Beneath Ceaseless Skies #68, May 5, 2011

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #68, May 5, 2011

“The Finest Spectacle Anywhere” by Genevieve Valentine
“Buzzard’s Final Bow” by Jason S. Ridler

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Genevieve Valentine’s “The Finest Spectacle Anywhere” continues the saga of the Circus Tresaulti, whose various stories in BCS and elsewhere comprise her first novel (Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, Prime Books, April 2011).

I’ve read only two of these stories, both of which I found to be well composed and interesting. Valentine provides bits and dollops of information concerning the outer world in which these stories take place, focusing instead on the motley group of individuals in the circus and their individual stories. Therefore, as near as I can make out, the world is in the midst of a war, the cause of which I have yet to determine. The Circus Tresaulti’s performers each have some special ability–music, high wire acrobatic ability, or in some other way have a unique act to contribute as the circus wends its way through the devastated, war-torn villages and cities where it stops to perform and barter for supplies.

Some of the performers have been augmented by the Boss, the burly woman who runs the circus. When she deems them “ready,” or in need, they are taken to some location and fitted with metal skeletons/bones to aid them in their act(s). Since this happens offstage we are left to guess as to how this is accomplished, but some form of medical science is obviously involved. What level of science is cleverly withheld, and because the stories otherwise read like a world without much scientific advancement, these medical enhancements stand in stark contrast to the down and dirty everyday life depicted in the pair I’ve read. This unexplained dichotomy gives one the feeling that this might be a steampunkish sort of world. Whether it is or not I can’t at this point say with certainty, but if so then the quirky performers some of these stories focus on–or rather the few augmented performers–could be called either “steamborgs” or “punkborgs,” being quite literally cyborgs made from a science less advanced than the science required to make a cybernetic organism (think The Six Million Dollar Man). Corny new coinages aside, the stories are interesting  for the blend of characters, the odd world they inhabit, and the skill with which Valentine reveals only what is necessary to each story–which leaves puzzles and mysteries in the mind of the reader and keeps him coming back for answers he may or may not find in future stories.

The current installment introduces a new member to the circus, for the Boss is always hoping to upgrade the “sideshow” into a true circus by holding auditions at every stop. This time the audition produces a juggler, a person many have serious doubts about for various reasons. The Boss, however, allows him to join and ere long, amidst shady incident and thievery, a major calamity strikes the circus.

I’m rather enjoying these tales and hope to read more, and I think you will, too.

Jason S. Ridler’s “Buzzard’s Final Bow” is a poor foray into sword & sorcery territory. While S&S has its expected tropes like any subgenre, there’s a difference between molding, shaping, and working a trope skillfully and interestingly into a story and just dropping them in as dead weights, as clumsy obstacles the reader groans around as the story limps to its conclusion.

The plot, the storyline, is decent enough here. Buzzard is a champion gladiator who has won his freedom and travels about the country with his intelligent red tiger, Razor. He now finds himself imprisoned and brought to the court of the Lady Astra, who forces him to perform an entertainment for the young, sickly boy who is to be the future king of the land. The “entertainment” is a mock battle with Razor while the boy watches. But during the fight something will go wrong and the boy is to die, leaving Lady Astra’s political aspirations an open door. It all works itself out to Buzzard’s, Razor’s, and the boy’s advantage (which is  a good thing), but the story is terribly marred by the amateurish (trite, stilted, and uninspired) dialogue, forced (ill-fitting) metaphors, and otherwise cobbled-together, hit and miss prose in general. I wish I had better things to say of this one on a technical level, but it simply ruined what otherwise could have been a decent story. Especially so, when one considers the unique relationship between Buzzard and Razor, how they came to be companions, and Razor’s eventual sacrifice. If only the editor could have helped with a much needed rewrite…