The first issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies' February offerings serves up two pieces about women in difficult situations. Women of magic and of power who have been tasked with using their abilities to fight against the weight of oppression. To fight against a cruel king. To fight against a cruel cost. Both women find themselves at a moment when victory seems distant, when the eye of justice seems to have gone blind. And both women have to find their own ways to move past their grief and their loss and use their magic to pave a way forward. To keep fighting. These are moving stories of resistance and struggle, and I'm going to jump right into my reviews!
|Art by Florent Llamas|
"Out of the Woods" by Marissa Lingen (3999 words)
This is a story that takes on a rather classic shape and trope, that of the noble outlaw, and complicates it. Like with Robin Hood, this story imagines a situation where the "good king" is off fighting a war and his wicked brother has been left behind. The bad of outlaws lives in the forest and fights a guerilla war against him while they wait for their king to return. Only he doesn't. Or he does, but it's atop a funeral pyre. And I like how the story reacts to this, because in all the old tales of Robin Hood the story is still very much about the divine right to rule. Not that bad kings need to be usurped but that illegitimate kings have no place on the throne. The story isn't about punishing evil but rather about securing the "true" king on his throne. And this story centers Lovis, a woman who is of noble birth and yet who knows some magic, who has the option of allowing the "evil" king to retain his throne because it has now become legitimately his through succession (and not through assassination or other act to circumventing the will of, essentially, God). And I like how the story examines what it means for the outlaws that their king is dead, that it has for many of them killed their resistance. Because the alternative is war. Because the alternative is not having certainty in succession. Because the alternative challenges their entire world view, their religion by which the king rules. And I like that Lovis refuses to just accept that, that she refuses even to just act and then let the chips fall where they might. There is a feeling I get that here is a person finally taking the ideals of the resistance, the ideals of fighting for justice, and putting them fully into practice. Not to prop up a "good king" but to bring some power and worth back to the people, to fight for those who actually need defending. It's a neat world that is revealed, some solid character work, and a great read!
"Men of the Ashen Morrow" by Margaret Killjoy (3820 words)
This story looks at sacrifice and loss, grief and despair. It focuses on Sal, a woman full of magic and because of that ability the only person who has been able to summon winter without requiring a human sacrifice. And winter is required for the safety of all, because without it a danger worse than cold will come. But Sal's magic, while able to sometimes avoid the human loss that is asked for by the god who brings winter, cannot always save everyone. And so she has lost. And lost again. People she cares for, people she loves. And she is tired of it. But no one else will stand up. Perhaps because no one is strong enough to. Perhaps because no one else wants to risk it. And I love the way the story looks at that, the way it balances the unfairness of this with the larger picture. Yes, Sal has carried more than her fair share of grief and loss. Is it right for her to be asked to do more just because she is the best? The answer is complicated and heavy and gives the story a dark weight to it. Sal's desire to protect her loved ones, especially after everything, is deeply understandable. Her exhaustion in the face of having to bear such a responsibility year after year makes sense. As a reader I wanted her to be able to break free of this cycle because she deserves the rest. And yet at the same time the system doesn't allow a rest. And Sal, for all that she is tired and grieving, is still the best option available. Still has a chance to save someone, even if she fails, even if she loses everyone. [SPOILERS] And while it is a painful moment to watch her realize that she cannot retire from this task, that she will not, it's also a moment that captures her strength, that shows that while it is not fair that she must bear this burden, she's the best able to, and that becomes its own kind of fairness in a system that is inherently cruel. It's a beautiful story that is a bit heartbreaking but also great at showing how the work of survival and resistance, love and grief, has rules of its own. Definitely check out this story!