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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #57 and #58

I’ve only been reading Beneath Ceaseless Skies (BCS) for a very short time. The first issue I ever read was issue #56, and I was pleased enough that I agreed to review issues #57 and #58 as well.

To be absolutely honest, the imbalance in the quality between these two issues is vexing. Issue #57 contains two stories: “The Suffering Gallery” is a story of turning tables, and “A Bounty Split Three Ways” is a quest. Both stories in Issue #57 have their particular strengths, but I’m sorry to say I was far more disappointed by where and how they each fell short of the mark, and it felt as if the slushpile at BCS had run dry. Was this the best that BCS had to offer? If so, I didn’t look forward to reading on.

But then I read Issue #58, and I must highly recommend it as an example of what is created when authors exert commendable control over atmospheric tension. “Red Dirt” showed a story of outsiders not respecting the land they were on, and “Lession’s Tower” told of a demon trying to make it in the world. Both stories complement each other beautifully: “Red Dirt” was a grand, unstoppable show of force; “Lession’s Tower” is a personal saga that tells the story of a lifetime with an effective economy of words.

The first story in Issue #57, Matthew Kressel‘s “The Suffering Gallery”, is a tale of two demons and their power plays. It starts in present tense before moving straight into past tense from the second paragraph onwards. This was jarring enough that I actually scrolled all the way down to take a peek at the ending (something I never do) just to see if there was a reason for this. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t, and this immediately sets the wrong tone for me to continue. (But continue I did–I have a duty to review this.)

Kressel does decent work on a sentence level, but I personally found the pacing a little off. Much time is spent on the bickering (or is it banter?) between Atlieu and Mielbok, while the true story seems relegated to the sidelines. Not bad, if you enjoy insults and grovelling, but I’m afraid it didn’t work for me. The relationship between Atlieu and Mielbok is important, but the story’s uneven pacing has the unfortunate effect of unbalancing the story and detracting from what would otherwise have been a satisfying yarn. More attention paid to the human characters (and fleshing them out beyond caricature) would have made for a more balanced, richer story. I will also admit to being rather disgusted by the mental images, to be fair. Maggots, pus, horror, suffering, an abundance of ichor . . . you have been warned.

Peter Kovic‘s “A Bounty Split Three Ways” is more coherent, and its pacing better than that of its companion. The protagonist quests for his sweetheart’s sake and hunts a bounty, but the experience ends up changing his life. The sense of atmosphere is palpable in places, and the world-building presented is more interesting to me. As a story, though, there was just too much tell and not enough show. Just as an example, the first seven paragraphs (before they get on the boat) were completely superfluous and shouldn’t have been included. It gets better after Part Three, but the first two parts dragged interminably.

The narrator’s quest was unclear (the story lacked a sense of the narrator’s urgency until Part Three, halfway through). The plot picked up somewhat after the revelation in Part Three, but I still found it unsatisfying. The fight scenes lack fluidity: the intentional (I presume) choppiness is too abrupt, causing the action to jerk and stutter in a way that does not contribute positively to the narrative. Overall, this is a fair story that ends far stronger than it begins, but I’m sorry I could find no better praise.

After the disappointment of issue #57, I started Issue #58 not expecting much, and rejoiced when Ian McHugh‘s “Red Dirt” immediately sucked me into Australia in 1792. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed losing myself in a story, and McHugh delivers, writing so skillfully that I imagined myself stranded in the Australian outback–dry, deserted, and hot, scorchingly so. It was hard to remember that the story was set in a port rather than the center of Australia, actually, so overwhelming was the suggestion of stifling heat and shadows lurking in corners.

This is exactly as the author intended, as he weaves a tale of an Australia that will not be claimed by others. This is an Australia that asserts itself willfully and forcefully; I was very strongly reminded of my recent trip to Uluru and the sheer atmosphere one gets out of Central Australia. Reading “Red Dirt”, it is all too easy to believe Australia is not just a piece of land, a mere continent on this Earth, but rather a world, a being, even a presence of its own. McHugh’s tale is inspiring: the destination could be guessed from a mile away, and yet the journey was delightful nonetheless. “Red Dirt” is highly recommended: it was a pleasure to the end.

Fresh from “Red Dirt”, I wondered what to expect from “Lession’s Tower” by Fox McGeever. The premise is definitely interesting: a demon defeated by humans, cast away in exile meant as eternal torment, finds a way to survive and show the humans he hasn’t been beaten yet. Lession, our protagonist, goes out in search of food, despite the humans’ attempts to maroon him on his tower, but what he finds changes his life even further.

McGeever’s Lession is skillfully drawn: he has the capacity to love, to value others, to be proud, to aim for better things. He manages to exude nobility even as a demon who has seen far better times. Although Lession is a demon, I sympathized with his struggle and actually found myself touched by his dilemma. The humans, too, while not the focus of the story, serve as worthy antagonists, and there are no real villains in this story except cruel Fate.

Unfortunately, Lession’s fellow prisoner Hurkerna was entirely underdeveloped as a character, merely existing as an absolutely two-dimensional foil for Lession. A pity. Still, “Lession’s Tower” is recommended for McGeever’s portrayal of Lession.

January 5, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I hadn’t heard of this on-line magazine previously. Went and checked the website and they had some beautiful cover art. I’ve read work by Kressel, Kovic and McHugh in the past though I cannot recall off the top of my head where or what I thought of their work. I’ll need to go back and look at my anthologies. “Red Dirt” sounds particularly intriguing.

    Comment by Carl V. | January 8, 2011

    • The cover art at BCS is breathtaking. They don’t change it very frequently, as far as I can tell; I’m not sure if there’s any sort of schedule to it.

      “Red Dirt” was a truly enjoyable story, and all the more so if you’ve ever been to Central Australia. (If you haven’t, I encourage you to try for it once in your life; it’s definitely something else when you’re THERE.)

      Enjoy! In particular BCS #58; that’s a very strong issue. I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend BCS #57, but your mileage may vary.

      Comment by Ai Ling | January 9, 2011

    • Oh, and I forgot. Take a look at BCS #56, the second story. I reviewed that issue and found that story (the one with the sea monster) on a level with “Red Dirt”.

      Comment by Ai Ling | January 9, 2011

      • I will, Ai Ling, thanks!

        Comment by Carl V. | January 10, 2011

  2. Thanks for reading “ABS3W,” although I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it more! What are some of the magazines you read regularly?

    Comment by Peter Kovic | February 4, 2011


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