It’s time for the last roundup of stories from 2015. The year went out in fine fashion. For the second time in only a few months Beneath Ceaseless Skies published a batch of good heroic fantasy. And while we’re in that interim between new issues of of both Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Grimdark Magazine, genre stalwart Swords and Sorcery Magazine made its regular monthly appearance bearing a pair of new tales.
Before I get into the reviews, I thought I’d say a little about why I’ve made it a major part of my writing to review and publicize S&S short stories. While there have been good S&S novels (REH’s The Hour of the Dragon), okay ones (KEW’s Darkness Weaves), and bad ones (Lin Carter’s Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria), the beating heart of the genre has always been short stories. From that opening blast of thunder in REH’s “The Shadow Kingdom” — and through the decades in the works of authors as diverse as C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Charles Saunders — it’s been in short stories that the genre’s been best displayed.
The hallmarks of swords & sorcery are adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and a narrow focus on only a few characters, bound together in a narrative that reads like a shot of mainlined adrenaline. In the very best stories — KEW’s “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul,” for example — they’re all present. Not that there can’t be structural complexity, finely detailed characters, or exquisitely tooled prose, but it must be exciting. Detours into side-plots, passages meticulously describing feasts, too many secondary and tertiary characters all put brakes on the action. Limited to fifteen or thirty pages, the focus is on the protagonist and his or her immediate situation.
The magic and terrors in KEW’s story “The Dark Muse” are perfectly disturbing. When similar elements are explored at length and in more detail in his novel Bloodstone they lose some of their gruesome sheen. As good as REH is in The Hour of the Dragon, it doesn’t compare to the taut storytelling in stories such as “The Marchers of Valhalla,” or “Red Nails.”
The very best stories I have read in my years of reviewing S&S are the ones that come closest to meeting the demands I’ve put out above. There are dozens of authors working like mad to create stories that will thrill and chill you, and grab you out of the safety of your comfy chair for a little while. It’s those tellers of tales I’m on constant watch for and hoping to hip readers to. I want S&S to continue as a living, breathing genre, not one content to exist as a museum for forty- or seventy-year-old stories.
So let’s get started.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ position as one of the best online publishers of fantasy and science fiction means it attracts excellent writers and prints some terrific stories. Three of the four tales from its two December issues are indeed quite good.
Issue #188 (with a magnificent painting called Huashan Temple by Xiao Ran), opens with a tale of sorcery, zombies (more the voodoo kind, and thankfully, not the Romero kind), and a mysterious prisoner held below decks. “Eyes Beyond the Fire” by Nick Scorza is exactly what I want from a S&S story. Lys was recently banished and is sailing as a passenger on a merchant ship that is diverted from its original course to pick up a special cargo:
He was thin and fever-pale, yet bound with thick irons pinning arms to chest, and the lead guardsman marched him ahead of the company at the end of a slaver’s catch-pole. A burlap sack covered the man’s head, and he shook and pitched his frail body with a terrifying ferocity. Lys had once seen fishermen in the bay of Otar net and gaff a shark, and it had thrashed with the same frenzy on their hooks. She turned away as the pale man was lowered into the depths of the hold.”
Scorza packs a lot of Lys’ backstory in via a magical attack she suffers at one point. It feels a little extraneous for the story at hand, but it doesn’t keep this from being my kind of S&S.
I did say three of the four December stories are good, which which leaves one standing off by itself. “The Rest Will Blur Together” by John Wheeler is about Melika. She is able to remove memories, unwanted ones, from client’s heads. Those excised memories then reside in her own head, mixing with her own, leading to a personality crisis. While an interesting idea, I found it all a little too confusing for my tastes.
Now, both of Issue #189’s stories made it to my like list. The first, “A Killer of Dead Men” by David Tallerman is a clever tale about Otranto, a member of the House of Dusk (i.e. an assassin) whose current target refuses to die. Tallerman is able to keep the mystery of what’s going on going just long enough to bring the story to a very satisfying conclusion.
James Lecky is a writer who first came to my attention two and half years ago in the pages of Swords and Sorcery Magazine. Just recently I learned he was the very first author on the virtual pages of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Now I’m finding him here in BCS. And so far I’ve liked everything I’ve read by him.
I almost don’t want to say a thing about the plot of “So Strange the Trees.” I will say that it’s a love story and that I love the prose and the protagonist, “Gunter Alquen, Presiding Officer—or Karteltrager, to use his correct title—of the Place of Blades in the vaunted city of PameGlorias.”
Love works a transformation in Alquen:
“The grey morning passed in a blaze of steel and blood: five men died before Alquen and Engarten closed the heavy oak gates of the Dueling Quad for the day. But it seemed to Alquen that each carmine drop that fell to the cobblestones was a tacit reminder of the flower he had pinned to the interior of his cloak. And where once he had taken a keen professional interest in the tactics and techniques that the duelists employed, now he saw their combat as a distraction at best.”
I am looking forward to whatever Lecky does next.
I referred to Swords and Sorcery Magazine as stalwart, defined by Merriam-Webster as “very loyal and dedicated,” and that describes it perfectly. Like the Post Office, come rain or shine, every month, there it is with two new stories that, pretty much, are exactly what the mag’s title proclaims: swords & sorcery.
““The Bastard D’Uvel,” she said cooly. “The Butcher of Karlstadt. The Terror of Carcosa. Killer of witches.”
During the wild festivities of the Night of Masks, he is hired by a woman to steal back her most precious treasure from the dastardly drug dealer, Erik Von Dirk. Protected by his ties to the political establishment as well as a coterie of armed guards, D’Uvel knows he has his work cut out for himself.
I want to like this a little more than I actually did. It suffers from presenting us with a protagonist who never quite lives up to his introduction. He’s built up as much cleverer and dangerous than he actually is — or at least than he’s given a chance to prove here. Nevertheless, the Bastard narrates his own adventure with enough elan and dash to make the proceedings pass somewhat pleasantly.
SSM’s second story, “Arbor” by Frank Martinicchio, is about the fateful day William, an orphaned stable boy, meets an assassin named Arbor. It’s a noirish affair, with murder and the temptation to commit more murder. The finale is appropriately bleak for a story involving a paid assassin. There was no need for this to be a fantasy story as it could be set anytime in the real world just as easily, but still, I liked it for its lack of sentimentality and cheap cynicism.
And that’s all for the roundup this month. So go follow the links and spend some time reading S&S published last month.