|Art by Victoriya "Anda" Shamykina|
The second May issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies features two stories very much about the abuses of monarchies and the hard work of pushing for systemic change in authoritarian situations. Because change is dependent on one person seeing other humans as people, as worthy of consideration. For those who have been raised in affluence, that’s not always an easy thing. So we find two stories where two very different characters have to face how they will deal with a future that could be full of blood and loss, and how they might minimize the damage. It’s an issue of sacrifice and blood, and it resonates with power, death, and hope. To the reviews!
“The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne (5158 words)
No Spoilers: Mila is a gun, an agent of a country who is supposed to act as part of its judicial system, an arbiter and witness and, for her queen, a tool to try and bring the nation toward peace and reunification following a splintering and the rise of a tyrant sorcerer in the neighboring mountain nation. The queen has been working toward reunification for some time, doing the difficult work of taking in refugees and trying to lay a road forward not dominated by nationalist prejudice. Unfortunately, she’s dying, and her two sons do not agree at all about what to do when she’s gone. The piece looks at the impossible situation Mila is put in, having to chose between her own happiness and the duty she has to her queen, her people, and the future of her country. It’s a piece about sacrifice, and hard decisions, and while it’s not a super happy piece, it’s hopeful in its own way, and powerfully accomplished.
Keywords: Duels, Guns, Succession, Reunification, Promises
Review: When reading this story I was reminded of a favorite complaint of reviewers who are basically toxic—that the villains are too cartoonish, or flat, or simple. Which in my experience doesn’t mean that the villains are unrealistic, but rather that they are too realistic—that the too closely mirror very familiar kinds of people who are responsible for a whole lot of pain and corruption. And yes, it seems almost too easy to spot these people, to trace their hate and their evil, to think that any reasonable person would know that this person is Wrong and so deny them power. And yet, here we are. And I find myself more and more frustrated with critiques of stories that point out a failure in complexity in villainy when villains don’t have to be complex to present a real threat. And here the situation reads to me as real, this question of succession one of doing the work of being decent or falling back on prejudice and racism in order to protect privilege and comfort. In essence, I read part of the point of the story that this villainy is simple, and that’s what makes it so frightening, that Mila finds herself suddenly surrounded by people who know her and work with her who are willing to suspend her humanity in order to avoid doing difficult (and necessary) work. And Mila’s solution is the only one that’s left to her, the only way she sees forward. For a simple villain, a simple (and deadly) solution. It’s tragic in that it requires sacrifice when, if people were actually trying, wouldn’t be necessary. But again, here we are. For all it might seem simple at first, the implications are anything but, and the weight is on the reader to examine why these situations are never simple for those about to be crushed under the heel of a cardboard villain. A great read!
“Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case (9140 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator is a blind magical actuary, a woman who specializes in setting the rates on battle insurance, which soldiers take out in case they are seriously wounded or killed as they go off to a war that has already taken so much from the kingdom. Normally this just involves crunching the numbers, but in special circumstances a special person can taste a person’s future, and the actuary interprets the flavors into a look into how the person dies. It’s difficult work, especially with the increasingly grim predictions she has to make for the young soldiers going off to fight. But things might be about to change, and she might have an unwilling part to play in it all. It’s a wonderfully realized world and the magic of the actuaries is fresh and fascinating. It’s tense and heavy with the weight of war and the cost of human lives.
Keywords: Insurance, War, Death, Marks, Blind MC, Blackmail
Review: I really like the way that the magic works in this world, the careful calculations and chance and certainty of being an actuary, of deciding if people can be insured or not. And glob it certainly hits home a bit because of how it takes something so loaded, the weighing of the value of a human life, and tries to demystify it. Which might seem like a good thing at first, but it’s only good if you think that life should be thought of in terms of money, in terms of risk and reward. It’s a system that the narrator doesn’t really push back against, despite the fact that she’s very tired of always predicting death. I think the story making her blind is in part to put her analogous to justice, where she’s supposed to be impartial, just running the numbers without making any sort of moral claim about the numbers. She’s fair in that she acts evenly to all, but the system that she’s working under is definitely on fair. And the story basically follows her coming to terms with that, with how corrupt the system is and how she needs to take a stand in order to do what she knows is right. It’s not something that she comes to on her own, but it is something that I think she comes to more than the person who unwillingly recruits her. Because she does start to think of the number, the absolute numbers, which tell a much different story than the individual numbers that she normally deals with. It makes her confront just what she’s been a part of, and just how many people have lost their lives for the ambitions of the powerful. The ending, then, comes with a rush of things falling apart, plots unraveling, revealing this huge injustice, this gaping wound, that exists at the heart of the kingdom. And one hopes that it will see results, even as the story’s focus stops short of that. It’s a great building story, though, with plenty of twists and surprises, and you should definitely check it out. A wonderful read!