|Art by Jereme Peabody|
Feburary brings the first Heroic Fantasy Quarterly of 2019 and the publication is definitely sticking to its mandate to publish action-forward fantasy that’s very much concerned with what it means to be heroic. There are two novelettes, two short stories, and two poems to enjoy, and the fiction at least is largely about men dealing with honor and justice, trying to figure out what the limits are to trying to do the right thing, and what happens when you step too far outside what is right. It’s an issue full of gritty fights, eldritch horrors, and perhaps a little simmering desire as well. And before I give too much away, let’s get to the reviews!
“Servant of the Black Wind” by Gregory Mele (8480 words)
No Spoilers: Split between two perspectives, this story tips heavily toward horror/dark fantasy as it builds up around a temple to a god of death, and the unique defenses such a place contains. Where, even when completely surprised by the audacity of a direct assault, something wakes that might best have been left to slumber. It’s a piece that doesn’t shy away from gore or violence, using language that runs from flowery to brutal to describe not only what happens inside the temple, but reveals the treasures of such a place. Which makes it something of a difficult read, because it’s not very pleasant, and there’s a lot of pain and death to wade through only to find new depths of violation and gruesome fate to explore.
Keywords: Gods, Rituals, Undead, Desecration, Death, CW- Assault/Slavery
Review: This piece definitely reaches back to an older style of fantasy, one a bit more steeped in ideas of dark gods and rituals that for me holds something of an Egyptian feel to it. There’s a bit of that pulpy “exotic” feel to the setting, which makes it somewhat conflicting for me. Because while I certainly appreciate the way that the story explores and builds the world, it’s one that uses language culled from an age of fantasy that...wasn’t exactly great when it came to depicting people of different races, religions, or stations. There’s the layer of the characters’ racism and superiority, but there’s also the layer that is woven into the setting itself, with “dusky, near-naked savages” and “almond-shaped eyes” and, well, it’s entirely possible that the story is playing with these elements in an effort of make a subtle point about the problems of reaching back to more “classic” fantasy, but it’s presented in a way that really doesn’t support that reading, as merely a earnest storytelling choice, and for that, and especially with the dark elements of the story, it really wasn’t one that I personally enjoyed. It’s possible, though, given that most of the characters in the story meet bad ends, though, that we’re supposed to think they...earned...their punishment because of their intolerance and bigotry? Again, I’m not sure how much traction that reading has for me, and so I’m going to have to recommend people make up their own minds on this one, and to proceed with definite caution.
“Tymass by Ring-Light” by Mike Adamson (12883 words)
No Spoilers: Derros has returned to the city that was his home before his dishonorable discharge led him out into the wastes and, as fate would have it, into the company of a princess who was in something of a bad situation. Having helped her out, Derros finds himself able to revisit the source of his exile, a festering wound on his honor that won’t allow him to stay silent, even when he knows it will end in blood...maybe even his own. This piece is a mix of action and more ponderous thought, building up in the character of Derros a man who has flourished in exile and yet still resents what happened to him. Not because of the specifics of the situation, not because of what he did, but because he was coerced into doing it, cheated in a way that offends him deeply, and makes mockery of his sacrifice.
Keywords: Duels, Trials, Cheating, Justice, Gods
Review: I kind of love the way this story plays with the idea of honor. Where Derros is committed to seeing justice done, even as he concedes that had the exact thing happened “honestly” he would have no problem with it. And in that way it’s a story for me about chance and about faith and about gods. Because part of what really offends Derros seems to be that the gods didn’t have their say in the outcome of the roll of the dice. Derros was cheated, and acted honorably for all that because he didn’t know that he had been cheated. But once he knew, once he figured it out, it ate at him. Because it’s something that twisted his actions from being pious and honorable to being foolish and naive. He was acting in good faith, rather literally, but because of the actions of another, he was made part of this act of bad faith. And even though he was the victim, he bears the burden of that. At the same time, I like that the princess has absolutely no patience for it. Not just because she likes the man who cheated Derros, but because she sees the waste here, the pointlessness of the bloodshed. And she doesn’t quite let Derros all the way off the hook, either, despite that he is still the victim, is still acting honorably and faithfully and as he feels he must. But the fact remains that a man dies because of it. Now, the story sets that up as more the dead man’s fault than anyone else’s, because he might have found a different way as well, but it shows the narrow roads that honor makes, and the tragedy that even a “good” outcome can carry. It’s a fun story, nicely balanced and solidly built, with a great core relationship between Derros and the princess. It’s a wonderful read!
“The Merit of One Gold Piece” by Dave D’Alessio (5849 words)
No Spoilers: John Lack-Linen is a sell-sword, which might make him an unlikely choice for private investigator, but when an old man’s daughter is found guilty of witchcraft (she floated, you see), he’s the only one available to look into the truth of the matter. But the truth can be difficult indeed to find out, especially for a man who is doesn’t exactly have a deft hand at asking questions. What he does have, though, is the determination to get to the bottom of things. Whether that’s because of the gold coin on offer, though, or something different and deeper than that, is another matter entirely.
Keywords: Bargains, Gold, Elves, Demons, Witches, Justice
Review: I do very much appreciate how the story approaches bargains and truths. John is someone who’s not exactly likable, but imagine a noir detective lost in a different genre and you’ll have perhaps a good idea of what makes John an interesting character. He’s not someone who prospers. Given how hardy he is, how good he is in a scrap, that might seem strange. He should be a good and successful sell-sword. But he’s not, in part because what motivates him isn’t money. If it did, he’d probably have no problem making it. Or taking it. Whichever. As it stands, he’s motivated in part by a sense of justice, and a knowledge that the system often reaches the wrong conclusion. He’s a man of honor in some ways, for all that he’s also a complete asshole in other ways. That balance is part of what makes the story interesting, because he’ll walk right in someplace meaning to cause trouble but end up helping them. It’s like he’s accidentally an honest man, or maybe he’s too stubborn and stupid to be dishonest. He’s not one for subtle, not one for guile. He’s like his sword, blunt and handy in a life-or-death struggle, but certainly not pretty and not really something you’d want to rely on, given another option. Still, it’s rather fun to see the shit kicked out of him as he goes about trying to do the right thing in the worst ways possible. It’s a neat and rather gritty read that manages a clever melding of styles, and it’s definitely a story to check out!
“The Gatekeeper” by Marlane Quade Cook (1880 words)
No Spoilers: An adventurer comes to a set of ruins with a gate he needs to pass through. Only it’s guarded by a mysterious gatekeeper, a woman who might also be part lion, part dragon, and who might also be a little tired of her vigil, of watching everyone who comes pass through the gate into what is probably ruin. It’s a piece that keeps things rather mysterious, keeping the dialogue and the actions of the adventurer and gatekeeper very staged, very precise, as if they are engaged in a kind of dance and find in the other a worthy dance partner. And while I’m not sure exactly what the gate might be to (though I’m guess it’s a gate into some sort of death or afterlife), it’s a piece that conveys a feeling of time and distance and movement and something tragic and wonderful at the same time.
Keywords: Gates, Missions, Mists, Time, Transformations
Review: This is a strange piece, one that brings to mind for me the sphinx and the idea of time. Of aging. Of life and death. I’m guessing that it’s meant to, as the form of the woman in the story seems to be a sphinx, though I don’t think it’s ever expressly stated. That’s how she looks, though she can transform into an almost entirely humanoid figure as well. The story focuses on this meeting between adventurer and sphinx, and it’s such a loaded meeting. One that could be about more than meeting one more adventure. Or, I mean, for me maybe that’s not quite true. Because for me the story seems to be about meeting death, and pressing beyond, and how people do that. How they meet their end, and how they might see death as just another part of their journey. For this man, at least, it seems to be, this mysterious and dark place beyond the gate another place to stride into full of energy and hope and vigor. And yet there’s something else to the piece, as well, that sad smile that the woman has when he goes. Her saying that she’s seen what’s on the other side. And I wonder if it implies that there’s nothing past the gate. For me, at least, it opens that possibility, that she has seen beyond and the nothing that is waiting there and knows where these people are going, and yet she is still moved by the way this man faces it, so certain that he is headed somewhere new, somewhere different. A place, though, where he still has a future, and not one where his journey and adventures are done. So yeah, it’s a piece that I feel benefits from spending some time with. I might be entirely off base with my reading, but whatever the case I think it’s one to spend some time with and it’s a fine read!
“Bardic Dreams” by Deborah Guzzi
This poem speaks to me of relief, and the time after battles when warriors need a release from the strain of battle, from the memory of the death they witnessed and authored. For me the poem does a few things, first and foremost showing this needed exhalation after battle, where the survivors push themselves into a bit of life that is about joy and expression and physical connection. There is a bit of a cyclic feel to the piece for me because of the way it echoes lines throughout, which for me also gives the poem an almost fractured reading. That here it’s not just this peaceful scene, but there’s something broken about it, about the people and the very idea that this music and romance can wash away the battle. The other part of the poem that I really like, though, is that it shows the people listening not just to stories or songs, but those that are in some ways about battle, about what they’ve just known the reality of. And for me it’s then a way of putting that gruesome reality back into this fantasy context, where it can be a story again and in that way can be made safe and logical. It can be given a structure that the real thing lacks, and in that structure it can be predicted. It can be something that makes sense and not the chaos of death and blood that these people know it to be. Because they know that they’ll have to go back to it, will need to enter battle again, and to do that they need to first convince themselves that there is something to fight for, and that fighting is romantic and good, when really it’s the parts after the battles that give them more joy and happiness. And it’s a nicely lyrical and moving piece, and definitely worth checking out!
“A Sea-Monstrous Hǎi Guài Attacks Ching Shih’s Pirate Ship” by Kendall Evans
I love the framing of this poem, where it’s wrapped in a series of footnotes that act like they’re coming from a translator. This gives the piece something of a “found text” feel to it, but also pulls the action of the piece out of the purely fantastical and makes it something of an act of scholarship as well, with the notes providing context and further fleshing out the story and the situation of Ching Shih and her pirate fleet. It blends history and fantasy, magic and a more contemporary eye as the translator provides a gateway into a different world right here on planet Earth. And the poem itself is full of action and drama, with Ching Shih’s ship attacked by a great beast of the sea drawn for some unknown reason into choosing Ching Shih to battle against. The piece is populated by a great many characters and the notes help to make sense of them, cluing in the reader with a much larger and more in depth implied backstory without actually having to go into it. Not that the piece is purely fantasy, as there was a historical Ching Shih, and the realities of her life are indeed the stuff of fantasy, full of action and adventure at a time when most would think her exploits impossible. So the poem also challenges the idea that this is all hearsay and conjecture, because the history of Ching Shih is itself amazing and incredible, so is it really that much harder to believe that something like this might have happened? Full of magic and gripping battles? I think at least that the piece does a wonderful job in blurring the lines of reality and fiction in a nice way, wrapping it in layers of “research” that gives it an air of authenticity on top of being incredibly fun to read. A fantastic poem!