The first story in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is clearly influenced by China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, and makes no attempt to conceal its inspiration. “Alloy Point” by Sam J. Miller could almost be set in the universe of Miéville’s novels, it certainly has the same vibe of bizarre steampunk that permeates Perdido Street Station. What it falls somewhat short of in comparison is the writing – not that it was in any way bad, it just is noticeable not on par with Miélville’s. On the other hand, seeing how he is one of the most impressive stylists in the field, that would be asking rather a lot of a young writer who is apparently working through his influences, and once Miller has found his own voice he might actually turn out to be very good, “Alloy Point” certainly shows a lot of promise.
Miller might a bit unfortunate in that his story has not only the self-selected comparison with Miéville to deal with but also has been placed in the same issue as Matt Jones’ “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips”, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a very strange story, indeed strangeness is in a way what it is about – it reads a bit like the Fantasy version of stories like James Tiptree jr.’s seminal “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, a story that is told from the perspective of an alien and features not a single human. Now, being Fantasy, “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” is not about extraterrestrials (and as far as I could tell, it remains open how human the narrator and his people are), but it explores a mindset that appears almost as alien to us.
Magic plays a big part in the vast majority of Fantasy literature. Mostly it’s either of the “roast your enemies with fireballs” or “evil wizard enslaving minions in his tower” variety; even the recent trend towards elaborate magic systems has not changed the basic pattern in which magic is wielded. Very rarely one encounters an instance where an author stops to wonder how the availability of magic would change a society, and even rarer are novels or stories that attempt to recreate what it would feel like to live in a world steeped in magic. This is what “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” does (one of the things, anyway, because there is quite a bit more to it), and it does so beautifully. It’s told from the perspective of a child or maybe an adolescent, so there is a certain lack of comprehension about what is happening inherent in that already, and is added that for him, magic is entirely commonplace, not something to be explained or to be wondered about. The sense of wonder is all the greater for the reader, however, who is trying to have the tale somehow cohere to his rationalist worldview and invariably failing – failing, however, in a most exciting manner. “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” is a very grim story, a story about loss, exile, punishment. It is a chilling story, but also a moving one, and one that is gorgeously written, as lyrical as it is bleak, and overall stunningly beautiful, emphatically among the best Fantasy I read in 2014. I’m fervently hoping to be reading more by Matt Jones before too long.