fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, No. 173, dated May 14, 2015, opens with “Out of the Rose Hills” by Marissa Lingen. It starts promisingly, with a merchant’s daughter and her companion coming through the title hills on an unexplained but apparently urgent mission. The first person she sees when she comes out of the hills and into the city asks her if she is the princess, as prophesied for generations. She denies it, but a voice comes from behind her (where there should have been nothing but rose-covered hills). A shadow woman has followed her, who contradicts everything she says. It’s an interesting set-up, but the story doesn’t move forward much from that point, and seems to be just getting under way when it abruptly ends.

I’m not usually one for humorous science fiction, but I found “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” by Bill Powell amusing. It’s a mash-up of Gilbert & Sullivan with time travel and steampunk with romance and a visit by aliens thrown in to boot. The rhyming of the lyrics is pure silliness. On top of it all, the characters all seem to be aware that they are characters at some level, adding a metafictional spice to this already overloaded stew of genres.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIssue 172, dated April 30, 2015, is a Special Weird Western Issue. The first story, “Splitskin” by E. Catherine Tobler, attempts mysticism, but is instead incomprehensible from the first sentence: “Gugán was always my khaa yahaayí, my soul bound into the flesh of another while yet part of my own.” Gugán has Raven heritage, the first person narrator tells us, while she is an Eagle; as far as I can tell, they share a body. Their mothers were thunderbirds. The two deal with miners during the California Gold Rush, which shattered their way of life, until a man comes looking for a guide — not to find gold, but to find thunderbirds. So begins a quest by train, told in lyrical language that conceals as much as it reveals. In attempting to tell a story in the form of a native folktale, Tobler is too opaque to allow her readers to figure out what’s going on.

“Swallowing Silver” by Eric Cashier begins with John Halpern awakening to the knowledge that he must “kill a thing that used to be a man”: a wendigo has come to Golden Falls. The killing is difficult to do when you’re only a man yourself, so Halpern calls on his brother-in-law for help. Eldred himself is something more than a man:

[Eldred] lumbered, wide-shouldered, wide-hipped, but it would have been a fool who called him fat. There was a chance he’d wrestled that bull he was slaughtering to the ground himself. Depending on the moon, Halpern wouldn’t put it past him. Devil-men’s strength knew no bounds.

It takes a devil to kill a devil; in this version of the Wild West, there are some devils you can live with, and some you can’t. It’s a well-written, sad story that is more about the loneliness of living in a time and place where family is exceptionally important.

Shannon Peavey turns to two themes common to westerns: the sideshow and the purveyor of ersatz medical remedies. “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” opens with Leo coming face to face with his brother’s head in a jar of grain alcohol. That would be bad enough all by itself, but the head — Cary — talks to Leo. And Leo’s girlfriend, Sabina, the Mexican woman who tells fortunes, somehow makes it so the words coming out of Leo’s voice are in Spanish, even though he doesn’t speak the language. Leo wonders whether any of the words that come out of his mouth are truly his own anymore, because he always seems to say what his companion of the moment wants to hear. To become his own man, Leo must turn to action and leave the speech to others. It’s an odd story that seems to ultimately be about being true to one’s self.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn Issue No. 171, dated April 16, 2015, Spencer Ellsworth writes about an assassin, a mother and a child fleeing through a desert in “The Fires of Mercy.” The desert is unending and remorseless, and the three are in danger not just from bandits, and not just from those who are chasing them, but also from a lack of water. The story is one of mystery — not just the mysteries of the assassin’s order, and of her abilities, but also about why the assassin chose to save the mother and her child. These are mysteries even to the assassin herself. But the assassin, having made her choice, will do anything to keep the mother and child alive, and the bargain she strikes for their lives gives her a power that may do much more. I’d like to read more about Ellsworth’s world, and wish I knew more about these characters and their lives than he chooses to give us in this short story.

“Sinseerly a Friend & Yr. Obed’t” by Thomas A. Waldroon is about Stutley Northup, who isn’t a magistrate or a lawyer, but who has something of a reputation for resolving disputes. James Ezekiel Chambers has need for his services to resolve the problem of the Dusseau brothers and their great sea serpent. Does the serpent actually exist? What is it? The story is a cross between a tale from the Cthulhu Mythos and a throwback to the bug-eyed monster tales of the 1950s, with a fine sting in the tail.

I found little that was original in these three issues, but the tales are well-told. Perhaps I need to set Beneath Ceaseless Skies aside for a time, then come back to it with a fresh perspective. One becomes weary of assassins in vaguely Arabic settings, odd creatures in New England, werewolves and sideshows. Still, it is the most recent issue that is the best of these three, so maybe I’ll be back soon. If you haven’t yet started following this periodical, I’d avoid Nos. 171 and 172, and go straight to the most recent issue, despite its faults; it presents the most creative tales.


  • 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.

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