Ever hear the one about the nun and the soldier who enter a bar and can’t see their reflection, or that of the bartender, in the mirror on the opposite wall? Neither had I until I read this wonderful story. Magdalene is the nun and Leandros the soldier. He and a fellow soldier he loves (Yiorgos) have just suffered mortal wounds in battle and now Leandros finds himself on what Magdalene describes as “the border.” While they sit there, drinking honeyed raqi (him) and whiskey (her), Magdalene offers him a chance to live again and escape the war with Yiorgos. Leandros can’t help thinking of the offer as a bargain with the Devil. To convince him otherwise, the nun magically stops time and tells him the very unnunlike story of her life and death and the price she paid for the opportunity to tell it to him. It’s a remarkable story, told in a compelling narrative voice, marred only slightly by the somewhat jarring, though ultimately satisfying, point-of-view shift toward the end.
This enjoyable adventure in the land of the fairies is well worth reading, even though the ending is a bit predictable. It primarily centers around the close relationship between two childhood friends. Rowland, the son of Lord Robert, is the stronger of the two, while Jack, the son of Lord Robert’s cook, is smarter and wiser than his friend. Class differences should force the two to part company, but in spite of the difficulties, their companionship continues into their fourteenth year. That’s when a magic spell transports Rowland to Fairyland against his will. Jack is determined to rescue him and—with the help of an old witch, some gifts from his mother, and his own quick wits—he does so, gaining more than he bargained for by story’s end.
Review of Devin Miller, “Fox Red, Life Red, Teeth Like Snow”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 303, May 7, 2020: listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
In this brief but interesting story, a changetroll named Hryggda is returning home to her wives shortly before dawn with a human baby she secretly “traded” a changeling-babe for. Along the way she meets a wolf hungry for more than animal prey. Somehow, “wolves have been hunting the sun since her autumn waning, but she has escaped, hidden herself in a den to sleep until spring like a bear. And now, it seems, the forest’s hunters aim to eat the moon.” Hryggda is determined to protect the moon, much as the moon protects her during her late night excursions. She is, however, hampered by her even greater need to protect the newborn she carries.
I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that the story ends too quickly and too conveniently for my taste. It would have benefited from a deeper examination of the lives of the changetrolls and the world they inhabit.
Review of Wendy Nikel, “Lonely Children Lost at Sea”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 302 (April 23, 2020). Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
“The sea giveth and the sea taketh away” could well be the theme of this excellent story. It takes place on an island where a small number of children—only children—have been periodically stranded. Over time, the original children have grown up and a rough but functional society has evolved. More recently stranded children are cared for in a communal fashion, since “the miracle of conception, which reads like fairy tale magic in our books” is impossible on the island. Nevertheless, some of the original children, such as Theodore and Gina, have paired off, while at least one other, Loraine, finds herself in an unrequited love triangle. She yearns for something more with Theodore—one of her closest friends in childhood, as was Gina—while Gina yearns for a child of her own. She gets her wish when a new child, given the name Maris (or “of the sea”) is rescued. However, “be careful what you wish for” could be another theme of this story, and Loraine’s sense of foreboding, brought on by the adoption, is borne out.
Review of Eleanna Castroianni, “Who Goes Against a Waste of Waters”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 302 (April 23, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
On the surface, this story portrays the struggle of the titular narrator and her brother to survive while living on their own in a dead giant’s skull in a graveyard located in a war zone. The kids are barely hanging on. Their parents, without explanation, have long ago departed, “headed eastward, to the Deep Night. No one fully alive knows what lies there.” It’s a brief, strange, dream-like story which, toward the end, seems to hint at delusion. Regardless, the story has an ominous, rather nightmarish quality. It’s certainly not a fun piece, but it’s worth reading.
Review of Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, “As the Shore to the Tides, So Blood Calls to Blood”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 301 (April 9, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
Like its companion piece in this issue of BCS, Rodriguez’s tale features two bitterly angry siblings. More than one set of them, in fact. The more interesting of these are portrayed in a genesis myth, related early in the story, of two god-like brothers who “divided the world between the bitter waters and sweet,” only to turn upon each other, like Cain and Abel. The rest of the story involves the more mundane, though still magic-infused, tale of a young boy abandoned by his older brother and forced to live under the tyranny of a cruel religious order.
I’m of two minds about this story. The opening scenes swept me away and left me eager to discover what would happen next. Unfortunately, the remainder of the story failed to live up to the promise of those early scenes. Still, Rodriguez is clearly a talented writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Review of Josh Rountree, “February Moon”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 303 (May 7, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
Things are not all they seem in the lead story of BCS’ latest issue. Someone or, as the first word of the story suggests, something is killing the animals at the small farm where the German immigrant narrator and two of her children reside. Her husband and oldest son are missing for reasons that provoke guilt in the narrator but are not initially explained. Rountree’s quietly horrifying story is a striking portrait of a solitary woman seemingly in need of a man’s protection—at least according to the men in the town near her farm—yet strong enough to resist repeated unsought advances. What help she does need comes from an unexpected source and, by story’s end, we learn the reason for her fear and guilt, as well as the source of her strength and despair. It’s an excellent story, wonderfully told. I like the title, too. It may seem understated, but it takes on added significance once you’ve finished the piece.
This is a striking portrait of two bitterly angry sisters. Nell is the ruler of the land, known by many titles, including (ironically, from her sister’s point of view) Queen of Peace and The Warrior Who Has Ended War. What she has not ended, and clearly has no desire to end, is the life-long rivalry, jealousy, and hatred that exists between twin sister Lottie and herself. Nell has magically imprisoned her twin in “a tower set upon rock in the center of a mountain river . . . and the chains that bind me are living wood, growing from my ankles and feet into roots below, from my hands into the branches wending through walls, from my hair into the crown above.” It’s a striking image and apt metaphor for the rage that has long imprisoned both sisters. Though Lottie has clearly gotten the worst of it, having been physically and psychologically tortured for years, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have done the same to Nell had the situation been reversed. It’s an all-consuming fury on the part of both sisters, perhaps the only thing that gives life meaning for either of them.
In an earlier review, I said that C.C. Finlay’s “The Hummingbird Temple” might be the best story in this special, 300th issue of BCS. Perhaps it is, but this story is at least a close second. It is told in the form of a never-sent letter, written in code, recalling the life of a mother, Shemi, and the hopes and fears she had—and still has—for her much-loved daughter, Oya. The story begins with an account of how Shemi and her people, wartime refugees, were driven out of their land and forced to settle in a matriarchal, but decidedly puritanical society. There, Shemi’s People of the Butterfly are seen as second-class citizens, at best.
Interesting though this part of the story is, however, it pales before the account of how Shemi came to accept her daughter for the person she is, something “new and strange and wonderful,” rather than the person Shemi once hoped Oya would become. But it’s not just the story itself that delights. Ogden’s language is beautifully poetic. At one point, for example, she describes her then unborn daughter as “a secret moon riding high in my belly.” At another, Ogden offers a convincing explanation for why Butterflies prefer one-night stands. If that doesn’t get you to read the story, I don’t know what will.
Belezal—the name the narrator bestows upon themselves in the course of the story—is a student refugee on the strange world of Khalem, “a carven globe of gold floating in the sky, tethered to the ground with ancient linked chains.” They and their family had been allowed to enter Khalem only because “the government needed more people to balance the weight of the city on its chains.” Balance with their bodies, in other words.
One evening, Belezal unwittingly discovers “a sidewise market” similar to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, but more fantastic. There he is given a magic onion and begins a journey during which he encounters many strange places and people, including Nayra, the woman who cooks, and most importantly, The Maid of Murur. This is a lovely, poetic story of people adrift and largely unwelcome but who are nevertheless determined to find a place for themselves.