“A Book of Silences” by James Enge
“Reflections” by Martha Wells
“Welcome to the Underworld” by Iain Rowan
“The Naturalist: Going to Applewash” by Mark Sumner
“A Covenant in Mud” by Greg Story
“Skyspider” by David Dubord
“Before the Wind” by Edward Carmien
“Awakening” by Judith Berman
“Sight of Vengeance” by Howard Andrew Jones
Some issues of Black Gate range over the spectrum in tone, mode, story type, theme—others exhibit a thematic or subgenre cohesion. This issue—despite a cover depicting a classic BEM complete with ray gun and cigar rocket ships flying in the background—pays homage to the great days of sword and sorcery.
The issue opens with “Soldiers of a Dying God” from Harry James Connolly, who first enchanted readers with “The Whoremaster of Pald” in issue #2. Our first-person protagonist who is, he admits, the worst Royal Engineer since Jun the Tumbler, is sent on a suicide mission by the horrible old queen to eradicate the “Soldiers”: magical statues guarding the shrine of Ormaleth the Dying God. The Royal Engineer is being set up, but then, everyone seems to be sacrificed right and left at the queen’s whim, so it’s no surprise that the road is full of human, beastly, and magical dangers. Things look so grim the soon-to-be-ex Royal Engineer doesn’t even have the heart to resent his former assistant pocketing the emblem of the Royal Engineer because it’s so obvious his boss is toast. The only help he has is his huge, stolid underling, Shinak, who everyone thinks is slow and stupid. So when the Royal Engineer, wondering how to solve an unsolvable mess and stay alive, hears Shinak’s solution “Build a new city,” he just asks idly, “Where?” The story resolves, but leaves open possibilities for more exploration of a fascinating world.
“A Book of Silences” by James Enge brings back another Black Gate favorite. Enge has written several stories about Morlock Ambrosius, a sorcerer who relies on wit more than the sorcerous equivalent of brawn. Though he seems to be capable of that, too. The stories are written in a wry, witty, stylistic flourish, the plots worked out cleverly, and this one is no different. Morlock is sleeping at his favorite inn when he dreams that he needs to go. The innkeeper is sorry to see him leave, as he’s lonely. Velox, Morlock’s horse, “somewhat middle-aged, with sarcastic gray eyes” trots up—then Morlock notices that the stable the animal just left is missing. Places and people go missing with disconcerting speed, and Morlock has to find the sorcerer behind the vanishings before matters get worse. The sorcerer isn’t hard to find—there are a series of warning signs of increasingly dire threat meant to turn away the passerby from seeing Flegyas the Magician. Morlock pushes on to discover an empty house with a dead mage whose mummified hands clutch a book called Silences. Uh oh. The story is a delightful Celtic knotwork.
The superb fantasy writer Martha Wells offers a tale from her Ile-Rien world in “Reflections.” Ilias and Giliead are wizard-hunters. The reader realizes in short order that Pheneras, the wizard being chased, is definitely worth getting rid of: Giliead is a Chosen Vessel, one whom the gods have gifted to be able to sense curses. And Pheneras’s curses are especially lethal. They chase the wizard down into a wood. Relatively easy, eh? Not when they find out what kind of a wood it is. Good action, characterization, imagination, and resolution are part of Wells’s toolkit, and this story is no exception.
I was particularly pleased to see Iain Rowan return in “Welcome to the Underworld,” another story about Dao Shi, a plump middle-aged ex-con man who had professed to be an exorcist. But when, in his first story, he really did discover demons, his life—already troubled by the death of his beloved wife and his son being killed while on duty for the emperor—took a turn for the worse. The new reader gains these details in brief, expertly inserted moments: each of the Dao Shi stories is self-contained, like beads, but they leave holes for the string that holds them together.
We open in present tense, second person, then ease into Dao Shi’s head as he tries to escape the emperor’s men. Heartbeats later, he’s almost caught by strolling, idle soldiers out to bully people just to pass the time while on patrol. A hue and cry is raised, and Dao Shi ends up on a riverboat manned by scruffy sailors, crowded further with difficult passengers: The two congregated on the decks only a spit and a lifetime away from one another. The boat is headed for another city—just in time for it to be boarded by pirates.
All Dao Shi has is his wits—and an unexpected ally. “Horrible it was,” the short man said. “Blood everywhere. Blood and—things. Insidey things.” There was a silence for a moment, then one by one the crew padded off… Rowan is a superlative writer, skillfully blending humor, evocative image, and just the right touch of pathos to keep the tension humming.
Mark Sumner returns to Black Gate; his previous story, “Leather Doll,” raised some controversy. This story, “The Naturalist: Going to Applewash,” is quite different. It reads like the opening to a horror novel. The protagonist is a young naturalist named Brown, forced into the military company due to his parents being in debt. He’s part of an expedition going up the Sourde River into Selvanos. Sumner is good at visuals and characterization, and very good at horror; this story gathers more and more tension until it abruptly stops.
In “A Covenant in Mud” by Greg Story, Judy Krantz moves to a deserted part of the Hoopa Indian Reservation in order to grow pot. She turns up suddenly with a partner, an older Indian named Machaw, who takes her out on the trail to warn her about muddy patches and men covered with mud before they find a place to grow their crop. He also warns her about an evil man named Tupman—whom Judy soon encounters, along with his hapless mud men. Meanwhile, what is bubbling and roiling at the bottom of Judy’s pond? There’s a lot of horror action interspersed with character motivation somewhat difficult to figure out. If you like vividly described horror scenes, this story is for you.
David Dubord‘s “Skyspider” is a relatively straightforward tale. Rather than spoil the story, I’ll say this: I hate spiders. My hatred grows exponentially as the size of the spider increases. Yet Dubord’s writing is powerful and evocative enough to make me sympathize with spiders that appear to be roughly the size of a minivan. Not just sympathize, but to glimpse a hint of the numinous. Wow.
Kris is an outrider of a three-wheeled wind-wagon in Edward Carmien‘s appealing adventure, “Before the Wind.” Outriders and hunters use three- and four-wheeled wagons, following the herds of “maggies.” Behind come the rest of the tribe on ten-wheelers. Kris crashes her three-wheeler, to be made fun of by a young hunter named Slew. He offers to fix it, but Kris knows what his offer entails; she insults him by turning it down, and he socks her in the jaw, making it clear what kind of treatment she’d get if she ever did pair up with him. He uses his influence to make certain that none of the crafters have the time to fix her three-wheeler, so she goes to the tribe crazy, an old guy named Paddy who, she discovers, is only crazy in that he’s traveled outside the region and has many wild ideas. He builds her a two-wheeler and teaches her how to use it. She, in turn, is to enter the tribe’s great race. The story is exciting even if one can guess where it’s going, but the writing is so full of image and verve, it’s fun to get there.
“Awakening” by Judith Berman begins with the protagonist—unnamed—waking to her lover’s long-dried and crumbled corpse next to her. She recoils onto a pile of rotted corpses and skulls, caroming through a crypt. She cannot remember how she got there; she does not know where she is; she doesn’t even know if she’s alive. By the time she fights her way upward and into the decayed remains of the city she once lived in and loved, she has recovered her name, at least: Aleya. She was once a highborn woman, and as she fumbles around, her expectations of discovering some peasants to see to her needs slowly rip away as she encounters a dead city. She encounters then escapes her lord, a sorcerer who has been consuming the souls of the dead so he can stay alive in a twilight existence between the physical world and the gate to death. There’s a further discovery to be made when she enters a peasant’s hut, expecting deference and admiration: that she is not just dead, but a revenant, summoned for evil purpose, by not one but two powerful and quite evil mages.
This story calls to mind fantasies of eighty and a hundred years ago, full of the crumbling remains of ancient civilizations and old rituals that evoked that fin-de-siecle sense of the world’s end. Or maybe the world’s change. But unlike those, which too often were peopled by standard heroes and villains (the women confined to even less interesting “types”), Berman’s story breathes complexity into her characters. They are interesting, especially the women, and being interesting, they are unpredictable. This is a terrific story, beautifully realized and intelligently written—well worth the price of the magazine all on its own.
Berman’s story would be a tough act to follow. The editors wisely chose as final selection something with a different tone, yet with the same masterly blend of old tale form and modern complexity of character, Howard Andrew Jones‘s “Sight of Vengeance.” This is a story from the world of the Arabian Knights; no Grand Viziers, but plenty of sorcery. Dabir ibn Kalil solves mysteries as well as studies arcane knowledge; Asim, whose point-of-view we are in, acts as his defender. The story opens when the captain of the guards, who has summoned Dabir, exhibits a corpse from whom the eyes have been removed. This is not an isolated case. Dabir takes on the mystery, first visiting his ex-wife, Jamilah, who is a scholar as well. She willingly provides the research book Dabir asks for, and, armed with the knowledge in it, Dabir leads Asim to a tavern where he thinks the mischief might originate. The story is very well written, with charm and humor, plenty of color and action, and excellent characterization that gives the ending a wry twist. This story—and the always excellent Knights of the Dinner Table: The Java Joint comic—brings another issue of Black Gate to a satisfying close.
(Editor’s Note: Black Gate has switched to a bi-annual schedule. Further reviews can be found in the bi-annual category.)