The stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are not exactly for the faint of heart. They are violent stories, and in some ways they are about the triumph of violence over peace. But they take very different meanings and paths when dealing with that idea. Because in the first peace is something artificial and corrupt, hiding a violence that is ongoing, and ending the peace means allowing that old and infested wound to perhaps heal. And in the second, peace is something that seems impossible, that seems naïve and stupid, and through the actions of the story peace is something that seems to be put out of reach, the wound only further infected and festering. Side by side they make an interesting contrast, and I'm just going to get to the reviews!
|Art by Raphael Lacoste|
"A Cup of Comfort" by Stephanie Burgis (3511 words)
This is a neat story about time and about safety, about comfort and about predation. It unravels around a teahouse that sits at the center of a city-state or perhaps island nation, one that has known peace for a long time. One where nothing really seems to go wrong except that the prince gets rather rowdy in his partying. But there's also a strong mystery that sprouts in the center of this—the isolation of the city and the nature of the teahouse and its owner. The story is built slowly circling the blank space where the teahouse owner is supposed to be, is wreathed in illusions even as it seems pastoral, idyllic. And I like how the story seeks to complicate that, how the story slowly pulls out and reveals what's going on. How it brings the Dragon Queen to the teahouse as part of an old tradition, an old ceremony. And I quite like how the owner and the Queen relate to one another. [SPOILERS] The story drops its masks the moment that the characters do, which comes fairly late in the tale, all things considered. But without the slow build at the beginning I think that moment would lack something, and I appreciate how the story the goes deeper, scraping away the illusions. In many ways then it becomes about danger and safety, the city protected but at a cost. Because even if the arrangement is one that mostly benefits everyone, there is a kernel of corruption that sits at its heart. That, basically, if the foundation for the arrangement is tainted, the outcome cannot truly flourish. It ever exists with the mark of that first betrayal, that first illusion, and when the Queen wipes that away what I was left with as a reader is the original crime that has gone unpunished. It's a complex story, and one that weighs comfort and safety against the change and opportunity. It's difficult to say really if the decision the Queen makes is the "right" one, but it is certainly hers to make and she does it, and it's a powerful moment. A great read!
"A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain" by Martin Cahill (11,236 words)
Okay then. This is a rather intensely tragic story that follows one woman on a quest to obey her empress, to save a life by ending it. Or at least by stripping it of anything that makes it warm and kind. It's a story about weapons, and about monsters. Glass Kiss is a weapon for the Cold Empire, a place with a mad Coldmonger for a king and an exiled Empress and a ruthless nationalism that allows only the strong to survive. Only utility to flourish. And yet the young prince seems to be on the verge of something. On becoming someone who will not survive. And the Empress, though exiled, asks one of her former servants, her former weapons, to save her son. By making sure that he's exactly the child that her mad husband will let live. Standing in her way are former friends and old enemies and the gnawing fear and guilt and shame in her own heart. It's a harrowing story about how far Glass Kiss will go in order to obey. In order to be the weapon she sees herself as. And that's the most tragic thing about the story, that it unfolds in large part because to disobey would be to have to take responsibility as a person for her actions instead of letting the atrocities she committed be because she was a weapon. Because she was a monster. It's something that happens with abuse, with brainwashing, this resistance to having to face what's happened. What she's done in order to stay alive. It's a terrifying story in that way, about how difficult it is to fight against that programming, to try and overcome the systematic hatred and brutality of a place and a society. [SPOILERS] That Glass Kiss succeeds in her mission also means that Armila, the person, is basically dead. That there is no going back, that there is no real hope. Which is incredibly bleak and depressing but still, I think, handled well by the story that sees what a defeat this is, what a tragedy. It's difficult and it seems so wrong, and I'm not a huge fan of just how terrible the situation is, but I understand it and it's powerfully done. Artfully done. And certainly worth checking out. Indeed!