Thursday, October 18, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #262 [part 1/2]

The anniversary offerings continue with a second special double issue from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Again, for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to break this out into two parts. The first features a novelette and short story that for me deal very much with narratives and with learning. They both have the feel of engaging with fable, with magic, and with characters learning lessons that they weren’t really expecting to. Whether that lesson is about the nature of growing up or of becoming a better person, in both there’s a focus on people seeking something that will give them power and answers and then, ultimately, wondering if that’s what they really want. Both carry a sense of strangeness and wonder, as well, and are warm and cozy at the same time. Before I give too much away, though, let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Mats Minnhagen

“The Tale of the Scout and the Pachydormu” by Gregory Norman Bossert (9464 words)

No Spoilers: This carefully layered story unfolds across two main narratives. The first and outer one involves a yearly ritual, a holiday where all children gather to hear the story of the Scout and the Pachydormu. It’s a Christmas-like event, where they eat sweets and enjoy games and generally get ready to hear the story told. The nested narrative, then, is the story itself, involving an Governor who cannot sleep for more than an hour a day and the elaborate lengths that the nation goes to in order to help. Of course, it’s not until the Scout shows up with a strange and mysterious Pachydormu that things really get underway. The outer story echoes the inner, focused on sleep and mystery, on the magic of childhood and the desire for a knowledge that might never come, that might indeed shatter that magic. It’s a measured read, not rushed, hinging on the final moments, the difference between sleeping and waking, childhood and adolescence, magic and reality.
Keywords: Sleep, Insomnia, Rituals, Growing Up, Stories
Review: I love stories that maintain a layered flow, and this one does to great effect, weaving together a magical and vivid inner narrative while drawing the outer narrative a bit closer to home, evoking the magic of childhood nestled into the ritual and nostalgia of holidays. And I love how the inner narrative frames a lot of the ritual, the food and drink that is consumed, the activities the children engage in. The way they pick a Governor and all in turn become like the Scout, following along as the Governor is born away and away, slowly out to see. The story is one of cycles, each one going deeper and deeper, and I love the way that the piece sets up its own ending, the warnings that the Governor gives about being lost at see and delving too deep into sleep. They are warnings that ultimately the Governor cannot listen to, but it does build up this situation where all the children are there as well, falling into that deep slumber, never getting to the end of the story because that would be too far, would perhaps tip them over into a slumber they couldn’t wake from. And yet the narrator of the story wants to know what happens. Part of adulthood, they are told, is being okay with not knowing. Is, essentially, choosing to not know in order to be safe, to stay with everyone else. To leave the magic that might be waiting there for the safety of the city and its adult concerns. But the narrator is a child still, and pushes forward because they want to know, because maybe they want to understand the magic of this holiday and this story. And it’s such a weird and beautiful piece, dreamlike of course but also warm and fun. And it leaves the reader like the Scout, teetering on the edge, unsure of what might happen when they sleep, or wake. A wonderful read!

“Magic Potion Behind-the-Mountains” by Jaymee Goh (6287 words)

No Spoilers: Fanyu is a magistrate sent to a remote and snowy province famed for the strength of its citizens. It’s a strength that Fanyu has witnessed first hand, and he’s excited to find out the secret of this strength, which he believes is caught up in a magic potion that an old druidess named Grandmother Seung. Before she’ll reveal the secret of the potion, though, she requires him to come with her and learn how to prepare it. The piece builds nicely, breaking up the more pastoral scenes of Fanyu acclimating to the province with a series of battles that shatter his peace. It’s a fun and heartwarming story that focuses on a secret that is very much not what Fanyu expects when he arrives in Yang Village Behind-the-Mountains.
Keywords: Potions, Postings, Invasion, Snow, Learning, Strength
Review: I love the feeling of this story, building what could be historical fantasy but might also unfold in a second world where magic doesn’t seem so impossible a thing. For most of the story Fanyu goes only by the Magistrate, and I love that aspect of the story as well, that so much of it is about his education, his relationship to Yang Village and the difference from what he expected when he arrived and where he comes to after he’s worked with Grandmother Seung. Also, the whole thing basically revolves around a simple misunderstanding of language that really illustrates where Fanyu’s heart was at, and how he eventually found his way away from the court politics and, strangely enough, found warmth in the frigid reaches of this distant province. And it’s just a classic story, one where this ambitious son of the Khan thinks he’ll earn some political power in order to return home in style and then, slowly, with the help of a canny teacher, finds that he is home after all. Because her lessons for getting the magic potion are really just ways to learn more humility and care. To get him to know all the people of the village, and to earn their trust even as he’s not quite aware of what he’s doing. But it’s there in the way he rushes to fight for them, in the way he refuses to retreat when he can. The story is one of finding home to me, of finding family even in the most unlikely of places. And of banishing the prejudices of his privilege in order for him to connect with people and become stronger. Not just physically, though that happens too, but mentally and emotionally, so that he does become a better magistrate, but also a better person. And the really just sells that, especially with choosing when to name him, and give him that more intimate feel, instead of wrapping him in his role. He steps into himself, and it’s a fantastic experience to read. Definitely a story to check out!


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