New Epoch Press, $18.95
I wrote a post about Bud Webster's column on Tom Reamy a couple of days after receiving the magazine in the mail, but since then I've been busy with other projects to read much of the fiction in the current issue of Black Gate. On the flights home from my meeting last week, I made sure to rectify that omission. Since it looks as though Black Gate will be an annual publication now, I've decided rather than read it all at once, I'm going to ration it. That way the wait for the next issue won't be so interminable.
This issue has as its theme Warrior Women. The stunning cover by Donato Giancola kinda makes the point. Eight of the twenty-one stories (not counting the excerpt from The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones) are part of this theme and have their own separate table of contents. They're scattered throughout the volume rather than having their own section. I'm not sure what I make of that editorial decision, considering most issues with special themes I've seen tend to group the themed stories together, although I have no problem with Mr. O'Neill arranging them this way. He's also taken a pretty broad definition of warrior woman, including stories with characters that don't fit the image of the woman on the cover. Let's take a quick look at them, shall we?
First up is "The Shuttered Temple" by Jonathan L. Howard, featuring the return of his thief for hire, Kyth, who made her first appearance in "The Beautiful Corridor" in BG 13. Of the two, I think I preferred the first story because it had more humor, but this is still a clever tale well worth your time, even if it is somewhat darker in tone. In both stories Kyth is required to survive by her wits, rather than her brawn or skill with a sword. I'm not sure I would consider her a warrior based on what I've seen of her so far, but I'm certainly open to having my mind changed by further adventures (that's a hint Jonathan and John). Mr. Howard has an inventive imagination, and I enjoyed trying to figure out the puzzle of the temple in this one.
Next is "The War of the Wheat Berry Year" by Sarah Avery. This has a traditional warrior woman, who is leading an army in revolt against her former kingdom. It's part of a larger story arc, with a novel being shopped to publishers and a novella scheduled to appear in a future issue of Black Gate. That may have been why I felt like I was missing something a few times. Still Ms. Avery did a much better job than many writers would have done with this subject. The heroine, Stisele, has to face her old mentor on the battlefield, making this a story of greater than expected emotional depth. I look forward to Stisele's further adventures.
Paula R. Stiles tells the tale of a sorceress who challenges the Queen of Hell for the soul of her husband in "Roundelay". It seems the woman's son died of fever and her husband went in pursuit of the boy's soul only to end up trapped himself. The story takes place on a flying ship over an ocean. There are a couple of supporting characters, and Ms. Stiles does a great job of fleshing them out so that they are more than just stock characters from central casting.
"The River People" by Emily Mah is the story of a young woman, Sora, and her blind mother who have fled their homeland and have been taken in by a tribe of the River People. Of course they're more tolerated than accepted (I had to wonder if Ms. Mah had ever moved to a small town, she captured the feeling of being an outsider in a closed community so well). In order to survive, Sora attempts to enter the warrrior's trial and become a warrior for the tribe.
Maria V. Snyder's heroine, Nysa, in "Cursing the Weather" is probably as far from the sterotypical warrior woman as you can get. She's a young girl working in a tavern, trying to earn enough money to buy the medicine needed to keep her dying mother alive. Then a weather wizard moves in across the street, and things begin to change. Ms. Snyder has training in meteorology, and she puts it to good use here. The fantastic is pretty minimal in this story, and the conflict, while deadly, in primarily nonviolent. I wouldn't have considered this one to really fit the theme of warrior woman. In spite of that, I think I enjoyed it the most. I'm going to be checking out more of Ms. Snyder's work.
"The Laws of Chaos Left Us All in Disarray" by K. Hutson Blount is one of the darker, if not the darkest, of the warrior woman stories. This one concerns a woman acting as a guide to some pilgrims on their way to a shrine. Only for some reason they keep getting attacked by various unpleasant creatures. Perhaps one (or more) of the group is hiding something? The impact of this story comes in its final paragraph.
"World's End" by Frederic S. Durbin pits two women, one a fighter and a killer, the other a princess on a quest, against each other in a confrontation that can only end with one of them dead. While I was initially a little dissatisfied with the ending, upon further reflection I found the story to be a meditation on the conflicts each woman has to deal with in the different roles she plays in life.
The final story of the theme is "What Chains Bind Us" by Brian Dolton. In this one a young conjuror fights a supernatural battle against a ghost and the conjuror who sumoned him. This one reads like its part of a series. If so, I would like to read some of the other entries. The author keeps raising the stakes with each encounter with the ghost. The character, Liang Zao, is different from your typical fantasy heroine. I won't say how because it will give away too much.
So, to recap. Some of the stories relating to the issue's theme stretch the definition of warrior woman pretty far. Still, it's not often that I can find eight stories by eight different authors (four men and four women if anyone's counting) in a single venue that I enjoyed this much. Usually there's at least one or two that don't click with me. Not here. Every selection was a winner. (So were the two stories I read that weren't part of the theme.) There are no chain mail bikinis or comic book bodies among these women. Instead, they have brains, wit, courage, faith, and love. If I had to choose, I'll take those qualities over bouncing bosoms and ridiculous underwear any day.
If you haven't picked up a copy of Black Gate, this issue is a good place to start. I'll have more to say in a future post about the rest of the stories. The previous issue had three novellas, a length I greatly enjoy. All the fiction seems to be short stories with one or two novellettes. While I miss the novellas, if the rest of the fiction is as good as what I've read so far, I won't make a fuss about it.