|Art by Alexey Shugurov|
The stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies revolve around friendship. In both, the characters (the main ones, at least) have been friends for a long time. And that shapes how these stories move, how they unfold. In one, the friendship is also the plot, with the characters having to deal with the ways they’ve changed since their intensely close days as young people. In the other, the friendship helps to ground two people dealing with a much more labyrinthine web of intrigues that might have implications not just for them and their city, but for an empire, a world, and maybe even beyond. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!
“Swimming Apart” by R.Z. Held (4844 words)
No Spoilers: Deania and Seriola were inseparable once, daring vvery dangerous swims and even covert raids on human vessels to gather information and intelligence which allowed Seriola to infiltrate human lands to learn even more about them, all in an effort to keep their hidden village safe. After her return, though, Seriola settled down and swore off the adventures that had bonded her and Deania. Now Deania has invited Seriola on a new adventure, in the hopes that maybe things can go back to the way things were. It’s a rather complex story, not because the plot is hard to follow but because the emotions involved are messy and raw. But it brings both characters into a confrontation with each other and themselves, and manages to make a rather elegant and profound statement on friendship, time, and change.
Keywords: Friendship, Swimming, Seas, Caves, Ruins, Change
Review: I love the way the story frames this friendship, still very much alive for both women and yet altered. They can both tell that it’s different, and yet both also view the other person as being to blame. Deania for not changing, not growing up. Seriola for turning her back on what made them friends in the first place. It’s easy to see how both treasure the friendship they had but where Deania is still rather enamored with the adventure of exploration, the hope of discovering something new and interesting, Seriola has become rather disillusioned with humanity, and wants instead a security of her own. The piece is careful not to position either of their desires as wrong. Seriola is not “bad” for having changed the way that she did, and neither is Deania, who also changed, just further down the road she was already on. The result is that the two have ended up rather far apart, their friendship something behind them, though it’s a loss they both feel and both perhaps want the other to make better. People change, though, and that’s not a betrayal, not something they need to be guilty for. It’s nice that they get to hold onto the past and realize that if they don’t stop pushing, stop trying to force something between them, they could lose the joy and the happiness of their memories, too. And it’s nice to see that they get to hold onto that, at least, get to enjoy the time they had without being bogged down by the pain that those times are over. At the least, it allows them to embrace the roads their one, the currents that are taking them further away from each other, while still being able to look back fondly on the times when they were swimming together. A wonderful read!
“The Forge” by Andrew Dykstal (11636 words)
No Spoilers: Hodge is the commander of the royal guard with just a small problem—the king has just been assassinated. Okay, so not such a small problem. What’s worse, the assassination doesn’t make any sense. Despite the guards and the magic the king had to protect him, just one man managed to commit the regicide, and while a lot of people had a lot to gain from the death of the rather useless king, the work was sloppy, and the outcome seems to have everyone uncertain. What Hodge knows is that he’s out of a job and might even be implicated in the plot if he can’t figure it out himself, first. So he tries to, along with his friend and the court magic user, Lyric. But there are puppets and puppets within this web of intrigue and magic, made all the more deadly when the assassin himself won’t stay executed and the city teeters on the edge of ruin and revolution. It’s a tense piece told on two timelines, one moving toward and one away from what is essentially the center point of the story’s plot.
Keywords: Assassinations, Magic, Portals, Blades, Bargains
Review: In some ways this is a rather grim story, full of death and corruption, where Hodge is a man hoping most to protect peace because he knows full well that the political machinations of the nobility have ways of actually hurting the common people. So he tries to ferret out plots before they spill over into the streets. This assassination, though, has gotten past him, and he’s bothered by it. Not just because it was his job to prevent it, but because it shows that he didn’t have the right read on some people. Perhaps more accurately, he wasn’t ready for when someone brought in an outside power that completely upset the balance of power in the city. The piece is part mystery, the earlier storyline detailing his investigation into what happened, by whom, and for what reason. The later storyline focuses on him and Lyric dealing with the aftermath. With surviving torture and devastation to trace the source of the troubles back to their source. For me, and perhaps for Hodge, the main takeaway is how frightening it can be that everyone in a situation thinks they’re doing the right thing while no one is caring enough about the deaths being caused. And I feel like that’s the real scope of the piece, that people can justify almost anything, but when it comes down to it, all the paths of the various conspirators are paved over the dead. And in that situation there’s a lot to be said about people like Hodge who want to protect lives, who are invested more in justice, though it’s not like that’s bloodless, either. And really it’s an intricately woven and interesting story with a well built world and strong characters. There are certainly plenty of twists and turns, and while the ending comes somewhat bloodier and more straightforward than I would have most enjoyed, it still very much works and is satisfying. A great read!