Black Gate #13, Spring 2009

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“The Beautiful Corridor” by Jonathan L. Howard
“The Good Sheriff” by David Wesley Hill
“The Face in the Sea” by John C. Hocking
“Naktong Flow” by Myke Cole
“The Murder at Doty Station” by Matthew Bey
“The Evil Eater” by Peadar Ó Guilin
“Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” by Amy Tibbetts
“The Merchant of Loss” by Justin Stanchfield & Mikal Trimm
“Return of the Quill” by John R. Fultz
“Spider Friend” by L. Blunt Jackson
“Silk and Glass” by Sharon E. Woods
The Naturalist, Part III: “St. George and the Antriders” by Mark Sumner

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

In Jonathan L. Howard‘s “The Beautiful Corridor” we are given Kyth, a clever female thief, who kills two birds with one stone as she is hired to overcome the defenses of a mausoleum to win a secret bet, her prize being the true objective (and the real reason she was hired by another). But will the dead lord from whom she has won her prize offer her enough to steal it back? This is a decent little tale—very familiar to those acquainted with the old Weird Tales formula–whose pages are mostly filled with Kyth overcoming the numerous traps leading to the prize as she travels “The Beautiful Corridor.”

In “The Good Sheriff,” David Wesley Hill‘s second story in the adventures of cowboy Charles Duke, we find him once again on the strange planet to which he has been magically transported, where gold is as common as sand and “good” is not a concept but an element to be mined like ore. Amidst a motley crew of ornery aliens, he becomes the sheriff of an ersatz cowtown in order to repay the magician who holds the secret to his return to Laredo, Texas. Looking out for Number One and elevating the profit motive to its highest pinnacle, Duke soon earns enough “good” to pay off the magician, but finds he is not the only one to whom a contract is mere words. David Wesley Hill has his tongue buried firmly in his cheek with these over-the-top escapades, while striking just the right tone with the cleverly wrought misadventures he puts his reluctant hero through. With “The Good Sheriff” Hill has found the true “voice” of his character and oddball world, and with any luck the reader can look forward to more of Duke’s unpredictable excursions through the surreal world from which he wishes nothing more than to escape.

The Face in the Sea” by John C. Hocking is technically the first of Brand the Viking’s adventures, though not the first published. This struggle on the sea revolves around a Viking chieftain’s daughter rescued from the evil shaman Skorri, and Skorri’s attempts to recover his prize as Brand and his fellow Vikings flee across dangerous waters. Lots of action, evil sorceries, some blood and guts, and what would this type of story be without the money shot of lopped tentacles and black ichor? Pulpish good fun but nothing really new here.

Myke Cole‘s prose in “Naktong Flow” is smooth, evocative, and thoroughly professional. Some years ago he won the Writers of the Future contest, and it shows. “Naktong Flow” is set in the forest-jungles of the Far East, and follows Ch’oe, his men, their ancestor-magician, and a strange, magically-imbued wooden machine as they travel up the Naktong river in pursuit of the less-than-human creatures named the bonesetters (small, hairless, web-fingered beasts collectively known as Waegu). The Waegu, servants of their human masters, have laid waste in inhuman, brutal fashion village after village as they travel up the Naktong toward the palace of the provincial king, there to destroy him and begin their own dark rule. The farther up river Ch’oe and his warriors travel, the more heinous and grisly become the atrocities they witness. Think Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, as he boats further into darkness and madness on his quest to destroy Colonel (Marlon Brando) Kurtz, and you’re on the right track. While totally self-contained and a proper short story, the ending is not what one might expect, and leads to the obvious conclusion that “Naktong Flow” should be part of a larger story. I, for one, will be eager to read it.

Matthew Bey‘s short story “The Murder at Doty Station” didn’t work for me at all. None of the individual parts, characters, or landscape meshed into anything I could piece together into a cohesive whole. It begins with two tough female truck drivers hauling a 30-ton load of ice across the Wash (a dry riverbed) in their steam-powered, coal-driven, 10-ton truck, and needing to stop at Doty Station to refuel. The station master is an intelligent turtle. His assistant is a female ogre who is murdered by a runaway, wind-up robot made of wood and metal gears. Easy Ramirez (one of the ice-haulers) is accused of the crime and is thrown in jail. She is visited by the local robot maker, who insists that his robots couldn’t kill anyone because its gears are programmed with Three Laws preventing it from harming anyone. Sound familiar? The local robot maker is vaguely described as having hooves, and we are told he is a goat-man. The mystery (such as it is) of the murderous wooden, gear-clanking robot is solved and the real villain outed. Easy and her fellow trucker Gonzo are now free to deliver the ice—which we learn is for children’s ice cream. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. We are given absolutely no details of this world—or even its name; no description whatsoever save for the dry riverbed and the coming rainy season. Easy and Gonzo are human (but called witches), there’s a goat-man, a talking, intelligent turtle, an ogre, and a part-wooden, part-metal robot of sorts with gears for guts who is wound a bit too tight (literally). There’s no magic anywhere in sight. No explanation or hints as to the nature of the characters and how such a diverse group of them even exist on this nameless, bare-bones sketch of a world. Maybe “The Murder at Doty Station” will work for you, but to me it came across as an amateurish, slapped-together bit of nonsense.

Peadar Ó Guilin‘s “The Evil Eater” shows, at heart, that Toby is basically a good young man. He works nights at the desk of a European hotel with dreams of becoming an actor. His one and only acting gig was a cola commercial a year before. His new girlfriend, the beautiful but shallow Marie, was first attracted to him on his claim of being an actor, but has become disillusioned with him and is ready to leave. Through one of the hotel’s guests, Toby comes into possession of a printed invitation to a very exclusive—and expensive—restaurant, a 2,000-year-old establishment shrouded in mystery. As a last ditch attempt to impress Marie, he invites her to accompany him to the restaurant. What Toby and Marie discover at first delights them, but Toby soon discovers to his horror that not paying for his meal has consequences far beyond his imaginings, and the new price he must pay far exceeds that of the strange dinner.

In essence, “The Evil-Eater” is a morality tale with a worthwhile message. While adequate, the execution in terms of providing more background into (perhaps) the decadent restaurant’s past would have gone a long way toward securing in the reader’s mind the foreshadowing of dread, would have painted for the reader something richer in atmosphere, thus heightening the tension and reader anticipation of Toby’s possible penalty and ultimate redemption, and could have proved equal to that of the message. In other words, “The Evil Eater” needed fleshing out, a few more brush strokes if you will, and a recognition on the author’s part that through carefully chosen description and/or bits of dialogue he could have manipulated reader emotion (much as a good movie score manipulates viewer reaction far beyond the flat visual images) to a far more successful degree than was experienced. A decent story, but an opportunity missed to make it a really good one. It needed more “music” to bring the desired atmosphere to life.

Amy Tibbett‘s “Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” reminds me, in very general terms, of the sort one would have found in the pages of the now defunct Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. It is a “soft” fantasy in that there is no real overt action, for the story focuses on an emotional issue and internal conflict for its tension and resolution. A young man has received an urgent message from his sister, whom he has not seen in the six years since her marriage. The landscape of the story appears to be somewhat of a Mediterranean extraction, with small villages within close proximity to both desert and sea, with humans warring with the half-breed uttuk, a race given to us as having tough, green skin, and pointed ears. While the human village in question has been raided while its men were away raiding a uttuk village, the young man’s sister was raped and has given birth to a half-human, half-uttuk baby. She has died the night before in child-birth, and he is left to bury her. But what of the half-human baby? The old head-woman of the village wants it destroyed for it is a curse upon the people. The young man’s brother-in-law has returned from a raid to discover his wife’s death and also wants the child destroyed, for it is the thing that has killed his wife. Through a bit of trickery, our young man deceives the brother-in-law into believing he has destroyed the mixed-blood infant and sails into the distance back to his own home.

Why does the brother keep the infant against the wishes of the husband and the traditions of his sister’s people? Two reasons: we are told he is not a fighter/warrior but a scholar; and his sister wanted a child desperately and has even named the child before the birth. So we are torn emotionally for several reasons; fighting and killing are bad (from the brother), and the mother wanted her child to live though it is a half-breed from a non-human race, and though raped, she still feels for this living creature. How could we not feel the tug at our heart-strings and show sympathy for the philosophy of the brother and the wishes of the mother? All of this is fine as far as it goes, but it raises questions not addressed or even hinted at in the text.

What happens to the little monster (it has bitten the hand of the village head-woman already; it was born with teeth) when it grows up? What is to become its fate in the human village whose people are forever plagued by the murdering attacks from the uttuk, from whom half its heritage is drawn? Can the brother tame its half-evil nature through his scholarly knowledge and book-learning as it grows? Might this half-breed become an ambassador between human and uttuk years hence? Might it grow into a murdering creature regardless of its half-human blood? None of this is given in the text. We are only told that the brother is a pacifist and the mother wanted a child, so the infant lives by fiat of these emotions. But what are the consequences? The story, while an emotionally engaging read on the surface, pays no heed to the possible consequences. Emotion and intent are apparently enough to justify the brother’s actions. If none of this bothers you, and you like feel-good stories regardless of their logic, then you will find this story a satisfying read.

Most of us have read the classic tale of the cluttered and atmospheric magic shop, one variation of which is the shop owner collecting vials of sorrow, or bottles of dreams. Justin Stanchfield and Mikal Trimm have taken this show on the road in “The Merchant of Loss,” easily one of the better written stories in this issue. In alternating chapters we follow young Galen (aka Mr. Silence) as he apprentices with the enigmatic Mr. Rook, learning the art of what to collect and what to sell, and for what price. In the present-day chapters we see Galen departed from his mentor, now on his own, and meeting a lovely young woman with whom he enters into a bargain to trade wares (these scenes are particularly well done). Neither Rook nor the strange young barteress are who they seem, and Galen soon learns that he is the focus of their longtime and complicated inter-family…problems. It would do the potential reader an injustice to go into further detail, so suffice it to say that the inner-workings of the tale are well imagined and thought-through, as the lives and motivations of the characters are revealed at the proper moments, piece by piece, and completely and honestly justify the satisfying denouement. A solid well done.

John R. Fultz begins “Return of the Quill” with a terrific opening scene, as Grimsort, one of the city of Narr’s eight Sorcerer Kings, seeks to “unearth fresh cadavers for transformation into Vizarchs, the faceless stormtroopers who ruled the city streets. Mummies torn from the sarcophagi of the ages and skeletons lifted from familial tombs served as his raw material…” Necromancy rules in Narr, until one of the city’s exiles, Artifice the Quill, strikes a bargain with Grimsort and is allowed to return to the city, with his troupe of actors, for a single performance of the play he has written…a very powerful, very special play. Treachery and clever intrigue follow as Fultz cleverly works out his dark tale’s rewarding conclusion.

If you hate spiders as much as I do you’ll feel your skin literally crawl while reading L. Blunt Jackson‘s “Spider Friend,” an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. Thank goodness this is a short story. Kudos to Jackson for packing so much into such a short space; I don’t know if I could have weathered the horror if it were any longer.

I found Sharon E. Woods‘ “Silk and Glass” rather refreshing for her use of glass-blowing as the focal conceit. It centers on a Nonyx—a dragonesque creature able to shapeshift into a beautiful young woman for a short time—who has ostensibly fallen in love with a handsome young man. Not just any young man, however, but a master artisan of the glass-blowing persuasion who is the captive favorite of a certain Duchess. While in her fetching human form, the Nonyx convinces the young artisan—who is in love with her as well–that she can affect his escape and win his freedom, which he sorely desires in order to be able to fully express his talent. What follows is unexpected but works quite well, as each party holds a secret from the other. The passages describing the beautiful glass sculptures are particularly effective.

The Naturalist, Part III:  “St. George and the Antriders” by Mark Sumner

While we refrain from reviewing serials (i.e. novels) and focus exclusively on short fiction, a few brief words about The Naturalist. First off, it’s an absorbing read and thoroughly enjoyable. It began with “Going to Applewash” in Black Gate #10, continued in Black Gate #11 with “An Incident at Grey’s Works,” and concludes in this issue with “St. George and the Antriders.” Set in an alternate Central America in the 1830’s, it tells the tale of British explorers who encounter a race of swarming antriders who destroy everything in their path, including, of course, human settlements. Told through journal entries written by the protagonist, a Mr. Brown—the “naturalist” of the title–in the wonderfully expressive language of the time, it recalls the “lost world” tales of H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sumner constructs a remarkably rich and well-researched world, full of detail and nuance, through which the naturalist, his entourage, and the British forces stationed there must fight to survive. Fraught with danger and excitement, and full of the mystery and color of a grand adventure, I heartily recommend The Naturalist. While the tale of the antriders would appear to have ended with this installment, the author leaves it open whether he will follow the adventures of his naturalist Mr. Brown, as we are given to wonder whether he will indeed embark on a new adventure aboard a ship named the Beagle. As we all know, this famous ship was the very one Charles Darwin sailed on his journey to the Galapagos Islands, where he discovered all manner of strange creatures…

All in all, this thirteenth issue of Black Gate—with its usual complement of book and fantasy gaming reviews (not to mention a dandy article by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. on the magic in his popular Recluse series), and with its hallmark 200+ pages—was another wild ride, with some real standout pieces. Easily worth the $9.95 cover price.