So late last year, mostly on a whim, I decided that I wanted to subscribe to Black Gate magazine. For those that don’t know Black Gate magazine, founded back in 2000, is a fantasy fiction magazine that focuses on “adventure fantasy.” Character driven stories with brisk pacing, often strange landscapes, and more often than not a boat load of action are what Black Gate is all about. It was a good time to jump on board with Black Gate since issue 14 (Winter 2010) is a double-stuffed issue clocking an at a massive 385 pages (in pdf) the print edition rivaling my 4th Edition Player’s Handbook in size. What’s most impressive about those 385 pages is sheer amount of awesome fiction packed within. While I haven’t read every bit of fiction in this issue everything I’ve read has been fantastic in one way or another and wonderfully unique as well. Here is a look at some of what I’ve read so far:
“The Hangman’s Daughter” by Chris Braak
It took me a couple tries to get into this one, but once I did I’m glad I stuck with it. A sort of coming of age story about a young girl sent to live with her father Braak’s story, brief though it may be, conveys a solid sense of place. The shattered residential district of a large city and the rooftop roadways created by a race of monkey-like servants jumps off the page. The story’s protagonist is brought to life nicely and the fantasy world needs more brassy, ballsy, confident and capable young women like Braak’s Cresy. I definitely hope we see more of her in the future whether in the pages of Black Gate or elsewhere. Her story is only just beginning.
“The Word of Azrael” by Matthew David Surridge
This is by far my favorite story in this issue of Black Gate. As the author bio explains it was inspired by the snippets of biography that were featured in some of the old Conan novels. As such “the Word of Azrael” reads sort of like a listing of deeds. Brief highlights of a lengthy career that none-the-less serve as veritable seeds for the reader’s imagination. Yet at the same time, in that sparse chronicle, Surridge still manages to convey a palpable weight to Isrohim Vey a sense of gravitas and tragedy that a surround a character whom we know startlingly little about. On the one hand there is a part of me that during and after reading this story desperatley wants more and yet another part that things anything more might disrupt the spell woven by Surridge. Fantastic stuff here and more than enough to make me damned glad I’m a Black Gate subscriber.
“Freedling” by Mike Shultz
Another short story that manages to convey a depth of setting despite its brevity. Also featuring another female protagonist, in fact this issue of Black Gate features quite a few female leads whether that’s just happenstance or a deliberate editorial choice I don’t know but I will say that I like it! Freedling is an entertaining character vignette that reads like an origin story and like many of the stories in Black Gate seems to leave the reader wondering as to what heights its protagonist will aspire.
“The Renunciation of the Crimes of Gharad the Undying” by Alex Kreis
In a word: hilarious. An almost tongue in cheek look at what might happen if a former magic dictator were imprisoned and penned a letter to his over-throwers. In my head it reads as dripping with sarcasm and false sincerity. Gharad could be sincere but I think the notion that he is mocking the victorious is the more entertaining option.
“Devil on the Wind” by Michael Jasper and Jay Lake
Another female protagonist, or rather closer to an anti-hero as Lena, a Kilaster witch, is sent to scare one of the witches subjects back into line. All isn’t as it seems here and Lena isn’t a particularly likable character, the Kilaster’s witches aren’t particularly good people by and large, yet Lake and Jasper still managed to have me rooting for her by stories ends. In a world of bastards she was at least true to her principles even if they aren’t particularly pleasant principles.
“The Lady’s Apprentice” by Jan Stirling
Another female lead! Lady Nyla, one rich, now poor and a chosen if somewhat disgraced servant of the Mother Goddess is given a task once again. Stirling manages imbue a sense of weariness and loss to Lady Nyla while at the same time conveying a seemingly contradictory level of arrogance. You feel for her yet in her thoughts and actions here you can almost see how she managed to fall out of her Goddess’ favor. Her loss doesn’t seem to have diminished her pride and it is this seeming contradiction that makes this story such an intriguing read and Lady Nyla such a fascinating character.
“The Wine-Dark Sea” by Isabel Pelch
This story is sort of like a fantasy take on STALKER. The weird environment of the magical zone seen here roughly analogous to the mysterious Zone of the world created by the brothers Strugatsky in Roadside Picnic and embellished by game and film. Similarly the landscape within the land within the “lohan-taint” called to mind the landscape woven by C. L. Moore in Jirel’s descents to the weird dimension inhabited by the Black God. Newyn, the protagonist, is fascinating wrapped in rags and forced to cover her face (I don’t think the why of which is ever explained) and walking a fine line between mercenary and compassionate. The glimpses of her past Pelch dishes out reveal how her upbringing forged her into who she is while their relationship to Newyn’s experience with lohan-taint mean they don’t divert the narrative of the story. Again, and this is getting a bit repetitive now, I definitely want to see more of Newyn and her world.
I’ve also read two of the three novellas in the magazine: “The Price of Two Blades” by Pete Butler and “The Natural History of Calamity” by Robert J Howe. If these two stories both illustrate the thematic elements embodied by Black Gate but do so in wildly different ways. “The Price of Two Blades” is a fantasy story with a bit of horror twinge. Not gory or other world horror, but rather Howe employs an element of psychological horror, of things seen that can’t be unseen and the burden of bearing the responsibility of your own past, to excellent effect. On the other hand “The Natural History of Calamity” is an urban fantasy tale that, similarly, deals expressly in facing the consequences of our actions. While there are definitely some familiar elements to “The Price of Two Blades” the weight of pain that rests squarely on many of the characters in the story, especially when compared to their earlier innocence, readily conveys a sense of tragedy. “The Natural History of Calamity,” despite including many of the familiar trappings of urban fantasy detective sub-genre, is refreshingly original. A “karma detective” isn’t something I’d ever have imagined in a million years but Howes combination of personal drama and mystical karmic threats was a neat break from the vampires and faeries that are so often the go-to baddies of the urban fantasy world. As with so many other stories I do hope we see more of New York’s only karma detective in the future.
I have in the past mentioned my struggle with short fiction, particularly in anthologies. Black Gate, so far at least, has helped me buck the trend when it comes to short fiction. Its combination of familiar elements and highly original storytelling within wildly different sections of the fantasy genre has re-invigorated my love for quality fantasy fiction and I find myself eagerly looking forward the next issue (as well as making more willing to explore other venues for short fiction like the entertaining Beneath Ceaseless Skies). If your interesting some new and exciting fiction you should really considering giving Black Gate a try (single issues are available in pdf form as well limited quantities still in print).