REVIEW: “Only the Messenger” by Emily C. Skaftun

Review of Emily C. Skaftun, “Only the Messenger”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 299 (March 12, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

World weary, perhaps even universe weary, is one way to describe Astrill, the first-person narrator of Skaftun’s excellent story. More specifically, Astrill is chief engineer on a starship carrying illegal cargo. They have been reincarnated so many times, in so many forms—mammalian, reptilian, avian, etc.–and in so many different corners of the universe, that they have begun to feel life is pointless and love forever disappointing. Then they hear a knock on the porthole outside their cabin. It’s Ennesta, a cute, furry-looking, seemingly cat-like creature whose true nature is one of the story’s major plot points and the source of a profound moral dilemma for Astrill.  

My one problem with this story is its slow start. Had I been reading solely for pleasure, as opposed to the somewhat different responsibilities of a reviewer, I might have put it down without finishing. I’m glad I didn’t, since within two or three epub pages, Skaftun’s story becomes much more interesting. 

REVIEW: “Star Bound” by Devon Widmer

Review of Devon Widmer, “Star Bound”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was a cozy little lesbian SF story, full of sweet romance. Terra may build and maintain spaceships, her wife Dr. Vivian Huang may be a leading expert in astroherpetology, but in this story, they are just two women living their lives, and looking forward to the birth of their daughter. So often I hear pleas for “more stories of people just living out their lives” — well, this one fills that niche exactly. In addition, I appreciated Terra’s ambivalence towards become a mom. Not every mom needs to be amazing. Sometimes being good enough is good enough.

REVIEW: “Down in the Kettle Bog, or: Julian and the Frogman” by Josie Nuñez

Review of Josie Nuñez, “Down in the Kettle Bog, or: Julian and the Frogman”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

What do you do when a frogman comes to down, settling into the kettle bog and threatening the local kittens and babies?

Why, bring in the witches of course. A coven of them — twelve now, not thirteen as they once had been — including Julian who has been isolated from the rest for the last six months and still in the grip of an active spell that prevents her from speaking. The problem is, the last time the coven had to deal with a frogman, they were twenty witches strong and still barely managed to defeat it; and the other problem is, Julian is an oratory witch, one whose power is strongest when she speaks.

The rest I’ll leave to the reader to find out for themself, but it involves a panoply of witches with different powers and abilities all picked out with humor hunting down the frogman, and an explanation of why Julian placed the silence-spell on herself in the first place.

REVIEW: “The Einsteiners” by J. Askew

Review of J. Askew, “The Einsteiners”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 237-247 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I appreciate a novel take on time-travel, and that’s what Askew’s “skimming” is, liking skipping a stone across a flat pond, but instead of a rock and a flat space of water, it’s a person and a black hole.

Esther, the narrator, is one of the Einsteiners, one of the few people who has a legal license to skim. All she hopes is that she’ll get through to the other side of the black hole known as Lilith — a hundred years into the future — at the same time as her girlfriend, Andee, and before humanity makes first contact with an alien civilisation. Unfortunately, only one of those hopes will be realised…

REVIEW: "The Moneylender's Angel" By Robert Minto

Review of Robert Minto, “The Moneylender’s Angel”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 296, January 30, 2020, Read online, Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Gareth and the story’s unnamed narrator are dockworkers sharing their lives in a bleak, violent town named Siltspar. Each has had a difficult past filled with violence neither feels able to atone for. To pay off a large debt owed by his father, Gareth was coerced into using his healing touch to torture people. The narrator, given by his parents at an early age to a cruel priesthood, was made to slit a hundred throats in ritual sacrifice.  Both quit these gruesome practices as soon as they were able, but the guilt each feels is unrelenting. When, completely by chance, a magically powerful necklace used in the priesthood’s ritual slaughter falls into their possession, a very different kind of sacrifice is called for. Done out of love, this sacrifice, too, brings guilt, but also the hope of a brighter future for at least one of the two main characters.  

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of my favorite magazines. Evocative stories like this are one of the reasons why.

REVIEW: “Star Tipping” by Jonathan Coolidge

Review of Jonathan Coolidge, “Star Tipping”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 163-176 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: Contemplation of suicide, explicit descriptions of pain and injury.

This story starts in media res with a crash and a bang — literally: Church, the first-person present-tense narrator is in a pretty gruesomely described car crash. What follows isn’t much more pleasant, as we’re taken on a trip down Church’s memory lane, filled with unhappiness and hurt.

Just at the point where I was wondering “what is speculative about this?” the story takes a sharp turn into superhero-land as Church discovers — via unexpectedly using them — he has achieved superpowers.

This story wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I can still appreciate the quality of its crafting.

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.