Beneath Ceaseless Skies #340, October 7, 2021
“The Burning Girl” by Carrie Vaughn
“Stronger” by K.J. Parker
“Nemesis and the Sorcerer” by R.K. Duncan
“Song So Pure and Cruel” by March McCarron
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
The magazine celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a special issue containing twice as much fiction as usual. All four stories feature first person narrators and blend history with mythology.
“The Burning Girl” by Carrie Vaughn takes place during William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. A special group of his forces consists of people with supernatural powers. A woman can control the weather, a man has incredible strength, and so forth.
The narrator is a teenage girl who can produce fire with a thought. The group takes her from an abbey, where her ability was considered demonic, and makes use of her gift to attack the last major city resisting William’s forces.
The story reads like superhero fiction set in the Eleventh Century. This statement should not be misconstrued to suggest that there is anything campy about it. This is a serious, sober tale, full of moral ambiguity. The narrator has many misgivings about where her loyalty should lie, and a twist in the plot causes the group to have their own worries as to whom they should serve.
The time and place are realistically portrayed, and the characters are richly delineated. Only near the end does the plot approach melodrama, with an apocalyptic battle scene that is suggestive of comic books.
“Stronger” by K.J. Parker is an unusual variation on the familiar legend of the Minotaur. As in the original, the setting is ancient Greece, and a number of young people are selected to be sacrificed to the monster each year.
The narrator loses the woman he loves in this way. He believes that the Minotaur does not exist, and that its supposed victims are simply sold into slavery. He plots to make his way to the forbidden island of the Minotaur and rescue her, but the truth about the monster foils his scheme in a completely unexpected way.
Despite being set in the remote past, the story’s narrative style sounds very modern, with phrases like for crying out loud. This informal tone is appropriate for the cynical narrator, but may take the reader out of the story. The revelatory climax is certainly dramatic, but somewhat confusing.
The plot often pauses to relate the narrator’s views on cheating and weakness. These digressions lie at the heart of the story’s theme, but those who are looking only for exciting adventures may find them distracting.
Ancient Greece is also the setting for “Nemesis and the Sorcerer” by R.K. Duncan. A small group of raiders rescues a magician from the Spartans, then faces the challenge of escaping from an overwhelming number of pursuers. The sorcerer leads them to a tomb where they can hide.
The narrator is the young, beloved protégé of an older warrior. The magician separates the boy’s spirit from his body, so he can travel undetected and discover a safe way for his comrades to escape. During this supernatural journey, an encounter with a goddess seals the sorcerer’s fate.
Unlike the previous story, the narrative style of this tale fits the setting and period perfectly. The author creates a completely convincing picture of the ancient world. One almost gets the feeling that this is a tale created by an inhabitant of a world long vanished.
From the Mediterranean we return to the British Isles for “Song So Pure and Cruel” by March McCarron, a tale full of themes from traditional Celtic folklore. The narrator is a pooka, a young, naïve, mischievous shapeshifter. He is almost killed while playing a trick on selkies, but the moon goddess, in the form of a young woman, rescues him and takes him to her secret island.
The two become lovers, but their pleasant time together is interrupted by the king of the fairies, who wants the goddess to bear his child. Although he has no way to control the goddess, he has absolute power over the pooka, threatening their happiness together.
For the most part, this is a romantic fantasy, full of a true sense of wonder at the supernatural beings who populate it. The plot has a powerful effect on the reader’s emotions, ranging from joy to sorrow. As in the first story in this issue, only the ending may seem overly dramatic. Some may find it completely satisfying, and one’s appreciation for it may be a matter of taste.
Victoria Silverwolf was married on Friday the Thirteenth.