Carrie Vaughn opens Issue 169 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies with “Sun, Stone, Spear,” a story about as different from her KITTY NORVILLE series as it seems possible to get. Two young women, Elu and the narrator, Mahra, have decided to leave their home village; Mahra seeks adventure, while Elu wishes to be the chief astronomer of any village in which she lands — not a position she is likely to get in her home village, where there are four apprentice astronomers ahead of her. Their travel to a new village is one frought with danger, from bandits, from demons, even from gods. Though they seem reasonably well-prepared and sufficiently cognizant of the dangers about them to fight them, it is a difficult journey. And always the question hovers over them: have they done the right thing by leaving their home village? The story made me think of dozens of stories starring young men who face precisely this type of adventure, and how lovely it is to see a pair of women taking similar risks in a world where such things are possible. Mahra tells this archetypal story of a hero’s journey as it progresses with a cautious pessimism and a watchful fear, but also with courage and a sort of grim delight.
“The Sixth Day” by Sylvia Anna Hiven gives us two sisters with different special gifts in a dying world. The narrator, Jo, has the ability to make the corn grow when nothing else will, walking the fields barefoot and curling her toes in, tearing up her feet but somehow persuading the crop to push through the dirt and produce food her small group of people can survive on. Her sister, Cassie, has a much different gift: she can see six days into the future. One day Cassie sees a man and boy herding cattle through the crossroads, where they meet Jo. And she sees the boy falling for Jo, and Jo for him. The danger to Cassie, her father, and the few others in their tiny settlement is obvious; what is not as immediately obvious is that Cassie is jealous. Hiven draws a strange world that I suspect holds more stories: the world has stretched, so that there are empty plains in all directions at the crossroads, and the people seem to have disappeared — or at least, they’re so far apart that they might as well have. It’s a hard, sad story of a failing world that offers Cassie and Jo almost nothing.
I wanted to like Cat Rambo’s “Primaflora’s Journey,” the long story that opens Issue 170. It’s about a dryad who has been taken from her home to the Duke’s home in the city of Tabat and encaged in his menagerie, as if she has no more brain — and no more right to freedom — than an animal. The story shows us Primaflora in her home grove, her capture, her confinement on what amounts to a slave ship, her imprisonment in the menagerie, and what follows. She is a determined young woman who is fighting her impulse to root in order to get to freedom. She makes terrible discoveries before she meets a diverse group fighting the sorts of battles she wants to fight. She seems to have found the right place for her. But suddenly, the leisurely pace of the story goes into overdrive, and the ending of the story comes as a shock, told too quickly for the rest of the tale and with an incomplete description of what has happened. The biographical note at the end of the story says that Rambo will soon publish her first novel, Beasts of Tabat, in which more of the events of “Primaflora’s Journey” will be explained; it will be the first part of a quartet of novels set in this world. I’ve purchased the novel, because Rambo is a very talented writer; but this short story, while piquing my interest for the series, does not stand well on its own.
I enjoyed “Wild Things Got to Go Free” by Heather Clitheroe, despite the darkness of the tale. Leah is a nine-year-old who knows only that her mother is leaving without telling her why, and without telling her what is special about her. Her father and her older sister, Aisha, try to protect her without disclosing any information to her, judging her too young to understand, but that means that all Leah knows is that the soldiers are looking for her mother, and will kill her if they find her. They keep telling her to be quiet when she asks questions, and when she is rushing from one place she doesn’t want to be to another place she doesn’t want to be, anywhere necessary to hide from the soldiers that are hunting not just for her mother, but for her. It’s a great picture of what it’s like to be so young that no one thinks you can understand anything — but the real reason you don’t understand is because no one will tell you. I especially loved the end of the story, when all becomes clear and Leah shows an understanding that surpasses her years.
I enjoyed both issues, and am glad to be alerted to Cat Rambo’s novel. All of the stories were entertaining, even if none was outstanding. I’m looking forward to the next issue, which I hope will offer more in the way of fantastic adventure told beautifully, as I’ve come to expect from this publication.