Thursday, July 9, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #307

The two new original stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies at first don’t seem to have the same obvious thematic connections that I expect from the publication. One’s a story that involves fairies and bargains, the other one a story that involves prisons and dreams. But both deal with injustice, with captivity, with people who find themselves trapped trying to survive, trying to be free. And who find that being free is more than having food to eat. It might also be about standing against the status quo when that status quo is disinterested in people’s lives and happiness, when the system leans towards tragedy and loss. So connection definitely is there. To the reviews!


“Buttercream and Broken Wings” by Aimee Ogden (5837 words)

No Spoilers: This rather grim take on fairy tales finds Willowbright, an actual fairy, a little low on human patronage. The rules of fairies mean that to survive winter she needs a human to offer her food, but since the last human she had an arrangement with died, winter’s looking rather lean. That is, until a girl finds her with an interesting bargain to make. And the piece takes something of the shape of Cinderella, but without the same kind of happy ending. The piece is at times visceral and difficult, revealing a world that operates by some rough and unfair rules that seem only to get bent and broken to inflict more pain and damage. It traces the place the fairies occupy, a precarious balance of magic and bargains that often tip into shadows.
Keywords: Fairies, Bargains, Wings, CW- Abuse, CW- Torture, Queer MC
Review: I love the way the story reimagines the fairy tale of Cinderella and recenters it on the fairy helping her. Not a godmother but a being looking to make some bargains. Everyone here has plans and schemes, motivations that are more about needing to survive than they are anything else. And that’s not exactly an easy thing, especially if you don’t want to live always in servitude. Willowbright wants to make bargains, wants to eat and be warm. The girl she meets wants to avoid abuse from her family, wants to attract the eye of a man powerful enough to set her up in a comfortable life. She thinks the way to getting what she wants is fairy magic, and in a way she’s right. Just like Willowbright believes that the way to get what she wants is to make bargains with humans. What neither of them fully consider is that those bargains are not isolated. They exist in a web of other bargains, other cruelties that stretch on and on, that spoil the food just as they’re about to eat them. And so the girl ends up being hurt even worse, and she passes that right on back to Willowbright. And it’s difficult reading, because of how the story shows it, how painful it is for Willowbright. But it’s also a lesson in some ways. In the ways the whole system is broken and rotten. And I like how the piece has the running element of the wild fairies. Who Willowbright is both repulsed and attracted to. Because they follow their own rules, as brutal as they can be. But they decide, and they don’t hide behind the lie that the “civilized” rules that Willowbright and the rest of the Court pretend are less brutal. When really, they are just as bad, just as bloody. At least wild there is a freedom and a power. Not to bow to a bargain that is not entered into in good faith. I like where the story brings Willowbright, as wrenching and violent as it is, because it does free her from the cycle, always inches from death in winter, that only seemed to deepen the pain, that always seemed to end in tragedy. In many ways the story goes more grim than even the Grimm story, but doesn’t lose hope. It just sees through the lie of the happily ever after and finds power in agency and flight and, maybe, community. A wonderful read!

“Seven Dreams of a Valley” by Prashanth Srivatsa (3478 words)

No Spoilers: Told half waking and half in dream, this story follows a guard at a prison where a seemingly-powerful woman has been captured and sent. What exactly Kalmashi did isn’t exactly clear, but for the guard, the narrator, she opens a door to a special place in dreams, a place called Kashmira, where he is welcomed despite an advancing shadow of empire and subjugation. The piece is eerie and haunting as much as it is lush and beautiful, weaving together two very different stories into a coherent whole of magic, memory, and resilience in the face of a crushing power.
Keywords: Prisons, Dreams, Songs, CW- Torture, Resistance
Review: There’s so much to like about this story, from the strangeness of the dreams that the narrator experiences to the way that the mirror, given for a time of need, is used in an act of compassion that might just be the most magical thing about the whole situation. Because for me the dreams that the narrator has seem like a kind of spell, one cast by Kalmashi but not one of compulsion or force. What happens to the narrator is that he’s pulled into this history, into these memories, given a role within them as a man traveling up from an empire and meeting this place, this people who are full of kindness and concern and joy. Who value him for the songs he knows, and who teach him new ones. Who will not flee from the threat of empire that comes creeping up, and will not give in even as the empire covers them, engulfs them, and tries to assimilate them. And the guard then, in the dream, gets pulled into their struggles, knows them, and is given the power them to help do something to aid them in the present, in the waking world. Unlocking a cage. Making good on a promise that he made in a different world. For me the magic of the piece flows through the two separate stories, unifies them, gives them a direction and a shape. The question of who Kalmashi is might just be hinted at, though it’s never directly answered. And what she’s going to do...well, I love that the story leaves so many of these things unexplained. The how of what happens is never revealed. Just that it all builds together to this portrait of an unjust empire, a people subjugated and looking for a way to fight back. A woman who might be part of a generational effort to be free, to fight off enslavement. And a guard, pulled in the wake of that struggle, finding that once he knows the whole story the question of what to do is an easy one, even if it seems like a spell has been cast on him. The truth can do that, to the right people. A fantastic read!


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