|Art by Jereme Peabody|
May brings a new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, which this go-round has three short stories, one novelette, and one poem. Which is a little light on poetry, but things seem rather busy with the editorial staff as they have launched a kickstarter to fund their third Best of anthology. And the stories themselves very much celebrate what many would consider “classic” fantasy, with its heroes, dark wizards, vividly rendered worlds, and epic action. These are stories of adventures, of hope and confidence and fear and family. They show the strengths of the genre—the wonder and the horror only possible with a little magic. So let’s get right to the reviews!
“A Stone’s Throw” by Howard Andrew Jones (2218 words)
No Spoilers: Hanuvar is used to people trying to kill him—the large price on his head makes assassination attempts fairly familiar territory—but normally people have to know who he is (former general, weapon master, and necromancer) first. So when there’s an attempt on his life for no discernible reason, he’s more intrigued than angry, and sets out to figure out what’s going on. The piece is heavy on action and rather brief, painting the broad strokes of Hanuvar as a character and offering a short little diversion in what must be his larger story. It’s a fun aside, showing off some classic fantasy flavors and letting the ending land like an impact from two stories up.
Keywords: Fate, Assassins, Bounties, Mages
Review: This is a rather short and sweet story featuring a man who probably won’t feel all that strange for fantasy fans. At least for me, Hanuvar has the feel for a lot of fantasy “heroes,” men who have a long and bloody back story and have since mostly turned their backs on things in search of a place where they can find peace, revenge, or at least a break from people trying to kill them. Of course, things never work out the way they want. This latest assassination attempt, though, seems a bit more confusing to him than anything, coming as it does from a man he’s never met before and who doesn’t seem to know who he is. And in exploring the implications of why someone would want him dead, he stumbles across something of a philosophical question that’s another classic in fantasy, tracing back to at least Greek Myth—does knowing about a prophecy make it impossible to avoid? Is fate something that is immutable, and glances into the possible future tell what Shall Be, regardless of what we do to prevent them? Or is it the case that by working to avoid a fate we don’t want that we somehow bring that very thing to fruition, basically being manipulated to believe that it’s inevitable? It’s a Matrix-Vase situation where there’s really no knowing either way, but it does make for a fun and action-packed story. One that hits its beats and takes its bow without bogging things down too much in worry or doubt. Hanuvar is brought into the situation and brings an end to it as efficiently as he can, leaving in his wake another strange adventure and at least one body to be cleaned up by somebody else. A fun read!
“Demons from the Deep” by Adrian Cole (11088 words)
No Spoilers: Elak is a young king just risen to power on he strength of his friends and the power of his personality. He’s united much of the continent of Atlantis and is hoping to secure the rest of it by attending a summit between a number of kingdoms. He suspects that the kings he’s going to meet might be plotting against him, but he definitely doesn’t suspect that the city to host the summit has been overrun by an army of the ocean under the power of a great sea god and directed by a dark mage bent on installing himself on the throne of the continent. This force that has invaded can turn men into...well, basically into crabmen, and if Elak doesn’t do something about it, they’ll manage to wake the sea god from its slumber and plunge all of Atlantis into darkness. It’s definitely high fantasy with a feeling of following up on an earlier series of adventures where Elak gained power. The cast comes directly out of high fantasy tropes, but work well for the story, which seems part Lovecraftian and very action-oriented. It’s a fun romp of a story, well rendered and heavy with foreshadowing for adventures yet to come.
Keywords: Oceans, Gods, Magic, Transformation, Kings
Review: This is the longest story of the issue and definitely packs in a lot of plot and action in regardless. And I like how it takes a set of characters who do have the feel of people who have already fought with each other and grown over time, and gives them new challenges and new stakes. The threat is very real, at least, and though it’s a little standard as things go (evil wizard, evil Elder God-esque threat, evil crabpeople), it’s rendered well and moves quickly, with plenty of spills and chills. It’s a story that really lives up to the title of the publication, ticking all the boxes of epic heroic fantasy with a young king unwilling not to risk himself on a possible suicide mission and a whole lot of magic, monsters, sword fighting, and close calls. If you’re a fan of this flavor of fantasy, then there’s a lot to recommend it, and even if you aren’t it’s a fun enough ride that it’s worth the price of admission. It mixes its elements well and the setting carries with it a sort of loaded expectation (at least for me, there’s this sense of just waiting for what’s going to send the whole continent plunging into the sea—something that is seeded in this piece). It’s what I like to call popcorn fantasy—light, easy to get into and out of, and a fine read!
“Trail of Ashes” by Caleb Willaims (7421 words)
No Spoilers: Keedran is a conjurer, someone able to act as medium for the dead in order bring peace to those left behind. Only he can bring no peace to himself after losing his son, instead trying something rather blasphemous that has left him with his son’s soul trapped inside him. It’s an act, though, that brings him to the attention of a powerful noble intent on finding the killer of her uncle, who she expects is much closer to home than she’d like. All of this while a plague spreads like fire through the country and intrigues, politics, and prejudices make for a rather deadly setting for Keedran. It’s a piece that grows around grief and corruption, culminating in a great many powerful confrontations...and perhaps a few dead bodies. It’s heavy, tense, and nicely angsty, and for those looking for some court politics it’s sure to satisfy.
Keywords: Death, Souls, Cremains, Treachery, Mediums, CW- Loss of a Child
Review: There’s a lot of moving parts to this story—a complex web of influences and threats. Everyone wants to bribe or bully Keedran into either solving the crime or helping to cover it up, and when those don’t work they’re all willing to kill him, too. Not that he seems that bothered by it. The story finds Keedran in a very dark place, not really caring about his own life but rather desperate for forgiveness from the son whose soul he’s carrying around. It’s a weight on him, and it takes him a long time to realize that it’s not a weight that his son has put on him through blame and hatred, but one that he’s put on himself. The story follows him through this maze of people and plots that he’s just not very interested in. What he cares about is dealing with his own issues, and luckily the job he’s given allows him a bit of freedom to pursue just that. Because really it’s the truth that he’s after, both for his employer and for himself. The truth isn’t always a gentle thing, though. Sometimes it’s a fire that burns through the lies and the comforts and the rationalizations of everyone around. Sometimes it leaves scars. And sometimes it kills. Keedran moves toward it, though, because he finally figures out that in order to honor his son he has to let him go, to try and move on. Not to forget, but to keep living, and that’s sometimes harder than being willing to die. It’s an emotionally resonating and satisfying read, and definitely worth checking out!
“Found of the Water” by Martha Wells (5028 words)
No Spoilers: Jai is the captain of a small sky ship in between jobs when she comes upon a small boat with a passenger she takes for dead. Except that the situation is a bit less straightforward than that, and as she tries to get the measure of what’s really going on, the situation moves from peaceful to...not. The story unfolds in a world of magic and stunning beauty, but also one touched by cruelty and danger. The world building is strong but it’s the character work that wins me over the most, the casual way that the characters interact that reveals this rich relationship, this crew a family that might just be getting ready to welcome in a new member.
Keywords: Seas, Sea Monsters, Swallowed, Ships, Tests
Review: This piece is a fun adventure, one where Jai really isn’t expecting anything to happen on the way to her next job but, well, the best laid plans. And I love how she cares for people, how she’s unwilling to just leave the boy she finds to his fate. She recognizes something bad happening, her first instinct rather spot on when she calls it somebody’s tragedy. It is, just not in the way she imagines, and luckily it’s one that she can do something about. In the mean time it’s also just a bit of a rush, the character work providing the structure around which the plot moves. It’s quick, the escalation rather pronounced and the danger quite real despite how Jai refuses to fully believe in it. Or, to me at least, part of what makes her a fun character to watch is her confidence that she knows what to do next. Being eaten by a sea monster doesn’t phase her, at least at first. Because she’s been Through Some Shit and has a pretty good idea what to do next. She’s not the type to panic, meaning that her position as captain is by no means an accident. She’s unflappable, even when the crew around her might primarily be neurotic messes. Which I love, because it does make this feel more like a family, everyone caring about each other, working together to try and resist the pull of tragedy that seems to lurk all around them. It’s appropriate then that they sail in a sky ship, light and free, able to pass over the dangers that might otherwise sink them, if they were more tied to the earth and it’s darknesses. A great read!
“Children of the Stone” by Ann K. Schwader
This is a rather creepy poem about time and a history that has been all but lost. It speaks of myth but not in the sense of people telling stories to make sense of the world around them. Rather, it speaks to people telling stories in some ways to bury the truth that they feel in a deep and profound sense. Of trying to banish the fear of the dark that they all know in their bones but want to believe is superstitious. When in reality it might not be, but rather be a kind of inherited memory from a time before humanity rose to dominance, when another kind of people carried with them a dark and terrible power. It’s a poem of conflict and blood and war and conquest, of humanity felling the creatures that would have snuffed us all out. But not, perhaps, doing a complete job of it. And what remains are some scant stories, some residual fear of the dark places where these beings might still reside, and where their ancient and alien masters might yet seek to reach through to touch Earth. It mixes Lovecraftian elements of cosmic horror with myth and legend, with stories and fears. And it’s a dark, nicely built piece that uses a lot of repetition and cycles that for me really gets across the feeling of time and history, of the way that people forget things only to have to fight the same battles over again. A great way to close out the issue!