Autumn Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

hfqIt’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.

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March Short Story Roundup: Part 1

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

hfqIt was one of those months. By which I mean one where there were a lot of of new swords & sorcery stories. In addition to the regular two monthly stories from Swords and Sorcery Magazine, there were new issues of Cirsova and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Then, on top of all that, last Monday, what arrived at my door but the long waited-for first edition of the Howard Andrew Jones-edited and Appendix N-inspired Tales from the Magician’s Skull. Because there’s so much, I’m going to review HFQ and Tales this week and Cirsova and S&SM next week.

I don’t have much to say about Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (edited by Adrian Simmons and company) that I haven’t said time, and time again. It remains the best and most consistent source of new swords & sorcery fiction. If you aren’t reading it already, you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. Issue #35, with magnificent banner art by Jereme Peabody, is no exception.

All right, I’m biased, but Raphael Ordoñez is one of my favorite writers working today, and I loved his new story, “White Rainbow and Brown Devil” in Issue #35. Not only is it a new story of “vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez,” it’s got another of Ordoñez’s wonderful illustrations. In this tale of magic and danger, Francisco remains the same self-pitying, greedy but ultimately brave, hero he was introduced as in the first of his tales, “Heart of Tashyas.” He ended that tale in search of gold. This story opens with him frustrated and angry:

“Still no sign of them,” he growled, fingering the fishbone beads at his belt. “O Most Sweet Virgin, am I the victim of damnable perfidy yet again? With childlike trust have I followed Dacate’s word, seeking a modest recompense for all my sufferings in the painted canyons of the west. How many days has it been since I set out from the land of the Guequisales? Four? Five?” He raised the brown maul of his fist to heaven and shook it. “And where are these accursed canyons?”

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December Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

CaptureDecember’s here, so it’s time for another roundup. When the luminous Mrs. V. asked me about what I was reading this week, it turned into a conversation about short stories, then and now. At some point I said something along the lines of short stories have always been hit-and-miss, with most stories being satisfying, some terrific, and even a big name doesn’t always knock it out of the park. In fact, anyone might hit a home run, so a magazine like Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, featuring unknown and lesser-known writers, is just as likely to contain excellent stories as any of Lin Carter’s anthologies. That’s why I persist in reviewing new short stories each month. There’s a chance each and every month that I’ll discover a story that measures up to the best of the past, and will be worthy of a place in some future anthology of great swords & sorcery tales.

That’s the sort of anticipation I have when I open up a new issue of HFQ each quarter. Adrian Simmons, David Farney, William Ledbetter, James Frederick William Rowe, and Barbara Barrett are the names on the masthead, and swords & sorcery fans should thank each one of them for consistently putting out the best new S&S and with far less attention than they deserve. I won’t say any of the latest volume, #34, is among the greats bound to last, but all three are very good. Can you really ask for more than that?

Crazy Snake and the Demons of Ometepe,” by Eric Atkisson, brings to an end the multi-author tale begun last issue where alternate universes were at risk of domination by the Destroyer, a terrible trans-dimensional power. In “Between Sea and Flame” by Evan Dicken, Tenochtitlan fell to evil priests from the sea (not to Cortes) and the warrior Hummingbird found herself forced to back the lesser evil in order to save the word. Raphael Ordonez’s wandering ex-conquistador, Francisco Carvajal y Lopez, had to fight the Destroyer as well in “I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.”

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August Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_225359V0Ky2mKfWith summer’s end in sight, I’m back with another short story roundup. For those paying attention, you probably noticed I’m calling this the August roundup instead of the July one. That’s because there’s so much stuff I have to pick and choose from (and more coming soon – see this post at Howard Andrew Jones’ site), I can’t always get to it in a timely manner. From now on, each roundup will focus on whatever new short stories I’ve managed to read since the previous one. It’s a minor thing, but there it is.

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, produced under the expert guidance of Adrian Simmons and company, continues to be the fieriest star in the S&S heavens. #33 contains not only the usual three stories and three poems, but an announcement that HFQ’s second Best of collection has been fully funded and will appear this fall. I really dug the first one and have high hopes for this one. Also, they played a fun game in this issue that I won’t describe, but it’s clever and I applaud the editors for pulling it off.

The new issue kicks off with “Between Sea and Flame” by Evan Dicken. Set in an alternate universe where Tenochtitlan fell not to Cortes, but to a strange priesthood from the sea, it’s a sequel to “Mouth of the Jaguar.” Once again, Hummingbird, refugee warrior from the fallen Mexica Empire, finds herself at the center of chaos and death. This time around she is caught between two deadly and evil forces: the Sea People who serve the terrible god Dagon, and that of the even more malevolent Destroyer. Convinced by one of the Sea People’s generals, she joins them and their allies to storm the stronghold of the Destroyer’s great follower, PedrariasHer decision brings her to a land already being twisted by the Destroyer’s malign aura:

If Hummingbird had any doubts about the threat posed by the Destroyer, the mountain put them to rest. Ometepe’s animals had become strange, monstrous things, twisted as if by some terrible hand. Flocks of bat-winged hummingbirds flitted around the war party, darting in to stab at the warriors with beaks barbed like fishing harpoons. If they were not crushed quickly enough, they burrowed inside the body. Many Mankeme fell shrieking down the hill, digging at their own flesh with knives and axes.

Clawed hands reached down from the tangled foliage above to pluck the heads from passing warriors. Diriangen would’ve been among them had not Hernández dragged him back at the last moment. Hummingbird joined the Mankeme in flinging javelins into the trees. What fell resembled sloths, but grown large and bloated. Their arms were thin, boneless things, little more than ropes of muscle with claws sharp as knapped flint. A warrior buried her axe in one of the things, only to have the creature burst like an overripe fruit to disgorge a swarm of fleshy mosquitos.

This is a swell story, filled with well-paced and -choreographed action. Dicken effortlessly combines elements of real history with his fictional reality, and has created a darkly wonderful world of elder terrors and bold, strong-armed adventurers.

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April Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1671144jJXH7pFkIssue 63 of Swords and Sorcery opens with a story set in the waning days of the twelve Etruscan cities and the waxing of Rome. “For the Light” by Gustavo Bondoni is a fairly original work, using a setting rarely seen in heroic fantasy. The Etruscans trust their fate to the god whose representative wins a consecrated chariot race. If Mania, goddess of death, wins, she has promised to raise an army of walking corpses. To prevent this abomination, Semni Apatru has secretly entered the race with a plan to take out Mania’s contestant. The story jumps back and forth in time, beginning and ending with the chariots speeding along the race route. Where Bondoni succeeds most, making this story memorable, is with his depiction of the Etruscans as an alien culture that’s distinctly different from our own.

In “Witch Hunter” by Dale T. Phillips, Malleus, the titular character, has arrived at a small tavern in search of a mysterious evil power. When he approaches the barmaid, Teeann, for help, we learn that she’s a witch and that he’s one of the “good” witch finders. As he tells her:

“I do not punish innocent villagers who stand unjustly indicted of witchcraft because of the spoiling of their neighbors’ milk. Nor do I pursue midwives and potion-makers who provide relief to the townsfolk. I hunt only the ones who work to the genuine harm of others. Yes, there are places where the ignorant accuse women because of superstition and fear, but that is not my office. You and I both know that there are those of your kind who use their powers in evil ways, and that leaves a trace. When I find evidence of that, then I strike.”

Somebody who seeks to work genuine harm to others has been killing people in the story’s never-named kingdom. Eventually, an accord is reached between Malleus and the greater body of good witches, leading to a showdown with the malignancy savaging the land. While solidly written, there’s little characterization or tension to this short tale.

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February Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_13616139DhBwLErAnother month, another roundup of solid swords & sorcery short fiction for your enjoyment. Follow along for a look at February’s offerings.

Swords and Sorcery Magazine Issue 61 kicks off its sixth year of publication with a bang; actually, a pair of bangs. The first little explosion comes in the form of a group of friends making stupid decisions in Tom Lavin’s “Trouble in the Viscount Tavern.” Deon surprises his friends Tenny and Ruald with a strange book left behind by an inn guest. Though its cover advertises it as Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking, inside are spells. Despite misgivings from Deon, the others start to read some out loud for a lark. Lavin’s description of the resulting horrors is bone-chilling.

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October Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1554130bqieq2j7October brought another nice batch of heroic fantasy magazines to my electronic doorstep. Among them were regulars Swords and Sorcery Magazine and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. A newcomer was the old-school paper-and-ink fanzine, Scrolls of Legendry (two issues in fact) from the hands of Swords of Steel maestro, Dave Ritzlin.

I am not sure I have ever heard mention of Swords and Sorcery Magazine outside this column or the blogs of the authors it publishes. While it hasn’t the professional look of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly or Beneath Ceaseless Skies, its commendable dedication to the genre deserves respect and recognition. For nearly five years now, Curtis Ellett has published two new stories each and every month and for that I am very grateful.

Issue #57’s first story is shy on swordplay, but heavy with poetical sorcery. “Ephemera” by David Bowles depicts a magical contest between a Mexican princess and a Japanese monk. In an alternate timeline, Japan has been conquered by the Aztec Empire. The story occurs during the celebration of Tanabata, the Star Festival. The event is a showcase of powerful Aztec magic, held in order to deter encroachment by the Ming Empire and inspire the inhabitants of Nippon.

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Summer Short Story Roundup: Part One

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_167123Q3w3KW4VA veritable torrent of potent heroic fantasy short stories came out of the interwebs this summer. So many, in fact, for the first time ever I have to break the roundup into two parts. This week I’ll tell you about Swords and Sorcery Magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lackington’sand Cirsova. All together there are twelve stories and three poems (including the nearly six thousand-word first part of an epic poem). Next week I’ll review Grimdark Magazine, Weirdbook, and newcomer, Red Sun.

Swords and Sorcery Magazine #54 kicks off with “The Witch House” by Jamie Lackey. A young girl named Elinor, escaping a forced and bound-to-be loveless marriage, forces herself on the Witch of the Wood as her new apprentice. That’s it. It’s well written, and I’d actually be interested in reading about the characters if the plot went somewhere, but as it stands it’s too insubstantial to merit much notice.

Time Is a Lady’s Unerring Blade,” by Stephen S. Power, is a nasty piece of work. Erynd, an ex-prisoner, has plotted her revenge against one of the captors who tortured and crippled her.

Anyone can buy a soul. Even the meanest villages have dealers now, and prices remain low, thanks to the border wars five years ago. To buy a specific soul, though, Erynd has to deal with a ghost taker.

Having found her target, Erynd intends to see his soul stripped from him bit by painful bit. Not a lot happens, but there are sufficient hints of a larger context for the story that intrigued me and left me wondering about the story’s larger world and history.

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April Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1724340vOE0YC88Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Another of 2016’s months has come and gone, which means it’s time to round up and review a batch of new short stories.

Swords and Sorcery Magazine #51  presented its usual complement of two stories in April. The first is by a newcomer to the magazine’s pages, Jason Ray Carney. “The Ink of the Slime Lord” gave me nearly everything I could want from a S&S story: a wicked sorceress, dire magics, a dashing pirate, and plenty of monsters.

A trio of evil sisters with dreams of dominion run up against powerful opponents:

The Three Sisters had established a cult centered on a book bound in human skin and inked with blood. This cult threatened the priesthood of Atok-the-Million-Eyed, and for this the sisters would be punished with impunity, the leaves of their philosophy scattered to the winds.

The youngest of the sisters, Mera, “was tenacious. She was able to put her head back on her body.” Revived, she sets off for the titular ingredient in order to bring her sisters back to life as well. Her quest builds in scope as she first faces off against a single wizard, then dives into the underworld in search of a certain pirate before making for a lost and ruined city and the temple of the demonic Slime Lord.

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January Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1623615pLzdaIcYIt 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.

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