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Magazine Review: Black Gate #14

Black Gate #14

Black Gate #14

I have been a long-time supporter of the magazine Black Gate. Though its publication schedule is random and rare, it never fails to be one of the best collections of fiction on the market – whether books, magazines, or online. The latest edition has just been released, and Black Gate #14 is massive, topping out at 384 pages, hence the increased cover price of $15.95. But it is worth every penny, as this review will show.

In this issue, there are 16 short stories, 3 novellas, 3 poems, a essay by Rich Horton, the usual gaming and book reviews (the book review section is 32 pages and includes my own review of Theodore Beale’s Summa Elvetica) and an extended Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. Sadly, there is no classic reprint, but one can’t have everything. And the original fiction in this issue is chock full of fantasy adventure, most by brand new authors with their first published story appearing in these pages, so the wound is not deep.

The magazine starts out with a story by Diana Sherman entitled “The Dark of the Year”. In it, a grandfather must find a name for his granddaughter in a medieval world where names hold true power, and to be named is to be protected from becoming an agent of evil when the Dark of the Year comes. The story is sad in tone, and ends tragically but hopefully. Sherman’s tale as first of the magazine was a good choice, as the author’s writing is comfortable, the characters immediately compelling (the grandfather’s fear for his granddaughter is palpable), and its short length and semi-standard sword and sorcery setting makes for a good introduction to the whole collection of fiction.

The darkness of mood is continued in the following story by Chris Braak. In “The Hangman’s Daughter” Braak takes the “monsters under the bed” that so pervades children’s imaginations and makes it real. Braak’s story is a metaphor for the conquering of fear. I found particularly interesting Braak’s choice of a young female lead, whose strength of will and depth of character mixed with honest fear and trepidation create a gripping connection to the reader.

“The Bonestealer’s Mirror” by John C. Hocking is another in his stories of Brand, the Nordic warrior. In this one, there are echoes of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead. Like that tale, Hocking’s has an ancient Nordic setting and a creature which is preying on a settlement. However, unlike Eaters of the Dead, Hocking’s story is full of real magic, and though it ends predictably, it has a dark grittiness of content and mood that emulates its Nordic mythos basis.

Matthew David Surridge writes in an unusual manner for “The Word of Azrael”. The entire life story of the main character, Isrohim Vey, is told. Isrohim Vey is a man very like Robert E. Howard’s Conan, a wanderer and warrior who lives life in the moment. The story is told as a history, containing only minimal dialogue, and the reader goes through the life of Isrohim Vey from the beginning of his journey as sole survivor of a bloody battle to his moving in and about several kingdoms wreaking havoc and fighting evil wherever he finds it. Each section of the story is a sort of plot summary of a novel, just the bare bones, leaving as much to the imagination as it delineates. It is an interesting way to go about presenting a story, and while it is good for the a few of the plot summaries, it does get a little tiresome, and I felt the story was a bit longer than it really needed to be to get Surridge’s narrative across. But the creative method of telling the life and adventures of Isrohim Vey is out of the ordinary and for that this story is to be commended. Otherwise, the story is a standard sword and sorcery, full of action and adventure and strange trials of Herculean size.

Martin Owton makes heroes out of farmers in “The Mist Beyond the Circle”. When the farmers return from their work to find their wives and belongings taken by raiders, they must band together to find and save those still alive. A rescue story, “The Mist Beyond the Circle” is not particularly memorable, but is pleasantly enjoyable, just the kind of fare readers expect to find in a sword and sorcery magazine.

“Freedling” by Mike Shultz is a very short tale about a young apprentice, trapped with her master under a pile of rubble, who knows not whether she can trust him to save them. Injured, her master the apprentice, who is able to move about freely, to perform several acts which the apprentice feels may be to her detriment. Will and power collide in this tale. I like Shutlz’s magic system and would like to see more tales set in this world published, and perhaps also to find out what happens to the young protagonist after the events of this story.

Alex Kries’ “The Renunciation of the Crimes of Gharad the Undying” (Read the full text) is an open letter by a deposed tyrant which is a non-apology apology so typical of politicians proved wrong or caught in scandalous acts. In this day and age when so many politicians and athletes apologize for bad or immoral behaviors by saying a lot while really saying nothing, this former tyrant’s apology in the form of an open letter has the ring of truth in it. Kries does an excellent job of writing a letter that in the surface is wholly sincere, but which the reader just can’t believe in the face of the crimes he lists. Excellently written, and a great bit of wry humor set between more serious and dark tales.

Michael Jasper and Jay Lake team up to give us a dark story told from a villainous witch’s point of view. In “Devil on the Wind” the protagonist is not a person to like, a woman who loves pain and the inflicting of it, but when sent by her cabal of eight to investigate why tribute is not being properly paid by a local vassal, she does her duty, even to the sacrifice of her own desires. Jasper and Lake’s story is of a selfish, vain character whose triumphs over her enemies. Even as the reader despises the protagonist and her evil, we cheer for her when she triumphs. A good enough story, though one I found did not hold my attention well. My mind easily wandered from the goings on of the narrative, and at its ending, I felt that perhaps I had missed some key component in understanding the tale’s intent or purpose beyond mere entertainment. This is some deeper metaphor here, but I could not divine it, and so left the tale feeling confused.

Pete Butler’s novella “The Price of Two Blades” is spectacular. In it, a young troubadour arrives in a village, having passed through a large and lovingly tended graveyard just outside. Curious, he attempts to find out the story behind the graveyard, which is much too large for a village of this size. What he finds is a story of a pact made with old gods that costs a high and terrible price. Told from multiple points of view, which, while told in a linear fashion, jumps from point of view to point of view and back and forth in time from the troubadours time to the events leading up to the formation of the graveyard. The story ends up being something of a morality tale about “walking a mile in other’s shoes” and seeing the world from different perspectives, but Butler’s clever build of suspense and mystery, use of religious magic that costs a price, and multiple viewpoint telling of the story keep the reader glued to the action as it unfolds. This is undoubtedly one of the best stories of this issue, perhaps one of the best Black Gate has yet published. I’d like to see a lot more from Pete Butler’s pen.

“The Girl Who Feared Lightning” is a paranormal fantasy tale by Dan Brodribb in which a clever guard faces off against a mummy. The story is fine, but Brodribb uses it as a way to paint big business as evil and the reason for much misfortune, unoriginality, and all that is wrong with the world. Somewhat funny, the humor is too dampened by the message to make this story other than forgettable.

The second novella of the anthology is a new Morlock story from James Enge. In “Destroyer” Morlock and his companions face off against a hive of the insectile Khroi as the pass between the border of their lands and the lands of the spiders. The story is told from the perspective of Thend, a young man whose family Morlock once saved, and who now travels with them. Thend does not like Morlock, nor his ways of doing things, which provides tension throughout the novel, though it is Thend’s actions, not Morlock’s that truly save them when they are taken captive by the completely alien Khroi. Another find Morlock story from James Enge, “Destroyer” will no doubt delight his growing legion of fans and though of limited accessibility to new readers, is still accessible enough to be engaging and enjoyable.

I was surprised to find that my favorite story of the magazine was Robert J. Howe’s “The Natural History of Calamity”. The tale is not a sword and sorcery tale, has nothing of the epic about it, but is instead a piece of paranormal crime noir. Debbie is a karma detective, a person people hire when they feel that for some reason the universe is out of whack. When Will Charbonneau hires her to find out why his girlfriend left him for no apparent reason, it seems like a straightforward case. But then Debbie runs into an old boyfriend in the course of the case, and everything becomes a tangled mess. Surprise twists, a significant does of self-deprecating humor, and a no-nonsense first person point of view make this story hard to walk away from. From the little teaser at the beginning, to the depth of character and clever use of karma as plot device, Howe’s story is a real pleaser from beginning to end. My favorite of the magazine and one I highly recommend reading.

“Red Hell” by Renee Stern is a look at day laboring from a fantasy point of view. Not in preachy, the story simply presents to the reader a man down on his luck who soon finds himself embroiled in political and magical intrigue simply because he took a job cleaning out privies. Poor Kellen is sympathetic, and Stern’s world bears more exploring in future stories, perhaps even a novel, with its airships, warring magics, and her dynamic storytelling.

Jan Stirling’s “The Lady’s Apprentice” is a simply tale about an old hedge witch and her battle with an evil sorcerer. The use of an old crone as hero instead of villain or simple healer is a nice twist on the trope. A good tale and wholly enjoyable.

“The Wine-Dark Sea” by Isabel Pelech is another rescue story in which a trained assassin, twisted in features by magical fog, uses her skills to save a young boy from that same magical fog in a sunken city full of peril and danger. A suspenseful tale, though I found myself confused as to how the assassin was able to breathe underwater in the early stages of the story, and yet nearly drowns at the end. One can chalk that up to the magic of the fog, surely, but was not made clear to me. But other than that nitpick, the story itself presents and interesting world in which people must live in high places to avoid the magical fog, which turns them into something not wholly human in form and feature. The assassin, too, has a history I would like to see explored more fully in another tale.

“On a Pale Horse” by Sylvia Volk is a historical fantasy set in the ancient days of the Bedouin. Volk’s primary strength is in her evocation of imagery, her ability to create in the mind the sweeping vistas of the sands, and the beauty of the land. The story itself is of a young virgin and a unicorn, a nice resetting of a common element of Western European fairy tales. Like those original tales, the story has sad emotional moments born of dark happenings. However, Volk does make some shifts in character perspective which are not clearly delineated which damages the story subtly, though for her imagery alone this story is well worth the read.

R. L. Roth sets his tale in the time of the California Gold Rush, and writes a tall tale, laced with dark magic, about the consumptive nature of greed in “La Senora De Oro”. Constructed as a prospector’s letters home to his wife, Roth slowly and subtly begins to turn the mind of the writer from seeking profit due to need to seeking profit for its own sake, until the character becomes a Gollumesque type who mutters about his love for his “precious”. Great storytelling, a different method of presentation, and a unique setting make this one of the standout stories of the issue.

“Building Character” by Tom Sneem is one of those self-referential stories writers sometime create. The story is told from the perspective of a hero, written by a young writer learning his chops, who moves from story to story with the author as he writes himself into corners, tries new ways of writing, and lives out fantasies on the page. A funny little tale, anyone who has ever tried to write a short story or simply read widely will get a little laugh out of this one.

Douglas Emphringham closes out the fiction in the magazine with “Folie and Null”. A troubadour and apprentice magician team up to stop a fallen noble and his sister from engaging in banditry and killing. The story is a series of “happy accidents” that lead up to a final confrontation. This tale is potentially the origin story for a series of tales about the troubadour and apprentice magician as they travel about the countryside. Entertaining but of limited merit and not one that should have been the concluding piece of fiction in the magazine.

The poetry in the magazine was fine, mostly in a free verse form, with illustrations that I felt did not always match up with the content. Of course, I might just be dense about poetry, but nothing about them really stood out to me as being particular good or clever. I also did not see why the poems were given their own page, when all of them were short enough to be placed at the end of the stories instead of some of the spot art.

This leads me to the spot art of John Woolley. In classic pulp fashion, the images are of busty, scantily clad women in various costumes (pirate, space, samurai, etc.). Excellently drawn, the images certainly bring to mind images of book and magazine covers from before the digital age. They were a bit on the titillating side, and may anger some who see them as denigrating women or simply being physically impossible. They are a potential deal breaker for some of the readers of Black Gate, though they could also gain the magazine many more.

Black Gate continues to use illustrations for each story in the collection. My own favorite was of the assassin drawn by Mark Evans for “The Wine-Dark Sea”. Chuck Lukacs continues to illustrate Enge’s Morlock stories, and Jim and Ruth Keegan’s Soviet propaganda like illustration for “Red Hell” is a particular standout.

Before I end this review, I’d like to remark on the publishing quality. John O’Neill, in his editorial, calls for readers to comment on whether the two-column format used for the novellas in this issue would be suitable for using in all fiction going forward. According to him, this would allow for more fiction, reducing the number of pages it takes to print a story. I would respond by saying “Go for it!” I did not find the two-column format to be at all a problem in reading the stories; in fact, I think they added to the readability of the novellas. Nothing was lost by the new styling, and if it lets Black Gate publish even more great fiction in future issues, then why not do it that way?

I do have one or to complaints about the publishing however. First, I really wish that Black Gate would move from using just paper envelopes for shipping to padded ones. My copy came to me somewhat damaged by its travels through an increasingly hard pressed and underfunded mail service and so came with folds, tears, and damage to the cover. I would be willing to pay whatever extra was required in cover costs to get the magazine sent to me in a way that better preserved it. Also, the printer seems to have been slightly out of whack when my copy was printed. Several of the pages had those folds that paper sometimes gets when sent through a copier with too much heat. Although none of the content was missing, more than a few of my pages are creased in the middle and since this is a magazine I plan to keep on my shelf for a long time to come, I would like to have a copy in the best of conditions. However, I acknowledge that this is more my perfectionism getting the better of me than any real fault on the part of Black Gate, but I still felt it needed to be said.

All in all though, this massive collection of fiction from Black Gate shows why, even with their irregular publishing schedule, Black Gate is one of the most popular magazines (print or online) available today. Pick up your copy of Black Gate #14 direct from the retailer. If you love good fiction with fascinating heroes and villains, eloquent storytelling, and a broad spectrum of genres and content, than Black Gate #14 is what you need.