by James Enge
Black Gate 14, 384 pp., $15.95
If you’re a fan of heroic fantasy, adventure fantasy, or just plain good ol’ fashioned storytelling, and you haven’t checked out Black Gate, then you owe it to yourself to do so. Some of the best writing being done in the fantasy field right now is published here. While the publication schedule is frustratingly slow, currently at two issues a year, this magazine is still worth waiting for. John O’Neill brings the highest production and editorial values to his magazine, which is clearly a labor of love. Since I haven’t seen it on the newsstand in quite a while, your best bet of scoring a copy is directly from the publisher. All back issues are available in both print and PDF format. If you’re thinking of subscribing, be sure and check out the special with Rogue Blades Entertainment. A subscription to a great magazine plus an outstanding anthology is a hard deal to beat. I’ll be talking about Rogue Blades in a future installment.
Now, lest anyone thinks I’m on the payroll for either Black Gate or Rogue Blades, let’s look at the story in question. I envision these Long Looks at Short Fiction columns to be just what the name implies, a more detailed look at one or two pieces of short fiction in current publications, both print and electronic. My definition of short fiction is anything from short story to novella length.
In fact, that’s one of the things I think sets Black Gate apart from the major short fiction periodicals. They’re willling to publish novellas. Now I can hear some of you saying, “Wait a minute, West. Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF all regularly publish novellas”, and indeed they do. What separates Black Gate from the pro markets is that the Big Three (as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen) aren’t willing to publish novellas from writers who aren’t household names (yet).
A perfect of example of this is James Enge, who published his first Morlock Ambrosious story in BG 8, and has had stories of Morlock in almost every issue since. Morlock is a hunchbacked wizard with a somewhat bleak outlook and not inconsiderable skill with a sword. These days, Enge is hardly unknown. He had two books about Morlock published last year, Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way, with a third, The Wolf Age, scheduled for publication sometime this month, meaning copies should be hitting the shelves any day now. And to top it off, he has gotten a World Fantasy Award nomination for Blood of Ambrose. Good luck, James!
Anyway, on to the story. “Destroyer” finds Morlock in the company of Roble, his sister Naeli, and her children, who were introduced in “The Lawless Hours” in BG 11, but you needn’t have read that one to enjoy this one. This time the story is (mostly) told from the viewpoint of one of the older kids, Thend. I say mostly because occasionally the viewpoint seems to shift to Morlock, for example when he’s conversing with a dragon guarding him, Thend, a werewolf, and a disgraced Khroi, a race of insect-like creatures. The conversation takes place in the dragon language, which Enge tells us Thend does not speak. Aside from the minor quibble of apparent view-point shift, the story moves briskly.
Now I don’t normally care for action adventure stories told from a child’s point of view because the children tend to be passive rather than active participants. In this case, Thend (who seems to be in early adolescence, although I don’t recall his age being given) is involved from the beginning. The story opens with Morlock leading the party between two mountain ranges. He takes Thend with him to investigate something he’s seen that concerns him. It turns out to be a Khroi warrior trapped in a web built by the spider people.
A number of people have been attributed as saying some variation of “If you’re not a liberal at [insert age] you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at [insert greater age] you have no brain”, and that sentiment applies here to both Thend and Morlock as far as their ages are concerned. Thend initially condemns Morlock for what he views as a penchant for killing everything and displays pacifist tendencies from time to time. Morlock, on the other hand, says that his law is blood for blood. But to apply that quoted adage strictly would be to oversimplify their characters. Both men display actions that lead from the heart and actions that originated in the head.
Morlock has no interest in rescuing the Khroi, who is still alive. Thend cuts him down from the web. The Khroi marks Thend by wounding him, wounds himself, then escapes. Morlock informs Thend the Khroi did this so they could identify each other later. As it turns out later on, this particular Khroi shows Thend an especially harsh form of mercy.
The pace of the story is swift, and the nonhuman characters intriguing as Morlock attempts to guide the party between Khroi and spider people without detection. You can probably guess how sucessful he is in this. Hint:: If he were successful, there would be no story. And don’t assume the ending is an entirely happy one. The title Enge chose was “Destroyer,” after all. To find out just who the destroyer turns out to be, well, I’ll never tell.
The real character development in the tale occurs with Thend. It seems he has a touch of the sight but doesn’t know how to use it when the story opens. By the conclusion, he’s gained both knowledge and experience, as well as discovering some heroic character traits and an ability to endure hardship, both of which he’s lacking in the opening. Initially Thend wants to be like his uncle Roble and not be treated like a child by his mother Naeli. By being forced to work with Morlock, and not just in the opening scene but in an attempt to rescue his family, Thend’s relationships with both his mother and his uncle undergo a transformation as he develops an independent identity as his own man. The exact nature of that tranformation, I’ll let you see for yourself when you read the story. It’s worse investing the time.
If it sounds like this is a coming of age story, it is. Thend grows up through the course of events he has no choice in living through, much like real life. It’s what we allow our experiences to make us that determine who and what we become. Without being heavy handed or preaching, Enge shows us this process in a boy who isn’t really all that likable when we first meet him, although he is sympathetic to a point.
Of course, all the usual sardonic wit and cleverness we’ve come to expect from Morlock are on display here. Morlock has been described as a thinking man’s Conan, a comparison I think short changes the Cimmerian somewhat, but I have to agree with the sentiment. Morlock uses his brain at least as much as he uses his magic or his sword. The situation here isn’t one he can simply get out of by either magic or swordsmanship (although both are necessary) because other lives are at stake, and the characters aren’t all at the same location for part of the story.
If you’re not familiar with Morlock, this is as good a place as any to make his acquaintance. If you’ve met the man, and haven’t read “Destroyer,” then what are you waiting for?