Review of BCS #233 for Tangent

BCS saved the best for last this month (coincidentally, as they’re biweekly and not monthly).

Review of Beneath Ceaseless Skies #233, August 31, 2017

Recommended:

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Review of BCS #231 for Tangent

BCS releases two stories every two weeks, for some reason, and Tangent covers each issue of a month separately, so here’s the first of three BCS reviews I’ll be doing this month. (As always, the link takes you to the full review on the Tangent website.)

Review of Beneath Ceaseless Skies #231, August 3, 2017

Recommended: None.

Rec: “When We Go” by Evan Dicken

When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story

My last recommendation had “rain” in the title and, when it rains, it pours. Here’s a second excellent story from the same issue.

The Bronze Faces have been killing off the protagonist’s people in general – and her family, specifically – and she believes the gods have abandoned them. In vengeance, she has been hunting the gods down and killing them with the World Serpent’s Fang, asking them a last question: “Why did you forsake us?” With no satisfactory answer, she intends to hunt down the last: Coyote, the trickster. So, naturally, things are not as they seem.

The people are being driven to the edge of the western sea and the bulk of the story takes place in their refugee camp. (The other story in this issue has a similar locale with at least one common bit of significance, but with a very different scope and mood.) One of the many strong elements of the camp sequence is the “fire singing” in which young warriors tell of what their passing will be like. “I will soar like a sparrow when I go…. My enemies but tiny specks, I shall rise until they are nothing when I go.” Both on this scale and a social and cosmic one, as the title indicates, this is a tale of death/change.

This theme and the imagery of the story is complemented by its style. As readers of this blog may know, I’m not a big “style” guy, generally favoring simple clarity. Most of what passes for “style” slows the pace or produces obfuscation or a lilting, mincing, weak feel or any number of other failings. This story has a definite style, but a style I enjoyed, being just elevated enough to avoid plainness but remaining direct and achieving power. In addition to the line above, I’d like to quote a couple of paragraphs to illustrate this but they’re too near the climax, or another bit which achieves one of several frissons of awe after the protagonist has dealt with Death but it’s too extended, so perhaps this paragraph will suffice as an example.

I’d felt neither hunger nor exhaustion since the Field of Husks, the emptiness inside me lost against the vast hollow expanse of a thousand worlds fallen to rot amid the roots of the World Tree. I’d left more than my blood upon that long crawl down to the Serpent’s lair, the jagged tangle of obsidian roots carving away whole parts of me. And yet, something tightened in my chest as I surveyed the valley. The smoke on the air, the faint calls of herders, the distant glimmer of fires—I needed no rest, I needn’t even stop, but it would be nice to ride toward the camp for a while, to pretend I was coming home.

Rec: “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn

I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story

Jared is leader of a small group (“the magician, the knight, the thief, and the princess” and “the young woman Kat” – who is the focal point from Jared’s point of view) who are attempting to avoid the Wrath’s servants and get the princess through unfriendly lands, across the water, and back to their own lands where she can help oust the usurper. The core of the story is about them being one step from success and wondering if they’ll be caught or if they can even trust each other.

Perhaps this is a generous recommendation as I can’t quite articulate why I liked it as much as I did. At first, I wasn’t sure if it might not be intended as a parody because it seemed so extremely generic but I quickly became interested in Jared’s thoughts and Kat’s weirdness (see semi-spoiler paragraph if so inclined). The setting was made vivid and tangible. While there’s virtually no action there was enough tension to fill its wisely short length. (See semi-spoiler paragraph for a hint about one of my favorite things about the story.) In sum, it was just a gripping read that I enjoyed.

Semi-spoiler paragaph (one “reverse-spoiler,” so to speak and one only by innuendo): Regarding Kat, I found her compelling – the only tiny negative was that I was a bit disappointed that her backstory didn’t have an element I thought it should have even though I know BCS only does science fantasy as a special thing. Regarding one of my favorite things, I love it when a story reaches a fork in its road and does exactly what I think it should do. I frequently groan when characters become stupid from misguided concepts of nobility and almost always appreciate some realpolitik, at least when its not inappropriate to the story and character.

Rec: “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold

Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #219 (2017-02-16), fantasy novelette

Jeone Serrica is climbing what seems to be a world entirely of mountainside or cliff-face when, after scaring off a giant lizard, she encounters a village of strange women. After being somewhat ambivalently welcomed and despite being told to remain in her guest quarters, our intrepid explorer sneaks a peek at the villagers’ rites. What she sees mystifies and horrifies her but, before she can even try to come to terms with it, she’s snatched by a giant bird and taken off to an even stranger realm and an encounter that requires much more from her than even facing down giant lizards.

There’s a joke to the effect that, if you want to get published in The New Yorker, you just need to throw away the last three pages of your story. A similar joke could be made about BCS but it would seem to take more work: just extract the middle third of your tale and send that off. This story, as many BCS stories do, implies backstory so strongly that it feels like there must be a prequel story and, while its particular action is completed, it ends with an intimation that there must be a sequel story yet to come. Also, the style of this story is peculiar. Tunnels twist beguilingly, light is pearlescent, and gazes are chatoyant. (I had to look that one up. Very—almost too—precisely chosen.) Referencing them together like that makes the style sound better and more consistent than it actually is because the bulk is strongly written and these words seem like coruscating excrescences. A final relevant quibble could be that the action-oriented climax is too talky and slightly awkward. Also, probably irrelevantly, this story was fundamentally fantastic but kept making me want to try to read it as science fiction and to force it to make more sense. But that’s probably just me. Point is that, all that aside, the imagination brought to bear in conceiving this doughty protagonist and this amazing world and the entities she interacts with was extremely impressive and I thought the mix of conflicting social and individual perspectives and desires was handled very well. The main thing is that it was fascinating throughout and will live in the memory for quite some time.