It’s not surprising that K. J. Parker often appears in these Special Double Issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies: his wry wit and adept deployment of dramatic irony have the “literary” part of “Literary Adventure Fantasy” locked up. Nor should it surprise that he continues to find novel ways of expressing the themes that weave throughout his fiction. “Many Mansions”, like many a Parker story, is a first-person narrative. The narrator, Father Bohenna, is a scholar (NOT a magician, he insists) from an institution called the Studium, dispatched to a remote region to investigate accounts of a witch bedeviling residents at an alarming pace. There are two early indications in the story that Bohenna isn’t the most reliable voice: his casual misogyny and inflated self-regard (“I reserve my conversation for the select few who can understand and appreciate it. I most certainly don’t chat up women in taprooms”). That his adversary in the story turns out to be a woman—referred to as a witch because society doesn’t afford women the benefit of a scholarly education—suggests that he will suffer some comeuppance for his hubris. In Parker’s best stories, though, meeting the reader’s expectations is often a red herring, and this story is exceptional. Parker lays a lot of pipe in its first act and keeps piling on new layers throughout, so that its matryoshka doll of an ending leaves one to ponder if Bohenna’s punishment is equal to his sin.
Richard Parks is also no stranger to BCS anniversary specials, also being an author of considerable skill and stature. His new story “A Minor Exorcism” is part of his Yamada no Goji series, and follows demon hunter Lord Yamada, who for lack of anything better to do with his time, joins his associate Kenji on a matter of slight concern. They soon learn the concern is anything but small, and as the danger compounds, so diminishes their chances of their survival. “A Minor Exorcism” distinguishes itself with colorful characters, generous humor, rising tension, and an exciting climax.
There’s an old adage for fiction writers, that it is better for your protagonist to get what they need, rather than what they want. This has been the gold standard approach to character growth for much of our history as a storytelling civilization, though current trends in popular entertainment lean toward wish fulfillment fantasies that conflate ‘need’ with ‘want’. In her stunning weird western romance “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Merrie Haskell uses the second person to tether the reader to her hero, Tabitha, and in doing so we feel her wants as deeply as she does. Tabitha wishes to court her intended, Roland, the traditional way—by hunting and butchering a ‘corn (an abbreviation for unicorn). This ritual means to establish a young woman’s purity and comes with a significant elevation in social status. It impressed me the way Haskell constructed a society and culture that at first glance notably skews from our own (and not just because it’s normal for unicorns to walk through extra-dimensional doors and hang out with virgins who want to kill them), while a deeper look reveals a little less skew. Women may court the men in this scenario, but the pressure to perform their gender roles—and the stigma of failing to do so—is just as oppressive. Heterosexual norms are still paramount, while the polite acceptance of queerness is grudging. The choice Tabitha faces at the end is to decide whether her goals align with her community’s goals, and this is where Haskell’s use of the second person enhances the story’s emotional intelligence: we can’t help but recognize her anguish, and her accedence, as our own.
The issue closes with “A Tally of What Remains”, by R.Z. Held. It is the story of Helena, a blood mage who watched her entire family die from a disease that continues to ravage the land. She now uses her farmhouse to care for the sick and dying, but an antagonistic survivor forces her to confront the way she has dealt with her grief. It’s a smart and compassionate story, on a subject that resonates in light of current events.
This is a fine issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies from start to finish, with the Parker and Haskell stories of particular distinction.
The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.
The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.
Anders new novelette is set on the planet January, following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.
“Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story
The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.
The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.
Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)
“The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story
This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.
Featured Image from the cover art for “Strange Waters”, by Julia Griffin.
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could work in more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update the links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
I could probably conjure a thousand words to describe this fantastical re-imagining of the Crimean War, but you only need three: Zombie. Attack. Monkeys. The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut. The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood. The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers. The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh. They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.
Ada and her amazing talking chicken Blanche must run from the unstoppable horde of deadly wastoures ravishing the land. This may or may not end well.
The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more. The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed.
“We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018; 25,051 words]
The rot hounds have breached the border, and Reyna knows that means her sister’s prophecy will come true. Convincing their leader Talgrun that they must find a new land for their people proves difficult, if not impossible.
“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?” The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.” She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal. “This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling. “Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,’” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me. Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress. “Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift. Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.
The sequel to McGuire’s Hugo-and-Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway. This time Rini, a young girl from a nonsense world, crashes Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, looking for her mother Sumi. There’s just one problem with her request: Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and never had any children. Rini is not deterred.
“—and that’s why she can’t be dead,” concluded Rini. Her story had been long and rambling and at times nonsensical, full of political coups and popcorn-ball fights, which were like snowball fights, only stickier. She looked around at the rest of them, expression somewhere between triumphant and hopeful. She had made her case, laid it out in front of them one piece at a time, and she was ready for her reward. “So please, can we go and tell her to stop? I need to exist. It’s important.” “I’m so sorry, dear, but death doesn’t work that way in this world,” said Eleanor. Each word seemed to pain her, driving her shoulders deeper and deeper into their slump. “This is a logical world. Actions have consequences here. Dead is dead, and buried is buried.” Rini frowned. “That’s silly and it’s stupid and I’m not from a logical world, and neither is my mother, so that shouldn’t matter for us. I need her back. I need to be born. It’s important. I’m important.” “Everyone is important,” said Eleanor. Rini looked around at the rest of them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, make the silly old woman stop being awful, and give me back my mother.”
“Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills [Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018; 6183 words]
Mika is lost at sea and desperate to be reunited with her children. Finding her homeland isn’t the problem; finding the right year is.
Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands. Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home. It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.
A sideways reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, in which all the fairies get hammered and the blessings go a little off script.
“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down. She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.
Lawyer, moral philosopher, and fraudulent alchemist Constantius takes up the case of a young artist named Sinneva accused of murdering her clients with the bewitched portraits she paints. Suing for her acquittal proves a little too easy for the arrogant Constantius.
“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices. “Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.” God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop. I left, quickly.
Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of Morieth, a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s garden with only fleeting impressions of her life before. Soon, political circumstances threaten to cause a rift between Rikara’s personal feelings and her loyalty to the Empire.
Morieth stopped, saw the Queen, and fell into the bow we’d practiced. Eriha approached with measured steps, gems dangling from her gathered hair. Her face was perfectly painted, carefully blank. Her eyes locked on Morieth. I could’ve been one of the asters. “I hope you are enjoying your stay,” Eriha said. “The Emperor was most…welcoming, was he not?” She raised a hand, and I bit back a warning. I remembered how she’d killed that tiger. Even now, many years later, a single blow from her would break bones or worse. But Eriha only slipped index and middle fingers around a lock of Morieth’s hair. I shook my head. What was I thinking? This was the Queen, she wouldn’t do something like that, and even if she did.… Eriha rolled the fine gold strands between her fingers. “Such an oddity you are, appearing out of nowhere and capturing the Emperor’s heart. What boneskin magic did you use, butterfly girl? What is your goal?” Morieth spoke. Her Kejalin was accented but unhesitating. “No goal. Just…survive.” I didn’t know what to make of her answer. Nor did Eriha, it seemed, for she dropped her hand, held Morieth’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Eriha stalked off, trailed by silent attendants, and I struggled to find the right words to say to Morieth.
Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree’s protection is worth the cost.
Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist. The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.” The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives. She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother. Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.
Don’t miss Parts 1 and 2 for the rest of my 2018 favorites.
You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!