REVIEW: “The Ordeal” by M. Bennardo

Review of M. Bennardo, “The Ordeal”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue Number 297, February 13, 2020: Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

I’ve enjoyed many other stories by this author, but this time Bennardo has outdone himself. In this tale of institutionalized evil, a young man named Waller, at the urging of his lawyer father, visits the mythical Duchy of Alpinia. There, he encounters the world’s strangest court of appeals. To save the life of her wrongfully accused husband, Frau Fenster must undergo a trial by ordeal. In a single day, she—the duchy’s finest spinner—must produce via spinning wheel at least twice as much material as is humanly possible. Since nothing short of divine intervention could help her succeed, the country’s legal system literally requires Frau Fenster to work a miracle or her husband will be shot at dawn the next day. To Waller, this is a barbaric practice, but to the learned men of Alpinia, it seems perfectly reasonable to put their faith in God, “the only true Witness and the only unerring Judge.” 

Saying more would spoil an excellent story, but I strongly urge you to read it. It’s among the best Beneath Ceaseless Skies has published. Given how good a magazine BCS is, that’s saying quite a lot. 

REVIEW: “Forgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea” by C. L. Clark

Review of C. L. Clark, “Forgive Me My Love, For the Ice and the Sea”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies 296, January 30, 2020, Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer

I’m not usually a big fan of pirate stories, but I’ll gladly make an exception for this one. References to the sea and sailing all ring true, but the story excels in its depiction of the love triangle at its core and the characterization of the women who comprise it.  

Instead of a Pirate King, Clark gives us a Pirate Queen, Issheth by name, whose drowned wife she hopes to convince the goddess of the sea to resurrect. Among her crew, is Laema, who has been coerced into killing Issheth in order to free her own wife, imprisoned by the High Court as a sort of bargaining chip. As Laema becomes more and more enamored of Issheth, killing her becomes increasingly problematic. Then the goddess intervenes on behalf of both women and things end differently—and more unpredictably—than either would have believed possible. Another fine story from one of the best magazines in the field. 

REVIEW: “The Candle Queen” by ephiny gale

Review of ephiny gale, “The Candle Queen,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 295, January 16, 2020, Read Online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is a good, if perhaps, flawed story. It posits a very strange world, one that selects at the age of eight 26 girls based solely on their capacity for self-control and stamina. At 17, the girl who most excels at these two qualities becomes her world’s “unflinching rod,” The Candle Queen. It is her duty into old age to wear upon her head a metal bowl on which three large candles sit upon a heavy plate. If she doesn’t–if for even a moment her concentration falters and she fails to keep her head upright—the candles might go out. And if they do, the world will end. Or so it is said.  

For the girl selected for this “honor,” it is not much of a life.  Fortunately, the Candle Queen has a handmaiden named Anne who considers it her duty, as well as her pleasure, to introduce her queen to the joys of intimacy and personal freedom. Which, of course, underscores the tension—in her world and ours—between duty and freedom. 

I have only one quibble regarding this story. As metaphor, it works wonderfully well. In the fantasy world Gale posits, however, it seems unlikely that even the most disciplined person could sit or stand bolt upright for years—let alone a lifetime.

REVIEW: “Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North” by Genevieve Sinha

Review of Genevieve Sinha, “Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue Number 294 (January 2, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer

This is the tale Claudette tells a newspaper reporter about how she—a skinny, sixteen-year old trapper’s daughter—came to tangle with the mysterious Devil of the North. Basically, she did it by following her own good judgment while ignoring the sexist advice of male authority figures. “Young ladies who listen to others ‘bout their place don’t get much done at all,” she reasons.   

The story is set in a steampunkish version of the Canadian north, replete with skinner-bots and a number of cleverly named electric-powered guns. These include the ‘Lectric Oathkeeper, The True Heart, Lightning’s Fury, and The Foreboding of Beasts. But my favorite is The Wife’s Beloved, “a quadruple-barreled invention so noisy it was used only as a last resort but so called because every man who’d used it came home to his wife.”    

Like its companion story in this issue of BCS, the plot is not what’s best about this yarn. In fact, the ending seemed a bit anticlimactic. However, the setting and narrative voice more than make up for it. In short, it’s another fine story from a magazine well worth reading.   

REVIEW: “These Wondrous Sweets” by Tony Pi

Review of Tony Pi, “These Wondrous Sweets”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 294, Jan. 2, 2020 — Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is the fifth story in what appears to be a continuing series. (Two of the earlier stories also appeared in BCS and were finalists for Aurora and Parsec awards.) Don’t worry if you haven’t read the previous work; I hadn’t either, but references within the current story make it easy to understand what has gone before.  

Ao, who creates and sells blown caramel figurines, lives in Chengdu, China and has two of the more novel “superpowers” I’ve encountered in SF/F: the ability to “pour his soul” into his caramel creations and conjure animals from water. In previous stories, Ao apparently used these powers to help save the life of the Pale Tigress, the mystical, tiger-like protectoress of the city. However, the Tigress was seriously wounded (as was Ao) in a confrontation with the Ten Crows Sect, which has somehow allied itself with a demon in hopes of seizing power in the city.  

The current story primarily involves Ao’s attempt to create a diversion so that a doctor can get to the Tigress and treat her injury without giving away the Tigress’ hiding place. To do this, Ao fashions a Tigress-shaped caramel figurine, expands its size with water, then sends his consciousness into it. This provides Ao a measure of control over his creation. However, as another character wryly observes, “plans always go wrong,” and most of the story involves Ao’s increasingly desperate attempts to improvise as the Ten Crows Sect closes in. 

Thin on plot but strong on ambience and action, this is a story worth reading. 

REVIEW: “Every Tiny Tooth and Claw (or: Letters From the First Month of the new directorate)” by Marissa Lingen

Review of Marissa Lingen, “Every Tiny Tooth And Claw (Or: Letters From The First Month Of The New Directorate)”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 295, January 16, 2020, Read Online, Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is an excellent story, but not one to be read casually. On a superficial level, it is a series of letters between two lovers, Aranth and Pippa, separated for reasons that become more apparent as the story progresses. Read more closely, however, the letters are written in a sort of code that reveals far more about the lives of these lovers, and the society they inhabit, than is apparent on first reading. Saying more about this story would give too much away, so I’ll close with this. You may need to read this story twice, but you’ll thank yourself for doing so.

REVIEW: “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts,” by Richard Parks

Review of Richard Parks, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #235, September 28, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

Trials and tribulations await a father/daughter team of devil-hunters and the snake-devil in their service when a restless spirit approaches them in hopes of finding rest.

Straightforward and linear, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” seems more focused on adventure than theme. The characters are largely archetypes, never revealing enough of themselves to be memorable—although the father does seem to scratch his beard often. Despite being relegated to the periphery, Mei Li, the snake-devil in training to become human, has potential; unfortunately, her struggle never feels integrated into the plot meaningfully. This is a shame since there are so many ways in which one could explore her situation.

Instead, our focus is trained on an insidious plot involving the spirit of a wronged princess from a bygone kingdom. Most of this is shared via expository dialogue, and the forward motion stalls while this story-within-a-story unfolds. Once we reach the conclusion—expected and unsatisfactory, as if nothing much changed, adventure or no—there is a sense this story is actually a vignette. It is, perhaps, more of a case, not unlike something you’d see in a beloved mystery series like Christie’s “Poirot or Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Unfortunately, this format doesn’t work well without quirky, memorable characters or long-term serialization; part of the reason we love these stories is that we can return to a beloved character again and again—the only thing that changes is the particulars.

All told, I did enjoy the use of Chinese mythology and the way it informed the world. It’s encouraging to see fantasy break with western traditions.