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.