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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #272, February 28, 2019

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #272, February 28, 2019

When Sirens Sing of Roses and of Delegated Power” by Nin Harris

The Boy Who Loved Drowning” by R.K. Duncan

Reviewed by Tara Grímravn

There is always a theme that unites the stories chosen by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. February’s issue #272 features a pair of literary fantasy stories connected by the magic of water. Make no mistake; these are not particularly lighthearted tales. Water has a dark side—one that’s closely associated with death, enthrallment, and portals into other worlds. Nin Harris and R.K. Duncan clearly understand these more sinister currents that flow within the “elixir of life.”

When Sirens Sing of Roses and of Delegated Power” by Nin Harris

Velia and her sisters work for the queen of the merfolk as elite thieves. When their benefactor calls on them to steal a magical serving dish from the Arch-Wizard Rasheel, they set off to complete the heist. As her sisters distract the mage, Velia slips into his parlor and sings his servants to sleep using water magic. Just as she’s about to steal the dish, Rasheel catches her red-handed. Instead of punishing her, however, he makes her an interesting offer—he wants to become her thrall.

Decidedly the lighter of the two tales in this issue, Harris’ story presents an interesting take on the many legends of merfolk. The research that Harris put into the subject matter shows through quite well. Readers will find hints of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in the character of the Queen, in addition to many of the darker aspects of the mermaid found in nautical myths and faerie folklore interwoven throughout.

The story itself, despite the thread of romance, isn’t entirely cheerful. In the end, both Rasheel and Velia obtain something they desire but it just wasn’t satisfying in the same way either a happy or unhappy ending usually is. The story is arguably about freedom, as that’s the one thing that Rasheel and Velia want, and at the start, I quite liked the two characters. By the end, though, that had changed. I was left feeling a bit sorry for Rasheel who seems to have simply traded in one unbearable master for another. At the same time, I lost sympathy for Velia who immediately becomes almost a nagging housewife. Still, it was a fun story to read set within a vibrant world.

The Boy Who Loved Drowning” by R.K. Duncan

Bit has spent a few years apprenticed to Master Kal, an expert in the art of divination through drowning in a lake known as the Dead God’s Tear. As he learns, the drowning begins to feel like home, the slimy weeds like old friends. When Kal learns that Bit has a deeper connection with the drowning than she was ever able to achieve and can bring back answers that even she couldn’t find, she makes him stay away from the lake until she can figure out how this was possible. But this makes him long for the embrace of the weeds and the water and for the darkness of the other uneven shore. One night, unable to understand why Kal is treating him so differently, he slips away to the lakeshore to find the answer to his own question.

As a former anthropologist with an interest in folklore and ancient ritual, Duncan’s story really appealed to me. Particularly, I liked the tale’s treatment of two ancient beliefs; that water can act as a doorway between worlds, especially the world of the dead, and that through water (often via scrying) one can find hidden answers to one’s questions. True, Bit doesn’t enter the world of the dead to get his answers. Instead, he crosses into a sort of void-like darkness where the answers are hidden away. Death still plays a part, however, because he does have to die (or at least come very close to it) to find them. In this way, the lake waters act as both a portal and as a scrying medium, much like a witch’s crystal ball.

In many legends, water can also act as a catalyst for change and that aspect is certainly represented in this story. Bit has a gift, one that is greater than his teacher’s, even though he doesn’t believe it to be true at first. Kal doesn’t like to be shown up, especially since she’s considered the best at drowning and, as drowning is considered a man’s occupation, that’s a title she doesn’t want to lose. She tries, both out of concern for him and a fear of being outdone by her student, to bar him from practicing any further. By doing so, she fails to nurture his skill as a teacher ought and, in the end, it is the water that helps him make the transition from mere apprentice to master.