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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #46, July 1, 2010

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #46
July 1, 2010

“The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere” by Marissa Lingen
“The Isthmus Variation” by Kris Millering

Reviewed by Maria Lin

“The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere” by Marissa Lingen is a member of that particular class of fairy tale where the wild magic of European myth saturates a romantic notion of the Victorian era, resulting in a world where gents and ladies attend balls alongside fairy lords, and servant girls hold selkie skins for safe keeping. Complete with secret fairy paths and egotistical and  irrepressible faefolk, the basic ingredients of this setting are all here and should be familiar to any heavy reader of modern fantasy. Against this backdrop a young lady with the power to reverse entropy makes a bid to escape the Rust Lords, who wish to use her skills for their own unceasing pleasure. A plea is sent to two servants of Madame Lumiere, proprietress of a bordello that serves both the corporeal and magical needs of the local population, and from there begins a short adventure where three women employ magic, wit, and some fairy vegetables to fend off abduction.

The story itself is much more straight forward than the world we are given a glimpse of. The Six Skills of the title refers to the six challenges Josine, Sukey, and Lucy face as they try to secret Josine out of her house and into the apparent sanctuary of Madame Lumiere's establishment. Each problem is overcome rather neatly, and the last two in particular were resolved so simply that the gravity of the entire operation could be called into question. The development of character lags a bit behind the action as well, so that solution number six seems to come from nowhere, and had it been solution number one, the whole story would have not been necessary.

While the ending feels too simple, the bulk of Ms. Lingen's story remains interesting and whimsical. “Underhill,” or barrow paths, or fairy roads, have been done before, but under Ms. Lingen's pen they remain fresh and imaginative. The cliches of the modern fairy tale are broken by characters that manage to be three dimensional and interesting within a very limited amount of face time, and there is a soft touch of humor in it all (One of Madame Lumiere's Six Skills is “Stain Removal and other Laundry Services”) that keeps the story from taking itself too seriously.

Lucy, the narrator, suggests that “The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere” is a confidential prequel to a story that is in wide circulation. “Of course you know the rest, how we took down the glittering lords of the city and freed the Wild Hunt,” she says. No, I don't know, but please do tell. “The Six Skills” may feel a little incomplete, but it has certainly left me curious for more.

“The Isthmus Variation,” by Kris Millering

A troupe of actors is called on to perform “The Isthmus Variation,” and from the very start Kris Millering warns us that this play is not your standard stage performance. From the nervous preparations to the fatal finale, the story and the play it follows is a maze of scenes that suggest and portend bit by bit until the deadly truth is revealed at the very end.

I was very impressed with the way Millering was able to meld two symbiotic narratives into a single piece. At one level the reader hears about a sort of performance called the Slow Game, where actors are scattered in a hedge maze and pose a succession of tableaus that the audience seeks out as it traverses the maze. Each audience member thus glimpses only a small part of the overall narrative, and once the entire audience has converged at the center of the maze, its members share what they have learned, and the entire story is revealed. In the case of the “Isthmus Variation” the story is one of murder. A body lies still in a hidden corner. The characters pose in gestures of rage, fear, and supplication. The black clad Shadow moves through the scenes, luring the audience to the next frozen moment and secreting cues to the players. Millering's description of this theatrical form is wonderful, and even knowing what I did about it I wanted to see something like it performed here on earth.

In addition to this already fascinating concept, the reader is allowed a back stage glimpse of the production of the Slow Game through the voice of the narrator, one of its performers. From him we learn that the particular Slow Game they have been requested to perform is the “Isthmus Variation,” a variation that is secret and terrible and causes even the performers to await the conclusion with dread. The Impia has requested this variation after hearing its name whispered between players, and for his audience he has chosen a collection of courtly nobles that are as ignorant of their own peril as they are of the truth of the play they are exploring. Bit by bit the Impia's terrible plans are revealed to us until the reader understands what a weapon the Isthmus Variation is and what a tyrant the Impia must be to wield it. As we watch the play slowly unfold, we are watching also the Impia's plan slowly come to fruition, but in the end we, just like the doomed audience, realize that there are more layers to the story than we anticipated, and the complete revelation in the end is one of the best I've read in a long while. I highly recommend this story.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies publishes two stories every two weeks.