Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a bi-weekly online magazine that publishes literary adventure fantasy. Each issue contains two stories. Each issue is available for free online, or can be downloaded to an e-reader for a mere $.99. I read the two issues published in February 2011 for this column, but there are already two March issues available. Fortunately, past issues are available in all formats. In addition, Beneath Ceaseless Skies has published two “best of” anthologies.
Issue #63, published on February 24, 2011, contains “The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” by Richard Parks. Its first-person narrator, Lord Yamada, meets Kenji, a “reprobate priest,” in the forest of the title, near the remains of Enfusa Temple. Oddly enough, Lord Yamada has not been drinking sake, and doesn’t even want to, which Kenji finds somewhat frightening. But apparently something in Yamada is keeping him off the sauce and has put him in the forest, and that something is soon revealed: Princess Teiko’s ghost has been seen there. Teiko is Yamada’s lost dream, a woman who killed herself on the way to exile before Yamada could prove her innocence. When Teiko appears, she asks forgiveness, nothing more, but she also warns that her son’s life is in danger – as is Yamada’s. So begins the search for the would-be assassin of Prince Takahito, a nice adventure filled with fox demons, ghosts, princes, swordplay, ogres, evil abbots – they’re all here, and they all fit the story nicely. It’s fun to read.
The story I liked best this week was “Dirt Witch” by Eljay Daly. It’s one of those stories in which a poor peasant girl triumphs over all manner of sorcery, trickery, deceit and hard living in order to save her entire village. That might sound like it’s just another collection of clichés, but it’s not; much was new to me, probably because of the Far Eastern or Russian setting (the names suggest both). It’s a grim tale, but Dorota – the village girl who is smarter than she knows – is a wonderful heroine with a darned good head on her shoulders.
Issue #62 starts with Kris Dikeman’s “Silent, Still and Cold,” takes place in a land of endless winter, during a war that never ends. Sorcery catches and holds an invading army in this tale of wretched men who cannot remember having been warm, forced to march on and on.
My least favorite story of the week was “The Adventures of Ernst, Who Began a Man, Became a Cyclops, and Finished a Hero” by Jesse Bullington. It’s clearly intended to be humorous, but it succeeds only in being nauseating. Bullington has his hero literally wallowing in excrement, sexually abused, mutilated, turned into a system of transportation for an enormous spider, and otherwise tortured and degraded, but asks us to laugh at it all. There’s a story under all this, of an abbey where all the monks simultaneously committed suicide for some unknown reason, a mystery that Ernst ultimately manages to resolve, if only by accident. Worse, even though he triumphs over evil, he is denied a happy ending.
The March 2011 issue of Apex Magazine confirms my judgment of several weeks ago that this is a good magazine to follow for the best in off-center, genre-crossing quality fiction.
This issue begins with the story “The Dust and the Red” by Darin Bradley, a fine example of the oddness of the fiction that fills Apex. It is narrated by Caroline, a girl who is part of a family suffering through the Dust Bowl. The family is protected by a pearl that is kept in a niche beneath the door jamb, but only to an extent; Caroline’s father is forced to sign away bits and pieces of the family’s farm as the agricultural crisis worsens. That pearl burns in the mind of Caroline’s brother, Jonah, who suffers for it. Another family talisman, owned by the Fincher family, seems to provide greater good fortune to that family than the pearl can to Caroline’s. It’s an odd story, oddly told, unconventionally plotted and strangely resolved yet unresolved, skipping about in time. All this oddness makes the story stick in your mind, as if you had directly experienced it.
Kat Howard’s “The Speaking Bone” seems like an extended description of an island made from bones, an ossuary. There is no plot in the usual sense, no dialogue, no story as one expects a story to unfold; the story is inherent in the nature of the place being described. The island is a place of priestesses and pilgrims, for the bones occasionally provide answers – “true answers, like miracles, [that] come at a cost.” It is another bit of fiction that feels almost experimental, yet still contains the essence of fantasy.
“Rats,” by Veronica Shanoes, is a story about the nature of story, masquerading as a fairy tale. Fairy tales, by their nature, the author says, are constantly repeating and never advancing: Cinderella is always trying on a glass slipper, because otherwise she becomes “just another tired old queen,” and Little Red Riding Hood is never a child running through a sprinkler in her yard on a hot summer day, but always walking through the forest to meet the wolf. Fairy tales are not life; they are lies, the author explains. This fairy tale is about a young couple in love, but who cannot have a child. They do everything, visiting “the oracles of doctors’ offices,” “left sacrifices and offerings at the altars of fertility clinics.” To their great joy, the woman finally becomes pregnant. Upon hearing this news, the four shadows bestowed gifts on the child growing in her mother’s womb – is this starting to sound like a familiar tale? It is, to an extent, and yet it is entirely new and different. One of the shadows bestows the “gift” of pain on the child. Ah, how can the last fairy fix that? This story is sad and frightening; its characters do not live happily ever after. It is a thoroughly amazing piece of writing.
This issue also contains two poems. “Quest” by Jessica Wick is beautifully written: “I’d go by gloaming when the moon is milk/down to the ivy where the wood is rotted/and three bridges are clotted in spider silk.” Lovely imagery. But the poem ultimately doesn’t seem to actually say anything, though it seems to be trying to. Someone is loved, someone has died, maybe the narrator is trying to bring her love back to life? Or is she trying to catch the eye of the Green Man of myth? Nothing comes clear, no matter how many times you read this poem, and while poetry sometimes means to be ambiguous, I don’t think that’s what the poet intended here.
“The King of Cats, the Queen of Wolves” by Mike Allen, Sonya Taffe, and Nicole Kornher-Stace is a more successful poem. Again, the imagery is drawn with immense care, and the language is chosen to great effect. This poem, though, doesn’t just draw pictures – a noble enough quest for a poem standing alone, of course, if not the goal of this trio of poets – it tells the tale of the rivalry between the King of Cats and the Queen of Wolves across time. This is a perfect poem to read to celebrate April, which, after all, is National Poetry Month.