Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #317

Art by Avant Choi
The two stories in the latest Beneath Ceaseless Skies are united by (aside from the fact that they’re both novelettes) the undimmable enthusiasm of their protagonists. Both main characters are driven, are artists, and they paint on large canvases. They are, in part at least, confidence men, there to sell something. They’re not exactly frauds, though, as each of them is selling something that people want. Good health. Good food. And an experience that will leave them feeling good about it. For both, though, something rears up that threatens their art, their profession, and their lives, and they have to stay sharp and depend on the people around them to come through...if not unscathed, then at least alive, and eager to get back on the road. To the reviews!


“The Science and Artistry of Snake Oil Salesmanship” by Timothy Mudie (10808 words)

No Spoilers: Aloysius McNutt is the best snake oil salesman in the area, in a vast realm that vaguely resembles the American West. And he’s the best mostly thanks to Snake herself, who produces an oil that really does heal people, that makes them happier, better people. Or that’s how it seems. The work follows Al and Snake as they attempt to quasi-swindle people but in reality provide them with a wonder cure for fairly little, both of them doing a penance of sorts of things they’ve done in the past, both of them on a collision course with those pasts, regardless of how much good they’ve done in the mean time. It’s a story with a nice mix of action, adventure, comedy, and emotional work. The characters pop while the setting remains vague enough to feel both historical and decidedly not. It’s a fun story, above all, with a heartwarming finish under the veneer of tomfoolery.
Keywords: Snakes, Westerns, Healing, Family, Debts
Review: I really like how the story handles debts. Because iin many ways that’s at the heart of the story, the reasons who Al and Snake are doing what they’re doing, and the hope and joy the story finds for its setting. Debts are weights. And the story recognizes that people put into either a kind of health debt or financial debt are paying a price that, really, they shouldn’t be. Health and healthcare should be a right. And instead they are treated like commodities that only those with enough wealth should afford. Al and Snake are going around dealing with that, setting people free from that debt, for the simple fact that they can and it’s the right thing to do. And, well, because both of them feel a more moral debt because of things they have done. Failure to save a town. Accidentally lashing out in anger and pain. Fairly light burdens but that for these people they are heavy. Because these people do care about others, and feel the pain of others rather acutely. So they do what they can. And yeah, that involves a bit of theatrics, but in the end they get the job done, and make people happier. Except for that their past does catch up with them, for both of them in the form of a violent and corrupt figure who cares only that their own access to exploitation was weakened. Who have lost only the ability to hurt others. But who still feel that loss as entitling them to compensation. To revenge. And I really like how the story shows that debts are things that are...not great. That they do make people desperate, and exploited, and unable to effectively advocate for themselves. People die, and people suffer, and it could be avoided so easily because these debts aren’t necessary. Because healthcare could be given freely and fairly. Because no one would need to go into financial debt to take care of themselves. And no one would have to go into moral debt except those actually intentionally authoring harm. And it all just comes together in this rather charming and complicated way. And it makes for a great read!

“A Feast from Tile and Stone” by Ryan Eric Dull (16479 words)

No Spoilers: Gastel is the most famous chef of his generation, commissioned to construct the most famous dish ever conceived--Egardouce’s Last Pudding. An actual structure complete with a labyrinth and chapel, all made of food. With soup troughs and endless plenty. It is, of course, a logistical nightmare, and with less than an hour before the feast begins, things still aren’t completely done. But Gastel isn’t backing down. Not when small issues start piling up. Not when a large one does in the shape of a dead body in the labyrinth. No, Gastel is going full steam ahead, trying to stay one step ahead of the clueless guests and, he hopes, a hangman’s knot. It’s a story of culinary trickery on a massive scale, with dukes and earls all vying for attention, power, and a choice slice of the delicious scenery.
Keywords: Cooking, Structures, Murder, Nobles, Feasts/Parties
Review: Fantasy! Cooking! Goooooo! You know me, I’m a sucker for a story that combines food and SFF, and this one is a great example of the energy that goes on in the back of the house as well as the pure unending tired of it all, where Gastel is part genius, part grandstanding fool. One who overworks himself and the people around him, one who has this vision of what is possible, what he wants to do, and knows that he can get there. If the stars align. If everything goes perfectly...or perfectly enough. And if it doesn’t, then you just sort of fake it until you make it. Knowing that the staff are going to be the people who know how well or not something goes and the actual audience is convinced mostly by the theatrics of it, the spectacle of it. And it’s that way that he falls in the middle of this murder mystery. One that, and I love this, he actually does not care to solve. So in many ways the story is very much not a mystery, because the solution could matter less to Gastel. He’s there for the food, for the challenge, for the ego of the thing. That someone is dead is, well, not the greatest. In part because yes, death bad, but also because he sees someone trying to frame him for it. And that, he knows, could be really bad. But he doesn’t balk, doesn’t break, and immediately gets his people to work doing the impossible, just like he does every job. What’s a little murder? They’ll frame someone else? Maybe it’s even the right person (though probably not). The actually important thing is that if they do a job of it enough and then manage to slip away, the true villains will probably be okay swapping one patsy for another. And it’s just so much fun while it happens, a really charming story about the cutthroat business of cooking but also the way that the staff, the company, all work so well together, a heist squad that isn’t doing anything wrong...until they have to. And really just a lot of really tired people driven by their passion for food and only really concerned with that, with chasing that dream, that high, that thrill. And it makes for a thoroughly entertaining, breathless read that I definitely recommend checking out!


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