Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #228

It’s another expertly paired issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies with two pieces that look at the power of ideas and the immortality of stories. They do so in very different ways, in very different settings, and with very different themes, but at their cores they share a belief that there are ideas and stories that can live on as long as a trace of them remains, and they can be dangerous when unleashed. The first story looks at translation and song and imagination set against a backdrop of war and uncertainty, where stories are identity and identity is threatened by the destructive nature of violence. In the second, the setting is more oppressive and systematically corrupt, and ideas and stories become weapons in a battle for justice. In both, the main characters struggle with their role in stories, either in their preservation and recovery or in their erasure and destruction. And in both the stories are the things that linger long after the death and loss and grief have faded. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Jeff Brown


“Of Letters They Are Made” by Jonathan Edelstein (6423 words)

This is a story about stories. About conflict and translation and war and loss. About diaspora. It takes place in a city that is a nexus of cultures, and the main character, Taharah, is a magician who can both capture and release stories into parchment and into sensory experiences for people. They are a scholar and a merchant and a storyteller, hoping to find ways to peel away the damages of history to restore old stories erased by conquest and violence. This requires them to try and piece together old languages from bits and pieces, looking for ciphers, looking for common stories that can reach through the years and bridge the present to that past. The story is about Taharah’s search for translation amidst an increasingly dangerous situation in the shadow of invasion. I love how the story reveals the damage that history and war can inflict not just on people but on cultures and stories. It shows the horror of attacking a people at their identity by burning their stories and suppressing their language. And Taharah is left with bits and pieces of their family’s history, trying to hold on in this city that is a new home but can’t truly replace what has gone before. For all that, the story doesn’t remain entrenched in the distant past, and more recent events force new difficulties and new losses onto Taharah, who is through it all a chronicler of these events, these tragedies. It’s an emotionally heavy story, pulling at the reader even as it reveals this amazing magic and imagery in the form of the stories, a central idea that works in beautiful and moving ways throughout the piece. And through it all, the hurts felt both fresh and with the dull ache of time, the story maintains a hope that the stories, though always in danger, are not lost as long as a trace of them remains, and as long as the will to uncover them still lives in the hearts of scholars and survivors. It’s an amazing tale and you should definitely check it out!

“A Late Quintessence” by Justin Howe (2662 words)

This is a nicely creepy story that pairs quite well with the last because of its focus on stories and ideas and the power of them. It unfolds in a city under the rather authoritarian rule of a Major and their Magisters Subtle, who are more than police, more than spies. They keep the piece and when the need arises they can erase not just people but their entire oeuvres. Such is the case with the work of Bernhard Horn, a playwright but also an alchemist, and one interested in the essence of ideas, the quintessence that might exist beyond a physical form, that might become something truly immortal. The story unfolds as the recollection of of the people responsible for bringing Horn to “justice,” one of the Magisters who was supposed to track down the last traces of Horn and erase them. They thought the job was done. And yet recent events have brought the whole affair rushing back to them, and I love how the story accomplishes that, splitting its time between that past investigation and a present that is growing more and more uncertain, more and more sinister. The story is something of a mystery and also something of a tale of revenge. More than that, though, the story seems to be about the power of stories, of ideas, to exist beyond the attempt to destroy them. Like with the previous story, the idea that stories can survive despite attempts to eradicate them weaves into the narrative as the main character begins to realize just what happened with Horn and just how vulnerable a position he’s in. Because stories can’t be swayed or threatened. Ideas can’t be contained or arrested, and while they can be fought, ideas are incredibly difficult to really get rid of. And I like how the story imagines these ideas and themes and visions of Horn’s work finding new minds to infect, to inhabit. Minds that are probably already primed for them because of the oppression of the city and situation, because they are not safe and the idea allows them a way to act. It’s a surprisingly tense story that builds to a breathless, brilliant ending. It’s an amazing read that you will want to check out as soon as possible. Go read it!


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