The latest issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is out and represents the first full issue I'm reviewing of the publication. There's certainly a nice mix of prose and poetry, with almost more poetry words than fiction ones thanks to an epic poem that's at least novelette-length (though only the first part is available this issue). The poetry examines classics in fantasy, from knights to death to barmaids. And the fiction…well, the fiction is certainly an interesting collection of elements that twist expectations. Shadows and swords, ships and subterfuge, and…shit balance out the short stories and make for a memorable experience. So let's get to the reviews!
|Art by Vuk Kostic|
"Shadows in Sakamura" by Matthew Wuertz (3905 words)
This is an interesting story about shadows. The shadows that can fall over those experiencing loss and the shadows that the main characters, Tsukiko and Katsu sort of share. The setting is quasi-Japanese and perhaps a historical fantasy based in Japan, though I am certainly no scholar and it's possible that it's a second world with heavy Japanese influences. The main characters are in some ways the same person and in some ways separate, where one is the other's shadow and they switch day and night. It's a nice magical premise and allows for some nice action and suspense. The two come across a village experiencing some strange phenomenon following a sickness that killed a number of children and become embroiled in a minor mystery that moves quickly and keeps the pacing of the story rather fast. There seems to be a nice depth to the relationship between Tsukiko and Katsu, and enough is left unexplained that the mystery of how they came to be in their situation is compelling and remains a lingering question. The mystery itself is straightforward and mostly satisfying, the guilty party being exposed and motivations found and resolutions resolved. It certainly lives up to the billing of adventure fantasy and I thought the character work was decent though it relies perhaps a bit heavily on traditional gender roles for my tastes. Still, I'm sure that there are many people who will find this a fun fantasy story with an engaging setting and interesting magic system. Indeed!
"Racing the Headsman" by Andrew Knighton (5946 words)
This is another fast and fun story with a historical flare, mixing Commonwealth era England with high seas battles and a roguish ship's Captain with just enough luck, sleaze, and ambition to keep him one step ahead of the headsman's axe. Or, as the case may be, the Headsman's cannons. This story also has a much more concrete historical link, building this fictional attempt to rescue Charles II and stage a return to monarchy for England. Sir Henry, the main character, brings a brash and rather devil-may-care attitude to the story and provides most of the humor, both from his exuberance and his arrogance. The story does a nice job of balancing him as a rather morally bankrupt and conceited person with the fact that he believes in what he's doing and (mostly) cares about the lives of his crew. That he's more sentimental about his ship itself rather than the people working it speaks to the situation and his position as a proponent of the Crown. As a noble himself it makes sense and it's fun to watch him try to slither his way out of each new dire situation. And, of course, he's played against a nicely clueless Charles II (everyone's least favorite British Charles) and his serious and competent first mate, Israel Pound. Like I said, it's fast and fun and a bit loose when it comes to some of the things that happen, though the story does at least nod to the fact that unless divine providence is indeed on Sir Henry's side then he's the luckiest man alive. But I think the story does a solid job selling it and makes for a very entertaining read!
"Spartha Stercae" by James Frederick William Rowe (3157 words)
Umm…okay then. This…is the story of a giant terrorizing and oppressing a particular region, eating them and then pooping their remains into a great tower of shit. Which…let's talk about grit for a moment, because I think perhaps this story can be an example of grit being taken to its logical extreme. It is a story that is literally about shit and a cannibal giant. Or human-eating giant if cannibal is inappropriate because the giant is never shown as eating other giants. It follows the fantasy formula, offering up this incredibly bad guy who tortures, consumes, and then expels his victims, and then focuses on a hero come to sort of save the day. I will admit that this isn't exactly the kind of thing I find funny, but I can read into a bit when it comes to grit in fantasy. Because, again, the story seems to me to be very aware of what it's doing, scatologically speaking. It's played in part for laughs, for the visuals and the simple haha of poo and grossness. But I think that there could be another layer to it, another reading that, even if not intentional, does a nice job of showing how grit infiltrates fantasy. On top of the poop there is also a joyful violence to the piece, a sadism in how the giant kills but also how the giant is [SPOILERS] defeated. There is violence and there is filth and there is the sense that the hero gets to wash it all clean in some ways, and further that once it is clean what sticks to him is the honor of it. Of the violence. Of the pain of others. That it becomes an honorific only deepens this idea that all honorifics that derive from violence are tainted by a filth that is normally hidden by the title. The brave or the mighty. Here the title of the shit, essentially, ties the hero to this idea that is ugly and distasteful and yet everyone treats it like it's a mark of honor. So yeah, I'm not sure how much a fan I am personally of the story, but there is a bit to read into it for those willing to spend some time with the work. An…interesting read, for sure.
"Lethe's Cup and the White Sword" (part 1 of 2) by Cullen Groves
So I might not have as much to say about this at this point because the poem is only through the first part of two but wow this is a long rhyming poem showing an epic struggle between Christian knights and pagan (kind of…Norse?) forces. It has a definite saga feel to it, full of names and deeds and death. The main character is Freydegar, who during battle with a vast horde of elves and pagans falls in love with the elf-kings daughter. There's darughts of forgetfulness and magic swords and faithful pages and it all flows quite nicely with a mix of action and moments where the verse has more a chance to shine. The rhyme scheme fits with the aesthetic and is well maintained, though as this is really long there's a few places where the rhyme scheme felt a bit forced. But story, though, is clear and the characters have definite voices. There's tons of violence to enjoy and twists and knights and some older stylings. But as I'm quite fond of older narratives like this poem echoes I find it rather charming so far. Things end on a rather impressive cliffhanger, too, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the poem resolves next quarter. So far, though, definitely worth checking out for fans of the form.
"The Persuaders" by Colleen Anderson
This is a poem that evokes Greek myth and the afterlife and the near-afterlife. Ritual and darkness and reward. I love the way the poem flows, the sort of descent and ascent, the sink and rise. The idea of persuasion here is also compelling to me, that it's not so much that they convince so much as they don't forbid. That their power comes not from the sort of sneaking, lying used-salesman brand of persuasion but from relying on human curiosity and drive. And I like that touch, that here they are leading people down into death, into not just the horror of it but the beauty as well, the power and the grace and the everything. There is a cyclic feel to the piece, to the ritual, to all of it. That these people are a part of something large and dark and…well, not evil exactly. Or at least it doesn't seem so to me. More like they're a force out there, and I'll not lie I read the story as one that deals with suicide, with what are essentially spirits roving the land, not seeking victims so much as making themselves available to those who want to leave, who want to forego Elysium for something darker and colder if it means being released from the torments they face. And it's a deep piece, unsettling and beautiful and quiet. Definitely check this one out!
"Wench" by Scott Hutchinson
This is an interesting poem about adventure and about the life of a woman working at an inn, serving food and looking among the men who enter for something, for some spark, to catch her interest. It's a story that evokes a very classic scene, a very familiar scene but one from the perspective often ignored and objectified. Which I think the poem does a good job of, flipping the script and getting into the character of the woman who is so often seen as solely a servant, as there to please the men. Whereas here she is the one seeking pleasure, the one who has the agency of who to choose. Who doesn't exactly want to go out and kill but is looking for these moment. Not a forever-lover but the fleeting sunrises, the newness, the pleasure and the beauty of it. It's an interesting take on the idea and a neat way to give voice to a character who is often just a role, just a bit of fantasy flare to a story or to a show or to a movie. Showing the inner life of the character, the motivations and the dreams which are no less rich than those of the men she serves food to. That she is no less competent, no less wise. It's a fine moment that allows her to have sexual agency and a mind and a life and control over the narrative the poem creates, which is understated and beautiful and that last line is just great. Another great poem and a nice way to close out the issue!