Black Gate, #6, Fall 2003

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"Looking for Goats, Finding Monkeys" by Iain Rowan
"The Flowers on the Harp" by Anne Sheldon
"The Grand Tour" by Kevin N. Haw
"Miller's Wife" by Mark W. Tiedemann
"Rocks Under Water" by Karen Jordan Allen
"Portal" by Rick Norwood
"Tumithak in Shawm" by Charles R. Tanner

Image"Looking for Goats, Finding Monkeys" by Iain Rowan

"I let a small pebble roll from the folds of my sleeve into my hand. The family waited. I sat patiently for another minute. Then I tossed the pebble into the water and the bowl erupted into a fizzing, crackling frenzy.
The mother screamed, the father let out a grunt, the children said nothing.
'Be calm," I said. 'They are upon us. Be calm and remain still. Remain where you are and all will be well.'"

A charlatan ghost buster gets more than he bargains for when he finally encounters the real thing. I wasn't convinced by the wise man's solution on either an emotional or intellectual level. The malevolent ghost experiences the diminishing power of the wise man's mystical words. I didn't believe it would flee words that lacked any power whatsoever.

Otherwise, I loved the wise man who reverts to his fleecing ways in the end.

"The Flowers on the Harp" by Anne Sheldon

"There was little about her body that the red gown failed to reveal, weighted as it was with brass, but Harken found himself staring at the small harp she bore in the crook of her arm."

Harken gets a present, Griah, a slave woman, the last survivor of a demon family of mages. Years ago, her father attacked and almost seized the city of Midrath. Harken killed the rest of her family. When Harken and his soldiers discover her, Harken both rapes her and saves her at the age of 14.

Now Harken tries to make amends. He grants Griah her freedom; dowers her with land and title. She plays her harp, he suffers an unknown affliction of the heart and wastes away until he dies.

The exotic situation of "Harp" echoes, distantly, Tanith Lee's eerie stories while lacking the robustness of character and motivation. The ending would have been more satisfying, and the story more mature, if the resolution had depended on some aspect of the relationship between Harken and Griah–bringing the themes of forgiveness or expatiation of past crime to some sort of completion–rather than the sudden and surprising revelation that the harp is cursed.

"The Grand Tour" by Kevin N. Haw

"Day 3 – Today it was Cocytus, the River of Lamentation. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I was so disappointed.

Sure, the souls of people who died unburied wander the banks, just like it said in Fodors (or was it Bullfinch's?). And that was kind of neat. At first. After all, except for the housekeeping staff at the hotel these guys were the first damned souls we've seen up close.

The thing is, though, they weren't lamenting at all! I mean, it's the River of Lamentation, right? Instead, it looks like they just sit around all day and play cards until a bus rolls around and dumps out a load of tourists."

Hell, like Eastern Europe, is having a currency crunch. So they've opened their gates for discount tourist packages. Still, it always pays to know your classical mythology. And don't drink the water.

Clever and short, this biting send up of American tourists abroad is sure to delight.

"Miller's Wife" by Mark W. Tiedemann

"'Welcome to Saletcroix,' she said. Her voice was sharp and carried a faint New England accent. 'Are you married?'"

Egan has borrowed a friend's cabin for the weekend, or for however long it takes him to get his act together. But there's something odd about the village of Saletcroix. Hard times have come and the villagers have an unusual justification for them. When the wife of a local man propositions Egan, he gets both the kind of trouble you'd expect, and truckloads of the kind you won't see coming.

Easily my favorite story of the issue, this well told tale generates its surprises the old fashioned way: from the characters and their situation.

"Rocks Under Water" by Karen Jordan Allen

"'Pete, you're such a wimp. Will you get in the damned kayak?' Harry scowled and grabbed his brother's arm, but Peter pried off the hand then hugged his knees to his chest."

Pete and Harry's father was a geologist with a peculiar respect for rocks. Was, because he's gone. Pete knows the rocks got him. When an argument separates Pete from his watchful older brother, Pete will have to confront his self doubt.

Pete's father is an interesting character. The flashbacks that contain him are some of the most vivid writing in "Rocks." Despite that, I found the flashbacks heavily distracting. Their rich character contrasted strongly with the pale scenes of Pete in the here-and-now.

I didn't find Pete to command much of my attention. The solo scenes with him were stiff and forced.

Unless the reader is supposed to question Pete's sanity, I find the suppressed menace of the rocks to work against the overall story. If the rocks are a real threat–if they really did attack Pete's father–I think it would have been in the service of the reader's experience to make it clear through the action of the rocks. They need to crush Pete's boat or commit some otherwise incontrovertible act. The "now you see them, now you don't" treatment of the rocks affects my ability to perceive the self propelled, sentient rocks as a concrete reality. As a result, I have trouble arriving at the joyous moment where Pete embraces his self certainty and his future career as a geologist.

"Portal" by Rick Norwood

"He squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them, blinking furiously. For a moment his vision cleared, and he saw the serf catchers."

In a world where any assembly of four shafts into a rectangle may open a doorway into another world filled with terror and danger, Ian has fled his home and his beloved.

When his friend, Tod, signs up for a looong stint in the military, even the unthinkable is worth a try.

The world building suffers a little. If any rectangular frame has the potential for unleashing demons from another dimension, the culture would be radically different from what is portrayed here. Occasionally the prose is clunky. But the characters are so much fun, and their condition so believable, that I had a lot of fun despite any–minor–shortcomings.

Now may we have the drum roll please? Presenting the Black Gate Fantasy Classic…

"Tumithak in Shawm" by Charles R. Tanner

"But the beauties of the splendid hallway were wasted, for in all its length not a human being appeared to appreciate them, and indeed, the thick dust that covered the floor and the many spider webs on the walls gave evidence of the months that must have elapsed since it had been deserted. Not for several years, in fact, had anyone entered this part of the corridor, not since one from far below had emerged from a well-like opening in one of the apartments and passed through this hall on his way to the Surface of the earth, far above."

Tumithak, a barbarian of the tunnels, returns once again to the Surface, and the shelk invaders whose advanced technology has sent men deep below for five thousand years.

This is a long piece, reprinted from the early 1930's, and I'm not sure how the style meets today's reader. Still, I'm hooked. The action is full bore: narrow escapes, rescued companions and dead shelk.

Black Gate is a bucket load of reading—over 200 pages. This is a beautiful magazine with high production values. This issue contained reviews of recent fantasy titles as well as fiction. It also has excellent capsule reviews of fantasy role playing games and gaming aids, both current and historical, media tie-ins such as books written in the FRPG Forgotten Realms; and a fascinating review of spellcasting in the DC comics universe by Claude Lalumiere.

The emphasis on how the past of the field relates to the present is presented with love and care in a way that makes sense. There's been some discussion from time to time about how to encourage readers to be better readers, more thoughtful and with a greater knowledge of the depth of the field.

Black Gate is already doing it.