I have treasured Black Gate ever since I first discovered Issue 10 (Spring 2007). I had dropped my charter subscription to another fantasy magazine a couple of years before because I wasn’t finding what I was looking for: old-fashioned, but highly imaginative, adventure fantasy. Black Gate delivers this in spades and the latest issue (No. 13: Spring 2009) is no exception.
Editorial: Confessions of a Blurber by John O’Neill
The crafting of a blurb is a work of art and of skill that, in and of itself, can pay huge professional dividends. But, like all other forms of expression, can also lead a writer or an editor down a slippery slope of self-deception and commercialism. Publisher and Editor John O’Neill provides a potent look at the seldom-revealed dark side of book reviewing in this self-revelatory editorial.
Behind the Magic of Recluse by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
I have never read any of Modesitt’s Recluse stories. This article, a peek into the mind of a successful author, makes me want to find them. The author reveals in detail the thought processes that went into creating a coherent fantasy magic system. However, the most interesting part (at least, to me) is how this logic must be carried over into the society that supports (or is supported by) such a magic system. Having not sampled the results of Modesitt’s recipes, I cannot attest to the accuracy of his assertions or to the efficacy of his approach; but actually seeing the road map of his thinking was very illustrative nevertheless.
The Beautiful Corridor by Jonathan L. Howard
This is a light, but enjoyable tale of double-crosses, vanity, and competition. A professional thief is hired to test the security of the temple of an undead god. The ingenuity of the traps is not nearly as interesting as the way in which Kyth finally breaks the code of the namesake corridor…and the aftermath of her discovery. The main character of Kyth the Taker is intelligent and professional; I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this character.
The Good Sheriff by David Wesley Hill
This is apparently the second tale of the displaced Texan Charles Duke. The ever-pragmatic gunslinger has been taken from the Laredo of 1879 and has been making his way across a hellish devastated landscape in search of a way back home and some decent cigars. In this “weird western”, Duke is promised a way home in return for accruing sack-loads of “good” (the local currency) for a mysterious sorcerer. He takes on the job of sheriff for this bizarre border-town in order to make the necessary cash. As per usual in these types of tales, things are never what they seem and the path home is far from clear. Duke is cast in the classic taciturn gunman mold which suits the material well. The land is a strange hodgepodge of fallen angels, common demons, drunken gods, and strange sorcery that I think I’d like to explore more as well…from the safety of Texas 2009, of course.
The Face in the Sea by John C. Hocking
Here we have a dark tale of sorcery set in the world of the Vikings. Brand is a young warrior, one of several on an expedition to save his chieftain’s daughter from the clutches of an evil shaman in the employ of a rival chief. He accounts for himself well in battle, but how will he and his fellows fare against the final horrific act of dark magic from the treacherous shaman? Here is sword-and-sorcery in the classic mode. Brand is a likable hero who will obviously grow in skill and in stature as these tales take shape. I’m looking forward to it.
Naktong Flow by Myke Cole
This tale was probably the weakest offered in this issue. The action takes place along a swampy river in an Asian land beset by monstrous bands of Waegu. What these brigands are is never really clear. It seems that they use human minions but are monstrous themselves. Were they human at one time? Why do other humans serve them? The protagonist rides with a band of soldiers down the river in order to deliver a wizard who plans to use some sort of device and the power of the ancestors against their strange enemies. The story simply failed to grip me and I had trouble making sense of some of the action.
The Murder at Doty Station by Matthew Bey
By far the lightest story in the issue, Doty Station is a straightforward little mystery set in a very strange land. Easy Ramirez and her partner Gonzo Johnson drive their steam-powered rig into the titled station for fuel and supplies. While there, Easy gets implicated in the murder of an ogre by a local menace that no one in this one-turtle-town wants to acknowledge. It’s fun, if quirky. It strikes me as the type of “weirdness” that would be found at smaller presses such as Yard Dog Press or in a ‘zine (the author is the co-editor of the ‘zine Space Squid); it’s nice to see such work in this forum.
The Evil Eater by Peadar Ó Guilín
This is a horror story about the price of deception…especially self-deception. Toby, a somewhat-aspiring actor and his scheming girlfriend Marie walk into a world of ancient terrors while attending an exclusive restaurant on a “borrowed” invitation. In the Lovecraftian horror of Ahriman’s kitchen Toby learns to see the truths of his life and the deceptions that have brought him to his current state. My only quibble, and it is an admittedly small one, is that the fate of Marie is mostly “off-screen”. In the brief time we get to know her, I know that I learned to despise her and would have liked to see more of her comeuppance. But, in actuality, the story isn’t about her…thank goodness.
Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea by Amy Tibbetts
Bones was one of my favorite stories in this issue. It is set in a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style society which is best by the bestial uttuk. The uttuk, though never ‘seen’, struck me as being very Orcish in their makeup. The protagonist, a scholar, comes to see to the affairs of his sister who has recently died while giving birth. She was the victim of an uttuk attack and, much to the shame and anger of the village, kept the child that was got upon her by one of the monsters. Strands of regret, superstition, rebellion, and loss are woven seamlessly in this otherwise straightforward story.
The Merchant of Loss by Justin Stanchfield and Mikal Trimm
This tale has, by far, the most interesting first line of all the stories in the magazine: “There was in that time a merchant who dealt, not in pots or vases or curios from forgotten civilizations, but in the effluvia of daily life: last breaths, first menses, earwax and phlegm.” Young Galen (one wonders if the allusion to the physician is purposeful) goes by the name of Mr. Silence peddles the wares of his former master, the merchant Rook. He finds his way to the usual “mysterious woman” with whom he begins a dance of bargaining where something other than coin hangs in the balance. The impetus for the events of the story actually surprised me in the end despite being surrounded by the trappings of “traditional” dark fantasy. The familiar tropes are used to great effect here; the reader and the main character both know that the woman is more than she seems yet neither can pull themselves away from trap that has been set. A fine tale told well.
Return of the Quill by John R. Fultz
The conquered city of Narr is ruled by a council of Sorcerer Kings. The darkest of these is Grimsort, who resides in the crypts and animates the ancient dead to protect the city from threats without and rebellion within. His loyalties are soon put to the test as he begins to see the city as it once was and what it probably should be. This powerhouse story aptly shows that rebellion does not live in riots, screeds, or demonstrations but in the desires inherent in all people. This is probably my favorite story in this issue.
Spider Friend by L. Blunt Jackson
Essentially an imaginative folktale, Friend briefly relates the story of Ch’bib who must decide whether to throw off the friendship of those others find abhorrent in order to find acceptance in one he finds beautiful. A nice example of well-executed legend-building; good, but not wholly memorable.
Silk and Glass by Sharon E. Woods
The demonic and serpentine Jas as come to Issen on a mission, a mission to which she is bound in every conceivable way. Yet she has made what could become a fatal error…she has found love, and with it, a conscience. Woods has created an intriguing setting and an equally interesting contrast in the titled materials. While an adventure tale, or perhaps more accurately, the beginning of one, this tale of forbidden love is also a romance and an effective one.
The Naturalist Part III: St. George and the Antriders by Mark Sumner
This tale marks the finale of The Naturalist, a serial that I have followed since I first started reading Black Gate with issue 10. A European colony in South America is beset by swarms of a strange breed of insect. Our protagonist, a naturalist called Brown, continues to attempt to unlock the secrets of these bizarre and deadly creatures while they continue to harry the human occupants away from their territory. Sumner has created an interesting alternate history and a likable protagonist in Brown. He is victimized by the natural world and by his fellows yet continues to strive and attempt to do what’s right simply because he knows of no other way to behave. In this final installment, I had hoped to see some resolution to the plot points that had been building since the beginning of the series. In the end, I was left somewhat disappointed. I will not spoil the ending of the series here; I simply wish that Brown had been given some better karmic reward for his suffering. Nevertheless, the story is well-crafted and Brown’s plight has held my interest (and sympathy) since spring of 2007.
As usual, Black Gate 13 is a success. Now, the wait for No. 14 begins…