K.J. Kabza opens Issue 168 with “Steady on Her Feet,” in which two men who purport to be physicians advertise that they are able to provide a surgical augmentation of one’s character. Holliday, a poor child, is induced to enter their shop by a shop boy who promises a free consultation, though Dr. Mortleaus isn’t too keen on helping a mudlarker — one of those who makes a living pulling valuable materials the river leaves behind when the tide goes out. But his partner, Dr. Svartlebarrt, persuades him to examine Holliday, and what they find surprises them: she is of excellent character, despite her humble circumstances. They induce her to become a shop employee, but it is evident immediately that they have ulterior motives. The story is a trifle inconsistent in that Mortleaus and Svartlebarrt have the aura of snake oil salesmen, and Kabza clearly means them to be do what they purport to be able to do. Still, it’s merely a mix-up about what sort of evil they’re up to, and the story plays out to a satisfying conclusion. If Dickens had written science fiction, this is likely the sort of tale he would have come up with.
“A Screech of Gulls” by Alyc Helms features Tutti, who loves his birds, his liquor and Gemma, who sells junk next to the barrel where he sells gulls. On this day, Gemma is plotting with Nico when Tutti comes by to give her one of his birds, and Nico is angrily afraid that they are being spied upon — so angry that he actually spills the details of the plot he had just a moment ago suspected of being overheard. Tutti falls in with the plan to protect Gemma, vowing to help Nico open a lamp. But some things are too far in the past to be resurrected, too broken to be fixed. But Tutti soldiers on. It’s a sad story full of atmosphere, but it feels like a vignette worthy of greater elaboration much more of a tale — perhaps as a novel set in this world. I’d love to read more, and I hope Helms will be providing it.
Bruce McAllister has a wonderful story, “Madonna,” in Issue 167. He apparently has published three stories about Emilio and the Drinkers of Blood, but this is the first story I’ve seen. Certainly the reader feels plunked down in the middle of a universe she doesn’t know, and lost at first; but ultimately this delightful story stands on its own. (I’ll be looking for the earlier stories, both published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: “Blue Fire” (March/April 2010) and “The Canticle of the Beasts” (May/June 2013).) Here, Emilio and the Child Pope, Bonifacio, are in Siena at the time of the Palio, a horse race in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano, during an Italian Renaissance. They meet Caterina, disguised as a boy in order to ride in the race for her neighborhood. There is much more to this story than this chance meeting, including a miracle or two, and it is most enjoyable. Emilio narrates — he’s the Emissary for the Pope — and his voice is wonderfully matter-of-fact, even as he describes impossible events. McAllister has said he has a novel in the works about these characters. I’d love to read it.
C. Allegra Hawksmoor opens her story, “Y Brenin,” with a sight that combines beauty with horror: an eagle flying over a valley in the light of late summer — over a battlefield that is a crush of the dead and the dying, “[t]he red and cloying earth churned with rain and blood.” Hawksmoor has a gift for language that she demonstrates throughout this tale of the Red Knight’s capture of the Red King, and the knight’s failure to fulfill his order to kill the king. Instead, the knight takes the king prisoner, and marches him through an ancient forest to his counterpart in another territory, the brother of the Red King. It seems the Red Knight has a conscience, and is worried about the effect of this war on the people. A conscience is a troublesome thing for a soldier, and knowledge, such as the knowledge imparted to him by the Red King while they are on their journey, is even more dangerous. This isn’t your typical battle sage: it’s a lesson in the politics of war. Hawksmoor’s style is lyrical, which sounds like an odd word to use for the tale of a forced march through a dangerous wilderness when the country is enveloped in war and famine, but is justified because of the vivid imagery.
These four stories give us an idea of the range of Beneath Ceaseless Skies: war, religion, poverty; miracles, politics, love, youth and old age. They’re all good stories, and well worth the investment of your time. I continue to believe that Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of the most enjoyable magazines being published today.