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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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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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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.

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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The Collections of Michael Shea: Polyphemus

Monday, April 14th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Polyphemus Michael Shea-smallAs much as I respect and admire Michael Shea’s fantasy novels — and many of them are magnificent — I think he did his best work at short length. And I believe his best collection, by a pretty fair margin, is his 1987 Arkham House volume Polyphemus.

I was so impressed with it — really, I was so impressed with a single story, the amazing novella “The Autopsy” — that before I even finished reading the whole volume, I thrust it into the hands of my friend Neil Walsh, the future editor of SF Site. (I never did get it back and eventually had to buy a new copy. But I don’t mind. As the saying goes, never loan books. They should be gifts.)

But I don’t think you should have to take my word for it. Here’s the distinguished Mr. John Hocking, whose taste in fantasy fiction, as we know, is impeccable, with a two-sentence review of “The Autopsy,” as quoted in Mark Rigney’s 2013 article “The Most Terrifying Short Stories Ever?

Creeped me out as badly as anything I ever read. Most ghastly creature ever put on the page.

Amen to that.

“The Autopsy” has been reprinted over a dozen times, in such places as David G. Hartwell’s monumental horror collection The Dark Descent (1988), The Best of Modern Horror (1989), The Best Horror Stories from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1990), Aliens Among Us (2000), Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Weird (2012) — and just this month it appeared in the e-book edition of Lightspeed magazine.

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Vintage Treasures: Sentinels of Space by Eric Frank Russell / The Ultimate Invader edited by Donald Wollheim

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Sentinels of Space-smallWe’re back  with our journey through the Ace Double line, this time with one of the earliest volumes in the series: Eric Frank Russell’s SF novel Sentinels of Space, coupled with a Donald Wollheim anthology The Ultimate Invader. It was published in paperback in 1954.

Eric Frank Russell is one of those writers I’m not nearly as well-versed in as I should be. I read his brilliant short story “Dear Devil” in Terry Carr’s YA anthology Creatures From Beyond in the mid-seventies, when I was in Junior High, and that’s all it took for his name to stick with me.

“Dear Devil” — rejected by all the major magazines until Bea Mahaffey pulled it from the slush in 1950, while filling in for the hospitalized Ray Palmer at Other Worlds — established Russell as a major name and it also cemented the 26-year-old Mahaffey’s rep as an editor. She remained as co-editor of Other Worlds when Palmer returned and also edited his magazines Science Stories and Universe Science Fiction in the late 50s.

Russell wasn’t terribly prolific. He wrote only eight novels between 1939 and 1965, plus a posthumous collaboration with Alan Dean Foster, Design for Great-Day (1995), published 17 years after his death. I’m sure there’s a fascinating story behind that — I’ll have to ask Alan next time I run into him at a convention.

His two most famous works are probably his first novel Sinister Barrier, which so impressed John W. Campbell that he reportedly founded Unknown magazine just to get it into print, and “Allamagoosa’ (Astounding, May 1955), the first short story to win the Hugo Award.

My favorite Eric Frank Russell anecdote occurred while I was selling vintage paperbacks in the Dealer’s room at the 2012 Worldcon here in Chicago (Howard’s detailed report is here.) Jo Walton — who won a Hugo the next day for her novel Among Others — was browsing my books when she suddenly let out a shout of glee.

She explained why in a funny and delightful post a few months later at, titled “The Book You Don’t Know You’re Looking For.”

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Last Chance to Win a Copy of The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Four from Haffner Press

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Collected Edmond Hamilton Volume Four-smallIn a moment of weakness earlier this month, I decided to give away a copy of the long-awaited fourth volume of The Collected Edmond Hamilton from Haffner Press. Too late to back out now. How do you win one, you lucky dog? Just send an e-mail to with the title “Edmond Hamilton” and a one-sentence review of your favorite Hamilton novel or short story. And don’t forget to mention what story you’re reviewing.

That’s it. One winner will be drawn at random from all qualifying entries and we’ll publish the best reviews here on the Black Gate blog.

But time is running out — the contest closes April 18. If you need more inspiration. we recently covered several Edmond Hamilton books — including Starwolf and The Best of Edmond Hamilton — and we reprinted his very first story, “The Monster-God of Mamurth” (from the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales) in Black Gate 2.

Haffner’s archival-quality hardcovers  — including The Complete John Thunstone by Manly Wade Wellman; Henry Huttner’s Detour to Otherness, Terror in the House: The Early Kuttner, Volume One, and Thunder in the Void; Leigh Brackett’s Shannach – The Last: Farewell to Mars; and Robert Silverberg’s Tales From Super-Science Fiction — are some of the most collectible books in the genre and you won’t want to miss this one.

All entries become the property of New Epoch Press. No purchase necessary. Must be 12 or older. Decisions of the judges (capricious as they may be) are final. Not valid where prohibited by law. Or anywhere postage for a hefty hardcover is more than, like, 10 bucks

The Reign of the Robots, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Four was published by Haffner Press on December 30, 2013. It is 696 pages, priced at $40 in hardcover. There is no digital edition. Learn more here.

Future Treasures: Dead Man’s Hand edited by John Joseph Adams

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Dead Man's Hand John Jospeh Adams-smallWell, this is timely.

No sooner do I admit that I’ve been on a recent weird western kick (just two days ago, actually), than I receive an advance proof of what could well be my favorite book of the lot: John Joseph Adams’s splendid new anthology Dead Man’s Hand, which includes a tantalizing assortment of short stories from many of the leading writers in the genre.

How the West Was Weird!

From a kill-or-be-killed gunfight with a vampire to an encounter in a steampunk bordello, the weird western is a dark, gritty tale where the protagonist might be playing poker with a sorcerous deck of cards, or facing an alien on the streets of a dusty frontier town.

Here are twenty-three original tales — stories of the Old West infused with elements of the fantastic—produced specifically for this volume by many of today’s finest writers. Included are Orson Scott Card’s first Alvin Maker story in a decade, and an original adventure by Fred Van Lente, writer of Cowboys & Aliens. Other contributors include Tobias S. Buckell, David Farland, Alan Dean Foster, Jeffrey Ford, Laura Anne Gilman, Rajan Khanna, Mike Resnick, Beth Revis, Fred Van Lente, Walter Jon Williams, Ben H. Winters, Christie Yant, and Charles Yu.

Dead Man’s Hand will be published by Titan Books on May 13. It is 409 pages, priced at $16.95 in trade paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition.

See all of our recent Future Treasures here.

The H.P. Source: Why I Chose Mythos and Magic to Launch my Publishing House

Saturday, April 12th, 2014 | Posted by Neil Baker

Dark Rites of CthulhuLet’s get the unpleasantness out of the way. There’s a new book in town called The Dark Rites of Cthulhu and I strongly suggest you buy it, if not in glorious paperback form, then as a Kindle edition. Hell’s teeth, shell out for a special edition and you could have your very own shoggoth beermat, something you never knew you needed until I just mentioned it.

I opened with this subtle sales pitch not just because I have children to feed, nor that I would really like to publish another book, but because I believe that my editor, Brian M. Sammons, and I have tapped into a rich vein that has been somewhat overlooked in this (some might say) Lovecraft-saturated landscape.

It cannot be denied that the cold climes of R’yleh have never been hotter. Mythos-based novels and anthologies have been materializing with the regularity of jellyish monstrosities drawn to a resonator, the well-received TV drama, True Detective, teased elements from The King in Yellow, which was a huge influence on Lovecraft’s own writings, and now rumors abound that HPL himself will pop up in a planned Houdini biopic.

This led me to a couple of conclusions. One, there would be a built-in audience for my planned book, and two, I would have to make my book stand out from the crowd. This is why, when Brian pitched his ‘dark magic’ angle, I leapt at the chance to pursue it.

A great many of the books in the market at the moment deal with the physical conflict between humans and the Elder Gods, and rightly so. The very nature of cosmic horror lends an epic quality to even the shortest of tales and hugely entertaining anthologies abound that place the Mythos in historic, contemporary, and even futuristic settings.

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