Thursday, December 26, 2019

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #293

Art by Alexey Shugurov
At first blush the two stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies don’t share too much in common(a rarity for the publication). But digging a little deeper, though, finds stories featuring characters dealing with some systemic problems. Very different ones, but ones that still seek to make them complicit in evil and corruption. And that almost succeed. They’re both quiet at first but rather quickly ramp up, and their ends are both rather bloody, rather messy affairs. To the reviews!


“Scapegoat” by Holly Messinger (9367 words)

No Spoilers: Boz and Trace are long time partners (not of the romantic/sexual kind) who are just leaving St. Louis for parts west when they run short of supplies (people need their coffee!) and stop at a small town to stock up. Inside the town, though, which is black and doesn’t have much reason to trust outsiders, especially white ones like Trace, things are a little...strange. Boz starts getting visions, seeing his partner as someone else, and it opens up a mystery that, if they’re not careful, could easily consume them both in violence and death. The piece is basically a historical paranormal adventure, the men specializing in threats of the otherworldly nature, though this one almost proves more than they can handle.
Keywords: Historical, Demons, Witches, Mind Control, Racism, CW- Rape
Review: This story has the feel of being one in a rather long series, though this is the first time I’m encountering it (I...think). At the very least, though, it stands very well on its own, giving the impression that Trace and Boz have a long history without getting too sidetracked into revealing every step of the back story. Needless to say they’ve been through a lot, and a lot of supernatural shit, and though they’re still learning some things about each other, they’re close, and they’ve earned each other’s trust. Or, well, mostly. I think for me what this story does well is show what an open wound racism is, not just for the nation at the time (shortly post-Civil War) but also for each person individually, and especially each black person. Boz has a long and tragic history with it, having lost his wife and child. It’s still something that he can’t fully face, and despite everything it’s hard not to keep that anger and hate from spilling over from the specific people who hurt hum to white people as a group who have hurt him. So when a demon creeps into a town and uses that, uses that very real and justified anger and resentment and need for justice, well, it’s something that not even Trace and Boz’s long friendship and partnership can initially stand against. Which is quite interesting, and I think the story is careful to try and show the costs and horror of racism. I’m not, ultimately, entirely sure how I feel about some of the elements and choices. It’s something of a romp, a story line I think would be right at home on a television show about historical/Western paranormal hunters. That the majority of the focus is on how a demon infiltrates a town of black people and uses their pain/anger to make them essentially reverse racists (and murderers) is something I’m not super comfortable with. At least, for me, some of the speculative elements here muddle the message about racism, using some very heavy themes and material that don’t wrap up as neatly as the ending implies. Though maybe that’s the point, and it’s certainly possible that as part of a larger story featuring these characters, the next part will further complicate and contextualize the things I was personally conflicted about. I definitely recommend people check it out for themselves. Indeed!

“The Only Way Out is Through” by Setsu Uzumé (4557 words)

No Spoilers: Dagn is the champion of a nation on the verge of a succession. Where the three heirs of the ruler are all trying to jokey for position and advantage while Dagn, hopefully-unbeknownst to them, has a plan of her own. To open the gates and let in a rebellion that will wipe the thrown clean of the heirs who cannot be allowed to rule. The piece is tense, Dagn having to navigate the myriad ways these heirs would make terrible rulers in the form of them trying constantly to kill each other with no care for the collateral damage. Meanwhile, the simple plan that Dagn has for dealing with them gets increasingly complicated as Things Just Go Wrong. It’s a fun piece, a running fight, a breathless dogsled ride complete with twists and turns and more than a few spills.
Keywords: Assassinations, Family, Rebellions, CW- Death of an Animal (Dog), Sleds
Review: I rather enjoy stories that are about careful plans and how, after meticulous planning, they so often go completely to shit on so many levels. And here I especially like that the reason that Dagn’s plan goes wrong isn’t that she’s wrong about what she’s doing, isn’t because she misjudges the people involved. Not really. It’s because those people act exactly as she expects, but...more so. Meaning, the reasons that she wants to see them dead. The pettiness, the competitiveness, the way they don’t care about who gets hurt around them. All the reasons she’s willing to welcome in a rebellion to clean house. And, well, they sort of beat her to it. It’s a delightful moment of the floor dropping out, of them pre-empting her plan by basically killing each other and in so doing making her have to take action herself to avoid having all of her plans fall apart. It leaves her getting her hands dirty and then having to make a break for it, and it’s a glorious mess of a race at that point to salvage what she can while trying to outrun her own injuries and further treacheries. And really it’s a fun, pulse-pounding piece, one that starts off reserved before punching it all the way up to eleven. The heirs are terrible and amazing, the whole situation one that blows up magnificently in Dagn’s face, and yet she doesn’t give up, and manages to pull victory form the jaws of defeat, even if it requires a bit of a last minute save from her shrew mother. A great read!


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