|Art by Jereme Peabody|
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly brings three stories and two poems in their latest issue, and the works mix fast action, wrenching tragedy, and a pervasive grimness. The stories are by and large dark, exploring situations ripe with death and danger, with damage and hard decisions. The characters are out to do violence, to put an end to their enemies. But somehow it doesn’t work out how they thought. Something interferes, or their victory is stolen from them, turns to ash and blood in their mouths. Whatever the case, the stories and poems each introduce carefully built and interestingly imagined worlds to explore, and it’s a very strong issue. To the reviews!
“Kamazotz” by Greg Mele (11472 words)
No Spoilers: Sarrumos is the first mate of a pirate ship under Captain Khossos, a man intent on revenging himself on his rival, a fellow pirate who has made a base on a mysterious island. Sarrumos is not a superstitious sort despite the connection his ancestors profess to have to a race of god-like beings who ruled the lands a thousand years ago. In fact, he’s rather openly scornful of most talk of gods and monsters. He is a cautious man, though, and when the crew’s magic-touched adviser speaks of a dark presence on the island, it’s enough to...well, plant a seed of doubt in him, even if he must remain resolute in following the will of the captain. It’s a rather thrilling piece, full of an anticipation of violence and a very unexpected realization of it.
Keywords: Pirates, Bats, Gods, Sacrifice, Monsters
Review: I like how the story is leading up to a battle. Hopefully, as far as Sarrumos is concerned, to a slaughter. The pirates have come to the island after one of their rivals. Their plan is to kill him and those loyal to him and absorb the rest of his men and supplies. It’s a rather daring plan, and it seems to be going off without a hitch. Except that there’s a strange feeling to the island, and an unnatural quiet that seems to pervade everything. Sarrumos as a character is pragmatic and introspective, which is perhaps a bit strange as far as pirates go, but he knows that loyalty requires a bit more than just fear, and it’s nice to see the ways he respects the rest of the crew, even those from places and cultures he’s “supposed” to think are barbaric and backwards. He’s a man with a lot of conflict about his station, an outsider most places, but he’s not afraid to act when he has to, and he’s competent and clever, useful traits for a first mate. Unfortunately, no amount of cleverness or competence is really enough to deal with what they find on the island, and I like the way the story twists expectations on not the reader (who probably begins to suspect something is up right away) but on the crew, who go from hoping their be the authors of a massacre to being the victims of one. The pacing is well done, which is important given the longer length of the work, and the action flows nicely, the choreography solid and visceral. It’s not the deepest piece, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and for those looking for some definite darkness and a touch of horror in your fantasy, this is a great read!
“Then, Stars” by Michael Meyerhofer (3113 words)
No Spoilers: An unnamed squire is dying in this story following a battle where he was speared through the middle. Somehow the spear seems to have missed anything vital, but it has left him completely helpless, alive but definitely dying. It’s a situation that, if his side has won, would have ended with a looter slitting his throat. But as he was on the losing side, his enemies have a different approach to caring for the dead and dying. The piece unfolds in his voice as one of the enemy records what might be his last words, that detail his decision to try and live, even if it kills him. It’s a bit melancholy, as probably makes sense, but also fragile and with a sense of a person whose world has just been opened up in a beautiful and unexpected way.
Keywords: War, Wounds, Enemies, Dying, Confessions
Review: This story looks at the rather sad situation that this nameless squire finds themself in. And it’s a story where I think the decision to make the main character nameless works, because it shows how they’ve been erased, how they’ve been treated like they don’t matter. They are known by who they are the squire of. But in reality they are a young person on the verge of death, realizing that all of the rhetoric and training really fail in the face of a spear through the chest. It’s something of a miracle that they’re still alive, and I like how the story deals with that, not by having the narrator double down on his faith and religion, but with him doubting even more, seeing that the things he’s been taught sort of die under scrutiny, destroyed by the compassion that the enemy shows him. Which is not how he was raised to behave. Which isn’t how he’s treated the enemy. And I like how the story reveals that, slowly showing how different the two sides treat each other, how wrapped up the squire’s life has been in rank and inequality, in being nameless and faceless because he wasn’t a noble, because he was never valued as anything but a body to be thrown at war. Which is how he was used, as a resource, until he was found by his enemy, and only there he became more, because they saw him differently. And it’s a heartwarming if also heartbreaking moment, because this wonderful connection happens only as the squire is dying. And even if it’s not For Sure that the squire dies during the final moments, during the surgery, it’s certainly heavily implied, as these words are being passed on, used as a story, which is how last words are valued. And really it’s a lovely and wonderful read!
“A Fistful of Spells” by Zach Chapman (5547 words)
No Spoilers: Rick is a Spellslinger, a kind of supernatural bounty hunter able to fire spells from his six-shooter. He’s been in the town of Elyia long enough to find an infestation of Striga, creatures that result when tormented virgins commit suicide. And while Spellslingers are only supposed to concern themselves in hunting and killing inhuman monsters, and are supposed to stay out of human affairs, he can’t help but do a little poking around. And in doing so he uncovers a complex web of secrets, hungers, and victims, and has to make the decision about what he’ll do under the constraints of his vows. It’s an action-packed, supernatural Western that’s a lot of fun despite a deep grimness.
Keywords: Bounty Hunters, Magic, Orphans, Monsters, Queer MC
Review: Okay, so a wondering gunman hunting down monsters, heavily drinking, and sleeping around a bit isn’t perhaps the newest idea, but it’s also a lot of fun and the story certainly makes it interesting with a tale of blood and monsters both supernatural and all too human. And it’s interesting to watch Rick work, tired and rough and out in the middle of nowhere. He’s supposed to live by his code, that of the spellslinger, but the story explores how there are those who can abuse that code in order to spread their evil and feed of the happiness of others, leaving only monsters in their wake. The piece is something of a mystery, pitting Rick against a town with its share of secrets, which he slowly puzzles out. It’s also full of distractions, including the enthusiastic bartender, Juan, and a way of living that’s supposed to provide Rick with enough reward in terms of adrenaline, money, booze, and sex. But something is missing from all of that, especially when he runs into something that’s so wrong as he finds in Elyria. The setting is grit and dust, an alternate historical Wild West where there’s law, but it’s rarely just. Where there’s space and isolation, distance enough for any manner of creature to sink its claws into a town. It’s space enough for Rick and his own proclivities and thirst, but even something that seems so boundless isn’t big enough to hold all the hungers drawn to it. The plot moves fast and furious, the action hits like the kick of an ensorcelled gun, and the resolution is grim and resolute, lonely despite the desire to reach out for human comfort. A fantastic story!
“Swords” by Colleen Anderson
As the title of this poem might imply, it’s all about swords—their making and their purpose. Most of the piece comes together as a sort of common history of swords, or a common biography that details the nature of these blades, how they are pried from the Earth and made. How they are imbued with power, with magic or blood or whatever makes them more alive. For me, the piece gives a feeling to the blades, a sort of tortured chill, born in fire but thirsty for blood and death. It captures well how these weapons are made to take lives, to kill, to participate in war or smaller violences but always with an eye toward battle, always drawn toward conflict. Which I think the poem doesn’t put all on the swords, but on the people making them and commissioning them. The methods are rather brutal, after all, melting and pounding and shaping and striking over and over and over again. What’s produced can often be something of an almost eerie beauty, but the nature of the blade is that of a weapon, that of a killer. And I like how the poem brings that home, how it shows the creature of what is essentially a monster, and how people value them, and how sometimes it’s like a blade yearns only to be used, and fears not that it might be shattered in the heat of battle, but that it will have to face the prospect of retirement, of returning to a state of useless metal but cut off from its mother, Earth, forever twisted by human desire but no longer embraced, no longer used. It’s an almost creepy poem, but I think in a rather...pointed way (get it? pointed? don’t hurt me...) because it gets across the design and promise of a sword. Not a work of art, or at least never just a work of art, but always an implement of death as well. And yeah, a great read!
“The Last Tale” by Jennifer Crow
This poem seems to take on the idea of storytelling, and specifically the telling of darker tales—fairy tales, maybe, with particularly morbid endings. Or stories that revel a bit in horror, that keep people on the edge of their seats, eyes glancing furtively around the room, toward the windows bathed in darkness, the door as if imagining what might be on the other side, a moment form bursting through. The piece looks at the allure of telling these stories, of reveling in the way that they unsettle and creep out and terrify. And I love the way the poem depicts the storyteller, the second person “you” of the piece, as trying to get away from these stories. Of in some ways being a character inside of one, trying to hide the stories somewhere and being stalked by them, chased by them. Trying to get away but always tracked down and caught. It’s a haunting and delightfully dark way to frame the impulse to tell horror stories, to enjoy the way that people cringe and jump, the way they shiver and wait, eyes wide, for more and more. Because that, too, treats horror as a sort of force not just for the storyteller but for the listeners as well. They are all in a cycle of storytelling, of frightening and being frightened. And I guess for me it just conveys so much of why horror is compelling on both sides of the exchange, because there’s a power to it. For the storyteller, it’s the power over other people, the power to effect people’s emotions, to make them scared with just words. Just by speaking, managing to convey dread without a direct physical threat but in effect tricking the brain into feeling that way. There’s a certain thrill to that power, just as there is a certain thrill to relinquish that power, to willingly subject yourself to the possibility of horror, that it will get into you and instill that feeling of fear. It’s a nicely meta poem that does manage to be a bit thrilling and tense while making a point about stories and, I feel, horror and dark fantasy in particular. A fine way to close out the issue!