Scott H. Andrews

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #165

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #165 by Scott…This issue’s first story is once again part of a series, and like a previous instance of this, does not stand very well on its own. “For Lost Time” by Therese Arkenberg is even less independent than ““Sweet Death” in Issue #161 was – it is not episodic but reads like it was ripped out of the middle of an ongoing longer tale. That being said, I still thought that “For Lost Time” works better than “Sweet Death”, the reason for it being that Therese Arkenberg’s story relies very heavily on atmosphere (and is very deft at conjuring it), which makes it enjoyable to read even if one does not really get either the plot or the characters. Of course, the story will likely be better if it is read in context with the other parts, and I will be looking out for a sequel in future issues of the magazine.

“Day of the Dragonfly” by Raphael Ordoñez is a variation on the dragon slayer story, in a genre that one will probably have to call “Sword & Steampunk”. It’s competently written and does some fun things with Fantasy tropes, but I just could not warm up to it; for some reason the story’s individual elements just did not come together for me. But, seeing how I can’t even say why the story did not work for me, the fault lies very likely with me rather than the story.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #164

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #164 by Scott…The first story in this issue, “Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, is a kind of a faux-Chinese fairytale, a genre (well, sub-genre, I suppose. Or even sub-sub-genre?) that I am somewhat fond of, at least when it is well done. And this one is very well done indeed – while not as mindblowingly brilliant as last issue’s  “Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips”, it is very solid and enjoyable to read, featuring an interesting reader and some thoughts on gender issues, which however are treated within the story’s framework rather than forced upon it.

The same unfortunately can not be said of Tamara Vardomskaya’s story “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus.” It is about the question whether art is more important than life – a question which I personally is well debatable, with the conclusion not at all foregone. The author of this story obviously disagrees with that, as she does not even attempt to present the “art over life” side but casts her artist as a unabashed villain whose art consists of nothing but manipulating and exploiting others. To call this story heavy-handed would be a euphemism, and overall it is quite forgettable. Which is a pity, as Tamara Vardomskaya writes well – hopefully she’ll curb the didactics in her further efforts.

This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is unusual in that it contains not just the usual two stories but also a novel excerpt, namely from Galápagos Regained, by James Morrow. I do not like novel excerpts and therefore skipped this one for the most part – but since Jamess Morrow has been on my “I should really check this out” list for quite some time now, I took a brief peek, and it did indeed look quite promising. Don’t be too surprised if the author’s name pops up on this blog again in the not-too-far future.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #163

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.

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #162

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #162 by Scott…I really like the “two stories every two weeks” format of this magazine, as that is an amount of reading that can easily be squeezed in without distracting too much from my regular reading schedule. And stories are for the most part good to excellent, so I’m inclined to think that subscribing to this was a good idea.

Issue #162 opens with a story by Marissa Lingen, “A House of Gold and Steel.” It is Victorian Historical Fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s seminal Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. It is told in first person, the narrator is very engaging and the author does an excellent job with capturing the period tone. Unfortunately, things fall apart in the end, the conclusion is just too pat and not very plausible; the story might have profited from taking some more time to develop and resolve its conflict.

The second story, “Goatskin” by K.C. Norton is the highlight of this issue – set in a vaguely African setting, it is at heart a trickster story, and a story about female solidarity. It shares with the first story that it has a likeable first person narrator, but in this story the author manages to wrap things up in a satisfactory manner (by cleverly folding the telling of the story into what is being told) even though she packs considerably more events into (what I think is) roughly the same amount of pages. Thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m hoping BCS will publish more by this author.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #161

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #161 by Scott…This most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the first I’ve found throughout disappointing. As usual, it contains two stories, the first one being “Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald. It’s not a bad story per se, but does suffer from being part of a series – while it is understandable that the author does not wish to bog her story down by repeating things about the world and the characters’ back story that she established in previous stories (all the more as apparently all of them have been appearing in BCS), for the reader who is not familiar with them the story will ineluctably feel lacking. I realise that this is somewhat my own fault for not subscribing to the magazine earlier, but it still remains that the story does not stand well on its own. While reading it, I was constantly nagged by a feeling of missing out on the significance of the events depicted or alluded to by the characters, and with that resonance missing, the story just felt flat.

While “Sweet Death” was at least somewhat nice, Yosef Lindell’s “We Were Once of the Sky” was, I’m afraid to say, outright bad. It presents the reader with an Alternative History where some aliens got stranded on earth somewhere in the past, but by the time the story takes place (in the 15th century) have been more or less assimilated. The story’s problems start with the world building: the author just plops a bunch of aliens right into human history and then has nothing change at all as consequence of that. Instead, he uses the setup to launch a sledgehammer-driven allegory about minorities which (to say at least something positive about it) could be used to illustrate the difference between “well-meant” and “well made.” Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with the story – Lindell has obviously given the subject of  minorities some thought and gets it all right, showing not only the injustice of excluding minorities from societal participation but also how that breeds self-doubt in the minority itself. But as a story, “We Were Once of the Sky” fails utterly – everything is just so blatantly obvious, a flimsy packaging of narrative wrapped around a message, with no care given to and possibly no interest at all in character, structure and language. From the short biography that BCS appends after each story I gather that this is Lindell’s first published story, so there’s at least hope that he’ll be improving with practice.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #160

BeneathCeaselessSkies_160This is either a very short issue or one that reads particularly fast, in any case it felt like I got through it in no time (might be due to me reading most of it while waiting for a train that was behind schedule).

The first story, “A Guest of the Cockroach Club” by M. Bennardo was somewhat on the “meh” side of things. Vaguely reminiscent of Lavie Tidhar’s fun Bookman series, here it is giant cockroaches secretly ruling the US rather than giant lizards openly ruling the British Empire. This story is completely lacking the flair of Bookman however, has a bland plot, bland characters and bland writing – by far the weakest story I have come across in that magazine so far (which I’ve subscribed to starting with Issue #157 and have greatly enjoyed so far).

The second story, “The Streetking” by Peter Hickman, is the shorter of the two (as seems to be tradition in this magazine) but is decidedly more fun. The basic plot is not terribly original, but this never gets to be a problem as it is so short and Hickman deftly compresses into a few pages what would have been sufficient plot for a novel. The two main characters, though only sketched, are rendered very strikingly and make an impression on the reader, but what makes the story stand out most is the writing – while Hickman is hardly the first to present a story written in rogue’s jargon, few manage to pull it off as successfully as he does here, and it’s the first person narrator’s voice which makes this story a joy to read.