I hope everybody had a pleasant holiday and is off to a good New Year. For my inaugaral post 0f 2017, I’ve got a bag full of short stories for you from Grimdark Magazine and 2016’s standout newcomer, Cirsova.
I’ve often dismissed grimdark as a marketing device. First, there’s always been cynical and gritty fantasy, and second, a lot of what’s billed as grimdark is not all that dark and grim. Leave it to Grimdark Magazine editor Adrian Collins to find one of the grimmest, most throughly miserable and unpleasant stories imaginable with which to open Issue #9.
“A Length of Cherrywood,” by Peter Orullian, is like a poisoned crossbow bolt to the brain. Jastail J’Vache is a slaver of women and has a serious mother issue. Following his loss at game played for unique stakes — bets are made with items connected to horrible personal deeds — J’Vache decides he must face the fount of darkness in his soul. Maybe I’m a wuss, but I can’t say I liked this one. The story does a stellar job of creating a vile protagonist and exploring his mutilated soul. The game played between J’Vache and several other equally twisted characters is blackly brilliant. Still, “Cherrywood” isn’t something I enjoyed reading. Let me warn you, it’s not for the meek. While there’s some violence, the real grimdarkness lies in the ways the characters treat each other. The story was previously published in Blackguards, edited by J.M Martin, in 2015.
Tim Waggoner’s “The Law of the Harvest” is straight ahead swords & sorcery that wouldn’t be out out of place in one of Lin Carter’s or Andrew Offutt’s anthologies forty years ago. (In case you don’t know, that’s a very good thing.) Torvan Vesk and his sidekick, Queg Sulmos, are sworn to the service of something called the Scourge. They are dedicated to hunting down “anything or anyone associated with the Fallen, the gods who had been expelled from the Dominion at the end of the God War.” At the start of this tale, they have come to investigate rumors of missing people around the village of Ardul. Vesk’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he finds an altar on the edge of town:
The most striking feature of the circle wasn’t the altar, Torvan thought, but rather what stood behind it. A scarecrow twice the size of a human hung from a cross formed from a pair of thick wooden poles, its wrists, neck, waist, and legs lashed to the wood with lengths of weathered rope. It wore a patchwork tunic stuffed with moldy straw, and its arms and legs had been fashioned from dried rushes woven together in shapes approximating human limbs. The scarecrow’s head, an ugly thing made from a lumpy cloth sack, had been stuffed with whatever odds and ends the villagers could scrounge up. It had no features, and while Torvan supposed it might at one point have had simply rendered eyes and mouth, time had worn the paint away, leaving only a blank face.
Waggoner does a good job of limning out his world and characters quickly and clearly. He does a good job building up the tension and mystery, too. I haven’t read him before, but I’d like to read more from him in the future.
“The Bed of the Crimson King” by Filip Wiltgren is an interesting mix of witchery and child-soldiers in an undefined African setting. I didn’t love the story’s use of the present tense even when describing past events, and I found the jumping around in time disjointed. Still, the story is more success than failure, and has several well-crafted and memorable scenes that make it worth reading.
Stepping back from S&S, “Naked the Night Sings” by Teresa Frohock is an urban fantasy story. I’m not a big urban fantasy reader, but this is a good horror tale of a musician tempted by the alluring offer made by a haunting woman in a bar. It was originally published in Manifesto: UF from Angelic Knight Press.
In “Pre-emptive Revenge,” by Rob J. Hayes, a general plans a series of assassinations to both ensure his wife’s rule and end the siege of Reingarde. He hopes this will save the lives of his soldiers. Of course, nothing goes quite as planned and unexpected costs are incurred. It’s told well enough, but I wasn’t especially moved or grabbed by this one.
There are also several non-fiction pieces in GMD #9. Among them are one about the Thomas Covenant series’ relationship to grimdark, and interviews with Tim Waggoner and John Hornor Jacobs.
All together, the four issues of Cirsova magazine published in 2016 contain nearly seven hundred pages. Issue #4 is double-sized, coming in at over three hundred. Editor P. Alexander has said he’s going to slow down the pace in the coming year, but, man, he’s done a lot of work in this past one.
I have loved each of the previous issues of Cirsova, and there are several very good stories in the present one as well, but I do think there’s a little strain showing in #4. There’s too much packed in and a few weaker efforts than in previous issues. Still, it’s more than worth your investment of dollars and time.
The issue opens with “Wall Wardens” by Lynn Rushlau. Maldean is a reluctant draftee in a force of magic-users protecting the world from dragons and lava on the other side of a great wall they must constantly patch. Nothing, be it Maldean’s job or the intrigue he get’s caught up in, held my attention enough to make me care about the outcome.
Things promptly looked up with Edward M. Erdelac’s “The Lady of the Amorous City.” Here we get to see how young squire Arthur and his brother Kay face off against some eldritch evils in this fun romp:
The horse of the Fish Knight opened its mouth, but the unearthly scream came from the rider. It was something unnaturally high and shrill, between a horse and a man.
The giant horse tumbled forward and melted into a great viscous puddle in which Kay’s screaming courser kicked like a fly in molasses. The armored rider landed rightly on the ground, and to Arthur’s horror, the remains of his steed flowed back into his legs, dragging his courser with it, until all was subsumed with a horrible slurping and crackling of bones.
Kay struggled to his feet as the Fish Knight brought back his huge sword and a uttered a stranged, foreign-sounding war cry:
I probably use Vancian to describe stories far more than I should, but it seems right for Harold R. Thompson’s “The Unfolding of the World.” Captain Anchor Brown is an explorer sent to fill in a blank spot of his nation’s maps. A bold, intrepid voyager, there he will find dastardly enemies, a strange and exotic culture, and loads of deadly adventure. The unique method of settling municipal debates is particularly Vancian. I’ve never read, let alone heard of, Thompson before, but I’d like to see more by him.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt’s planetary adventure tale, “The Sands of Rubal-Khali” starts with a woman searching for her sister on the barbarous planet of the title. Jam-packed with slavers, a wily bounty hunter, and a cosmic mystery, I liked this a bunch.
In “The Witch of Elrica” by Jennifer Povey, romances blossoms between a witch and a bastard son in a land where witchcraft is punishable by death. Nothing special, but well enough done of its type.
My problem with Jeffery Scott Sims’ stories has always been that good, even great, ideas get bogged down by his penchant for extravagant faux-archaic prose that makes the reader stumble (and chuckle) too much.
That same issue arises in “The Vault of Phalos.” Two wizards, Natrech and Morca, have traveled to the land of Konai in hopes of thwarting the followers of the evil god, Blug. The bones of the story are very good, but it’s clad in too many passages like this:
Now into the little, lonely village of Moronais marched the soldiers of Dyrezan, sons of the mighty kingdom that claimed lordship of the earth. From a great city far away they came, a city that towered impossibly to the skies, where ruled wise men and wizards of fearsom renown.
In the fast-paced story “The Bubbcat,” by Sean Monaghan, courier Dolci D. is saved from a terrorist attack by a small handheld AI device called the Bubbcat. Soon she’s racing across the globe, on the run from various people trying to get the Bubbcat for themselves. It’s a thouroughly enjoyable adventure, and I am looking forward to what happens next.
“A Suit of Haidrah Skin,” by Rob Lang, suffers from some clunky prose, but is lifted up by some wonderfully disgusting images. When the castle of the evil wizard returns to the world and Mald’s beloved is carried off as a sacrifice, she sets out to avenge him. For help she must turn to the Oracle of the Marsh, who tells her of a risky plan, but the only one that might work.
I’m still not sure what I thought of Eugene L. Morgulis’ mobius strip of a story, “Lost Men.” When Peter Pan kills Captain Hook, the Lost Boys return to England and grow up. Years later they return to Never Never Land, only to find it and themselves changed more than they realized. I think it’s more interesting than exciting, but I need to read it again.
James Hutchings offers up Part 3 of his epic poem, “My Name is John Carter.” I like it well enough, but your mileage may vary, so just read it and decide for yourself.
“…Where There Is No Sanctuary” is by Swords of Steel alumnus Howie Bentley. A werewolf gets caught in the diabolical snare of the undead wizard Abijeetat. For untold ages the lich has imprisoned people and tortured them for the sake of amusment. A little clunky at times, nonetheless Bentley’s good at creating a chilling, gloomy atmosphere, and pulls off a win with this one.
Joyce Frohn’s “Dust of Truth” sees a warrior band and its chief, Maronie, trying for one last score before her wedding. There’s some interesting worldbuilding here, and it moves along briskly.
Jay Barnson’s “The Priests of Shalaz” gives us an American adventurer stranded in another dimension. Rescue appears at hand when a party of Royal Navy sailors and marines find their way across from Earth. But then the British commander makes the mistake of messing about with the priests of the title. Nice, short, and sharply told.
“The Last Dues Owed,” by Christine Lucas, is a dynamite story of dueling assassins in ancient Crete and what happens after their fight. Minoan killer Aranaos is an exciting character with a solid backstory and depth, and I’d love to read more of his exploits, before and after this one. Probably my favorite story in the issue.
Preston Dennett’s “Shadow Vision” sends a trio of characters into a place known by “many names: the Dark, the Cursed Lands, the Empty, Shadowland, and countless others.” The Dark is a well-described alien landscape that serves as a great setting for this story of searching and destiny.
A hunted man seeks refuge in an ancient temple in Edward McDermott’s “The Ride.” Instead, he finds himself trapped, facing unknown dangers in the dark below the earth.
Issue #4 finally comes to its end with “The Phantom Sands of Calavass” by S.H. Mansouri. It’s a wild planetary adventure that kicks off when several miners are discovered dead and dismembered. Ancient mysteries, alien natives, and an investigator from Earth made this a solid tale.
So, there’s the roundup for the month. Some bad, some good, and a few very good. If you buy both magazines, for about eight bucks (for the e-books), you can have 21 stories. That’s a great deal, one which I heartily recommend you take advantage of. And remember, if you do read either of these, tell them and the writers what you think.