Beneath Ceaseless Skies #197, April 14, 2016

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #197, April 14, 2016

“The Sweetest Skill” by Tony Pi

“Rabbit Grass” by Kelly Stewart

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

Ao has a fairly unique ability in Tony Pi‘s “The Sweetest Skill.” Although he appears to be naught but a candy maker, Ao’s family has a long symbiotic history with the zodiac spirit animals that grant him the ability to form magical constructs out of simple materials. But absolute loyalty to the spirits is required for such power, and the penalty for disobedience can be awful, as Ao well knows. So when the spirit of King Tiger shows up one night with a request to rescue a divine tigress in need, Ao is more than a little wary. On the other hand, he owes a debt of gratitude to the injured spirit and all debts must be paid, even if that means going up against the sorcery of the Ten Crows gang.

“The Sweetest Skill” is a neatly packaged sword and sorcery story set in a broader narrative world. The characters, the setting, and the plot are all decently constructed, but lack a stylistic charm to be truly eye-popping on the page. Pi only skirts the surface of the world and its specific magical parameters, and the reader is subsequently left with a hollow, take-it-as-it-comes feeling of what is or isn’t possible for Ao and his companions to accomplish. All told, “The Sweetest Skill” is a nice, short romp into magical realism and mythology but fails to inspire deeper thought between the lines.

Aril knows that you ought never invite Rabbits into the garden, in Kelly Stewart‘s “Rabbit Grass.” There’s no getting rid of them or fixing the damage they do if you’re silly enough not to heed that bit of advice. All the same, there’s something about the little Rabbit Picket that Aril can’t ignore. And conversation never hurt anyone, did it? Sure, he’s tricky like Rabbits are wont to be, but he’s not so bad. For a Rabbit. And if he could stop playing tricks on her long enough for her to teach him how to grow his own plants, they might just be friends. But Picket won’t stop going on about the non-existent Rabbit Grass, and when he shows up at her window one night looking desperate and worried, Aril won’t rest until she’s aided her unlikely companion, even if it means venturing into the Rabbit warrens herself.

Part Peter Rabbit and part Alice in Wonderland, “Rabbit Grass” is a fanciful story that walks the line between fantasy and reality. The anthropomorphized plants and animals are human enough to be familiar to the reader and to Aril, but alien enough to have their own customs and ways which create just enough tension between Picket and Aril to make the plot interesting. Stewart manages to pack a lot into this short story, yet the information is presented in such a natural way, and in such a clear, strong voice that at no point does the story dip into exposition or become boring. Stewart crafts a lovely pastoral fantasy in “Rabbit Grass,” one that can appeal to all ages.