Just because I’ve taken a turn toward epic high fantasy in my reading of late doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken swords & sorcery. In fact, here’s my latest look at short stories from a trio of magazines you can read for free every single issue.
I’m starting this month off with Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ve written here before about my love-hate relationship with the magazine. Too often it just doesn’t print stories I’m interested in. Even when it does, its editors definitely have more literary taste than the pulpish flavor I prefer in my heroic fantasy. Issue #185 is a reminder of why I still look forward to BCS’s arrival every two weeks. Topped by a gorgeous painting by Feliks Grzesiczek that could easily pass for the locale of a Hammer film, the issue bills itself as “fantastically monstrous…for Halloween.” And it is.
“Demons Enough” by Ian McHugh is a little like Underworld (if Underworld wasn’t awful), set a little to the left of Beowulf’s Geatland. In other words, you get a shapeshifter throwing down with vampires, and folks named Thorfinn and Freydis trying to kill the lot of them. When the component elements of a story have been played with by an untold host of other writers over the years, the author has a lot of work to bring something original to the mix. That happens here with McHugh’s vampires, or leeches as they’re called. Cloaked by night and magic, they take on a more human form. In the sunlight, stripped of most of their power, their true selpulchral nature is revealed. Gloomy atmosphere, gut-squishing violence, and apprehension are delivered with a more than adequate degree of skill.
Even better is Cory Skerry’s “Bloodless.” In some wintry land humans in their walled villages are beset by blood-drinking creatures called the Bloodless. To protect themselves, each town mutilates and transforms some of their own into another type of monster. Equipped with fangs, long nails, long life, and trained in combat, each protector is bound to its post at one of the city gates by a constraining circle made of its own blood. There it stays, protecting the town as long as it can. Skerry explores what happens when one of these protectors, Kamalija, is tempted with freedom and faces the ingratitude of those she protects.
In my very first magazine review (over at my site three and a half years ago) I wrote about Skerry’s last story for BCS, “Sinking Among the Lilies.” It was the sort of bleak and potent tale that I love. Finding a story like that the first time out was incentive to keep reading new short stories each month, which led straight to my gig here at BG. I’ve kept my eye open for new work by Skerry and this is the first I’ve seen. I’m pleased to have enjoyed it as much as his earlier tale.
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #26 hit the virtual newsstands the other day with a reassuring thump. By which I mean it was heavy-laden with sword play and dire magics. Three spot-on S&S stories and a trio of poems to boot. The lurid, pulpy banner art is by Lucas Durham.
In J.R. Restrick’s “The Voice of the Green Flame,” when King Kaledar is forced to crawl through a tunnel and kill something crawling alongside him it goes like this:
Juices burst noisily from the core while the loathsome prod of upturned legs rustled along his body. Then the creature lay behind in a splintered, wet mound.
If that sort of writing doesn’t appeal to you then neither will this story of a king forced to look to the mysterious Council of Oraxis for aid. But then you’d probably not be reading this magazine, so this story probably is for you after all. So just read it.
Seriously, it’s a wild trip into the heart of a mysterious peak in search of knowledge and help from the aforementioned Council just as the unified army of all the barbarian tribes is about to lay siege to the city of Greykeep. From creeping crawling things in the tunnels to giant skeletal major domos and cryptic messages in the subterranean dark, “Voice” is bloody good fun. Oh, and while it comes to a satisfying end, it’s also clearly the setup for a sequel; one which I’m looking forward to.
My real name is Ingo Delk, but those who are acquainted to me, and I mean acquainted as I have no friends, call me either Ur Tansdoki, or Doki for short, which in Massamic means ‘The Unsmiling One’. The name is apt, for in the world I inhabit there are few reasons to smile and less to laugh. Hope does not exist for one such as me. For I am a lowly beggar.
So begins “Beggar’s Belief” by Jon Byrne. Concerned with the fate of only a few people, this tale has a more human dimension that the more pulpy “Voice.” When his long dormant abilities to trust and care about someone else are reignited by a angelic missionary, Ingo rouses himself to heroic levels when she is threatened. Byrne writes beautifully. I liked his previous story in HFQ, “Taking the Bait.” This one’s even better.
A catman, a mothwoman, and an eerie blue lamp figure in Robert Zoltan’s very fun and self-illustrated (well one picture anyway) “The Blue Lamp.” For any fan of S&S those three things should be enough to make you read the story. We know what we like and when we seen it we flock to it like, well, moths.
For those wanting to know more it’s simple: Two friends, a tattoo-covered barbarian called Blue and the poet (and master swordsman) Dareon Vin get into a fight. Wandering into the big city by himself, Blue ends up looking into the wrong magic blue lamp. When Dareon goes out to find him unexpected things start to happen. The two physically and temperamentally mismatched heroes bring to mind a certain pair from classic S&S but only enough to be good fun, and not enough to reek of thievery.
As for the poems, Ann Keith’s “An Oracle” is a dreamy bit of verse. A dead solider’s poor family gets nice words but no more in “The Royal Doors” by Eliza Victoria. “A Tale at Bedtime” by Mary Soon Lee is a sequel to her previous poem in HFQ, “Dragonslayer.”
Swords and Sorcery Magazine #45 has its usual pair of stories. I’m curious how the magazine’s doing in terms of readership. It’s been plugging away for nearly four years, two stories a month, paying little but publishing some good authors and really good stories. I never hear or read anything about it, so if anyone knows anything, let me know.
“A Fine Bounty” by Rob Francis pits a pair of down-at-the-heels male bounty hunters against a lone female bounty hunter. All are vying for the remains — really all anyone wants is the head — of the rogue called Brokeneck Ashby. It’s got a very Western feel, which is a good thing, what with its bounty hunting in a sun-baked waste land populated by moonsnakes and bone scorpions. Every now and then I come across a story like this one that demonstrates the fluid lines dividing genres.
Daniel Hand’s “Warriors in the Mist” features a familiar scenario: the warrior who has hung up his sword must put it on again. I didn’t love Hand’s previous story in SSM, “Memories,” but I do like this one. It’s not the most original setup for a story, and I’ve already read one Norse fantasy this month, but there’s a solid grimness to the warrior’s decision and subsequent actions. And it’s not just any sword, but a magical one that channels destructive power. It’s also told from his wife’s point of view, which highlights the weight of the loss on not just himself.
All in all, October was a good month for S&S stories. If you’re a fan you should be reading these works and letting the authors and editors know what you think. It’s the only way they’re going to keep doing it, which is what keeps the genre alive and healthy.
I know last month I promised to see what was in recent issues of Fantasy Scroll Magazine but I have to let you down again. I’ll get to them for next month.
Oh, and if you missed HFQ editor Adrian Simmon’s post the other day, he and his compatriots have an anthology of the best stories from their first few years of publication hitting the shelves on November 27th. It’s available for pre-order now.