Beneath Ceaseless Skies #214-217, December 2016-January 2017

ISFDB links: #214, #215, #216, #217

Editor-in-Chief, Scott H. Andrews

Other Reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Jody Dorsett (x2), Nicky Magus, Michelle Ristuccia, Tangent Online (#214, #215, #216, #217)
Charles Payseur, Quick Sip Reviews (#214, #215, #216, #217)
Various, Goodreads (#214, #215, #216, #217)

The Orangery • novelette by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam ∗∗
The Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat • short story by Priya Sridhar ∗∗
Where She Went • short story by Linden A. Lewis
The True and Otherworldly Origins of the Name ‘Calamity Jane’ • short story by Jordan Kurella
Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves • short story by Claire Humphrey ∗∗
Think of Winter • short story by Eleanna Castroianni ∗∗+
Proteus Lost • short story by Tony Pi ∗∗∗+
Requiem for the Unchained • short story by Cae Hawksmoor ∗∗

The Sacred Flames • cover by Jinxu Du

As with my earlier review of this title I’ve combined four issues that have the same cover art to (a) avoid confusion in my Gallery page and (b) to give a ‘standard’ magazine’s worth of review material (Beneath Ceaseless Skies posts two stories online every fortnight: these eight come to around 47,000 words in total).

The Orangery by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is about the guardian of the eponymous garden, a place where woman who drink a potion change into trees. At the start of the story Apollo breaches the Orangery’s wall looking for his wife Daphne; she has run away from him and transformed. This part of the story tells of the Guardian’s attempts to keep her from him; the other is a flashback that tells of Daphne’s marriage to Apollo.
I enjoyed this but it took me a while to get into it. I also think it doesn’t entirely work as a normal story—it rather has the feel of an unresolved myth.
A minor point, but there are one or two awkward sounding sentences:

Little room in the Orangery meant the guardian’s library was limited. The books on my shelves I had chosen as a young woman: stories of adventure and romance, stories that left me with a pitted longing. p. 2

‘There was little space in the Orangery, so the guardian’s library was limited.’ ‘The books on my shelves were ones I had chosen as a young woman . . .’
The Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat by Priya Sridhar is set in a fantastic version of Imperial India. The story is narrated by Ram, a girl who dresses as a boy so she can work, and her story takes her from a farm job to one at a hotel/hunting lodge. This establishment is next to a reserve that contains a number of incredible creatures, such as gigantic butterflies and worms. Ram cleans and labours at the hotel, and is also wheeled out in front of the guests to demonstrate her precocious language abilities by reciting various Shakespearian plays, etc.
At one point a married woman sexually molests her until she discovers that Ram is not a boy. The woman and her husband later depart on an ill-fated hunting trip accompanied by the hotel staff.
This has a fairly straightforward storyline but the local colour is its strength:

Mister Coates, in contrast, was large and rectangular. He reminded me of a brick stove, because his face would often turn red from frustration. His hair was white, and he often snuffled. He often talked about game, and he was fascinated by the game that Papillon’s Jungle offered.
“A knack it is, to catch a Viceroy,” he would repeat. “You want to keep the wings intact, but these large specimens will smother you to death if they get half the chance. They have no patience for silly little nets and chloroform. You have to use a large honey lure, ideally a pit of sticky substance, and wait for them to be trapped. Like seeing buffalos getting trapped in golden tar…”
I was sweeping the dining room that evening, combing the corners with a short brush. My outfit was brown and orange, so that it didn’t appear dirty. Madam Coates followed me with her eyes.
“Oh come now, dear,” she said. “It’s not that much of a knack with the new guns and all. It’s just “bang-bang” these days and the wings can easily be restored.”
I made a strong effort to not shake my head. To go after a large butterfly fresh in its prime was suicide; every local knew that, especially with the legends of extraordinary hunting failures. Their wings were strong, up until they started to lay eggs on large tree leaves and life started to depart the great colorful bodies. Often we would find the dead butterflies at the bottoms of deep gorges, often in piles. p. 46-47

Where She Went by Linden A. Lewis follows a man who is looking for his missing granddaughter. He goes to see a neighbour who lives near the obelisk forest. After he threatens to shoot the neighbour he learns that his granddaughter has been taken by the witch who lives in the centre of the forest.
During the man’s journey to the witch’s house he encounters a group (shoal?) of sirens who appear out of the river. He shoots one and is subsequently pursued by the other four. Later, he fights off three lamiae, shooting two this time, before tumbling into the river and fighting with the last one before finally escaping.
He eventually ends up at the witch’s house and discovers (spoiler) that his granddaughter has been willingly sent off-world by the ‘witch’ so that the granddaughter can return and replace her, and continue with the work of supporting the town and making the planet more habitable.
This SFnal ending to an apparent fantasy quest (although there is a single mention of energy weapons earlier) just does not work. And, apart from that, it raises more questions than it answers. Why does the witch need to hide in the first place? What were the creatures the man unnecessarily killed? Why don’t writers realise that gunplay is a particularly poor way of injecting some drama into your story?
The True and Otherworldly Origins of the Name ‘Calamity Jane’ by Jordan Kurella starts with a fairy-hunter called Jane standing in a street in in a deserted town. She senses that there is a fairy in one of the shops so she goes inside. There she finds two of them who, as part of a proposition to her, produce the body of Earl, an ex-hunting partner. They offer to release his soul and the people of the town if she will come to Fairie with them. She fights her way out.
Aside from the fact this is another story with gunplay (sigh), this reads like an extract from a longer work: no beginning, no ending.
Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves by Claire Humphrey tells of a young man called William who lives with his uncle and works in a bank. When he is not working he undertakes various tasks for the uncle, one of which is feeding the doves and occasionally clipping their tongues. These tongue tips are dried and kept in sealed wooden boxes. This strange practice is never explained and, if it is a metaphor for something else, I don’t know what.
As the story develops William starts a relationship with Lily, a young woman who works in the baker’s shop. Their feelings for each other deepen and they eventually become lovers. He tells his uncle that he is going to marry her but, shortly afterwards, William appears to lose all memory of their love and he ignores her when she later tells him she is pregnant.
At the end of the story the uncle has arranged to marry Lily, and William leaves for the front (there are multiple mentions of soldiers travelling to war throughout the story).
This is, at times, a well written and intriguing story—but is ultimately baffling.
Think of Winter by Eleanna Castroianni is a début story from someone who can write:

Day in, day out, sun up, sun down. Light peeks through the holes on the roof, stretches in long, narrow rays between stained glass. Ivy and clover grow quietly, tangled between the rotting planks of the lectern. When it rains, a puddle as big as a pond forms on the floor. Folu hops over it and gets deeper into the cathedral, where it’s warmer, cosier. A rug to sleep, a cooking pot, a gourd.
Folu walks to the river every day to bring fresh water. Then, after foraging all morning, Folu returns to the cathedral with nettles and dandelion in spring, raspberries and white mushrooms in autumn. Summer is long and food is plenty. But winter looks grim because Folu can’t catch game. The days are still warm with wheat and bran, but the chill is creeping in from the broken windows. Leaves turn orange; now they’re falling fast. Soon it will be winter. Finding mushrooms takes time. Can’t think of winter now. Think of today’s food. p. 19

Folu is a child who is hiding in a ruined cathedral after the Grey Men have killed her mother. She reads her tarot-like cards when she isn’t foraging. They tell her about the Knight.
He arrives during the winter and rescues her from starvation. He hunts game and feeds her, and collects wood for the fire. He asks her to read his cards and, when she does, she sees something that frightens her. Inevitably (spoiler), the Grey Men come for the Knight. Before they enter the building he tries to convince her to escape with him but she refuses. Having wasted vital time he hides her before surrendering.
The end of the story has her drawing three cards, but this scene, like some other parts, leave it a unsatisfyingly enigmatic piece. (Why didn’t she act on the warning the cards gave about the Grey Men? Is the Knight killed when the Grey Men find him in the cathedral? What does the heart card signify? Does she love him?)
I hope we don’t have to wait too long for this writer’s next story.
Proteus Lost by Tony Pi is my favourite story from the four issues. It is a story that features Filippo, or Flea, a spy for Elizabeth I and a shapeshifter. He and Luca, his assistant, are visiting an old colleague called D’Aphide to recover a book that Filippo needs to trade with a member of the Spanish court so he can replace his compromised European spy-ring.
When they arrive at the monastery where D’Aphide is hiding they find his assistant, who gives them the alarming news that he has changed into a form that is half-man, half-wolf. The pair find D’Aphide in his cloister and realise that he has experimented with transformations from the book they seek, the Proteus Codex, and has chosen the wrong sequence. This has blinded as well as changed him, and rendered him unable to undo his mistake.
The rest of the story is a clever account of how Filippo, with the help of Luca, manages to unravel and then reverse the series of transformations that have incapacitated D’Aphide.
This is an engrossing period piece even though it reads like an extract from a longer novel in progress (that said, it is more skilfully self-contained than most series stories).1

Requiem for the Unchained by Cae Hawksmoor is another atmospheric tale, this time about the captain of an airship called the Requiem, who takes a job from Émile, a rich man who caused the death of her wife. The job requires the captain to escort a larger vessel called Wayward Star, even though the latter has the soul lanterns required to protect her from geiststorms and the unchained (ghosts/spirits):

The Wayward Star is already at mast in the vast green of the airfield by the time I get Requiem’s nose to the wind and start to bring him down. And a grand old lady she is at that. Émile’s pride and joy, and the flagship of his not-insubstantial fleet of luxury cloud liners. Even from a thousand feet in the air she looks like a leviathan—pink and purple sunset melting on her silver flanks, bright as a freshly minted coin.
Rumor has it that Émile’s people are already at work building her replacement. One of those modern monstrosities—all chrome and ego and white paint. The ones the papers like to print big gaudy headlines about. They will never match the Star’s patient and elegant beauty, no matter how well-worn her claret velvet or how tarnished her filigree. She might be almost as old as Requiem, but next to her he is a squat leather bag with a splintering wooden gondola slung underneath and an ugly lantern strapped to his prow—reminding everyone how the unchained are coming for us. How death is coming for us, should we ever drop our guard. p. 35

During a storm (spoiler) all six of the Wayward Star’s lanterns fail, and so does the one belonging to the Requiem. The Wayward Star is destroyed— Émile intends collecting the insurance money to solve his financial problems—but the Requiem survives thanks to the intervention of one of the unchained.
This is a good story as far as it goes but it is too much like an extract from a longer work.

The cover is The Sacred Flames by Jinxu Du. I like the red flags against the winter background.

There are a couple of good stories in these four issues, and another few of interest. Atmosphere and writing style are the predominant strengths of this group; the weaknesses of some are a failure to impose a story structure or other narrative or emotional arcs on their material.

  1. According to Tony Pi’s website, this is the fourth ‘Flea’ story. The others are Metamorphoses in Amber (Abyss & Apex, 4th Quarter, 2007), The Paragon Lure (Alembical 2, ed. Arthur Dorrance & Lawrence M. Schoen, 2010), and We Who Steal Faces (Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, #22, April 2011, ed. by Edmund R. Schubert).

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