|Art by Flavio Bolla|
There’s no rest for the wicked reviewers out there as a third special issue in a row drops at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, this one celebrating the milestone of issue #200! The first half alone is over 36k words all told, so I’m definitely going to be breaking the issue up into two parts. Covered here are stories that look at stories that are anchored by change and upheaval. By complicated politics that intersect with messy family situations. And they feature characters with missions. Some rather humble--to finish a miniature-and some very large--to find a city of the gods. There are spills and chills aplenty, and so much to get to, so let’s dive right in to the reviews!
“The Hummingbird Temple” by C.C. Finlay (14941 words)
No Spoilers: Lin is the last of nine siblings in line for the throne. As such, she keeps mostly out of court politics, knowing that she doesn’t have much in the way of clout and would serve mostly as someone else’s pawn. So she escapes to the world of miniature architecture, building out of hummingbird bones and other very small materials to bring her visions to life. And then her father, the Dynast, is killed, and the palace, and city, ignite. Kuikin and Vertir are agents of one of the country’s chief administrators, and used to some unsavory tasks. Finally used in the city, it’s a chance for a bit more luxury as they hunt down some corruption to either punish or reward (or most likely both). but when all hell breaks loose, it’s time for them to roll the dice with how they want to handle the sudden upheaval. It’s a tightly paced and tense adventure as the two viewpoints (Lin and Kuikin) jump back and forth, giving a vivid picture of a battle for succession that’s bloody and intense.
Keywords: Royalty, Assassination, Spiders, Birds, Architecture
Review: For a story that feature a good deal of architecture, it’s probably no surprise that a lot of care seems to have gone into the structure and plotting of the piece, moving the characters around in a rather dangerous dance. The world building and character work are also strong, though, showing enough to carry across the implications of a sudden royal succession, probably a plot by one of the heirs that quickly runs into all the different plans that exist among the royal family. From everyone but Lin, who has tried to ignore all of it. And I do like that she’s more interested in her models than with what’s happening outside. At least at first. And how she’s able to keep her wits about her when everything goes to shit. Also her giant spider is adorable. I like that she’s so unsentimental, deeply aware of how fragile her position is and making no illusions about it, just pushing forward to try and live something of a life. It makes her a little brutal but mostly just prudent. And it keeps her alive. Some of the characters have a bit of a familiarity, perhaps, in that they fill somewhat standard fantasy roles, and we don’t get too deep in their motivations or lives beyond what’s needed for the action going on. Still, they are distinct and give the action more room to shine. And I do like how the piece ties in the idea of luck and ruin, of gambling and doing the “right” thing. Most of the characters act to survive but also take chances to help others. And in that they sort of make their own luck, coming out of the chaos of the night (chaos is opportunity, after all) in a position unexpected but not unwanted. And for me it’s a fun and solid fantasy romp that’s one and done but feels like fleshed out enough that it could be a part of a larger world and story, balancing scope and impact to nice effect. A great read!
“Uzumaki of the Lake” by Richard Parks (3666 words)
No Spoilers: Lord Yamada and his priest, Kenji, have become perhaps a bit stir crazy with their light duties at home when they receive a request to investigate an argument between two lords surrounding a lake that used to be one’s territory, and is now the other’s. Now a ghost has appeared, escalating the disagreement, and giving Yamada and Kenji, who are both used to dealing with supernatural issues. The piece is something of a mystery, brisk and covering some political as well as spiritual ground. Yamada and Kenji and friends, comfortable with each other and not outwardly keen on putting their noses into conflict but inwardly perhaps just a bit too eager to dig their teeth into a substantive problem after spending too long with too trivial matters.
Keywords: Spirits, Lakes, Rivalries, Diplomacy, Dragons
Review: This is a neat little story about a mystery at a lake and a pair of feuding lords and the possibility of a sleeping dragon. It leans fairly heavily on tropes it evokes, counting on that to utilize a setting broadly stroked and populated largely by men either doing their bureaucratic duty or trying to get out of it. All in a world where ghosts and demons aren’t exactly uncommon, at least for those who make a point of seeking them out. The central mystery is a fairly interesting one, made trickier by the tense political situation. Yamada and Kenji seem well used to walking the line they do, tasked by the central government to look in on the things bubbling up with the local lords. Presumably they’re there to do something about the ghost, but their true purpose is to keep the peace, which is made a lot trickier when both of the local lords seem to want conflict. The resolution isn’t entirely complicated, though--nor is it really magical or supernatural. Yamada and Kenji make short work of what’s going on and in a lot of ways the story is about how a worse situation is avoided. It’s quiet, and the stakes, while they aren’t incredibly low, aren’t super high, either. Amusingly for me, at least, is that the story features these guys who so obviously want to get involved in something complicated because they’ve been bored and under-utilized, and the mystery revolves so quickly. It’s like they’re hoping it’s going to be more than it is, and while the ending has a nice feeling to it, there’s also a sense that it wasn’t really enough to get them full invested, and that they might be looking for more to volunteer for, which might in turn lead them to make some decisions, and possible mistakes, that they wouldn’t have otherwise. A fine read!
“Bound by Sorrow” by Maurice Broaddus (18858 words)
No Spoilers: In a rather interestingly nested story, Dinga is a warrior on a journey to deliver his dead sister to the Dreaming City, a city where gods still live. Accompanied by the irreverent bard Gerard, Dinga’s journey is punctuated by stories, his own and those he encounters, which illuminate his life and his mission and the mythology all around him. It’s a story very much about grief, and power of confronting grief in different ways. There’s an epic sweep to the piece a deep history that might be historical (fantasy), building this very living feel of each layer of story, reaching forward through time from Dinga to the reader, and perhaps beyond. It’s a story that unfolds and unpacks a lot over its novella length, but never loses sight of its thematic core of grief, death, dreams, and choices.
Keywords: Gods, Journeys, Family, Burdens, Cities, Death
Review: I like how the story takes on, well, stories, and the power of them, the power of witnessing certain things as a way of processing and giving models for dealing with feelings. One of the key scenes of the story hinges on one such moment, where Dinga is witnessing a death that means so much to so many people, and through that he is able to better access his own feelings regarding the death of his sister, the death he’s been in many ways running away from even as he’s carrying it with him, in a literal and metaphorical sense. And the story, then, becomes a way for other people to witness that, layering this message, bridging the gap from Dinga out to the reader in a rather interesting and robust way. It gets at the power of stories to help people process, to help people organize their feelings and interrogate their desires and actions. Through examining emotions in others, it becomes a bit more possible to recognize them in ourselves, and maybe begin to deal with them. And otherwise, the structure of the story provides for a complex and intricately woven story of adventure and loss, family and care. Dinga is a warrior, knows how to deal with his problems with a blade, but he’s also someone grieving, and doing so with his friend. The dynamic between him and Gerard is great, the two so close while maintaining this rather grumpy bickering. There are times when they are able to get around that, where they are able to speak without all the barriers and dance, where they can actually talk about what’s happened. But they also get into a lot of trouble, which is it’s own way of dealing with things, or not dealing with things really, because it leans back on what is familiar and denies the huge change that has them so shaken. But it also makes it fun to read about, cutting the philosophical moments with humor and action. And all in all it’s a wonderfully realized world and story, the characters diving through the nested narratives in order for the complete picture to reach out for the reader, making a more meta statement on what it means to read a story, and why it is important, even sacred. It’s a powerful read very much spending some time with!