REVIEW: “A Tally of What Remains” by R.Z. Held

Review of R.Z. Held, “A Tally of What Remains”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

The final story in BCS’s twelfth anniversary issue is a very good one. Its themes are loss and grief and hope restored amidst a sort of plague—themes that strongly resonate in this year of the pandemic. The story features two characters who are not as different as they first appear. Helena, a blood mage, finds her magic to be of little help in maintaining the small family farm where she struggles to aid survivors of the Fever who have found refuge in her barn. One of these survivors, Benedict, is reeling from the death of his husband, while Helena can’t get past the guilt of being the only member of her family to survive the Fever. Each needs to grieve and move on; instead, they take their anger out on each other. As time passes, only Benedict seems willing to confront his feelings and work through them. But when another tragedy strikes, both characters find consolation in the strength, compassion, and friendship of the other and soon begin to look forward in hope to a brighter future.  

REVIEW: “The Heart That Saves You May be your own” by Merrie Haskell

Review of Merrie Haskell, “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Issue 313 (September 24, 2020: Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Tabitha Muller (Tabby for short), the second person narrator of this excellent story, is a girl alone on the prairie engaged in a special sort of hunt. When she accidentally falls into a fissure and loses consciousness, she dreams of returning home in triumph with a unicorn slung over her back. As the story progresses, we learn what this accomplishment would mean to her, and how the society in which she lives would view it. It’s a community in which “respectable” women must capture a unicorn to win the right to marry in white and forever after sit up front in church and get called “missus.” Otherwise, women are banished to the back of the church, wearing red. Initially, Tabby calls such women “half-married” and scornfully derides them for deciding that “bearing children is better than bearing pride.” However, after being befriended by Salvia and her wife Petra following her fall, a pointed conversation leads Tabby to a life-changing and movingly written choice when she finally comes face to face with a unicorn.    

REVIEW: “A Minor Exorcism” by Richard Parks

Review of Richard Parks, “A Minor Exorcism”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

The title of Richard Parks’ story in BCS’s oversized 12th anniversary issue is ironic since the exorcism required turns out to be anything but minor. The story begins with Parks’ popular Lord Yamada feeling sufficiently bored to accompany Kenji, his friend and priest, to the small village where Kenji is to perform the exorcism. Upon arriving, however, a bad odor emanating from the village’s burial grounds portends trouble. In short order, Yamada and Kenji find themselves battling for their lives against a creature that haunts graveyards in search of meals. Like the exorcism referred to in the story’s title, the story itself seems fairly minor, but the many fans of the Yamada series will probably find it enjoyable. 

REVIEW: “Many Mansions” By K.J. Parker

Review of K.J. Parker, “Many Mansions”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

If you’re a fan of K.J. Parker’s work, as I am, you’re likely to enjoy this story—the first of four in BCS’ over-sized 12th anniversary issue. I have read many of Parker’s stories and enjoyed his amusingly cynical characters. I can’t help pointing out, however, that there is a certain sameness to much of his work. Most (if not all) feature a first-person narrator who smugly believes himself smarter and more capable than other people only to get his come-uppance by story’s end. In this case, it’s the snobbish, too-sure-of-himself Father Bohenna who has been sent by his religious order to investigate why two seemingly bewitched girls each claim that a woman entered their dreams and stuck them with a brooch pin. The identity of this woman, how Bohenna locates her, and the way each are eventually humbled through the intervention of a third party is what the story is about. It’s a well-told and amusing story, even if long-time readers can detect a hint of familiarity in the plot. 

REVIEW: “The Patron” by Derrick Boden

Review of Derrick Boden, “The Patron”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 312 (September 10, 2020). Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

 In this excellent story on the origins of compassion and empathy, The Patron is a woman who cares more deeply than she realizes about the people who come to her seeking vengeance on others. She has spent seven years as a prisoner negotiating, day after day, the terms for such retribution. But the chain that binds her ankle to her chair—as well as to the need to negotiate these vengeful transactions—is largely symbolic. The Patron believes she is imprisoned and controlled by daemons who thrive on physical and psychic pain and who perform the vengeful acts. She’s wrong, though, and her eventual recognition of the genuine nature of her imprisonment gives rise to a selfless act that ultimately frees her (in a sense). In turn, hope is born, where previously there had been only darkness and despair.  

REVIEW: “Deep in the Drift, Spinning” by Lisa L. Hannett

Review of Lisa L. Hannett, “Deep in the Drift, Spinning”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 312 (September 10, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

I found this to be a rather frustrating read. Though the story is certainly well written—Hannett has won four Aurealis awards, so that’s no surprise—I find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for it. Mostly that’s because I don’t find the point-of-view character, Winnifletch, very engaging. She’s a witch, of sorts, living a solitary, regret-filled life outside the sea town of Baradoon, whipping up magical broths to help her neighbors-in-need. Her daughter Shales is, or perhaps fancies herself, a harpy, while her mother pictures her more as a sailor on a galleon crewed by mermaids. Unfortunately, we don’t actually meet Shales; we learn about her and her desires only from her mother’s somewhat meandering perspective. That’s too bad. I would have liked to learn more about the lives of harpies and mermaids in the world of Baradoon, and what tugs a person more in one direction than the other. 

REVIEW: “Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox” by Jeremy Packert Burke

Review of Jeremy Packert Burke, “Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 311 (August 27, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

In this lovely and compelling story, Themis—a character presumably named after the Greek goddess of justice, wisdom, and good counsel—is his king’s sole mnemosyne.  By some “obscure alchemy,” a mnemosyne is able to “take on, in their entirety, the memories of generals, scientists, poets, doctors—any citizen marked great by the king’s council.”  

In theory, a mnemosyne is able to search this “living archive” of information and provide solutions to whatever catastrophes befall his city, and the king who rules it. Unfortunately, in this case the city is plagued by a catastrophe for which there is no solution. Buildings have seemingly taken on a life of their own, growing “the way trees, and love, and cancer do: too slow to see but constant.” Over time, however, the rate of growth is nothing short of alarming. Knowing there is no solution, Themis is convinced the king will soon have him killed. Where he finds consolation, even joy, in the face of imminent death, I’ll leave you to discover. 

REVIEW: “The Past, Like a River in Flood” by Marissa Lingen

Review of Marissa Lingen, “The Past Like a River in Flood”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 311 (August 27, 2020): read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

A school for magicians is hardly a novel concept these days, but what raises this fast-paced fantasy to a high level is its narrator: a forty-something former student who has reluctantly returned to her alma mater for a reason that terrifies her. When Ellis was a student, the school’s original Vault of Potions was destroyed in a flood. Now, twenty years later, two students are “mysteriously dead, found sitting against the Vault wall without a drop of blood or a bruise on them.”  At least two people suspect how the deaths relate to the long-ago flood: Ellis’s mentor, still a professor at the school, and the school’s provost. Now they need Ellis’s skill as a geomancer to neutralize the “nasty forces” in the Vault that have been allowed to build unchecked for two decades. Before the story ends, Ellis will be betrayed and witness a murder, but she’ll also have an opportunity to teach an important lesson on what it really means to put the past behind you.

REVIEW: “The Transubstantiation” by Evan Dicken

Review of Evan Dicken, “The Transubstantiation”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 310 (August 13, 2020); read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Deff is the narrator of this interesting, but decidedly unusual take on the nature of heroes. He is part of a small group of “glory hounds” who trap and kill heroes in order to sell their bodies on the black market. Often this brings a high price since a hero’s blood can be used as a skin treatment that leaves a person’s face looking “smooth as marble and sheened with a pale glow.” In spite of the monetary rewards, Deff regrets this practice, though he justifies it by reminding himself that heroes always break bad. One case in point is the Weeper, the hunt for whom is what most of the story involves. The Weeper is “the woman who had toppled Empires, burned entire nations in the name of justice, made promise after promise then abandoned us when the payment came due.” Her form of abandonment was novel, at least. She somehow climbed all the way to Heaven searching for truth. However, the truth as she relates it leaves her in despair, but fills Deff with a very different emotion.  

REVIEW: “Fire and Falling” by Andrew Dykstal

Review of Andrew Dykstal, “Fire and Falling”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 310 (August 13, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

If this exciting adventure yarn set in a steampunkish universe is part of an ongoing series, I’m not aware of it; but if it’s the beginnings of one, I can’t wait for the next installment.  Mir, the story’s protaganist, is on her first assignment as a courier for the Lady of Situations, a master manipulator we hear a lot about but don’t actually meet. When given the opportunity to kill a large number of enemy agents, Mir does so by blowing up and unwittingly killing one of the most interesting characters in the story: a living airship. Many people die, too, but several survive, including an enemy agent Mir nicknames “Dogwood” and who befriends her. As the story progresses, Mir learns more and more about the fantastical nature of airships and their engineers. She also learns more about herself, including the fact that her destiny lies along a different path than she’d originally thought.