Beneath Ceaseless Skies #81 & #82

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #81 & #82 (November 3rd and 17th, 2011)

“Hence the King from Kagehana” (Parts I and II), by Michael Anthony Ashley
“Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have A Moment…” by Stephen Case
“The Red Chord” by Wren Wallis

Reviewed by Daniel Woods

“Hence the King from Kagehana” (Parts I and II) by Michael Anthony Ashley

Saga is a samurai of poor heritage. He is ai no ko–a scorned, mongrel half-breed, born with mixed blood. But he is a man bound by his honour, and more so than most. When a fellow warrior insults his lord, Saga has no option but to react, and risks his own death in combat. Such devotion impresses his superiors, and brings with it an unlikely promotion. But, shifting circumstances make it harder to act correctly, for honour is only one of the doctrines to which Saga must conform; trying to appease them all will become a deadly game of compromises in Michael Anthony Ashley’s Japanese fantasy adventure.

This piece is about being torn. The idea is that inside every man there is a primal, animal power that can only be unleashed if his conscience is ripped away. Of course, unchecked power is useless for any practical purposes, so in place of a conscience, a set of rules must be put in place to control it. Through Saga, we watch what happens when those rules begin to conflict with each other.

It’s an intriguing premise, but unfortunately this story feels overwrought. Ashley’s prose can be rather purple at times, and despite all the chugi sticks, bamboo trees, and war fans, it fails to create a convincing impression of Japan. When we are finally introduced to Marrow and the Rope, the fantasy elements that provide the backbone of this story, the piece sees an immediate improvement, but it is very late in coming. There is also an awkward subplot involving bees that I found rather jarring – magic bees seem to have been included simply for “cool points,” and don’t tie in easily with the internal logic of Marrow and the Rope. The plot as a whole gets a little hard to swallow.

Ashley has some good ideas here, like the soul in three parts, and his piece’s fantasy sections vastly outshine the often awkward “samurai bits.” Combat scenes are suitably bloody, and the prose is littered with surprising, interesting words like “fricative” and “ebullient.” However, the entire opening section falls rather flat; the first plot twist comes as a surprise to nobody, and the piece tries so hard to evoke “Japan” that it misses the mark altogether. Read this one for Marrow (Ashley’s most interesting character), and for the impossibility of Saga’s situation, and I think you’ll enjoy it – just try to get past all the fluff at the beginning first.

“Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have A Moment…” by Stephen Case

Stephen Case’s piece is a letter – a dark missive, with the title as its opening line, addressed to a girl whose name goes unspoken. She has been imprisoned for all of her life, and kept far removed from the prying eyes of the kingdom, but within these secret, forbidden pages, the key to her freedom is written.

“Letter stories” can so often be expository, clichéd, or just plain dull, and so I approached this one with a degree of suspicion. Thankfully, it is a short yet effective piece, and Case has created an eerie snapshot of a world in which words – and names – hold frightening power. The narrator is technically the main character, but from the way he writes about his intended recipient, I would gladly read a much longer story about the girl in the room. There is no action to speak of, nor a great deal of magic or mystery, but the implication of the words – the effect that they will have, once read – give “Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have A Moment…” an intriguing power.

“The Red Chord” by Wren Wallis

Tharil is two-souled, and a fortune teller. People think it is a gift, to carry a ghostly passenger with you all your life, to watch as the secrets of the future are unveiled before you, but the weight of knowledge is a terrible burden, and hers is a wearying vocation. When a wraithlike Courier arrives from the Citadel, Tharil is required to read the woman’s future, and the results prove more disturbing than she would have predicted.

“The Red Chord” is a vaguely unsettling piece about a fortune teller, no more and no less. The prose has a hopeless quality to it, which I enjoyed, and Wallis gives Tharil a strong sense of character. The opening line and the general concept, however, take a little getting used to (the answer to my tacit question, “why does having a second soul let you see into the future?” seemed to be, “because it just does, OK?”), and there is a disappointing amount of the familiar in this world. Evil puppets of the ruling government, knights of an order bound to a church of dubious morality, general unrest in the streets, etc. There is the sense of a much larger story behind this one, particularly in the dizzy flashes of the Courier’s future that are shared with us, and perhaps this is no surprise; Wallis is currently writing a novel set in this world. I enjoyed this piece, and I recommend that you give it a read, but it is nothing Earth-shattering. I suspect that Wallis is saving her real story for her book, and that all we have here is a tidbit.