Thursday, October 13, 2016

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #209


It's a special anniversary issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and I'm treating the entire issue like it came out in October (though technically some of the stories released in late September). There's double the fiction to enjoy, which means twice the amount of worlds to explore. For me, it means a return to a few settings that I've very much enjoyed in the past, and also the introduction of a few that I wouldn't mind returning to. The stories are about resistance and identity. About facing choices about how to be, how to live, and then having to live with those choices. The stories are full of conflict, of looming war and exploration and intrigue, and there's a lot to see and take in among the worlds revealed, even those that look an awful lot like our own. To the reviews! 

Art by Raphael Lacoste


Stories:

"The Wind Shall Blow" by Gregory Norman Bossert (6512 words)

This is a story about the magic of song and of war, of mistrust and suspicion. The plot unfolds in Scotland in a time of war during the reign of Charles I (I think), and features an Irish woman named Regan who has immigrated into a village and become the local bard. The singer at the inn. And who some suspect of witchcraft because of how she can provoke with her song. How she can seem to inspire. It's put her in a bad place in town because of how she's used it, because of how she attracted the attention of a man, and as she spends a day at work the intricacies of the profession shine. Because the entire village and especially the inn is a powder keg that she attempts to keep well away from fire by choosing her songs well, by keeping everyone happy and harmonious. Only two strangers are in town who seem strange and a bit lit herself. And I love the way the story uses song and the idea of birds. As omens and as actors on the stage of war. Looking at magpies and crows, looking at how sometimes those who don't fit in are made to fit into a role that others are comfortable with. And how there's power in that role, for those who might take it. The story is a fast one, filled with action and strange conversation. The two strangers are stepping out of something older and deeper than the political situation of the day and I like how they draw Regan into it. It's not easy but it does leave her a choice, a choice that she has to make knowing it might cost her the life she tried to build for herself. But that in some ways that life isn't hers, and can't be hers, because of the world around her, because of the other people who hate her for what she can do. it's an eerie story with a sinking darkness but a rising fire and power. A fine read!

"A Courtship of Beasts" by Michael Anthony Ashley (7718 words)

This is a story of fires and loves, hope and betrayals. It's about two people finding each other and finding in each other something that enriches them both. But it also a story about cages and about fear, about roles and about anger. The story follows Shams, a young man who burns with a desire to go, to explore, to see. And in his travels he finds a woman, chases her, and finds in her, in Kaafaha, more than an equal. A partner. Someone to travel with and to revel in, who loved him but refused to submit to him. And when Shams' father fell ill, when Shams himself felt fear because Kaafaha would not stop, would not bend to his will. It's a story about the complex ways that people find each other and seek to hold one another. Shams is a man ruled by his appetites but Kaafaha is no less ambitious and free. Is no less driven to travel and to adventure. I like how the story shows Shams fall victim to himself, to his own fears that a woman with power and with independence would only leave him behind. Even when she said she wanted him, loved him, he could not believe it as long as she could leave, as long as she had the power to go in a way that he could not prevent. It's a deep critique of how love can twist to something else, how hunger can turn into a desire to consume. To own. And how such a drive is destructive. The fire of Shams is something that can warm and nurture, but it's also something that can destroy, and I like how the story brings everything together, how it brings Shams to his own lowest moment and then hints that he might yet climb back up. It's a fun story and a great read!

"The Boy Who Would Not Be Enchanted" by A.M. Dellamonica (8637 words)

This is a story that takes a look at the cost of relationships. The cost of love. The cost of the ability to love. But also the dangers of taking yourself outside that possibility. Oh, and it's also a rather fun story about a young boy stowing away on a ship and having a grand adventure. The setting here is one that I've seen before and so didn't take all that much to get me back into things, a world of ships and sails and a long, unsteady Peace. The main character, Tonio, becomes a sort of accountant aboard a ship that's famous for its owner, Gale, who is something of a spy, something of a problem-solver, and definitely a stubborn old woman. More than Gale, though, the story focuses on the young captain of her ship, Garland Parrish, who is beautiful and, by his proximity to Gale, dangerous. I love how the story takes these characters are shows them in a moment of relative peace. Deployed not to stop a war but to have a birthday party. And yet amidst the celebrations finding out that there's something else at play. That the home Gale left behind hasn't really left her, and that there are plans that involve Gale that run much deeper than anyone suspected. I love the characters, and especially the main three of Gale, Garland, and Tonio. Tonio is a romantic at heart, with a yearning desire to see adventure, and he's not really disappointed by his trip with Gale. Garland, on the other hand…is a bit more complicated, deeply wounded and careful but also, as Gale points out, spoiled. Things come easily for him and his beauty, though troublesome at times, get him a lot of attention. I love how the story balances him as a character, showing him ever in control because he needs to be, because if he's not it's too easy to let his power lead. That unless he tries all the time to reign in his gifts, he is apt to abuse them. It's a lovely and fun piece that marks another interesting dip into a setting that I like the more I read. An excellent story!

"The Book of How to Live" by Rose Lemberg (13,401 words)

Um…yes. Yes to this story. About work and ability and value in an unequal society, it weaves together magic and mechanics, desire and hope. And for a story that's about so-called simples, it is wonderfully complex, exploring a setting that continues to expand and deepen, each story strengthening and widening the grid that is Birdverse and providing an incredible experience. This story focuses on two women, Efronia and Atarah, brought together not so much by their lack of deepnames so much as their genius at making things. They are artificers, not because they have been granted the title by a university or other entrenched power, but because their inventions work. And the story is about work, the work that one does and how one does it. About the power of work to draw people together, to unite them, especially when the work is so tied to how to live and how to live better. The world of the setting, of Birdverse, is one ripe with magic. Reading another story of the setting and it's easy to see the wonders that the named strong can accomplish. And yet there is a power that goes deeper than that. The power of cooperation. The characters themselves in this story explore power. Magic power, yes. Mechanical power, yes. But also power of a less tangible nature. A power that they hope to tap into to push for change. To lift people up. A power that is limitless and oftentimes untapped. The power of people helping people. Of movements. Of resistance. Efronia is pragmatic, solid, and in some ways politically uninterested. She wants to do work. And yet that desire is itself political. Like people who find that their very identities are dangerous and subversive, Efronia has to confront the fact that she will always be considered lesser so long as she lives by others' rules. Atarah is much more consciously political, an advocate and a reformist who refuses to wait any longer. But who knows she cannot work alone. There is such a hope to this story and such an adorable budding relationship between Atarah and Efronia that I just love. For me it works, and it shines a light on an aspect of the setting that doesn't always get center stage. It also sets up some events that…well, that I want to know more about. It's an incredible story and for those hungry for more Birdverse, it does not disappoint. Go read it!

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