BCSIssue 142 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a special double issue for BCS Science-Fantasy Month 2, which, according to the magazine’s website, features “stories that combine the awe-inspiring fantastical settings of BCS fiction with futuristic details like spacecraft, laser rifles, and advanced scientific concepts.” It makes for the best issue of the magazine so far in 2014.

“The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard takes place at the end, or at least near the end, of a war, on Voc, the planet on which the story is set. The characters in the story do not appear to be human. Rechan, the viewpoint character, is pregnant, and she and her family are engaged in their usual spring migration to the mountains. But their flyer breaks down and strands them halfway up the mountain, and finding repairs or a replacement is difficult. Rechan must meet up with her breath-sibling in the mountains in order to safely deliver her baby, for on Voc it takes a stoneman’s breath to quicken a baby at birth. And time is short for the meeting; Rechan is very near to giving birth. But there is something unusual about Rechan’s breath-sibling, though we do not learn what it is — and Rechan tells no one in her family — for much of the story. Ultimately, though, Rechan reveals the unusual nature of her breath-sibling and its role in the war, even now. It is a very alien story, setting up a world and a biology that are so different from ours that the wonder of the story comes from discovering the nature of both, rather than from the plot itself — though they are beautifully interwoven. De Bodard’s writing reminds me of C.J. Cherryh’s early work, in that it is so different, so fully imagined, that it feels almost like one is reading a translation describing a lost culture. The story rewards close attention.

Rachel Sobel’s “The River Does Not Run” is also a war story of sorts, with the viewpoint character, Doormaker, clad in armor wrought of primordial isotopes and imbued with mathematics. She is seeking a demon that destroyed the city of Nimarat, her people’s homeland. The destruction spread from the city like a contagion, until a coalition of wizards bound it “beneath steel and cement and algorithmic certainty.” But they could not reclaim the city itself, and war followed. Doormaker, a wizard, played a large role in that war, and now seeks to destroy the demon once and for all. It is a perilous quest that she pursues alone. It is fun to watch how Sobel weaves magic with science; a demon of radiation is a hazardous being indeed. I wish Sobel would have shown precisely how the magic and the science work against one another, rather than have the battle reduced merely to, “She strikes.”  After all, what’s the point of mixing science and fantasy if you’re not going to demonstrate how that works?

“Stonebones” by Nathaniel Lee is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Although the story never precisely says what the apocalypse was, the presence of huge expanses of pure glass suggest that it was a nuclear war — but the story must take place very long after the war, because there seems to be no radiation danger. The population is tiny; a gathering of the homes of three to four thousand people is considered a city of great proportions. The sun is a terrible danger, and water is scarce; nuclear winter, if it came, has long since gone. In this world, the appealing protagonist, Jenivar, is a teenage girl who wants to be a knight. She has therefore set off on a quest to kill a dragon, stealing some valuable commodities from her community in the process — but no more than she calculates to be her fair share. She faces a number of challenges that she overcomes with good sense and sharp intelligence. The story is not all that original except in its setting, but it is thoroughly enjoyable.

This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies contains the first part of “The Goddess Deception” by Dean Wells; Issue 143 contains the second, and final, part. It’s a war story in which the first person narrator is Romulus Caul, a soldier who is roughly half man and half machine. Caul is recalled halfway through his leave — “a month of badly needed debauchery,” he calls it — along with Special Agent Plio Plio Ah, who is not human but manages to form himself into a pretty good facsimile thereof, except for the crimson skin. The reason they’ve been recalled is that Kavita Patel, one of the Royal Company of Makers, Aetheric Telegraphy First-Grade, specializing in crystal resonance communications, has disappeared from what should have been a routine repair of a series of ansible propagators on the planet Gamhanrhide. Patel is engaged to an important politician’s daughter, and her recovery is therefore a top priority. It turns out Gamhanrhide is on the verge of rebellion. It’s a steampunk tale full of guns and bombs, and quite entertaining in the first half, as we’re introduced to crazy equipment and crazier characters through good description and crisp dialogue. The second half, though, devolves into one big firefight with strange weapons, which isn’t particularly entertaining and leaves behind some of the interesting characters and situations developed in the first half.

“Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis: A Computation” by Seth Dickinson is a tale of one particular iteration of an eternal battle between Sekhmet and Set, a goddess and god of war who have no purpose but to destroy one another. Humans have a role in this tale only as soldiers for one god or the other, complete with their tools, which range from primitive shields for one phalanx dating from millennia ago to machines that are themselves soldiers from a far future. The author may have been attempting to write a fable, a story of war that stands for all wars in all times, but instead was seduced by the poetry of writing about gods, and lost his point. In reducing war to a set of algorithms that govern battle between ageless gods, the author misplaced the horrors of war; even the meaninglessness of war is disguised by its apparent epic nature.

“The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee is my favorite story from these two issues. It is about a human child being raised by a bonedrake the child calls “mother” despite the fact that it is “both or neither” female or male. The bonedrake is a monstrous creature that acts as “the keeper of the fortress at the center of the universe.” She and the narrator, whom we know only as “eggling,” her mother’s pet name for her, have an unusual relationship that resembles that between human parent and human child; the origin of the relationship, which clearly is not one of birth, is never discussed. The most maternal thing the bonedrake does is bake cupcakes for her daughter, with plenty of frosting and decoration. The bonedrake educates the child excellently, both through normal teaching methods and by example, for the bonedrake is a sort of diplomat, dealing with many different individuals and species that wish to make donations to the fortress. It’s a complex and beautifully written tale about parenthood, politics, museums, and the ways in which wholly different individuals are able to relate to one another if they try. I admired the author’s facility with language and structure; each sentence is crafted to fit precisely where it belongs, in precisely the right words, with nothing extraneous and nothing missing. It makes me eager to read Lee’s recently released collection, Conservation of Shadows.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.