REVIEW: “Satin and Velvet” by R.H. Cloake

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. 

REVIEW: “The Many Lives of an Abiku” by Tobi Ogundiran

Review of Tobi Ogundiran, “The Many Lives of an Abiku”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 309 (July 30, 2020). Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

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: “The Black-Eyed Goddess of Apple Trees and Farmers’ Wives” by Erin Eisenhour

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.

REVIEW: “It is Not From Heaven” by Jonathan Edelstein

Review of Jonathan Edelstein, “It Is Not From Heaven”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 308 (July 16, 2020). Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

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. 

REVIEW: “Seven Dreams of a Valley” by Prashanth Srivatsa

Review of Prashanth Srivasta, “Seven Dreams of a Valley”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 307 (July 2, 2020):listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Appropriately enough, this is a dream-like story told from the point of view of a night watchman in a prison where, “when prisoners dream, it is only the walls that bear witness.” However, when Kalmashi, an accused witch and rebel is captured, something more seems to be at work. Though the guards are warned that even to look at Kalmashi is dangerous, they can’t help themselves. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because the night watchman is kind to Kalmashi at different times, he dreams (possibly as a reward) seven times over seven nights about the valley of Kashmira and its people. Or at least he seems to. But is his so-called waking life a dream, too? Where does reality end and dream begin? I’ve read the story twice and am more and more impressed by how successful the story is at blurring the line between what’s real and what isn’t. In any case, this is a story that’s worth reading again and again. 

REVIEW: “Buttercream and Broken Wings” by Aimee Ogden

Review of Aimee Ogden, “Buttercream and Broken Wings”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 307 (July 2, 2020): read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

I’m a fan of Aimee Ogden, whose memorable “Never a Butterfly Nor a Moth with Moon-painted Wings” was one of the highlights of BCS’s over-sized 300th issue. Ogden’s latest story features Willowbright, an independent-minded, down-on-her-luck fairy due to the death of an old widow who had often left out food and drink for her. Now “alone, unserved by human hands,” Willowbright’s future is grim unless she can find some other human patron. Toward that end, she provides magical favors for a girl in exchange for food and an unusual refuge from the cold. She also meets a wild fairy who provides unexpected aid in Willowbright’s direst moment. Overall, it’s a good story, if a bit open-ended. Perhaps Ms. Ogden plans to treat us to a sequel.   

REVIEW: “Kill the Witchman” by William Broom

Review of William Broom, “Kill the Witchman”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 306 (June 18, 2020): read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is a story about the malleability and unreliability of memory. Dumu, the narrator, initially knows neither his name, his past, nor his motives. He is nevertheless in relentless pursuit of the witchman, Ketan, who has the power to implant false memories in anyone’s mind. “This is the power of a witchman: memory is wet clay in his hands. What you remember is what he wishes you to remember, and nothing else.” What Dumu comes to remember is that he is Ketan’s brother and that Ketan’s son, Nazd, is his much-loved nephew. But are these “facts” true, Dumu wonders, or false memories implanted by the witchman? This question—What is real?—is one readers must grapple with, too. It makes the story a somewhat frustrating read, since nothing in it can be taken at face value. Yet Broom is a talented writer and his story forces readers to confront the slipperiness of our own memories and what that implies about our own perception of reality. 

REVIEW: “The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door” by Greta Hayer”

Review of Greta Hayer, “The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 306 (June 18, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Knowing what lies in store for you versus the perhaps illusory freedom that comes from not knowing is the conflict that lies at the heart of this story. As its title suggests, the story revolves around two main characters, both unnamed. The augur somehow has the ability to foretell a person’s future by examining “every bump and line in his flesh.” The girl abandoned on his doorstep is, from the start, a spirited creature. Each comes to rely on the other, but the relationship is not without conflict. Though the augur has taught his adopted daughter to read and write, he refuses to teach her his way of foretelling the future. When one day he finds the girl reading a priceless volume called The Diviner’s Book of Augury, he rips it from her hands and throws it in the fire. Was this cruel or kind? I have my own opinion, but I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself. 

REVIEW: “Breath of the Sahara” by Inegbenoise o. Osagie

Review of Inegbenoise O. Osagie, “Breath of the Sahara”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 305 (June 4, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Like its companion piece in the latest issue of BCS, this is a story of transformation—physical for one character, psychological for another. The story is narrated by a girl named Obehi Ehichoya, whose feelings for another girl, Esohe Okhah, deepen as the story progresses. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, Esohe is fascinated by and something of an expert on The Order of the Zephyrs, considered by the people of her village to be “our link to the gods.” Among the most striking creations I’ve encountered in recent fantasy fiction, Zephyrs look odd but for good reason. “Zephyrs were wind lovers, even if the wind shrank them; breathed through their skin so that it became loosened enough that it turned floury. They only came to the surface and gratified their wind lust on first Sabbaths . . .”  When the two girls sneak into the Zephyrs’ temple ostensibly to steal gold, they meet a Zephyr who conveys information to one of them that will forever change them both. This is an excellent story, and one I recommend highly. 

REVIEW: “The Widow” by Emma Torzs

Review of Emma Torzs, “The Widow”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 305 (June 4, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This story of transformation, revenge, and double-crosses takes the form of a confession dictated to a man “in the final hour of his life” by narrator Perrine Mauroy “in the first hour of her own.” As the story opens, Perrine is a battered wife seeking freedom from an abusive husband, but she also yearns for the chance to live a stranger, though—from her point of view—better life. When the blood of a living calf is transfused into her husband, somehow rendering him peaceful, Perrine takes hope, only to have that hope dashed when the transformation wears off. What happens next involves an unusual combination of science, magic, and double-dealing, and ends with an odd, but oddly satisfying, metamorphosis.