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

Black Gate, #9, Fall 2005

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“The Whited Child” by Michael Canfield
“Payment Deferred” by James Enge
“The Thrall” by Michael Shultz
“Seijin’s Enlightenment” by William John Watkins
“Pets” by Adam J. Thaxton
“The Hand That Binds” by Michael Livingston
"It’s a Wonderful Con” by Larry Tritten
“The Longday Hunt” by Sean Oberle
“The Final Flight of Major Havoc” by Carl Reed
“A Touch of Crystal” by Martin Owton & Gaie Sebold

This issue features a wider spectrum of stories than the last, which was pretty uniformly dark.  I have to say I do prefer the broad spectrum.  Another notable feature of this issue is the number of good stories by new authors.  I have added several names to my “watch for” list.  Though we usually don’t cover comics, the fact that Black Gate’s great comic, Knights of the Dinner Table: the Java Joint, managed to mention Gor and Le Guin on the same page, in the same panel, surely is deserving of mention.

“The Whited Child” by Michael Canfield is a short, atmospheric dark fantasy in which the White Mountains mete out healing of a mysterious plague one victim at a time, at terrible cost.  The medium is a human named Bad Pete who deals with the villagers in these transactions through a child called the idiot boy.  They don’t like one another, but times are bad, getting worse; they are both hungry, and there has to be compromise. A grim tale, competently told, which will please those who like their fantasies dark.

James Enge is back with Ambrosius Morlock the mysterious mage, this time in “Payment Deferred.”  Same stylish prose, some good twists and turns, especially at the end.  This story was not as complex and full of sheer weirdness as the previous, but it was also considerably shorter—making me wish that Enge was in the process of writing a novel about Morlock, whose mysteries are not even remotely plumbed here.  But I sure enjoy his competence and style.

In Mike Shultz’s “The Thrall,” the protagonist, a desperate woman called Ramalia, uses a Thrall, a magical compulsion, in order to steal potatoes for herself and her daughter.  They are both in desperate straits—not just starving, but the daughter also has a secret.  She is Thrall-less, and as such a target for the Wardens, who cruise around arresting anyone who uses Thralls, or can’t be Thralled, for the Consul. The Wardens find the Thrall anyway and chase her, to be fought off, but at a nasty cost.

By the time Ramalia and the villagers, who don’t trust her, begin tossing Thralls back and forth with increasing speed and inventive defense, one begins to wonder just how this society managed to get stable enough to have Wardens and a Consul; most of the defenses used against the flying barrage of Thralls would seem to be automatic childhood defenses.  But the pace picks up briskly, whisking such questions away, accelerating rapidly to an entertaining climax.

“Senjin’s Enlightenment” by William John Watkins invokes the endlessly fascinating world of samurai, ronin, and the conflict between violence, honor, and the cultural longing for tranquility and peace.  The alternate Japan of these stories, like the alternate Europe of fairy tales, seems particularly adaptable to fantasy tropes—as Western audiences are discovering with the proliferation of anime and manga.  Senjin is his lord’s champion, on the road to Gojin to fight the champion of the lord there.  But he has some expected and then unexpected encounters before he finally gets there.  Senjin’s story might not surprise anyone who has been exposed to Japanese films for the past thirty years, but it’s tightly written and satisfying to watch unfold.

Adam J. Thaxton is a new young writer whose “Pets” is about a group of kids on another world who find a walking fish.  The protagonist helps Mikey, the one who first found the fish, get it out, and then has to return home, but just in time for an Avatar storm.  The story is quick, full of ideas and vivid images, ending on an interesting note.

“The Hand That Binds” by Michael Livingston is my favorite story of the issue.  The general outline of Beowulf’s tale is known; what we see here is a taken from the point of view of an outlander bard named Widsith. Beowulf is not quite as irresistible as is the Matter of Britain for writers over the past several centuries to try their hand at.  It’s a remove more distant for us to comprehend, and too frequently modern retellings are stiff, self-conscious, or disagreeably modern in tone, barnacled with nuggets of scholarship (or error).  I am no early English scholar, but I found this tale convincing, beautifully told, and moving.  To my eye, Livingston found that balance between being comprehensible yet avoiding anachronism, and although the Geats’ and Danes’ customs seem almost alien, the emotions still rang true.

Anyone who, like me, has a weakness for Schadenfreude tales will like Larry Tritten’s “It’s a Wonderful Con,” in which a con artist named Eddie sets out to scam Santa Claus, just for the fun of it.  A pearl of a tale—its unlikely grain of sand being the famous Jimmy Stewart film It’s a Wonderful Life.

You may think you know just where Sean Oberle’s “The Longday Hunt” is going when you read the opening, which features a young man on the threshold of adulthood going out alone in his boat to try to spear a serpent, and thus prove himself a man.  Omens have predicted a portentous astronomical occurrence, and all the young men know that whoever can bring a serpent home under it will truly be great.  Meanwhile, Jace’s girlfriend, Lally, has been promoted to the Council, and if Jace doesn’t perform, he won’t get his own Council place—and thus be able to marry her.  So when Jace spots a gigantic serpent, we’re thinking Young Man and the Sea, right?  Wrong.  The story takes a couple of left turns, ending up an engaging adventure tale with a satisfying ending.

“The Final Flight of Major Havoc” by Carl E. Reed at first looks like science fiction as the eponymous Major Havoc puts his XF-11 jet—and incidentally his own body—through the extremes of testing.  But as he comes in for a landing, he realizes that his body is not quite what it seemed.  Reed blindsides the reader with a series of fast punches, bringing this short tale to a hard-hitting close.  An amazing story—the more because it’s a first sale.

“A Touch of Crystal" by Martin Owton and Gaie Sebold was my second favorite.  It’s the voice that makes this entertaining tale about a young woowoo-loving woman named Clearspring Treesong Watkins who works at the local woowoo store.  Much as she works at her crystals and candles and rituals, she’s not quite ready for the sudden appearance of enormous biker . . . Elves?  The dialogue snaps with energy, and the pacing never flags in this delightful tale, a superlative end to the new fiction.