It's spring and the new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly's arrived on the interwebs. As usual it's chock-full of stories and poems. Of special note is it's HFQ's fourth anniversary. In these days that's practically ancient and stands as a testimony to HFQ's ability to attract good authors that readers want to read.
Due to all sorts of stuff I never got around to reading and reviewing the winter issue of HFQ. I promised myself not to let the spring one pass me by and suddenly I realized it was May. So here we go at at last.
Graced with a great, violent painting titled "Final Battle" by Mariusz Gandel, HFQ #16 opens with "Lord of the Tattered Banner" by Kristopher Reisz. By the end of the first few paragraphs I became apprehensive about this story. At that point the reader realizes the story's protagonist is an orc. I'm fundamentally opposed to the use of orcs in fiction not written by Tolkien himself. They're a specific thing, integrally part of JRRT's creation with unique traits and narrative purposes. Stripped from Middle-Earth they're simply too much a piece of D&D for my tastes; endless ranks of nameless 1-hit die monsters for players to slaughter. "Lord of the Tattered Banner" is a well deserved smack in the face to my prejudice. I'm still not totally sold on using orcs in stories (at least give them different names) but Reisz's story is a well done rejoinder to my complaints.
With only a few thousand words Reisz creates a dark-hued world of hidden blood drinking pagan gods, a royal pretender, rebellious vassals, and an enslaved race of orcs serving as the brutal vanguard of the crown prince's army. From the opening scene as orcs scavenge the dead on a battlefield, we see they are deemed lesser and subservient to man. Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man, commander of the Brazen Tusk Orcs, is hit with a rod when a nobleman thinks the orc is being uppity and goes as far to describe him as the crown prince's "favorite pet".
The army Fengr serves has just defeated the forces of Duke Orsten, a supporter of the pretender Princess Eadwynn, and seized his keep. The conquering force quickly learns that Orsten has appeared to have abandoned worship of the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself and returned to practicing the rituals of the strigidæ, dark gods only still followed by certain orcs. Fengr ordered to discover which orcs taught the old rites to Duke Orsten.
Fengr conducts a swift investigation, which involves partially sawing off a child's ear, the commander finds himself being told things he has no interest in hearing. While one orc willingly gives himself up as Orsten's tutor, Fengr realizes the real culprit is an old orc dam. Later she slips into Fengr's tent and tells him he is the prophesied liberator and future king of the orcs. He will lead them out of bondage to the soft, pink-skinned humans and to victory.
Fengr is not pleased, worried that the only thing that will come from the prophesy is his death. No matter how straightforward some may sound few prophecies ever work out simply. Fengr is forced to confront the dam's mystical pronouncement in a brutal and bloody world.
Matthew Quinn's "Nicor" is about thirteen-year old Geiri Jorgenson's first viking raid. There's a monster and a vicious fight with an opening reminiscent of Beowulf waiting for Grendel in Heorot. Beyond that is Geiri's creeping understanding of the nature and origins of monsters. "Nicor" also does well what I like best in a short story; it stands alone. It doesn't serve as the setup for a novel or read like an excerpt from one. Too many fantasy shorts these days simply feel like pieces cut out of a yet unfinished epic doorstopper.
HFQ #16's best story is "The Lion and the Thorn Tree" by J.S. Bangs. I'm a supporter of any story that moves away from the common European fantasy tropes. Bangs' story is seemingly set in Africa and at first seems purely fantastic. Later elements make these assumption more complicated. An evil sorcerer has conquered his neighbors and, in fear of a prophecy about his downfall, has taken to killing all the Nande male children. Following the murder of her husband, Sinka sets off for a place of safety in order to secure the life of her unborn son and ultimate justice against the sorcerer. I won't reveal anything else from this phantasmagorical story. Personally, I plan to check out more of Bangs' writing shortly.
Normally, I'm leery of reviewing poetry. I just don't know enough about it and how to judge it for form as well as content. I freely admit that outside of a classroom I'm too lazy to examine closely meter and rhyme. Still, the poems in this quarter's magazine range from good to really good.
"Diana's Justice" by Adele Gardner is the first of three poems this issue. A warrior, though maiden no more, dedicated to the Diana the Huntress awaits her erstwhile lover in a forest glade. It's a sad story of misplaced trust, anger and bittersweet revenge.
The highlight of the poetry's from HFQ editor Adrian Simmons. "The Teeth of St. Aedh" is rightly subtitled "An Epic of the Ancient Irish". Aedh Mac Cartin is a physically as well as spiritually powerful companion of St. Patrick. Shortly after the great saint's death, Aedh is sought by a tribe seeking help against another. Their old gods offer no protection and the tribe is looking for a representative of another to help them. Aedh goes and his battle against the forces of King Ferchu and his druid are told in loud blasts of poetry and prose that practically command to be read aloud.
This is great, big stuff that recalls the roots of sword & sorcery that stretch down into the tales told round campfires in the distant past and sung by bards, skalds and griots. The army of Ferchu and his champions are described with bold, powerful words;
Swarming and fierce, haughty with strong arms
Legion overwhelming enraged
Flaming shields, brave spears
Shouting challenges, eyes mad
Charge of a horse
Fury of boars
Taller than oaks
Sprung from giants
A great ivory tooth to
Fill a fist hung about the
White necks of Ferchu and
The thirteen greatest warriors
The very teeth of Sliabh Scoilt
The giant that sired their race.
The Fourteen gathered at the bank
Armies stretched at the bank
The final poem is Wade German's "Barbarian". It's a grim paean to a battlefield victory. It's a dark warrior's celebration of spilled blood and torn and broken bodies and severed heads. Good stuff.
Of the magazines I read, HFQ is currently the king of the hill. Perhaps limiting themselves to only a dozen or so stories a year they forces themselves to be pickier. I wish them another four years and then a dozen more after that. If you need a respite from the doorstoppers that drone on an on about plots long diluted by series bloat and the travails of tertiary characters be reassured there's plenty of excellent short fantasy fiction being published and some of the best is free at HFQ.