Monday, September 3, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259

It’s something of a strange issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with two stories that strike much more of a science fantasy feel than is standard. In both, characters struggle with loss and with injury. With hope and with community. In one, it’s a community that is systematically dismantled, while in the other it’s a community that seems able to heal, or at least that is still in a place where it can try. The stories are tonally rather different, though both center their action on an unexpected arrival, and on a rather wide cast of secondary characters. It’s stories about violence, flight, and confrontation of the fantasy variety, so let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Piotr Dura

“Cold Ink” by Dean Wells (13995 words)

No Spoilers: Hester is a tinkerer and in something of an aromantic relationship with Verity, a woman who seems incapable of staying out of trouble. Except that one day Verity seems to leave for good, and while Hester grapples with that, she gets back to living and spending time with a community of social dissidents. In the back of her mind, she seems to be waiting for Verity to return, even as she knows it’s unlikely. Just as she might be on the verge of moving on, though, Verity does return. Sporting some very new tattoos and trailed by a man who seems to blend with the shadows, Verity’s return brings with it a slew of murders and a focus on Hester that shatters everything she’s built for herself. It’s a fast paced, bloody story with a great steampuk feel to it. There seems to be a revolution building, one that Hester has only been peripherally aware of, but one that takes center stage with a violent flare. Soon it’s all she can do to stay one step ahead of the blade herself, and the piece dives recklessly and relentlessly toward its conclusion.For all that, there are a number of complex issues that the story...doesn’t exactly deal with, and the piece as a whole might step into some tropes I wish it had avoided.
Keywords: Augmentation, Revolution, Queer MC, Death, Stars
Review: There is a lot to like about this story, mostly because it builds up a solid cast, a memorable setting, and a tense, mysterious plot. The pacing is tight and the action gutting. I love how the character of Hester is revealed, too, so full of longing and hope and the desire to be the person that Verity will want, that she will choose. At the same time, it’s a fucking messed up relationship that Hester and Verity share, and while I appreciate the messiness of it, there is room for a bit of reservation about some elements of it. And really, though I do really like the action and feel of the story, and glorious diversity of the cast, those are also elements that tripped me up to some extent, because of the direction that the story goes. [SPOILERS!!!] Namely, pretty much all of the characters are slaughtered. And okay, in no ways do I require all stories to be happy. At the same time, though, it’s not precisely my cup of tea to start to really enjoying characters only to watch them bloodily murdered. Again and again. The prose of which is solid, is good, but the effect of which I didn’t really appreciate. It’s gritty and it certainly sets up how Hester is losing everything around her, and it works to put her into a place after the story where she’s motivated to act, to start being proactive instead of reactive. But her development there only comes by fridging like a dozen people. Unfortuntately, mixed into that, and into admitedly an interesting mystery thriller plot, there is also a leaning on a trope that I also have a lot of issues with. Which is that Hester and Verity’s relationship is framed as aromantic, but Hester admits that she’s not really aromantic, and so because she secretly wants more from Verity, there’s this thing between them where Hester gets to feel like the victim and Verity, for all that she was upfront about not wanting or needing a romantic partnership, gets casts as the villain. [MORE SPOILERS!!!] And not just in the sense of their relationship (though there was also a moment earlier in the story where there’s some possible bi stuff too that Hester doesn’t exactly handle well, either), but in there terms of the plot, Verity is the person murdering all of Hester’s friends, which feels to me pointed and jealous, where this version of Verity both wants Hester all to herself but also is unwilling to commit to her. It makes for a conflicting read for me, because as much as I want to really like this kickass story, there are a number of things that just drag at my enjoyment. So while I think there are many who will love this story, I’d approach with caution and definitely see what you think of it for yourself.

“Periling Hand” by Justin Howe (5151 words)

No Spoilers: Morholt is a man recovering from a traumatic injury that has left him with a prosthetic limb. Because of the world that he’s on, though, and the strange mix of technology and an organism that can act in symbiosis with humans, the new arm is wooden and can be used as his own. It is a part of him, though not a part that he’s taking very good care of. Mostly he’s just spinning his wheels, trying to figure out how to navigate the world now that he’s different, and it’s made more difficult by some strange rumors about a murder in a nearby settlement and a visit from some authorities from the capital. Lightly political and very much about body, autonomy, and symbiosis, the story finds in Morholt a character unsure of where to turn or what to do, reaching toward healing by still dealing with the trauma of his injuries.
Keywords: Injuries, Symbiosis, Card Games, Deliveries, Prosthetic Limbs
Review: For me, so much of this story works and revolves around a harmony. A balance. And it gets framed in the game of Siege, which Morholt isn’t all that good at. For him it’s a game of trying to last. Trying to survive. Trying to evade as long as possible the defeat that might be inevitable. And for the world he lives on, the game seems to be similar, with people battling to remain free and individual when the pressures from the capital are starting to grow to conform, to become one. And yet there is something to be said for the individual balances that people can reach, fragile yes but also strong because it’s not going all in on one hand, hoping that it’s the best. Morholt’s character is flighty, damaged. He wants so badly to just be whole again in the way he remembered, and doesn’t want to deal with the fact that he’s not, can never be again. At the same time, the settlement that he’s a part of is dealing with its own siege from the capital, from a more central and homologous authority. And, if the recent murder nearby is anything to go by, they’re losing. But that doesn’t mean that they intend to surrender. Like Morholt, they have to chose what to do next, what to risk, and where to turn. Like him, they decide that it’s better to live, to strive, to keeping going. And there is something to that resilience that I like, to the way that neither of them are very pleased with what’s happened, but they’re still finding ways to move forward. And maybe, with help, they will be able to recover, to heal, and to resist the larger pressures working on them. It’s a slower read but an interesting one, with something of a learning curve for me where the language is concerned but, once settled into, a very complex and satisfying experience. Definitely one to check out!


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