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Immaculate Scoundrels by John R. Fultz

Immaculate Scoundrels by John R. Fultz

Every job needed a crew.

from Immaculate Scoundrels

I keep revisiting the earliest days of writing about contemporary swords & sorcery lately. Last month I read and reviewed Rogue Blade’s fantastic new anthology, Neither Beg Nor Yield. Now, I’ve just finished John R. Fultz’s return to bash and thrash of the genre with Immaculate Scoundrels (2024).

Fultz was one of the first authors I encountered back in 2011/2012 when I started blogging about S&S. He was one of the writers I discovered through the electronic pages of Blackgate, along with James Enge, Howard Andrew Jones, and Ted Rypel in particular.

Between his collection The Revelations of Zang (2013 – I read it after winning a free copy in a giveaway here at Blackgate!) and The Books of the Shaper series, Fultz staked out a claim to being one of the best new voices in S&S.  These works were heavily inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’ and Lord Dunsany’s strange and often psychedelic fiction ladled over with more blood and thunder. If you think I’m maligning him, rest assured I am not. Anybody daring enough to take Smith as an inspiration and make it more violent, well, that’s not a bad thing.

Instead of more S&S, Fultz followed up with a Native American-themed sword & planet duology. I reviewed both The Testament of Tall Eagle (2015) and Son of Tall Eagle (2017) here. I might have been a little disappointed he hadn’t written more stories like his previous ones, but these are good books and Fultz isn’t one to sit around spinning the same tales again and again.

In the intervening years, he’s written enough short fiction to fill two collections. The first, World Beyond Worlds (2021) brings together his fantasy stories from the period. The second, Darker Than Weird (2023) contains fourteen straight-up horror stories. Now, with Immaculate Scoundrels, it’s back to swords & sorcery, but not like in any of his previous books.

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A to Z Reviews: “Virtually Correct,” by Marianne Dyson

A to Z Reviews: “Virtually Correct,” by Marianne Dyson

A to Z Reviews

Marianne J. Dyson’s “Virtually Correct” was originally published in the May 1995 issue of Analog under the “Probability Zero” rubric. Stories published as part of the Probability Zero series are stories that use the science fiction tropes, but in a way that allows the author to write a story which could never happen.

Dyson tackles the concept of racial profiling in “Virtually Correct.” Maxwell Bishop runs a security firm known as Security Unlimited. The firm uses virtual reality simulations of actual crime scenes to train their security guards. Unfortunately, following a lawsuit in which a security guard from another firm shot a man who was determined to be innocent, a new law was passed regarding the use of virtual reality.

Mr. Compton has arrived to inform Bishop of the new stipulations, which mean that in order to avoid training his security guards with an unconscious racial bias, all of the individuals in the simulations must be recoded to be color-neutralized. Even as Bishop argues against the need and asks for an exemption, he questions whether he would respond the same way if Compton were caucasian instead of Black.

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A to Z Reviews: “Permission,” by Mark Dachuk

A to Z Reviews: “Permission,” by Mark Dachuk

A to Z Reviews

Tesseracts is a Canadian anthology series that published 23 issues between 1985 and 2019. First edited by Judith Merril, each subsequent volume was edited by different authors and featuring new science fiction by various Canadian authors. One volume, Tesseracts Q, edited by Jane Brierley and Elisabeth Vonarburg, featured English reprints of stories originally published in French. Mark Dachuk’s “Permission” appeared in Tesseracts Ten in 2006, edited by Edo van Belkom and Robert Charles Wilson.

Dachuk has created a world in which everyone’s goal appears to be to leave the planet earth. Luana lives alone in a small house with an attached garden. When rockets launch from a nearby facility, she looks at them longingly, wanting to leave the world behind, but she doesn’t have the wherewithal to purchase her own tickets to leave the earth. Her hopes rest in the possibility that one of the plants growing on her property, the permission, will one day flower. She surmises that the house’s previous owner was lucky enough to get a blossom, which led to his departure.

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A to Z Reviews: “Hamlet’s Ghost Sighted in Frontenac, KS,” by Vincent Czyz

A to Z Reviews: “Hamlet’s Ghost Sighted in Frontenac, KS,” by Vincent Czyz

A to Z Reviews

Published in the Festschrift volume Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, Vincent Czyz’s “Hamlet’s Ghost Sighted in Frontenac, KS” has a promising title, which the story doesn’t quite live up to, although it is accurate.

Calling it a story may not be correct. It is more the relating of a slice of life, an evening in Frontenac, Kansas, when Jim Lee, UFO enthusiast and former Marine, spends a night with friends, likely the same as the night before, the night after, and every other night.

The evening begins with him shooting the breeze and sniffing cocaine with Logan, apart Native American whose head was injured in a horseback riding accident. They eventually head over to the local dive bar to hang, shoot the breeze, and sniff more cocaine with addition friends. Their conversation turning to their own histories, giving them the air of men who know that their best days are behind them and anything they do in the future won’t matter. There is a sense of futility to the story.

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A to Z Reviews: “The Hump,” by Fernan Caballero

A to Z Reviews: “The Hump,” by Fernan Caballero

A to Z Reviews

Fernán Caballero was the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber y Ruiz de Larrea (1796–1877). In 1811, she published the short fable “The Hump,” which is a take on the fairy tale trope of a king promising to give half his kingdom away to anyone who would marry his stubborn daughter.

What struck me in reading this story is the oddity of the trope. Sure, monarchs would marry their children (or themselves) off to make alliances with other monarchs, but part of this trope is that it is so random. Marrying the princess off to whoever could slay a dragon or whatever may demonstrate that the individual is skilled in combat, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to the skills to rule a kingdom.

In “The Hump,” the king determines to marry his daughter off to whomever can say what materials she used to have a tambourine made. Even less of an indicator of ability to rule a kingdom, although perhaps useful if the king is more interested in marrying his daughter off to a musician.

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Neither Beg Nor Yield, edited by Jason M. Waltz

Neither Beg Nor Yield, edited by Jason M. Waltz

Sword & Sorcery is a clenched fist thrust into the sky, a raised middle finger in the face of the Unknown, an epithet spat into the dirt through a rictus of bared teeth. S&S demands an attitude of not merely surviving but of dominating living, all else—everything else—be damned. The heroes of S&S continue living deeply until there are no more breaths to take. The only -ism S&S promotes is LIVE!-ism. Absolutely a rebellion against meaninglessness, it also fully embraces an I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-it-is-all-meaningless creed. “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Robert E. Howard, through Conan, again saying it best in “Queen of the Black Coast.”

Jason M. Waltz from “It’s Not Gentle,” the foreword to Neither Beg Nor Yield

I reviewed Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure over at Stuff I Like: A Blog (called Swords & Sorcery: A Blog back then) twelve years ago. I had discovered the book by way of a mention here at Black Gate, which I had discovered while on the hunt for contemporary sword & sorcery. This book, more than anything else, convinced me there was a wealth of new and, more importantly, good S&S writing being done.

I had created my site to focus on ensuring the classics of S&S weren’t forgotten in the face of the seemingly irresistible tide of grimdark fiction that was new back then. Waltz’s book forced me to direct an increasing portion of my efforts toward the new stories. Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge, and John Fultz were all authors I first encountered in that period. There are also dozens of writers I found reviewing hundreds of new stories right here on the pages of Black Gate.

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A to Z Reviews: “Alexandria,” by Monica Byrne

A to Z Reviews: “Alexandria,” by Monica Byrne

A to Z ReviewsMonica Byrne offers a romance in her story “Alexandria,” which was published in the January 2017 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Aside from being set in the future, there is very little about the story that reads as science fiction.

Beth Miyake is coming to terms with the death of her husband, Keiji. Through her memories of him, the reader learns that while they had a deep love for each other, it manifested itself in ways which were not obvious to outsiders. Beth’s family never understood their relationship and Keiji tended to be quiet when the two of them weren’t alone.

When they were along, they understood each other perfectly, although Beth could never understand why Keiji insisted that she memorize and then destroy the love poems that he wrote for her, refusing to allow her to discuss them with anyone else. They were emblematic of their love for each other.

Aside from one disappointing trip they took for their honeymoon, the two didn’t leave Kansas. Upon arriving in Alexandria, Egypt on that trip, they discovered that the Lighthouse of Alexandria had been destroyed seven centuries earlier. It had never occurred to them that it was no longer standing. Since then, their travels had been done virtually through reading books about the places they would never physically visit.

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Neverwhens: Hannibals’ Ghost(s) roams a City of Marble and Blood and a Genre is Reborn

Neverwhens: Hannibals’ Ghost(s) roams a City of Marble and Blood and a Genre is Reborn

The Chronicles of Hanuvar: Lord of a Shattered Land and The City of Marble and Blood
by Howard Andrew Jones (Baen, August 1, 2023 and October 3, 2023). Covers by Dave Seeley

Friends, Carthaginians, Dog-Brothers, I come to praise Howard Andrew Jones, not to bury him…

That was a lot of mixed-metaphors, but Howard’s mixed a lot of themes, tropes and reached back into the very roots of early heroic fantasy in his Chronicles of Hanuvar to breathe new life into what was considered a dead sub-genre, so perhaps appropriating Marcus Antonius’s funeral oration for Caesar and mentioning the Republic’s greatest rivals is appropriate.

Howard Andrew Jones is the leading Sword & Sorcery author of the 21st Century, and the growing saga of Hannuvar of Volanus (promised to be a five-volume series by Baen books) is his masterwork. The saga is the story of Hanuvar, the aging, last general of Volanus. Once a great city-state and naval power, Volanus has fallen to the legions and sorcery or the aggressive Dervan Empire.

Determined to make Volanus an object lesson to other nations, Derva leveled the city, scattered its stones, and carried its remaining survivors away in chains. But Derva has not reckoned with Hanuvar.

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A to Z Reviews: “Simple Sentences,” by Natalie Babbitt

A to Z Reviews: “Simple Sentences,” by Natalie Babbitt

A to Z ReviewsNatalie Babbitt first published “Simple Sentences” in her collection The Devil’s Other Story Book, which includes a variety of tales about humanity’s encounters with the Devil. The book is a follow-up to her collection The Devil’s Story Book, so there are plenty of tales for Babbitt’s fans. This particular story was selected by Terri Windling for inclusion in The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection, which Windling co-edited with Ellen Datlow and became the first volume of the twenty-one volume series that was later called The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

Best known for writing the novel Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt clues in the reader with the first line that “Simple Sentences” will be a humorous story. The demons processing new arrivals to Hell are having trouble determining what to do with two men who arrived simultaneously. One of the men is a professional pick pocket, the other an author of complex books the surpassed the understanding of readers.

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Bringing a Whetstone to an Old Blade: New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine #1

Bringing a Whetstone to an Old Blade: New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine #1

New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine, Fall 2023. Cover by Caterina Gerbasi

Disclosure: I was a Backer for the first four issues of this new journal.

As with the Zero issue, New Edge has absolutely fantastic, journal-level production values: heavy paper stock, trade or hard-cover binding, 8.5 x 11 stock, clean, professional layout, and absolutely terrific artwork. It looks great, feels great in the hand and has nothing amateurish about it. Whereas a counterpart magazine, Tales From the Magician’s Skull, has similar production quality but leans into a 30s pulp-retro vibe intentionally, NESS has a much more contemporary vibe, which fits its idea of taking a venerable genre and recasting it for modern audiences. (Which it does to varying degrees of success.)

So, looks great. How’s the contents?

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