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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Black Gate, Issue 8, Summer 2005

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"The Turning of the Tiles" by Iain Rowan
"Turn Up This Crooked Way" by James Enge
"Heat Waves" by Sherry Decker
"The Carrion Call" by Paul Finch
"Winter's Touch" by Justin Staunchfield
"Mortal Star" by Aaron Bradford Starr
"Fat Jack and the Spider Clown" by Jay Lake
"The Nursemaid's Suitor" by Charles Coleman Finlay

This is my first chance to read an entire issue of the much-praised Black Gate, which I've always thought of as a sword & sorcery magazine.  My current thoughts about S&S have been influenced by a discussion on Judith Berman's LiveJournal about why this form continues to be popular and what differentiates it from fantasy in general.  

Somebody quoted Rudy Rucker's command to "seek the gnarl," and it does seem that S&S is usually gnarlier than high fantasy—its settings grittier, its heroes more down-and-out.  It's difficult to imagine Fafhrd behaving like Frodo.  Maybe S&S is to fantasy what noir is to the traditional British mystery.  

So as I cracked an issue of a magazine known for publishing a lot of S&S; I wondered how much gnarl I was going to find.  
Like several other stories in this issue, Iain Rowan's "The Turning of the Tiles" is part of a series, in this case the adventures of Dao-Shi, an itinerant exorcist in ancient China.  A powerful client wants him to exorcise a demonic superweapon in the hands of an enemy, an offer he'd better not refuse.  It was entertaining enough, but the setting felt more like generic S&S than imperial China.  More of the latter and I'm yours forever.  The story also needs a bit more weight, given the tragedy of Dao-Shi's son killed in the war—itself a cynical power grab based on lies.   

"Turn Up This Crooked Way" by James Enge features another series character, Morlock Ambrosius, who we find seeking stolen books of magic.  The plot is simple but Enge gives us plenty of gnarl along the way.  Morlock's spells animate the world about him in strange ways.  An empty pair of shoes leads the quest, and argumentative bits of fire do his bidding, but they take a lot of persuading.  
The world is full of poisonous gripgrass and meat-eating catbirds, "their brown triangular cat-faces...black with blood."  Things that should not work, this author makes work, with magic-realism shimmer.  

"Heat Waves" by Sherry Decker is contemporary fantasy-horror, almost a vignette.  Rachel is an eight-year-old who sees shadowy "heat wave people."  They seem to want to be helpful, and even move Rachel to prevent a boy from being run over by a truck ... but there's nothing reassuring about these visitations.  The story reads like the first chapter of an upmarket horror novel, and it will probably make a pretty good one.  

"The Carrion Call" by Paul Finch probably should have been a vignette.  In Viking-overrun Britain, a brother and sister seek their father's body on a battlefield.  The problem is, he was wearing elf-mail, and it seems that somebody else wants it back.  Along the way, though, the author slows down the story with a research/back-story dump, most of which could be cut, interesting though it was on its own terms.  

"Winter's Touch" by Justin Staunchfield strikes a high-fantasy tone, with its pastoral setting and starcrossed-love plot.  It's a slight but satisfying take on the amnesiac noble finding peace and eventually love among the farm folk.  It can't last, of course, especially with hostile forces searching for the young man, and the young girl's conscience demanding that she work the necessary magic to set him on his true path.  

According to the mainstream media—so reliable on other topics—there are no original writers in fantasy except for J.K. Rowling, right?  Aaron Bradford Starr must not have read the memo before he wrote "Mortal Star."  As regions slide into Tolkienesque if not Lovecraftian darkness, the world's Nations have become nomads (and geographically stable nation-states are a dim memory).  They're led by near-ageless Wielders, distinguished for their ability to handle steel; in this universe the stuff can't touch normal mortals, but is deadly to the hierarchy of elemental beings who plague humanity.  A leader named Anakira has led her Nation for generations; she's fought alongside her own great-grandchildren, and buried too many of them.  Now her time is almost up: her star in the sky has spoken to her, naming her final destination.  

Starr skillfully works in complex background without slowing the story.  I particularly liked that Wielder pregnancies can last from a couple of months to a couple of years.  I was left wondering, too, whether this story is fantasy with a really strange cosmology or actually sf, but I'm willing to read more to find out.  

"Fat Jack and the Spider Clown" by Jay Lake actually does turn out to be sf, hinted at by the Ridley Scott-meets-Brazil ductwork in the beginning.  Our title characters are trickster gods (or demons), striving in vain so far to shake a ritualistic community out of its trance and acknowledge the reality of its situation (that's where teaching "intelligent design" gets you).  I was happy to come across a story with an airlock in it, though it would have made me happier to learn more about the trickers' origin.  Lake may be telling us that such archetypes spring up when they're needed, in which case Fat Jack may be Bill Maher and the Spider Clown, Jon Stewart.  

"The Nursemaid's Suitor" by Charles Coleman Finlay, an excerpt/outtake/prelude (I wasn't clear) to the author's novel The Prodigal Troll, concerns a dangerous cross-borders quest to deliver a royal child to safety in the midst of warring kingdoms.  Nursemaid Xaragitte and her guide/suitor Yvon brave lions, demons, and mammoth-mounted troops in a gritty fantasy that reminded me of an excerpt from George R.R. Martin's current series.  

While not every story worked for me, I have to applaud the authors for taking chances, and the editor and publisher for providing a venue to new writers.  The two strongest stories in this issue, Enge's and Starr's, are first publications.  

Though it exceeds the reviewer's mandate to say so, I enjoyed editor John O'Neil's personal memoir, the review columns, and most of the art, especially the Barry Windsor-Smith pastiches by Denis Rodier.  And Rich Horton's appreciation of the collectible Ace Doubles shouldn't be missed by anybody who loves a good blurb or a lurid title.  Tonight We Steal the Stars by John Jakes?  Now that's gnarly.