In the second issue of the 2017 Beneath Ceaseless Skies inches up the story lengths while also turning up the action a bit. These two stories are well paired, both of them fast-paced tales that weave magic and transformation, betrayal and loyalty. The settings for the stories are quite different, one much more historically based and the other a world where airships and storms of the damned share the same skies. But for all that they unfold in much different places, both also develop a similar danger—that of the twisted unknown. The familiar made strange and monstrous. The mind or the dead made into a sort of weapon, a sort of maze, that must be navigated quickly and successfully to survive. These are some thrilling tales that I'm just going to review!
|Art by Jinxu Du|
"Proteus Lost" by Tony Pi (6108 words)
This is a rather interesting story about transformations and mazes and espionage. It unfolds in a rather claustrophobic space, both because the plot unfolds mostly in a single room of a monastery but also because it focuses mostly on the space of the mind, which becomes in the space of the story both something freeing and immense and something cramped, treacherous, and imprisoning. The story sees Flea, a master spy from England, and his apprentice, Luca, seeking to retrieve a dangerous codex from hiding. Only when they arrive they find that the person Flea had entrusted the book to hasn't exactly left it alone. The story features an interesting world building, a setting of shape shifters and politics in Elizabethan Europe. The magic grows organically from the shape shifting, drawing in history and then twisting it to create something nicely weird and compelling. Flea is a character driven to act on behalf of his ruler, but he's also loyal to those close to him, unwilling to cut and run on a friend even though it would be easier. And that is then reflected in the company he keeps, and I love the relationship between Flea and Luca, the easy trust and the way that Luca challenges Flea to think harder and better. The central conflict of the story is a puzzle, and one that's fun to watch the characters unravel (though given how they do it I wonder why they would then stop where they did, but I suppose it's possible more happens after the story closes). It's a fun piece, though, with some nice magical imaginings and solid character work. Fans of historical fantasy would be well served, I think, giving this story a read. A thoroughly enjoyable experience!
"Requiem for the Unchained" by Cae Hawksmoor (6539 words)
I really want to call this story fun because, well, it is. It has airships flying through hurricanes of dead souls and heavy drinking and betrayal and love and all the things that make me sit up and pay attention. But part of me feels weird calling a story with loss and grief and self-destruction in the center of it with injustice, rage, and violence all swirling around it…fun. But fuck it, it's a hell of an adventure and I love how the story builds, how it opens with the main character an open wound after the loss of her wife and sailing partner. Now alone, now desperate for money to stay in the air, the main character agrees to a very dangerous mission from a man she hates, from the man she blames for the death of her wife, in order to stay afloat. Literally. Only the dangers that she thinks she will face on the assignment aren't really the ones that are planned for her, and everything sort of goes to shit and she has to deal with an increasingly terrible situation that might well kill her and everyone around her. Wee! Really, though, I love the way the setting is developed, how we see it mirror the main character's inner landscape. The world itself is an open wound. Why? Well, there's something called the Harrowing that doesn't sound good at all but mostly it's a mystery. What's not a mystery is that the souls of the violently dead form storms that threaten to destroy airships flying without a certain kind of protection. And that the feeling of being in the middle of a literal storm of the damned echoes in the main character, who is damned herself, lonely and alive and searching for meaning or punishment or revenge and finds some measure of all of those things. The story is dark but action-packed, thrilling and sad but with a bit of light and humor, enough to make the overall effect for me fun and not obliterating. A great story!