|Art by Ferdinand Dumago Ladera|
It’s anniversary time again at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with a special double issue, the first two stories of which I’m looking at today. The works are both novelettes, and both linked by a sort of preoccupation with the soul. They are in some ways rather philosophical pieces, examining morality and grit, will and skill and magic. They find women who have set themselves on a course that they could leave at any moment, but that they are resolved to see through to the (perhaps bitter) end. I’m eager to see how these two fit into the larger issue, too, but I’ll have to wait for next week when I’ll be finishing up my look at the issue!
“Portrait of the Artist” by K.J. Parker (10350 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is an artist who specializes in portraits. Who paints the rich and famous of her city, trying to raise enough money to finally make good a dream that might save her family. She’s been working for a long time, and her art is incredible, but there’s another side to what she does. Something mathematical and philosophical and, well, a bit murderous as well. Something that is both incredibly profitable and incredibly dangerous, only made less so because no one would suspect that such a feat were being carried out by a woman. The piece looks at what she’s doing, her reasons for doing it, and the consequences and tragedy and genius of her art.
Keywords: Art, Family, Death, Souls, Bargains, Money
Review: I like how no one in this story wants to talk about what’s really going on. I mean, on the one hand, it’s also a little frustrating and feels close to an authorial trick to not have to explain exactly what this is, but I think the prose and setting and style all pull off that it’s more because this world is stuck up about it, easily scandalized, that this is something almost beyond taboo. That what the narrator is doing is messing around with people’s souls, not really out of scientific curiosity or to do any good with it, exactly, but much more selfishly. And in some ways I feel like a lot of the story is asking after the morality of the narrator, if she is just a serial killer or if there is something more going on. If there isn’t a shred of justice in pushing back against a system that is obviously corrupt and that has let her down so fundamentally. She’s acting in large part for her family, after all, after what she sees as a grave injustice, the ruination of her father. At the least she is more morally gray, more than willing to use her scientific knowledge and artistic skill to make money through the deaths of others. As she frames it, she’s more the victim of all this, and might have been one of the greatest artists, if for one small thing. And that’s the other part of the story I really like, that it focuses on these very small margins, where if things go one way, it’s golden, and another, it’s rotten. The lack of middle ground is something that strikes me, that it’s always all or nothing here. Just the tiniest push and she might have had a very different life. But she didn’t, and I think the story ultimately shows that decisions, even those based on luck and those small margins, come home to the person making them. For the narrator, it means that her actions lead her to an end where she’s going to live forever or be snuffed out on the spot. And even then, it’s likely she’s still not going to win, just survive (in a fashion) to play the game again. And perhaps she’s just honest about it and willing to take what things she has to try and increase her odds of getting through to play again for the biggest prize, but for me her life is a tragedy only in part because of the people she kills. More, it’s a tragedy because it’s squandered, spent in service to chasing money, which might not be her fault, ultimately, but is certainly her choice. So yeah, definitely a piece to spend some time with!
“The Witch of the Will” by Aaron Perry (9320 words)
No Spoilers: Wanting to make a name for herself, a witch steals the will of the king, writing all the actions of his life so that his final years were foretold, and technically outside his control. It’s a brazen act, and one that earns the witch a new post and the fame she sought. But then a young man approaches her and asks her to do the same to him, to take his will. And, thinking it a kindness he will undo, she does. He surprises her, though, and ends up leaving her with the responsibility of his actions, his will, and putting the choice on her of how to handle that. The piece follows her on that journey, and it’s a dark, often violent experience. It looks at the decisions people make, and the responsibility that exists for those decisions.
Keywords: Witches, Fate, Prophecy, Will, Choices
Review: I like that this story takes such a serious look at the idea of free will and responsibility. And how different it can be to take someone’s will away. when the witch decides to take the will of the king, it’s in part to show she can, and in part to punish what has become a corrupt administration. It makes the king a kind of witness to his own life, taking his agency away. But because he does his best to ignore it, because he denies the will’s hold over him (or tries to), the witch mostly just watches things play out, knowing that they’re not going to be too bad. When she gets asked to do so again, she’s used to the kind of person the king was. His reaction was to try and see it, to break its hold. But for this new person who seeks her out, the prospect of fate, of not having a will of his own, is freeing. It clears him of responsibility for his own actions, because they are already written. So he can embrace what he wants, move forward with supreme confidence. And the story shows how dangerous that is, how that can make people into monsters, when they believe that what they can’t act any differently, that they are slaves to some other will. And the witch, who sees all this start to unfold, discovers that by writing his will, and having him embrace it, she has taken on the responsibility for his actions. Instead of seeking an easy way out of that, though, she tries to push the man to accept his will back. It’s a rather difficult read at times for me because to do that she does some awful things. And at every turn he refuses to take back his will, refuses to go back to having responsibility for his actions. He’s petulant and dangerous, but the witch never writes him off completely. The easier call might have been to just kill him right away, or force him to take back his will, but I think the witch realizes that this all started because of arrogance, and can only be solved through humility. It’s a dark read, full of violence and grief and a kind of regret and sorrow. It’s also a beautiful piece, though, powerful and deep and a wonderful read!