Arriving via the interweb a few weeks late, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #17 is hands down the best showcase for new S&S short fiction around. I haven't been reviewing Beneath Ceaseless Skies as frequently as in the past because it's been running mostly sci-fi the last bunch of issues. Sticking true to its title, HFQ remains focused on, well, you know, heroic fantasy. Again, it's a fine collection of rip roaring action, moody dark adventure and some poetry.
Charles Gramlich's a man whose blog I read regularly but till now I've never read any of his fiction. Well, that's changed and I know I'm going to track some of his other work down in the future. Gramlich's "A Whisper in Ashes" opens the issue with a jolt of suspense followed by fire and blood. The warrior Krieg, whilst traveling, comes across the remnants of a viking-style funeral ship. From the direction of the burned ship's remains comes a trail of footprints. The footprints, "small and slender, such as those made by a woman", lead to a beheaded and eviscerated bear. The trail leads to a small walled town, a lord, his dog and his spaewife. What follows from there is mayhem, wolf-fu and firey mayhem. Gramlich's writing is clear and direct. He creates a world reeking of that northern thing that doesn't feel like just one more retread.
J. Kathleen Cheney's "The Nature of Demons" slows the pace down a little with a darker story of a man hunting a demon across the northern reaches of his country in the company of a tribal shaman. Driven by personal tragedy, Doctor Antris, has tracked a demon who, until the story opens, has only made his way into women's beds with illusion and left unwanted children in his wake. Now he has left a woman dead. Cheney's story is a detective story set against a terrible past event, imminent winter and a rising apprehension on Antris' part that for all his years of hunting he really doesn't know the true nature of what he's seeking.
Issue #17's last story is a blackly comic tale of faked identity and terrible witchcraft in ancient Japan. "Jiro" is Peter Fugazzotto's first published story and it's a ball.
Failing to make his way in the world as an actor, Jiro steals a suit of armor with the intention of using it to convince villagers to pay him for protection and slip off in the night. He hopes to make it back to the dull safety of his parents' pickled vegetable stand.
From the his first encounter after putting on the suit of armor nothing goes right for Jiro. An old man named Nardo sees through his disguise immediately. The first town he stops at to try and con doesn't face mere bandits but a witch. Finally, even the villagers and the witch plaguing them is more than Jiro anticipates.
Finally come the HFQ poems. The first, Don Quixote's Quandry by Colleen Anderson, is alright. The second, "The Death of Conwynn the Wild-Eyed" by Colin Heintze, is a great piece on the fleeting nature of martial success particularly in a world of ever repeating warfare.
Once again the estimable editors of HFQ have put together a great issue. I BCS gets some more fantasy out in the next few issues. In the mean time I'm planning to review the July and August issues of Swords and Sorcery Magazine together. So keep reading and supporting the publishers and writers of quality S&S short fiction.