There are three stories and two poems in this issue. Here’s what you find:
The first story is “Dusts of War” from Ben Godby. This is a morally murky tale that is more than what it first appears. The story opens with a peddler coming to an idyllic town at the foothills of a mountain range on a dusty summer day. There’s a war on, but for the most part the war hasn’t had a huge effect locally. Some food shortages, some able-bodied young men marching away to fight, but no combat in the area.
At first it seems that the story is about a traveling peddler stopping in a sleepy, poor, but idyllic little village. But there’s more to the peddler than appears. He’s on a mission, a mission that’s related to the war.
Forgive me if I indulge in minor spoilers. The peddler is there to find a man, a man he’ll know because another man in a red cloak will speak with him. He’s given this information by a farmer who palms him a note and then isn’t seen again. The problem arises when the red cloaked man finally arrives speaks with two men at once. The peddler isn’t sure which man is the one he’s looking for.
There are some powerful scenes in this story and places where the prose borders on the lyrical. But much of the power of the tale comes from what we aren’t told rather than what we are told. What is the war about, and who is fighting? Which side is the peddler on? Is he operating behind enemy lines or is he working covertly behind his own? Who is the man the peddler is looking for? Why is he looking for him? What is the significance of the man in the red cloak?
None of these questions are ever answered, and some are barely hinted at. The result is a morally ambiguous scenario where the reader isn’t sure who to root for. The peddler is initially presented as a sympathetic fellow, but as the story progresses, he does things that are increasingly questionable.
All in all, a fine example of the less is more school of fiction.
Following this one up is “Shadows and Hellfire“. This is the third story author R. Michael Burns has had in HFQ featuring his samurai Hokage’. In this particular tale, Hokage’ decides he’s tired of being haunted by the ghosts of those he’s killed with his sword Demon-Fang. He decides to get rid of it, and the only way to do that is to take it back to Hell. The problem is that no one has entered the realms of the dead and returned. At least not alive.
Hokage’ isn’t worried about that. He’s at the point where death would be a relief. The problem is that to get rid of the sword, assuming he actually can in the first place, is that there are others who would like to take it from him.
This was a solid piece of Japanese fantasy, and well worth reading.
The final story is from David Charlton, “Kingdom of Graves“. A plague is sweeping across the land, and the half-orc Rakhar is making a decent living traveling around burying the dead. At least it’s a decent living by his standards. It keeps him in drink.
Rakhar is hire by a dwarf to hunt down a local lord who abandoned his daughter to the plague and fled. The lord had caught the dwarf diddling his daughter, and the dwarf has a soft spot for her in his heart. He wants revenge, not so much for himself as for her. What he and Rakhar find turns out to be something out of their worst nightmares.
This one reminded me of Tolkien in the names of some of the elf-like beings called Lornael. I’m not a big fan of the type of fantasy that mixes a large number of races together in imitation of Tolkien. Most authors, even good ones, can’t pull it off the way Tolkien did. Charlton does a better job of it than most, but it doesn’t seem to me that he’s trying to imitate Tolkien so much as follow his example. There’s history and backstory throughout the tale that gives the milieu some depth, making it more than a paint by numbers piece of fiction.
This one didn’t have an entirely happy ending, but neither was it a downer. The balance of happy and sad, for lack of better terms, made the conclusion more satisfying. I can see how Charlton might revisit his heroes. They make an interesting pair and have series potential.
I don’t typically discuss the poetry in HFQ at any length, primarily because the poems tend to be rather short. Rather than write a review longer than the piece itself (I’ll leave that for the lit-crit folks), I’ll just give my impressions.
First, “Yashub-Geb” by James Hutchings. I especially liked this one. The rhyme and meter worked well. Good poetry doesn’t read like it was written by Dr. Suess. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Dr. Seuss; I just don’t read him for his poetics.) This was written in the style I first encountered in high school English class. I’ve reviewed Hutchings before, and this poem only reaffirmed my opinion of him.
The second poem is Lorna Smithers‘ “The Bull of Conflict“. Smithers runs a poetry blog, and this poem is even better constructed than the Hutchings poem. It practically sings. Not surprising since Smithers is into bardic poetry.
So, all in all, a mighty fine issue. High quality fiction, high quality poetry. Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is one of the top sources of sword and sorcery and adventure fiction out there. Read this issue and see why.