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 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 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 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 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 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.
Review of R.H. Cloake, “Satin and Velvet”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 309 (July 30, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
This is primarily a story about “imposter syndrome” and why so many good, talented people often believe themselves unworthy of success. Greta, the narrator, is the youngest-ever apprentice to a centuries-old master magician. While still an aspiring apprentice she had met and admired Samara, her predescessor. Greta is “plagued,” like Samara before her, by “gasts.” Greta’s are satin; Samara’s were velvet, but all gasts are magical entities that befriend, for no immediately apparent reason, some people and not others. For example, The Master both apprentices serve(d) has never been befriended by gasts and it enrages him. He vents his anger on each apprentice by refusing to give them lessons for as long as their gasts assist them and not him. Each apprentice learns a different lesson from this experience. One of them commits suicide in despair, while the other has an entirely different experience. This is a brief story but well worth reading, particularly if, like so many others, you’ve ever talked yourself into believing you don’t deserve success.
In this story of birth and rebirth, the narrator manifests physically as a young girl named Sola. However, she is actually an abiku, a spirit child untethered to the real world except through the assistance of a mystic named Baba Seyi. “You have come to your mother three times before and have died before your seventh year. You relish her pain and suffering,” Baba Seyi tells her. Though Sola denies this initially, much of the story involves Sola’s need to choose between her spirit family and her flesh and blood family. There is also a battle (both physical and in spirit form) with another spirit child named Rewa who wants to kill Sola and insinuate herself within Sola’s family (and who looks enough like Sola to be able to do it). The story ends differently than I expected, and a bit ambiguously, but it’s definitely worth reading.
Review of Erin Eisenhour, “The Black-Eyed Goddess of Apple Trees and Farmers’ Wives”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 308, (July 16, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
In addition to a wonderfully evocative title, this story features and is narrated by a feisty peasant girl named Bi. She has the bad luck to be chosen to receive “the highest honor any young woman can hope to attain in a mortal life”: to cure the province’s plum pox “by praying, fasting, and letting the shamans tear out my heart and eat its ashes.” Naturally, Bi is not thrilled by the prospect and attempts to avoid the “honor” by pretending she is not a virgin and therefore not the kind of candidate the shamans would prefer. This doesn’t work and the rest of the story provides interesting glimpses into Bi’s relationship with various family members, particularly that of her much-loved but deceased sister and her orphaned child. And by story’s end, Bi’s ultimate fate is not quite what anyone–including Bi–expected.
I’ve never read a story where a talking fish sparks religious controversy in a community, but there’s a first time for everything. Shemaiah is a fisherman on an island community who, as part of a morning’s catch, finds a fish in his nets that tells religious tales and repeatedly warns: “They are coming.” Who “they” are and whether the fish is accurately prophesying the future is unclear. Shemaiah takes the fish to the Shevi’im, the theocratic Council of Seventy who govern the community. Instead of clear guidance, arguments and fistfights break out. As the story progresses, the situation escalates to the point where, during the annual Feast of the Sparing “the gathering looked less like a feast than an armed camp on the eve of war.” I won’t tell you how Shemaiah helps to resolve the situation but the title’s story gives a clear indication of his feelings about the fish. My feelings about the story itself, however, are mixed. There is clearly some fine writing here, but I never felt as emotionally caught up in the story as I would have hoped. Perhaps that’s a failing on my part; you be the judge.