Between Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July was rich with fiction (nine stories, two poems, and a video treat), and some of it is pretty darn good. So let’s get started.
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #25, with beautiful banner art by Dana Martin, has the usual complement of stories and poetry, and, this month, a special bonus from editor Adrian Simmons.
“Beast Hunter’s Song” by Michael A. Liguori, is about Sedrick the monster hunter’s second chance in life. Dragon hunters get all the glory, but the really dangerous and dirty work is done by the men bold and crazy enough to stalk the caverns of the Underlands for beasts that can swallow a dragon whole. Since the High Lord of Hunters decided there aren’t enough monsters left underground to hunt anymore, men like Sedrick have been reduced to guard duty.
When a Trogon, a beast “twice the size of a dragon, with two or three heads and terrible claws that could cleave an ox in half with a single swipe” ravages a city, the High Lord has no choice but to call Sedrick back to duty. While the plot is nothing out of the ordinary, there’s a wild inventiveness to Liguori’s underground world and its denizens. The end felt a little abrupt, but it could easily serve as an introduction to more adventures for Sedrick, which I would like to read.
In Linda Donahue’s “White Elephants” Darius, sent to guard an Indian princess betrothed to the Persian emperor, becomes infatuated with his charge. When she and the priceless white elephant accompanying her are snatched by a roc, Darius is determined to rescue her. The thing is, neither the emperor nor the Indian king’s emissary care much about the princess; they just want the elephant rescued. There’s magic and mystery behind everything, and Darius is forced to make some dangerous choices along the road to save the princess. This is a solid adventure tale with a setting not used often enough in fantasy.
Some of the more interesting bits of world-building on display this month come courtesy of N.G. Lancaster and his story “Engines Rarely Seen.” Starting in a tavern in an abandoned cathedral, we meet a couple of soldiers waiting to go off to war, a pimp, and one of his prostitutes. The war besetting this world has been going on for a long time and all weapons save knives have been confiscated by the empress for her armies. The pimp is looking for help against a gang of thugs who attacked and killed members of the prostitute’s family. What happens when the two soldiers agree to help is the rest of the story.
What piqued my interest most in this story were the two schools of magic on display. The first, used by one of the soldiers, involved her using the icons of different saints to inflict terrible harm on her opponents. On the gang’s side, one member wields magic which draws power from blood siphoned out of his own body. Between the two sorcerers, the battle at the story’s end is a gruesome, messy affair. In other words, good stuff.
Cullen Groves returns with another work of dark, Norse poetry; “The Harrowed Hall.” “Dragonslayer” by Mary Soon Lee is an excerpt from her epic verse tale, The Sign of the Dragon. Both poems are short and good and I recommend you read them for yourselves.
The bonus is a new story, “Ram Daskanyarda,” by editor Adrian Simmons. It’s not S&S at all, but a very funny tongue-in-cheek revision of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep.” The original told of Nyarlathotep’s arrival as harbinger of the end of the world. It’s not necessary to have read the original to understand Simmons’, but you should to appreciate it more fully. (And really, there shouldn’t be a Lovecraft story you haven’t read already.)
What makes it extra special is that you can’t read it. Instead, you have to listen to it as read by old HPL himself. Sadly, no one used his essential salts to revive HPL from the grave. It’s only Leeman Kessler, creator of the very funny Ask Lovecraft videos.
Curtis Ellett’s Swords and Sorcery Magazine Issue 42 brought another pair of no-frills stories this past month. The first, “Without Sin” by Jeremy Harper, is a tale of sin and death. Sin-eating is a semi-legendary ritual wherein someone would volunteer to take on the sins of a dying person. Elania Reynard is a young novitiate who agrees to perform this feat for the guardian she ran away from years earlier. He has led a life of unparalleled vileness and is now in fear of damnation as he awaits death. More horror than heroic fantasy, this is very good, with creepy atmosphere and interesting side characters.
I didn’t find the second story, “Harsh Is the Light” by Gerry Huntman, as enjoyable (though I very much liked his last story in Swords and Sorcery Magazine, “Husks“). A commander on the run from his enemies seeks out sanctuary and finds his old love, now a priestess. The reader should feel something about these two characters, but they’re not developed enough to care about. There are recriminations and regrets and a decent fight, but still the story felt underdeveloped, or like it had been shorn from something longer.
I haven’t written about Beneath Ceaseless Skies much lately because they’ve given me little to write about, preferring to concentrate on things that are decidedly not heroic fantasy. Well, both issues from this past July, # 177 and #178, were pure fantasy. Even though none of the stories qualify as pure S&S, all are worth a look. As usual, BCS pushes the boundaries of fantasy, with authors not content to stick to the tried-and-true (and, truth be told, slightly stale) conventions. The gorgeous banner art for these two issues is titled “Migration“, and it’s by Hugo- winner, Julie Dillon.
The first story in #177, is “Seasons Set in Skin” by Caroline M. Yoachim. In a faux-Japanese land only women remain to fight magical beings, “gaijin fae, invaders from the West.” The fae are able to take over the bodies of humans and force them to fight. To protect themselves from the invaders, people cover their bodies in tattoos drawn with ink made of the blood of the fae. But now the fae have learned how to overcome this defense.
Told from multiple viewpoints, insight is provided into how both sides see the war. The humans have no understanding of whom they are fighting, only that they face extermination. The fae are seeking to recover their original homeland from which they were driven in ages past. Now one of the fae has come to try to end the war.
Mattar is the mother of a king who is waging all out war in “Stone Prayers” by Kate Marshall. His army’s ranks are filled with men strengthened by the bones of slain gods. Even when slain they do not die at once. Now, imbued with the power from the recently slain great vulture god, they are unstoppable.
Mattar believes she is the cause of her son’s bloody ways and has come in search of a word that will end the war. The story is suffused with sorrow for the dead and lost.
When she was young, and newly with child, she knelt in this place. She carved a prayer, as was her right as first wife to the king, at the feet of Imrin-ka. Make my son strong, she wrote, in the tongue of her mother, the Kilin-kasa, a language she spoke but did not truly understand. She did not know there were as many words for strength as bones in the hand, and the word she chose was drenched in blood.
While both stories are about efforts to bring terrible wars to conclusions, Marshall’s is better at setting the stage and creating a believable world. Yoachim’s setting and characters are thinner and moved me less effectively.
Issue #178 contains my favorite story of the month,”The Scale-Tree” by Raphael Ordoñez, as well as my least favorite, “The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Both work with recognizable fantasy tropes (wicked fairytale step-parent in the first, rebel against the evil empire in the second), but I found only the first to be successful at creating an effective tale.
Raphael Ordoñez dives into the blacker depths of storytelling in the “The Scale-Tree.” Zeuxis, a “flying artist and geometer” and his family live in a tower in Enoch, the great world-city that features in several of Ordoñez’s other stories as well as his novel, Dragonfly. Zeuxis tries to provide for his family by selling his paintings but it’s a constant struggle.
When he dies in a flying accident his wife and two children wind up in the middle of a tale inspired by the Grimm’s “The Juniper Tree” (think creepy step-parent, a child at severe risk, and a meal you should definitely not eat). This is one of the more unsettling stories I’ve read in months and one of the best. Ordoñez’s writing is rooted in the less genre-bound styles of early fantasy and fairy tales, coupled with a contemporary concern for creating more complex and fully human characters. If you haven’t read any of his work till now, this is the perfect place to start.
“The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a story of bondage and control that I found repellent and dull. For thirty years Yin Sanhi has found the weak points of kingdoms and empires and broken them, freeing their peoples from tyranny. One day she is captured by the forces of the Empress Narasorn. She is imprisoned for twelve months and twelve days — her mouth stitched shut and being fed through a tube in her throat — before the empress reveals her plans for her.
While Yin Sanhi is presented as a political genius, we never get any understanding of how she’s achieved the great feats attributed to her. Here she comes across as weak and submissive, unable to withstand the pressures and manipulations of Narasorn, and in denial of that reality. As strong and powerful as she’s claimed to be by the narrative, In Sanhi is easily manipulated by the empress’ wiles. While I like the scope and size of Sriduangkaew‘s world (time-dilating prisons, vast empires, revenge spun out over decades), I found the gut of the story, the interaction between the two characters, dull and unengaging.
So there you go. Lots and lots of new stories for your entertainment. Some good, some less so but all interesting, at least in part. Remember, you keep the flow of new work coming by reading it and letting the ‘zines and authors know there’s an audience for it.
Fletcher Vredenburgh is Black Gate‘s short fiction reviewer (among other things). See his June Short Story Roundup here.