The second issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies this month features a pair of stories that look at quests and stagnation, hope and transformation. In both stories characters confront the trajectories of their lives, the directions that seem inevitable but which are made by their choices. And both face regrets and face a future that is full of possibilities and yet defined by duty and care for others. There is a balancing of the selfish desires of life and knowledge that sometimes environments are kinds of prisons. Systems oppress. But belonging is not impossible. These are some complex and moving stories and I'm going to jump right into those reviews!
|Art by Martin Ende|
"Ebb Stung By the Flow" by E. Catherine Tobler (5429 words)
This is another story set surrounding Jackson's Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade and is a rather strange one for that, a story about fate and about choice and full of possibilities. It's also about a train wreck and the possibilities that it opens up. And to me it's about need, because that's what the train and the circus are run on. They go where they need to go, and when that leads them into a war zone there is an attack, an accident, and a wreck. And the train that carries the circus, who is also the creator of all things, one of the three Fates, get the chance to live in a different body. The story flows around the past of the circus, the origin of Jackson himself, who seems to be much more than he seems. The story feels to me to speak to possibility, to the nature of the circus which seems to pass through realities and worlds, that exists both in and out of time, riding the rails between fates, the sisters guiding as they can but bound by the tracks. This is probably the most surreal of these Circus stories that I've read but it's also quite beautiful and comes together as the main character navigates the disaster and has to chose whether to keep going or not. Has to choose to get back on the tracks or set out in new directions. It's about freedom and about creation for someone who seems to me to feel somewhat limited by the knowledge that whatever they create will be cut. That things seem too limited, too constrained. And yet they also come to see that without those constraints, things get…not so good. It's a strange read but a compelling one, something of a departure from what I've read of the series but also an affirmation of it. That the ride isn't over. That the circus isn't done. That the train is still running and even though it will end eventually, for now it remains. A fascinating read!
"Under She Who Devours Suns" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (5880 words)
To me this is a story of longing and, in some ways, obsession. With devotion and with purpose and with missing something in the pursuit of that purpose. But it's also, I think, about institutions and duty and how that duty can poison relationships, twist people's lives. Pervert justice. The story features Melishem and Sikata, two women who grew up together, who were equals until the day they had to fight each other for a single position. Until the day the system they worked under, the customs and government and everything, tore them apart. And in so doing it threw the world they had built together into chaos, doubt, and dissolution. To me it shows how focusing on the best and only the best is damaging. By setting up a system where there can be only one at the top, it fosters a spirit of competition over harmony. A world where these who women cannot be friends, where they can only be rivals. It's a nice commentary on the "drive to be the best" mentality, where Melishem has traded so much to try and be the one on the top and [SPOILERS!!!] then returns to find that it's rather meaningless. Not only has she far surpassed her former rival, so that the competition is gone, but the fire that drove her wasn't really, to me, the need to be better but rather the desire to stay with Sikata. Something that their culture didn't allow. It took their friendship and twisted it, and her desire to be close, to have this simple relationship, to stay content, was shattered and replaced only with absence and the mistaken belief that she had to prove herself, that if she got better as a warrior she could make up for being unhappy. Which…it's a bit heartbreaking, really, for her to return to find her mission a failure, to have to confront that it was always going to be a failure, that what she wanted was never really possible. And yet when faced with the void, with going off to be killed, or doing something to better serve herself and everyone, she does find a solution of sorts. But it does kill her. She is essentially devoured by her quest, by the system that kept her out, that didn't allow her to rise with her friend. She finds a spot of joy and purpose amidst it all, and the ending is beautiful, but it's a rather tragic beauty, a façade and something of a lie. It's an acknowledgement (as I read it) that there is no hope of healing the wounds that have been done to Melishem, but there is a way to heal other wounds. To ease other hurts. So at the same time that I read it as hopeful, as reaching for something better, it's also a story about being doomed by the system you were raised with, and how in some ways there's no overcoming that. But it is a gorgeous story with a great movement to it and I love the battles, the fantasy flare of the food, the quiet moments standing next to the ripping action. Definitely check it out!