A Grim Take on the Holy Grail: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew Jones

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019 | Posted by SELindberg

flight-of-the-queen-larger-BG When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hands to mete justice to high and low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

The Ring-Sworn Trilogy

Howard Andrew Jones’s For the Killing of Kings jumpstarted the epic fantasy Ring Sworn trilogy this February 2019, and the sequel Upon the Flight of the Queen hits shelves next week (November 19th). MacMillan’s St. Martin’s Press pitches the series as “The Three Musketeers presented via the style of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.” The pacing is reminiscent of Zelazny since Howard Andrew Jones (HAJ) doles out action and backstory with precision. Yet there are many more than three heroes, and the milieu has more medieval flare than musketry, so it is more “King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table” than Musketeers.

For the Killing of Kings is actually a grim take on the consequences of seeking, and finding, a figurative Holy Grail (hearthstones). The Altenerai guard had been spread out over the Five Realms searching for many hearthstones that fuel magic — the enigmatic Queen Leonara deems them holy. Twice I was completely floored by plot twists, and the last third kept me from going to sleep. I haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. Black Gate’s Fletcher Vredenburgh’s review should likewise entice new readers.

#2 Upon the Flight of the Queen

Summarizing a sequel can be tough without spoiling its predecessor, but the following overview will try as it showcases why you should commit to Ring-Sworn. Upon the Flight of the Queen starts off exactly where For the Killing of Kings ends. The adventure begins in high-gear with Alten Rylin assuming his action-thriller role (~James Bond) penetrating the Naor camp disguised in magic, dragging the reader into mayhem.

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Plot Hooks, Apocrypha, and WTF: Degenesis by Six More Vodka

Monday, November 11th, 2019 | Posted by eeknight

Degenesis-cartoon-art-character-art-small

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Degenesis, the doorstop of a post-apocalyptic RPG from the “there has to be a story behind that name for your company” SIXMOREVODKA creative team for a while now. The main problem holding me back is that I haven’t played it yet with people, just dinked around testing things. Luckily, John’s editorial standards enjoy a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to old friends, and let ye who have not passed judgement on a game without playing it cast the first stone.

There’s another reason I feel safe recommending this beast. The art alone is worth the purchase of the slipcased two-volume edition of rules Katharsis and worldbook Primal Punk (Retailing at USD “If you have to ask you can’t afford it”). I’ve never seen a game with this level art throughout. Page after page of imagery usually reserved for a couple of splash pages in most game books.

What is this world? Refreshingly, it’s set in Europe and North Africa five hundred years after a 2073 meteor storm changed the face of the world (called the “Eshaton” but I think they meant “Eschaton”). Maybe the year is a hat tip to Fallout, I dunno, but Earth went through hundreds of years of cloudy hell and now there are a few hints of a Renaissance for a radically altered world. To make matters worse, the meteors brought with them a spore-like form of life called “Primer” that is radically altering flora, fauna, and us. Humans who have been taken over by the Primer (the process is generally called Sepsis) eventually become Psychonauts or Abberants, two names for the same deadly syndrome. Some of the spores carrying the primer have been deactivated or neutralized for use in drugs called Burn, because if thousands of years of human history have proved anything, it’s that people will try to get high by any means necessary. A final existential confrontation of homo sapiens vs homo degenesis is building.

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Bleak Creek overflows with Universal Truths

Friday, November 8th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Bleak CreekThe Lost Causes of Bleak Creak is not a novel I expected to be reviewing for Black Gate. It is a compelling thriller with a preternatural undercurrent that I heartily recommend, but that’s not what one would have expected from its authors. Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal have carved their own successful niche with Good Mythical Morning, a YouTube talk show/comedy show which seems to have successfully updated Ernie Kovacs’ format for the hipster generation. While that may be an accurate description on the surface, it belies the expansiveness of their burgeoning Mythical Entertainment media empire and its audience demographic composed of 20 million subscribers across their platform.

These two childhood friends from a small town in North Carolina have written two bestsellers; made their own critically-acclaimed, incredibly bizarre, but consistently funny streaming sitcom, Buddy System; hosted a trainwreck fascinating, but frequently funny IFC reality show, Commercial Kings; made an award-winning feature-length documentary about the search for their First Grade teacher, Looking for Ms. Locklear; released comedy albums; performed sold-out comedy concert tours on several continents; put together their own stage show to tie-in with their first book; and are currently undertaking a book tour in theaters around the country to promote their first novel. Regulars on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show where they provide a reminder of what late night comedy meant for those old enough to remember Carson or at least Letterman in his prime, they may be the two most ambitious and successful cult figures in the U.S. at present.

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A Four-Way Road to Darkness: The Pale Illuminations, edited by Robert Morgan

Thursday, November 7th, 2019 | Posted by Mario Guslandi

The Pale Illuminations-small

Dust Jacket Art by Paul Lowe

The Pale Illuminations
Edited by Robert Morgan
Sarob Press (145 pages, £35/$60 for a limited edition hardcover, September 2019)
Cover by Paul Lowe

Following up its long lasting tradition of providing elegantly produced volumes collecting old and new dark and supernatural stories, the excellent small imprint Sarob Press ( formerly based in the UK, then relocated in France) has just published a new anthology entitled The Pale Illuminations.

The book assembles four new stories ( one actually a novella) by four well respected authors of dark fiction, exploring the supernatural side of different geographical environments, where eerie mysteries are still lurking.

Peter Bell, a renowned author of refined modern ghostly tales, contributes “Labyrinth,” a complex, atmospheric novella set in the wilderness of the Peak District, where ancient worship, Roman old secrets and modern romance blend in a very disturbing, fascinating tableau.

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Audio Fiction from Rusty Quill

Saturday, October 26th, 2019 | Posted by Jeff Stehman

The Rusty Quill

My chores haven’t abated in the last year, so I’ve continued burning through podcasts. After a lot of wandering on my part, two offerings from Rusty Quill hooked me on their first episodes and have kept me on the line. One is horror, the other humor.

The Magnus Archives kicks off with the Magnus Institute’s new head archivist, Jonathan Sims, trying to bring some semblance of organization to the Institute’s archive. Going back 200 years, it consists of reports and statements about possible supernatural encounters. In the process of updating the archive, Jonathan discovers that some old statements resist any form of preservation except being read into an audio tape. New statements are also usually collected by audio tape. These recordings provide the framing story for the weekly podcast.

The first episode, “Angler Fish,” was exactly what I hoped and expected from that title, and all I knew going in was that this was horror audio fiction. (And, no, that episode does not take place in the water.) As much as I try to avoid even the appearance of using puns, there’s no better way to say it than I was well and truly hooked.

The worldbuilding and story arcs for this podcast are tight, so to avoid spoiling too much, I’ll only say that outside our reality there are entities associated with our common fears, and they like to push their way into our world.

Each season of 40 episodes has an overall arc. They’re approaching the end of season 4, and there have been five seasons planned from the beginning. (I marathoned the first three seasons before catching up.)

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Blogging Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Part Eight

Friday, October 25th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

DEADLY_HANDS_OF_KUNG_FU_9_8_5-1Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #9 featured a Doug Moench-Mike Vosburg story whose sole purpose was to reinforce (in the fashion of the hit television series, Kung Fu) that martial arts is about discipline and control and not violence. Of course, making this point provides ample opportunity to portray martial arts violence since conflict is inevitable within the confines of action-adventure storytelling.

The story gets underway when Shang-Chi stops a mugger in the park and finds himself challenged by Johnny Chen, the local martial arts champion whose arrogance and insecurities demand he publicly demonstrate his superiority to Shang-Chi. The fact that Mike Vosburg draws Chen to strongly resemble Bruce Lee (who could exhibit an arrogant side both and on and off screen) only adds another level to the story.

The real key here is the young Asian-American boy who also witnessed Shang-Chi’s heroism and whose hero worship of him leads to unhealthy projection and deception. The dangers of idolizing those we admire is the second plot strand that points back to Bruce Lee in this story. Given that this was another of Doug Moench’s scripts concerned with the non-violent philosophy of martial arts being ignored amidst the martial arts craze sweeping the West, his decision to paint the most recognizable face of martial arts as flawed and highlight the shortcomings of fandom was particularly daring.

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A Thrilling Gothic Fantasy: Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

Friday, October 18th, 2019 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

Sorcery-of-Thorns-smallElisabeth has sworn to do her duty onto death, and death has just shown up.

Panicked horses draw a carriage up to the Great Library. A Class Eight grimoire, bound in an iron coffer secured with more than a dozen locks, rattles inside the vehicle. A pair of wardens jump down from the driver’s seat.

The grimoire – the Book of Eyes – is centuries old and has driven dozens of people mad. As an apprentice librarian, Elisabeth shouldn’t be anywhere near it. But the library’s Director specifically summoned her here to help.

The Director must be testing Elisabeth. If she fails, the Book of Eyes will claim her life. But if she manages to survive this encounter, then she’ll show she really is a warden in the making. That is Elisabeth’s dearest wish: to prove herself worthy to the Director by becoming a warden herself. After all, she owes the Director everything. If it hadn’t been for her, Elisabeth would have been raised in an orphanage.

As Elizabeth and the Director carry the foul-smelling book down into the vault where the most dangerous tomes are isolated, it lurches in its bindings and tries to break free. When they reach its appointed cell, the table in the middle is gouged with enormous gashes. It looks like a demon clawed it. Grimoires that are damaged turn into Maleficts, huge monsters of ink and leather that kill the villagers and ravage the countryside. The wardens risk their own lives in hunting down and destroying them.

A Malefict must have been born on that very expanse of wood.

While the Director examines the Book of Eyes for damage, keeping the greasy black volume contained in a circle of salt and wearing iron-lined gloves, the grimoire opens its warty eyes and fastens them on Elisabeth. Sensing her inexperience and vulnerability, it calls to her, a whisper that threads through her mind…

She tries to ignore the voice, but it’s no use. Her gaze drifts down to the book… She feels like she’s sinking… The Director’s voice comes from very far away, as though she’s speaking underwater…

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In 500 Words or Less: Lost Transmissions by Desirina Boskovich

Friday, October 18th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Lost Transmissions- The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy-small Lost Transmissions- The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy-back-small

Cover by Paul Lehr

Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
By Desirina Boskovich
Abrams Image (304 pages, $29.99 hardcover, $13.99 eBook, September 10, 2019)

Did you know that Johannes Kepler wrote speculative fiction that got his mother imprisoned for witchcraft? Or that Weezer almost had an epic concept album to rival Pink Floyd and Rush? Or that Space Island One was even a thing?!

Maybe you did. We can’t quite use the excuse that an almost-thirty Millennial like myself obviously wouldn’t know a lot about the rich history of sci-fi and fantasy, however, since Lost Transmissions focuses on far more than the Golden Age. Desirina Boskovich has accumulated information on lesser-known SFF from across history, and I guarantee there are things in here you weren’t aware of. I had to tweet at Desirina while I was reading my ARC, for example, because the chapter “Speculative Music of the New Millennium” outlined artists and albums I’d never heard of, even though I should have grown up paying attention to them in the nineties and early 2000s. (My “To Listen” list doesn’t need to be any bigger, Desirina.)

My To-Read and To-Watch list doesn’t need to be any bigger, either, but too late now. After Charlie Jane Anders’ passionate and excited article about Space Island One, I’m determined to find a way to watch it, even though a DVD or streaming version doesn’t exist, apparently. Now that I’ve read the premise and background of Clair Noto’s The Tourist, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for a Netflix or Amazon adaptation. I need to look into the Mellon Chronicles to explore Lord of the Rings fandom. I want to find a group of people to try Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. And so on and so on and so on.

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Sorcery, Romance and Wine: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019 | Posted by CAITLIN MCALLISTER

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Cover designed by Micaela Alcaino

A fantasy set in turn-of-the-century French countryside full of sorcery, romance and wine? I couldn’t wait to dive in to this debut novel from Luanne G. Smith.

Elena Boureanu is a vine witch. Not familiar? Vine witches are responsible for curating the most delectable vintages of the Chanceaux Valley, in a fantasy version of rural France. Elena is responsible for Chateau Renard, well known for producing some of the best wine in the Valley. Elena, and the vine witches that have come before her, use their powers to harness the perfect weather, moon phase, and terroir. Paired with their creative tastes they hope to blend the perfect bottle.

Our story opens with Elena cursed, stuck in the body of a toad surviving off slugs, flies and having almost no memory of who she was, and much less who would inflict such a terrible sentence on her. After all, she was so engrossed in creating the world’s best wine, she rarely paid attention to anything but her work.

During the seven years Elena has been missing, Chateau Renard has been sold to Jean-Paul Martel, a city dweller with no knowledge of spells or witches. Instead, he is focused on science and has little use for the folklore and traditions of the Valley. To help with the daily operations of the Chateau, he allowed the previous proprietor, Ariella Gardin, to stay on. As much as she tries to influence him to be more open to the “old ways,” he dismisses her claims as nonsense.

Finally, Elena is able to break the curse return home to her beloved vineyard. She is greeted by Ariella (her Grand Mere), and discovers the truth about the sale of the only home she’s ever known. What’s more, she is able to see a terrible hex has been placed over the entire vineyard. With Jean-Paul’s aversion to magic, Elena must pretend to be someone she’s not, while trying desperately trying to fix things behind his back.

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Of Phibes and Androbots I Sing

Saturday, October 12th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

phibes 5Phibes 4Dr. Phibes is far more than the evocation of the great thriller characters of its creator’s childhood; he is a character that stands proudly alongside Dracula, Moriarty, Nikola, Fu Manchu, Fantomas, and Mabuse as an equal in inventiveness and execution. William Goldstein, as screenwriter and novelist, created an immortal as only the best storytellers do. Phibes is a character who transcends his era, defines his own archetype, and is firmly established in his own mythology to pass from one generation, century, and millenium to the next. The best news for fans is The Master’s work continues with the fifth and latest book in the ongoing series, The Androbots – Book I of The Dr. Phibes Manifest.

Those who have read the first four books in the series or, at the very least, my other Black Gate articles covering these titles, are aware there is a significant tonal difference between the two Vincent Price Dr. Phibes films of the early 1970s and William Goldstein’s novels. The books retain the films’ eccentricities, but are far more tragic than comedic. I do revere the two AIP releases. Director Robert Fuest and his production crew imbued both pictures with a sardonic touch that allowed Vincent Price and several of his co-stars to turn in subdued performance that carefully balance extreme bursts of horror, tragedy, and comedy. One never knows quite what to expect as one scene ends and the next begins when watching the films.

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