Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #316

Art by Vladimir Manyukhin
The two stories in the latest Beneath Ceaseless Skies deal with order, with bargains. With rules. And each presents a situation where rules have been made into a kind of weapon used to try and control people. In very different ways. But one story features an agent of the rules, of the status quo, going to “solve” a violation, only to discover that what he’s upholding might be very distant from justice, and the other involves one man standing up against a set of unjust rules and showing people that obedience and death are not the only options. It’s an action-filled issue, with some gripping scenes and satisfying endings, and I’ll get right to the reviews!


“The Gwyddien and the Raven Fiend” by J.T. Greathouse (9812 words)

No Spoilers: Llewyn is a gwyddien, a being made from a human, twisted with purpose to serve the Fae, to be their agents. And Llewyn works for the Gray Lady, a Fae who desires balance, to remove the touch of sorcery and magic from the world. Or, well, mostly. She’s sent Llewyn to a small but prospering village that seems under an enchantment. So that people cannot find it. So that sickness does not visit it. So that it remains, protected and rather happy. Except that it seems to have a general shortage of children, and an overabundance of crows. The piece is grim but maintains a hope and a complicates the role that Llewyn has. His mission is muddied by the presence of a sorceress, and on the ways what’s happening in the village mirror what happened with him, and his own involuntary transformation into a tool of the fae. It’s a carefully and intricately built world and narrative, part mystery, part action, and all around solidly enjoyable.
Keywords: Birds, Rituals, Fae, Transformations, Bargains
Review: I really like how the story pushes Llewyn (and by extension the reader) to really interrogate what’s happened to him and what he’s doing. It’s easy to see the sort of utility in it, that he’s been transformed, that he’s an agent of order. He’s trying to set right this wrong, and that has a simple elegance to it. It’s easy enough to think that this is fine, that he’s one of the Good Guys, whatever that means. And that Afanan, the sorceress, is one of the Bad Guys or at least one of those who is motivated by greed. And yet I think that as the piece goes on we get a better picture of what’s happening and it becomes easier and easier to see that really listening to names is easy enough. That the Gray Lady, by remaining supposedly neutral, can’t then be good. Because neutral and good are two entirely different things. And Llewyn, as her agent, can’t really be good, either. Especially because he never really gets a choice in things. He’s an agent, and an agent who was created against his will. He might want to believe that what he’s doing is right to make that easier, to make what happened has some sort of “meaning,” but really the meaning is that he was wronged. Betrayed. Exploited. And no amount of dressing that up as noble or necessary makes it right. And I love how he finds in Afanan that voice that will tell him that, who cares about him as a person, as someone who deserves to live instead of someone who to be used until he dies. It takes seeing this situation and remembering on that visceral level what happened to him, how he was changed, to see that he’s not really on the side of good. And that he has a choice to go his own way. It’s a deep and moving story in that sense while being a tightly paced and action-packed adventure at the same time. Which, all in all, makes for a wonderful read!

“A Land of Blood and Snow” by Cooper Anderson (4618 words)

No Spoilers: In New Wallachia, the royal family is made of werewolves. Werewolves who make sure that no one gets in, or out, of their kingdom. At least, not unless they play the game. The game being pretty simple. Anyone can ring the bell in the capital. They get an hour head start. If they make it to the border, they’re free. But the game has an older variant, one that draws itself from the battle that formed the kingdom, when Ivar killed Vlad Tepes. And that older game is all about blood, and death. So when the blacksmith rings the bell and it becomes obvious he’s not running, all eyes fix on the fateful confrontation. The piece is bloody but shows a resilience despite a suffocating oppression, and perhaps the start of something the blacksmith couldn’t have foreseen--the kindling of a new hope.
Keywords: Werewolves, Games, Silver, Bells, Rules
Review: I like the heavy feel of this, that sense that violence is sort of everywhere, that as a people the citizens here don’t have a lot of choice. But, of course, that’s largely because they’ve been made to feel that way. Convinced through fear and brutality. When at the end of the day, it’s the people have the power, and without the people the nobles, the royal family, all the werewolves, they’d have nothing to rule over. Nothing to eat they didn’t hunt in the wild. And they desire that very highly. That sense of domination. And so I like that here we find someone finding that they have nothing left to lose and the skills necessary to sort of call the bluff that isn’t a bluff. To make the werewolves earn their supper. And, through strength and cunning, he lives. And that’s such a powerful thing because of how unexpected it is, despite the fact the wolves came to power the same way. They’ve spent all their time trying to make sure that people wouldn’t exercise their right, wouldn’t play the game, because the truth is the wolves already break their rules. Kill people anyway. Have the run of things. And never have to really risk themselves. Well, the blacksmith brings it back to them. Reminds them that there’s a risk, that humans are as defenseless as they thought. And I like the way the narrator, this young boy, sees all this and feels something shift. Feels the start of something, maybe, because he sees the wolves play the game and lose. Proving that it’s possible. And the wolves can’t just cheat, because then no one will agree to play by the rules. It’s a story that fits well in the moment, about not just accepting injustice and corruption, about fighting back. And It’s a neat story with a cool aesthetic and some nice action. A great read!


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