Beneath Ceaseless Skies #112, January 10, 2013
Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia
This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies showcases two intriguing and diverse stories – an intense fantasy flash piece that reads a whole lot like science fiction, and a novelette with a more laid back pace and an epic fantasy feel.
“Death Sent” by Christian K. Martinez is a flash piece that follows Mandate, a Craft-man doomed to face the inexplicable persecution of the Dani against all of humanity. When we first meet Mandate, he is hiding in a cemetery from the Dani and the Odrm, two alien races who have invaded and destroyed much of the Earth and its inhabitants. While Mandate watches, a dilapidated Star Lens falls from orbit and its spirit self is retrieved by a spirit gorilla. This is the first of many primate spirit creatures that we see, and all visible to Mandate because of his ties with death through his Craft. As we learn about Mandate’s recent history, we get a glimpse of his mudra – spiritual gesture-spells that, in Mandate’s case, can cause the death of all living creatures in close proximity. The Dani appear to know about Mandate’s grim reaper-esque powers, and so they have been hunting him and have driven him to the edge of civilization.
Towards the end of the story we learn that Mandate believes he has found a solution to the never-ending onslaught of the dead and the Messengers’ need – or, ahem, mandate – to finish their task of ferreting souls. At the cusp of the passage, he has reflected on his past and must now decide his future.
The place names and the descriptions of the spiritual beings suggest a strong Indian / Hindu / Buddhist influence which is confirmed by the use of the term mudra. In part because of this unique aspect, I found the story wonderfully compact and worth re-reading.
“The Stone Oaks” by Stephen Case is a novelette that tells the story of a nun apprentice who is tasked with magically strengthening the abbey’s ancient oak grove, though she is not told why. When soldiers appear and keep making excuses to lengthen their stay at the abbey, it becomes apparent that the soldiers believe the stone oak grove to be part of a larger mystery. Our protagonist soon meets a solider who insists on hanging around the trees, but upon questioning, she refuses to even tell him her name, upholding the abbey’s culture of secrecy. Despite her reticence, the two develop a vaguely amicable relationship that causes her to follow him to the big reveal.
Throughout the story we are treated to delightful, poetic descriptions of our protagonist’s magic as she attempts to strengthen the oaks. Yet, we are not told much of the magic system or creature lore, so that the mystery of the story may be upheld by the apprentice’s, and therefore our, naivety. It is clear that other characters, such as the Mother Superior, already know the big secret. Naturally, the soldiers also know more about the world than the apprentices, who are isolated at the abbey and sheltered by the Sisters. I never felt cheated by the fact that every character knew more than the reader. The apprentice’s naivety is justified by her situation and her clear willingness to remain in the dark.
For a story told in first person, “The Stone Oaks” is not heavy on introspection or internal dialogue, and its strength lies in showing rather than telling. Even the big reveal has a visual aesthetic appeal. For this reason, I found it easy to follow, with a straight-forward plot that melts the longer word count into the background. Case’s careful foreshadowing keeps the ending a surprise, and it is only after you get there that you can see how the dots connect. I had several guesses as to the purpose of the apprentice’s task, and all of them were wrong. The falling action, after the big reveal, is a bit of a tease and leaves plenty of room for follow-up stories. That being said, “The Stone Oaks” delivers on the big mystery and leaves the reader with the impression that there is an open, dangerous world outside of the safe confines of the abbey.