James Nicoll on Amazons! edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Saturday, September 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Amazons! (DAW, 1979). Cover by Michael Whelan

Every once in a while I get asked to recommend other sites out there for readers who enjoy Black Gate. There are some top-notch book blogs, of course — like Rich Horton’s excellent Strange at Ecbatan, and Mark R. Kelly’s overlooked Views from Crestmont Drive — and the usual publisher sites, like Tor.com and Locus Online. But recently I’ve been spending a lot of time at James Nicoll Reviews, partly because of the wide range of content. In just the last week he’s reviewed Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, a collection by Han Song, a superhero RPG from Green Ronin, and (a man after my own heart!) the July 1979 issues of Charles C. Ryan’s Galileo magazine — which of course lured Rich Horton out of his secluded library to comment enthusiastically.

But the real reason I hang out so much at James’ blog is that he regularly covers classic SF and fantasy — insightfully and thoroughly. Here’s his thoughts on Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s World Fantasy Award winning anthology Amazons!, from 1979.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s 1979 Amazons! is an anthology of fantasy stories. Special ones. Each story features a woman protagonist who is not support staff or arm candy for the hero. Almost but not all of the stories are by women….

For the most part these are sword and sorcery stories. Their scope is limited. individual fates may depend on the outcome; sometimes the fates of small kingdoms do; but none of these stories are of the ​“we must win or the world will be destroyed” variety. There are some fairly slight stories — every reader will see the twist in Lee’s story coming for miles, and there is not much to ​“The Rape Patrol.” These are more than balanced by stories like ​“Agbewe’s Sword,” ​“The Sorrows of Witches,” and [CJ] Cherryh’s ​“The Dreamstone” (which reminds me that I’ve never read the novel length expansion, or the sequel, although I think I own both). ​“Sorrows of Witches” is a little odd because that it seems to accept the premise that witches are by definition bad people who deserve what they get. Or in this case, do not get.

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Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 edited by Jonathan Strahan

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover design by Richard Yoo (click to embiggen)

Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 feels like a beginning. Probably because it is a beginning, in more ways than one. Jonathan has been editing Year’s Best books since 2003, and he curated thirteen volumes of the excellent Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, the first seven with Night Shade (2007-2013) and the last six with Solaris (2014-19). He’s now switched publishers to Saga Press/Gallery Books, and with that transformation comes other changes as well.

Most obvious is a switch in title, to The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020, a reset in the numbering scheme (back to #1), and a refocus (dropping fantasy altogether). But the most interesting alteration (to me, anyway) is foreshadowed by the touching dedication:

In memory of my dear friend Gardner Dozois (1947-2018), who would have loved these stories.

With the title change, it seems to me that Jonathan assumes the mantle of Dozios (who edited 35 volumes of his own The Year’s Best Science Fiction between 1984-2018), and the duties and responsibilities that go with it. For example, Gardner’s introductions to his volumes were legendary, an annual summation of the Year in Science Fiction that fans looked forward to and read with relish. Jonathan’s summations have always been more modest — his intro to last year’s edition was a humble 8 pages — but with this one, titled A New Beginning, Jonathan stretches his legs admirably. His introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 clocks in at 23 pages, room to weigh in not just on the best stories of the year, but the finest novels, collections, anthologies, magazines, and nonfiction, and well as report on rumblings in publishing, deaths in the field, award news, and more. Jonathan is a natural at this kind of opinionated writing, and he nails it.

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In 500 Words or Less: Dominion: An Anthology, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Friday, August 7th, 2020 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Dominion An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora-smallDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and and the African Diaspora (Volume 1)
Edited By Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Aurelia Leo (270 pages, $18.99 paperback, $8.99 eBook, August 17, 2020)
Cover by Henrique DLD

Dominion is a tough one to accurately summarize. During the Kickstarter way back, the editors said they were looking for speculative fiction about “the legacy and future of Africa and the African diaspora.” As I read, I had to remind myself how complicated that legacy is – which is reflected in these myriad and complicated stories.

I should warn you that some of its stories are rough. I choose that word carefully, and for multiple reasons. There’s a lot of dark fantasy and horror in here, some of it graphic and hard to read. But it reflects horror and darkness that’s real, making for some powerful stories.

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh, for example, doesn’t pull its punches examining oppression of women, specifically through a problematic arranged marriage that can’t be easily escaped, even through supernatural means. Neither does Michael Boatman with “Thresher of Men” – a story that felt viscerally angry to me, channeled through a goddess of vengeance set upon an American town with a deep history of racist violence.

As a reviewer, it was interesting to find a balance of lighter stories, too – or at least stories where the issues the characters face are more microscopic and focused. Nicole Givens Kurtz ‘s “Trickin’” is still bloody but also kind of delightful, following a half-forgotten trickster looking for tributes on Halloween night. (Also love the mystery of the post-downturn city where it’s set – what happened there, Nicole?) “Sleep Pap, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is fabulous Africanjujuism (I believe “The Unclean” fits that genre, too), in this case weaving the understanding that you shouldn’t grave-robbing a blood relative with a young man’s guilt about his father’s death and how he treats his closest friend.

On the science fiction side, one of my favorites is Marian Denise Moore’s “A Mastery of German” about a young up-and-comer at a research firm, assigned to evaluate a project on transferring learned memories. There’s a neat implication discussed about ancestral memory and slavery, told through Candace’s relationship with her history-hunting father (which is an adorable sidebar, by the way). But the focus is mostly on ethics: is it all right to pay someone to take their memory of learning German (for example) and then do whatever you want with it? No easy answer there.

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New Treasures: Shimmer: The Best Of, edited by E. Catherine Tobler

Friday, July 17th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Sandro Castelli

How did I not know there was a Best of Shimmer anthology? Time to get some better inside contacts in the publishing biz, I think.

Shimmer was one of the best of the small press fantasy magazines. It received a Hugo nomination for Best Semiprozine last year, and editor E. Catherine Tobler was honored with a Best Professional Editor, Short Form nomination. The magazine published science fiction, fantasy, and “a dash of literary horror.” The final issue, #46, appeared in November 2018.

Shimmer was constantly interesting, and we covered over half a dozen issues as part of our magazine coverage over the years. Their greatest skill was spotting talent, and they did plenty of that. Shimmer: The Best Of contains stories by many of the brightest stars of modern fantasy, including Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Amal El-Mohtar, Karin Tidbeck, Mary Robinette Kowal, Carmen Maria Machado, Sunny Moraine, Arkady Martine, Fran Wilde, Sonya Taaffe, A. C. Wise, Sarah Gailey, Vajra Chandrasekera, K.M. Szpara, and many, many others, all packed into a massive 489-page volume.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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Low-stakes Fiction in a High-stakes World: A Quiet Afternoon, edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold

Monday, July 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

GV Quiet Afternoon image 1-smallIn their recently released anthology A Quiet Afternoon, Canadian micropress Grace&Victory offer calm and gentle SFF tales for the reader who would rather curl up with a mug of tea and an afghan (or a slushie and a hammock, depending on the weather) than dart about the cosmos with lasers blasting.

Grace&Victory team members Victoria Feistner (co-founder and graphic designer), Laura DeHaan (slush reader and morale officer), Liane Tsui (chief editor), and Grace Seybold (co-founder, second editor and legalities wrangler) get together today to share their thoughts on low-stakes fiction in a high-stakes world.

You’ve talked about low-stakes fiction, which you call “Low-Fi.” What does that mean to you?

LD: Stories that are comfortable to read, that don’t excite feelings stronger than warm fuzzies or faint melancholy. Which might not sound terribly flattering, I know. I imagine most authors want their stories to sear a flaming brand across the brains of the readers and leave them shaken and awed by the majesty of the prose, but really what I’m looking for is instant nostalgia. I want to think back on the story fondly, I want to revisit it in the way you enjoy pulling on an old sweater or a tatty pair of shoes.

VF: When I am stressed out, sometimes relaxing with a good book – if the book is full of action, violence, tension – only serves to stress me out more. In such times I often turn to different genres – literary, travel memoir, biography, and the like – for escape into gentler adventures. And yet, when I do, a part of me misses my spec elements. Low-Fi is about bringing the mundane and slice-of-life stories prevalent in other genres into the SF fold. SF has long been about larger-than-life heroes and do-or-die plots, but here and there are stories where the stakes are much lower. Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes comes to mind, as does Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

So how is Low-Fi different from existing subgenres? Should it be considered its own sub-genre or merely a “tag”?

LD: I think it’s more about tone than anything else. A queen is near death in “An Inconvenient Quest,” there’s deadly traps and adventure in “Hollow,” “Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids” has a potentially murderous strigoi, but because of the tone we never feel like anyone’s really in danger. I think as well there’s a definite refusal of violence as a solution and an emphasis on conversation as the way to problem-solve. Again, “Hollow” is an adventure story where the characters cast spells and shoot arrows, but in the end it’s a conversation that resolves the situation.

It’s not something we actively set out to enforce, but it seems fitting that Low-Fi also avoids salty language. And while we have a couple smooches, anything beyond that probably wouldn’t be appropriate for Low-Fi.

So I’d say sure, make it a new sub-genre!

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Vintage Treasures: Dark Stars edited by Robert Silverberg

Sunday, July 5th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Dark Stars (Ballantine Books, 1969). Cover by Ronald Walotsky

I’ve lamented before (more than a few times, as some regular readers have wearily noted) about the death of the mass market SF anthology.  They were a fixture on bookstore shelves a generation ago, and were a great way to discover new writers. In fact, I discovered virtually all of my favorite writers — Roger Zelazny, Clifford D. Simak, Isaac Asimov, James Tiptree, Jr. — in paperback anthologies in the 70s and 80s.

Well, if I can’t celebrate new ones, I can still tell you about the old ones, and encourage you to hunt down a few. At least as long as vintage SF paperbacks remain cheap, plentiful, and easy to find — which looks like forever, if AbeBooks and eBay are any indication. Today’s subject is a neat little one-off anthology by Robert Silverberg from 1969, with an unusual theme: dark science fiction. Here’s Silverberg from the introduction.

In the Soviet Union, I understand, science fiction is supposed to be a positive literature full of positive ideals. Its function is to dramatize the coming triumph of the socialist philosophy and the extension of that philosophy into the universe…. In the United States, too, there are those who prefer their science fiction to be a literature of ideals, demonstrating the heroic fortitude of mankind under stress and depicting the glories of the future… The purpose of the writer of fiction, I think, is neither to glorify not to abuse, but to set down his vision of the universe as he sees it. He should not be a propagandist for the space program, at least not as his basic item of concern….

Once upon a time the bulk of science fiction was written by cheerful Rotarians eager to leap into the lovely future. That was in the 1930’s, when the future still looked pretty good (especially in contrast with the present) and in the 1940’s, when the defeat of the bestial Axis foe was supposed to open the gateway to Utopia. But a good chunk of that future has already unveiled itself since those days of s-f’s innocence, and what has appeared has not been so inspiring. The stories in the present collection reflect that look into the future that is now our present. By measuring the fictional “1963” of 1938 against the real 1963, s-f writers have of necessity suffered a darkening of vision. Hymns to the miracle that is color television become less meaningful when that screen is so often reddened by the blood of those who were our best.

Here, then, is a book of dark dreams for a dark time.

If you don’t mind reading yellowing pages from high-res photos, you can see Bob’s complete 3-page intro to Dark Stars using the pics I took with my new iPhone here and here.

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The Stakes Have Never Been More Reasonable: A Quiet Afternoon, edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

A Quiet AfternoonI don’t think of science fiction as a predictable genre. It’s filled with widely varying ideas, settings, characters, and plots, and produced by a hugely diverse group of writers all over the planet. But in at least one way, SF does tend to be predictable: it’s a genre of high-stakes drama. It concerns itself with apocalypses, alien invasions, desperate battles against evil empires, dystopias, life-and-death court intrigue, world-altering time travel, thunderous space battles — a whole lot of sound and fury, really.

But it doesn’t have to be. Does a good tale require high stakes? That’s the question posed by the new anthology from Canadian small press Grace & Victory, run by Grace Seybold and Victoria Feistner. A Quiet Afternoon, edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, collects 14 original low-stakes tales that aim to simultaneously entertain and comfort. Here’s the description.

A peaceful break from a stressful world.

The stakes have never been milder or more reasonable.

A Quiet Afternoon brings readers thirteen Low-Fi tales of gentle speculative fiction, stories of wonder and the celebration of small successes. Ease into worlds of quiet triumph and gracious victories; of found families and unlikely friendships; magical constructs, pensive mermaids, fairies and dragons and a barbecue sauce that will literally change your life.

The stakes are low. The expectations are reasonable. The resolutions are satisfactory. Wrap yourself up in a cozy blanket, make a cup of tea, and enjoy A Quiet Afternoon.

Here’s a snippet from Laura DeHaan’s Foreword which explains the intriguing genesis behind the book.

In early 2019, Victoria Feistner and I just wanted to read speculative fiction that wasn’t high-stakes, where the fate of the world didn’t hinge on the actions of a single hero overcoming impossible odds … Manga and anime do a good job of incorporating the fantastic with the mundane (Fruits Basket, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, My Neighbour Totoro), but Western SF really likes its earth-shattering consequences and do-or-die protagonists … We started reading for A Quiet Anthology in late 2019. The world was in a weird place, but that made the selection process relatively easy. If the story left behind a feeling of comfort, or relief, or a little sigh of “Wasn’t that nice,” then it was pretty much a shoo-in for the anthology… We are all overcoming impossible odds in our everyday lives — and when that’s the case, where do we escape to? … So, check in with yourself. Take a nap. Have a juice box. Would you like to read stories with magical robots and talking animals and the beginnings of a wonderful friendship? It’s okay. They’re here for you. Take care, and enjoy A Quiet Afternoon.

I think this is a great idea for an anthology, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. It was released today; here’s the complete Table of Contents for A Quiet Afternoon.

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Vintage Treasures: Crossroads in Time edited by Groff Conklin

Monday, June 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Crossroads in Time (Permabooks, 1953). Cover by Richard Powers

Modern science fiction is top notch, and I’d hold today’s best writers — John Scalzi, N.K. Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Martha Wells, Nnedi Okorafor — up against the greats of yesterday without hesitation. If I were to be stranded on a desert island (or, more likely, locked in my basement during a pandemic) and could only bring a dozen books, my choices would be heavily weighted toward SF published in the last ten years.

Except for anthologies. For whatever reason — nostalgia, maybe? — during those times when I have only a few minutes to read before bedtime, my hand still wanders towards Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas’s monumental Adventures in Time and Space (1946), or The Hugo Winners, Volumes I and II (1972) edited by Isaac Asimov, A Treasury of Science Fiction (1948), edited by Groff Conklin, or The Good Old Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition (1998), edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of great modern anthologies. I spent much of last weekend reading Neil Clarke’s terrific The Final Frontier, and I really enjoyed it. But the sight of newer anthologies doesn’t make my heart jump like the old ones do.

Partly I think it’s the contributors. There’s just something about opening a yellowing paperback and seeing a table of contents packed with names like Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Jerome Bixby, Fritz Leiber, Margaret St. Clair and other favorites. And also, of course, it’s the cover art. Take Crossroads in Time, the eleventh SF book by the great SF anthologist Groff Conklin. It was released as a paperback original in 1953 by Permabooks with a gorgeously colorful cover by Richard Powers which — even today, nearly seven long decades later — speaks of wonder and adventure on faraway worlds.

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Future Treasures: Where the Veil Is Thin edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy and Alana Joli Abbott

Saturday, June 27th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Where the Veil Is Thin-smallAlana Joli Abbott is the co-editor of the Blackguards anthology Knaves (with Melanie Meadors) and Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters (with N.X. Sharps). She was a reviewer at Black Gate for over a decade, dating all the way back to our early print days; these days she is Editor in Chief at Outland Entertainment. Her latest project is the anthology Where the Veil Is Thin, co-edited with Cerece Rennie Murphy, author of the popular Wolf Queen series. Where the Veil Is Thin arrives in trade paperback on July 7 and has a stellar list of contributors, including Seanan McGuire, Minsoo Kang, Carlos Hernandez, and Black Gate‘s own C.S.E. Cooney. Here’s the description.

These are not your daughters faerie stories…

Around the world, there are tales of creatures that live in mist or shadow, hidden from humans by only the slightest veil. In Where the Veil Is Thin, these creatures step into the light. Some are small and harmless. Some are bizarre mirrors of this world. Some have hidden motives, while others seek justice against humans who have wronged them.

In these pages, you will meet blood-sucking tooth fairies and gentle boo hags, souls who find new shapes after death and changelings seeking a way to fit into either world. You will cross the veil — but be careful that you remember the way back.

Here’s the impressive Table of Contents.

Introduction by Jim Hines
“The Tooth Fairies” by Glenn Parris
“Glamour” by Grey Yuen
“See a Fine Lady” by Seanan McGuire
“Or Perhaps Up” by C.S.E. Cooney
“Don’t Let Go” by Alana Joli Abbott
“The Loophole” by L. Penelope
“The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud” by Minsoo Kang
“Your Two Better Halves: A Dream, with Fairies, in Spanglish” by Carlos Hernandez
“Take Only Photos” by Shanna Swendson
“Old Twelvey Night” by Gwen Nix
“The Seal Woman’s Tale” by Alethea Kontis
“The Storyteller” by David Bowles
“Poisoned Hearts” by Zin E. Rocklyn
“Colt’s Tooth” by Linda Robertson

Where the Veil Is Thin was funded by a successful Kickstarter in March of this year, and will be published by Outland Entertainment on July 7, 2020. It is 210 pages, priced at $16.95 in trade paperback and $7.99 in digital formats. The beautiful cover is by Anna Dittmann. Order copies directly at Outland Entertainment. See all our recent coverage of the best upcoming SF and Fantasy releases here.


Witches, Thieves, and Dead Queens: Tales From the Magician’s Skull #4, edited by Howard Andrew Jones

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Doug Kovacs

My copy of Tales From the Magician’s Skull #4 arrived today, and it is a beautiful thing. Jam-packed with brand new tales of heroic fantasy from its finest modern practitioners, it is a joy to hold. Edited by Black Gate‘s very own Howard Andrew Jones, Tales #4 is filled with names that will be very familiar to BG readers, including James Enge, John C. Hocking, Ryan Harvey, James Stoddard, C. L. Werner, and Milton Davis .

In four short issues Tales of the Magician’s Skull has become the flagship publication for English language adventure fantasy, and it looks the part. It’s an oversized magazine filled with fiction and eye-catching interior art, and it looks and feels like a modern pulp, down to the heavy paper stock, which is a faint yellow color (a nice touch). Designed by Lester B. Portly, it’s easy to read and enjoy.

When I was editing the print version of Black Gate, my readers enjoyed serial fiction the most — and wrote constantly demanding more Morlock stories by James Enge, more Dabit & Asim tales from Howard, and Tales of Brand from John C. Hocking. I’m thrilled to see that Tales has the same love of episodic fiction and larger-than-life characters I do — exciting new sword-and-sorcery series are being born in its pages, mixed in with some familiar names (including Morlock, which should please BG readers enormously).

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