“Mistress Mourning” by Lawrence Buentello
“Lord of the North” by Alva J. Roberts
“City of the Damned” by Neil Carstairs
“A Thousand Words” by Corey Kellgren
“Army of Orphans” by Brock L. Noel
“The Unbreakable Shield” by Kristen Lee Knapp
“Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell” by Bill Ward
“Hearts of Kaldun” by Martin Turton
“A Spell of Bad Weather” by Danny Birt
“Raven’s Call” by Patty Jansen
“The Masterpiece” by David Vahlberg
Reviewed by Nathan Goldman
Realms is one of Black Matrix Publishing’s new series of four speculative fiction publications, all in the spirit of twentieth century pulp magazines. That means, no matter the specific publication’s subgenre, a lot of action, a lot of suspense, and little to no dilly-dallying and philosophizing. Realms specializes in “traditional fantasy,” by which they mean sword and sorcery in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks. In this inaugural issue, those themes are certainly present, but the ways in which they are presented are too often stale in concept and unskilled in execution. The cover boasts that readers will find “over 80,000 words of fiction.” This is true, but it is possible that the editors have, in their search for quantity, forsaken quality.
The issue opens with “Mistress Mourning” by Lawrence Buentello, a mythic tale of a mysterious woman on whom all the sorrows of the dead are unburdened, and her potential new replacement. The concept feels borrowed and is at least a far cry from unique; the “twist” will seem inevitable to fans of the genre. The sentences, composed of awkwardly strung together clauses, are clunky in a way that is not immediately detracting, but gives the reader a sense that something is amiss. The story suffers from a lack of vividness, and as such is never properly brought to life. Buentello writes of the voices of the dead, but only with the tersest description, revealing neither what they say nor what they sound like. Opportunity after opportunity is missed for bringing the reader into the story, and the result is a shaky tale without any sensory or emotional depth.
Next is Alva J. Roberts’ “Lord of the North,” a scene from which serves as the magazine’s cover. This brief story follows Beorn Hammerhand, the titular lord, as he leads his men in battle against invaders. Virtually every element of the story seems formed from a genre cookie cutter – a kingdom, an empire, an order of knights, a burly general. The lack of detail denies the reader any picture of the story’s events, and it seems the writer gave little thought to the physics of the battles. In many places this destroys the story’s credibility, such as when Hammerhand navigates through a supposedly powerful enemy force, tearing down man after man without incurring so much as a scratch himself. Moreover, the story suffers from a limited vocabulary and little more than the bare bones of a plot; worst of all, the story’s resolution comes in the form of a deus ex machina, not from within the story itself, denying the reader any sense of satisfaction.
In “City of the Damned” by Neil Carstairs, a city is brought under siege by a plague that rots its victims from within. The plot, though not unique, maintains the reader’s interest, and by the final third has brought the story in a new and interesting direction. However, technically unskilled writing detracts from the reader’s experience. The sentences have an awkward rhythm, showcasing what appears to be the author’s discomfort with language. Particularly at the beginning, the text is redundant and over explanatory, and suffers from a lack of concision. Sentences like this, for example – “There was a tone to his voice that made me aware of an underlying fear” – could be chopped down painlessly (“His voice flickered with fear”). Elsewhere, the text is dotted with clichés. In the end, the premise and twist are hardly worth the struggle it takes to unearth them.
Corey Kellgren’s “A Thousand Words” follows a young assassin on a vital mission, tracing the interplay between her steadfast determination and ever-encroaching fear and doubt. Kellgren utilizes a lithe, alive use of language. It is incredibly refreshing. The story is brief, but just as long as it needs to be. The result is a thoughtful take on war, innocence, and guilt, an action-packed story that still gives its readers something to think about. It is the first triumph of the issue, and evidence that a story can be exciting without foregoing originality or intellectuality.
“Army of Orphans” by Brock L. Noel is the story of the aftermath of a great war, ten years on. Called together by one of the sole survivors of the original conflict, the sons of those killed in or because of the war unite and rise in rebellion against the land’s unlawful king. The premise is basically a standard high fantasy template, and the actualization adds little. The language is engulfed in artifice, all tell and no show, so there is no way for the reader to feel a part of the story. The symbolism is heavy-handed (the protagonist abandons his surname, “Brightwater,” and adopts the name “Murks”), the dialogue stilted. Like “Lord of the North,” the play-by-play fight scenes lack any sense of spatial reality outside the point of view character’s immediate experience. The story is not totally without merits – the character Stanley is intriguing and entertaining for the two scenes in which he appears – but there is nothing in the last thirteen pages one couldn’t see coming in the first two.
In “The Unbreakable Shield” by Kristen Lee Knapp, a warrior king defends his land against a wily enemy, dealing not only with the struggle of battle, but also distrust of his wife, who happens to be the enemy’s sister. The opening is evocative, as are later pieces of description, but the scenes wherein the action takes place are unremarkably written. The story’s central flaw is merely that it bores: the characters and situation fail to engage the reader in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the dialogue flip-flops between archaic and flippantly modern, giving the story a confusing tone – high fantasy, or a modern parody?
Bill Ward’s “Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell” follows a fairy tale format and tracks master warrior Heartless Gao through an Eastern adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. The first line hooks the reader, and from then until the story’s end, the reader is intrigued, if not transfixed, by Ward’s strange and compelling vision of the underworld. This epithet-laden tale would fail in most formats, but in the familiar form of a myth, it succeeds. Amidst a number of minor and clever commentaries (such as Hell’s hysterical bureaucracy) emerges a thoughtful discourse on the nature of what it means to be human, and the moments centering on this topic are no less exciting than Heartless Gao’s confrontation with Hell’s many demons.
“Hearts of Kaldun” by Martin Turton is a story of warring nations, two enemies uniting for a common goal: the obliteration of the savage Juhar. Here the battle scenes are written tersely and more poetically, focusing on the emotion and concept of the battle, rather than each and every thrust and parry; the method is imperfect, but far less irritating than the play-by-play. The dialogue is artificial, but the prose is fine, if not inspiring. Overall the story feels like an excerpt from a far longer tale, with not enough time given for full context or attachment to any of the characters – and, honestly, there is little here to intrigue one into hearing whatever else of the story there may be.
“A Spell of Bad Weather” by Danny Birt, the issue’s longest story, is divided into fourteen chapters, somewhat unnecessarily – had the sections simply been separated by a space, no great effect or meaning would have been lost. The concept is intriguing: a nation’s development of sorcery that gradually lengthens its enemy’s winter, until no other seasons remain; the idea recalls the United States’ development of weather manipulation weaponry during the Vietnam War. But the story feels uncomfortable in its own shoes: the military jargon seems forced, as do the characters’ relationships. Point of view has been handled clumsily, with the omniscient narrator dipping in and out of the thoughts of minor characters, failing to give the reader much narrative grounding. The story would be better told through the eyes of one character, allowing the reader to immerse himself in the thoughts and feelings of a single narrator, and in this way achieve a consistent perspective on the plot. As it stands no character is adequately developed, and, despite a few intriguing passages on the nature of sorcery (in this story, a distasteful affliction and cause for rampant discrimination) the tale falls emotionally flat.
Patty Jansen’s “Raven’s Call” is another story of warring kingdoms and battles over the throne’s rightful owner. Here, though, the focus is not on battle, but one girl’s attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding her family. Suspense, rather than excitement, is the story’s focus. It keeps the reader interested, but the writing itself leaves much to be desired. The opening scenes are little more than space holders in which to stow clumsy exposition. The characters are stock, their dialogue flat, and though the story’s conclusion is unique and satisfying in its own way, it requires great patience and suspension of disbelief.
Finally, in David Vahlberg’s “The Masterpiece,” the issue’s shortest piece, we find a peasant named Hans pursued by invisible demons, seeking to cure his daughter of a horrible disease. Upon encountering a hooded Death, Hans makes a deal, trading a beautiful painting, one that encompasses the entirety of life, for his daughter’s salvation. The story’s brevity excuses its hurry to give background information, and in the end it is a passable parable – nothing extraordinary, but worth the few minutes it takes to read.
Too often, the stories contained in this issue blend into one another, their heroes and villains becoming indistinguishable – an indicator that they were not unique or compelling in the first place. The issue is overwhelmed with stories of war and plague, with too few unique takes on these tired, archetypal themes. For readers who enjoy high fantasy regardless of the quality of the writing or originality of concepts, Realms’ first issue offers a hefty dose of reading material. Those with more discriminating taste should, for the time being, turn elsewhere.
Publisher: Black Matrix Publishing LLC (Winter 2010)
Paperback: 102 pages