Friday, July 21, 2017

Regular Sip - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #230

Okay, so...this is something of a special review for me. Firstly (and most importantly), it's NEW BIRDVERSE OMG YAAAASSSS!!! Ahem. Aside from that, it's the longest title that I've read from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a stunning novella that is available for free both to read and to listen to (as a 5 hr podcast!). The second part of the novella is also appearing alongside a short story of mine, "Rivers Run Free," which of course I am not reviewing but hey, if you all want to read and review it, feel free! :D Anyway, this novella is one of my favorite reads, proving once and for all that one of the sexiest things in the universe is consent. So without further ado, the review!

Art by Jeff Brown
Story:

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” by Rose Lemberg (38000 words)

People, this story. I have of late lamented that there was not enough queer smutty stories appearing in pro SFF venues. Here is one that captures the scope and awe and magic of fantasy and builds a world that is both shatteringly real and peopled by characters diverse and raw and hurt and yearning for something they can’t quite give breath to. For fans of BirdVerse, in which this story is set, some of the characters and ideas will be familiar. Tajer Ranraven, who appeared in “Geometries of Belonging” (still one of my very favorite stories ever) is back, but a much different, much younger person than when he/they appeared in that story. This piece finds him in the middle of his journey following his expulsion from the Katran University, and finds him from the perspective of one of the most interesting and mysterious figures in BirdVerse, the Old Royal of Che Mazri. Part of what I love about the story is how it treats with mysteries and with secrets, which is a large part of the province of the Old Royal. And yet they have secrets of their own, and though a lifelong teacher they also have some lessons to learn.

Now, Things Happen in this story. There are assassins and magic and betrayals and plots and politics all happening throughout the piece. But for me the crux of the story is trust and it’s a very personal kind of trust. All of the characters are dealing with their own pains and their own insecurities. Each of them has been hurt and is worried about being hurt again. The Old Royal, for all that they are considered a wise old sage, is no exception. Indeed, the story reveals the layers of hurt and distrust that they have, compounded by the lives they’ve lived and the friends and lovers they have lost. Compounded further by the long line of people who want to do them harm. They begin the story tired and worn, which is understandable given their age and the life they've lived. They are grieving and at the same time seem close to giving into the weariness that plagues them. Relationships take work, and the Old Royal has been letting their relationships suffer because they are looking at the end of their life and their subsequent renewal with a strong yearning. When Tajer arrives, though, he presents them with not just a new challenge, but with something they’ve been starving for—a peer. Someone who sees beneath the wrinkles at the person there and sees in that person someone to respect and desire.

And yes, this is a rather sexy story. It’s about exploring sexuality and negotiating consent and finding pleasure and release in pain and especially for these characters, who as the title implies are powerful, it becomes difficult to find true consent, difficult to find people who can say no but will choose to say yes to the other’s vision and pleasure and desires, all the while finding their own as well. And it is some rather kinky stuff the characters get up to, finding the joy and pleasure not exactly in submission but in the giving and receiving of pain and consent. They both have these desires that are not often embraced, that are often seen as wrong or disgusting, and yet with each other there is not that judgment, though both of them still very much fear rejection and betrayal because to admit to their desires, to act on their desires, makes them vulnerable.

And I love that these are characters that hurt each other, that the story doesn’t make their relationship or…courtship(?) clean or easy. They are negotiating half-unaware at times of what the other is thinking of feeling or what might trigger a harsh response. They are people who live with deep traumas and yet those traumas do not prevent them from reaching out in hope and finding joy in one another. The web of characters the story creates is one that, like the Grid of the world, is weakened by absences and a general distrust. And while some of the characters seem to think the only way to counter this decay is to create one person to anchor the web and dominate, Tajer and the Old Royal push for a different way, a more subtle and in many ways more precarious way. They seek to strengthen not by creating a powerful single point but by working on the bonds between each person and strengthening those bonds with affection and trust. By drawing the points on the grid closer, in harmony and balance, they create a more stable world, a more stable network of friends and lovers, teachers and students. It’s a lovely and moving narrative that fits wonderfully with the other BirdVerse stories, which do share a concern with the way that hate and war and dissolution weaken the world to a dangerous degree. Here we see the power of people (queer people, mostly) coming together to find common ground and work for healing and safety and peace. It’s beautiful and you should read it!

Plus, you know, the world building and character grids work much like the weakened Grid of the world. The Old Royal has let their affairs slip, and their web of people, like the Stars that are supposed to stabilize the world, are frayed and threatening to be extinguished. And they find it hard to care until they are reminded of the beauty and power and joy that such a grid can be. That when they trust they are supported, and the heavy burdens they carry don't have to be carried alone. It's a great moment of parallelism where the Old Royal must first see to their own interpersonal web of friends/lovers/advisers/etc. before they can truly understand what's happening to the world at large. And while the novella doesn't seek to bring the larger problem of the weakened Grid to any sort of conclusion, it does hint at how the Grid can be repaired--by getting past all the mistrust and pain at a national level. By dropping away these nationalist assassination attempts and posturing and hatreds to form something out of trust, consent, and mutual support. Which, fuck, given everything happening nationally and internationally right now, is SUPER FUCKING IMPORTANT JUST READ THE NOVELLA PEOPLE IT'S AMAZING!!!

(plus OMG THE CHARACTERS!!! They are all so awesome and if everyone doesn’t want all the Marvushi everything then YOU HAVE NO TASTE! There are just so many great characters all orbiting around each other and I love them all and can’t wait to read more amazing BirdVerse stories!)

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