It’s been more than a piece, heck, even more than a while, since I’ve done one of these. I’m glad to be back because there’s been some really good short fiction published in the last couple of months. I’m not going to get to everything, but I am going to get to the best — Heroic Fantasy Quarterly 37 and Tales From the Magician’s Skull No. 2.
HFQ 37 has four stories and three poems. The continued use of evocative black and white art makes it my favorite looking ezine out there, but it’s the high quality of the stories that matters.
P. Djeli Clark kicks off the issue with the more-than-a-little grim “The Paladin of Golota.” Teffe is a young boy in the decaying town of Am Amara. He survives by robbing the corpses of the stream of warriors who have come to his town to fight the demon worms that infest the surrounding lands. Contrary to his fellow street kids, Teffe draws a line at cutting the throats of the wounded, instead waiting until they die on their own. This slight sense of honor leads him into a conversation with the fighter, Zahrea. She knew coming to Am Amara meant her death was likely, but came anyway.
“You’d die just to become a hero?” he asked.
She sat back and closed her eyes before saying: “Heroes give the world hope. They fill our tales and stories. There is a reason we do not make gods our heroes, but instead mortals who became more.”
Clark is a writer whose work I’ve admired very much in the past and this is my favorite story of the month. The story is grim, but unlike so many such stories, Clark not only provides a moment of grace in the darkness, but its entirety is built around that moment.
“The Forest of Bone” by Christopher Chupik is set in the wilds of Snowdonia during the reign of King Artos Pen Draig and concerns the adventures of Lucan, one of his lesser knights. Lucan has come to the mountains in search of a giant to kill and a name to make for himself. There’s a duplicitous wizard, a mute maid, and, of course, a giant. It’s a simple tale but one told well.
The day was already waning when Lucan rode through the Forest of Bones. Trees loomed all around him, oak and ash, moss draped over their branches like beards. He saw no animals amidst the green shadows and the only birdsong Lucan heard was the cawing of crows.
But he saw their bones.
Underfoot, beneath the cover of dead leaves, they lay. Stripped of flesh, bleached by sun, abandoned unburied where they had fallen. Rib-cages of oxen, horns from rams and skulls of goats.
And not just beasts. The glint of sun on rusting iron caught Lucan’s eye and he reined his horse to a halt. Lying, half-buried in the dirt, was a rusted helmet with a human skull.
The villagers said that other warriors had gone before him. None had returned.
“The Blitz of Din Barham” by Cameron Johnston, author of The Traitor God (written up at Black Gate here), has lots of dragons, lots of wizards, and an apprentice cleverer than her master. The invasion of Din Barham by a veritable flock of dragons has occasioned the arrival of all manner of wizards to fight them. It manages to be both smartly funny and pretty awesome.
For the first time in Din Barham’s history its disparate magicians gathered in one place: haughty grand magi and wise loremasters, warlocks and witches, shamans and spell-weavers and sorcerers of all creeds converging on the fabled manse of Grand Mage Maccus.
With martial law declared, Kyna was even forced to open the great brass gate and admit outlawed demonologists who had crawled from crypts to put their dark arts and darker hearts in service of the city. They sneered at the gate’s arcane configuration of silver stars and brass planets. As far as they were concerned power was only found in blood and pain.
The final story, “What Clev Yun Would Want to Tell You,” returns to the bronze-age world Adrian Simmons introduced several years ago in “Bronze-Ard, The Ferret Master, And Auspicious Events at Swift Creek Farm.” In this very short story, a teller-of-tales explains why the Dwanul people are they way they are and why they’ve managed to beat off two invasions. Simmons is not only one of the best editors around, he’s also becoming one of my favorite writers.
As with every other issue, HFQ 37 has poems, this month, three of them. I see heroic fantasy as a direct descendant of the tales and songs spun long ago by the bards, skalds, and griots. HFQ is the only magazine I know of keeping alive a link to the very roots of the genre.
Adele Gardner’s “Threads of Gold” tells the story of Ariadne during Theseus’ arrival on Crete. “When the Legions Went” by David Barber recounts a brutal incident from the last days of Roman Britain. In the final poem, “The Necromancer” by Ngo Binh Anh Khoa, the melancholy bonds between a necromancer and the dead are explored. Both “Threads of Gold” and “The Necromancer” are accompanied by audio versions.
Tales from the Magician’s Skull No.2 makes it clear the first issue’s greatness was no fluke. Editor Howard Andrew Jones has scoured the lands and returned with another round of prime new stories from some of the best current crafters of heroic fantasy. Publisher Goodman Games has wrapped them in an attractive package that includes excellent art, including that of RPG art legend Russ Nicholson, as well as Dungeon Crawl Classics stats for all the stories’ monsters and magical artifacts.
Picking up where the previous issue’s story, “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest,” left off, John C. Hocking’s “Trial By Scarab” continues with the adventures of Benhus. Erstwhile soldier and erstwhile assistant to a wizard (the exceedingly late Thratos), Benhus finds his morning interrupted by the arrival of two people. If he has any hope of replacing Thratos as the King’s Hand, he must deliver a message in secret to a privateer. It’s not a complicated tale, but it does include a duplicitous opponent armed with sleeping powder, a magical blade, and one big honking monster. Nice and simple, with atmosphere, pacing, and a protagonist that leave no doubt it’s S&S.
The elusive James Stoddard brings a tale of monsters and sacrifice under the oceans in “The Day of the Shark.” Subtitled “A Tale of Thalassa,” it would seem this is the start of a new series, which one can only hope is true.
Shartoom, leader of a band of mermen, foolishly believed the blandishments of an outsider. While Shartoom and most of the men where off hunting, that outsider attacked and destroyed his people’s home and carried off all the women and children they didn’t just kill. Now Shartoom must lead the survivors on a chase that brings them to the deepest and most feared part of the ocean, the home of the Dread Ones.
Stoddard, whose work I know from the remarkable The High House, which I reviewed here, has created a credible and dark undersea setting. One can practically feel the pressure increasing and the light fading away as Shartoom and his followers dive deeper and deeper. While the tale comes to an appropriate end, it is also clear that it is likely the beginning of a larger tale yet to come.
James Enge returns with with another tale from the early days of his regular character, Morlock Ambrosius, in “Stolen Witness.” This time Morlock gets assigned to assist in the investigation of a stolen magical artifact, the Witness Stone. As usual, Enge writes with delightful snark.
“The stone can’t have gotten far then,” Defender Naevros syr Tol replied ironically. “Shall we check the nearby alleys?”
Morlock grunted. “How fast does a stone move, do you suppose?”
“Faster if it has a bad conscience. We’ll be on the lookout for a nervous stone.”
In “Blood of the Forest Born” by Nathan Long, a pair of thieves, Anla and Lanci, disguise themselves in order to rob a nobleman’s house during a costume ball. It’s an annual party held by the Segavian people where everyone dresses in exaggerated garb of the aboriginal Haata people they conquered. Anla herself is a Haata while Lanci is Segavian. This is my first encounter with Long, and I am impressed with his story’s striking shift from what seems a bit of frivolous, if fun, fluff, to a darker tale demanding tough choices of its heroines.
I’ve had mixed reactions to Setsu Uzume’s work in the past and that remains the case with her “Break Them on the Drowning Stones.” It’s a story of hatred, darkness, and devastating magic. A dense work, it unfortunately lacks enough explanations to keep the reader from being distracted by trying understand what’s exactly going on.
Despite being a fellow Black Gate blogger, I’ve never read any of Violette Malan’s fiction till now. “A Soul’s Second Skin” features her series characters, Dhulyn Wolfshead and Parno Lionsmane, members of the vaunted Mercenary Brothers. They are approached by a woman claiming her brother vanished and could she hire them to find him. Immediately suspicious of the woman, the duo nonetheless take her commission and head off in search of the missing man.
This is a fairly straightforward story — with interdimensional travel. There’s nothing startling on display, but Malan clearly knows these characters intimately. I think this means I need to start tracking down at least the first of the four Dhulyn and Parno novels, The Sleeping God.
Finally, there’s “Shuhalla’s Sword” by Dave Gross. Shuhalla is an imperial inspector of the first rank. She has been sent on a tour of distant outposts. It turns out something terrible has happened at Bulwark Station 4713 and not a soul, save one boy, Denkar bo lin, adjutant to the now-dead station commander, survived.
I really liked this one and it runs a close second to Stoddard’s as my favorite in this issue. It’s told from Denkar’s perspective, and his confusion even as he worked to do the right and brave things is well written. He’s way out of his depth facing the horrors that have been inflicted on the station, but teamed up with the powerful Shuhalla he’s inspired to persevere.
Shuhalla gave him back his sword. “If I fall, you must defend yourself.”
“I won’t let you fall,” he said, immediately regretting his ridiculous words. Who was he to say such a thing to an imperial inspector? She would laugh at him.
Instead, Shuhalla’s expression grew even more serious. She drew the commander’s sword and admired it. “This is an ancient blade,” she said. “The commander must have come from a noble family.”
“I don’t know much about his family,” said Denkar. “He always behaved nobly. He taught me I must try to do the same.”
I was reminded a little of Balthus in “Beyond the Black River.” I’m not sure if there are more stories from this setting, but if so I’m curious to read them.
There’s one more thing in this issue — an illustrated version of A. Merritt’s classic weird tale, “The People of the Pit.” Two prospectors meet a disturbing man wearing a gold chain who proceeds to tell them an even more disturbing story of ancient ruins and their obscene inhabitants. Adapted and drawn by Stefan Poag, it is suitably creepy. I’ve promised myself to read more Merritt this year, and this was a great reminder of why I want to read more.
That’s all I’m going to write about this time around. Between Magician’s Skull and HFQ you cannot go wrong and will get a mighty mainline dose of heroic fantasy. There’s a new issue of Grimdark Magazine and at least two issues of Sword and Sorcery Magazine that I’ve missed. My apologies to them, fine publications both. If you’ve read them, let me know in the comments. And remember, keep reading the short stories out there and telling the writers, editors, and publisher what you think. I know there’s an audience (and market) for this sort of storytelling, but it really helps to let the creators know that.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now (actually, I’m writing about Westerns right now).