Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #220

Sometimes an issue comes along that really focuses on a central theme, and the first March issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies does an amazing job of exploring the devastation of war. Not just the costs in human life but in human conscience. Because the characters in these stories are war criminals, responsible for things that cross the line from murder into atrocity. And the stories dig into the minds of these characters not to sympathize with them (in my opinion) but to show what is left afterward. To show the empty guilt and shame and doubt. To show the lingering harm that has been done, that they have done, and show that there are some things you cannot heal from, should not be healed of. It’s a difficult and excellent pair of stories that I’m going to get right to reviewing!

Art by Ward Lindhout
"Suddenwall" by Sara Saab (4297 words)

This is a beautiful piece about what war makes people into and how people continue on afterward. And even that might be a little misleading, as the story focuses on Panette and Harvei, two women who served in a campaign to wipe out all speakers of a certain mysterious language. The piece does a fantastic job of approaching the weight of that—the weight of the loss and the weight of the guilt and the weight of the blame that settles on each of the soldiers involved. More than that, though, it settles on the nation that ordered the extermination. It settles on this place that realizes what it has done and now that it is over and it has what it wants knows that something is wrong. And so the nation does the easy thing which is divorce itself from the actions of the war, cutting away the soldiers who participated like an infested limb. And Panette and the others are taken into Vannat, a new kind of city, a semi-sentient city who can judge them all and hold them to a new set of rules. It assuages their guilt and gives them something of a fresh start, but in some ways it also erases what they have done. Allows them to move on when moving on seems nearly as much a violence as the original crimes. And the city provides a wrenching and tender look into the relationship between Panette and Harvei, into their shared and individual views and guilts and damage. And I love how the story frames all of this, how it reveals the layers of crime at work here, those of the soldiers who are cast out but also the unpunished crimes of the people who allowed and encouraged it. The story does not give any easy answers, lingers on the uncomfortable way that we feel for Panette and cannot really feel for her victims, cannot feel for the people who are gone but by their absence, and for me that’s an incredibly powerful statement. The setting is gorgeous at the same time it is horrifying for a host of reasons, and the piece delivers a moving experience laced with sadness, regret, and pain. An incredible read!

"Ghosts of Amarana" by Kurt Hunt (3993 words)

This is another story that deals directly with the horrors of war and with surviving having done terrible things. The main character here is Lash, who as a maker of bombs that could be fitted inside living human beings, was responsible for the destruction of an entire city. Captured and imprisoned, he has literally become host for the ghosts of his victims, his punishment to live with their recriminations, with their constant feelings and sensations of what he did. When his brother breaks him out of prison in order to get him back to work doing exactly the thing that haunts him, he has to make some decisions about what to do. Here again though I think the story does a fantastic job of looking at what happens after someone has this awakening moment of realizing that they’ve done something truly awful. That they have committed some wrong that really cannot, or should not, be forgotten or forgiven. And for Lash he just wants to die, wants to be released from it, and yet also wants to be absolved. There is this striving toward redemption that he seems to have and I think slowly the story shows how redemption isn’t really possible for him. But that he can do something good. Not to outweigh the bad that he’s taken part in but to have at least done this last thing for the right reason. It’s a difficult and dark story that really makes use of the feeling of being haunted. Lash knows that desire to be separated from his past, from the work that he did, but also knows (because he is told) that there’s only really one release open to him. And I think thes tory does a nice job of balancing the violence and the guilt that have made Lash’s mind into something of a mess. That have made him into his own lash, into his own punishment, and the ending isn’t exactly satisfying so much as it’s what needs to be. It’s a bit of an unsettling read, but also one that’s accomplished with a neat style and a solid weight. Another great story!


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