The stories in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are, to me, about choice. In two very different settings, with two very different characters, choice is examined and pulled apart. It's not exactly the most optimistic of issues, as both stories focus in many ways on how sometimes, despite what you choose, there's no real escaping punishment. There's no real justice. It's a view that is shaped by their circumstances, by what they witness and experience. They are dark stories, haunting and beautiful, and I'm going to jump right into the reviews!
|Art by Martin Ende
"Mortal Eyes" by Ann Chatham (3225 words)
Ah, the Wild Hunt. It's a myth that I'm really mostly familiar with through SFF stories rather than from the original source material, but I'm definitely not complaining. The idea of an immortal host haunting the night, hunting down their doomed prey, is a compelling image and idea. Only here things are twisted a bit, and a pregnant woman who cannot sleep finds herself called to help them. It's a surreal story and I love the feel of it, dreamlike and ambiguous. The woman of the story I don't think gets named, is there for her role, that of a woman. A mother. And the story examines the ways that she is subject, the ways that she can't really win. The ways that she is used, and isolated. The magic is sweeping and largely inhuman, evoking the nature of the Hunt and its riders, creatures of deals and twists. The main character doesn't really get a choice in any of this, is chosen and compelled to offer assistance. Is compelled to name a price and knows the danger of that, knows that wishes come with prices of their own and so tries to opt out, tries to defer, because it's the role she's be prepared for. Only it does not save her. The story is creepy and strangely poetic but grounded by the real danger the main character is in, the situation of both her pregnancy and being called to join the hunt. It's an unsettling read but a good one, and a story well worth checking out!
"The Nature of Ghosts and the Fate of Shadows" by Luke Nolby (7216 words)
This is a story that takes a look at violence and empire, peace and oppression. And choice, really, because it features a man who is more title than man. The last of his people, the last Dumrikhat. A man who fought against an empire and then for it, and then kind-of against it again. Who just wants to rejoin the snow. The story moves between the present and the past seamlessly, the main character inhabiting both places equally, a ghost of himself, a ghost of all his failures and mistakes and choices. Because, as much as he wants to believe that he's not to blame for the pain he's caused, he can't deny it. He's a man who hasn't exactly lost his faith, but rather found it too late. At a point when he is beyond saving, beyond salvation. He's old and tired and the only options in front of him seem to be fight or flee. I like the way the stories interrogates choice, the choices that are made freely and those that…are not. To the main character these choices all carry equal weight, which makes sense for a warrior who is, essentially, choosing to kill for an empire in hopes of perhaps turning on it at some point. It looks at what is justice in the face of violence, and what is difference in terms of cultural identity. The main character declares that there is no justice, only people. Which in one way is a powerful statement condemning thinking in terms of absolutes and objective truths. In another way it's a flimsy shield that he wields because he's tired and puts his own loss and hopelessness above the harm he's caused. The prose is moving and the world building effective. It's a story of pessimism and loss. When the main character sees humanity, he sees hate and violence. Which is his choice. I'm not sure if, ultimately, the story punishes or rewards him for it, but the story is certainly worth sitting down with to make up your own mind about.