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Magazine Review: Black Gate Issue 12 edited by John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones

* Black Gate Magazine
* Issue #12
* Summer, 2008

* 224 pages, $9.95
* On Sale July 7, 2008
* Edited by John O’Neill
* Published by New Epoch Press
* Cover Art by Bruce Pennington

Black Gate 12, offered for free for a limited time, is a good edition, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard editors John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones had set with prior issues, especially Black Gate 11.

There are only eight stories in this edition of Black Gate, but there are 224 pages of material in this issue. O’Neill and Jones have done something especially unique this time in printing a full length solo paper and pen role-playing adventure called “Legends of the Ancient World: Orcs of the High Mountains”, a game by Jerry Meyer Jr. for Dark City Games. Playable as either a full-on role-playing game, or a choose-your-own-adventure style book, this unique addition to issue 12 makes this issue a must have for all role-playing enthusiasts.

Now, on to the stories themselves.

In “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” by John R. Fultz, we learn that sometimes ignorance is bliss. Taizo is a thief sent to steal a precious possession from a city of spider-worshippers. Quite accidentally, he falls in love with a beautiful woman, and wishes to take her with him after completing his mission. But an unfortunate set of circumstances brings about a revelation Taizo could wish he had never seen. Fultz’s story has echoes of the drow of the Forgotten Realms, but forges its own territory. Essentially, this story becomes a fable about curiosity and the cat. The content has some adult features, so this isn’t suitable for younger readers, because of sex and drug use. The tale itself is tightly woven, and has just the right amount of intrigue, action, and surprise that it is a great opener for the issue.

James Enge returns to his Morlock the Maker character in “Payment in Full”. The story, told from the perspective of a character Morlock saved in previous story can be quite funny and deadly serious as well. Enge is developing Morlock above and beyond the short story format into a character that can be used in a full-length novel. Morlock becomes less of an enigma as he tries to gather information that will let him continue on his still-shrouded-in-mystery quest. An old enemy from another story makes an appearance. Enge also gives the reader an exciting sewer crawl and quick changes in allegiances that make this story different from all the other Morlock tales.

“Houses of the Dead” is a new Martha Wells story that tells the first wizard hunting tale of Ilias and Giliead. New to being a god’s vessel, Giliead must go to a remote mining town and discover why all the inhabitants appeared to have mysteriously vanished. This story allows Wells to humanize her almost always evil wizards (that evil being a product of how they get magic power). The story ends on a mournful note, but it leaves us with a better impression of Ilias and Giliead’s characters. Wells writes an enjoyable story built more on suspense and danger than a great deal of action, though there is that too. Its conclusion came as a pleasant surprise and was unexpected.

Constance Cooper tells a story of bayous, magic, and buried treasure in “The Wily Thing”. This story takes little getting used to, mostly because Cooper uses the word “guile” as a noun, rather than as a simple descriptor. The reason for this becomes apparent later in the story, but it initially threw me for a loop. The story establishes an interesting world, one I’d like to see more stories in. The “guile” of the story is a sort of primordial sludge that causes changes in people, animals and objects. It’s an X factor that affects all things it touches, and changes them all in different ways. Yonie and LaRue encounter one such object that is stirring up trouble, and must find a way to fulfill its needs. This leads to an adventure that binds the two primary characters closer to one another. A strong offering, “The Wily Thing” is odd, but unique. This was my favorite tale of the issue.

What happens when a salesman dies? Todd McAulty tackles this idea in “Soldier’s of Serenity, a scathing satire of corporate life and a glimpse into spiritual warfare. The narrator, Christopher is being forced to justify his and his project’s existence to his boss in order to avoid downsizing, while at the same time he appears to be cracking up, as he begins seeing ghosts. This story has some adult themes, so be warned. McAulty’s grasp of the structure of corporations, particularly engineering firms is solid, and he turns the dull into a fantastic story. It sort of The Office meets Left Behind. Though not strictly a sword and sorcery tale, it is a worthy addition to this issue.

Ed Carmien returns to his world of land-going ships and strange beasts of burden in “Knives Under the Spring Moon”. Readers will need to have read “Before the Wind” to fully appreciate this story, but even new readers will understand this tale of revenge. More details of Carmien’s world are revealed, and Kris and Paddy end the story ready to embark on an adventure that will likely reveal much about their world. Readers will get hints that this world might be less one of fantasy than of science fiction, but the necessary elements of a fantasy are there, and the face-off between Kris and Slew is exciting. A good story.

Howard Andrew Jones tells the first tale of Dabir and Asim in “Whispers from the Stone”. Dabir and Asim find them fighting a magic from the past, Dabir with wits and Asim with his strong right arm. This story set in an ancient Islamic culture is full of all the elements sword and sorcery fans crave, and Jones once again provides an exciting and eventful story. Perhaps the motivation of one of the characters is a bit of a modern sensibility, but it still works for this fun tale.

The final story of this issue is a fantasy classic. The final story of Charles R. Tanner’s Tumithak character, “Tumithak and the Ancient Word” neatly wraps up his story. Tumithak is forced by treachery to rescue his wife and son. AS a result, knowledge is revealed. The story is written as a historical account, an attempt to take reality from myth by a scholar of the time of Tumithak. It is an interesting way to tell the tale, as it assures the reader that all eventually works out for the good. Yet Tanner still manages to create enough suspense and action to keep the story from becoming trite or dull. Old as the story is, it still entertains as much as it would have had it ever been published at the time of its writing.

Black Gate 12, while more timely than many other issues of Black Gate, suffers from a preponderance of repeated authors and characters, with only a couple of completely original pieces. This is not to say that the contributions are not worthwhile reading, but readers should be aware that editors John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones have chosen to reuse some of their more popular authors, rather than add new ones.

As a long-time reader, I have appreciated the repeat of certain characters, but one of my favorite things about Black Gate has always been their ability to find new authors like Todd McAulty, or David Evan Harris.

So while I enjoyed Black Gate 12, it was not nearly as enjoyable as previous issues. I got a feeling of its publication being rushed, as if O’Neill and Jones picked authors they knew had been successful previously, and published them in order to be seen to be trying to make an effort to stick to their publishing schedule. While I appreciate the attempt, I’ve always been content to get the issue whenever it comes, because each time the fiction is excellent. Black Gate 12 ended up not being at the same standard I expected based on prior issues.