It’s story time, kids! For the newcomers, that’s when I pore over the new short heroic fiction stories published in the previous month and let you know what I think about them. My goal is to shine a spotlight on the authors and magazines doing the yeoman-like work of creating new swords & sorcery tales and getting them into the reading public’s hands. It is my contention that S&S is a genre best served by short stories. I hope, with Black Gate as my bullhorn, I’m helping draw readers to some exciting and interesting new writing with each installment of the roundup.
For two-and-half years, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, published and edited by Curtis Ellett, has presented two new stories every month. That’s over fifty stories so far — the equivalent of four or five Lin Carter-edited anthologies. I’ve written before that the magazine’s sensibilities are pretty much exactly aligned with what it says on the masthead: swords and sorcery. But there are times the magazine shifts its focus a little.
“By Any Other Name” by S. A. Hunter is about what happens when a nameless young girl and her guardian are visited by a minstrel. The girl suffers under a curse and despite strong warnings, the bard proves too persistent for his own good and tries to overcome it. The story and the minstrel put me in mind of a host of fairy tales that tell of the unfortunate older brothers who die before their youngest one shows up and saves the princess.
Keshia Swain’s “Inner Strength” is narrated by a trainee healer, Damali. When her mistress travels to spend time with her dying brother, Damali is confronted by intruders and finds herself drawing on heretofore unrealized reserves to confront them. There was just enough going on here to keep me interested and enough questions left unanswered to leave me wanting more.
In over five years, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a bi-weekly magazine that contains all sorts of good stuff published and edited by Scott H. Andrews, has provided hundreds of great stories for free. Several of these tales have been nominated for or won a bunch of awards. Most recently, Gregory Norman Bossert’s fantastic story of bees and ritual, “The Telling“, was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for short stories. And they pretty regularly publish some excellent heroic fantasy.
BCS #149 opens with a fairly standard story of evil necromancy and portents of doom. In “Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan, a boy has been given into servitude to Ghraik, king of Surthenon and about as vile a sorceror as one finds in S&S. He draws his power from a magical tar pit and kills children, the girls by torture and the boys with brutal labor. Ghraik is moved to summon terrible magics when his enemies raise a mighty force against him. Not a bad story, but not one that breaks any new ground or tells an old tale with any special verve.
The second story in #149 isn’t S&S, but I loved its shadowed, aquatic goings on and recommend it as very much worth reading. “Silver and Seaweed” by Greg Linklater is about the unpleasant relationship between a young girl living under the sea and her guardian. Exotic drugs have mutated him into a massive tentacled, shark thing. In the past, he scoured the ocean floor for treasure, but his metamorphosis has made it impossible. Now he is working to mutate his charge into something that can take over his excursions into the depths.
BCS #150 is a special double-size issue to celebrate it being, well, the 150th issue. That means BCS has published over 300 stories, which puts them in the vicinity of almost thirty Lin Carter anthologies. Not everything I’ve read in BCS has been to my taste, but many of their stories have been good, and more than a few great. For that, I am very grateful.
“The Manor of Lost Time” by Richard Parks is a wry tale of traps, tricks, and the beginning of a legend. Sahel offers to tell the reader the true origins of the great sorceress known as the “The Enchantress Sorrowsbane” or “She Who Speaks in Fire.” Sahel is not forthcoming about his own early days until late in the story; suffice it to say, they explain why he’s still around to tell a tale over a thousand years old. The only drawback to this story is its tantalizing hints at several events that seem to merit entire tales of their own.
I’m usually not a fan of dreamlike or impressionistic stories. Adam Callaway’s series of very strange and original stories about the paper city Lacuna and the powerful, reality-changing Inked Man are a definite exception. Even when they haven’t worked for me completely, they’ve left strong images impressed on my brain.
“The Inked Many,” as with the other stories, is like a visit to someone’s dream. It also revisits events in the earlier story, “The Magic of Dark and Hollow Places.” There are two strands to the story. The first is about a man named Chernyl looking for work in deep, dangerous mines. The other part is about the Inked Man losing his powers. In the end, the pieces braid together satisfactorily.
“The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram is a very short visit to the underworld’s river of forgetfulness. It’s never completely clear whether the characters are alive or dead and falls too far into the “dream” category for me.
The highlight of the issue and of the month is Stephen Case’s “The Unborn God.” A young man, fleeing the priests of an increasingly powerful god, has arrived at the flying house of a wizard. The wizard is hoping to thwart the aborning deity. What follows is a great story of that battle, from the young man’s perspective on the sidelines.
This is the sort of story I look forward to finding every time I turn on my Kindle Fire and start reading. There is a moment in this story that literally made me sit up a little straighter and say, “Cool!” The god from the title is growing in strength and power, but not just in the present. It is expanding in all dimensions and is changing, at least the perception of, even the past. It’s a fascinating idea handled perfectly.
The young protagonist’s memories of how he came to be on a wizard’s flying house keep changing. At first, he and his father were chased out of their town by a band of priests. Later he describes how priests and armed men came to his home and killed his father, forcing him to flee. In the end, we learn the very different truth. I’ve never read anything by Case before, but I’m very curious to see what else he’s done and will do.
All in all, a decent month. Some good stories and one excellent one, to boot.