The first, “In the Palace of the Jade Lion” is by Richard Parks, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite short story writers. It’s set in the Kingdom of Zhao, which seems an awful lot like China. The protagonist is a poor young scholar named Xu Jian, who has won a posting as an Official Censor in a remote northern province. His travel is necessarily by foot, and largely dependent on the kindness of strangers, as he has no money. He has no choice but to take up the post after an arduous journey, however, as the alternative is to starve where he is. So he sets off walking. On the morning of the seventh day of his walk, he turns off the main road and onto a smaller trailer for no particular reason except that it runs alongside a stream, and he feels like a drink and a bath. Unfortunately, the trail doesn’t meet back up with the main road in a few hours, as he had expected; to the contrary, by nightfall he finds that he is in an area that appears to be populated by ghosts. He fears that he is likely to be devoured by a hungry spirit. His fears seem to be justified when he is greeted by a servant woman who offers him a sumptuous repast in seemingly elegant quarters — in fact, in the Palace of the Jade Lion. But Xu Jian figures he may as well enjoy a hot bath and his last meal and, when the Lady of the Green Willow ultimately appears to take his life, well, he may as well enjoy that, too. But Xu Jian has not won a prestigious post by being stupid, and with a ghost who is amenable to his plans to allow her to get what she wants and needs and him to keep his life, they work out a plan. And that’s not the end of their planning, which moves forward in a most pleasing manner to establish Xu Jian in his post and to save his life yet again. It’s a charming story, an enjoyable, light diversion.
Garth Upshaw’s “Ratcatcher” offers an enormous change in mood and setting. In this world, robots — known as “clankers” — rule the world, and humans are animals used for experimentation, when they can be captured. Capture is accomplished with traps that spring up around food, clothing, and even mirrors (for humans in this world are as entranced by mirrors as some animals in our own world are). Food is otherwise very scarce, which is why the title character hunts rats. But the first person narrator loses his temper when a member of his tribe proclaims that he will marry the ratcatcher’s daughter, causing his ouster even though he is not strictly responsible for the fate of the would-be bridegroom. While he is exiled, he learns more about the traps, and especially about how to defeat them. The clankers won’t be handled so easily, though, and they learn enough about him to come up with the ideal bait. It’s a dark story with an ending that leaves the reader uneasy about what will happen to our hero in the next days, despite a momentary triumph.
“The Three Feats of Agani” by Christie Yant features a nine-year-old protagonist who must hear three stories of her people all at once as she mourns her father, three stories about a formerly powerful god who has now been reduced to ceremony. The first story is normally told when a child attains the age of 12; a nine-year-old hears something different in the story, and asks a question that seems self-evident to a child, making the teller tense with concern; but the teller proceeds with the second story nonetheless. This story, too, makes the child ask questions that seem inappropriate to the teller; the child takes them too literally, and approaches them with a logic that the tale teller has long abandoned. Her questions instill fear in the teller, but for no reason that the child can see. When the third tale is told, the child is no longer certain that this god is a powerless god, and the danger of telling such tales to children haunts the reader long after the story is finished. Children take the tales of religion much more seriously than we usually give them credit for, the author seems to say; we need to take care.
The final story in this issue is “Virtue’s Ghosts” by Amanda M. Olson. In the world of this story, individuals receive a pendant at their coming of age ceremonies, which pendants confer a virtue upon the wearer of the pendant. In Victoria’s case, the “virtue” she receives is silence — a terrible gift for one who wanted to be a singer. It’s not merely that the pendant signifies the virtue; it actually imbues the recipient with the virtue, and Victoria is left completely voiceless, miserably unhappy, and angry beyond the telling — which, of course, she cannot do. Victoria’s story takes a turn when a man breaks into the house she shares with her sisters and the child of one of her sister’s, who is the narrator of the story. Brandon winds up staying, and he seems to have a way with Victoria, whose anger lessens somewhat. But Brandon has a secret, one that is of utmost importance to Victoria. The story is one of struggle and free will, one that makes you wonder just how virtuous virtues really are when they are forced upon you.
I enjoyed this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies so much that I immediately started reading back issues, mining them for enjoyable stories, and I was not disappointed. This e-publication is worth the subscription price if you enjoy cutting edge adventure fantasy.