Diplomacy, Politics and Military Action: The Breaker of Empires Trilogy by Richard Baker

Thursday, June 25th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Valiant-Dust-medium Restless Lightning Scornful Stars-small

Covers by Larry Rostant

Every time an author completes a trilogy, we bake a cake at the Black Gate offices. We’re gotten pretty pudgy over the years, but hey. You don’t mess with tradition.

I missed the arrival of Scornful Stars, the final book in Richard Baker’s Breaker of Empire trilogy, last December — which means I missed an excuse for another cake. Sounds like I missed a good story too, if the Tzer Island review is anything to go by. Here’s an excerpt.

North’s ship is patrolling four systems in the Zerzura Sector. Piracy has been a problem that North hopes to do something about. He is, in fact, entreated to do so by a lovely woman whose shipping company is plagued by pirates… The pirates seem to know when the military will arrive. North develops a theory as to why that might be, putting him in a position to shoot it out with pirate ships. Later, he seizes an opportunity to thwart Bleindal’s nefarious plans, which leads to more shootouts, both between vessels and between North’s boarding parties and provocateurs.

The emphasis in the second novel was on diplomacy, while this one explores how corruption results in a breakdown of diplomacy. All three novels feature strong action scenes and interesting discussions about military strategy in the context of space, where warships are separated by thousands of kilometers. A fair amount of military science fiction is ghastly, but the Breaker of Empires series combines a thoughtful balance of diplomacy and politics with military action…

Scornful Stars continues Baker’s strong characterization and carefully conceived universe building. The story balances moments of excitement with convincing descriptions of what it might be like to serve in a space-based military organization. Baker’s attention to detail adds credibility to the story, while his focus on the impact of war on his characters adds an important dimension that most military action novels address only in generic terms. RECOMMENDED.

Baker began his career as a game designer at TSR, where he co-designed the highly-regarded Birthright campaign setting. He wrote nine Forgotten Realms novels for TSR over the next decade, but Breaker of Empires is his first non-licensed project. We covered Valiant Dust here, and Restless Lightning here.

Scornful Stars was published by Tor Books on December 3, 2019. It is 462 pages, priced at $23.99 in trade paperback, $8.99 in mass market, and $9.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Larry Rostant. See all our recent coverage of the best in SF and Fantasy series here.

The Importance of Good Fantasy Art

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020 | Posted by Robert Zoltan

FrankFrazettaConan-small MichaelWhelanStormbringer-small JeffreyCatherineJonesSwordsAndDeviltry-small

Art by Frank Frazetta, Michael Whelan, and Jeffrey Catherine Jones

An adventure tale isn’t good just because it features a bare-chested hero and a sword, and neither is a painting. Stories and art are successful because they are created by talented people who have devoted long hours (usually 10,000 or more) to educate themselves about their field and develop the proper skills and style to express that talent. And the presentation of that talent is absolutely vital to the success of the fantasy genre — creatively, culturally, and commercially.

In Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery, Brian Murphy discusses the root causes of the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s:

…published in paperback with arresting covers by the most talented artist ever to work in the subgenre, the convergence of authorial and visual artistry, marketing, and business acumen led to the re-emergence and conscious reawakening of sword-and-sorcery in the subgenre’s “silver age,” or renaissance.

No doubt all those elements were important, but I can guarantee you that those books never would have sold in those numbers without that great cover art by Frank Frazetta.

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Vintage Treasures: Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman. Berkley Books, June 1979. Cover by Wayne Barlowe

Robert Aickman was not part of my early genre education, and even today I’ve read only a handful of his stories. But he had a fine reputation; one that hasn’t faded at all since he died in 1981. Today he’s highly collectible, and his collections are tough to find, especially in the original paperback editions. I recently came across a copy of the 1979 Berkley edition of Cold Hand in Mine on eBay — tucked away in a lot of 11 SF paperbacks offered for $8 — and snapped it immediately.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a copy before.

Aickman has plenty of fans even today, and it’s not hard to find modern commentary on his 40-year old paperbacks. That’s fairly unusual (trust me on that). Will Errickson at Too Much Horror Fiction has one of my favorite recent reviews; here’s an excerpt.

Another word I’d use to describe his stories is “uncanny,” since they rarely adhere to generic conventions but instead move subtly around them, hinting at unconscious drives, highlighting how the real world and the real people in it may be illusions obscuring darker forces at work. Odd occurrences do not add up; the killer does not remove a mask and identify himself, because we aren’t sure there’s a killer at all, but only time and chance and that what might be called fate. You might not be surprised when I suggest Aickman is a bit of an acquired taste.

Aickman has long been a favorite of adventurous readers who search high and low for the forgotten or the overlooked, the challenging and the obscure; in recent years his reputation has grown and grown, and his books have been brought back into print by several publishers. After years of fruitless search myself, I recently bought, for a few dollars more than I generally like to pay for old paperbacks, a copy of Cold Hand in Mine (Berkley Books reprint 1979…) these are quiet, literate tales of creepiness; the front and back ad copy oversell it and I wonder of buyers’ remorse back in the day…

These stories generate little heat; no melodrama, no generic twist, no jump scares, no slow dawning of horrible realization. When the “horror” occurs, rarely does it overly alarm or unduly concern anyone. The polite thing seems to be to ignore it… for that whisper of other worlds, or even an intimation that our perception of this world is flawed and incomplete, not up to the task, is simply intolerable. Characters view these things askance, never head-on.

Cold Hand in Mine contains eight long stories, all but one of them novelettes, including the World Fantasy Award-winning “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.” Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

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One Impossible Thing at a Time: Star Trek: Picard

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Picard 1

It’s not the way I would have done it.

But it is pretty close!

Star Trek: Picard (ST:P), now available for free at CBS All Access, is the antidote to Star Trek: Discovery. As opposed to the heedless headlong rush of Discovery, Picard takes its time, building a story slowly and meticulously.

Others have said it before and likely better, but I’m going to say it myself — ST:P is made to appeal to people of, well, a certain age. Maybe age is not the right word, maybe it is made to appeal to people of a certain mileage. A mileage that includes some success, some failure, some pain, some loss, and some punishment for good deeds. ST:P has, as some of the best Star Trek has, a kind of multi-level relevance that is hard to beat.

Speaking of which, some people object to the overt political message of this series. I am not one of those people. If you are one of those people, hey guess what, we’re not gonna agree.

And, of course, it has Patrick Stewart, an iconic actor, reprising his iconic role as Jean Luc Picard.

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New Treasures: Hella by David Gerrold

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Hella by David Gerrold-smallDavid Gerrold is the author of some three dozen novels and collections, including When Harlie Was One (1972), the Star Wolf novels, Jumping Off the Planet (2000), and the as-yet unfinished War Against the Chtorr series. Not to mention his acclaimed non-fiction books on Star Trek, including the classic The World of Star Trek (1973).

I first heard about his new SF novel Hella at Tammy Sparks review blog Books, Bones, & Buffy, where she wrote,

I loved the idea of a group of colonists living on a planet where everything is huge… Gerrold does a great job of setting the stage and presenting a cool idea.

I wasn’t even aware that there was a new book by Gerrold, but I’m excited to see it. And like Tammy, I’m very intrigued by the premise. (Are there alien dinosaurs?? Please let there be alien dinosaurs.) It received a starred review at Publishers Weekly, and you know what that means — it must contain dinosaurs. Here’s a peek at the review.

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Gerrold (The Martian Child) showcases his powerful storytelling skills with this outstanding tale of interstellar intrigue. Hella is a planet of extremes, so named because its oxygen-rich atmosphere causes everything from the trees to the leviathans that inhabit it to grow “hella big.” The barely self-sufficient human colonists who call Hella home flee its blistering summers and harsh arctic winters in a biannual migration. Among these colonists is Kyle, a neuroatypical 13-year-old with a chip implant meant to regulate his emotions…

The worldbuilding is masterful, with hard scientific explanations for Hella’s many abnormalities and rich descriptions sure to keep the attention of even the most casual reader. The effortlessly diverse cast, complex political machinations, and heartfelt coming-of-age themes combine to create a fleshed-out vision of the future that is intense, emotional, and immersive while still maintaining a sense of rollicking fun. Sci-fi readers should snap this up.

Hella was published by DAW on June 16, 2020. It is 448 pages, priced at $26 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. The jacket is designed by Leo Nickolls. Read a lengthy excerpt here.

See all our recent New Treasures here.

Fight the Conspiracy or Join It

Monday, June 22nd, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse



In 1993, I for some reason started watching a new show called The X-Files from the pilot. It was a lark. A few weeks prior, I had started my first job after graduating from university. I did not make much money, and in those days, Friday night television often featured the science fiction shows. Anyway, I started watching The X-Files and was hooked on Chris Carter’s drama. While never a believer in either UFO abductions or deep state conspiracies, I enjoyed watching such fare.

For some reason, the early 1990s spawned conspiracy-based, dark horror games like Dark Conspiracy and Delta Green, a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. Maybe it was the end of the Cold War and the need for something to haunt our thoughts when the fear of global nuclear holocaust dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. All those years of nuclear terror found an alternative outlet for our existential fears.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Cool and Lam Pilot

Monday, June 22nd, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Gardner_Heap_Dell“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

My favorite Erle Stanley Gardner series is the one featuring Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. I’ve written three posts here at Black Gate about the series: they’re linked at the end of this article. Under the name A.A. Fair, Gardner wrote 30 novels about them from 1939 to 1970 (one of them was published long after his death).

In the series, Bertha took over her late husband’s detective business after he died. Donald, an ex-lawyer, is hired in the first book, and soon becomes so good at making money for the business, he pushes his way into a partnership. Bertha hates to spend a dollar. She loves accumulating money. Not so much for spending; just to have. Donald is smart and shifty. He’s also pint-sized and is no threat as a fighter.

Raymond Burr’s successful Perry Mason television series ran from 1957 to 1966, covering 271 episodes. Burr was so popular in the role, he continued appearing as Mason up to the year he died. The books, of course, are among the best-selling in the world, having sold over an estimated 300 million copies.

In 1958, with Perry Mason on the airwaves, Gardner authorized a pilot for a Cool and Lam series. He even taped an introduction, which was filmed on the Mason set. Unfortunately, the pilot didn’t get picked up and Cool and Lam on the screen was abandoned forever more.

The casting choices seemed…curious. Billie Pearson had a total of four screen credits in his career; which equaled the number of his marriages. The same year he filmed this pilot, he appeared in an episode of Perry Mason. Only 5’-2”, he was a jockey (one of his four credits was as a jockey). Having watched the pilot over a half-dozen times now, I can see him as Lam, though a couple more inches wouldn’t have hurt. But he certainly had zero star power.

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Ten WTF Moments from Classic RPGs

Sunday, June 21st, 2020 | Posted by James Davis Nicoll

Basic D&D box TSR-small R. Talsorian Cyberpunk-small White Wolf Wraith the Oblivion-small

By popular demand1, ten WTF were they thinking moments from classic RPGs, which I admit is something of a target-rich environment. I will limit myself to games I’ve actually seen, which means I get to skip past that one.

[1: Well, a couple of people, anyway.]

1) Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (TSR, 1977)

The 1977 edition of D&D added an orthogonal good vs evil to the law vs chaos morality axis. While humans got freedom of choice regarding where on either axis characters fell, this was not true of some non-human races, which in turn means there are whole races good people are morally obligated to kill when possible. This is by no means unique to D&D but it gets special credit for being the one to establish it as a trope in table-top roleplaying games.

2) Cyberpunk 2020

This may be a misnamed series, because in this case the detail I am very sure I know exactly what the company was thinking.

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Future Treasures: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Sunday, June 21st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Mexican Gothic-smallSilvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of Signal to Noise (2015), Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019), Certain Dark Things (2018), and Untamed Shore, just released in February. Her second novel for 2020 is Mexican Gothic, which Booklist calls “A shiver-inducing tale,” and which Kirkus raves over, calling it,

A terrifying twist on classic gothic horror . . . Moreno-Garcia weaves elements of Mexican folklore with themes of decay, sacrifice, and rebirth, casting a dark spell all the way to the visceral and heart-pounding finale. Fans of gothic classics like Rebecca will be enthralled as long as they don’t mind a heaping dose of all-out horror.

Mexican Gothic is set in glamorous 1950s Mexico, and has all the ingredients for a good beach read (providing you can find an open beach) — an isolated mansion, a suavely charismatic aristocrat, and a spunky young socialite to expose their mysterious secrets. Here’s the publisher’s description.

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find — her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

Mexican Gothic will be published by Del Rey on June 30, 2020. It is 320 pages, priced at $27 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. Read the first chapter at Entertainment Weekly.

See all our coverage of the best upcoming SF and fantasy here.

Back to the Bookstore

Saturday, June 20th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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At least the magazine section still isn’t crowded

I took a trip to the Barnes & Noble in Geneva, Illinois today, for the first time since mid-March.

I wasn’t even sure it was open. I just took a chance after my Saturday trip to the post office — to put a dozen Black Gate back issues in the mail for a curious buyer — and swung by. There was a big paper sign proclaiming WE ARE OPEN in the window. The guy wearing a mask behind the counter told me they’d been open for two weeks. Who knew?

There were signs advising that entry was not permitted without a face mask, and lots of reminders to maintain social distancing. But still. It feels really good — if a little weird — to be back in a bookstore again, browsing the latest releases, as if there weren’t a pandemic going on.

OK, there weren’t a lot of new releases. To be truthful, most of the stock looked pretty similar to the last time I was there three months ago. Even the magazines were the same; every one I picked up was cover-dated March or April. It’s almost like the store was shuttered overnight, like in I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, and the staff just cautiously dusted stuff stuff off and opened up again.

But it doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure just to wander the aisles, pick up books, and do a little impulse buying.

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