Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online magazine featuring literary fantasy. They publish stories that offer engaging adventure fantasy in “vivid secondary worlds, written with a literary flair.” This pro-rate magazine typically releases two stories per issue and two issues a month. The format provides a continuous variety of fiction for eager fans without overwhelming the casual subscriber.
Issue #55 (Nov 4, 2010) hosts two very different pieces: “Bread and Circuses” by Genevieve Valentine and “The Popinjay’s Daughter” by Anne Cross.
“Bread and Circuses” is an odd and quirky piece that the reader will either enjoy or not. (I fell into the latter category.) The story, as far as I could tell, involves an ex-circus trapeze artist named Valeria who settles into the role of the town’s baker of bread. Ever the outsider, she is befriended by the narrator (Tom) who ends up the poorer for the effort, fleeing (or rather flying) into the night on the night of his trial. At least I think that’s what happened.
The story is hard to follow and Valentine’s chronic and perplexing use of parenthetical narrative interference was distracting. (It was distracting to the point that I began skimming when a beginning parenthesis hooked my peripheral vision.) The story evidently takes place within the Circus Tresaulti universe from her forthcoming novel, Mechanique, which, according to her blog (www.genevievevalentine.com), features “city-states, loyalty, baking, inappropriate staring, and an appearance by the Circus” – and though that explains a lo, it also explains nothing as I’m unfamiliar with the setting and characters and the story’s (it seems to me, lack of) plot.
That being said, this author has voice. This is what will draw you in or turn you off. For me, it all but muted Valentine’s literary and fantastical sketch of caged freedom, desperate chance, and profoundly happenstantial relationships. This fiction didn’t do it for me, but if you enjoy speculative writing (and abstract art, for that matter) that borders on the obtuse, then “Bread and Circuses” provides a bit of (as implied by the title) both sustenance and escapism for the receptive palate.
“The Popinjay’s Daughter” by Anne Cross stumbles out of the chute with a paragraph of infodump but quickly recovers to immerse the reader in a magically intriguing mystery house owned by a secretive society. The setting is late Victorian England and the first person narrator, a once-illiterate street urchin known as “Ghost,” introduces us to the House of the Mad Russian, a place of many doors but with no apparent escape. As a prisoner of the Popinjay Society, Ghost befriends the unfortunately pregnant fiancée of a member of the society who has been sequestered there against her will. The members of the society use the house as a temporary (or permanent, as the case may be) lock up, a warning to all who might cross them unduly. The only chance at freedom is to decipher the glyphs on the many doors for “you cannot leave the House except through the door you entered in by.”
This all makes for a fascinating premise. Unfortunately, this assumption about the House’s portals leaves the door open, if you will, to a number of plot holes or at least unsatisfying narrative gaps. Now the setting is compelling, and while the story unfolds at a competent pace and the characters are vivid and interesting, the circumstances of Ghost’s incarceration still had me wondering about the motive behind his actions. He defends the pregnant woman, confronts their gaoler, and narrates the encounter’s climax in a dramatic and unexpected fashion. I just never understood why; his conflict with the popinjay could have stood a bit more dramatic build in my opinion. That being said, the author pens a good tale. Cross is an imaginative writer and did a fairly good job balancing the perennial show/tell conundrum. I just wish I’d been told a bit less about certain things and more about others. But then, that’s a perennial desire on every reader’s part.