|Art by Mark Molchan|
“The Deaths of All We Are” by Liz Colter (4686 words)
This is a lovely reworking of Arthurian lore to envision Ywaine and the Black Knight, but told far outside the typical protagonist of those stories. Here the main character is Luned, who serves the Great Mother, a force within the earth, who moves in strange ways, who has taken Luned, who was once a tree, and made her into something resembling a human so that Luned can maintain a key relationship in order to protect a special fountain. There is always a Black Knight, a champion for the fountain who can protect it from harm and invasion. And yet the name inside the armor of the Black Knight changes, as the story reveals. I love the cyclic nature of the piece, as well as the links between Luned at the natural world. The piece is centered in Arthurian legend, which is often viewed as incredibly masculine, but it’s also a saga mostly defined by women with power, women with magic. That is certainly focused on here, where the world is changing but the knights themselves are mostly ignorant to the true connections of everything. Only those like Luned, who see and participate in everything, have the scope of perspective to really understand what’s going on. Also there is an adorable badger in the story that I love, who is there as a sort of reminder of the natural world, to mirror Luned’s story of harm and healing, of vocation and rest. And it’s a haunting piece as well, that shows that even with Luned’s power the world of humans is one largely run by violence, spite, and hate. Luned and her mission seem in danger of becoming victims of these forces, and yet through careful work manage to turn everything to their favor. By playing the game with a much different approach, by acting in ages instead of days, they are able to protect what is important and secure their work going forward, even if they must occasionally burn to do it. It’s not exactly a happy piece, but it’s not a tragedy either. It’s a closed circle, neat and orderly and beautiful in many ways, with just the hint of a question at the end—will next cycle bring around greater change? And it’s a great way to kick off the issue!
“Seraph” by Ian McHugh (6806 words)
This is a fast-paced and action-packed story that reveals an interesting and wounded planet following a war of epic proportions. What’s left is a land that is touched by magic and danger, as the remnants of that conflict, the Wyrding War, still roam the land. One such, the titular Seraph, watches over a settlement of people who live in a fortress of sorts. And one of them, Galya, a young woman, realizes that she can understand the Seraph’s thoughts (at least partly) at a time when the Seraph seems to be weakening and a dangerous and magical cold is threatening the settlement. The piece delves into this premise with a fun abandon, building the world and the characters with ease and joy. There’s Galya and her mother, Oksana, the leader of the settlement, plus Nadhzeya, the chaplain who tends to the Seraph, which itself is a creature of metal and flesh and fire that kinda resembles a winged crocodile. This issue is certainly bringing it’s A game with regards to adorable creatures. And this piece is also rather cyclical, looking at the passing of generations and also of ages. The violence that reaches through from the past belongs to that other time, that other war, and yet it is linked to the people of the settlement because of their dependence on the Seraph. It’s only by confronting that past that the people and the Seraph can truly begin to put that past behind them and enter into a new time, a new way of doing things. And there’s a strong hope in that here, a fantasy romp with kaiju-esque creatures fighting each other and yet the human elements are never overshadowed. It’s a thrilling and fast adventure that delivers on the fantasy adventure promise of the publication. A fantastic read!
"The Enemy's True Name" by Mark Silcox (7526 words)
This is an interesting story that takes the shape of a fairly tried-and-true fantasy story. A nation in ruins thanks to the evil machinations of a dark mage with powers to warp people’s minds, and a few old (“good”) mages set out to find a great warrior who used to fight for the nation but who has since retired to a quiet life on a farm. Though reluctant, the old warrior agrees to help and with a bad of rabble goes after the source of the problems—the Bone King. The fantasy world is drawn loosely, pulling more from tropes and general ideas than in an effort (in my opinion at least) to create a very deep setting. The point seems to be more about dealing with ideas, with philosophies. The warrior was trained to believe that he was fighting in the name of freedom, and that seems to be much more what the story is about—freedom. The story looks at how the idea of freedom plays into the hands of the Bone King, plays into the hands of all of those who seek to weild their power over others. This concept of freedom and fighting and free will is something that is layered into the text, so that it’s hard to tell at times who is free and who is not. In some ways the story seems to seek to challenge what freedom is and if it can exist at all. Without the constraints of society, after all, and the willful surrender to certain rules and laws and relationships, what is freedom? Does freedom mean a freedom from or a freedom to? And at what point is the distinction lost and the concept becomes simply words used to justify actions that have nothing to do with freedom. The story is haunted by these questions in the form of a shrouded figure who the main character has seen many times throughout his life and who seems to be partly behind this most recent string of atrocities he’s called in to rectify. It’s an interesting read but not one I’m sure I found completely satisfying. However, it does bring up a lot of questions, and the action and the feel of the piece melds philosophy and fantasy quite well. It’s certainly complex, though, and I think it’s certainly worth sitting down with and spending some time figuring out your own thoughts on the questions it raises. Indeed!
"Hard Crossing at Luhinmov Ford” by Adrian Simmons (7820 words)
This bonus story looks at a contest of champions as two warring people find their armies facing off, with a single combat to determine the specifics of the engagement. For Cawella, the female champion of her people, it’s a time of doubt and hope. It means that she will be facing off against another champion, one whose skin is supposed to be impenetrable. To make matters worse, Cawella is newly pregnant and dealing the effects of that. On the other hand, Cawella knows that she is the best option for her people, the best hope of defeating this other champion and allowing the battle to follow to be fought on fair terms. The piece sets itself up well, taking its time to introduce the players and letting the doubt and dread for the actual moment of battle linger. When it comes, when Cawella finally stands ready to fight, it is swift and decisive. The action of the story is well described and told with a professional sort of detachment. Cawella is a fighter of great experience, and she views the battle lucidly and keenly. And what could have been about her overcoming a dread foe becomes something else when she finds out more about the person she is fighting, and especially once she begins to understand what that person might face after the battle is over. It’s a rather complex tale and one that builds up this situation well, even if the rest of the setting is vaguely defined. It’s a story of battle and, more than that, of warriors. Of Cawella trying to adapt to the new roles that will be expected of her. In that it’s rather interesting, as becoming a parent can often make people reconsider their actions and directions. There’s a strong conflict not only without, with the battle and the greater war, but also an interior one as Cawella faces her role in perpetuating harm and the roles that have hurt her and held her back, and might impact her potential children. For Cawella, it’s not something that brings an awful lot of clarity or comfort, but it certainly complicates her role as champion, and it makes for a fine read!
“Nightforest” by Andrew Stockton
This is a nicely creepy poem that imagines a lone rider with a choice to make and no good options with which to make it. The sun is dropping and night is fast approaching and wherever the rider wants to be going, they are not there. They are a stranger in this place and unused to its dangers or its safeties. Stopping for the night might be wisdom or foolishness and without the tools to measure one from the other they are left to guess. They press on, into a forest they do not know. And that’s where there are things waiting for night to fall. The story explores the darkness of night adn the uncertainty of it, the way that it conceals and is concealed, the way that builds its power and then strikes. The piece sets the scene well, obscuring the actual confrontation by having it take place behind the scenes, never really witnessed but in the more benign signs of carnage wrapped in the beauty and serenity of nature. The piece handles this horror well, building it through solid imagery and the flicker of madness barely contained. There are moments in the piece where the fire seems like it might break free, the malice spring forth, but always the focus is on patience and concealment. The fate of the rider in the beginning is never exactly revealed, but the implication is certainly strong enough that the message is heard, and it sends a shiver up the spine. It’s just a wonderfully moody and dark poem that captures the danger of strange lands, the dangers of what might be lurking just within the shadows of the forest, and it makes for a rather tense and effective read!
"The Northman's Daughter" by Joshua Hampton
This is a nice piece to close out the issue with, because it takes a look at conflicts and revenge, at death and blood, and offers up something other than the same old song, the same old cycle of killing and killing. The poem is told from the perspective of a woman who has been raised by her father in the ways of the sword. Who knows the mechanics of how to fight and how to slaughter. And whose father was a warrior and who know what it meant to be haunted by death. Whose father is in turn murdered or else killed in combat, leaving his daughter with little byut the words he tried to teach her and the legacy of violence that was his life. It’s a piece that does a good job of setting up this key relationship and showing how it was dominated by violence, was steeped in it, and yet that there was more to it than just learning how to kill. What I like about the poem is that there is this other layer to the lessons that her father taught her. That even as he was showing her the methods of killing someone he was also teaching her how not to use those lessons, not unless it was truly important. There’s a tendency to glory violence and killing, especially if those you look up to are violent, have made their lives about death. Certainly it seems easy for a parent to pass along an inheritance of pain and abuse, especially if that’s what they were known for, if that’s how they lived. The poem sets the narrator up for this crossroads, for being able to see down the different roads. Down one, revenge but being haunted by that violence. Down the other, a more peaceful and whole existence, but leaving the universe to punish those who killed her father. It’s an interesting place the poem brings her to and I like the answer she finds, bringing some of her father’s wisdom forward but being able to do what he could not and leave her blade sheathed instead of painting her world in the hues of crimson. It’s another piece to definitely spend some time with!