Foxfire, Foxfire • novelette by Yoon Ha Lee ♥♥♥+
Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest • short story by Cat Rambo ♥♥
The Right Bright Courier • short story by Anaea Lay ♥
A Salvaging of Ghosts • short story by Aliette de Bodard ♥♥♥
The Mountains His Crown • short story by Sarah Pinsker ♥♥♥
Blood Grains Speak Through Memories • novelette by Jason Sanford ♥♥♥+
Research Lab • cover by Sung Choi
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is, from what I can see, an online fiction site that publishes a couple of pieces of fantasy fiction every two weeks (although these two issues seem to be SF/Science Fantasy specials). Once again, having recognised a few of the names I settled on a specific issue, #195. I would have reviewed that one on its own but I noticed that the site seems to renew their banner or cover art every two or three issues, so I ended up reading both #194 and #195 (which have an identical cover bar the author names) to avoid duplicate covers on the reviews I post here as well as on the gallery page. This also made sense in wordage terms: the fiction in both issues combined runs to about 37,000 words, closer to a ‘normal’ magazine.
As with other sites, the fiction is available free online, and the site also offers issues for download in a number of formats (epub, mobi and PDF). It is also available for purchase at Amazon and Weightless Books.1
As for the stories themselves, they get off to a good start with Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee. This is an original story as well as proper science fantasy, i.e. a genuine combination of fantasy and SF. It involves Baekdo, a magical fox who can take human form and who is hunting his hundredth victim in a war-torn city. If the fox is successful he will be able to take human form permanently. As Baekdo is stalking a soldier he hears a cataphract:
I was sauntering toward the delicious-looking soldier when I heard the cataphract’s footsteps. A Jangmi 2-7, judging from the characteristic whine of the servos. Even if I hadn’t heard it coming—and who couldn’t?—the stirring of the small gods of earth and stone would have alerted me to its approach.
They muttered distractingly. My ears would have flattened against my skull if they could have.
Superstitious people called the cataphracts ogres, because of their enormous bipedal frames. Some patriots disliked them because they had to be imported from overseas. Our nation didn’t have the ability to manufacture them, a secret that the foreigners guarded jealously.
This one was crashing through the street. People fled. No one wanted to be around if a firefight broke out, especially with the armaments a typical cataphract was equipped with. It was five times taller than a human, with a stride that would have cratered the street with every step, all that mass crashing down onto surprisingly little feet if not for the bargains the manufacturers had made with the small gods of earth and stone.
Baekdo waits for it to stop and the pilot to leave the machine. When this eventually happens the fox takes human form and creeps up on the pilot and tries to kill her. The pilot wakes up and grabs Baekdo’s human form by the throat. Before he loses consciousness Baekdo reverts to a fox. When he comes back to consciousness he is a prisoner in the cockpit of the cataphract and we learn that the pilot is fleeing to the mountains. She makes a bargain with the fox: he will gain his freedom if he calls on the small gods to mask the cataphract’s infrared signature and help her escape. Baekdo agrees but before he can contact the small gods five other cataphracts flush them out and start pursuing them.
Interweaved with this section is a flashback that recounts how the fox was taken by his mother to a tiger-sage when he was younger, and this also ties into the narrative again at the end.
This is an impressive and entertaining work, and it looks like it may be the first in a series. Here’s hoping.
Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest by Cat Rambo tell us about Cathay, a chaos Mage who stumbles into the city of Serendib. There she plants three seeds and two germinate and grow into a house. Later, she is challenged by a woman called Mariposa to three games. There isn’t much more to this in terms of story—it is perhaps more a descriptive piece, as shown when Cathay surveys the site of the first competition:
Cathay studies the silver cage, thirty feet across, that hangs over a pit of fire. Highbacked arena stands surround it. Faces press forward, shouting, booing, cheering the two lizard people wrestling in the cage, shaking it back and forth.
This is a high-tech quarter. It shows in the decor’s brushed duralite and plasteel lanterns. In the trays that the slim-hipped servers carry back and forth: long crystal rods, and flasks filled with layers of colored liquid, and hallucinogenic pyramids colored grape and tangerine and lemon.
The Right Bright Courier by Anaea Lay is like Cat Rambo’s story in that it is perhaps more a descriptive or mood piece. In this one a courier leaves a spaceship made from parts of her own body and makes her way to the Palace of Abandoned Dreams.
A moment’s hesitation—there was so much I wanted to reassure her of—and then I was through the hatch and into the clear night air of the shores outside the Palace of Abandoned Dreams. A Bright Courier never looks back, never regrets, but when I crested the bank I turned to her. Her scales were gray and shimmering under the golden light of the double moons, her sails reflecting the ether-glow we sailed upon to travel between planets. I’d sacrificed a valve of my heart, a length of my gut, and an impossible desire, all to have her grown for me. From me. It wasn’t looking back, that last glance. You can’t look back at your present self.
Ghosts or visions of two old friends try to stop her picking up the package at the centre of the Palace but she ignores them. I liked the writing and invention well enough but the rather arbitrary ending didn’t work for me.
A Salvaging of Ghosts by Aliette de Bodard is about a woman, Thuy, who dives to mindships that gave been destroyed during their journeys through unreality. On this particular dive she intends to retrieve the remains of her daughter who died on a previous expedition. However, one of the side effects of unreality is that human bodies are transformed into gemstones that can be dissolved and drunk to give a ‘high’ making them a valuable commodity.
When she dives on this mission, Thuy encounters the ghost of her daughter (whether this is an actual ghost or just in Thuy’s mind is unclear) and also discovers that one of the mindships is still alive….
Although this sounds like an unlikely mixture of elements it has a haunting quality that makes it compelling.
The Mountains His Crown by Sarah Pinsker is set in a feudal agrarian society ruled over by an Emperor who wants all the farmers to plant crops that will make a giant portrait of him when viewed from the air.
After a visit from an airship that contains the Royal Surveyors, and an order to grow sunflowers whenever possible for the yellow colour of the Emperor’s robe, the husband of one family decides to try and speak with his ruler as that instruction will cause starvation throughout the land.
There is a further plot twist (spoiler) when one of the surveyors surreptitiously slips him a handful of lava flower seeds which bloom red…. Although I enjoyed this, I wondered if there was a way of structuring the story so that this twist provides more of a payoff in the final paragraphs, rather than being somewhat squandered earlier on.
Blood Grains Speak Through Memories is a long (12,000 words) and original novelette by Jason Sanford that tells of Frere-Jones who is the ‘anchor’ for her land. This is a person who the ‘grains’—militant ecological nanotechnology which permeates the environment—use as a warden. She is currently hosting a caravan of day-fellows: these are normal humans who can only stay on the land a few days before moving on—the result of previous ecological insults to the planet is not only the grains but that humans are not allowed to settle in one place. Day-fellows who overstay their few days on any single anchor’s land, or harm the environment, are attacked and killed by transformed anchors who swarm from surrounding areas to deal with them:
The wagon stood small, barely containing the single family inside, built not of ceramic but of a reinforced lattice of ancient metal armor. Instead of bright ribbons to honor old battles, a faded maroon paint flaked and peeled from the walls. Large impact craters shown on one side of the wagon. Long scratches surrounded the back door from superhard claws assaulting the wagon’s armored shutters.
An ugly, ugly wagon. Still, it had bent under its last attack instead of breaking. The caravan’s leader had told Frere-Jones that this family’s previous caravan had been attacked a few months ago. All that caravan’s ceramic wagons shattered, but this wagon survived.
It materialises that the daughter of one of the day-fellows is infected by the grains and needs to be treated by Frere-Jones. The grains are displeased at the resultant overstay of the day-fellows but Frere-Jones ignores them.
We subsequently learn that when she was initially made an anchor Frere-Jones accepted her role and safeguarded the land from those who might harm it. However, as a result of a subsequent attack against a day-fellow caravan, and information that later came to light, the scales have fallen from her eyes and she is now openly hostile to the grains.
The treatment of the daughter (in secret, to avoid the neighbouring anchors finding out and swarming) plays out against a backstory of her marriage to another anchor who had revolutionary ideas. After his death Frere-Jones killed the grains in her son so he would not in turn have to become an anchor, and he then left to become a day-fellow.
This is original and vivid stuff but I don’t think it entirely works. To give one example, the (spoiler) failure of the girl’s treatment seems to break the rules that have been established about how the grains work; another is that Frere-Jones’s grains replay memories of her husband but we never find out to what end. So this an interesting piece, but not an entirely successful one.
There is no non-fiction to speak of in this magazine bar brief contributor notes at the end of the stories. I liked Research Lab, the cover by Sung Choi, but the cover design is a bit of an afterthought.2 The type is too big and the colours won’t necessarily complement all artwork.
Overall, I was quite impressed by these two issues. Four stories that are good or better out of six is pretty good going and if this was a single issue it would rival or surpass a good issue of Asimov’s SF or F&SF.
- Before I started reading I did wonder about the fact that if you can get a free epub, mobi or PDF from the site, why would you bother buying them from Weightless Books or Amazon (UK/USA)? After reading these two issues I think the answer is that is it worth $15.99 of my money to support the magazine by subscribing to it for a year, which I’m going to do.
- The artwork seems to be more oriented towards a website banner rather than a magazine cover, but they could make a better job of what part they use:
Sung Choi’s website is worth a look.