My favorite email every other week is the one containing the new issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Each issue contains two stories of what the online magazine calls “literary adventure fantasy.” The quality of the stories has been high throughout the year or so I’ve been reading the magazine, but it seems to be getting even better with recent issues.
Issue #83, published December 1, 2011, opens with “The Gardens of Landler Abbey” by Megan Arkenberg. The tone and setting of the story remind the reader of Jane Austen or other Regency fiction, and the tale’s emphasis on issues of manners and class reinforces this initial impression. The major difference between this tale and anything Austen conceived of, however, is that a woman is the principal actor here, and more than that, she is a woman who served honorably in the military in her country’s recent war. Gethsemane von Reis has purchased an estate formerly owned by another branch of her noble family, and is revitalizing the extensive gardens. The narrator, a professor at a nearby university, asks von Reis for a tour, and she grants his request. Lady Xavior, piqued at being excluded from von Reis’s hospitality, seems ready to embark on a long conversation condemning von Reis at a later social gathering, and her husband, in an effort to avoid the embarrassment of such gossip, turns the discussion to a newspaper article about war criminals from the recent conflict. It appears that the countrymen and women of those gathered were tortured, a practice that all abhor. But when the next question is asked — did we commit torture as well? – the professor begins to believe that knows more about von Reis than he has been told outright, both because of her injuries and because of his own wartime experience. And the dead do not lie easy. This story becomes Austen crossed with an M.R. James ghost story, a combination skillfully handled to the inevitable conclusion.
“Princess Courage,” by Nadia Bulkin tells the tale of how King Courage led his people to explore and conquer new lands, as prescribed in the Secret Atlas – this people’s holy book. That the new lands are already populated appears not to matter, especially since the Atlas demands that the king confer “order” on them. The native peoples are (oh, this sounds so familiar) discovered to be “not more than animals.” One of them, a child called Isadore the Blue, meets the king when he visits one of the settlements: “What savagery, I thought, what coarseness,” is his reaction to meeting her and noting the handprint painted on her face. Yet these savages somehow manage to survive in the forest despite the presence there of a species of half-man, half-lizard that seems to prey upon the settlers. King Courage proposes a pact between his people and the natives against the Garrow-Low, as the half-lizards are called, but the natives refuse. “The Garrow-Low do not hunt us if we stay out of their way. But your people do,” they tell the surprised king. The tale continues as it must, into war and madness, as Isadore the Blue transforms into Princess Courage as she defies the king. This story is predictable but well-told, with a lesson that bears retelling.
Issue #84 opens with “Heartless” by Peadar O Guilin, a story that will tear the heart from you much as it is torn from the narrator in the first few paragraphs. “Heartless” is a tour de force about a land in which magic does everything for everyone, all the time. For instance, rocks are made into food, into feasts; no other food is even available. But the magic comes at a terrible price: a family member must be bathed in the town’s springs, and then caged in the family home, working magic at the order of the head of the family and becoming more and more insane and sickly as he or she accomplishes more and more magic, life growing shorter with each new trick. As each family member dies, another must take his or her place. When brought to the spring, though, the person to be sacrificed to his or her family’s honor is asked: “Do you ask for death?” No one ever does, until Malern is asked. And the town leader grants her death, of a sort, by tearing her heart from her, but keeping her alive with magic. The leader learns that acts have consequences — and so, ultimately, does Malern. This story is new, challenging, exciting, unlike anything I’ve read before. I’ll be keeping my eye out for more by O Guilin.
Derek Kunsken’s “The God Thieves” is another highly original tale set in an Italy not of this world, in the time of a Renaissance different from ours. In Don Mateo’s world, one can harbor the soul of another being — a gryphon, a dragon — in one’s own brain, and with it, wield superhuman powers to achieve the destruction of another city — Venice, in this case — in defense of one’s own — here, Genoa. The powers are necessary to prevent Venice from harvesting the power of a nearly forgotten god to use as a weapon of enormous destructive power, power sufficient to destroy Genoa entirely in a cataclysm that sounds much like nuclear annihilation. Only Christ will not fight in this continual war; or so it seems. Is there a way to force his hand? Don Mateo must make choices that will literally sunder his very soul.
Issue 85 begins with “The Death of Roach” by Spencer Ellsworth. It is about a girl and boy raised by their father to be vicious assassins, told from the perspective of the girl, who always seems to fall short of her father’s expectations. She kills her first man when she is five years old, but her inability to slaughter her own brother when her father orders her to makes her inferior in his eyes. What effect must such an upbringing have on a girl as she becomes a woman? When everything appears to be a test, where can such a woman find rest?
Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” completes the issue. It is a fascinating tale of a particular physical wound suffered by Baru Cormorant, a wound that swallows half her world, a neurological injury that literally makes everything that happens on her right side invisible in every way: not only invisible because she is blind in her right eye, but unthinkable as well; it is as if what happens to her right has been wiped from existence. She considers it a wound she deserves. Her ruler poses her a test, sending her a woman who is an enemy of the state, demanding that Baru put her to death. The ruler knows that the woman is Baru’s lover, Tain Hu. Baru finds that turning away from the woman, once in her hands, does away with the sight of the woman, but not with the pain of her presence. Baru’s own future lies upon whether she will do as she is ordered. The story, while not altogether surprising is original, is so well-told that it resonates with the reader long after the last word is read.
The first issue of the new year, Issue #86 (January 12, 2012), gives us every reason to believe that Beneath Ceaseless Skies will continue to flourish and grow. “Calibrated Allies” by Marissa Lingen is a steampunk tale of a world similar to ours except for the early discovery of clockwork automata. In a time that appears to be the equivalent of our nineteenth century, slavery is still the way of life in “the colonies,” but is a more flexible institution than it came to be in the Deep South in the decades just prior to the Civil War. A black man might be freed to attend school and learn to use his talent with machinery to greater advantage, as is the case with Okori. Okori becomes involved with a group of students who speak of revolution. He sympathizes with them, but points out that they know only of metaphorical slavery. Yet he allows his sympathy to outweigh his — not contempt, precisely, but his perception of their naivety. Not surprisingly, it is he who comes up with the tool that makes their revolution possible. This look at slavery through the lens of a different world in a different universe makes the horror of the peculiar institution all the more apparent.
“The Lady of the Lake” by E. Catherine Tobler is set in a Japan full of dragons and princes and, of course, the titular lady of the lake, a woman strangled by her own mother and transformed by the water. Susanoo is a prince who rises from the lake to demand the lady’s help in completing a task before he can be married: he must retrieve a sword embedded in the tail of an eight-headed dragon. To say more would be to say too much about this story, which seems to have a surprise on every page. The language of the story is poetic in places, funny in others, and the story is altogether satisfying.
Not a single story in these issues is less than a fine example of adventure fantasy. The range of the stories is epic, reaching from one century to another, one culture to another, creating new worlds and referring back to the old. The editors, Scott H. Andrews and Kate Marshall, are doing a fine job of finding and publishing excellent fiction. Beneath Ceaseless Skies is well worth a subscription.