Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction from Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/21/18, 7/5/18, 7/19/18, 8/2/18, 8/16/18, 8/20/18
Starting out a new-to-me short fiction reviewing column, I find myself in the enviable position of having a lot of issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies to catch up on. The blend of fantasy, dark fiction, and dreams present throughout the stories gives BCS a particularly strong character. September marks its tenth anniversary, and editor Scott H. Andrews has brought out a lovely special issue: a short story, novelette, and novella set in worlds previously featured in BCS. “Ruby, Singing” by Fran Wilde is set in the same universe as her Nebula and Hugo-nominated novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary”, and features a young woman who is led astray by the song of gems and the man who wants to use the fact that she can hear them. Unusually for a short story, it covers a large swath of time, which requires tight control over the pacing. While the voice of the narrator stays quite young, the tragedy and power of her life shine through. “Court of Birth, Court of Strength” by Aliette de Bodard is a novelette set in the same universe as The House of Shattered Wings and Hugo Award-nominated story “Children of Thorns, Children of Water“. A Fallen, Samariel, is the art teacher and father figure to a young woman who has been kidnapped. He goes to Asmodeus (well known to fans of the novels) for help, and gets much, much more than he bargained for. There are plots afoot that will drive many more stories, and amidst the machinations the author never forgets the consequences for the characters who get swept up.
The novella for the anniversary issue is “Shadowdrop” by Chris Willrich, set in his Gaunt and Bone universe, first seen in The Scroll Years. This charming adventure story is told by Shadowdrop, a black cat, and is set in a world where a black cat’s power to bring bad luck is real, so she makes every effort to avoid crossing people’s paths. Her brother, familiar to a wizard, asks to change places for a day and she agrees – ensnaring them both in the middle of a plot against the city Archaeopolis. This is a great story, well suited to its length, and the prideful narration suits Shadowdrop’s character perfectly. There’s occasionally some friction between comic narration and a more traditionally epic tone, but overall this is a story that BCS readers will lap up.
Going back in time to summer, in BCS #254, “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad starts with a very strong Le Guin-style scenario: in a sheltered pastoral village, the Tree of Life protects all, but demands a ritualized human sacrifice, supposedly drawn randomly from the populace. After her father and then twin brother are taken, young beekeeper Jiteh plots subversion. She marries, has a daughter, and collects potential poison. Rustad does a fantastic job ramping up the tension as more and more sacrifices are taken. The story ends just as Jiteh’s efforts may, or may not, come to fruition, and some readers may be left with a serious case of “What happens next?” The dramatic worldbuilding supported by tightly controlled story telling is its own pleasures, and the question of how many individual sacrifices can be demanded for the good of the whole is always a topical question.
Paired with that, “Three Dandelion Stars” by Jordan Kurella features a woman, Shai, raging against a society that won’t let her be with her love – she’s a peasant, and her lover the lord’s daughter. She lets a magical swamp witch grant her wish, and after a few weeks of bliss it’s no surprise that things don’t go the way she hoped. She is changed in many ways by the events, but it’s not a straightforward Monkey Paw story. My one regret for this story is that Shai’s lover, Amarine, has very little say in events, and as they unfold it’s hard to tell her feelings about them.
Issue #255 starts with “Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies” by E. Catherine Tobler. This story complicates the legend where selkies are the result of women suicides by drowning. Here there are selkie skins left and borrowed and returned, women welcomed and transformed. Full of dream imagery, including a circus, the story is composed of vignettes and is not a linear progression in any sense, with lots of complicated emotion, hope, and regret. In “The Scrimshander“, Damien Krsteski imagines a Gaslight-era fantasy where a caricaturist for a newspaper is involved in drawing the titular supervillain while many people, including his daughter, suffer poverty and disease. I appreciated its circular structure, a feat that’s hard to pull off in a relatively short story.
In BCS #256 “Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya is set in another world where people are fighting against seemingly arbitrary boundaries. The worldbuilding is fantastic as Nonar, a mage in a world where magic use is tightly controlled, winds up on a voyage to the barrier around her world. As the story ends we learn more about the nature of one character and about the barrier itself, but this is another story that leaves an “And then what happens?” feeling. The magic in “Flesh and Stone” by Kathryn Yelinek is more traditional, focused on a case where the wife of a sculptor cannot feel love for him. She yearns for a much different life, and the magic of stone goes in an unexpected direction, with a very interesting role for the sculptor’s mother.
BCS #257 starts with “A Legacy of Shadows” by Christopher M. Cevasco. The opening has the feel of the beginning of a solo D&D adventure, where a man comfortable in the wilderness accepts the charge of some villagers to help rid them of a dangerous monster. The story unfolds in such a way as to keep the adventurous spirit, while bringing the monstrous a real sense of humanity; this could be the origin story of a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-style pairing. “Old No-Eyes” by Christopher Mahon also features a pairing of adversaries, two quasi-immortals who meet at a tea house. Their meeting, infused with thoughts of revenge and power, winds up unsatisfying for both, though there is an unexpected beneficiary of their conflict.
In BCS #258, “The Wyvern Rider and Those of the Land” by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis and “Shattered Hand” by Marc A. Criley both show partnerships with very different lifeforms. In TeGrotenhuis’s tale, “Those of the Land” form a Captain, grown together from four elemental (air/earth/water/fire) consciousnesses. Their air spirit, Veled, is stolen by the Machaenum. As they search for em, they encounter the titular wyvern and rider, who are on the run from that same group. Set in the time between losing Veled and finding em, this feels like it could be a chapter of a larger story with strong worldbuilding and a good reveal about how the Machaenum operates. I also enjoyed the smooth use of non-standard pronouns (for a masterclass in gender diverse pronouns check out Capricious #9, a small press magazine issue that appeared in January of 2018). “Shattered Hand” then gives us Katya and Tsimmit. Katya is humaniform and Tsimmit is some kind of much larger insectoid. They’re working together to defeat a being that demands individual sacrifice in return for societal stability, amputating limbs as the sacrifice. Their partnership, well told from the viewpoint of the alien Tsimmit, comes through strongly and there’s a little bit more denouement here than is average for such stories.
Rounding out August, BCS #259 starts with “Cold Ink” by Dean Wells, a Gaslight adventure story that combines horror and thrills with an introspective plot of a printer in love with a dangerous woman. When her lover shows up covered in metallic tattoos, chased by a possibly superhuman man, and people start dying all around, the printer must decide how far she will follow the mystery. In the “Periling Hand” by Justin Howe, by contrast, a man who has lost an arm in a shipboard accident is mostly willing to accept his fate as a delivery man with an only partly integrated prosthetic. In a world where the infrastructure lives and spore and blooms abound, he and his arm (and the doctor who made it and the card game they enjoy together) become part of a larger struggle. In the end he seems to find a more adventurous, if less peaceful, fate.
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254)
“The Wyvern Rider and Those of the Land”, Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #258)
Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non Fiction category of the British SF Awards.
This review and more like it in the September 2018 issue of Locus.
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