Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Black Gate #7, Fall, 2004

Black Gate #7, Fall, 2004
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

As this year sped by I kept a weather-eye for Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature, and right between Thanksgiving and Christmas another issue appeared. Hurray! This magazine has fast become one of my favorites, for I love fantasy adventure, especially when the range covers the entire spectrum from satire to horror.

This issue features six stories; except for one they are either novellas or novelettes. Instead of a range, this issue's fiction leans far toward dark side of the fantasy spectrum; arguably one or two of them are downright horror. Perfect reading for the days of cold, long nights, wind-rattled barren branches and deep shadows.

Leading off is Judith Berman's "The Poison Well." Manvayar is a mage who discovered, to his still-festering regret, what his tutor really was after he'd learned considerable skills. He's teamed with a seemingly fat, lazy priest-mage called Seppan the Skull Priest, sent by the Temple of Judgment to investigate word of a necromancer operating out in the countryside. Rumors like that are usually rumors, but this one, they discover, is real -- and practicing its bloody arts on people in and around the local lord's manor.

The two take up residence with the surly Lord Agard, meeting his equally surly sons, his pale, afraid wife, his brother's wife, and finally the silent, self-effacing, beautiful teenage daughter Aleid.

Old-time readers might figure out from the get-go who the necromancer really is -- in fact, this tale might be based on a folk song or legend -- and even what motivated the mastery of those bloody arts, but that said, the twists and turns, the complexity of the characters, and a couple of surprises will still keep one reading. Berman's draws the reader unerringly into Manvayar's internal struggles with his own past, questions that are far from neatly resolved by the end of this tale. Seppan has unexpected depths. Everyone reveals traits that are not obvious, with the result being an absorbing tale, though quite dark indeed.

The next is Todd McAulty's novella, "Amnesty," which could be termed straightforward horror. Quite appropriate, as it takes place in Hell. And, despite some humor at the start and interspersed through -- increasingly welcome glimmers of humor -- this is no funny hell, it's the Tartarus of old stories, where archdemons spend centuries dreaming up lingering tortures and spinning out nefarious webs to garner yet more victims, simply because they can. Our protagonists are working on a long-term plot to escape, maybe even to Heaven (though many of them are unsure such a place exists); they include a Hollywood lawyer and a decent-seeming guy named Kevin Guilder who was sent to hell, we discover later, for unintentional cruelty that is breathtaking as it is so unexpected -- and then so grimly realistic. We know Kevin, or know of him... We really don't want to look at our neighbors and discover the secrets they harbor behind their eyes are his secrets.

Allies of theirs include a kind woman named Mala, a Korean named Yung, even a robot from the future who had tested as sentient and been accepted as a citizen. These are among those protagonists who have to make their way across the increasingly dangerous territory toward, they are told, the Mounds of Eternity, which might have a trapdoor through which they possibly could escape.

Interspersed between their labors is a strange little story, unconnected except thematically, a conversation between a mathematician and the archdemon who has been tormenting him for ages, and now, at last, is about to obliterate his soul -- but requires the last ounce of torment, which is to convince a rationalist first that he has a soul, and subsequently that he is so worthless, matters so little, that it will not be taken from him, but he must surrender it himself.

This is a difficult tale to bring off. McAulty, whose talent seems to get exponentially better with every story, knows just how much horror one can stand, how much humor gives relief, how moral choices against such a background take on new meaning, spinning an inexorable tale that stays with the reader long after the last line is read.

Following that is "Luck of the Gods" by Holly Phillips. Central to this story is Onyx, who scrabbles a living on the edge of a city that overlooks a harbor in which there are islands belonging to the rich -- and then there is the Island of the Dead. It is to that mysterious place that she must go, as a curse trover, to bury the captured curses taken from her clients, a dangerous job that requires hiding the curse in a place no one can find it. The money she earns is to be used to free her sisters from the brothel to which they were sold when her own family was cursed, and at one stroke the family sundered, men killed, house taken, and only Onyx was spared the brothel. She is hired by a certain Lord Melioch to remove a curse he fears has recently been placed on his own family.

The balance of gods, curses, and the demands of ghosts are just some of the problems she has to deal with as she makes her way across the storm-drenched island. What she discovers, who she has to face, and what she chooses, makes a dark, satisfying tale, but again, don't be looking for a tidy, happy ending. This issue is not the one for those.

"Point of the Knife", an excerpt from a novel with the same title by Don Bassingthwaite, is probably the most adventurous story in the lineup. Bassingthwaite does an excellent job of summing up the story so far in a single graph, then lands us on top of Narika, a hobgoblin half-breed, and Leim a betrayed holy warrior, who were fighting each other before they were both betrayed by an evil sorceress named Irani. They've been thrown down into a pit between worlds by Irani's minion Aelfegg, who is making an especially nasty weapon of mass destruction for Irani.

Nerika, who I instantly loved, has to make her peace with her former enemy Leim, before they can deal with the deadly copper serpents surrounding them, and then figure a way out of that pit. Vivid, full of action and verve, this story unfolds at an accelerating pace; Leim telling his own backstory in the middle just adds to the tension, does not disrupt it. Solid writing on Bassingthwaite's part, good characters, niftily creepy sensory details, made me unable to put this story down until I finished. In short, though this phrase is probably not permitted in the reviewer's critical toolkit, the story kicks serious butt. I want to read the novel when it comes out.

Following is the third excerpt from Charles R. Tanner's the fantasy classic "Tumithak of the Towers of Fire." Anyone who loves old pulp fantasy adventure is going to love this furthering of the adventures of mighty Tumithak leading his doughty adventurers against the city of Kaymak. What I find particularly engaging about these old pulp stories is the unrepentantly purple prose.

The last story, written in deceptively simple prose, is by Mark Sumner, called "Leather Doll." This is the second story that might be termed horror: at least, that's the initial emotion I felt when I realized that Meyer, the field hand hired by Farmer Applegarten to tend his herd of Herefords until slaughtering time, is actually herding human beings. We soon discover that this planet is not Earth, and that the native beings denizens, after the crash landing of the humans, had decided that because of the desperate lack of resources, the newcomers would be separated into people and cattle.

Meyer is distracted by a very young heifer named Lisle who had been born out of season, and was being fattened up to be slaughtered for her skin. Lisle distracts him by whistling, an enchanting sound. Cattle are forbidden ever to make noises, and most of them obey with bovine placidity. But Lisle is different from the gitgo, and Meyer, enchanted, and alone far too much, without much money to spend on town girls who sell pleasure, decides how he can best 'befriend' Lisle and gain some pleasure for himself. The result is traumatic for her, which Meyer doesn't understand, or at least it convinces him that she's really just the same as the others, and therefore justified in his actions.

But as time goes on he becomes obsessed with her, cleaning her up, buying her a dress, showing her books, even. Then he teaches her to speak. His delightful summer comes to a summary end at slaughter time, when he finds himself lying to the farmer -- and then trying to escape the consequences of his actions. All the consequences.

Sumner, whose excellent novel about magery in the Old West Devil's Tower was, I thought, one of the undiscovered treasures of the 90s, does a sure job with this creepily effective tale, bringing the fiction to a very satisfying close.

The rest of the issue contains Rich Horton's entertaining look at the old magazine Planet Stories; there are reviews of comix and gaming and books, and one of the real delights is another installment of the comic "Knights of the Dinner Table: The Java Joint," which had me laughing right out loud. That comic really is about us, the fans of SF and fantasy -- every single line was a snicker.

Copyright © 2005 Sherwood Smith

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

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide