Monday, October 5, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #313

Art by Vladimir Manyukhin
It’s anniversary time again at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with a special extra-big issue containing three short stories and a novelette. Because of how the stories are released, it’s basically like having two different issues in one, and that plays out for me in the thematic links between the stories as well, where the first two deal with people investigating strange disturbances that turn out to be much deeper and more perilous than they thought, and the second two deal with people figuring out how much of their desires are what they think other people want for them, and how much are genuinely coming from within. The stories bounce off each other well, building in resonating ways a look into some very interesting (and often grim) fantasy worlds. But before I give too much away, let’s get to the reviews!


“Many Mansions” by K.J. Parker (10875 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story, Father Bohenna, is from the Studium, a university of sorts where would-be magic users are sent to learn their craft. Or, would be magic users who are also boys. Everyone else...not so much. And it’s with the air of that smug, misogynist superiority that the narrator moves through the world. Unafraid, because everything has worked out for him, because the powers that be of the world are so comfortable, fit so well, that while he’ll complain (and oh will he complain) about the ways he must jump through hoops and deal with things outside the bounds of “pure science,” he also relies very much on the world for his own comforts and securities. So when he’s sent out to investigate some witchy goings on, be knows that it’s nothing beyond him. Just a woman playing at magic. And he is a member of the Studium. But then, things conspire to make him rethink his almost bored and put upon outlook on the assignment quickly enough.
Keywords: Magic, Study, Science, CW- Misogyny, Witches
Review: The world building and magic system here are interesting, and the voice matches them so very well. Superior to a letter despite not exactly having earned any of the power of privilege he’s gotten in his life. Full of himself because he excelled (for the most part) in a complicated and rather bullshit system of this school, this Studium--finding that he likes it, it suits him, and while he dislikes having to go out on assignment so often, he’s still very committed to the Studium and it’s structures and prejudices. The thing for me with the story is that it leans rather hard, in my opinion, on the reader being able to see that the narrator is an ass, committed to those prejudices (namely misogyny though that’s normally not all when dealing with these types of institutions) and so unreliable as a rule. He’s also someone whose main “redeeming” quality is that he’ that he grew up poor and so he has something of a feeling of inadequacy about that. Enough so that when faced with certain kinds of adversity, his first move is to sort of roll over and admit his weakness. Which actually serves him quite well, it turns out, but is probably the part of the story I enjoyed the least, because here everything sort of comes down to him being a bit of a toady, not picky about how he wins, how he gets power. He’s called pathetic time and again and he accepts that. Which might seem to be humbling but for me it’s not, because while he’s admitting it he’s also failing upward. He loses, and loses, and loses, and yet somehow he wins. And for all that’s a sharp critique about how these systems have worked and continue to work in the real world, I just don’t must like reading about it in a fantasy world, and the lack of any sort of even attempt at reform, the casting of this powerful woman only as an evil revolutionary, the supremacy of an even worse, even older, even more reactionary and conservative power...It works. And the story has its moments. But I didn’t exactly enjoy reading this, and I wish it took itself in different directions. As such, I recommend people check it out and see for themselves how it lands. Indeed.

“A Minor Exorcism” by Richard Parks (4819 words)

No Spoilers: Lord Yamada and his priest, Kenji, are back (last seen I think back in the special 300th issue of BCS), and this time they’re going to check out some sort of disturbance in a nearby fishing village. Yamada tags along mostly out of boredom, a habit that has a way of putting him in harms way, which is why now he’s accompanied by two bodyguards, and together the four make their way across Yamada’s domain. What they find does indeed turn out to be a spot of misadventure, and one that reminds Yamada once again that his role as Lord is more than about the boring things that he’s trying to avoid. and that he might indeed have to start taking better care of his safety. It’s a fun story, tense and with a quick escalation, tightly paced and very efficient at under 5000 words.
Keywords: Demons, Corpses, Nobility, Exorcisms, Cats
Review: The shape of these stories is normally fairly similar. Yamada is bored and decides to accompany Kenji on some seemingly-mundane task just to get out of the house. The task invariable ends up being much more eventful and dangerous than either of them anticipate. And they get out with a bit of luck, a bit of grit, and by judicious use of their wits. This story, though, focuses on the changes that are overtaking Yamada’s life. The fact that he is now Lord, in charge of a lot more than his own life. Responsible in fact for a great many people, and certainly in the eyes of the law, rather more important than any of his subjects. That’s something that he bristles at, though, because to him he is just a man, same as any of the people around him. And I like that the story doesn’t exactly set him up as better, more worthy, anything like that. But he is a leader, and he is ultimately the best suited to protecting his people, both on the small scale and the large one. He’s knowledgeable and skilled at dealing with supernatural threats, and he’s fair and balanced. And, he’s starting to realize, that means he owes it to his people to protect himself. To not go running off into danger, because if he dies, they’ll all be the poorer for it. And that’s not bravado, not arrogance, just an assessment of the facts. He can help his people most by making sure he doesn’t die foolishly, and it takes staring down death here, having bitten off more than he could chew, to really get that sink in. It marks a greater transition, perhaps, from Yamada the adventurer to Yamada the Lord, but it shows that he sees what that means, and how he needs to mind his new role, and his new power, not squandering either needlessly or recklessly. And I like the elements, the youkai, the old friendship between him and Kenji. It’s a fun read, easy and well rendered, and it’s definitely worth checking out!

“The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own” by Merrie Haskell (3889 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are Tabitha, a young woman who has been waiting a good part of her life to go on a ‘corn hunt. For the white fabric of a wedding dress. A dress that will prove her devotion and purity, that will allow her to sit in the front of the church. Hunting a ‘corn isn’t exactly an easy thing, though, at least not where she lives, and especially not with the limitations that she has to do it alone. But she wants it, is determined, for a variety of messy reasons, and so she goes. And it doesn’t go well. The piece is tense and quiet and full of longing, and resolves into something beautiful and compassionate and affirming.
Keywords: Unicorns, Weddings, Hunts, Rituals, Injuries
Review: I love the way the story just sort of casually builds the world where there’s a lot of the same old bullshit with regards to gender roles but also, like, a lot of things are very different. The woman here is expected to be the hunter, to go out and kill the ‘corn. The guy that Tabitha is after is described as beautiful, and generally it seems that women here are the more assertive, the more aggressive. But religion seems to be something that still values women to be virgins, and tests this by sending them out to confront an animal that is only supposed to show itself to virgins. And I just like how all of this makes for a kind of messy situation, because I am a fan of acknowledging the ways that these practices are messy, passed down and shifted, brought to new places that don’t quite work the same, in some ways making the task of getting the ‘corn pelt so much harder and then also so important, casting women who must “wear the red” to sit in the back of church. I also love how the story shows how queerness plays into this (at least Sapphic queerness) and it’s an interesting conversation and complication that’s brought in from that axis. More, though, I just love the way that Tabitha’s internalized issues manifest in this desire, this stubborn need, to kill a ‘corn. To not be a disappointment to herself, to her dead mother, to her community. She needs something because she’s still hurting from loss and from expectation, because she thinks that getting the ‘corn will Mean Something when it really takes her a lot longer to understand that the important thing is the love she has, the love she presumably shares with Roland. A love that doesn’t need a ‘corn to be wonderful and pure and healing. But it takes having what she thought she wanted in her hand, feeling its beating heart, and knowing that it won’t actually bring her the thing she really wants, because nothing can. And she has to make peace with that, and start to move forward, hopefully with a pretty man. A great read!

“A Tally of What Remains” by R.Z. Held (5970 words)

No Spoilers: Helena is maintaining a farmhouse and a barn where she tends to the sick, the dying. A fever has spread through the country and people attempting to leave often stumble onto her land. She takes them, feeds them, burns the bodies of those who don’t make it. Time was her whole family helped, but one by one they died, and now it just her. At least, until a survivor comes out of the barn having made it through the worst of it. And shakes her careful system for handling the dead. But even as he messes things up, he might also shake her out of her own grief and guilt, all the things tying her to a penance not hers to pay, a penance that can’t be paid. It’s a difficult and wrenching story, but full of resilience, and people helping people, and a rekindling hope for a future.
Keywords: CW- Illness/Disease, Possessions, Grief, Family, Queer Characters, Fire
Review: This story is hard to read for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s about disease and, we are. But aside from that, I do love the way it handles grief and survivor’s guilt, how it brings these two characters first into conflict, then into something else. Through hell and hardship. To compassion, understanding, and, finally, a shot at healing. And it only can happen because the man, Benedict, goes through a similar process that she did. A similar descent. He starts off fresh from his first big loss, and it nearly breaks him. Nearly destroys him. And it’s only through his understanding that he has a lot farther to fall that he can start to get over the pain. But he also knows that it’s not just going to go away on its own. Especially not when he’s living in a way that keeps the wound open. And he’s doing it because it feels wrong for the wound to close. Like it would be a betrayal on his part. Like Helena feels it would be a betrayal to get away from the farm. To follow what she actually wants to do, what she does best. She’s sacrificing herself because she feels it’s necessary to recognize the significance of the loss. Because she thinks maybe if it hurts her enough it will mean something. That she will have made it mean something. Only it doesn’t. And none of the people that these characters lose want them to hurt. Would have wanted them to hurt. Would have wanted them to punish themselves for living. That’s something it takes the characters a while to get to but they do it together, through their conflict, through calling each other out a bit on their bullshit. Through reconnecting with what they want, what they’re good at. And it’s a difficult story. yes, all things considered, but it’s also a powerful and important one. About when pandemics pass. When people have to find out what next. A great way to close out the issue!


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