Beneath Ceaseless Skies #62 & #63, Feb. 2011

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #62 & #63, February 2011

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #62, Feb. 10, 2011

“Silent, Still, And Cold” by Kris Dikeman
“The Adventures of Ernst, Who Began a Man, Became a Cyclops, and Finished a Hero,” by Jesse Bullington

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #63, Feb. 24, 2011

“The Ghost of Shinoda Forest,” by Richard Parks
“Dirt Witch,” by Eljay Daly

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

Beneath Ceaseless Skies offers itself as a fantasy genre on-line magazine with a literary flair. What the editors are after, according to their mission statement, is literary adventure set in a secondary world, that is, a world different from our own. The Feb. 10, 2011, issue of the magazine certainly lives up to that ideal.

Kris Dikeman opens up the issue with “Silent, Still, And Cold.” The story is, I believe, a deliberately distancing effort at showing the dangers of, generally, the metaphorical blind leading the metaphorical far-too-willing and, specifically, ticking off a powerful sorcerer and then walking willingly into his home territory.

The cold, hungry and weary army of conscripted farmers, drunks, teachers and anyone else too slow to evade the press gangs made their way to a walled city recently sacked by the unnamed Emperor’s pet Legion. What this army of expendables finds is a ruined city, empty of inhabitants, food or valuables, but full to the brim with mystery.

The narrator is among those tasked with exploring the city and finding where the people who used to live there have gone and, more importantly, to where the Sorcerer who defied the Emperor has escaped.

Stumbling through the ruined, empty city, these conscripts find strange symbols, drawn in tar, and surrounded by blood. The officers directing the search have little regard for their soldiers, which comes back to bite them in the end.

The story certainly fulfilled Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ editorial mandate in the literary area. I thought Dikeman did a great job weaving her words together. Nice descriptions and lush prose really drew me into the story.

Earlier, I called this a deliberately distancing effort. What I meant by that was that I found the story to be a sort of emotional null-set. That is, there are horrible things happening around the characters, but there’s very little in the way of emotional reaction. The narrator is unnamed, there is very little dialogue and a lot of what happens goes into the tell category, rather than the show time you’d expect.

However, and I’m surprised by this one, I really think it works, especially considering what happens near the story’s end. I won’t give that away here, but I think it works. The transformation at story’s end seems to have returned to the story’s beginning, to cast a pall over the entire story. It works and works well.

Author Jesse Bullington certainly gets points for an audacious story title with “The Adventures of Ernst, Who Began a Man, Became a Cyclops, and Finished a Hero,” issue No. 62’s second story.

Bullington sets up the story of Ernst, a more than slightly dim somewhat barbarian-ish hero, with a vanished sister, a sinister forest and a mysterious cataclysm.

Using a sly, subtle sense of humor, the story begins to unfold in what feels like a familiar fashion, only to be subverted by the author’s apparent appreciation and love of craft, H.P. that is.

Following the loss of his sister, things almost immediately go awry for our hero, Ernst, who seems possessed of an innate ability to stumble over a rock and see that rock as a diamond instead of an impediment.

While I enjoyed the actual writing on display, I thought the plot was a bit, well, off. After an initial burst of activity and inspiration, Ernst seems to spend most of the rest of the story being bossed around and forced to do things he’d really rather not be doing.

Rather than taking an active role in the proceedings, Ernst just goes along. At every turn, he is more of a puppet than a string puller. There’s a twist near the end involving an amorous ghoul that seemed more than a bit unnecessary, and the actual ending – while suitably creepy – seemed to be tacked on for shock value rather than as an organic end to the story.

Still, despite its flaws, I thought Bullington’s story was an enjoyable diversion.

February’s second issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens with “The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” by Richard Parks, a man with matchless taste in first names.

Parks, to put it simply and in a baseball metaphor, knocks this one right out of the park, over the parking lot and into the far fields of summer. “The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” is a magnificent story of love, loss, honor and slobbering monsters of the night.

Set in a fantasy-tinged feudal Japan, the story tells yet another of the author’s tales of Lord Yamada, apparently a ronin (or masterless samurai) on a mission of redemption. Told in an endearing prose style full of wit, “The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” is a romantic tragedy dressed in drag as a fantasy adventure story, and it wears those clothes well.

Yamada, his monk friend Kenji, and Prince Kanemore are drawn to the dark, haunted Shinoda Forest by reports that the ghost of the prince’s sister, Yamada’s unrequited love, had been sighted. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated.

Parks is obviously a fan of the late, lamented Middleman television show, thereby gaining significant points with this reviewer. Yes, the trap was sheer elegance in its simplicity. Or would have been had it not involved falsely propositioning a fox spirit to commit murder when said fox spirit owed a debt to a powerful lord connected to the throne, which led to an ambush in a haunted forest. Sure. Simple.

Seriously, folks, this is a great story that you need to read. Right now.

Well, perhaps, after finishing this review first. We still need to talk about “Dirt Witch” by Eljay Daly.

Taking a cue from agrarian high-fantasy stylings, Daly fashions a story of magic, gardening and the deadly memory of unquiet spirits.

A young girl named Dorota lives in a village that, while her father lived, was protected by ravening soldier ghosts from a world long gone. Unfortunately, when Dorota’s father dies, the soldiers come back and there is no one in their small village who can protect them.

Dorota’s father knew magic, which allowed him to steal and care for a fire flower that kept the village safe, but he kept that knowledge for himself and didn’t pass it on to Dorota. Still, as the ghosts press ever closer, killing the people of the village, Dorota realizes that it is up to her to find another fire flower.

Like any good fantasy protagonist, Dorota sets out on a quest into the dark woods, searching for the witch who might have the answers she seeks.

Daly’s writing is competent and does a lot to hold my interest during the story. I quite liked Dorota as a character, but thought she was a bit simplistic, especially when this story cried out for a little depth.

My main concern comes late in the story and begs the question of why the villagers didn’t leave, but instead stayed to face the time-lost ghosts. I wish that question had been answered as it would have made for a better story.

So, all in all, a good set of issues. Four stories and not a one of them that I would hesitate to recommend. It’s some good reading out here, Beneath Ceaseless Skies.