|Art by Rytis Sabaliauskas|
It’s a new year at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which means a new opportunity to remind people what the publication is good at. First, it’s a well paired issue, something that they excel at. These are two stories of fantasy adventure, with characters having to use their minds as well as their daring and bravery in order to try and thwart the destructive wills of those who have already taken from the main characters. So the characters are out for more than just setting right some wrongs. They’re out for a bit of payback, as well, and it lends an added flare to the prose, an added brashness. And it makes for a very fun look at what BCS does, and I should just get right to the reviews!
“These Wondrous Sweets” by Tony Pi (7995 words)
No Spoilers: It’s a new story for Ao Tienwei, the maker of caramel candy animals and water sorcerer. After healing some from the wound he received saving the tigress who protects the city, he’s thrown right back into danger as the Ten Crows Sect looks to get rid of the Tigress once and for all by following all the healers in the city. Knowing that their plan will work if they don’t do something about it, Ao and his allies concoct a plan to lure the Sect’s attention away from the true Tigress by giving them a decoy chase, but one made of candy and water. Of course, the plan comes with its own dangers, and its own bargains, and it’s a tense, action-packed entry into a setting and story I’m always excited to revisit.
Keywords: Candy, Tigers, Transformations, Bargains, Assassins, Crows, Gods, Zodiac
Review: It’s always...a treat to dip back into this setting (I couldn’t help myself!), and once more we follow Tangren Ao as he tries to keep the peace in his city and just maybe foil the machinations of a devious gang, all the while navigating the rather fickle and haughty personalities of the Zodiac animals, each of which has a slightly different approach to how to get things done. While the previous stories have featured different of these gods-animals, this story features only Tiger, who grants Ao a boon in order to help him fool those who want to harm the city’s Tigress. And I love that half of these stories is always Ao trying to figure out how to use this “help” from the Zodiac animals because it so often comes with some complication or cost that renders it nearly more trouble than it’s worth. And I love that in order to “help,” Tiger gives Ao the instincts of a tiger to help make his disguise. And it nearly ruins everything. And so the greatest danger of the story is Ao trying to come to terms with the tiger inside him. The tiger he has to separate himself from and then name in order to master. And, well, not even master, but come to understanding with. And even so, the bargain seals other parts of the story as well, marking the end with something of a disaster, and one with some large implications in the setting going forward. To this point, after all, Ao has been working in relative obscurity, at least with regards to his enemies. Now it might be that he’s been discovered, and it manages to keep things interesting and with a feel of definite forward momentum, which might make waiting for the next story more difficult. But at the same time the story does stand on its own, a solid adventure, mostly action and adventure but with enough character work from Ao and especially his supporting cast. Which makes given that the piece is at least in part about Ao not acting alone, but with friends and allies, getting ready to maybe take on the Ten Crows Sect directly. Or at least bracing for their next move. It’s a really fun setting and story, and it’s a great read!
“Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North” by Genevieve Sinha (5566 words)
No Spoilers: Claudette is a young heiress of a trading company, left to her by parents who are now gone—her mother dead, her father presumably taken by the Devil of the North, a mysterious creature that has destroyed three towns and any party sent out to take it down. On her own now, she’s out to find her father or avenge him with just her sled team of dogs and the last of her mother’s guns. Not that she stays on her own, as her venture into the unforgiving cold turns up an unlikely encounter, and possible ally. The piece is fun, like the previous one focused on action and using ingenuity as well as bravery to try and stop a great tragedy from expanding.
Keywords: Snow, Storms, Guns, Hunts, Bounties, Technology
Review: The framing here is interesting, set up as a kind of interview between Claudette and a newspaper well after the events of her encounter with the beast. It seems to relish the ways that it misleads, the ways that it implies not only that the piece will be much darker than it ends up being, but that its climax will be won through the barrel of a gun. Instead, I really like that the story is more about using wits and care to figure out what might really be going on, and in order to make a much more precision strike to defeat the Devil of the North and deliver the victory Claudette was hunting. And it’s a lot of fun to watch Claudette work, the way she dismisses people who make assumptions because she’s young, because she’s a woman. She pushes forward despite it, refusing to be manipulated or coerced, leading by the power of her convictions and resolve. The challenge is certainly large enough, with this town-destroying monster, and the plot progresses with enough twists and turns. It’s an adventure, well paired with the setting details and world building, which capture a sort of alternative historical model where there are more fantastical elements, something like steampunk without really focusing on the more common tropes and touches. It’s slightly gritty in its focus on the economic realities that Claudette is in, the way she’s been thrust into this position of authority while everyone else around her is trying to take away that authority, assuming that she’s not up to it. And she fears that herself, doesn’t want to fall short of her parents’ legacies, doesn’t want to essentially let them down or let herself done. Luckily she’s competent and just a bit lucky, and the combination of the two prove enough to carry her through the challenges facing her and give her some power in the face of the people who might have otherwise taken advantage of her. It’s another fun and thrilling story, and a thoroughly entertaining way to open up 2020. A wonderful read!