Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #251

It’s a rather quick issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with two stories linked in a way by their length (neither of them over 2500 words, which is unusual for the publication). But it lends both stories a sort of impact, and a feeling of anticipation. In the first, that means having to wait for the results of a very important test. In the second, that means having to wait for the results of a very important confrontation. In both, there are certain indications that might guide readers otwards guessing what happens next, but both times it’s left up in the air what _actually_ transpires after the final stories end. What it is certain is that both look at characters struggling to solve tricky problems, ones where they have been made culpable of a misstep and are desperate to find a way forward. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Jereme Peabody

“The Examination Cloth” by Jonathan Edelstein (2232 words)

No Spoilers: Ukeme is beginning an examination, one that will determine so much about his future and how high he’ll be able to rise in his society. For most, village life is all they can aspire to, but Ukeme feels held back and desperate to pass this exam, to pass the next one, and the next one, and become one of the few to steer policy across the entire land. The exam itself is a series of tasks woven into a tapestry with magic, and Ukeme finds himself apprehensive when it comes time to start. So much so that he accidentally crosses a line and technically cheats. Which is where the true test begins. Short and largely dealing with ethics and ambition, the story focuses in on regret, hope, and uncertainty. It focuses on the test, on how Ukeme reveals himself as he grapples with what he’s done and what he’s been set to do. And it leaves the reader in delicious or agonizing anticipation, making us in turn grapple with what should happen next.
Keywords: Examinations, Cheating, Magic, Weaving, Stories, Ambition
Review: The piece is short for BCS, but still manages to build up a rather complex second world, one where the bureaucracy of society is determined by test and magic. And Ukeme, in cheating, has to face both the weight of what he’s done and the prospect of losing everything he hoped for. And, really, the story examines what it means to “accidentally” cheat. Because, while he’s not intending to really cross a boundary when he uses knowledge he’s not supposed to have in order to help him figure out what to do, there’s the question of how much that really matters. In not disqualifying himself, is he violating the spirit of the test? It’s not an easy story because that’s not an easy question, especially when the reader is put into Ukeme’s shoes, feeling his great hope for his future. The story seems to ask, if it was us, would we want a way forward? And what might that look like? I do like the solution that the story comes up with, having Ukeme push forward despite what’s happened but not pretending that it hasn’t impacted his testing. The test is already tainted, but instead of trying to hide that he seeks to make it part of his test, to embrace it and illustrate how it might even give him a fresh perspective on what’s happening. And I like that the story also leaves before the reader finds out what the results are, because it doesn’t necessarily reward him for any of this. There’s still the chance that he’ll fail. There’s still the possibility that his take on what happened will be rejected, and he’ll be disqualified. And I wonder how readers would react to that outcome, and how Ukeme as a character would. As an injustice, because of the lesson he’s learned? Or would be be able to see the wisdom in failure as well? I feel in some ways that there lies the more interesting and complicated outcome, but I think it’s a story that asks each reader to grapple with the question on their own, just as Ukeme did with his own examination. A fascinating read!

“The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins (1952 words)

No Spoilers: Amadine is looking for her brother, Jeremy. The two ran away together to escape what they thought would be the wrath of their father, but in doing so walked into a much darker and more dangerous trap. Both have been lost, and now Amadine is mostly found and looking to finish her work before time runs out. The piece has a heavy darkness and a feeling for me a bit like a fairy tale, where death doesn’t always mean death, magic isn’t often clean or good, and families are really fucking messed up. The story unfolds from Amadine’s perspective, in her voice, with an immediacy of need and impending violence. There’s a nice creepiness to the piece, and a definite twisting feeling when Amadine finally figures out how to look for what she’s seeking.
Keywords: Magic, Stitching, Siblings, Transformation, Family
Review: The voice of this story is, for me, what really guides everything. Amadine is a young person who as been through some serious shit after leaving home, and even before that her life has been dominated by dangerous magic, pain, and blood. She speaks to her brother as she searches for him, but there’s much more the feeling (to me) that she’s speaking more for herself, to keep herself on task, to keep herself going. She’s hanging on by a thread (heh) and it seems almost hopeless that she will be able to find her brother and her arm and escape from her grandmother, who seems a pretty serious and seriously fucked up witch. Which is what gives the story a lot of its fairy tale feeling, for me, this mood and magic which is anything but kind and which finds these two children hacked apart and needing to literally sew themselves back together. Except instead of the story glossing over the details of that, the story shows in vivid details what it means to be chopped to pieces and strung up around a room. It’s creepy and to me it informs the mix of dispassionate routine and numb hope that pervades Amadine’s words. It’s a fun piece, short and punchy, and especially for horror fans it’s very much worth checking out!


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