Black Gate, Issue 7, Fall 2004

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"The Poison Well"  by Judith Berman
"Amnesty" by Todd McAulty
"Luck of the Gods" by Holly Phillips
"Point of the Knife" by Don Bassingthwaite
"Leather Doll" by Mark Sumner
Black Gate bills itself as "Adventures in Fantasy Literature". In previous issues, Black Gate has interpreted this description fairly liberally and covered the breadth of the fantasy genre. Issue 7 is influenced more strongly by the magazine’s pulp roots.

The issue opens with Judith Berman‘s "The Poison Well." Mage and warrior Manvayar fled his former master when he discovered his master was a secret necromancer. Now he is assisting the death priest, Seppan, in a search for a necromancer whose creations have killed two men. Their hunt leads them to an unwelcoming manor house where the deaths occurred. Nearby lie the unsettling ruins of a Nariyo temple and a poison well that lies within. The story focuses on Manvayar’s struggles to come to terms with his past and his quest to uncover the necromancer.

Berman is an excellent writer. She smoothly juggles the various elements of the story—the secret of the poison well, the hidden necromancer, the hostile family of the lord of the manor, and Manvayar’s past. She has also created an intriguing spin on a traditional setting, blending the familiar with the original. The magic, too, is nicely done.

She does not, however, tie up all of the elements of the story in a satisfactory manner. Manvayar is haunted by vivid dreams of his former master, yet his master has no part to play in this story, other than having shaped Manvayar’s hatred and experience of necromancy. As a result, despite there being no indication that it is so, the reader is left wondering whether "The Poison Well" is the first part of a series. I certainly hope so; this was a fascinating and well-written piece that deserves its place opening the issue.

The longest story in this issue is from regular contributor Todd McAulty, who impressed with "There’s a Hole in October" in issue 5 and "The Haunting of Cold Harbour" in issue 3. His latest contribution, "Amnesty," is an ambitious, imaginative, sprawling epic that contemplates the theme of hope. On the other side of the universe lies the demon world, Tartarus. After their deaths and judgment, humans awaken there and are enslaved by the demons.

Tartarus has a feeling of vastness about it. There are the mines where demons force humans to dig for the body of God. The furnaces in which souls are harvested for the demons’ incomprehensible schemes. Abandoned cities. Dark caverns and crypts. Human settlements. There are ghouls and ghosts and witches and vampire lords, and of course, demons. McAulty’s great achievement in "Amnesty" is his superb world-building and the breadth of his ambition.

The story follows two main strands. In one, a group of humans attempts to destroy the body of the supremely evil Baron Minosvalla before he can arise again. In the second, the Archdemon Asmogar attempts to convince a mathematician that he has no worth, so that he will give up his soul.

The first of the threads is by far the most successful. The journey that the group take across this blighted world is exciting and inspired, allowing McAulty to show off the full scope of his creativity. The second is less so. Although the idea of the intellectual contest between the Archdemon and the man of logic and science is a good one, the core of their argument fails. The mathematician is persuaded that he has no worth in the universe by a piece of mathematical reasoning that any first-year mathematics student would be able to demolish, and which is based upon a simple misunderstanding of the nature of an average.

The characterization was also unconvincing in places, particularly when it involved the characters’ back-stories.

"Amnesty" is an ambitious piece. McAulty attempts far more than any of the other contributors to this issue, and he achieves more. However, the story could perhaps have done with longer to gestate. There are loose ends, and parts are confusing. I would like to see McAulty expand what is here into a novel, someday, and to make fuller use of what he has created. The ideas are impressive and the story compelling.

Holly Phillip‘s "Luck of the Gods" opens a little clumsily but soon takes off. Onyx is a trover. When the gods’ good luck turns ill for a family, she is paid to take it away and trove it safely, so that it can never be recovered and used against them. Herself a daughter of a family who did not dispose of their ill-luck quickly enough, she is now attempting to buy back her remaining family from slavery through her work. Knowing she should not, but having no choice, she takes on a commission from the head of House Melioch to dispose of the bad luck of an elder god. But this is the elder god whose luck ruined her own house. And her ancestors have been waiting for this moment.

Phillips has created an original setting and an original story in "Luck of the Gods." This is not a story of sword-play, but it is full of adventure and action nonetheless. Onyx is a good, sympathetic character, and Phillips does an excellent job in creating convincing minor characters along the way. It would be easy to spend more time in the society that Phillips has built around her story.

The ending of the story is a little weak and does not really satisfy. But the journey is a good one, and there is a lot to enjoy on the way.

"Point of the Knife: A Kalamar Novel" by Don Bassingthwaite is in fact an extract from a novel. We enter the story when Narika, a "sil-karg hobgoblin halfbreed," and the Fhokki warrior, Leim, have been trapped in a cave. This cave is "…on another plane of existence, a place where the element of earth has excluded everything else. Everything is earth and rock…" although, conveniently, there also appears to be air for the heroes to breathe. Narika is trying to track down the smith who has been forging a new type of weapon that the dwarf rebels have been using against the empire that she works for, Kalamar.

Narika and Leim have been tricked into fighting each other by the treacherous Irani, the mastermind behind the new weapons. Now Narika and Leim will have to work together in order to escape this trap.

The story takes place in the Kingdoms of Kalamar, a Dungeons and Dragons setting, published by Kenzer & Company, and the novel from which the extract comes is the first in a new line of novels in that setting. Bassingthwaite handles the action of the story well. Within the caves in which Narika and Leim are trapped, they encounter metallic serpents and strange, armored hunters, from which they must escape in order to make their escape.

"Point of the Knife" wears its role-playing game origins too heavily. The setting is unoriginal and unconvincing. The means that Narika and Leim use to escape is also unconvincing. Although "Point of the Knife" is described as a standalone extract from the novel, even with the brief introduction it does not really stand alone. Perhaps in the context of the entire novel, the setting and characters would be more convincing. But as a short story, there is nothing here that you won’t have seen before, and it is not handled well enough to make that unimportant. Don Bassingthwaite’s last contribution to Black Gate, "Barbarian Instinct," was a good piece of sword and sorcery, but this one is missing too much on too many levels to be recommended.

Issue 7 of Black Gate closes with Mark Sumner‘s clever "Leather Doll." Far in the future, on an another planet, mankind has been divided into two parts, the humans and the animals. Meyer has been hired as a farm hand, looking after a herd of "Herefords" that are bred for leather. One day, though, he comes across one of his herd whistling. Rather than obeying his instructions and beating her into silence, he is entranced and takes her back to his hut. There he indulges in his fantasies by dressing her as a human and treating her as a human girl. But he knows that if he is discovered by the proctors—the robots whose rules govern the society—he will be executed.

Sumner handles what could be a hokey idea with skill and a convincing confidence. The parallels between the way Meyer views the humans he has been told are animals and the way we view animals in our society are made fairly clear. When the Hereford he has adopted learns to act like him and to speak, he considers it mindless imitation. However this is not a piece of propaganda disguised as a story. Sumner has taken a simple speculative premise and followed it through to its logical end, at the same time illuminating the way humans can act; it is, after all, not a revelation that people are capable of treating other humans as sub-human.

Black Gate‘s stories are, first and foremost, adventures. Sumner’s story is that at its core, but it is magnified by the parallels it draws. The end of the story did not completely work for me, but Sumner’s writing is clear, compelling, and well-paced. A very good story.

I have criticized previous issues of Black Gate for including some very weak stories among the better ones. Issue 7 shows a much greater consistency in quality. While none of the stories stand out in the same way that Todd McAulty’s "There’s a Hole in October" did in issue 5 or Iain Rowan’s "Looking for Goats, Finding Monkeys" did in issue 6, all of the stories reach a decent standard, and several reach above that.

This issue also includes a reprint. "Tumithak of the Towers of Fire" by Charles Tanner was first published in Super Science Stories in November 1941. This follows the reprinting of two other Tumithak stories in the last two issues of Black Gate. While this reprint is not reviewed here, it is interesting to read both to see how stories such as this influenced the content of Black Gate and to see how the genre has evolved and developed since.