The Portal Archive: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #56
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online magazine dedicated to literary adventure fantasy (in their words, “adventure fantasy plots in vivid secondary worlds, but written with a literary flair.”) Every two weeks, they publish an issue containing two new stories; they also release selected stories in audio format on a slightly delayed schedule. The audio fiction was not reviewed, but is easily available from the magazine website. Past issues are easily accessible on the website, all the way back to Issue #1. (110 more delectable stories! My cup runneth over.) BCS also publishes an anthology featuring fourteen of the previous year’s stories. The first edition of their anthology is available now in a plethora of formats that should put any e-bookseller to shame.
BCS also hosts forums on which readers can post their responses to stories/art, check for news related to BCS, look at the state of the slushpile, communicate with BCS staff, and so on. The forums, while well-updated by BCS staff, didn’t look very active when it came to reader participation; the most active reader response thread I could locate contained 12 posts, and most stories did not have any reader discussion activity on the forums. This is understandable, as the stories themselves are posted separate from their discussion venue. If a comment box appeared at the bottom of the story page, instead of the current “Read comments on this story” link, perhaps the result would be increased reader comment participation.
Before I go any further, I feel some attention needs to be given to the gorgeous cover art featured on BCS. This issue’s cover, “Fantasy Gate,” truly feels like the portal to a magical place where adventure awaits. BCS also maintains an archive of previous covers, and every last one of them is lushly detailed and intricately drawn. It wasn’t clear if artwork is included in the BCS Anthology; I hope some, at least, are.
In this issue, the two stories are “Fleurs du Mal” by J. Kathleen Cheney, and “As Below, So Above” by Ferret Steinmetz.
The protagonist in J. Kathleen Cheney’s “Fleurs du Mal” is a botanist who checks up on his brother and finds himself drawn towards his brother’s lover. The first paragraph brings to mind a contemporary setting, with phrases like “a crowded nightclub,” but the language used in the story seems oddly anachronistic and stilted, more suited to the late 1800s, when Holmes and Watson solved crimes throughout London and beyond. A vague reference to a year–’22–is all we are allowed. Is that 1922? 1822? 1722?
The story doesn’t say, and wisely so; it’s not all that important here. What is important to the story is the old-fashioned simplicity of life before telephones and international cooperation, because it allows events to unfold the way they do in “Fleurs du Mal.” Only when the speed of communication and research is hindered, such as in the late 1800s, do these plot points make sense. That’s a pity, because our protagonist could have used the help of the Internet (for one). Barring that, communication with a trusted researcher friend would have guided this story along a very different path, and I would have liked to see that alternative route explored.
I can’t help but wonder: how would a story like “Fleurs du Mal” read in a more explicitly modern setting? BCS is explicitly not interested in urban fantasy or other similar stories set in our world, and so a modern “Fleurs du Mal” would have to walk a very fine line indeed in order to be up-to-date and still retain the same plot elements. And yet, is setting a story in Paris in the 1800s any more fantastical? Does Earth become more fantasy-like if we take away the telephones, the quick forms of transportation, the instant research? (This may be more of a nitpick aimed at BCS’s submission guidelines, rather than at “Fleurs du Mal” itself.) In any case, “Fleurs du Mal” is an interesting enough tale, but I feel it relies on a forced gimmick in order to succeed, and that detracts significantly from the story for me.
The second story is “As Above, So Below” by Ferret Steinmetz. Of the two stories, I prefer this one, because the world Steinmetz describes is immensely intriguing. In the first three paragraphs alone, Steinmetz immediately seeds the story with the most important things: that the protagonist, Son, is not human but an aquatic monster of some sort; that the other main character, Father, is not well, to the extent that Son expresses concern that Father should not hunt; and that these beings worship Dysmas, whoever or whatever that may be.
With these three points alone, Steinmetz builds a world in which humans are crops and our protagonist has to guard a tower with his father. The resulting story is a beautiful paean to the ties between father and son which hides a moral that strikes a universal chord. By all rights, from a human point of view, Son is a monster, but who can manage to dodge empathizing with Son’s agony at Father’s impending passing? And Son’s revenge: how fitting, how appropriate, and how touching it is. The universality of this story is, IMHO, what recommends it to any reader.
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