pages, not 160 pages plus a wasteland of ads.

Readers who like "something to happen" in well-written speculative fiction ought to be seeking out 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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