Beneath Ceaseless Skies #72 & #73

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #72 and #73, June 30th and July 14th, 2011

“Sightwolf” by Erin Hoffman (#72)
“The Moral Education of a Mad Bastard” by Joe L. Murr (#72)
“And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” by Rosamund Hodge (#73)
“Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin” by Adam Callaway (#73)

Reviewed by Indrapramit Das

Issues 72 and 73 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies contain two stories each, all of them quite long except one.

Erin Hoffman’s “Sightwolf” follows a narrator exiled from the city of Astralar for tax evasion (!). Faced with a hostile world beyond the city walls that will lead to certain death, she (or he, I wasn’t too sure) chooses to venture into the forest of Wicklight, “a place where strange things nest.” There, she trips out on “woodmistress” only to be confronted with an anthropomorphized vision of a dying mother wolf. One thing leads to another, and she ends up becoming the guardian of a family of wolf-cubs, communicating with their father-wolf, and spearheading a battle against giant deer.

I liked Hoffman’s writing, which grounds the reader in this forest and effectively puts you in the narrator’s shoes when she’s struggling to survive in this hostile and ominous place. But once we meet the wolves, I was rather disappointed by the predictable and unremarkable arc the story took. Hoffman does well in making us appreciate the primal, elemental essence of the conflicts that make up the cycle of nature. But the story also left me wondering about the need for an entire new world if all this initially tantalizing forest can offer is telepathic wolves and giant deer. I was left with no real sense of wonder, which is unfortunate when reading a fantasy story. There is a surprising lack of imagination here. There have been other stories set in this world, though, so I assume they do a better job of giving it depth. But that still leaves this one lacking to me, despite its length.

Joe L. Murr’s “The Moral Education of a Mad Bastard” also leaves something to be desired after the promise of its title. For one thing, our hero Jack Cunningham never once feels like a mad bastard, though the title could be ironic, considering that he is judged from the very first scene as being an inferior species of human because of his appearance and race. The story reads like a truncated, compressed, and prematurely concluded bildungsroman, charting the fortunes of Jack as he stumbles from childhood to adulthood in a steampunkish industrial world resembling a nineteenth-century Australia laced with magic.

From Jack’s early days of imprisonment mining magical redrock, to his becoming a ‘mutant’ of sorts because of exposure to the latter (there’s something very Marvel Comics about his powers of “blind-sight,” as induced by the redrock, evoking Daredevil or the X-Men), to his escape and second incarceration as a high-born family’s travelling magic-show, the story always reads well and entertains. There is also the interesting inclusion of Murr’s examination of racism, classism and phrenology as indicators of a cultural cancer; this is a world rotting from the inside, and it’s not certain by the end whether Jack is accepting this or out to try and change things. I like that ambiguity, certainly, but otherwise Murr’s discussion of race and prejudice doesn’t go very deep at all, and what there is is too blatantly spelled out, giving the treatment of this theme little complexity. Perhaps more stories of Jack might help take this world and Murr’s exploration of it to more thorny, interesting places. In the meanwhile, this one will do for a good read.

Rosamund Hodge’s “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn hair” is a gritty, subversive take on a classical fairy-tale style fantasy scenario replete with unicorns, princesses and marriages. Only here the unicorns love the princesses so much they eat them, and our heroic princess Zéphine wants nothing to do with them even though she’s destined to dance and die for them. She is plagued with fear, selfishness and other normal human traits that end up playing a major role in the story once she finds herself in the middle of an invasion of her country by the Kyrlanders, led by the evil lord Launrad.

The story is much too filled with twists and turns and betrayals and counter-betrayals to sum up here without giving things away, but suffice to say this is a well written story that doesn’t offer much new to the ongoing, decades-long subversion of fairy-tale tropes in adult fantasy. We get a genuinely interesting world filled with mysterious and morally ambiguous ritual and tradition, we get elemental, god-like animal beings tied to human devotion, we get a flawed central duo with some nicely gnarly ethical issues to get over. All this tied together with solid prose. But we also get an overlong narrative that tells too much, that leaches much of the moral ambiguity of the culture Zéphine is born into with spelled-out explication for the sake of character development. We also get a boring, cardboard villain in Launrad. Hodge tends, in this story, to spell things out as a narrator, pounding subtext out of the shadows until it’s no longer subtext, and just getting in the way of an appealing fantasy world and characters. Still, it’s a sincere effort, and could have done far, far worse. Writing about princesses and unicorns and getting away with it in this day and age is quite the task in itself.

Adam Callaway’s “Walls of Skin, Soft as Paper” is the one really short piece in these two issues. It gives us a day in the life of Tomai,  a worker in a parchment factory (one involving a giant termite the “size of a city-block” that, we gather, pulps the wood) in Ars Lacuna, a semi-industrialized city. We see his daily ritual and routine, and by the end of it, we find out why we’ve been watching him. The story’s brevity and restraint are boons; I found the city coming alive in my head with remarkably little description and exposition. It’s almost, but not quite, minimalist, with its clipped prose lending it an effective rhythm that pulls you along:

“He awoke to silence. Silence, and the sound of Ars Lacuna waking up. Autocarriages growled. Book vendors hawked hardcovers.”

It’s ultimately a quiet story of mourning, though confusing at first. A little more depth in its characterization of Tomai and his relationships might have helped me care more, but I enjoyed reading it.