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Fiction Saves Lives, by Daniel E. Blackston and L

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Topic: Fiction Saves Lives, by Daniel E. Blackston and L
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Subject: Fiction Saves Lives, by Daniel E. Blackston and L
Date Posted: Mar-04-2015 at 12:02pm

Fiction Saves Lives, by Daniel E. Blackston and Lady E.

Originally posted on 4/9/2002
Review of Black Gate #3
Loneliness is a cherished theme in Fantasy fiction. From the dark spire of a lonely mountain peak, to the solitary swords-woman who traces a moonlit path through the gloomiest wood, an underlying texture of solitude and exile permeates the works of Fantasy writers. Too often, In our Modern Age, solitude is seen only in its negative connotation, and even those of us who love books, stories, all things romantic and poetic, may forget the honor of individuality. At one time, separation from society was understood as a path to self-discovery, often the path of the Hero.

Black Gate -- a bejeweled and bewildering new print pub -- offers an eclectic tapestry of fantasy fiction, woven on Exile's thematic loom. Given its stated mission: to publish pro-level Heroic Fantasy in lavishly illustrated print, the exile theme of issue #3 is no surprise. O.R.s have been more than kind. The pub launched under a confetti-storm of amorous praises, and these praises have continued.

No doubt, Black Gate is the handsomest of print pubs. The magazine is a joy to hold and behold (though our review copy arrived a bit battered and second-handed looking). Even with wrinkles, issue #3 is an outstanding visual triumph and won't bore your eyes. Rumors and editorial pronouncements regarding the conceptual backbone of Black Gate are ubiquitous and, it seems, ongoing. We can't help but conclude that the confusion over the pub's fictional content is in some way connected to its good looks. As for content, no O.R. seems to have strenuously exerted themselves and the magazine has been peremptorily stamped as a source for sword-and-spell slinging fiction. We disagree. Black Gate is subtitled: Adventures in Fantasy Literature. If you cut the "Adventures in" part, you'd have a clearer picture of what's happening with John O' Neill's ambitious pub.

The lead-off story, "Iron Joan", by ElizaBeth Gilligan, typifies two prominent features of the fiction in issue #3: a theme of loneliness and 'migr', and consummate prose. In graceful, fluid style, "Iron Joan" weaves a tale of an exiled noblewoman who incomprehensively forfeits life on her father's lands amid his plundered riches to scrape out an existence in a scrubby medieval village. After marrying one Thomas Murfie, a hard-drinking lout who has, "never more than a copper to his name," Joan begets much hubbub throughout the village due to her refusal to mingle or accept help from others. Over time, the villagers (including the narrator of the story, a blacksmith named Kerwin) become both fascinated and frightened of this stoic woman who plows her fields alone, building a house with her own hands from the up-turned stones. Most are convinced she is a witch; nevertheless, the village becomes dependent on Joan as a midwife and as an example of fortitude. Also, they begin to realize her that her inner-grit translates to an outer, magical power to heal all manner of blighted and broken things, including livestock.

After many years, Joan and her brood of children (the eldest of which she carried prior to her exile) are regarded warmly by most of the villagers. Their loyalty is soon put to the test. Iron Joan's father, The High Chieftain of Glen Cluain, arrives with an armed host to reclaim his daughter and her first-born son, John. At first, the villagers try to protect their "witch", but in the end the showdown between father and daughter must be held one on one. During the confrontation, we learn the full extent of the Chieftain's crimes and rapacious proclivities.

We've read elsewhere that the High Chieftain failed to provide an adequate adversary to Iron Joan's almost supernatural resilience. We disagree with this assessment, as the High Chieftain represents the most vile and fearsome of enemies that any woman, even a brave and determined woman like Joan must face. Gilligan's protagonist is expertly conceived and described. The telling of the story from second person POV -- and from a male perspective -- charges "Iron Joan" with thematic intensity. Look closely at this story of woman's courage and you will find a perspective of heroism that transcends a simple sword thrust as the answer to every conflict. A deep, well-written tale. Highly recommended.

The following story, "The Knight of the Lake", by Elaine Cunningham, is a piece straight out of the old Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, except that MZB might have been reluctant to include a story that resolves without much friction. The setting, far from colorful and unique, is a rather ordinary rendition of Celtic/Arthurian pastiche. Cunningham, like Gilligan, writes with an exceptionally strong narrative voice, but lacks fire and resonance. The theme of exile is again threaded out, this time in a tale of Lancelot as a ten year old boy leaving the realm of Albion for the realm of Faerie. Brought to King Oberon by his mother, The Lady of the Lake, to further his apprenticeship as her Champion, Lancelot and his Instructor embark on a wispily described afternoon lesson. Young Lance is taught that music is more powerful than steel and that magic triumphs over brute strength. Though Lance protests that his father, Ban of Benoic was the strongest and tallest warrior in "Les Britain", King Oberon tells him, "There are other lands, other warriors."

This becomes the focal statement of the plot, as Lance and the Faerie King cross a bridge to Avalon and encounter a pair of bloodthirsty Saxons. We understand that the Saxons represent non-magical humanity and as such are symbolic of all earth-bound consciousness, but we felt much contrivance working them into the tale. The ensuing 'combat' was laboriously described and seemed in direct contradiction to the story's opening segment. We're very pleased with the descriptive writing in "The Knight of the Lake", but disappointed with its plot and resolution.

"Another Man's Burden", by Harry James Connolly, comes closest to being a genuine Sword and Sorcery tale. We have the feeling it was included as a "token" in that direction. This story concerns a loose cabal of down-and-outers, cart-pullers and rat-killers from the filthy city of Pald who concoct an ill-schemed strategy to murder a villainous City Guard and steal a sword that bestows amazing martial skills to even a weak swordsman. In the city of Pald, duels are commonplace, and the winner of any duel keeps his opponent's purse as a "dueling fee". We found this a rather weak premise, but suspended our disbelief. After much conspiracy and hesitation, the band of hard-luck cases contrives to ambush the Captain and steal the enchanted sword, with predictably grim consequences.

Connolly's story seemed to be included in direct defiance to the notion the Black Gate is more a literary pub than a place for Sword and Sorcery. As such, it's a lot to ask of a writer to carry that much weight with his second published story, and sadly, "Another Man's Burden" falls short. Ironically, Connolly's conceit of a sword that bestows great skill even to a novice mocks the author's grim obligation to perform a miracle for Black Gate -- fulfill its S&S Adventure promise almost single-handedly.

"Three Nights In Big Rock City", by Jon Hansen, is a dwarven female P.I. story, slim on novelty, but entertaining with its mostly-dialogue style. Readers looking for a quick, humorous flight will love this one, though we found its cartoon-ish flow a bit smug. The protagonist, "Joe", a bearded dwarf-lady is an interesting variation as are the characters she encounters during her investigation: "Bridget", her seductive Elven client, "Ox" a troll who works as a "hotel cop", "Deloris", her human secretary, and "Tamalar", a powerful wizard-Mafioso, who likes to gamble. Hansen's style is breezy and friendly, and we recommend this one for readers who are looking for a reason to smile.

Issue #3's classic reprint is "Ringard and Dendra". We loved this story and its smooth prose style, almost a ghostly reminiscence of the "Golden Age" of fantasy. Told in first person, Brian McNaughton's contribution to Black Gate definitely measures up to its tag of "classic"; indeed, it ranks as one of the more compelling fantasy pieces in the issue. This story alone makes issue #3 worthy of its cover price.

The rest of Black Gate's stories stray far from the realm of Sword and Sorcery, and one or two even beyond what we would call Fantasy fiction entirely.

Best of these is, "A Dark Miracle" by Darrell Schweitzer We promise you -- you will be chilled after you read this tale. This Gothic jewel is simply spellbinding and forges Cotton Mather, H.P. Lovecraft, and Nathaniel Hawthorne into a truly Black Gate.

Goodman Hawkins' lust and loneliness in eighteenth century New England fires desire and betrayal -- murder leads to madness and the blood of the dammed spills into the Historic flow of Recurring Time. Wakened in the dead of night by his witch-mistress's familiar (in semblance of a rat with an old man's face), Goodman Hawkins leaves his sleeping wife and journeys out into the snowy night to answer the summons of his illicit ladylove.

Especially chilling is Schweitzer's use of Christian dogma in the tale's sparse dialogue, and his ironic use of the terms "Goodman" and "Goodwife". A modern sense of corruption and sexual gluttony (not to mention moral inertia) are woven into this Historical tale with the finesse of a literary master like Hawthorne or Poe from whom this piece obviously takes its cue. Also commendable is Schweitzer's use of ice and fire in his descriptive prose. When Goodman Hawkins arrives at his mistress's cabin to find her murdered, with her pale, white throat slit, her corpse still radiates a feeling of warmth, of sexual fire. Contrasted with the dark night of whipping snow, a Saturnine setting, the Deacon's lantern and the warm-in-death corpse of mysterious and lovely Caroline anneal as symbols of equal sins: one lust, the other hypocrisy, and neither fire is Holy. Readers familiar with George MacDonald's "Lilith" may sense a similar melding of mortal desire and Immortal or Archetypical truth in Schweitzer's dark romance, which sings lyrically -- almost innocently -- through it's sinister account of adultery, murder, and necrophilia. 

Schweitzer is poetic to brilliance in this Gothic tale. His ambiguous description of Caroline's familiar, "the black thing", that both begins and finishes the story is an authentically terrifying device. After reading "A Dark Miracle", yours truly felt he had glimpsed something truly Awful. I can't quite describe it... yet it goes on speaking in a very familiar voice. As such, Schweitzer's tale itself becomes the rat faced avatar, luring the reader into a dark night from which he or she will never wholly emerge. This mini-masterpiece is a must-have for Schweitzer's loyal followers and a good intro for those unhappy people who've yet to encounter him. 

As for other non-fantasy stories.

A speculative detective story, "The Chinese Sandman", blends humor and tough-guy noir one-liners in a bumpy tale that has only the dimmest connection to fantasy fiction. We found this tale rather perfunctory, and guess that its inclusion was due mostly to the heavy-hitter status of its author, Mike Resnick, who reportedly has been summoned out of retirement at the request of hungry editors. 

Ellen Klages', "A Taste of Summer" is a fine story-fable in Bradburyian tradition, that recounts an adventurous afternoon of almost-nine-year-old, Mattie Rodgers. This story is subtle and inventive and the prose style reveals its author's tender heart. We were much pleased with this contemporary fable that reminds us how good "magical realism" can be when handled by a gifted writer. A charming, sweet interlude, highly recommended, especially by Lady E.

"The Haunting of Cold Harbor", by Todd McAulty is a science fiction piece built around the familiar conceit of virtual-reality gaming. This tale is a labyrinth of intrigues, betrayals, murders and gaming bravado. We had difficulties finding anything exactly novel or colorful in this story, though it might be of interest to virtual-gaming fans who are looking for a glimpse into their hopeful future.

The theme of outsider and exile is brought to a truly emotional climax by Michael R. Gist's, "Tav Ru's Troth", a moving, from-the-beast's POV story of compassion and heroic selflessness. We can't remember ever reading a story this short that evoked such a powerful theme of Otherness. Gist writes tenderly and convincingly of his monster and avoids the common pitfalls of this perennial conceit -- maudlin or sickly sentimental emotion. This story will move readers deeply and send them looking for more of Grist's work. We tip our starry wizard caps to Mr. Gist for this one and recommend all readers to peruse accordingly.

Another science fiction piece with tenuous connections to fantasy is, "For the Love of Katie", about the little dragon who could. We thought "Braveheart" was a too-obvious name for the dragon in question and most of the tale follows this cue and relates the story of pet-loyalty through a predictable progression of events. The conceit of the story seemed rather plebian, though there are good moments here. A simple, feel-good tale, through which author Gail Sproule carries the theme of exile into the realm of genetically created species, and ends with an ascension, punctuating Black Gate's third issue with a victorious smile.

Our conclusion about Black Gate is that John O' Neill has scattered his interests and energy a bit recklessly. However, you won't find a better looking or more professionally written pub. In addition to fiction, Black Gate offers reviews of short fiction publications (though these are slight in content) and a look at comics and role-playing games.

We have heard from comic book dealers and book shops who carried Black Gate upon customer requests for a short time, but failed to retain these customers after the initial two issues. We conclude that these readers, like ourselves, came searching for fantasy fiction and came away feeling a bit disappointed by the preponderance of other genres.

There can be no other explanation, as the literary standards, production value, and generously-heaped content of Black Gate are unparalleled in the SF field. 

Despite our caveats to fantasy purists, we highly recommend Black Gate and urge all readers to subscribe. 

By the way, we still have a prize to give away! Issue #3 of Black Gate, which will go (raffle style) to one lucky reader out of those who post a message of any kind between now and April 15th in the FIREBRAND FICTION Discussion Forum. We will 'draw" the winner out of a hat just before the April 15th FIREBRAND column posts.

Until then -- you'd better go shopping for Black Gate #3 or better yet subscribe so you won't miss out on future gems. We think Black Gate a pub full of great possibility and eagerly await the next issue.

Until next time,

Daniel E. Blackston

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