Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168

Steady on Her Feet, by K.J. Kabza

3/5*

Starts a little slow; the presentation of the placard would have been better a little farther down, once we’d already had a taste of Kabza’s delightful world to bite into. Still, it picks up slowly over a few paragraphs, and then suddenly you’re off and running, fully immersed in a genuinely (darkly) entertaining adventure. Like being chased down alleyways at night, when you only think you know where you’re going, the story moves along through the expected twists and turns, until it curves too sharply into its finale. The end makes a sort of sense, but the character reveals aren’t well-established, and require a lot of disbelief to keep you from tossing the whole thing out when the kind and/or stupid suddenly become gleefully malevolent. Too bad, because until then, the story was quite good, but it’s clear that Kabza had an end in mind when writing, and was going to get there regardless of whether or not the rest of the story supported it.

A Screech of Gulls, by Alec Helms

5/5*

The story begins with the listing and naming of things, and in the explanation of those names, the story unfolds. This is a lovely, languid, way to infodump, and I’m always glad to see it done well. It carries on with details and objects, setting the scene by telling you about the things in it as they come up, instead of all at once. This is a worldbuilding sort of fantastic reality, the kind that clearly takes place somewhere and somewhen else, but Helms never overwhelms with useless prose. There are new words in the dialogue that make sense because of context, rather than relying on an explanation, and that shows Helms thinks we’re smart enough to understand — a respect I always appreciate in an author. In the end, the story is so simple, but it’s beautifully told, with the weight of realism and solid emotional impact. Worth reading even if you’re not a fan of “fantasy” because this one isn’t, really (there’s little to no magic, it’s just not a story from our world) but it is extremely well-written.

 

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #104, 105

Furthering my quest to catch up on my reading list, I finally started on my back issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The magazine usually publishes two stories per month, focusing on “Literary Adventure Fantasy”, and is edited by Scott H. Andrews. They also post free podcasts of some of their stories on the website.

Issue #104 (September 2012) introduced me to Seth Dickinson, who offered up “Worth of Crows“. Dickinson’s quest tale has a young wizard seeking a dangerous foe, as many such tales do, but he changes it up by making the hero a girl. Who’s also a necromancer. Who also knows that magic is nothing without science, and who talks to dead crows about thermodynamics. It’s a solid fantasy story that doesn’t rely on florid language or huge chunks of exposition to make it feel magical. Loved it. (Listen to the audio version here, read by my friend Michael J. Deluca.)

Issue #105 (October 2012) was their anniversary double issue. Marissa Lingen’s delightful “Cursed Motives” reads very much like a Terry Pratchett story (I’m thinking of Nation particularly) and is a great example of two things: telling a story within a story in order to give history or explain a character, and using a very common idea as the kernel of a fantastical story (in this case, the idea that “getting exactly what you wanted” is a curse). Peta Freestone’s “Luck Fish” is set just next door of our own Universe, in a familiar-feeling tribal village with comfortable characters. Again, there’s s simple-seeming core of this story – unfortunately for this village, it only rains once a year. Freestone takes that idea and runs it with toward a very logical bit of world-building.

Unsilenced” by Karalynn Lee is a complex story, weaving the love lives of several different people together, that would have been much more interesting to if it had been about something more than that. Girl wanted her father’s love, family friend wants hers, male mage wanted the girl’s mother, female mage wanted some other guy, girl wants the mage’s love … Every action in the story is based in someone trying to win the heart or warm the memory of the person they love, and I’m kind of tired of those stories. But the world building is interesting, the writing is strong, and the plot holds up as Lee ties the different threads together. I think this is a case of a good writer telling a story I’ve heard too much of, but someone else would probably enjoy.

You can also listen to Lingen’s story read by Tina Connolly – who I’ve published at Dagan Books – here.

Overall I really get into about half of what BCS publishes. Sometimes the stories that are part of larger pieces – themed short story collections, or novels set in the same world – seem to rely on having a reader knowledgeable about those other works. I don’t read much novel-length fantasy, so pieces like Marie Brennan’s “The Ascent of Unreason” are measured on the strength of that one tale alone, and for me, didn’t work. But the original stories, the ones not part of a larger arc, tend to be creative, smartly-written, and entertaining. Many of them feature strong female characters, and there is a decent amount on non-Western settings. It’s especially nice when those strong female characters are girls of color, like in “Cursed Motives” and “Luck Fish”.

BCS is definitely on my list of markets to submit to this year. And check back next week for another set of BCS reviews – I have 8 more issues to get through.