“Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya
Reviewed by Geoff Houghton
First in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256 is “Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya. This story is set in the stark land of Atsaldei. The author has constructed a complex and coherent world in which specific and well-defined forms of magic work and are used for many practical purposes. However, the mages who use the various forms of magic are tightly controlled and heavily regulated by a repressive state dominated by non-users of magic. Mages must wear specific costumes that clearly show their field of magic and their proficiency. They may only perform their art according to agreed and strictly controlled protocols. They may not learn other professions. They may not marry. The rulers use informers, secret police and threat of death or imprisonment for the slightest infraction. This state exhibits all the lack of freedom, harsh discipline and paranoia of the early Soviet Union, and there is another parallel with 20th Century Earth. There is a freer, richer and more liberal world known to exist just out of reach of the repressed mages of Atsaldei. The two worlds are separated by a Barrier erected hundreds of years earlier by a powerful mage sympathetic to the rulers of Atsaldei.
Nonar is a middle range ‘Lightforger’, whose mage-skill is demolition by magical means. However, she is also a naturally talented sketcher whose artistic eye can combine with her Mage abilities to draw out and identify the weaknesses in the complex and sophisticated Barrier between the worlds. The story follows the attempt of a resistance movement amongst the mages to recruit Nonar to their side. This is not simply an adventure story. It is also a mental journey in which Nonar must absorb changes to her view of her world and then make monumental decisions about her right to unilaterally act to change the lives of others. Should she take part in an attempt to alter her entire world in an unpredictable and unknown manner or is it preferable to maintain an unsatisfactory but known status-quo?
The second offering is “Flesh and Stone” by Kathryn Yelinek. This story is set in a rather pristine and civilised fantasy version of the European medieval period. The protagonist, Perrin, is a Master Sculptor with a strange and dangerous power. He can speak the true name of one of his statues and bring it to life. However, although he can imbue the marble with vitality, he cannot grant it normal human emotions. When Perrin falls in love with one of his own creations he must face a moral dilemma: Does the ability to instill life into his statues also give him the authority to use that power for his own purposes?
The final twist to this morality tale could easily have become a dark horror story, but the author has written it with a light and upbeat style. The reader may even find that they smile rather than shedding a tear when they discover the reason that Perrin has this dangerous power and learns of his final solution to his quandary.
Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.