Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Fantasy, and F&SF

Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2/9/23, 2/23/23
Lightspeed 2/23
Fantasy 2/23
F&SF 3-4/23

Following an issue focused on people chal­lenging the status quo, the second February issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is much more about colonization, language, and resistance. Both stories in the issue are quite good, full of difficult situations and people standing against the abuses of imperial power. In Kelsey Hut­ton’s “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea“, Miyohtwāw is a craftswoman sent to the Great Mother, the queen, with a petition from the Otipēyimisowak, who are suffering because of encroaching settlers seeking to “civilize” their land. Miyohtwāw comes with gifts of respect and honor, including a dress she made herself, but the queen at first doesn’t seem interested in either the gifts or the petition. Things change, though, when she tries the dress on and finds the value of it, and Miyohtwāw, and starts trying to exploit them. Hutton keenly shows the machi­nations of power and conquest, the wounds that colonization and broken treaties leave, all through the lens of a woman just trying to be the voice of her people. Like both stories in the issue, victory is something tempered by the systemic abuses that are not quickly or cleanly fixed, but the story isn’t hopeless, either, and its ending finds a hope and beauty that shine.

February’s Lightspeed includes “Real Magic“ by Sharang Biswas, a story that centers a village and a witch, and three people in need of a little magic. Or who think they need a little magic to help them out of a spot of trouble – one to find a husband, one to become clever, and one to stop the nightmares plaguing her. The witch deals with each in short order, using more sense than magic to “solve” their problems, but taking from each a payment all the same that ends up helping get her what she really wants. Biswas provides a clever and carefully plotted story with a touch of humor helping to soften some of the grim elements the story introduces. Sam J. Miller, meanwhile, imagines a world where everyone has a monster that might one day come for them in “His Guns Could Not Protect Him“. Siblings Winchester and Remington are left with a friend of their parents when their father has an accident. But it’s not the motorcycle crash their mother would have them believe – it’s a monster attack, and it’s left the boys afraid and transfixed, confronting the intimate reality of living in a world with monsters, knowing that there is one out there for each of them. Miller does a great job of selling this world where monsters are just another fact of life, and yet for all they might be accepted as another cost of living, Miller reveals through the eyes of a child what that kind of rationalizing and acceptance brings, and how chilling and transforming true knowledge of monsters can be.

In February’s Fantasy, Malda Marlys provides a charming story about a troll princess named Dagrun in “A Princess with a Nose Three Ells Long“. Dagrun dreams of escaping her rather chaotic and oppressive mother, who has ar­ranged a marriage for her with a cursed (and rather unappealing otherwise) human. Relying on her wits, Dagrun must contend with some complex plots and big egos on her quest for freedom, and Marlys shows a keen understand­ing of fairy tales even as Dagrun subverts most of the fairytale princess tropes. Moving to the issue’s poetry, “The Mermaids of Magonia“ by Carina Bissett offers a strange look at a narrator who has a connection to magic and a desire to save something – a home or a place or a people – from the violence an invading ship means to visit on them. In making the attempt, though, something inside them changes in a way that cannot be undone, and the piece lingers on what that will mean for them even in light of what they accomplished. The lines of the piece are short, clipped tight to the edge of the page, evoking perhaps a shore and the vast ocean, or the story that the reader is shown and the greater depths, the further stories, that must be intuited and guessed. Bissett manages an intriguing and evocative poem well worth spending some time with.

Tade Thompson is no stranger to speculative magazines, but the March/April issue of F&SF marks his first time appearing there with “The Sweet in the Empty“. In it, Jember is trying to retrieve a son from slavery in a historical fantasy setting awash in danger. An aging but skilled warrior, Jember moves through the world with a practiced ease, but what’s waiting for him at the end of his journey might be more than any one person can face alone and hope to survive. Thompson writes some of the best action in the genre, his prose tight and visceral, his character work with Jember a mix of grim resolve and the weight of having lived through too many bloody confrontations and horrors. It makes for a captivating experience. M.H. Ayinde shifts to near-future science fiction with the chilling and unsettling “Piggyback Girl“, which intro­duces readers to Amber, an influencer needing something to stay on the leading edge of social media popularity. So when a technology comes out that will allow followers into her very mind and body, Amber finds herself pressured to sign up, even when everything about it makes her skin crawl. After six months she can walk away, though, with enough money and clout to keep her going for a long time. As the full implications and possibilities of this new tech become clear, though, six months might as well be an eternity. Ayinde doesn’t shy away from showing the sharp teeth and brutal hunger of social media and influencer culture, and leaves readers with a stark look at the blurring line between online and physical life.

Marge Simon gets the poetry of the issue go­ing with “Paradise Lost Redux“, which finds a narrator raised on the moon following the ruin­ation of the Earth, growing in a domed paradise where they are an artist working in the medium of life itself on a quest for a kind of perfection. Without an audience, though, the power of art can seem hollow and pointless. The poem seems to lead readers to question what about the situ­ation represents the loss of paradise – the loss of the planet Earth, or the loss of the collective human conversation out of which art springs? Michael Meyerhofer makes an F&SF debut with a number of poems, including “The Reluctant Ambassador“, which imagines cloned humans shot out into space in missiles to land on planets that aren’t exactly hospitable, but might be worth cultivating. The clones remember the lives they had that they have been divorced from – torn from – without warning or consent. It keeps on the themes of loneliness and meaning in the absence of other people, struggling under the weight of memory and a past that can’t be reclaimed. And the piece implies there is a whole system like this, a web of stranded clones forced to work toward a future they didn’t choose, one that some might say is important or necessary but that for them is a kind of incarceration. It’s a fascinating read.

Recommended Stories:
“Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea”, Kelsey Hutton (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2/23)
“Real Magic”, Sharang Biswas (Lightspeed 2/23)
“The Sweet in the Empty”, Tade Thompson (F&SF 3-4/23)

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others, and many are included in his debut collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories (Lethe Press 2021). He is the series editor of We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction (Neon Hemlock Press) and a multiple-time Hugo and Ignyte Award finalist for his work at Quick Sip Reviews. When not drunkenly discussing Goosebumps, X-Men comic books, and his cats on his Patreon (/quicksipreviews) and Twitter (@ClowderofTwo), he can probably found raising a beer with his husband, Matt, in their home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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