Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238

I will continue to say that Beneath Ceaseless Skies impresses me nearly every issue with how well it puts together stories that amplify each other. That resonate. That enrich each other. And here I find a pair of stories very much about pageantry and theater, about masks and masquerades. About playing different parts, and about theft, and about freedom. About people finding places to belong and people to belong with. And fuck is it a joyful, beautiful issue that makes me want to cry for how amazing it is. I know, I’m known as something of a positive reviewer, but if all stories were as fun as these, all issues as healing and hopeful as these, then I think any reviewer would be hard pressed to be negative. So let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Veli Nyström

“The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan (5659 words)

This is a wickedly fun and charming story of theft, love, and costume, unfolding in a second world full of swords and stealth and rather elaborate plans. It’s the voice of the story that drew me in most, the voice of Viorica, the main character—though that’s not exactly the only name they wear. But it’s a story that does a great job of teasing with the opening and then letting the setup to that moment build and reveal a larger and more intricate plot. The setting is grounded by festival and frivolity, the characters mostly nobles or those who seem to be nobles, moving through the world with too much time, power, and money. And they fall under the shadow of a thief, of the great Laperi, who has made a career of impossible jobs, and now sets their eyes on a mask that’s not valuable for its craftsmanship or jewels, but for its provenance. For its story. And I love how the idea of a masquerade is used here, the main character one intimately familiar with masks, with playing many roles, and they flit between them with speed and skill, trying to plan ahead but as often as not flying by the seat of their pants, one step ahead of disaster, one slip away from ruin. They are a bandit but a respectable one, and okay I might just be a sucker for the kind of character and the kind of tone the story manages. But it makes for a fun story, one that moves with an undeniable pace and a riotous good time. There are twists and turns, and daring-dos aplenty—it’s clever and it’s magical and it’s just what I needed today. Seriously, if you need a good smile and an ending full of win, then this is the story you need in your life right now. It strikes a great balance between adventure and subterfuge, crime and adventure, and it’s an amazing read. Go check it out!

“His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels (6004 words)

Well I very much appreciate that the stories in this issue are trying to make me feel good, because it’s working. Here is another rather charming and fun story, with a bit more of an edge than the last, but still with a triumphant feel, one that has left me feeling lighter, freer. The story centers a Maquis, a man living mostly unhappily with his uncle, a bitter and toxic old bastard, because of the misfortunes that fell on his parents, misfortunes that his uncle orchestrated. Now he waits to be married off, all the while spending what time he can with a mistress in town, the whole situation one of a slow kind of yearning, of wanting to be away but having no way of getting there, being cut off by the tyranny of his uncle. It’s almost gothic in that sense, but with a lovely twist to it—nearly, I dare say, an un-Gothic story, where a young woman enters into a moldering home haunted not by ghosts but by malice and regrets, comes to fulfill a certain roll but refuses it. Like the last story, this one has a firm grasp of theater, everyone playing multiple roles, multiple identities. The only thing that seems sure through everything is that these are characters wanting something, intent on something, and yet when it comes down to it it’s not murder or revenge that motivates them. Instead, they want freedom, and love, and when they get a taste of it they realize that they don’t have to be stuck in the story, in the Gothic. They can break free and write their own ending, and find some other way out. It’s a wonderfully joyous story that keeps an eye on what people really want, on compassion and belonging and people helping people. It allows the characters agency enough to reach for what they want and grasp it, and not let go. It’s a wonderful story and a fantastic way to close out the issue!


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