“A River Through Darkness And Light” by John C. Hocking
“The Oracle of Gog” by Vaughn Heppner
“The Gifts of Li Tzu-Ch’eng” by Derek Künsken
“Groob’s Stupid Grubs” by Jeremiah Tolbert
“Into the Gathering Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer
“An Uprising of One” by Jamie McEwan
“Eating Venom” by Harry Connolly
“Dellith’s Child” by Nye Joell Hardy
“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge
“The Vintages of Dream” by John R. Fultz
“Purging Cocytus” by Michael Livingston
“The Lions of Karthagar” by Chris Willrich
“A Pound of Dead Flesh” by Fraser Ronald
Novel Excerpt: “The Desert of Souls” By Howard Andrew Jones (Not Reviewed)
The Special Warrior Woman Issue section:
“The Shuttered Temple” by Jonathan L. Howard
“The War of the Wheat Berry Year” by Sarah Avery
“Roundelay” by Paula R. Stiles
“The River People” by Emily Mah
“Cursing the Weather” by Maria V. Snyder
“The Laws of Chaos Left Us All in Disarray” by S. Hutson Blount
“World’s End” by Frederic S. Durbin
“What Chains Bind Us” by Brian Dolton
Reviewed by Kevin R. Tipple
With the subtitle of “Adventures In Fantasy Literature” the Spring 2011 issue of this massive 384 page magazine delivers in a big way. Beyond the numerous review features on books, dvds, games, letters, and editorial, and other interesting columns and features, the focus is clearly on quality fiction. Complex tales with richly drawn characters of depth engaged in an adventure of some type in a detailed and complex fantasy setting is what you will find in this issue. The stories fully lived up to the subtitle and exceeded my wildest expectations.
The issue contains a total of twenty-one stories, with eight of them classified as part of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue.” Beyond those eight tales, several others could have been included under the special designation. It isn’t at all clear to this reader why some tales were listed that way and others were not. In the big picture it really doesn’t matter how you classify them as each and every single story in Black Gate #15 is a good one.
The fiction begins with “A River Through Darkness and Light” by John C. Hocking. The Archivist¸ his friend Lucella, Vallon, and a group of warriors as escorts are on an expedition sent from the great Archives of the City of Frekore. The group is to find a cache of Old Southern documents — or maybe something more. Vallon is in charge, to the annoyance of the narrator (the Archivist) and refuses to listen to any guidance other than his own. Not only is there trouble ahead for them on the route through the desert, the group is being pursued from above and below ground. Another story featuring the Archivist and his friend Lucella titled “Vestments of Pestilence” is scheduled for the next issue of Black Gate.
An obvious quest is also the backdrop for “The Shuttered Temple” by Jonathan L. Howards. Not only is this the first story designated as one of “The Special Warrior Woman Issue” stories it marks the return of Kyth the Taker last seen in Black Gate 13. In this sequel to “The Beautiful Corridor” Kyth the Taker is ordered by a priest to travel to Mount Caradus with Brother Tonsett. There she will find the Shuttered Temple, legendary for its ability to kill all who would dare to attempt to enter it. While she is very good at what she does and may even get into the temple, this mission might be too much for her incredible skills. Especially since Brother Tonsett refuses to listen to her or acknowledge her skills. Skills that will be severely tested if she is to fulfill the quest and keep them both alive in this very good tale.
“The Oracle of Gog” by Vaughn Heppner follows in a complex tale of slave revolt and fate. Lod is used by a rat hunter not only as a slave but as human bait for huge water rats in a city where water is everywhere. When the rats are close enough, drawn to Lod by his motion in the water and the possibility of food, the rat hunter kills them. Lod is legendary among both the rat hunters and their living bait for his ability to escape the vermin. His stunning act of rebellion will not only make him marked for death, it will make him legendary in a far different way that has the power to change the future of all.
Li Tzu-Ch’eng wants to be emperor of all of China in “The Gifts of Li Tzu-Ch’eng” by Derek Künsken. A poor peasant, he is leading a ragtag army currently of little threat to Emperor Chong Zhen who is occupied with defeating the Menggu armies in the north. Li’s ultimate goal of becoming emperor and the removal of the Ming dynasty is far out of his reach until he meets the every special Nü Wa.
The former courtesan has skills of her own and bears gifts that have great potential as well as great risk. Like Li, she wants to see an end to the Ming dynasty. Heaven, acting through her, is offering Li four gifts. He will be allowed to choose three. However, the fourth unchosen gift will be used against him once the third gift is used in this rich tale steeped in history.
Controlling knowledge and the behavior of others is a key part of “Groobs Stupid Grubs” by Jeremiah Tolbert. In a situation that will be familiar to many readers, Groob has a domineering wife and small children to feed. What is different here is the fact that the family lives near the bottom of a mile-wide city that traverses a planet gobbling up everything in its path. Groob truly is a little cog in a big machine, with potential he has only dreamed about in the past. Depending on the choices he makes as this story unfolds, his future and that of his family could be vastly different.
“The War of the Wheat Berry Year” by Sarah Avery is one designated as part of “The Special Warrior Woman Issue.” Stisele, known as “The Imlen Bastard” leads her people in rebellion towards Miarro. A battle for freedom is about to be waged against the Crown houses. Not just for freedom but also so that Stisele can settle old scores of her own at great personal cost. According to the accompanying author bio, a novella featuring Stisele, “The Imlen Bastard” is scheduled for publication in a future unspecified issue of Black Gate.
Not only does the True Thomas of Ercildoune know the exact number of days of his own life, he is unable to tell a lie. “Into the Gathering Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer tells the tale of what will be his final act as the Queen of Elfland has come for him one more time. He knew she was coming and knows what she wants. He has no choice but to go with her — as it is time. While he can’t tell a lie there are ways around that in this very good tale.
Equally good is “An Uprising of One” by Jamie McEwan. King Erskine of Malpass, a tyrant known as “Erskin the Extractor” for reasons that become clear in the story, must be stopped and stopped now. He has a weakness and Tanek has figured it out. A key part of Tanek’s plan requires him to scale the tallest tower at Erskine’s castle at Courbe. Despite how dangerous it is, breaking into the castle by climbing the tower might be the easiest party of the plan.
Being a servant to somebody that isn’t bright is always a problem. The masters can come up with amazingly stupid ideas and expect you to accomplish them. Altane has no choice as the servant expected to accomplish his master’s bidding in “Eating Venom” by Harry Connolly. Obair is the master and he is on the hunt for a certain beast. Not only can Obair not see the creature he is hunting, he also can’t see the fact that to get close to the beast, he has to cross poisoned land. Not to mention the fact that Obair has issues of his own within the royal family. The hunting situation might very well be the least of his worries. If his master dies, Altane will suffer grave consequences.
The third story designated with the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” moniker is “Roundelay” by Paula R. Stiles. The Black Gate editors explain this one the best with their teaser sentence — “The Queen of Hell had stolen her husband, and she sailed to Hell to win him back.” If you’ve ever enjoyed Greek or Roman mythology tales this one is for you, as it would fit in with those very well. Definitely a good one and worthy of your attention.
What do you do when your sister is very deluded and therefore is taking care of a sea creature that she believes to be her own child? What do you do when your deluded sister is Captain and her crew seems to be not only going along with her delusion but actively encouraging it? Pushing the issue could result in your own painful death. For Grady that is exactly the problem in “Dellith’s Child” by Nye Joell Hardy.
It is not time for a new drug but it certainly is time for a new god in “Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge. The current god for the people of Ipu is quite elderly and must be replaced. To do so, as decreed by the oracle, three sons of the Seventh Eldest will make the incredibly long journey walking across the Commotionless Sea to Tsubarime’s factory. Whenever they finally get there they will purchase a new god and return home with it. The roundtrip journey will take months and months and raise many more questions than answers in a tale where faith, destiny, and choices are incredibly important.
Thulon is a thief and a fairly good one, all things considered. After hearing rumors, he decides it would be a very profitable venture to steal from a certain wizard. It seems the wizard is a bit of an eccentric. One way a certain eccentricity manifests itself is with the wizard’s habit of collecting his own dreams inside bottles of enchanted glass. The wizard stores them in a deep wine cellar and has quite a lot of them. If Thulon can steal them from the wizard and sell the dreams he just might become a rich man in “The Vintages of Dream” by John R. Fultz.
It’s back to stories of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” with the next one, titled “The River People” by Emily Mah. Sora and her blind mother are social outcasts struggling to survive in a small village many days from their home. They exist on charity and at some point that has to stop. Her mother is in failing health and going home to their people is not an option. Instead, Sora’s only real choice is to become a River Woman. Or is it?
Another story from the Special Warrior Woman section follows with “Cursing the Weather” by Maria V. Snyder. As in many of the stories here, the main character, in this case Nysa, believes that wizards are trouble. Nysa believes weather wizards are the worst, and for good reason as the story unfolds. Like Sora of the previous story, Nysa is taking care of her ailing mother as best she can. She simply can’t just pack up and leave any more than Sora could in the previous story. In Nysa’s case, she is suffering repeated abuse at the hands of a proprietress, Gekiryo Lady, while Nysa works as a server for little more than bed and board. Things were bad enough before the weather wizard started showing up for his meals and paying attention to Nysa and her plight. Now that he has, her future at allegedly the best inn in the East will no doubt change in a significant way. Her life can’t help but change as others notice more and more the object of the weather wizard’s attention.
Suppose the dead could be brought back to life? Not as zombies, but as themselves. Or, as close to their former selves as medical science can get them. What might happen then? The possibility and the results drive this well written and very disturbing story titled “Purging Cocytus” by Michael Livingston. Young Danny is having very strange dreams involving himself, a frozen landscape, an old man, and the waiting devil at the end of their quest. In his waking hours, the reality is that his deceased grandfather has been brought back to life and will come home today as this complex story begins. One knows early on that no good can come of this and author Michael Livingston does not disappoint a bit.
It’s back to stories of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” moniker with the next one titled, “The Laws of Chaos Left Us All in Disarray” by S. Hutson Blount. The pilgrims desperately need to reach the temple and not just because that is their mission. Their numbers are dwindling as unthinkable horrors in physical form chase and attack them over and over again. Outnumbered and with rapidly diminishing ammunition reserves, a desperate move by Hautbee, mercenary clanswoman from the wild Northlands, is the only option left or Lady Jefek and her party won’t survive.
The act of finishing the job is also at work in “World’s End” by Frederic S. Durbin. In a tale that is also part of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” Kian has done everything asked of her and yet it still isn’t enough. Despite her obvious efforts and skill, the dreaded god Arhazh still isn’t satisfied. She has to do one more thing to prove that not only is she no longer a child but a full-fledged adult woman, and a warrior worthy of his favor. Kian is not to question his instructions even though clearly what he wants done is arbitrary at best. She has to fulfill his final task to achieve her long anticipated goal. But, at what cost and with what outcome for all involved?
“The Lions of Karthagar” by Chris Willrich follows with a story that initially seems to be of two armies clashing at a specific spot. In this case, Karthagar, which lies near the place known as the “Ruby Waste.” A special place where “… the sands glitter like powdered gems set afire.” Those who lead the respective armies want possession of the area to plunder its treasures for their respective royal houses. Those who counseled war and put the clash into motion should have thought about the reason why the treasures are still sitting there for the taking after so much time had passed.
The final story of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” follows, titled “What Chains Bind Us” by Brian Dolton. Yi Quin knows all about fear. She knows it in others. Many that she comes into contact with hear voices in the night. Liang Zho is one of those people and desperately needs her help. If she can find a way to set him free from the nightly voices that are slowly destroying him, he can return to his former self.
If reading a lot of fiction over the years has taught anything, it should be obvious that dealing with a necromancer is almost always serious trouble at best for all involved. In “A Pound of Dead Flesh” by Fraser Ronald the mission is to deliver a box to a necromancer. Feradac is a priest of the “High Exalted of the Cult of Pluto” during the time of the Aeolean Empire. Brude has never trusted Aidan, even when they marched together in the legions. His friend, Drust, has always trusted Aidan and still seems to, despite Aidan’s idea that they should be the ones to deliver the box to Feradac. There is a reason why Aidan is willing to pay so much for the simple job that he should be doing himself. All they have to do is not look in the box and deliver it to Feradac. What could be simpler?
The novel excerpt of “The Desert of Souls” by Howard Andrew Jones brings the issue to a close along with more reviews as well as the usual comic strip. While the ad for the upcoming issue specifies the authors involved and the new price structure due to the new format, it does not go into any details regarding publication date or the stories themselves. This is a weakness that should be addressed, as both items would be very important to potential new readers and the existing subscriber base. The Black Gate website does, however, inform possible subscribers that this will be the final print issue, and with Black Gate 16 the magazine will be available only in several digital formats (Kindle, Nook, iBook, etc., though back issues are still available in both print and digital format).
From the distinctive cover art that pays homage to the concept of the “Special Warrior Woman Issue” to the abundance of reviews, numerous features, and other interesting content, this is a quality magazine. Fiction is what drives the issue in all aspects. Living up wonderfully to their subtitle of “Adventures In Fantasy Literature” Black Gate 15 delivers consistently across the board with the twenty-one stories in this issue. Along with at least one illustration, each story also has at least one side panel containing an author photo along with short author bios, references to other stories featuring the characters in previous and future issues of Black Gate as well as in other publications, and other interesting information. Granted, the cover price of $18.95 for one print issue or $32.00 for two issues is pretty high for those of us with severe financial situations. However, based on my experience with this issue, my first and courtesy of Tangent Online editor Dave Truesdale, I must say the price for what you get is incredibly reasonable and well worth it. It is also worth noting that the Black Gate website currently lists a much lower price for PDFs of each issue.
At 384 pages, the fiction is tremendously varied in terms of characters, settings, and writing styles. What is constant in each story is that every one is strong and well written. The folks involved at all levels deserve your support as they have produced an incredibly good product in difficult economic times. You won’t go wrong in picking up this issue today, while you still can.