Monday, October 9, 2017

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #235

It's celebration time at Beneath Ceaseless Skies as the publication hits it's ninth anniversary with a special double issue! And it's a challenging bunch of stories, swirling around the ideas of war and damage, travel and healing. It's also, to me, a story about faith, and repentance, and the road to healing. These are stories full of characters running from something, whether it's a past full of death or a present full of chaos. They find themselves with their entire worldviews thrown into question and disarray, forced at last to question their most deeply held beliefs and face their most daunting fears. These are fantasy stories that either build sweeping new worlds or complicate the past of our own, building histories that never were to reveal truths that can still ring forward through time to us now. It's a great way to mark another excellent year of content. To the reviews!

Art by Veli Nyström

“On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” by Richard Parks (7223 words)

This story picks up where the last in the series ended, with the aspiring human, former snake-devil Mei Li joining Pan Jing and her father on their journeys as supernatural problem-solvers for hire. The premise is fun and interesting, following the small group as they move through a world trying to live by the tenants of their faith while also making a bit of money. And Pan Jing has a great voice, wry and tired of her father, who’s not exactly the most caring or admirable of parents but who does show his regard in small ways, belying a softer interior beneath his grumpy and mercenary exterior. They come across a ghost in need of help and with the promise of earthly rewards, they agree to take the case, though things become a bit more dangerous when they really get into the mission itself. I like how the story begins to explore humanity, though, through the ways that Mei Li tries to understand and emulate what it is to be a human, reaching for something noble while also seeing that humans are often weak and conflicted, hypocritical and strange. For all that, though, the story becomes about recognizing evil, about the differences between harm done for bad reasons and harm done out of ignorance or mistakes. And I like how that weaves into everything, Mei Li effectively forcing Pan Jing and her father to examine their own actions in order to determine what attributes they should be passing along. Do they admit that sometimes humans are just lazy and cruel, or do they try to set a better example, and so reach for something more just and more kind? The action is once again fun and the plot moves nicely with a few interesting twists and turns. I was actually waiting for a completely different twist so the story did keep me guessing and I enjoyed the way it brought everything to a head, the team working best only when, well, working as a team, together, united. Which makes for a nicely paced, very enjoyable story that I quite recommend checking out!

“Grassland” by T.S. McAdams (8262 words)

This story unfolds on the wide prairies where Marcus, a man who’s always been something of a follower, works as part of a crew herding cattle from Texas north to Montana. It’s a situation Marcus is familiar with, for all that his life began as a follower of Mithras and has winded far. The setting, beautifully drawn in the mid 1870s, combines Western aesthetics with magic pulled from every corner of the world and mixed and mingled in the American heartland. It’s a bit of a slow piece, too, in no rush to traverse the rolling hills and oceans of grass, Marcus a rather contemplative man always in search of stars to follow, men to follow, toward some unknown end. I love the way that the story captures Marcus, loyal to a fault and rather doomed because of it, because though he’s loyal to those he follows, it’s rare that he finds people to return the favor. There’s a heavy religious feel to parts of the story, all ritual and sacrifice, but it’s always Marcus sacrificing, always Marcus working to preserve something familiar. The rest of the people in the story have a looser hold on the world, it seems to me, moving through it but more ready to move on, their drive and faith taking them easily away while Marcus, not entirely devout, scrambles to hold to something tangible. He wants to believe in people, and yet people in this setting are typically only looking out for themselves, are perhaps friendly but never bridge the distance to be more than that. It’s a story of space, of isolation and loneliness, and Marcus trying to reach out only to be left holding nothing. Or, worse yet, holding a sword or a gun, putting himself in a situation to live or die not by his faith but by his skill and anger and will to survive. He attaches himself to those he wants to recognize him and yet can’t find a way to actually act on his desires. Having been raised by a pretty messed up brother, it makes a lot of sense, but it’s still wrenching to see, and to follow. And in the end it’s a moving and almost fragile story and it makes for a great read!

“The Fisherman and the Pig” by Kameron Hurley (6823 words)

Awww. Okay, readers, grab your favorite pig plushy and settle in for a story that is very much about death and cycles, war and killing and running and fear. It features Nev, a body mercenary, who can jump into a dead body and live in it, can jump from body to body as many times as needed, so long as he never runs out. it seems like this has had quite a few uses in wars in the past, but Nev has tried to put that behind him, has tried to live a quiet life as a hermit, alone but for a turtle and a pet pig named Pig. And Pig is my favorite. So. CUTE! Ahem, that aside, though, the story features the past catching up to Nev (sort of). It’s more like violence and death catch up to Nev, as they always do, spreading in great arches that push him further and further in his desperate hope to escape the gravity of what he’s done. In his quest to survive a dangeorus and often cruel world, though, Nev isn’t exactly squemish about making his own corpses to jump into, putting his own needs first. It’s not something that makes him the nicest of people, but given the setting and the other atrocities being committed, it does make a lot of what he does understandable, taking this power because it’s all that allows him to survive, and in the face of some horrors and corruptions that’s the best he can hope for, to live and keep going, to avoid his inevitable judgement for as long as possible. And yet I love how the story builds up the almost sinking feeling of him being desperate for more, yearning so much for a life that he cannot have because of the road he’s walked to get there, not willing to face what he’s done and so always unable to truly find what he’s looking for. But, as time moves on and he begins to come to terms with some of his nature and the nature of the setting, there seems like...not that things will be good, perhaps, but that even in the midst of such horrible violence and ugliness there are small kindnesses as well and seeing those, recognizing those, is a way that he might find the strength to finally stand for something and believe something would be more important than his own life. A great read!

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” by Rebecca Campbell (5167 words)

This is a pretty weird story about war and about information. About Oskar, who works at the Mundaneum, a sort of pre-internet Wikipedia, where people write in letters asking questions and the people of the Mundaneum respond with answers. In the shadow of World War I’s push into Belgium, though, Oskar’s mission and his own grasp on reality seem like they might be slipping just a bit. To me, a lot of the story becomes about the mundane in the face of war, embodied in part by how Oskar finds himself comforted by the mundanities of life, the small teas, the meetings, the general bureaucracy of it—how this leads him to staying in a situation that is incredibly perilous, that puts him in physical danger. He imagines the heroism of the mundane, of standing firm in something, straightening his suit, and delivering some crushing blow to the war, to the chaos that is riding toward him. His trade is in facts, in debunking fantasy, and yet that becomes its own kind of fantasy, this entire world that he’s built up in his head where knowing the right fact, where maintaining some sort of order in the face of brutality, will not only protect him but will win the day. And what he’s left with when that image is shattered, when the illusion is thoroughly destroyed, is a chaos that he cannot sort. It’s a situation that has no easy answer, a question that he can’t just write a response to and stick a stamp on it. War, in other words, is messy and defies the kind of reason that Oskar believes in. Moreover, the kind of war being fought, the industrialized war that was seen at the time, tears down the illusion of civility and progress, that with technology and knowledge we somehow become more peacefull and less likely to condone atrocity. And I think what I get from the piece is this shock as that notion explodes and Oskar must seek to find some other organization to the world, not just to make sense of it but to find out where to go and how to react. it’s a very sympathetic situation, give the illusions that I feel have been shattered recently, and it makes for a complex and excellent story!


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