The Dark Island by Henry Treece

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

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Britain is a dark island of mists and woods. It lies farther north than any other known land, so that the sun is seldom seen there. The people of this island are brave in battle but fearful of their gods and priests.

Arminius Agricola, Ambassador to Camulodunum, A.D. 25 – A.D. 30

The first written of Henry Treece’s Celtic Tetralogy, the second chronologically, and the third to be reviewed by me, The Dark Island (1952) is a story of 1st century AD Britain. I’ve previously reviewed The Great Captains and Red Queen, White Queen here at Black Gate. The fourth is The Invaders. Together, they present one of the most artistically successful attempts to portray ancient Britain and its people. Treece’s ancient Britons are the inhabitants of a dark and violent world, where signs and portents are seen in every event. For them, the gods and their blessings and curses are real. Fiercely independent as they believe themselves to be, even kings and princes bow down before the blood-soaked hands of the Druids. Under their direction human sacrifices to the gods are a regular occurrence. It is a world alien to us today and Treece presents it without condescension or sentimentality, and as completely believable.

The Dark Island is a story of trying to hold on to ideals in the face of overwhelming forces. Gwyndoc, cousin of Caradoc (better known as Caractacus), is a prince and a warrior. He was raised to be loyal, brave, and to fear the gods. In the wake of the Roman invasion, the shattering of the British army at the Battle of the Medway, and the easy acquiescence of most of the population to Roman rule, holding true to his ideals becomes difficult and self-destructive.

Gwyndoc and Caradoc are as close as brothers when they are young. They come of age during the golden days of the rule of Caradoc’s father, Cunobelin (more commonly known as Cymbeline). While Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BC failed, Roman commerce and culture have made great inroads there. The merchants of Camulodunum and the tribal kings and princes have become richer than ever before. Their sons are educated by Roman tutors. Times are peaceful and plentiful.

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Alien Invasions, Transporters, and Restarting the Sun: A Review of Beyond Belief

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 | Posted by William I. Lengeman III

Beyond Belief Richard J Hurley-smallBeyond Belief
Edited by Richard J. Hurley
Scholastic Book Services (188 pages, $0.45, April 1966)

Given that Scholastic was the publisher of this anthology, it’s probably fair to assume that it was aimed at what was once called the juvenile demographic. I was in that demographic when the 1973 paperback edition was published.

However, as the publishing credits reveal, most of the stories are drawn from SF magazines of prior decades. None of which were geared to juveniles, as far as I’m aware. It’s a mixed bag, as anthologies often are, but for me the ups outweighed the downs by a bit.

Thumbs Up

“Phoenix,” by Clark Ashton Smith

When you’re listing writers who have a truly distinctive voice, Clark Ashton Smith should probably be near the top. I wasn’t aware that he wrote much science fiction, but this story of humans living on a cold Earth and striving to restart the sun fits the bill. The best story in the book, for me, and one of the best I’ve read for a long time.

“It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” by Isaac Asimov

An interesting effort from Asimov, set far enough in the future that no one goes outside anymore, instead getting from point A to B by using Doors. Any resemblance to transporters is coincidental, since Star Trek came along more than a decade after this story was published. The hook is that one day a young boy decides that he’d rather get around by using old-fashioned doors to go outside and walk from place to place. Naturally, his well-bred, high-toned mother is aghast over this turn of events.

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Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Edward Wagner

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Best Kane cover ever – by Stan Zagorski

Best Kane cover ever – by Stan Zagorski

I’ve read  Karl Edward Wagner‘s Death Angel’s Shadow (1973), with its three stories of Kane, the Mystic Swordsman, numerous times since first finding it in my attic in the 1970s. Before Conan’s or Elric’s, Kane’s adventures sparked my interest in swords & sorcery. Only a few years ago, I wrote a long piece about Wagner and this book over at my site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog. I figured it was time to give it a reread and review here at Black Gate.

For the uninitiated, Kane is, in Wagner’s own words, a villain-hero. Cursed with immortality, over the course of his career he’s been an evil wizard, a crime lord, a bandit, and the general of a demon cult’s army. Sometimes he’s up against someone more diabolical than he is, but he’s never the good guy, never the hero.

This description of him gives you a sense of the wrongness that clings to him even when he’s not embarked on some nefarious plan:

It was his eyes that bothered Troylin. He had noticed them from the first. It was to be expected, for Kane’s eyes were the eyes of Death! They were blue eyes, but eyes that glowed with their own light. In those cold blue gems blazed the fires of blood madness, of the lust to kill and destroy. They poured forth infinite hatred of life and promised violent ruin to those who sought to meet them. Troylin caught an image of that powerful body striding over a battlefield, killer’s eyes blazing and red sword dealing carnage to all before it.

The three Kane novels, Darkness Weaves, Bloodstone, and Dark Crusade, are decent enough, but it’s in the short stories that Wagner’s immense talents shine most brightly. Two years ago I reviewed the collection, Night Winds (1978) at Black Gate. That book contains some of the best and darkest S&S stories ever set to paper. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Review of Pathfinder Tales: Plague of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Pathfinder Tales Plague of Shadows-smallI just read my second Howard Andrew Jones novel: Plague of Shadows (2011), which was the first of his two Pathfinder novels (I read them out of order). In my review of Stalking the Beast (2013) for Black Gate, I raved that it delivered everything I crave from such a tale. It did so with skill and panache, introducing me to characters who have stayed with me. So I was pleased to go back and read the true introduction to Elyana, the Forlorn elven ranger raised by humans, and Drelm, the half-orc who values honor and loyalty more than most humans (let alone most orcs) do.

Knowing that it was a first outing, I went in expecting it to be not quite as good — not as polished or assured, maybe — as its follow-up (indeed, I gave Stalking the Beast a perfect 5-star rating, arguing that sword-and-sorcery RPG tie-in novels just don’t get any better than that).

But then I finished the book: And I felt that peculiar sense that only certain works of art engender, as the last sentence echoes away or the curtain falls or the credits roll. It has impressed itself upon you, and you feel enriched but tinged with a bittersweet sadness — the characters have left, and you miss them. The characters have, in some sense, become more real; they have joined your own personal pantheon. With this second visit, Elyana and Drelm grew from being fun, engaging characters in a standalone book into characters about whom I want to read many books!

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Adventures In Shape-Shifting: Robert Stallman’s The Orphan

Monday, June 22nd, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

The Orphan Robert Stallman-smallI write this on an emotional high, a plateau from which I never wish to descend, for I’ve just managed the impossible: I’ve gone back in time. The vehicle employed? A book, prose, a worn paperback. It’s Robert Stallman’s The Orphan.

I first encountered this title somewhere in the Dark Ages, probably around 1980. I re-read it perhaps two years later, along with its two sequels, The Captive and The Beast. Even though large swaths of plot have faded from my mind over the years, I have never, ever forgotten the book’s opening lines.

I am and will be. There is no time when I am not.

This is the first lesson.

My need creates myself.

This is the second lesson.

Alone is safe.

This is the third lesson.

I’ve spent the last thirty-five years considering those quotes (and the ideas behind them), polishing each like a gem-cutter finishing off a jewel. I’ve road-tested them, too, as a survival mechanism when, in my earliest teens, I tried out (as actors might try a cape) the attitude of Kipling’s cat, the one that walked by himself. It was necessary, in a way, but also foppish, affected. Even so, I found in The Orphan echoes of that chilly, solo stance — the same adopted in Westerns by virtually every gunslinger known, from Joel McRae to John Wayne and back again.

So once upon a time, my time, these lines held great personal weight. They were talismans, of a sort, and in picking up this gorgeous, dangerous title afresh, I was face to face with my past and the self I have since become.

For a moment, I had to look away.

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Heroika 1: Dragon Eaters edited by Janet Morris

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_15175053GW6bP5j3For the past several months I kept seeing notices for the coming release of Heroika 1: Dragon Eaters. Edited by Janet Morris, one of the true heavies in heroic fantasy, and someone I have known online for several years now, I knew this was a book I was going to be reading. That its table of contents included several writers I’m a big fan of as well as many whose names I’m starting to hear good things about made it look better and better. That it’s about killing dragons sealed the deal. So when John O’Neill asked if I wanted to review it and I could have an e-book of it, I said “YES!”

I’m happy to report that with all that buildup, it’s a terrific bunch of stories. Anthologies are great because you can pick them up and dive in anywhere and take a short, rewarding excursion into whatever genre it is. I generally don’t read anthologies from cover to cover in a short period of time. Reading for this review it turned out I wanted a break from dragon-killing when I tried to finish the book in only a few big sessions. There are a few stories that aren’t to my taste, but there are no clunkers and some real treasures in this book.

The stories, and there are seventeen of them, are presented chronologically — well, the ones set in the real world anyway. Those set in more fantastical settings are fit in among the medieval ones. In the earliest tales dragons stand toe-to-toe with the gods. Slowly, they lose that stature and become mere monsters. Deadly, true, but no longer forces of raw, elemental chaos. Eventually they’re regarded only as mythical. In the future, scientific explanations have to be found for their existence.

Janet and Chris Morris’ “The First Dragon Eater” opens the book. Narrated by Kella, a priest of Tarhunt, it tells of the battles between the Storm God, Tarhunt, and the dragon, Illuyankas. Taken from Hattan myth, it’s probably one of the earliest tales of dragon-killing. The story’s style — formal sounding, as if something recited in a temple — lends gravitas to the introduction of the monstrous worms that figure in so many world myths and fantasy stories.

“Legacy of the Great Dragon” by S.E. Lindberg moves forward into ancient Egypt, as Thoth, physician of the gods, helps Horus to find power to avenge the death of his father, Osiris, at the hands of Set. This is a wild piece, with a cosmically huge dragon and gods fighting inside of it.

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Where Extra-planar Daemons and Dark Gods Play: Gaunt’s Ghosts: First & Only

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015 | Posted by Sean Stiennon

Gaunts Ghosts First and Only-smallWarhammer 40,000 is, at its core, a miniatures game artfully designed to separate wargamers from their money with peak efficiency. But it may be more broadly known as a shared-universe fiction franchise which occupies several shelves in the tie-in fiction wasteland west of “Z” at your local book retailer. Our very own John O’Neill has covered several books in the ongoing Horus Heresy saga, and odds are that even if you’ve never picked up a book, you’ve noticed the Black Library imprint occupying ever more space on the New Releases rack.

WH40k occupies a gray area between science fiction and fantasy. I’d categorize it most accurately as a very grim shade of space opera, but extra-planar daemons and dark gods play a central role in its varied mythology, and there are sci-fi races which correspond to elves, orcs, and even undead (with heavy shades of Terminator). It’s primarily a canvas on which to tell stories about war, and so none of the various factions are particularly given to the arts of peacetime.

The majority of WH40K fiction is stories about the Space Marines (Adeptus Astartes for purists): genetically enhanced super soldiers who go into battle against alien and daemonic hordes clad in heavy power armor and carrying an assortment of massive guns and chainsaw swords. They tend to be hyper-manly, grim, serious, and generally without concerns besides waging war.

Honestly, I’ve found most of the WH40K fiction I’ve sampled to be fairly shallow. Every story is perpetual war and violence, with characters who exist only as warriors, moving from battle to blood-drenched battle. Most of the time, I’ve felt that any sense of deeper meaning to the carnage gets obscured, leaving little more than loving descriptions of weaponry and slaughter.

But there are diamonds in the ashes, and Dan Abnett’s work shines brightest of them all.

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May Short Story Roundup

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_6212435zQMwrmTD (1)I’m sorry that I let April pass without a short story roundup. The outpouring of new heroic fiction continues unabated on the pages of numerous magazines the genre is lucky to have. I’m back on track and here to tell you about last month’s must-reads.

I have never left any doubt in my reviews about which is my favorite fantasy magazine, so let me start by singing the praises of Adrian Simmons and his cohorts at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Each issue has terrific cover art, two or three stories and a number of poems, and in the three years I’ve been reading and reviewing the magazine it has always been at least satisfactory and usually splendid. What makes HFQ so strong is the editors’ love for and knowledge of the genre, which is obvious by their singular ability to select and edit stories. Always true to the traditions of heroic fiction, they yet manage to publish tales that push the genre in new directions.

Issue 24 is maybe their best yet. This quarter’s artwork is a dark, brooding piece titled “Wizard With Army” by Vuk Kostic. Click this link to see the painting in its full glory.

The issue opens with Cullen Groves’ first published story, “The Madness of the Mansa,” a tale of a capricious monarch with a peculiar penchant for poetry.

Following a night in which “a great storm arose over the western ocean, and many citizens and sailors in the port of Asongai told how they had seen the demons of madness walking the black winds in the darkness.”, the ruler, the Mansa, is struck by a curious madness. From that point on he allows people to address him only poetically, using “the old meters” of songs and legends.

In the wake of the Mansa’s madness, the merchants of Asongai find themselves unable to successfully compete for his attention against the skilled singers of his tribal subjects. When a merchant named Bukra overhears the ex-gladiator, Draba, singing in a tavern, he hires him to petition the Mansa on his behalf.

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The Camera Can Lie: FairyTale: A True Story

Monday, June 8th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Cottingley FairiesNews flash: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, having created literature’s greatest rationalist in the form of Sherlock Holmes, spent his later years heavily invested in the occult, the supernatural, and the possible existence of (yes) fairies.

Of course, people have always evinced a desire to believe — sometimes in this, sometimes in that — and so it is perhaps not so surprising that Conan Doyle played a large role in one of history’s great photographic deceptions, that of the so-called Cottingley Fairies.

In fact, he was one of those most willing to champion the trumped-up, cheap-looking fakes (black and white stills of young girls posing in shrubbery with paper cut-outs of highly Romanticized winged fairies) His role in this debacle (the girls only recanted decades later) is the subject of a FairyTale: A True Story (1997), a film well worth revisiting given our drone-happy, GPS-driven, target-rich world.

You see where I’m going with this, yes? Given our present era of photo manipulation and computer generated graphics, our collective ability to dupe the unwary has never been greater, and just like statistics, images lie.

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Self-published Book Review: The Age of Heroes by Scott Robinson

Sunday, June 7th, 2015 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

The Age of Heroes Robinson-smallThis month I’m reviewing The Age of Heroes by Scott Robinson. I’ve reviewed one of Scott’s books before, The Brightest Light, a self-described crystal-punk story. This time around, Scott’s story is straight up sword and sorcery.

Rawk is the last of the great heroes.  Famed for his great deeds, everyone in the city of Katamood knows him, he has a crowd of fans following him everywhere he goes, and women decades younger throw themselves at him.  He could easily retire — his friend Weaver declared himself Prince and took charge of Katamood thirty years ago — but despite the fact that he’s well past his prime, he refuses to. It’s a matter of pride, of preserving his reputation: he’s a hero, not a former hero.  But there just isn’t a lot for a hero to do these days.  Since Weaver banned sorcery, and the nearby city-states started to do the same, there’s been a distinct lack of exots — the weird and horrible creatures that require a hero to deal with.  Anyone else who wants to get into the heroism business has to travel far and wide to do so, leaving Rawk as the last active hero whose deeds are still known in Katamood.  So when an oversized wolf shows up one day, he’s the person that everyone calls on.

Heroism is a young man’s game — not just in the Age of Heroes, but in heroic fantasy in general.  People complain about the man part, but you’re more likely to see a woman as the protagonist in heroic fantasy than anyone over forty.  I couldn’t find Rawk’s exact age, but he’s at least in his fifties. He gets aches and pains even when he’s not particularly active, and his first fight almost ends badly when his knee nearly gives out. He spends the rest of the novel in a perpetual state of pain, unwilling to back down and let the soldiers whose job it is to deal with such threats steal his glory. Rawk’s age is a significant factor, and is the main reason this book is such a change of pace from most books in the genre. His point of view feels like that of a mature, older man, but he doesn’t necessarily act like one.

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