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My Favorite Fantasy Settings

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

The Shire, from War of the Ring (SPI)-smallIn writer’s jargon they are often called “secondary worlds.” They are places of imagination where we authors create characters, towns, city-states, nations, and even entire planets. One of the aspects of writing I love best is the ability to fashion my own setting, from the politics and government down to the clothing fashions and local foods.

As a fantasy reader, I’ve had so many favorites over the years. They have inspired and amazed me. Here are some that I’ll never forget.

Middle Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic epic for many reasons, but one of the most enduring is its setting. Middle Earth.

Tolkien may have created the most elaborate, detailed fictional setting in history, even creating his own languages for the various races. Some detractors have called his opus a “travelogue,” but to read LOTR is to enter a living, breathing world, both familiar and strange. Sometimes the journey IS the adventure.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic – but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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Meet Some Very Big Dragons in the How to Train Your Dragon 2 Trailer

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

I don’t post a lot of movie trailers. We’re all about the books here at Black Gate. (And the games. And TV. Plus, snacks).

Okay. Truthfully, we cover a lot of ground here at Black Gate. But mostly, we’re all about promoting the best in neglected fantasy. And DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 feature How To Train Your Dragon was one of the best fantasy films of the last decade. Andrew Zimmerman Jones reviewed it for us here, calling it “Hands down, of the fantasy films I’ve seen this year, my favorite.”

I missed it in theaters and I wasn’t the only one. It wasn’t until my kids came screaming out of the basement and pulled me downstairs to watch it with them (for the fourth time) in the summer of 2011 that I realized just how fabulous it was. I won’t make that mistake with the sequel. In fact, I may camp out early to catch it on opening night (I know my kids will be up for it).

We showed you the teaser trailer last July; now Dreamworks has released the second full trailer. It’s packed with brand new characters, gorgeous visuals, surprises… and some very big dragons. Check it out below.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 was produced by DreamWorks Animation and directed by Dean DeBlois. The voice cast includes Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and Craig Ferguson. It’s scheduled for release in June.

Art of the Genre: The Dreaming Work of Travis Hanson

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

poster2final2My suggestion, assuming my AotG followers ever listen to me, is to go here and do what you must.  Seriously, find some change in your pocket and put it somewhere that is worthy.  I find I can’t help but support incredible artists, especially those willing to tell a beautiful story for children and adults alike.  So hurry and add this to your ‘what I did in 2014 that was worth something’ list.

Ok, now that you’ve made the world a better place, I’ll do the same by talking a bit about the art of Travis Hanson.

Trav, as he’s known to me, decided he wanted to do a comic, but he didn’t have any place to put it.  Luckily for him, and so many creative people, the Internet gave him the opportunity to share his talent and vision, for free, with people across the globe.  Thus, a few years back, The Bean was born.  Fast forward to now and you’ve got Fifteen Chapters and 579 comic pages of incredible fantasy adventure all at your fingertips for ZERO dollars and ZERO cents!

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The Dungeon Dozen

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

DDcoverNext copyThe first roleplaying game I owned was the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes, as you’re all probably tired of hearing by now. Among the many memorable features of that boxed set was that some of its printings (including my own) did not include dice. Instead, these sets included a sheet of laminated paper chits printed in groups that mimicked the ranges of polyhedral dice (1–4, 1–6, 1–8, 1–10, 1–12, and 1–20).  The purchaser of the game was instructed to cut them apart and “place each different type in a small container (perhaps a small paper cup), and each time a number generation is called for, draw a chit at random from the appropriate container.”

This I dutifully did, taking several small Dixie Cups from my upstairs bathroom for the purpose. Leaving aside the disbelief-suspending flower print of the cups, this method of random number generation was awkward and decidedly un-fun. Consequently, I set out to find a proper set of dice with which to play D&D, a quest that took me to a local toy store, which had them hidden away behind the counter. I bought that set – made of terrible, low impact plastic – and rushed home to use them. I wanted to be a “real” Dungeons & Dragons player. For all their faults, those dice were, in many ways, what sealed my fate as a lifelong roleplayer. There was something downright magical about those little, weirdly shaped objects that captured my imagination almost as much as the game itself.

I am fascinated not just by dice, but also by randomness. I’ve come to believe that one of the real, perhaps fundamental distinction between “old school” roleplaying games and their latter day descendants is the extent to which randomness informs game play. As a younger person, I went through a period when I intensely disliked randomness and used it as a bludgeon against games, including D&D, that I decided I disliked. Older, if not wiser, I no longer think that way. Indeed, I celebrate randomness as a vital part of what makes a RPG enjoyable for me. Randomness is frequently a godsend, providing me with a steady stream of ideas and inspiration when I find myself at a loss for either (which is often). Randomness also enables me to be surprised, even when I’m the referee, which is no small feat after more than three decades behind the screen. In short, I love randomness.

Therefore, I suppose I’m predisposed to love a book like The Dungeon Dozen by Jason Sholtis. This 222-page book is a compilation of the many “flavor-rich yet detail-free” random tables available on Sholtis’s eponymously named blog, accompanied by a great deal of black and white art provided by Chris Brandt, John Larrey, Stefan Poag, and Sholtis himself.

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March Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1551226jPhPhKow (1)This is really the March and first week of April short story roundup. While Swords and Sorcery Magazine came through with two new tales, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly did not come out in a timely enough fashion to suit my schedule. Then Beneath Ceaseless Skies spent all of March publishing science fantasy issues. It’s all right if you’re inclined to read that sort of stuff, but I’m here to write about fantasy, preferably of the heroic kind.  Actually, most of those stories in BCS really do look all right, but the arrival of a new story by Raphael Ordoñez in the April 3rd issue made me include it in this week’s post.

I joke about Beneath Ceaseless Skies’s neglect of heroic fantasy in favor of steam punk or sci-fi, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking I don’t love the folks over there and everything they’re doing for speculative short fiction. Every two weeks, they publish a very well-polished magazine with stories by great writers from all over the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum. There are few platforms getting as much new material out in front of the public (and for as little money). And if, like me, you don’t like what’s in one issue, there’s a great chance you’ll find something in the very next one.

So, after all that praise, let me start off with a story from BCS #144 I didn’t love: “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a writer unfamiliar to me. In a world peopled by exiles from some unknown calamity, in a country ruled by the Institute of Ormodon, a woman mourns the loss of her golem-daughter.

Hall-Warden Ysoreen Zarre has been sent to retrieve the remains of a golem from Erhensa, an exiled sorceress. All golems, whomever makes them, belong to the Institute. Having learned of the thing’s existence when it “died,” the Warden was dispatched to collect it. For the Institute, it is something to be studied and understood. Erhensa, though, considered the golem a daughter and is reluctant to submit to the Institute’s demands. Her maneuvers around the Warden comprise the rest of the story.

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New Treasures: Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Santa Olivia-smallJacqueline Carey is a bestselling author known chiefly for her Kushiel novels, erotic fantasies that follow the adventures of a courtesan in a fantasy version of France. I tried the first one, Kushiel’s Dart, over a decade ago, but gave up after about a hundred pages. I couldn’t really get into it.

I didn’t pay much attention to Jacqueline Carey after that, and as a result I almost overlooked her highly regarded Santa Olivia. A significant departure from her previous novels, it has been described as “Jacqueline Carey’s take on comic book superheroes and the classic werewolf myth.”

Set in Outpost 12, a small town in a buffer zone shielding a near-future Texas from plague-devastated Mexico, Santa Olivia follows a group of orphans who decide to strike back against the oppressive military rule. All in all, it sounds like a pretty captivating mix — and well worth checking out.

There is no pity in Santa Olivia. And no escape. In this isolated military buffer zone between Mexico and the U.S., the citizens of Santa Olivia are virtually powerless. Then an unlikely heroine is born. She is the daughter of a man genetically manipulated by the government to be a weapon. A “Wolf-Man,” he was engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, stamina, and senses, as well as a total lack of fear. Named for her vanished father, Loup Garron has inherited his gifts.

Frustrated by the injustices visited upon her friends and neighbors by the military occupiers, Loup is determined to avenge her community. Aided by a handful of her fellow orphans, Loup takes on the guise of their patron saint, Santa Olivia, and sets out to deliver vigilante justice-aware that if she is caught, she could lose her freedom… and possibly her life.

Santa Oliva was published on May 29, 2009 by Grand Central Publishing. It is 341 pages, priced at $13.99 in trade paperback.

Alignment Chaotic AWESOME: 1st Edition Deities and Demigods (Part 1)

Monday, April 14th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Deities_&_Demigods_(front_cover,_first_edition)One of the most fun, crazy, and controversial tomes to come out of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was, without a doubt, Deities and Demigods (1980).

More wide-ranging (and less Eurocentric) than Bullfinch’s Mythology and Hamilton’s Mythology combined, here was a smorgasbord of most of the world’s major (and not-so-major) mythologies, presented as a one-stop shop for your player-character to choose a god or otherworldly entity to pledge fealty to and/r worship.

The vitriol of the religious right aside, Deities and Demigods did have its more thoughtful critics. In game terms, the early editions were kinda silly. Even though they assigned crazy-huge hit points and breathtakingly strong armor classes to the gods, said deities still had stats that could be overcome by powerful enough characters. As one critic observed, the book essentially turned the world’s deities into higher-level “monsters” to defeat — “bosses” for your 20th-level party to challenge. No room here for some metaphysical idea of a being that exists above corporeal, material reality and therefore cannot be “hurt” by a sword with a high-enough bonus modifier.

Later editions of Deities and Demigods (or Legends and Lore, as it was known for a time) ameliorated this “big boss” mentality by introducing the concept that some gods that characters physically encountered were but avatars, “aspects” or physical incarnations of gods who, being immortal and transcendent, could not really be killed.

That’s cool. Still, it is kind of fun — in a juvenile way — to leaf through Deities and Demigods asking such questions as “Who would win in a fight: Zeus or Odin?”

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The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: Lilith by George MacDonald

Monday, April 14th, 2014 | Posted by westkeith

Lilith Back Cover HRLilith
George MacDonald
Ballantine Books (274 pages, September 1969, $1.25)
Cover art by Gervasio Gallardo

Lilith was the fifth volume in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. The cover is one of the darkest in the series to date. The back cover shows the inside of an attic. I normally post an image of the back cover, but I won’t here. It’s almost a monochrome and it’s dark.

In many ways, Lilith was different from the few that came before it. For starters, it was written from a decidedly Christian worldview and there were passages in it that seemed allegorical to me. Lilith was certainly the most metaphysical of the books I’ve read in the series so far. There were several conversations about identity and how a person can know who they are.

A favorite practice of literature majors everywhere is to try to determine symbolism in works and to dissect them for hidden meanings. The structure of Lilith certainly lends itself to this type of thing and, not being an English major, I’m not going to attempt much of that here.

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish pastor who retired early to devote himself to literature, although he continued to preach in a lay capacity at times. Much of his output consisted of novels that were set in what for MacDonald was contemporary times, but also contained poetry, collections of sermons, and fairy stories. There are two other volumes by MacDonald in the BAF series: the novel Phantastes and Evenor, a collection of three novellas.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: All The World’s A Stage

Monday, April 14th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne


Sidney Paget’s well-known drawing from The Speckled Band

There are two Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that have a gothic feel to them. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of four novels featuring Holmes and the best-known story of the sixty which Doyle wrote. The other, the ninth short story to feature Holmes, is “The Speckled Band.”

A creepy mansion; exotic animals roaming loose, gypsies, an imposing stepfather, eerie whistles in the night and the mysterious death of a daughter some years before: it has all the trappings. Doyle himself listed it as his favorite story and I’m not going to ruin it here. If you haven’t read “The Speckled Band,” you should go do it right now. Well, after you finish this post.

Doyle wrote several plays, two of which featured Sherlock Holmes. The Crown Diamond was and remains a poor one (as does “The Mazarin Stone,” the Holmes short story it mirrors).

But the other, born of financial necessity, was a big hit.

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