In 500 Words or Less: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

Friday, April 20th, 2018 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Gods Monsters and the Lucky Peach-smallGods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach
By Kelly Robson
Tor (240 pages, $14.99 paperback, $3.99 eBook, March 2018)
Cover by Jon Foster

The other night I was looking out my window at the light snowstorm cascading onto Ottawa, after dealing with freezing rain and power outages, and trying very hard not to wonder what the world is going to look like in fifty years. I mean, we all ponder it sometimes, right? Maybe half the planet is underwater. Maybe we’ve developed solid, widespread renewables. Maybe we’re making plans to go somewhere else. Maybe we’ve moved everyone into skyscrapers like Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, to let nature rebuild?

Writers like to focus on what the near-future might look like a lot, which means it’s tough to come up with a unique take on it – and that makes Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach so impressive. (How’s that for a segue?!) In her novella, humanity isn’t just rebuilding from past ecological disasters – we’ve also figured out time travel, which makes long-term restoration projects suddenly less interesting. The corporate stranglehold in both arenas is just one piece of a world that feels like it could be decades ahead of us, instead of centuries. Between vivid, realistic technology like “fakes” for handling instant messaging and designer prosthetics, and slang nicknames like “hells” for underground habitats and “fat babies” for children born in creches, Robson gives us something instantly relatable but also fresh. (All of that sounds very review-y in its lingo, but it’s 100% true!)

On top of that, Robson gives us an octogenarian protagonist, Minh, who struggles with anything that isn’t done “her way” and is balanced with a youthful counterpart who’s just as stubborn and determined to succeed. There’s no preachiness about age in either direction, though; instead, the story hinges on Minh realizing things about herself and working with a team, as they face the very real dangers of 2024 BCE. That overlap between past and future is where the truly excellent tension-building presents itself, as the story jumps between Minh and her team preparing for their journey and the perspective of a Mesopotamian king, Shulgi, whose people are troubled by new stars and bizarre monsters. Knowing that the latter is obviously a bunch of time travelers and that things are going to horribly wrong is only half the fun; the rest is when the two timelines sink up, and you realize exactly where Minh and her team fit into Shulgi’s story.

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Birthday Reviews: Peter S. Beagle’s “King Pelles the Sure”

Friday, April 20th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Lisa Snelling

Cover by Lisa Snelling

Peter S. Beagle was born on April 20, 1939.

Beagle received the Nebula Award and Hugo Award for his novelette “Two Hearts,” set in the same world as his classic novel The Last Unicorn. He received the Mythopoeic Award in 1987 for his novel The Folk of the Air and in 2000 for the novel Tamsin.  His collection The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances received the Grand Priz de l’Imaginaire and his story “El Regalo” received the WSFA Small Press Award. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award seven times, and in 2011 received their Lifetime Achievement Award. In about a month, Beagle will be inducted as a SFWA Grand Master at the 2018 SFWA Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

“King Pellas the Sure” was first published in the chapbook Strange Roads, which contained three original stories by Beagle. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer included the story in Year’s Best Fantasy 9 and Rich Horton included it in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2009 Edition. Beagle has included the story in two of his own collections, We Never Talk About My Brother and Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle.

“King Pelles the Sure,” focuses on the monarch of an infinitesimal kingdom who yearns for the glory that he sees warrior kings attaining. Despite the protestations of his Grand Vizier, who has already seen what war really does, as opposed to the glorification of war that is the stuff of bards and legend, King Pelles insists that they arrange to be invaded by one of their neighbors.

In this strangely manufactured war, Beagle’s story recalls the 1955 Leonard Wibberley novel The Mouse That Roared, although Beagle’s story is much less satirical than Wibberly’s. After the war begins, King Pelles finds that no matter what his intentions, once the dogs of war have been loosed, they can not be effectively reined in. The tale could have been a trite fairy tale, but the manner in which Beagle teaches Pelles a variety of lessons makes it a memorable fable.

Reviewed in its original publication in the collection Strange Roads, by Peter S. Beagle, DreamHaven, 2008.

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Something Sinister in Savertown: Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy

Thursday, April 19th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Case

Stay Crazy Erica L Satifka-small Stay Crazy Erica L Satifka-back-small

If you missed Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy, her debut psychological thriller from a couple year back, not to worry. There’s a lot going on, all the time, and it happens to the best of us. But the fact that it won the British Fantasy Award for best newcomer is perhaps reason enough bring it to your attention. Satifka has crafted a tale of mental illness and weirdness set against the deeper malignancy of a post-industrial Midwest and despair, tied up nicely by some frustratingly relatable inter-dimensional entities.

There’s a long tradition in fiction and myth that those who are not entirely sane nonetheless have perceptions, resources, and even abilities beyond those of ordinary folk. Insanity is sometimes the price of vision. Characters of Philip K. Dick for instance, who’s work Satifka’s has been compared with, immediately spring to mind. There are similarly lots of authors who play with the idea of the unreliable narrator, something that Gene Wolfe does to great effect. How is the narrative itself subverted when the reader can’t trust the person telling the story, or the person telling the story can’t trust their own perceptions?

Satifka’s Stay Crazy plays into both these questions by building the narrative around Emma, an erstwhile college student whose schizophrenia has cost her the chance to escape a dying Midwestern town (on economic life-support by a giant Walmart-esque superstore called Savertown, USA). The reader joins Emma, who comes to herself in a mental hospital after a psychotic break, returning home, reconciling herself to her condition and trying to put her life back together with her mother and a Fundamentalist Christian younger sister.

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Birthday Reviews: Adrian Rogoz’s “The Altar of the Random Gods”

Thursday, April 19th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Almanahul literar

Almanahul literar

Adrian Rogoz was born on April 19, 1921 in Bucharest Romania, and died on July 28, 1996. He was a founding member of the first science fiction fan club in Romania, SF Cenacle. In addition to his own work, Rogoz translated works by Ivan Efremov and Stanislaw Lem into Romanian.

“The Altar of the Random Gods” was originally published in Almanahul literar in 1970 as “Altarul zeilor Stohasrici.” Its English translation first appeared in Franz Rottensteiner’s anthology of European science fiction View from Another Shore, and has been included in several reprints of that volume. The story has also been translated into French, Dutch, Hungarian, German (twice), Serbian, and Italian.

In this translation of “The Altar of the Random Gods,” by Matthew J. O’Connell, Rogoz describes the trip from Mobile to Huntsville Alabama via a superfast highway of computer controlled cars. Homer is making the journey and looking forward to seeing Barbara at the end of it when a freakish malfunction occurs.

The story is interesting not because of its predictions about technology or the way Homer takes the superhighspeed transportation for granted, but rather because of the way it feels like a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. The first half of the story, up until the collision, is clearly in the realms of science fiction, tothe point where Rogoz’s descriptions (or at least the translations of those descriptions) feels clichéd.

Following the accident, the story moves more into the realm of fantasy, with Homer meeting three gods, who may well be aliens, who explain to him what has happened. Rather than speak in the terms gods in fantasy stories usually use, the gods in “The Altar of the Random Gods” speak in terms of probability, using mathematics to tell Homer what has happened to him and what he can expect for his life going forward.

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Future Treasures: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

All the Fabulous Beasts-small All the Fabulous Beasts-back-small

Michael Kelly’s Undertow Publications has introduced me to some truly fabulous writers in the nine years it’s been around, including V. H. Leslie, Eric Schaller, Sunny Moraine, Conrad Williams, and others. Their upcoming volume All the Fabulous Beasts, arriving in trade paperback on May 1st, looks like a beautiful addition to their catalog. It’s the debut collection from Priya Sharma, gathering 16 tales of “love, rebirth, nature, and sexuality… A heady mix of myth and ontology, horror and the modern macabre.”

Priya Sharma is a UK writer and doctor. Her short story “Fabulous Beasts” won a British Fantasy Award, and she has appeared in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Black Feathers, Nightmare Carnival, Interzone, Black Static,, Nightmare magazine, and many other fine venues.

If you’re not already familiar with Undertow, All the Fabulous Beasts would make a great introduction. But if you can’t wait until May 1st, allow me to suggest eight earlier volumes from Undertow we’ve reviewed right here at Black Gate, including their flagship publications Shadows & Tall Trees (7 issues, and a finalist for the British Fantasy Award, World Fantasy Award, and Shirley Jackson Award), and the marvelous Year’s Best Weird Fiction (4 volumes).

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Magical Realism from the Sudan

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

The Longing of the Dervish-smallIt feels like we’re in a Golden Age for translations of speculative fiction. We’re seeing everything from the rise of Egyptian dystopian novels to Chinese authors making it big in the American market. Of course, some nations and cultures are better known than others. One that is little known to English-language readers is Sudanese fiction. It can be hard to get in the West, and even on my regular visits to the American University in Cairo bookshop I have to hunt to find authors from south of the border.

It’s worth the search. Sudanese literature is rich in history and folklore, and a large measure of what I’ve come across contains speculative elements. One could call it magical realism, although I have not seen any Sudanese author use that term.

My most recent acquisition was Hammour Ziada’s novel The Longing of the Dervish. Set in the nineteenth century during the time of the Mahdi’s brief empire, it follows the adventures of the slave Bakhit and his obsession with the Alexandrine Greek nun Theodora. Poor Theodora spends most of the novel as a ghost while Bakhit sets out to avenge her killing. The historical setting is richly drawn, as are the characters, and one gets the feeling that the phantom Theodora is not the product of Bakhit’s madness. There’s also some interesting scenes of folk magic.

The journal Banipal, which publishes Arabic literature in translation, dedicated their issue 55 to Sudanese writing. A couple of the stories have speculative elements. “Amulet and Feathers” by Leila Aboulela is another tale of revenge that involves a female character who dresses as a man to avenge her father’s killing only to go through a even more radical transformation. “The Jealous Star” is a children’s tale with a star as the main character who convinces all the other stars to move to the daylight. Other stories are set more firmly in reality, including an excellent one by Hammour Ziada about what happens to an isolated village when a Bedouin tribe decides to move in.

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In Hell — We Reap What You Sow: Hell Hounds by Andrew P. Weston

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Hell Houds Andrew P Weston-small Hell Houds Andrew P Weston-back-small

Hell Hounds by Andrew P. Weston
Perseid Press (508 pages, $23.85 in hardcover/$8.90 in digital formats, October 25, 2017)
Cover art and cover design by Roy Mauritsen

I inhaled deeply, my phantom nostrils flaring in pleasure as a pungent blend of brimstone and exhaust fumes filled my nonexistent lungs. Home — the perfect place for me, Daemon Grim, the Reaper, Satan’s personal enforcer. This was my kind of place, and I loved it here. But I suppose that was understandable, as I was top of the food chain.

According to Wikipedia, “Bangsian fantasy is a fantasy genre which concerns the use of famous literary or historical individuals and their interactions in the afterlife. It is named for John Kendrick Bangs who often wrote it.” And that is what the Heroes in Hell series is all about.  Now, while the identity of Andrew Weston’s character, Daemon Grim, remains a mystery, that’s all part of the fun: who was Grim in life? What famous or infamous person from earth’s history was he, and how did he become Satan’s personal enforcer?

Hell is, as Weston states in his dedication, “the best playground — ever!” And that’s true indeed, for writers, and for us readers. This is Weston’s second novel in Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell Universe, following closely on the heels of his Hell Bound, published in 2015, which I also reviewed for Black Gate. This second novel from this best-selling author is a real mind-blowing trip through the dark, dangerous and various levels of the infernal Afterlife.

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New Treasures: Spectral Evidence by Gemma Files

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Spectral Evidence Gemma Files-small Spectral Evidence Gemma Files-back-small

There’s no pleasure quite like a top-notch collection of horror stories, and I’m always on the lookout for one. Gemma Files’ latest collection Spectral Evidence, released in February from Trepidatio, sounds like a great candidate. Just check out these story descriptions.

An embittered blood-servant plots revenge against the vampires who own him; a little girl’s best friend seeks to draw her into an ancient, forbidden realm; two monster-hunting sisters cross paths with an amoral holler-witch again and again, battling both mortal authorities and immortal predators. From the forgotten angels who built the cosmos to the reckless geniuses whose party drug unleashes a plague, madness, monsters and murder await at every turn.

Monster-hunting sisters? Ancient, forbidden realms? Reckless geniuses and holler-witches? Why don’t I have this book already?

Spectral Evidence gathers nine stories from major anthologies of the past few years, including Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries, Hauntings, October Dreams II from Cemetery Dance, and many others. Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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Sorcery and Science: The Broken Lands by Fred Saberhagen

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Broken Lands Saberhagan-smallI wonder if Fred Saberhagen suspected that his short 1968 novel, The Broken Lands, was laying the groundwork for a series that would ultimately run 15 volumes. The initial three books, The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains (1971), and Changeling Earth (1973) — collected together as The Empire of the East — take place in America a long time after some yet-undefined catastrophe. While bits and pieces of technology — one giant piece in particular — survive, there is also magic. Wizards, familiars, demons, elementals, even love charms, they’re all there in a very unfamiliar landscape.

The setup for The Broken Lands is one only the slackest of readers haven’t encountered a hundred times or more: young boy faces off against evil empire, discovering and drawing on heretofore unknown skills and abilities. Along the way he encounters unrequited love, a wise mentor, and a villain with honor (and more style than everyone else). The primary narrative concerns the search for a secret thing with which to fight the empire. Did I mention the empire was evil?

I like this book way more than I should. Stock as the characters are, routine as the setup feels, at some point we start getting hints that something bigger and better is going on. In fact, that it feels like what’s coming next is going to be familiar, and then it isn’t, is a big part of the book’s success for me. In the meantime Saberhagen’s writing is clean and the story’s pacing is brisk. There’s little poetry in The Broken Lands, but there is an economy that keeps the undertakings lively and enjoyable.

Only recently has the much-feared Empire of the East expanded its grasping hands into the West. The people of the region, mostly farmers, have been easily conquered and cowed into submission. In addition to bronze-helmeted soldiers, the forces under the local Satrap, Ekuman, include intelligent flying reptiles and a pair of wizards. It is with his wizards the Satrap is conferring as the book begins.

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Temporal Surges and Shapeshifting Invaders: Rich Horton on Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and The War of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson

Monday, April 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Threshold of Eternity John Brunner-small The War of Two Worlds Poul Anderson-small

One of the reasons I collect Ace Doubles — aside from the great cover art, and their historical significance — is that they frequently featured early work by some of my favorite authors. That’s definitely the case with Double D-335, which paired very early novels from two of the greatest SF writers of the late 20th Century, John Brunner’s Threshold of Eternity and Poul Anderson’s The War of Two Worlds.

Neither volume was reprinted in a standandalone edition after their original back-to-back appearance in 1959, so you can be forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with them. At his website Strange at Ecbatan, interplanetary paperback expert Rich Horton admits he was unaware of them until recently as well. Why review yet another obscure Ace Double?

I realized that it comprised two novels by writers I always enjoy that I was completely unaware of… I figured Anderson and Brunner are always worth a try, and anyway I have a certain quasi-completist attitude towards both of them.

Fair enough. Rich usually does his homework on the background for each book, often digging up some fascinating tidbits, and as usual he doesn’t disappoint.

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