Black Gate has been published irregularly (sometimes only once a year) since 2000, but I’ve only just discovered it. And what a time to do so! The Winter 2010 edition, Number 14, is 385 pages long, the size of a hefty book. The price reflects that; few magazines will run you $15.95 in the print edition ($8.95 for a PDF version that doesn’t translate well to Kindle). But then, few magazines will give you as much great fantasy as this one, including first stories by four promising new authors.
There are a very great many stories in this issue – 16 short stories and three novellas. Four of the offerings are first publications by their authors. More than a few of the pieces are exceptional, real standouts in a day when fantasy stories are as numerous as stars. Many of the stories are competent but unoriginal; reading one after the other makes one weary of noble peasantry, evil wizards, valiant swords and medieval settings. Why does fantasy eschew technology almost always? Are magic and machines really enemies? At any rate, if you read too many in this latter category in a single sitting, they tend to blur together. But it is notable that only a few of these stories are real clunkers.
“Devil on the Wind” by Michael Jasper and Jay Lake, reminds you how what is old can be made new. This story is about Lena, one of the Killaster Witches, a woman who has just committed suicide – and been reborn – for the fifth time. There are eight witches, led by Black Mattieu, and they demand obeisance from the kingdoms that surround their hold. When Prince Falloe of Ironkeep fails to send the proper tribute, substituting instead two coppers (symbols of the pennies laid on a dead man’s eyes), Black Mattieu sends Lena to teach the kingdom a harsh lesson. To say that Lena is not saintly hardly begins to tell the tale, but her compatriots seem to be somewhat worse, and her enemies at least as bad. I found myself rooting for Lena, even as I acknowledged that she was evil, for things grow steadily worse for her as she undertakes her assigned task. The language used to describe her doings is rich and graphic, and the twists and turns of the tale unpredictable. “Devil on the Wind” is a marvelous story.
Peter Butler’s novella, “The Price of Two Blades,” is equally original and refreshing. A bard who is heading into a village notices the sizable cemetery outlying it, and notices that a great many of the tombstones all show the same date of death. He theorizes that the deaths could somehow be connected to the disappearance of the noted bandit gang led by King Kruthas. Soon, the villagers reveal that this, in fact, the case, and they sit him down to tell him the tale of how they were rescued from that dreaded army. The method of their rescue is one completely unique to fantasy, so far as I know, and the lesson one learns is sad and necessary. This novella is a small masterpiece, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it grace an awards ballot or two.
James Enge’s “Destroyer,” another novella, is about Enge’s series character, Morlock Ambrosius. In this outing, Morlock is leading a party through the mountains, intending to avoid both the spiderfolk and the Khroi, both species who have uses for humans that don’t involve the continued life and health of the humans. Indeed, both use humans for grisly purposes: to feed their young once they hatch within the bodies of humans who have been implanted with their eggs. Morlock is a decent guide, but even he is no match for the Khroi. Enge’s creatures are imaginatively drawn, reminding me of the monsters created by China Mieville and Steph Swainston – creatures so new that the mind struggles to form a picture of them. I’ve had Enge’s first novel, Blood of Ambrose, in my “to be read” pile for some time now; this novella makes me eager to get to it very soon.
The third novella offered in this issue of Black Gate is also a winner. “The Natural History of Calamity” by Robert J. Howe offers up a new flavor of urban fantasy: a private investigator, of sorts, who works by figuring out what’s going on with her clients’ karma. Debbie Colavito discovered her calling when she read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” which, seen in one way, is an explanation of karma: this balances that, “every sweet hath its sour, every evil its good.” Suddenly she understood that she could actually sense that balance, and help people nudge their karma back into the positive, and her business was born. In this case, she is helping Will Charbonneau figure out why his girlfriend left him. The break-up seemed to come out of the blue, and Charbonneau’s own karma is in perfect balance, so what happened? From that question hangs quite a tale, and Colavito finds her own karma taking substantial hits as she investigates. The original concept of a karma detective really works here, and I hope I’ll be reading more about Debbie Colavito.
The stories written by first time authors are among the best in this issue of Black Gate. Matthew Surridge’s “The Word of Azrael” is the story of Isrohim Vey, a soldier who sees Azrael, the Angel of Death, on the battlefield at Aruvhossin, where seven kings and their armies lie dead but Vey still lives. Indeed, he seems to be the only living thing left on the battlefield after 36 hours of fighting. The Angel smiles at him and speaks a single word before vanishing, and Vey knows that he will see the Angel again. Vey makes the study of death the occupation of his life. He sees many sights, seeking the Angel, and meets many people worth meeting, and others better avoided, not all of them living. It is a life worth living and a tale worth telling. I look forward to what will certainly be Surridge’s long career, with many a good story and novel to support it.
Sylvia Volk’s “On a Pale Horse” takes place in south Arabia, among the Bedouins. Salsabil is a beautiful young maiden who walks out with the flocks and the family’s mare every day, and comes home so flushed that her family soon suspects she is being wooed. She is quickly betrothed to her cousin, the man she had expected to marry all along, and her family is curious at her seeming eagerness for the marriage. When her father asks her who she meets when out with the flocks, she confesses that it is a beautiful stallion that she sees there, perfect in every way – except for the horn upon his head. The unicorn plays a part in the conflict to come. Although Volk’s tale ends tritely, the telling itself is nicely done.
La Senora de Oro, by first-time author R.L. Roth, is an intriguing story set in 1850, during the California Gold Rush. A mining partnership happens across a statute of a woman made all of gold, but with sharp teeth – a statue that changes the lives of all of them as it drinks their blood. This dark, sad story, told in the form of letters home by one of the miners, makes me eager to read more from Roth.
The fourth story by a first-time author is “The Renunciation of the Crimes of Gharad the Undying” by Alex Kreis. It is that very rare creature, a fantasy story meant to be funny that actually achieves that goal. In a few short pages, Kreis has her character renounce the most hideous crimes as “embarrassing” or “unwarranted,” and pledging his (literally) undying loyalty to the regime that replaced him. A nice effort.
Other stories are noteworthy, if not among the best in the magazine. In “Dark of the Year” by Diana Sherman, Matai is seeking the true name of his granddaughter, whose mother died in childbirth while her father is at war. If he cannot find her name by moondark, the Shadows and darklings will take her. Matai undertakes a journey across the war-torn land to find a war mage who will be able to divine his granddaughter’s name, a journey fraught with danger and unasked-for kindness from others.
“The Hangman’s Daughter” by Chris Braak, is a coming-of-age story about a girl whose dreams at night try to choke her. The boys she plays with tell her it’s the bogeymen who take her breath, and that everyone gets visited; only a few fail to survive the experience. But Cresy isn’t content merely to suffer and hope that she isn’t one of the few who will die. Her father’s only advice is that there are some things that cannot be fought with one’s hands, his evident pride in her decision to fight otherwise stopping his mouth. It’s another competent story.
“Red Hell,” by Renee Stern, is about Kellen’s indentured servitude, and how he manages to break free of it with a bit of magic. This better-than-average story has a likable character, an interesting milieu and a strong plot. Jan Sterling’s “The Lady’s Apprentice” is another above-average tale. I enjoy reading a story every now and then in which the viewpoint character is an old woman, rather than a younger person; sometimes it’s interesting to read a tale told from the perspective of experience, pride, cynicism and pain, rather than of nobility and youth. Sterling does well with her story of Nyla’s service to her Lady. “The Wine-Dark Sea” by Isabel Pelech is another good story in an unusual setting, with a magic that works differently from most.
The issue is rounded out by extensive columns on gaming, classic fantasy, and reviews of contemporary books. There are a few poems strewn throughout the magazine as well. This extra content, on top of a number of excellent stories, makes this comparatively expensive magazine a worthy investment of your reading dollars.