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Fringe Grimdark: Crimson Crown by BJ Swann, and Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu

Fringe Grimdark: Crimson Crown by BJ Swann, and Beyond Barlow by Jason R. Koivu

Readers typically differentiate stereotypical High Fantasy (elves, dwarves, wizards-with-pointy-hats with a slant toward happy adventuring) vs. Low Fantasy (more “realism” & “earthier” milieu, with a focus on humans defending trenches at a battlefront or crawling through crypts to save a maiden or rob a god). The latter encompasses sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery and the contemporary-named Grimdark.

Why stop at regular Grimdark when you can go further? This post highlights two New Treasures that are arguably Grimdark, but still push the boundaries of what is expected. At the very least, they should appeal to dark fantasy readers who desire something fresh (whatever label the books deserve). To learn if these are right for you, read on:

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New Treasures: The House of Styx by Derek Künsken

New Treasures: The House of Styx by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx (Solaris, May 2021). Cover uncredited.

It’s been a genuine pleasure to watch Derek Künsken’s career take off. We published his third story in Black Gate 15, and he’s been a blogger with us since 2013, publishing nearly 200 articles here. But it’s his recent novels that have really grabbed the spotlight, including The Quantum Magician (2018) and The Quantum Garden (2019).

His latest is The House of Styx, released in hardcover by Solaris in May, and this one has breakout novel written all over it. SciFiNow calls it “Stunning,” Locus labels it “Wonderful,” and Library Journal proclaims it an “electrifying planetary adventure.” Here’s an excerpt from the rave review at Publishers Weekly.

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The Aesthetics of Sword & Sorcery: An Interview with Philip Emery

The Aesthetics of Sword & Sorcery: An Interview with Philip Emery

The Shadow Cycles by Philip Emery (Immanion Press, August 2011)

This continues our interviews on “Beauty in Weird Fiction” with previous topics being:

Are you haunted, perhaps obsessed, with Sword & Sorcery?

Heroic fiction is infectious. Sometimes vicariously “being the hero” via reading is not enough to satisfy the call. Being compelled to write manifests next. Ghosts may be to blame. Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is credited with originating the genre with his characters: Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn; in a 1933 correspondence to his friend and contemporary author, Clark Ashton Smith, Howard explained his interaction with the muse that inspired his Conan yarns.

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Guided by an Unknown Destiny: Eda Blessed II by Milton J. Davis

Guided by an Unknown Destiny: Eda Blessed II by Milton J. Davis

Eda Blessed II

Juneteenth was just marked a federal holiday in the United States to commemorate the June 19th, 1866 end to slavery. Like many memorial dates, it resonates with equal parts celebration and reflection. This June 19th, 2021, we highlight the book release of Eda Blessed II, appropriately published by a champion of Black Speculative Fiction, Milton Davis (author and editor of MVmedia, a publishing company specializing in Afrofuturism, and Steamfunk). Notably, Milton Davis has been a proponent and publisher of works by Sword & Soul originator Charles Saunders who is known for his Imaro/Nyumbani series (check out the tour guide to the Imaro Series on Black Gate). Omari Ket is the protagonist of Eda Blessed and his first name is an anagram for Imaro, but apparently, that was not done intentionally; in any event, Omari is a very different personality than Imaro.

Omari Ket is a rogue warrior; an Agency onto himself

From the first Eda Blessed, we know that Omari Ket is a rogue warrior, not a spy, but he is as suave, cunning, and as lethal as any Secret Agent Man. ‘Agency’ is a term for the capacity of a character to act independently, and Omari is an Agency onto himself: he reports to no one. Omari is a ladies’ man in a dog-eat-dog world. If you like a cut-throat, libertine, action-oriented protagonist, then you are ‘Eda Blessed.’ 

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Panic at the Inferno: MYSTICS IN HELL, published by Perseid Press

Panic at the Inferno: MYSTICS IN HELL, published by Perseid Press

Mystics in Hell, published by Perseid Press. Copyright © 2021, Janet Morris  
Book design, A.L. Butcher. Cover design, A.L. Butcher and Roy Mauritsen. Edited by, Janet Morris and A.L. Butcher. Cover painting: Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despenser, by William Hogarth, 1764. Oil on canvas. Mystics in Hell cover image, copyright © Perseid Press, 2021

“It’s just because I have picked a little about mystics that I have no use for mystagogues. Real mystics don’t hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you’ve seen it it’s still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it’s a platitude.” ― G. K. Chesterton

After a few unforeseen delays, Mystics in Hell has finally arrived. This is the latest edition in the long-running, shared-universe series, Heroes in Hell. The gathering of real people from across our historical timeline, and the casting of fictional characters born of myth and legend, folklore and literature, is what makes this such a unique and fun series. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the series or for those readers who may wish to be brought up to date, once again I’ll do my best to recap what’s been happening in our favorite Afterlife. 

Mystics in Hell follows on the hot hooves of Lovers in Hell and the two volumes preceding it. The plagues which first manifested themselves in Doctors in Hell are evolving and mutating. In Pirates in Hell, disastrous floods swept through Hell, leaving behind wrack and ruin, and new islands and coastlines. The damned sought the help of pirates and other seafarers, seeking refuge and passage, hoping to escape to dry land and whatever safe harbor they could find. But there is no such thing as a safe harbor in Hell, and there is no escape. 

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Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020,
edited by Rich Horton (Prime Books, June 2021). Cover by Argus

The print version of Rich Horton’s 12th Year’s Best volume was delayed roughly six months by the pandemic, and it finally arrives next week. The delay was a little frustrating for those of us who look forward to this book every year, but considering how deeply the pandemic impacted the publishing world overall, I figure it could have been a lot worse. (The digital version has been available since December, but I remain stubbornly a print guy.)

Rich’s introductions to the early volumes belonged to the get-out-of-the-way-and let-the-fiction-do-the-talking school, but over the years they’ve loosened up a bit, and this year’s is one of his best, a lively and thoughtful look at the impact of this very eventful year on science fiction, and some thoughts on famous genre pandemic fiction. Here’s part of his comments on the tales within.

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Sword & Planet is Back! Scott Oden Presents: The Lost Empire of Sol, edited by Jason M Waltz and Fletcher Vredenburgh

Sword & Planet is Back! Scott Oden Presents: The Lost Empire of Sol, edited by Jason M Waltz and Fletcher Vredenburgh

Cover art by M. D. Jackson

This reviews Scott Oden Presents: The Lost Empire of Sol brought to you by the Rogue Blades Foundation. This is a fine collection that certainly achieved its mission of inserting a jolt into Sword & Planet offeringsWith its interesting premise and cast of authors, The Lost Empire of Sol is destined to become a historic Sword & Planet anthology.

It is edited by two who are well known to the Black Gate community. Firstly, Jason M. Waltz, champion of Rogue Blades Entertainment and the Rogue Blades Foundation, is notorious for rounding up contemporary authors in themed anthologies (perhaps most well known for the 2008 Sword & Sorcery classic Return of the Sword …. and most currently known for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life releasing ~now (appropriately on June 11th, REH’s anniversary of passing). And we also have Fletcher Vredenburgh, well known for his outstanding reviews, who provides the “Foreword”: he explains how discussions on Facebook with Scott Oden (adored author of historical fiction, Conan pastiche, and the Grimnir series) escalated into this collection.  Also, to dimension the genre and set the stage for a revival is the esteemed John O’Neill (our esteemed chief editor of Black Gate Magazine) provides an introductory essay “Sword & Planet is the Genre We Need.” 

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Dinosaurs, Steampunk, and an Indiana Jones-style Adventure: Turn Over the Moon by Ryan Harvey

Dinosaurs, Steampunk, and an Indiana Jones-style Adventure: Turn Over the Moon by Ryan Harvey

Sorrowful and Sorrowless Fear neither Moon nor Sun,

Side by side, we flip the stones…

…Until both can claim we’ve won.

Last October, Black Gate alerted folks to the Turn Over the Moon’s Kickstarter campaign which brought Ryan Harvey’s world of Ahn-Tarqa into novel form (with Dream Tower Media). That journey began a decade prior and we’ll cover the ancillary tales leading up to that. Although a prequel and side stories exist, be assured that the novel feels designed to be the gateway into this Sorrow-laden world. Have no fear (or Sorrow) and enter here (with Turn Over the Moon).

The subtitle “Saga of the Sorrowless Book #1” had me gearing up for an epic fantasy in which (a) most mysteries would resolve in subsequent books and (b) the pace may be slower than the short stories I typically read. That would have been fine, of course, but Harvey (who already has proven himself a master of the short form) pleasantly delivers a cross-breed of short-story style with typical novel form: there are mysteries, but you get to learn them speedily, and the pace is super-charged. The opening chapters will have you wondering (no worries, no spoilers here): (1) who are the Shapers, (2) how the heck does the prevailing Sorrow connect to the heroine, world, and conflict, and (3) who is the mystery woman? I won’t tell you here but rejoice in knowing that the revelations are engaging and explained satisfyingly within the covers.

“The Shapers can reach me in my dreams. I escaped their clutches once, but in the blackness of sleep they tear open the walls of my head and slither inside. In each nightmare they glare down on me as they once glared down on all the land, from the edge of the eastern desert to the dwindling tip of the western peninsula. As they once glared down on my father, bound across his own workbench for their tortures. Even though their eyes are drowned within the dark slits of their masks, I can feel their stares. The robes hiding their bodies flutter around me in a barrier. There is nothing beyond.” — the teenage heroine Belde

Abandon all Sorrow, all ye who enter here!

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Mad Shadows: Andrew Paul Weston reviews the series

Mad Shadows: Andrew Paul Weston reviews the series

As the Black Gate watch warned you, Joe Bonadonna’s Mad Shadows series had a recent release (Book III: The Heroes of Echo Gate). So it is timely to review the entire series, and for that esteemed author Andrew Paul Weston steps up. Incidentally, Mr. Weston is no stranger to Black Gate, or Hell for that matter (check out his Bio below). So I pass the microphone over to him so he can recap each entry.

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Rakefire and Other Stories’ Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

Rakefire and Other Stories’ Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

Rakefire and Other Stories released July 2020 via Pulp Hero Press

Nine weird adventures span the 216 pages of this grimoire. Penned by emerging thaumaturgist Jason Ray Carney, Rakefire promises to corrupt any reader. So let us get this disclaimer out of the way: the mere reading of this tome may thicken your blood with wonder. Red turning to black, your blood will never bleed the same. Read this review at your own risk.

The book blurb labels this “Fever Dreams of Sword & Sorcery in an Eld Realm of Unfathomable Beauty and Cruelty” and it also contains “enigmatic tales of horror and fantasy in the pulp tradition.” That summary is spot on. Most of the tales focus on the sorcery end of the spectrum. Jason Ray Carney’s writing style is reminiscent of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith (full of pregnant shadows and intellectual skullduggery!). Excerpts throughout this review reinforce what to expect.

The majority of the stories (6/9) have been published in various magazines, but reading them piece-meal is like eating random snacks instead of a five-course meal. The confluence amplifies the lore threading them all together (lore discussed below). Plus, the three newly published tales extend the impact. Each is recapped below, and most have excerpts that emphasize the style and common milieu (while avoiding spoilers). This serves as a tour guide into Jason Ray Carney’s strange world.

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