Issue 134 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens with “A Death for the Ageless” by Margaret Ronald. Swift, the narrator of this story is a sort of police detective in a world filled with many species. The world is torn by war, and the city in which the narrator lives is a refuge for many from another land known as Poma-mél. Elariel of the Ageless has died, which humans had thought was impossible up until this murder; stab wounds to the Ageless would normally close with no more effect than an annoyed expression from the one stabbed, but this time the result is a corpse. When Swift’s supervisor arrives, he immediately notifies the victim’s wife, who appears almost instantaneously and makes away with the corpse. It doesn’t appear that there will be much for Swift to investigate, but with the help of a kobold (who repeatedly is forced to insist she isn’t a goblin), he figures out an enormous mystery. It’s a well-written piece, even if it doesn’t play fair with the reader as a mystery; it works fine as a hard-boiled fantasy.
“Forsaken Beneath the Stars” by Jason S. Ridler is another fine story. Hesher is a shaman of sorts — not named as such, but clearly possessing some sort of power in an old religion based on her ownership of the bones of a baby that died of the yellow pox years before. Enrick seeks her out, looking for her knowledge. He has deserted the religion of which he was once a minister because his god has abandoned him, and seeks the truth elsewhere. It sounds like a simple and oft-told tale, but it is flavored here with magic, war and death.
Holly Messinger is the author of one of the best stories in the four issues under review here, “Moreau’s Daughter” from Issue 135. A man named Jack Nemo is seeking a victim among prostitutes in a London of long ago; most readers of horror and mysteries will immediately recognize him. But he may have met his match in Lily Quinn, an unusually strong woman with unusual scars. Where does Moreau — from H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau — come in? I’ll leave that for you to discover, saying only that the mash-up of a fabled killer with the fictional doctor’s work makes for a dark, satisfying tale, even before the Elephant Man makes an appearance.
Most of the stories in these four issues were written by women, and many have themes about their empowerment. “Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines” by Claire Humphrey is about a young woman who is a skilled boxer in a country where women are forbidden to box. Her trainer finds a unique but equally illegal way around this stricture, and Valma — who becomes Valmo — makes it all the way to the welterweight championship before she reveals herself to the woman she loves. It’s an unusual story of strength and weakness, of the stupidity of the law, and of love.
I wanted to like “Kurtana” by Christian K. Martinez, the opening story in Issue 136, but the story loses its focus at the end. I’d been enjoying the story of Sagraille-Knight, the wounded warrior, and Tsani, the graceful and powerful Kurtana whose every move is a poem. But after most of the story has focused on these two, the author suddenly makes Hurogi, another Kurtani and an elder teacher of Tsani, the actor who resolves the tale. I would have liked to know more about this mysterious warrior and the rebellious Tsani, who are sufficiently interesting characters to have carried the story to a more satisfying conclusion.
I’m puzzled by the recent trend in fantasy and horror to portray the Wild West of America’s history, complete with moonshine, saloons, prostitutes, and shoot-outs on Main Street. As such stories go, “Walking Still” by C.T. Hutt is funny, especially in the addition of steampunk elements. The Shiner Man, a seller of patent medicines that are actually nothing more than hooch, comes into the town of Gunshow, which is emphatically dry. It doesn’t disdain liquor because its residents are agreed on that point, but because the corrupt mayor and the equally corrupt sheriff want it that way. The resulting conflict between the Shiner Man and the sheriff is epic. Drunkenness has never looked like more fun.
“Stitched Wings” by Beth Cato, in Issue 137, mixes steampunk with fairies in telling the tale of Madeline, a child whose mother spends all her time in her laboratory attempting to find a way to bring her five-years-dead husband (Madeline’s father) back to life. These efforts have frequently resulted in Madeline and her mother being forced to flee in their airship when an accident in the laboratory levels the town in an apparent explosion. In their present home, however, Madeline’s mother has discovered fairies, and believes she can use their power to augment her science sufficiently to accomplish her goal. This involves caging the fairies in iron. Madeline, who has befriended one of the fairies, is called upon to help the fairies when her mother captures the fairy queen. Not everyone lives happily ever after in this fairy tale.
A.E. Decker’s “Whistler’s Grove” seems incomplete; perhaps it is an excerpt from a novel in progress? The four characters are seeking the advice of the Whistler, who answers a question powerfully thought at him, taking as his price one of the inquirers. The narrator, Miro, is intended to be the sacrifice among this foursome, but events do not go as planned, and soon only two of the characters remain. Miro, who has been poisoned and whose days seem to be numbered, understands Arrel, the group’s leader, had always had a backup plan if Miro’s intended initial sacrifice went awry. But Arrel, despite his leadership, does not have the strength of mind to prevail over Miro when it comes to a test. This story left me wanting more about the society in which it is set, Miro’s background and Miro’s future.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies remains one of the best sources for new fantasy short fiction, and particularly for works by newer writers. This is one of the few publications of which I never miss an issue.