"The Whoremaster of Pald" by Harry James Connolly
"Pity the Poor Dybbuk" by Stever Carper
"What They Did To My Father" by F. Brett Cox
"Stitchery" by Devin Monk
"Heart of Jade" by Amy Sterling Casil
"Goyles in the Hood" by Leslie What
"Under the Bridge" by Jeff Verona
"Straight to My Lover's Heart" by Richard Bowes
"Bones of the Dead" by Julia Blackshear Kosatka
[Classic Reprint] "The Monster-God of Mamurth" by Edmond Hamilton
It's no easy thing to launch a mazagine in today's publishing climate. Black Gate has suffered its share of the storms and rip tides of the dot.com failures and subsequent backers' abandonment of ship, making the second issue late. The magazine seems to have weathered the storms and the next issue is slated to appear right around Worldcon, on regular schedule. This is a very good thing; Black Gate is a very promising addition to a lamentably dwindling number of genre magazines.
In his editorial, publisher/editor John O'Neill defines the magazine's purpose: the publication of adventure fantasy. A swift scan through the offerings will assure the picky reader that "adventure" does not mean predictable in the sense of the old pulps. Only one of the stories takes place in a generic fantasy world, the last; the rest of them range from modern-day New Orleans to Shanghai in 1945 to the Mayan jungles on the eve of that civilization's fall.
At 224 pages, the magazine has all the heft of a good trade paperback. Along with the stories are an interview with Gene Wolfe, articles on gaming, comics, and books, including some excellent overviews of fantasy for adults and for young readers from Richard Horton and Victoria Strauss respectively. There is a reprint, "The Monster-God of Mamurth" by Edmond Hamilton, and the issue ends with comics. The stories come with interior illos that break up the pages nicely, but what I find to be the magazine's biggest layout advantage is that each story runs uninterrupted from beginning to end. Being one of those whose reading time tends to be confined to meals, I really appreciate not having to play hunt-the-slipper halfway through a story, putting down my tea or sandwich in order to flap through the magazine tracking down stray columns so I can finish reading a piece. I think my only creeb would be that copyediting might be tighter; the first story had a grammar mistake in the second line, and the last story was peppered with grammar and spelling errors.
But that's a small creeb. That first story was one of my favorites. Harry James Connolly's unlikely hero is a fat master of a whorehouse who cringes before bullies; not your usual fantasy hero at all. His story told with smooth, vivid prose that is strongly reminiscent of Jack Vance, Connolly's Zed gradually engages reader sympathy as he veers between bullying protection racketeers, a new worker who decides she can't really stick to prostitution, a conniving rival, and the mayor's lout of a nephew. Overseeing this city of smells and gambling hells is a Warden who is surprisingly honest. How he and Zed clash, with Zed's life the stake, makes an unputdownable tale. Connolly works the twists and turns so cleverly it's impossible to guess what will happen. It's hard to believe this is Connolly's first published story; I look forward to his next.
Another excellent story, very well written, is Steve Carper's "Pity the Poor Dybbuk." A small community of German Jews have escaped Germany to land in Shanghai, the only place you can enter without official forms. Life there is miserable and mean, especially under the Japanese warlords, but it's better than the Third Reich. Hans, who sees demons, his friend Ernst, and their sick friend Fritz are pushing a cart containing a coffin to the burial ground, as all the horses were eaten long ago. At the ceremony, an accident happens and a vindictive dybbuk enters a hapless bystander, and then Fritz. While Hans is trying to figure out what to do about Fritz, a bombing raid brings about the inevitable wave of dead and suffering people. How the men cope, and what happens to the dybbuk, makes for an absorbing and fine tale.
Though Carper's tale takes place in a miserable place at a terrible time, it is not nearly as dark a tale as F. Brett Cox's "What They Did To My Father." This grim story, about a desperately poor family whose overworked father takes out his stress in abuse, centers around a mysterious root man whose powers might aid the young protagonist, but are not necessarily good. The prose is tight and evocative.
"Stitchery", Devon Monk's story, is quite a contrast. It, too, involves outcasts, but the central character cares about everyone and everything, not always wisely. It's a surreal tale–the protagonist's lover has two heads, she has saved an old lady who knits up lost moments, and her parents have invented a crystal thread that reforms body parts into life–but the story is imbued with real emotions. It's well told, and quite engaging.
"Heart of Jade," by Amy Sterling Casil, takes place in the Mayan city of Copan, when its Great Mayan Lord, 20 Rabbits, is dying, and he has no son to follow him, only a strong but willful daughter who arrives at the workshop of Two Frogs, demanding a jade amulet for her father that will spare his life. She also wants to learn his magic. How did she know he does magic? He has only told his wife, to whom despite her bad housekeeping skills, and her barrenness ever since their single son died in infancy, he has stayed loyal. The first half of the story is the strongest, evoking place and time and atmosphere. The story falters somewhat in the second half, Two Frog's conversation with the dying Great Lord lurching in spots as if necessary transitions had been edited out, and Two Frog's relationship with the Daughter relying on cliches at crucial moments ("He had never seen her so vulnerable"), but in contrast Casil's interpolations from the gods overlay the story with the neck-prickling sensation of impending thunder, and the story overall is an involving read.
Leslie What is known for weird stories that are difficult to categorize and impossible to predict. Her "Goyles in the Hood" begins with humor, as the title hints, but it is not a funny story overall. The story is narrated by a gargoyle created by a vampire to guard her crypt. This gargoyle is devoted to her mistress, known only as Madame, to discover that Madame's heart is as dead as one would expect of a vampire. So the gargoyle decides it's time to take some power for herself.
"Under the Bridge" by Jeff Verona is a very well written take on a familiar childhood tale. Toni is a young woman working in a rough part of town, hoping to go to college, harrassed by gang bangers. When her shift ends, her sister calls and can't come get her, so she must walk home alone. The plot of this one is perhaps the most transparent of all the stories in the issue, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.
The sight of Richard Bowes' name in the table of contents has come to mean good reading ahead for a lot of readers besides myself. "Straight to My Lover's Heart" is another of his Time Ranger stories, which involve time travel, city life, and ancient gods and goddesses. Eros is the hero here, which is, I think, all I need to say about this story: read and enjoy.
"Bones of the Dead," by Julia Blackshear Kosatka, concerns an aging swordmistress who was once a part of the Queen's Guard. Loyal to her monarch and her family, Rella got dragged into a war involving sorcery, and its aftermath. There are all the familiar elements here of adventure fantasy: other worlds, evil wizards, swordswomen, oaths and curses, but Kosatka's story really is about time, and the strength of family bonds. It's an ambitious tale, and a worthwhile read. Its ending is poignant, and perhaps would have been more powerful if the prose had been given the benefit of a rigorous editing, or at least a copyedit to catch the grammatical and spelling errors.
Overall a good issue, leaving the reader anticipating the next issue this fall.