Both of the stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are about bargains and the people who facilitate them. Who trade in the power to get things done. To realize dreams. Or to respond to hurts. Both people, though, find that there are hurts they seem incapable of really seeing to. And in some ways that regardless of what they do, things seem to get worse, people they care about are hurt, and they end up increasingly alone. It’s a nice one-two punch of grim and gritty stories involving magic and desire. But there’s hope there as well. Stuck in, and shadowed by the pain that’s been caused, but present all the same, for those willing to look for it. To the reviews!
|Art by Vladimir Manyukhin|
“Deep in the Drift, Spinning” by Lisa L. Hannett (5532 words)
No Spoilers: Winnifletch is a conjurer who lives mostly on her own on a beach in a hut with crow familiar. She makes potions drawn from the crushed (juiced?) bodies of birds--potions that help people, though in different ways for each person. The one person she hasn’t helped, though, the one person she’s refused again and again, has been her daughter. Her daughter, who always felt like a harpy, part bird, who always wanted to fly, who wanted to be free. But who had to live by the rules, by the name that Winni gave her and enforced. Until, finally, she refused, and she left, and in that absence Winni has to reckon with her decisions, her actions, and what she’s going to do about them. It’s a grim story, full of hurt and longing, but with a splash of blood-red hope to it as well, a spot of magic that settles on the tongue.
Keywords: Birds, Magic, Potions, Family, CW- Death of an Animal/Pet (Bird)
Review: For me a lot of the story is about the relationship between Winni and her daughter. About the ways that parents seek to shape their children, about how they deny things not exactly out of principle, but out of fear. Fear of being left behind, of being alone. Placing on their children this burden to make their own life less empty, less hollow, when no child can really do that, and it’s unfair to ask. Further, in denying her daughter, Winni ends up doing harm, ends up authoring the very thing she didn’t want to do by pushing her daughter away. And that’s such a hard thing, something that really runs deep in the story, the uncertainty and the fear. That she might make a mistake in the casting and hurt her daughter, yes (this informed by a supposedly spell-gone-wrong that she worked on her daughter’s father), but also more broadly that it will give the daughter the freedom to leave, to go where Winni cannot follow (perhaps also informed by being abandoned by that man). And the piece speaks in a lot of ways just to the ways that parents might balk at giving their children what those children so desperately want, what they need. Couching it as protecting the child from danger, when denying the child is more dangerous because of the harm it’s doing. Couching it as a loving decision when really it’s a selfish one. Not that answering the request and making the attempt are easy, and I’m not a huge fan that a bird (especially one the child loved) has to die in order for this magic to work, but that’s the world building (which is interesting and grim), and I do like that it’s a decision that Winni makes, that even if it leaves her entirely alone, she’s finally willing to do this for her daughter. Finally willing to try this thing that has always been in her power to give. A fine read!
“The Patron” by Derrick Boden (5970 words)
No Spoilers: The Patron oversees transactions. Or, perhaps, makes bargains. Or, even, grants wishes. Powered by daemons who give her power to do almost anything, the Patron meets with supplicants and listens to their desires. Then tells them to leave. But they never do, and each time she must take part in a perverse twisting of what the supplicant wants. Must witness the aftermath and the way that these wishes always have a hidden catch. Always end up taking whatever the supplicant has left, even when they are sure they have nothing more to lose. The piece is grim in the extreme, about pain and servitude, the Patron chained to her chair, with only the wordless daemons, an eyeless guitarist, and a careful bodyguard for company. It’s heavy and stark and gutting, even as it implies that there’s a reason to the horrors, a purpose for the misery and pain.
Keywords: Bargains, Chains, Family, Queer MC, Feeding
Review: In many ways this is a difficult story to read, because it’s all about pain, all about the ways that people can be hurt, can hurt each other, can betray, can be betrayed. All the ways that the Patron suffers in captivity, pitying the people who come to seek her aid, even as she grants their requests and ruins their lives. It sets up these daemons who are watching it all happening, who are powering it all, who are awash in filth and hate and greed and pain. But who are also looking for something. And who seem to find it in the Patron. And I think that’s how the story ends up complicating the really gritty and grim elements it uses, tall the murder and death, the suffering and anguish. Not just presenting torture porn, essentially, but showing what might be behind these daemons, who have such power, who can do so much. To show that the real crux of the story isn’t about cruelty. Yes, the things that happen certainly seem cruel. They seem like these “ironic” or “real justice” twists to monkey’s paw the wishes the people come in with. People find their hopes for revenge, for something to make their own lives better, or at least avenge their losses, turn to ash as they learn that there’s always more to lose. Always further to fall. Even the Patron learns this, again and again. And maybe it should make her bitter. Angry. Evil. But it doesn’t. And there I think is the hope the story really is getting at. The resilience and the power that the daemons are feeding on, that they are watching, that they’ve been searching for. Change. Hope. That people can make selfless decisions. That not everyone will just sell out everyone else. That somewhere in humanity is something good, some empathy and compassion, and maybe it takes losing everything to really find that, because only after losing everything can people find that they still have something. The capacity to do good, to change, to build themself back without all the baggage and mess. And I like that. It’s not easy to get there, what with the pain the story brings, but I definitely think it’s worth sticking with it to really spend some time with the story and let that ending land. A great read!