Thursday, October 11, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261 [part 2/2]

I don’t think I was expecting another novella in this anniversary issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, but it seems like the issue is holding nothing back with a new novelette and novella on offer that explore resistance and corruption. Both stories, after all, focus on people who are drawn into seeing the system they are a part of as standing in the way of progress and justice. Both settings unfold in a sort of wounded state, the people weary after war and loss and flight. And yet in that weariness they have allowed complacency to lead them into tragedy and abuse and folly. And the main characters are out to change that, against all the power and pressure to stay silent, to go with the flow. They risk everything for what they believe, what they know to be right, and to try and save those they love. It’s a pair of beautiful if brutal stories, and I’ll get right to those reviews!

Art by Mats Minnhagen

“Court of Birth, Court of Strength” by Aliette de Bodard (10626 words)

No Spoilers: Samariel is a minor part of House Hawthorne in a Paris that has been ravaged by a long war between Houses, between the immortal Fallen. A fragile peace reigns now, but with it comes a brutal series of slights and reparations, and human life isn’t exactly valued in the aftermath of a conflict that has destroyed so much. For Samariel, though, one particular human life is worth an awful lot—that of Eglantine, a young girl who is like a daughter to him. When she goes missing, though, Samariel seeks out one of the more eccentric figures in his house, the seditious Asmodeus, for help in find and reclaiming his lost ward. The piece moves around the shattered remains of a city unsure of how to rebuild, especially with the possibility of new hostilities always looming. Loss and devastation has not taught the Fallen cooperation or the valuing of peace, though, as each still jockeys for power and influence in a way that seems almost destined to lead right back to bloodshed. That is, unless Samariel and Asmodeus can find a way around it.
Keywords: Fallen, Immortality, Magic, Queer MC, Bargains, War
Review: I love the setting this story conjures up, with fallen angels establishing Houses that vie for power, their immortality and magic making them capable of great destruction but also making them targets if they’re caught out beyond the walls of their compounds, where their bodies and blood are valuable for use in magic. And I love the way the story builds up Samariel and Asmodeus as this unlikely duo, Samariel loyal above all things and Asmodeus rebellious and willful. And yet I think as the story moves it reveals what loyalty really looks like, and how loyalty is built and maintained. Because as the story begins, for me, Samariel thinks that he’s loyal to his House. That he’s part of this larger machine that’s working for something good. Peace. As he gets more into the workings of the House, though, he begins to see that what deserves his loyalty, who deserves his loyalty, is the House. It’s the people of the House, those that he cares about, those that he knows don’t deserve to be bartered away and killed. It’s not so much that his loyalty shifts in my mind, but that he realizes that what he’s loyal to is the people and not the idea of the House. And he refuses to sacrifice those people just as he refuses to sacrifice his own morals in the face of what might be politically expedient. As this happens, I feel it reignites Asmodeus’ own sense of right and wrong. It reminds him that what he wants is also a system that’s not ruled by pettiness and greed. He’s a rebel but mainly because he can see the corruption at the heart of the House because he’s come from outside it. And in interacting with Samariel he seems to finally see that real change might be possible. Because the Houses aren’t all corrupt. And it’s a romantic, tense, wonderfully paced story that puts the reader in Samariel’s shoes, still learning how the world works, horrified at the abuses present while still hopeful that it’s not beyond salvage, that people working together can still find and nurture beauty as long as they refuse to sacrifice what they know is right. As long as they remain ready to fight and to die for it, but mostly to live for it, fully and without fear, embracing each other and their shared hopes for the future. A fantastic read!

“We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall (25007 words)

No Spoilers: Reyna is a warrior who has put down her iron after capturing the heart of her people’s great enemy. Rewarded with her freedom and her sister, she’s mostly settled into the life of a homesteader. Except, of course, for the prophecy given by her other sister, now dead, which warned her that an old doom was returning, and that if Reyna or anyone was going to stand a chance of surviving, they would need to flee. It’s a warning that Reyna’s chief has ignored, but events are building to a new crisis, one where Reyna will have to decide what is more important—loyalty to her leige or to the vision her sister died to pass to her. This is a long piece, full of twists and turns and a growing darkness. And for me, it’s about change. About the willingness to do anything to do what’s best for your people. Which might seem easy if it means battle and war with your enemies. But might be much trickier when it means peace, and having to see the world in a different and more complex way.
Keywords: Prophecy, Bargains, CW- Slavery, CW- Pregnancy/Miscarriage, Siblings, Insurrection
Review: This piece builds on the idea of resistance and rebellion established in the last story. Here we find almost immediately that Reyna and the local leader are not seeing eye to eye. Not necessarily because they don’t like each other. Indeed, Reyna fought proudly for him for a long time, and ended up doing some terrible things for him. But as time has gone on he has grown rather conservative. Worried about his own power and having something to give to his children. Though presented with a prophecy of what was to come that said that he and his people needed to leave to survive, he ignored it. Denied it. Discredited it. And so doomed them all. And really for me the story becomes about that tendency, that complacency. To want to be rewarded. To want to have something easy. To not be old when trouble requires action. It’s something that I see a lot, because there is this tendency to say that action is for the young, the brash. That a lifetime of being bold should be rewarded by being able to relax, to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Except, well, someone is going to be old when trouble comes. And no amount of denial will make it go away. And holding too closely to all the things that have been comforts up to then just leaves you open to losing it all. To leading your people into ruin. I love how Reyna is able to see that, and how she is able to really reconcile with her past, with her mistakes, with the horrors that she unleashed. In the name of war and self defense, yes, but still. She has grown into new ways of thinking. Of wanting peace, and not the false sort that comes at the end of a blade. She’s committed to her goals, to her family, to her people, and knows that to survive they have to change. They have to commit to justice as well, and freedom, and respect. It means putting down the mechanisms that make some things easier. It means not sliding into authoritarianism. It means being more willing to die than to kill. And it makes for a tense read that, if continued, promises to be a complex and difficult but (hopefully) uplifting story about survival and progress in the face of adversity. A fine read!


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