It has finally gotten cold here in the Northeast, but I’ve got plenty of thunderous swords & sorcery stories to keep me busy indoors reading. January brought not only Swords and Sorcery Magazine’s usual complement of two stories, but also issues of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Grimdark Magazine. That’s a terrific way to kick off the new year.
Swords and Sorcery Issue 48, as editor Curtis Ellett writes, brings four years of publication to a close, which is pretty impressive. That’s like fifteen years in internet time, so congratulations are in order.
The issue kicks off with the impressive (and impressively titled) “The Quarto Volume, or Knowledge, Good & Evil” by Ken Lizzi. Cesar is a member of a mercenary company in a land similar to Renaissance Italy but with demons and wizards. Those who control those spirits control the world, and that’s a small number of people. Now, Cesar learns, there’s the possibility of power escaping into the hands of the many. Cesar is cut from the same cloth as any number of roguish heroes, but Lizzi’s prose lends him a clear voice and the setting has great potential. An earlier Cesar the Bravo story was included in the anthology Pirates & Swashbucklers from a few years back. Considering my love of all things piratey (check out the article Howard Andrew Jones and I did about Captain Blood), I’ll probably be buying that soon.
The second story, “The Tower of Jadraign,” by Joshua Steely, opens with Eth, a grizzled soldier, rescuing a woman from the hands of a barbarian she has fallen in with. She promptly tries to get him to accompany her to the legendary Tower of Jadraign.
“Therein lies a conundrum: here we have a beauty in the springtime of youth, who wishes for some reason to rush headlong to a certain death. Why, Triona? Yes, I’ve heard of this Tower of Jadraign.”
“What have you heard?” she was looking away from him now, watching her reflection in the pool of the spring, but with a poised attentiveness whose intensity he could almost feel.
“Many and unreliable though they are, the stories share that the tower was built a thousand years ago, one of two stronghold towers held by sisters. They gave their names to the towers: this one Jadraign, and the other sorceress Jacelys.”
“Jacelyth,” Triona said.
“Jacelyth. The stories also have in common that these sisters were witches, whose power and evil alike were very great. They stood among the chief rivals of the Mage King Ammandion, and were by him destroyed. Most importantly, their ruined strongholds – of which really only the Tower of Jadraign remains – are said to be cursed, and have been the death of countless adventurers who came to them looking for plunder.”
Though there was nary a surprise in it, and some of the writing got a little clunky trying to sound too olde timey, I like this one. While not amazing or anything, I found the ending very satisfying.
Grimdark Magazine (#6) continues to prove itself a worthwhile addition to the virtual magazine rack. Editor Adrian Collins and company appear to have set out to create not just a market for fiction, but the go-to spot for all things grimdark. So, as in the previous issues, there’s a nice mix of short stories, novel excerpt, interviews, and reviews.
Peter Orullian’s “A Fair Man” is about a day in the life of Mikel, the fair man of the title, in one of crapsackiest of crapsack worlds I’ve ever encountered. For the simplest infraction citizens can find themselves forced to fight in the Pits. When they reach adolescence, children face the prospect of being forced into sexual servitude for set periods of time by the nobility. It’s an arrangement called the Priviliges and seems to be allowed to go on because the nobles keep the streets and countryside safe from bandits and other, less pleasant, things. The story is set in the same world as Orullian’s Vault of Heaven novels.
Perhaps the novels give more explanation of how this world and system works, but based on this story I struggled to understand it while finding it thoroughly unpleasant. Sometimes, even when well written and featuring a commendable protagonist, I can’t like a story.
As a reminder, grimdark needn’t be fantasy. “Twelve Minutes to Vinh Quang” by T.R. Napper is set in near-future Australia while China appears to have occupied Vietnam. Mr. Nguyen is trying to secure the services of Vu Thi Lynn in order to help smuggle some people into Australia. Things start to go wrong with the arrival of a pair of immigration officers. I’m thinking maybe this is part of a larger body of work, so, while I appreciated it, it felt a little unmoored and in need of more exposition.
I’ve reviewed a few of Michael R. Fletcher’s stories before and liked them very much, so I wasn’t too surprised that his “At the Walls of Sinnlos” is dynamite. In a world where only the mad are capable of reshaping reality in a way we would see as magic, Gehirn is a Hassebrand, a man capable of starting tremendous, explosive fires. He is part of the army of the Theocrat, sent to overthrow the city of Sinnlos and its ruler, the Delusionist Empress. What follows is, surprisingly, almost a love story, surrounded by massive battles and fantastically outrageous creatures and sorcery.
‘You are in command?’ I asked.
She shrugged. ‘I am Asena of the Theocrat’s Therianthropes.’ She stared at me with the ice blue eyes of a northern wolf.
I’d heard of the Therianthropes, these shape-shifting animal-spirit warriors.
‘I am Gehirn Schlechtes,’ I said. ‘Hassebrand.’ Like any dog, these shape-shifters would only learn respect once they learned fear. ‘Come.’
I turned and headed back towards the main camp. They’d follow or not. Going out of your way to accommodate the insane is rarely worth the effort.
They followed, Asena quickening her pace to walk at my side. Her booted feet kicked up plumes of rust-coloured dust that spun away like fleeing spirits.
‘The walls of Sinnlos still hold,’ she said, stating the obvious.
‘The walls still hold,’ I agreed. Even in the day’s heat I felt the warmth of her, breathed deep her animal musk. Much as I wanted to shy away I dared not. ‘Tell me of your squad,’ I said to distract myself.
This is what I want from grimdark. The world doesn’t have to be vile and cynical, but it moves in its own imperturbable way that can crush the individuals in its path. It is big and bloody with a truly epic feel and at the same time a recognizable human heart. The protagonists are those struggling to survive, or take advantage of, that reality. Despite the clash of armies and the fate of a city at stake, “At the Walls of Sinnlos” doesn’t lose sight of Gehirn and the people around him.
As Fletcher explains in his introduction, this story is a precursor piece to his novel Beyond Redemption. While it uses the same concepts and even some of the same names, it is distinct from that book and served as a testing ground for those things.
The final bit of fiction is a tiny excerpt from Mitchell Hogan’s novel Blood of Innocents. Caldan and his companions have taken someone named Bells captive. She assures them she will kill them all in the end. That’s it. It’s too short to really set any tone, or provide any sense of place or character.
One highlight of the non-fiction is C.T. Phipps’ “The Grimdark Villain,” a companion to his piece in Issue #5 titled “What is The Grimdark Hero?.” Another is a roundtable discussion with some of the leading publishers in the genre: Tim Marquitz of Ragnarok Publications, Shawn Speakman of Grim Oak Press, Katie Cord of Evil Girlfriend Media, and Geoff Brown of Cohesion Press.
I gotta say, I’m kind of ticked off at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #27. Not that the stories and poems aren’t good — they are — but two of them are cliffhangers. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait three months to read what happens next. Seriously, though, I’m only annoyed because, as usual, HFQ has got the goods, and both stories grabbed me and then left me hanging. The stunning cover painting, Forbidden Valley is by Brad Fraunfelter.
The first is “Crazy Snake and the Tribute for Pachacamac” by Eric Atkisson. It’s the third story about the Comanche warrior wandering south from the Comancheria (read the others here) into Central America. In the last story he tangled with dark magic and the forces of the filibuster, William Walker, in Nicaragua. Fleeing Walker’s soldiers, he and his faithful horse, Aahtaqui, find themselves in the ocean, swimming toward a silver-mist-shrouded shore. Pretty much everything you could want in a S&S story shows up on shore: stone idols, an evil god served by evil priests, fighting, mad sorceries, and ancient curses. I’m looking forward to the wrap-up next issue. Between Atkisson’s Crazy Snake stories and John Fultz’s The Testament of Tall Eagle, it’s a good time for Native American-themed heroic fantasy.
“The Coin and the Mushroom” by Gerald Warfield is too short to write much about without giving the game away, but it’s more than worth your time, packing a lot of power into brevity. At just over 1,600 words long, it’s a rejoinder to anyone who tells you how limited short storytelling is.
Matt Hlinak’s “Four Against Olympus” brings together 99% of the gods, demigods, and heroes of Greek mythology in a fantastic, and often funny, romp. Trouble arises when Medea asks Hera, queen of the gods, for help in getting her revenge on her hated ex-husband Jason.
The deaths of her sons haunted Medea’s dreams. She could not shake the sight of their lifeless eyes staring up at her. Sweat streamed down her spine as she awoke. Though her eyes could not penetrate the darkness, she knew she was not alone.
“Hail to the Queen of Heaven,” she said.
“Thank you, child,” answered Hera. The goddess appeared then, glimmering like the dawn’s light reflected upon a pond.
Don’t worry if you aren’t up on your Greek legends, as Hlinak skillfully intersperses the mythology throughout the story. This tale is majestic in scope, delving deep beneath the Earth into the prison of Tartaros, and up to the cloud-piercing heights of Mount Olympus.
The final story, the second unfinished story, is by HFQ editor Adrian Simmons. “The Siege, The Gums, and the Blue,” is the story of young refugee Izydor Kiel dragooned into the army of Oskzeyn, a city under siege by a horde of barbarians.
The riders slowed, then several veered off from the rest and approached the line, calling to the wretched people there that if any wanted their older children to be spared the coming Kimar that they hand them over now. Ahead of him, Izydor saw Papa slow and then turn. His father lunged at him, like they were wrestling in the yard, and scooped him up with a grip stronger than any he had known. So hard he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t ask why or what. He could just watch as Uncle Estek held his wailing mother back.
There’s no great epic battle or quest. Instead, the story provides a ground-eye view of chaotic events, from a boy forced to commit brutal acts in the defense of the city. As usual, from someone becoming one of my favorite authors as well one of my favorite editors, this is very good. I really hate I have to wait three months for the conclusion.
Finally, HFQ #27 has poems. “Role” by Scott Hutchison portrays the fateful encounter between a warrior and an enemy he misjudges badly. Christina Sng’s “Unvictorious” gives us the hopes of a dying man.
That’s the roundup, folks. I hope you’re checking these out and letting the authors, editors, and publishers know what you think. If short fiction, the lifeblood of swords & sorcery, is to survive, its creators need to know there’s an audience for their work.