Beneath Ceaseless Skies #49, Aug. 12, 2010

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #49
August 12, 2010

“Eighth Eye” by Erin Cashier
“The Book of Autumn” by Rachael Acks

Reviewed by Duane Donald

“Eighth Eye” is a fantasy/horror short by Erin Cashier. She opens her story with a girl named Moira laid up in a hospital after suffering horrific burns from a wartime explosion. With her body nearly destroyed and unable to move, Moira has only one working eye with which to watch a drama play out between a spider and a fly. This scenario is highly compelling and captures reader attention immediately.

From her bed, Moira finds an empathic connection first with the fly and later with the spider as it captures the fly and seems to contemplate its next move.

Now the story moves into the fantasy realm as the spider begins telling Moira (we assume telepathically) a vernacular-laced spoken monologue about a once great spider empire.  

Parents of a female infant named Keysis leave their child for dead outside at the mercy of the elements. Keysis is born with only one eye and their culture deems this imperfection reason enough to warrant her disposal.

A giant spider who dubs itself Vol the Devourer hears the child’s screams and decides to show mercy on this “soft one,” as she calls humans. She takes the child  as her own. As Keysis grows, the two begin to build a spider empire. And though powerful and successful for a time, the empire inevitably runs up against the sensitive humans they enjoy eating at every turn.

Vol and Keysis force human slaves to do their bidding astride an army of giant spiders mothered by Vol. The spiders and humans are able to swap eyes in some fashion whereby they achieve a type of remote viewing. This is the spiders’ eighth eye (thus the title), and for a time this ability allows the spider empire to flourish. Humans eventually learn to construct mechanical war machines made with metal with which the spiders have a difficult time. As happens with so many great empires, in the end the spiders lose their bid for world domination.

Now back in a bombed out hospital with Moira near death, she tells the spider to flee while it can. She feels one of them at least should survive this latest war. The spider contemplates this dying human a moment and then, unable to save the girl, the spider takes pity on its captive fly and allows it to escape.

The opening scene is meticulous but not tedious. Cashier’s depictions are eerie on the one hand yet wholly compelling on the other. As the story moves into the spider’s cockney spoken tale of world domination however, Cashier begins to loose her consistency. I’m all for vernacular inflections but I believe Cashier may have lost this part of the story by trying to supply a bit too much atmosphere.

“The Book of Autumn” by Rachael Acks is another fantasy. This is a multi-layered story about the struggles and journey of Safir, a former slave girl turned enchantress with the power to kill evil men and destroy entire villages if she so chooses. The question is, does she?

“The Book of Autumn” is one of several books of magic that Safir learns as a slave in a monastery of wizard-monks known as The Order. When she purchases  her freedom sometime around the age of twenty she sets off to find her older brother and thus discover why he had abandoned her, to be later sold when she was only ten.

By the first break in the story I found “The Book of Autumn” quite intriguing. I felt anticipation tinged with fear for the heroine, Safir. I kept waiting for the embittered old men of the Order to lash out at her for her betrayal in wanting to leave their monastery of magic. I was relieved when Safir made a clean exit, with the monks the ones who had need to worry had they tried to thwart her.

Her travels lead her to a nomadic group called the Destani who take her in and treat her as one of their own. Their leader, Bashya, his wife Pellé, and their daughter Venia along with a few younger men, accept Safir with little question about her past. Bashya begins to think of Safir as one of them and invites her to stay with the group, to learn their ways and become a member of their family (in a manner of speaking). Safir however feels compelled to continue her search for the last remnant of her own lost family, her brother Esmerand.

As Acks moves the story into Safir’s journey, her ability to show the reader the textures and tangible surroundings as seen through Safir’s first-person narrative is very impressive.

Safir does eventually find Esmerand alone in their home village, now a burned ruin. But she quickly realizes her brother is not the man she remembered through her child’s eyes. He has grown bitter in the ten years since their parting and lusts for power, power to control and dominate others. Safir believes Esmerand doesn’t need that sort of power to survive. She feels such power is nothing more than a path to corruption and so tries desperately to turn him from his twisted lusts. Esmerand does not back away from his nearly insane greed for power and tries to pressure Safir into showing him her great grasp of the magic arts. Therein lies a desperate sense of struggle that Acks plays out in a relatively clear fashion.

I thought many of the scenes Acks painted throughout were vivid and inviting. She expertly wove emotion and scenery into patterns the reader could easily and clearly grasp. Acks portrayal of the sister/brother reunion seemed a little flat, however, as there was ample room to explore their emotions–both positive and negative–yet she shied away from these interactions.

Even though the brother and sister reunion takes an unfortunate turn in the end, Acks is able to complete her tale with an empowering message to women, both young and old, that I found satisfying. Though not a huge fan of fantasy, even I was compelled to read on. Regardless of genre, I am a big fan of well-told stories, and this one filled the bill admirably. I believe you’ll find this a tale well worth the read.