|Art by Anton Ninov|
The two new stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies bring pieces that deal with interesting takes on time and memory. In the first, a man loses his long term memory and has to piece together his mission based on instinct and training and a single directive to kill. In the second, an augur knows the future well enough to know he can’t fight it, but a new connection in his life makes him want to, even as he has to face his own advancing age. It’s a complex issue that mixes action and introspection, and I’ll get right to my reviews!
“Kill the Witchman” by William Broom (4600 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a man without an identity, a necessity for a witch-hunter, who is sent to assassinate witchmen, people who have the power to alter minds and memories. So the narrator is made a blank slate but for his training to hunt and kill, drugged so that all he remembers is the present moment. Only his current hunt goes a bit sideways when his defenses are shaken and he starts to remember...things that might never have been. The piece plays with memory and reality, showing the power of controlling that narrative and the care needed to navigate a world where memories can’t be relied upon. It’s tense, action-packed, but takes some care to come to a complicated but effortful ending.
Keywords: Memories, Family, False Memories, Magic, Assassins
Review: The idea that someone can manipulate memories is a rather terrifying one, because with that kind of control just about anything is possible. Reality itself is stored in memory and perception, and by altering it, a witchman can control just about anything they want. And I like that the workaround for that seems to be to strip a person of memory, to make them essentially a trained killer whose actions are ingrained rather than remembered. Not that it makes for a very sympathetic narrator, as this one doesn’t really care who he kills, indeed forgets his own crimes very shortly after committing them. That this is done all in the name of hunting even more dangerous people doesn’t erase the harm that he does, exactly, but it does for him, and it’s where I feel the real conflict comes from, that a part of him doesn’t like just being this weapon, carries the weight of what he’s done, even if it’s just unconsciously. And it’s what this particular witchman ends up accidentally tapping into when he creates the person of Dumu and puts it into the narrator’s head. A man who cares about protecting his family. Who cares about fighting against tyranny. It resonates with the narrator so that he wants to be that person, and in embracing that finds a way to still end the threat of the witchman without becoming more of a monster. And I like that it’s where the story goes, giving him room to recognize that he’s in this incredibly messy situation and that the danger of witchmen is very real, but that doesn’t mean it’s absolute, and doesn’t make killing them indiscriminately right. The piece has a lot of action and treats the lack of memory well, really getting the feel of it while managing to tell a coherent story. I might wish that it looked a bit closer at the narrator’s role as a killer, an assassin, a tool, and how they want to change that, but even without it being made explicit I think it presents a complex and balanced view of the situation and the path forward for the narrator and his “nephew.” A great read!
“The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door” by Greta Hayer (3884 words)
No Spoilers: The main character of this story is known only as the augur, a man who is already old when the piece begins, who once worked for the emperor but who made a mistake and has been banished, and now works in a village telling people their fortunes. One of which yields a girl who needs a home. A girl with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a future tinged with tragedy. So the augur decides to raise her himself, and what follows is a warm if sometimes tumultuous story of family and futures and fate. About the weight of knowing what comes next, and the possibility and hope that can flourish when fate isn’t a yolk. It’s slow and doesn’t exactly bring the action, but it does manage a nice tension and lovely, almost lonely feeling of longing and love.
Keywords: Prophecy, Fate, Family, Orphans, War
Review: I like how the story looks at prophecy, at fate, as being better off not really known. Because as tragic as it might be, as much as a person might think it a comfort to know when and how they’re going to die, it’s not really. And I like that the augur knows that it’s not really exactly knowledge of the future that people are wanting to see. I also like that while the art of augury is fairly systematic, fairly certain in its predictions, it also can’t be quite precisely seen. The broad strokes, yes, but not the whys behind any of it. Just the how, the what, the when. And the why matters, the why can make a big difference. Which is one reason not to go out looking for the how the what and the when, because lacking that context, all people have to go off of is this sense of dream, wondering how they’ll end when they should be concentrating on how they live. And I just really like the warmth of the piece, the way that the augur handles his own knowledge of the future, not for himself so much as for the girl that he adopts. From an early age he knows that she’s going to die fairly young, and violently, and in some ways he mourns for her all along. It informs how he treats her, and for all that he might think that he’s distanced from everything, that he’s made peace with it, he also holds a deep anger and fear and hurt over what is going to happen, and that in turn informs his view that it’s best not knowing. Because he can’t forget, and it’s always a pain for him. It’s a lovely look at their lives and the love they have for one another, the ways that they are a family, the ways that they hurt each other while trying not to, while trying to figure out what the other wants. And it’s a sad story, for all that it’s also beautiful and caring. Sad because it’s about death and parting, about letting go of the future, about trying to live in the moment, as much as possible. It’s a wonderful read!