Beneath Ceasless Skies #53, October 7, 2010

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #53
October 7, 2010

[This issue sports a double review; one by Indrapramit Das, the other by Maria Lin.]

“Lady of the Ghost Willow” by Richard Parks
“Curse of the Chimère” by Tony Pi
“The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” by Sarah L. Edwards
“More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand” by Rosamund Hodge

Reviewed by Indrapramit Das

Underneath the richly evoked finery of Asian mythologies, Richard Parks‘ “Lady of the Ghost Willow” is an elegantly written and plotted occult detective story in the tradition of supernatural noirs like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels or DC Comics/Vertigo’s John Constantine: Hellblazer. As one would expect from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the story is firmly rooted in fantasy, its world woven out of East Asian mythologies (primarily, but not limited to, Japanese).

It follows an exorcist (similar to Felix Castor), Yamada no Goji, who is summoned by a high-ranking lord, Fujiwara no Kinmei, to help a friend of his, Minamoto no Akio, who has recently been plagued by a life-sapping apparition in his home. What follows is an entertaining whodunnit, following the familiar formula of the protagonist following clues and gathering information, uncovering a web of tangled relationships between characters, and leading to a conclusion where our detective/exorcist puts the pieces together in a satisfying way.

What makes the story additionally fascinating is its conjuration of a world that isn’t normally seen in detective stories, and how elements of this fantasy world are used in a way that is vital and essential to the mystery at the story’s core. The story thus ends up being fantasy, ghost story, noir, and detective story, and works despite itself, thanks to Parks’ attention to detail and lucid prose style. Furthermore, the final twist is genuinely surprising. I found the protagonist, Yamada, a little lacking; his penchant for sake seems like a perfunctory nod to the hard-boiled narrators of the genres Parks is so interestingly paying tribute to, but we don’t really find out anything else about him, or see him develop in any way. Nonetheless, the other characters shine in a very little space, and the story is a rewarding read.

Tony Pi’s “Curse of the Chimère” is an imaginative medley of steampunk, fantasy and Victorian mystery. Like “Lady of the Ghost Willow,” the tale is ultimately a whodunnit, but this time with elements of ‘adventure’ stories from a bygone colonial era—a touch of grue; a final confrontation with a villain that requires quick wit and dexterity from the hero. The tale follows Professor Voss, whose night out to a showing of a reputed trilogy of colour films (a new invention in this world) takes a turn for the worse when he discovers that patrons are starting to bleed from the eyes. We are quickly immersed in a search for the answers behind this ominous crisis.

Like Parks, Pi uses the fantastical elements of his world shrewdly and not gratuitously, creating a mystery that could only be created and solved in the specific world that he sets up so meticulously. The use of cinema, and the exploration of the medium’s ‘magical’ powers of mimicry and glamour, is integral and interesting. The tale is faithful to the anachronistic literary style of its Victorian inspirations, making the dialogue sound stilted and odd to modern ears. This takes some getting used to, because of its affectations. However, it doesn’t take long to settle into the rhythm. The characterizations are slight and quick, but serve their purpose, and the facets that make up the riddle that is to be answered at the end are complex and fantastic enough to be thoroughly rewarding, not to mention entertaining. Pi also uses real mythology and history to great effect, but weaves in entirely original aspects too, bringing together a compelling world in the mind’s eye.

Sarah L. Edwards’ “The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” is a lovely little folkloric fantasy about the titular ‘girl’, Abby, who lives in a house by a cliff’s edge, and finally gets a taste of the wild freedom of the sea she has witnessed for so long from a safe distance. It is a simple, short tale about her journey to and from the ensconced familiarity of childhood; what beckons beyond is, of course, magical in a way she has never experienced before. Edwards uses her painterly prose style to bring Abby’s world to life, and sensual details allow the reader to be grounded in it despite the almost fable-like quality of the story. Unlike a fable, however, there is no real plot or moral to be gleaned from this vignette, not overtly, anyway. It gives us a tantalizing glimpse of an imagined world, that will no doubt bring back memories of the magical viewpoint of childhood. Only in Abby’s world, growing up doesn’t mean losing that viewpoint.

Rosamund Hodge’s “More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand” is a dark historical fantasy, similar in style and content to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like Clarke and other modern writers like Neil Gaiman, Hodge plays up the old-world malevolence of faeries and pits them against the ‘real’ world. The story takes place in what appears to be World War II-era England, but posits that the War in this alternate history is one in which humanity is fighting off faerie invaders, who have launched an offensive against our world. Interestingly, the tale is told from the point of a ‘changeling’, Violet, a faerie infiltrator who grew up amongst a human family since infancy, only to be reminded of her duties during her teenage years, something her human brother discovers. What unfolds is an engaging story about Violet’s experiences during the War, with an admirably epic sweep that belongs in a novel.

The war scenes were fascinating and gripping to me because of their combination of visceral, gritty realism and ethereal fantasy; I would have liked to have seen more of how the two very different races actually behave and fight each other on the battlefields of the war, rather than references and exposition. The war scenes, while excellent, usually don’t tackle the actual fighting head-on, leaving it in the background, which works great for the most part, but I’d have liked some scenic, visual examples of the inter-racial violence that underscores the whole piece.

Violet’s inhuman, faerie nature makes for a compelling viewpoint, as she tries to understand humans and begins to empathize, if not sympathize with them. This makes for an age-old speculative fiction theme; the inhuman entity trying to understand humanity, or to be human. It’s not an astoundingly original idea or story, but Hodge carries it off with such panache that it’s hard to begrudge the similarity of her faeries to other recent portrayals in speculative fiction, or the fact that the core of the story isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. In the end, execution is what matters, and while the theme of the nonhuman tackling humanity is familiar, it isn’t seen in fantasy as often as in science-fiction. The story allows the reader to reflect on humanity without being didactic, and gives Violet’s story a graceful ending that is emotionally satisfying without being sentimental. The WW-II era setting also sets the story apart from Susanna Clarke’s work, for instance, and the beautiful writing, effective narrative voice/characterization of Violet, and rich world-building make it worthwhile.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #53
Oct 7, 2010

“Lady of the Ghost Willow” by Richard Parks
“The Curse of Chimé” Toni Pi
“The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” by Sarah L. Edwards
“More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand” by Rosamund Hodge

Reviewed by Maria Lin

While most issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies offer two stories, issue #53 is twice the size, with four stories.

Set in the Tokugawa era of Japan, “Lady of the Ghost Willow” by Richard Parks draws upon classical superstition and literary tropes to create a supernatural mystery. Lord Akio has been afflicted with some sort of possession, and after exorcism, sutras, and wards do not improve his situation, his friend Lord Kinmei calls on a somewhat notorious Lord Yamada for aid. A cross between drunken monk and hard-boiled detective, sans the typical noir prose, Lord Yamada sets out to discover the source of the spirit plaguing Lord Kinmei with a directness that clashes with the round-about norms of classical Japanese society. His suspicions soon rest on a secret lover of Lord Kinmei’s, the “Lady of the Ghost Willow.”

Parks has obviously done his homework on Japanese culture and literature. While the characters themselves are coated in the varnish of the modem West (A man feels a woman “has the right” to know about his impending marriage), their circumstances and assumptions are pulled straight from The Tale of Genji. The supernatural elements in “Lady of the Ghost Willow” are something that any Japanese in the Classical era would have known about and believed in, and the strange relationship between love and marriage that brings about Lord Kinmei’s problem was a standard one during a time of institutionalized polyamory in Japan. For doing his research and crafting a story that brings out some interesting elements of old Japanese society, Parks gets full marks.

The mystery of Lord Kinmei’s attacker is not quite as polished. It depends too much on Lord Yamada being privy to a particular piece of information that is not shared with the reader. The ‘trick’ of the mystery is foreshadowed in a single line, and it’s meaning is not accessible unless one is much more closely familiar with Japanese literature than the average layman. The twist can still be predicted despite having no real solid hints. As a mystery, “Lady of the Ghost Willow” is just not nuanced enough to give you that sleuthing through the text feel.  Still, the ending does make sense, and as with everything else, is a probable situation for the setting. A short story that takes you to another place and time with great accuracy, “Lady of the Ghost Willow” delivers.

From ancient Japan we jump to a steampunk alternate reality of France in the second mystery story of this issue, Toni Pi’s “The Curse of Chimére,” which opens to the chaotic flight of an audience from a cinema as our detective, Professor Voss, is arriving at the scene. A movie utilizing the brand new alchemy of color photography was due to premiere there, but as the audience watched, some people became paralyzed and began to bleed from the eyes. Professor Voss has arrived just in time to see the aftermath of the film’s effects.

Like “Lady of the Ghost Willow,” “The Curse of Chimére” has its strength in the world Toni Pi built around his story. Unlike the previous story, he deviates from how things were and takes the classic steampunk approach of writing about how things could have been if magic behaved the way the Victorians thought it did, and the era of steam and clockwork was a little more hip.

The mystery is more action than puzzle. The hints are there but take a back seat to the hieroglyphs and mechanical monsters. The whole thing reminds me a bit of “Public Safety” by Matthew Johnson. Both stories have the same atmosphere, but in “Public Safety” the mystery is more prominent a factor in the plot. While “The Curse” has the atmosphere down pat, the story itself felt too rote for me, particularly since it followed a story with such a similar setup.

Short and fable-like in its telling, “The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” by Sarah L. Edwards is about a young girl who lives in a house on a cliff, yet has never been down to the sea. She enlists the help of a “stryke,” a bird I initially imagined to be like a gryphon, but with arms capable of cradling and transporting a young girl down to the water below them. The girl, Abby, spends a few moments down below before being carried back to her house, and that is the gist of the story.

There is no progression of plot or character in this story. Edwards seems to have written down a daydream, and as well written as it is, it lacks anything that the reader can invest themselves in, which means that “The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” is as quickly forgotten as it was read.

A changeling becomes a turncoat during a world war between fairy and men in “More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand,” by Rosamund Hodge. Hodge takes the dark approach to fairy kind and portrays them as creatures that kill and destroy with no misgivings, but the hero of the story encounters an instant of human selflessness that confuses her and challenges her loyalties.

Like most changelings of fable, Violet did not know she was not human as a child, only that she was different. She felt differently; that is to say, she felt very little at all. Death and affection were beyond her, and one night when she was visited by her true mother, she came to understand why. From that time on, she served as a spy for fairy kind, who was now in the staging period of a world wide invasion. Like every other fairy, Violet found it easy to betray her adoptive family. When her brother discovered her secret, she did not regret the bond that was severed between them. When her colleagues went out to their deaths, she smiled in satisfaction. But one woman throws herself in front of Violet to protect her from a fairy attack, and at that moment the paradigm of her life is shattered. Wondering what it is that compels humans to behave in such an unfairylike manner, Violet decides to offer her services to the human resistance, and spends the rest of the war fighting for mankind.

Hodge does a great job in portraying a character that is fundamentally inhuman but must struggle with human emotion. There is no neat little moral that proclaims the beauty of human morality, only a person who feels twinges of human affection but cannot even conceive that that is what she is feeling. On the one hand, this makes her a difficult character to believe. She cannot even articulate the motive behind her decisions for herself, never mind the reader. On the other hand, that’s what makes her an intriguing character. Her confusion and her attempts to make sense of it are very human qualities, even if the things that confuse her are not so familiar.

Although it is much longer than the other stories in this issue, “More Full of Weeping” runs at a good pace and does not feel tedious. It is an interesting character study with strong writing to support it, and I recommend it for any fan of dangerous fairies.