Issue 112 (January 10, 2013) of Beneath Ceaseless Skies begins with “Death Sent” by Christian K. Martinez. It’s a science fictional story, or at least steampunk, and depicts the end of the world — or at least the end of the works of the human race. As the story opens, a great star lens, the last of them, has fallen to the earth. It’s a moody piece that paints a picture of this world, but there is almost no plot.
The second story in this issue is better. In “The Stone Oaks” by Stephen Case, a novitiate to an order of nuns is instructed to work with the oaks near the nunnery, huge oaks that are bigger than anything she’s ever seen. She is told to persuade the oaks to grow stronger, to take bedrock up into their heartwood to make them able to hold a great weight. She works this magic daily, but without any notion as to why this task is essential. Early in the season, a contingent of knights from the Court-in-Exile takes up residence outside the nunnery’s walls with no explanation. One of the knights strikes up a conversation with our narrating novitiate, asking lots of questions about the trees. The novitiate cannot answer most of his questions, and would not even if she could, out of loyalty to her convent. But both the knight and the novitiate learn why the trees are important when summer ends. This ending is surprising and beautiful, even if all the questions raised in the story are not answered.
Issue 113 (January 24, 2013) begins with “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow. It takes place in the Town Where Salt-Plums Grow, a place between the soul-swallowing land and the heart-stealing sea. It is filled with elegant descriptions of both beautiful and horrible places in a series of tales told on a carved red barge during a festival. The centerpiece of the tale is a Cyrano-like wooing of a pretty maiden who is a captive in a room with no doors. The prose reminds me strongly of Tanith Lee as it brushes up against the purple in its sensuous scene-setting and winsome characters.
“Misbegotten” by Raphel Ordoñez is a gender-bending tale of Elerit, who poses as a girl whenever he isn’t working. He’s a member of a carnival who is particularly interested in Vera, the carnival’s interpreter for the oracle known as Hex the Inexorable. Their romance is anything but smooth, bound up as it is in a ring of thieves and a magical treasure. It’s an odd story that meanders the way one does at a carnival, with many attractions that appeal differently to different people.
Issue 114 (February 7, 2013), seems to me to be the best of the issues published thus far this year. “Beheaded by Peasants” by James L. Sutter is a story of a kingdom in Appalachia, apparently long after the fall of our present civilization due to some unnamed catastrophe: global warming? A nuclear war? A nuclear power plant accident? In any event, the United States is not even a memory in this world. Alana is a princess, the person who will inherit the throne of the Appalachian Empire when her father dies. But Alana is also a revolutionary, a woman who believes that the people should be able to choose their own leaders. When her father dies in battle defending a foundry that is critical to the life of the Empire, Alana must decide whether she will honor her promise to her father to rule wisely and well, or her promise to the revolutionaries to abdicate. I especially liked the strong female character who leads this very good story.
“The Crimson Kestrel” by Leslianne Wilder is a bit of fluff that is great fun. It takes place in L’Echelle, where the wealthy live in the top stories of hugely tall buildings in costumes that recall the days of 17th century courts in France and England. Mademoiselle Ivette du Brielle has a secret identity — she’s the Crimson Kestrel of the title — as a sort of Batman for her time, complete with weapons and bombs hidden under her skirts. She frequently rappels down buildings to save people in the streets below from thieves. When she does so this time, she finds a victim who doesn’t belong on the ground but in the stories above, in her own milieu. He immediately fascinates her, even as she relieves him of his jewelry. But this isn’t their last encounter. The plot thickens nicely, offering some fine surprises.
The first story in Issue 115 (February 21, 2013) is “Sate My Thirst with Ink and Blood” by Adam Callaway. I enjoyed this tale of a man lost in a desert who comes upon a deserted city, where he seeks shelter from sandstorms. He is warned by mystics not to read anything he comes upon, not even a scrap; but the presence of books all around him is too much for him. The books he finds are written “with fire and purpose; passion and style,” and he is soon spending his days doing nothing but reading — which means he is not looking for water or food. There is a moral to this fine tale, but it is one any booklover would ignore; who could see books and not read them?
Nick Scorza’s “The Language of True Things” was the best story in any of the issues I read for this column. It’s the tale of a boy who is apprenticed to a type of wizard known as a Speaker: one who finds and pronounces true words to accomplish that which cannot be accomplished with muscle and will. The boy learns many languages and reads many books, but he has an agenda that is not his master’s. He wants to find out what happened to his mother when she walked into the Heart of Balan, the temple of her god. When the god fell in the war in the otherworld, he gathered his followers into his temple and then sealed it with them inside, all doors and windows gone. It is an excellent story about the power of language and learning.
Issue 116 (March 7, 2013), offers “A Family for Drakes” by Margaret Ronald. It’s about a girl and her cousin who have been rendered orphans and homeless by an attack on their home city of Alcaris. They travel with other refugees, some of whom are willing to take advantage of the children; but with luck their aunt will take them in when they reach Ceste. The girl is hard and smart, and she is determined to get them safely to a new home. But it’s all she can do to keep her cousin walking, not to mention keep food in their bellies. And then there are the firedrakes, the beings that led to their homelessness in the first place — beings that prove to be manufactured, not born. It is their making that provides the key to this story that is ultimately about learning and growth. It’s a good story that nonetheless leaves one wishing there were more to it.
“Bakemono, or The Thing That Changes” by A.B. Treadwell portrays a world in which Japan has successfully invaded Russia. A Russian girl is taken prisoner by the narrator’s father, and joins his class at school. She is treated with superstition and fear. Even her eyes are changed so that they will not glow with the amber of a witch. The narrator’s father tells him that she will be his yujo, his woman of pleasure. Will he follow his father’s course and become a warrior? Or is there more to this boy? We know the answer before reaching the end of this predictable story.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies lives up to its goal of presenting adventure fantasy. The writing is generally strong, and while the stories differ in quality, there is no story that isn’t worth reading. This year has begun well, and I look forward to more.