Beneath Ceaseless Skies #48, July 29, 2010 (Double Review)

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #48
July 29, 2010

(Reviewed by Jo-Anne Odell and Maria Lin)

“Prashkina’s Fire” by Vylar Kaftan
“The Shades of Morgana” by Dean Wells

Reviewed by Jo-Anne Odell

“Prashkina’s Fire,”  by Vylar Kaftan,  is so classic an example of a deus ex machina ending, it could have come from a Greek play.  It’s the story of Sarayoura, a scarred and broken priestess, tending the remains of the temple of Prashkina, her dead goddess, when a not-too-bright fisherman shows up.  

The fisherman brings an armful of straw.  He proposes using the straw to relight the temple’s fires, in the hopes it will bring the gods back, and presumably, return purpose to Sarayoura’s life.  

And therein is the essential issue I have with the story.  The plot revolves around the idea that Sarayoura is disenfranchised and without purpose.   Sarayoura’s a victim, so ineffective she can’t even convince the fisherman to hide from invading bandits.  The bandits are from the North, and it’s a return visit.  They’ve already carried off everything of value, but they left her alive.  What do they look like?  How many are there?  Why do they return to threaten her?  I’ve no idea.  They remain shadowy, vague, without solid motive.

Kaftan’s writing style is solid and accessible, but it can’t overcome a questionable crisis, or the failure of the protagonist to act on her own behalf.     

Although “The Shades of Morgana,” by Dean Wells, started with a “dark and stormy night,” of the type that evokes jokes about such tales, I had hopes for it.  

It’s the story of Sully and his battle against his inner demon, a demon in truth, an intruder of mind, and of body.  Although the battle takes place in the safety of a drawing room, it’s set in a dark world where alchemy and black magic abound.  When carnal desire overwhelms Sully’s defenses, the demon is unleashed, and his companions, principally the redoubtable Rowan Mallory and the ogre, Broon, are forced to do battle.  Sully isn’t out of the struggle, though.  He’s determined to save Sabrina, the woman he loves, from becoming another of the demon’s conquests.  The long, intricate fight scene is as good as any I’ve read.  
The characters have a long association, and their ease with one another, its juxtaposition with the viper in their midst, is one of the strengths of the tale, although that history creates more questions than it answers.  With a past that included many dark deeds, I found the idea that Sully had hidden his secret, especially from Mallory, to be a strain on credibility.  Nonetheless, Wells is a compelling storyteller.

The characters intrigued me, and there was intensity to the imagery, vivid enough for me to see the setting in my mind’s eye.  

I did find some problems.  The point-of-view jumps, without notice, from Sully to Mallory, and although Broon is mentioned early, he doesn’t show up until late.  It feels contrived.  The biggest issue, however, is simply that there’s too much jammed in, too many unexplained concepts, too many ambiguous terms.  

Overall, my impression of “The Shades of Morgana,” is that it’s a novel struggling within the overstuffed confines of a short story.  With some work and careful editing, it could be a novel I’d love to read.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #48
July 29, 2010

“Prashkina’s Fire” by Vylar Kaftan
“The Shades of Morgana” by Dean Wells

Reviewed by Maria Lin

“Prashkina’s Fire” by Vylar Kaftan

“Prashkina’s Fire,” by Vylar Kaftan, is a short little piece about the death of gods and the return of hope. In this world a holy war has resulted in the death of the entire pantheon, and the priests of the land have been left with an emptiness as their temples fall to pieces and are ransacked by marauders. One priestess remains at the temple of her goddess, Prashkina, and finds a fisherman who has come from a far off village and does not seem to have been told that all the gods are dead. Together they try to restore the temple from the ruins it has become, complete with altar fire. For a while things are looking up, until the bandits strike again.

The revelation in the story is predictable but satisfying, and while “Prashkina’s Fire” is too short to explore its concepts in any depth, it is tightly written and a pleasant pill to take after reading darker, more depressing things. The narration, told in the voice of the Mother Sarayoura, is strong and concise. I recommend this to any fan of stories dealing primarily with gods.

“The Shades of Morgana”  by Dean Wells

Possession is usually the territory of the horror genre. What is more unnerving than realizing that a loved one is no longer themselves, that they are dangerous, maybe even evil? Dean Wells  twists this concept around in “The Shades of Morgana” by giving us the perspective of the possessed, one Sully Finn. Since he was attacked as a child a parasite has been living in him, pushing at his mental boundaries and inciting him to spread its corruption through acts of violence. Though the story does not explain exactly how, he has fallen in with a Doctor Rowan Mallory, a powerful man who has taught Sully to resist the wurm inside him and the urges it conjures up. But then comes Mallory’s sister, Sabrina, and the mutual attraction between her and Sully provides the wurm a window through which it can take control yet again.

The world of Morgana is a dark one. Morgana itself is nicknamed the “City of Shadows” and every indication is given that one would not want to be caught out in its streets after nightfall.   There is also a streak of modernity here. Electricity is known and harnessed by both scientific and magical means. Biology is a known concept. The black magic of the place and the technology of the people who are struggling to tame it combine, so that Doctor Mallory also shelters “young refugees from Myrddin’s End, runaways liberated from stimulant laboratories and families who’d already been lost to the shadows.” All in all, the life of Morgana’s citizens seems bleak, and Sully, victim of the city’s demons at a young age, seems to have a bleaker one than most.

The setting borders on gothic, but the meat of the story is a far cry from horror. Once the wurm takes control of Sully the rest of “The Shades of Morgana” plays out like an action movie, complete with destroyed property and a rotating cast of weaponry. While the concept of having a black slug inside your body and whispering into your mind suggests to me a lot of opportunity on the psychological front, Wells is much more straight forward in his treatment of the idea, to the story’s detriment in my opinion. His power of description is visceral and exciting. His description of the wurm sitting in Sully’s gut in particular was well done. I do feel that “The Shades of Morgana” had the potential to be much more than it was, but it was still exciting and worth the read.