Ask a published writer at any level and they’ll tell you writing is, in some respect, a colossal pain in the ass. (Can’t remember if I’m allowed to say “ass” here but let’s leave it and see what happens.) Superstar authors with massive advances and multi-book deals rightfully claim that it’s tough to maintain the passion when writing becomes the day job. Folks at the opposite end of that career spectrum point out how demoralizing it is trying to break in. We’re all at the mercy of luck, circumstance, editor whims, etc, and it can be tough. But we’re passionate about telling stories, so we keep doing it anyway.
Readers typically differentiate stereotypical High Fantasy (elves, dwarves, wizards-with-pointy-hats with a slant toward happy adventuring) vs. Low Fantasy (more “realism” & “earthier” milieu, with a focus on humans defending trenches at a battlefront or crawling through crypts to save a maiden or rob a god). The latter encompasses sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery and the contemporary-named Grimdark.
Why stop at regular Grimdark when you can go further? This post highlights two New Treasures that are arguably Grimdark, but still push the boundaries of what is expected. At the very least, they should appeal to dark fantasy readers who desire something fresh (whatever label the books deserve). To learn if these are right for you, read on:
You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
I’m not familiar with too many hardboiled or pulp series’ which feature bail bondsmen or bounty hunters. On reflection, this is a bit surprising, as the roles certainly put the protagonist in the middle of a plot-worthy situation. Below is an updated version of a Black Gate essay I wrote on what I consider to be one of the most under-rated hardboiled series’ in the entire genre. Michael Stone’s Streeter is a bounty hunter in Denver, Colorado. These four books are favorites of mine. I’ll also mention Bail Bond Dodd, who I wrote about before at Black Gate. And finally, a George Raft film set in a bail bondsman’s office.
For my money, the two of the best hardboiled PI series’ of the Post-Pulp Era are Joe Gores’ DKA books (also unconventional, in that they’re about a car repo group), and Stone’s Streeter. Just after I moved out to Colorado Springs in the mid-nineties, a Denver private investigator named Michael Stone released his first book about Streeter, a bounty hunter in the Mile High City. The Low End of Nowhere had a very cool cover by Owen Smith, who would provide three more for A Long Reach, Token of Remorse, and Totally Dead. These covers are fantastic.
Then, nothing: After four very good novels, Stone simply quit writing. It was as if he’d suddenly passed away (happily, he didn’t). Over the years, I tried to find some news of him on the web but came up empty. He just seemed to lose interest in being a writer in 1999.
Ten Low by Stark Holborn (Titan Books, June 2021). Cover design by Julia Llyod
I spend a lot of time browsing new releases online. But you know what? Nothing beats a trip to the bookstore. As I wandered through the well-stocked science fiction section of Barnes & Noble last Saturday I found no less than four new releases that insisted on coming home with me.
Perhaps the most interesting was Stark Holborn’s latest Ten Low, which The Book Beard calls “stunning… gritty, intriguing sci-fi/ Western brilliance.” Here’s a snippet from Publisher’s Weekly‘s warm review.
July/August 2021 issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Cover art by Shutterstock.com, Tomislav Tikulin, and Alan M. Clark
Short story reviews have been part of the genre since the first SF pulps started publishing letters from young fans in the back pages in the 1920s. What’s different these days is that you can read reviews online, get excited about the current issues, and leisurely make your way to your local bookstore in plenty of time to grab the magazines you want.
That’s a consequence of multiple factors — including the move to bi-monthly publication for most major print zines, and the endurance of review sites like Tangent Online, Locus Online, and Quick Sip Reviews, among others — but it’s largely due to a small group of short fiction reviewers, almost all volunteers, who move quickly to read the latest zines and get thoughtful and well-written coverage posted with all dispatch. Here’s what a few of those folks thought of the July/August genre print magazines.
Firearms from the Old West era have always fascinated me. It’s not simply the physical attractiveness of such weapons, though some are quite pleasing to look upon, but it’s the mechanics and the operation of these firearms which has always drawn me. Single-action revolvers, lever-action rifles, cap and ball weapons, even scatter guns of the period, they all take a certain amount of basic knowledge and skill to operate, to even load, let alone fire. There has always been something about the physical manipulation of such weapons which has interested me, far more than most modern firearms which are more deadly but don’t usually require the same operations.
The House of Styx (Solaris, May 2021). Cover uncredited.
It’s been a genuine pleasure to watch Derek Künsken’s career take off. We published his third story in Black Gate 15, and he’s been a blogger with us since 2013, publishing nearly 200 articles here. But it’s his recent novels that have really grabbed the spotlight, including The Quantum Magician (2018) and The Quantum Garden (2019).
His latest is The House of Styx, released in hardcover by Solaris in May, and this one has breakout novel written all over it. SciFiNow calls it “Stunning,” Locus labels it “Wonderful,” and Library Journal proclaims it an “electrifying planetary adventure.” Here’s an excerpt from the rave review at Publishers Weekly.
The Human Resources Bunker for Black Gate is on sub-level 12, which is normally dank, dim, and mostly empty. But as it was Quarterly Reviews, the cargo elevators continued to disgorge people, making those of us already waiting on long benches between decorative columns pack in even tighter. As I waited, number in hand, I peered up past the moss-covered chandeliers and the ductwork of the air circulation system, to the massive murals painted onto the arching ceiling far overhead, framed in gold, showing scenes of the early days of Black Gate. But the lichen that had accumulated in the years since made the details hard to pick out.
The vents overhead dripped continuously, and I had begun to worry about possible rust stains on my already threadbare suit. So my trepidation was mixed with relief as I heard my number finally called over the loudspeakers, and I strode forward, to sit on the stool before the desk of my Human Resources representative, Salinger. He looked up from his case file with a professional smile.
“So, Mr. Starr! Hope you weren’t waiting more then a few hours!”
“Great, great!” he continued, and I settled further onto a hard stool as he continued to scan reports on my quarterly output. At last he set it aside, and gave me an appraising look. “So, why don’t you tell me how you think your writing has been going?”
“Well, progress on my current novel has been steady-”
“Ah yes,” he said, as if I’d reminded him of a small annoyance that needed to be cleared up. “Let’s begin with that. I hear there’s a marketing issue…” He consulted reports, but I didn’t wait.
“Marketing issue?” I asked, and he gave a wordless grunt in the affirmative. “It’s not even finished yet!”
The Best of James Blish (Del Rey, 1979). Cover by H. R. Van Dongen
The Best of James Blish (1979) was the twenty-first (and penultimate!) installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. (Only one more to go!) Science fiction author Robert A. W. Lowndes (1916–1998) provided the introduction — his only one in the series. Sci-fi artist H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) provides the ninth cover in the series, the most used artist of the series.
James Blish (1921–1975) was an American science fiction and sometimes fantasy author. He was one of the original Futurians, and besides writing oodles of short fiction and novels, he became also well-known for writing a series of Star Treknovelizations with his second wife J. A. Lawrence. According to Wikipedia, Blish is credited with inventing the term “gas giant” to refer to large planetary bodies. Blish is someone I had never read before, but whose name often comes up in discussion of classic science fiction.
The Zatoichi films, a chambara series that features Shintaro Katsu as a blind yakuza swordsman, was very popular in Japan, running throughout the Sixties and totaling 19 films in quick succession, followed less rapidly by a final half-dozen “special” entries. Though the films in the series tend to follow a familiar formula, they are successful because the elements of that formula are a rich mixture of suspense, pathos, action, comedy, and wistful romance. Katsu’s Zatoichi is a blind masseur at the lowest level of Shogunate Japan’s social hierarchy, but he deeply resents the abuse he suffers from his social betters, and his preternaturally keen senses enable him to develop the skills of a sleight-of-hand gambler and, more importantly, a lightning-fast swordsman. A master of iaijutsu, or the slash on the draw, Ichi holds his blade in a reverse grip that is lethally effective when he gets inside the guard of those wielding longer katanas. He also has a lightning wit that enables him to suss out plots and conspiracies from a few overheard clues. Best of all, though he has a temper, Ichi is inherently good-hearted and always comes to the aid of the vulnerable suffering at the hands of their abusers.