Beneath Ceaseless Skies #218-219, 2nd & 16th February 2017

ISFDB links: #218, #219

Editor-in-Chief, Scott H. Andrews

Other Reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Dave Truesdale, Anne Crookshanks, Tangent Online (#218, #219)
Charles Payseur, Quick Sip Reviews (#218, 219)
Various, Goodreads (#218, #219)

Fiction:
#218
Out of the Woods • short story by Marissa Lingen
Men of the Ashen Morrow • short story by Margaret Killjoy
#219
Gravity’s Exile • novelette by Grace Seybold
The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County • short story by Jeremy Sim

Non-fiction:
Source • cover by Florent Llamas

These two issues actually have different covers for a change (a panoramic work has been split in two) but I’ve covered them together; even so it makes for a short ‘issue.’

Out of the Woods by Marissa Lingen is a story about a small group of rebels who wait for the return of their King, and the pardon they hope he will grant them. When he does arrive back in his kingdom it is on his pyre, and his despised brother continues to rule.
After watching four of their number hanged, the central character, Lovis, comes up with a ruse that gets her near to the brother. Then (spoiler) she kills him with a finger-snap spell, a minor fantasy device used earlier in the text. This rather arbitrary event brings to end a tale that consists mostly of talk between the rebels. While this is occasionally interesting, it doesn’t add up what I would call a story.
Men of the Ashen Morrow by Margaret Killjoy has a group of hunters sacrifice a deer to the God Hulokk. The hunters want to bring summer to an end, to prevent the ‘bright monsters’ flooding into the valley:

He would come. Not for the sacrifice—what’s a deer to the god of all rivers and roots and everything on the ground and beneath it—but for the hunters. Hulokk would come when summoned by His people. As like as not, He’d take someone with Him.
Sal didn’t want to die, and she assumed none of her companions did either. But Hulokk must freeze the earth to end the summer, and winter must come for the snows to settle onto the hills, and the snows must come to keep the creatures from the West at bay. Risk was necessary to life, always.
[. . .]
The doe’s blood melted and burned the earth. The smell of old rot poured into the forest. The ground collapsed, pulling the saplings and ferns down into the underworld, and Sal and her company stepped back.
A single segmented leg, infinitely thin and long, crept out from the hole. First one, then another. Then another, another, another. Slower than the setting of the summer sun, His fat, round worm body of flesh and stone rose into the air. His belly was awash with eyes. He looked at Sal, and Sal borrowed the breath of the other hunters. She spoke, in the tongue of the gods:
“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”
“I will not.” Hulokk’s voice was a thousand voices, across and below the audible.
“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”
“I will not.” Ancient trees trembled and fell, and Sal felt her heart quiver in her chest from the physical force of the voice.
“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”
“I will.”
Four legs shot out and wrapped around Lelein, and she screamed, hoarse and angry.
“I ask you, Hulokk,” Sal started, but it took more magic than she could summon to keep her voice in the tongue of the gods. She finished her sentence meekly, in a human language.
“To spare our lives.”
The god dragged Sal’s lover into the depths of the earth. At the last moment, the eldest among the hunters put a quarrel through Lelein’s throat, silencing her forever. As the world grew silent, Sal collapsed at the edge of the of sinkhole and clawed at the dirt in lieu of weeping.
Hulokk froze the earth, and autumn came, then winter. p. 21-23

The story then flashes forward to the end of Sal’s life, when she is in her seventies. In the intervening time she has conducted fifteen sacrifices, and lost nine people, a better performance than any other collective has managed. However, when a horseman arrives requesting her to perform another, she refuses: she has lost enough people . . . . Later, she changes her mind, and attempts the summoning herself.
A good traditional fantasy.

Gravity’s Exile by Grace Seybold gets off to a pretty good start with its protagonist fighting a lizard on the wall of rock that is her world:

Woman and monster hung motionless against the rockface for an endless moment, eyes locked together. Then, abruptly, the lizard clacked its teeth shut, spun on two feet, and skittered away. Despite its dragging rear leg it was unnervingly fast, and in a few heartbeats it had disappeared around a knob of rock and was gone.
Jeone let out a long, shuddering breath, the exhilaration of the fight draining away all at once. With exaggerated care, she tucked the sandal into her belt and pulled herself into a more secure two-handed hold, resting her cheek against the cool stone. Her skin was beaded with sweat. The sun was coming up out of the downclouds now, the day well started. She should get moving, retrieve her pitons and hammock and whatever of her worldly goods the lizard’s sudden attack hadn’t scattered into the cloudy void. Jeone smiled bitterly, picturing some far-down kingdom surprised by a sudden rain of camping equipment. It was the sort of thing that just happened every so often, no matter where on the worldwall you lived: rains of tools, fish, bodies, stranger things. One day Jeone herself would no doubt run out of luck, and her falling body would startle someone far below— p. 4-5

Later she makes her way downwards and comes upon a village. A sentry meets her and she is taken into their cave system. Here she discovers that there are no men, something that unsettles her. After two of the villagers feed and question her she is told to stay where she is while they go to a meeting. Needless to say she follows them, and sees the villagers and nine huge birds, larger than humans and stinking of carrion, watch a pregnant woman give birth to a partly formed human-bird hybrid. She is discovered and captured by the birds, who fly her to what appears to be a series of tunnels and cells in a flying rock. The rest of the story tells of her attempt to escape.
The main problem this story has is its unconvincing world setting. The wallworld is fine, but when it goes beyond this to the monstrous birds and their flying rock it starts reading like a modern and well-written version of some 1930s weird pulp story. Also, as with a lot of the stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, there is a lot that remains unexplained, and so it reads like an extract from a longer work.
The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County by Jeremy Sim should have been titled The Last Dinosaur-Riding Gunslinger of Benessa County, and then I wouldn’t have to add much more. This one has Black Jonas returning to a town twenty years after he killed a number of people. The thing that is unusual about this western is that he rides in via the canal system on a pleesaur (plesiosaur presumably). Apart from the strange background of ocean prospecting, pleiosaur riding cowboys, it is a fairly standard story. He goes looking for a man named Doone to get his money (why he waited all this time isn’t explained), and trouble from the past comes looking for him; eventually he leaves town. An vivid piece but, again, it has the feel of a middle story in a long series, or novel extract.

Source is the cover by Florent Llamas. There doesn’t seem to much going on here apart from the bird flying away from the rock and the two figures, but if you look closely there are giant circles carved into the rock and there are two flocks of birds in the distance. An atmospheric landscape piece.

The story by Margaret Killjoy is the best of these four. As for the rest, in media res1 sums it up I think.

  1. Wikipedia’s in media res page.

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