Thematically, this novella is about grief, death, and choices. It is also a story about the power of stories. Its main character, Dinga, and his wise-ass friend, Gerard, are on a quest to deliver Dinga’s dead sister to a city where gods reside, the Dreaming City. Along the way, their journey is interspersed by stories told by Dinga and others they encounter. These narratives give a story-within-a-story feel to the piece that help further illustrate Dinga’s life and mission while building a richly layered history and mythology. You may need to read the story twice to fully grasp all its nuances, but your time will be well spent.
I gather Lord Yamada is a popular character who features frequently in Richard Parks’ stories, but this is my first exposure to Yamada. Here, at least, he seems to be a sort of Sherlock Holmes of the supernatural. Along with Kenji, his companion, he is tasked with investigating strange sounds, lights, and ghostly apparitions near a lake whose ownership, though legally settled, is still the source of friction between two rival daimyos. If you’re a fan of the Yamada series, or of Parks’ work generally, you’ll probably like this story. As a newcomer to the series, however, I found it somewhat amusing, but rather slight.
This story, written by the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is arguably the best of the five stories in this special issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It features several interesting characters, including Lin, the adopted and youngest daughter of her country’s ruler, and Kuikin and Vertir, two agents of one of the country’s leading officials. As the story opens, Lin—last in line to succeed to the throne—is putting the finishing touches on what seems to be the major preoccupation of a solitary life: an intricate scale model temple built from the delicate bones of hummingbirds. Kuikin and Vertir, on the other hand, are enjoying a bit of the good life while posing as foreign investors in an anti-corruption investigation.
The stuff hits the fan when Lin’s father, the Dynast, dies and she must flee for her life with no one to assist her but a servant and her giant pet killer spider, Snub. The resulting narrative is an enjoyably paced adventure that includes, among other things, an impressive fight with blood ants. Though the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, it can also be read as the beginning of what I hope will become an ongoing series.
It’s appropriate that this story of rebirth begins with the narrator awakening from hibernation. Cel belongs to a clan of aquatic, egg-laying creatures that live symbiotically with a species of eight-legged, egg-laying water bears. The lives of both species revolve around protecting themselves and their eggs—their future, in other words—from numerous environmental threats. These include poisonballs, which sicken whoever they touch, and rollers, which eat the eggs and bite off the limbs and tails of all they encounter.
Shortly after Cel awakens and begins laying her own eggs, she learns of a new threat her people must confront: gray, shapeless beings that move slowly but relentlessly and somehow absorb whoever they meet. Further adding to the difficulty, the longtime leader of Cel’s clan has died and Cel reluctantly agrees to take charge. Whether she and her people have the inner strength and resourcefulness to face this foe and, in so doing, forge a different relationship with the water bears is what the remainder of the story relates. It’s a good story told well and the first-person description of Cel’s egg laying is particularly effective.
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.
Having read and enjoyed other stories by Jason Sanford, I was looking forward to reading his latest work. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. SF/F has a long tradition of stories serialized over many years. Sometimes a reader’s enjoyment of the latest tale in the series does not require familiarity with the previous installments. Other times, it’s essential. In this particular case, I suspect I would have greatly benefited from having read the two previous stories set in this universe. Both stories–”Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” (a Nebula award finalist) and “The Emotionless, In Love”–appeared in BCS and are available in the magazine’s archives. However, not having read those two stories, I found this story’s premise difficult to accept and its large cast hard to understand.
It’s rare that I dislike a story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, but this is one of those unhappy occasions. It’s not that Held’s story is badly written. However, it’s premise—Naomi is a ghost trapped within and attempting to outwit a malevolent game whose origin is never explained—didn’t work for me. To be fair, it’s worth noting that another, far more prominent reviewer, has praised this story, so perhaps my reaction is an outlier. Nevertheless, I finished the story more out of a sense of obligation than pleasure.
Rich Larson is one of the field’s best and most prolific writers. Fans of his work and military sf more generally will almost certainly find this story appealing. As its title implies, “The Sniper and I” is primarily about the relationship—often clinical, sometimes adversarial—between a nameless narrator and an unnamed sniper amid a seemingly endless war with no apparent purpose. The nature of the sniper and the motivation of the narrator are what the story revolves around; to say anything about either would get us into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that it’s a dark story made even darker by the discovery of which of the two characters is the more cold-blooded.
This is the final, and arguably the best, story in the first of Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ double-sized Science-Fantasy month celebrations. It takes place on a planet whose ruling class years before waged a genocidal war against a race of “fierce winged termagants.” The war was won largely through an unprecedented combination of science and magic undertaken by the “silver tongued liar” Master Damon. Since then, Master Damon has spent his days using that same mix of science and magic to create creatures whose only purpose is to serve him and others among the ruling class. Creatures like his current apprentice, Dimwit (or Dim, as he is sometimes called). Dim is anything but, however, and the rebirth he experiences and eventually bestows on others like himself, is the main focus of the story. Along the way, we see Master Damon—whose hubris far outweighs his remorse—get his comeuppance at the hands of a mysterious woman whose desire for revenge is not hard to understand.
I have mixed feelings about this story. It involves a colony of humans somehow transformed into insects living in the sort of hierarchical hive society commonly associated with ants and bees. It’s a well written story and the hive society is fully realized; yet I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for the tale. The tone of the first-person narration seems so much like that of a “normal” human that I found it jarring each time I remembered that this particular narrator has mandibles, antennae, and wings. This tension between how the narrator sounds and what the narrator is kept undermining the suspension of disbelief necessary for the enjoyment of any fantasy.