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

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #47, July 15, 2010 (Double Review)

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #47
July 15, 2010

(Reviewed by Mark Lord and Maria Lin)

“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee
“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

Reviewed by Mark Lord

“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee is a fantasy story set in a very weird secondary-world setting. The main protagonist is Jeris, Captain of the Guard of the City of Spine, whose job it is to preserve order amongst the feudal-like territorialists who run each of the city’s regions. So far, not so weird perhaps, but when the captain and his guard unit set off to restore order to the Circle Circle Six region, they run into trouble and a lot of weirdness. We are introduced to one territorialist en route who, when her goldfish bowl is shattered by Jeris, is transformed into a fish and attacks the captain. After the battle the dead on both sides become ghosts who join Jeris’s unit and fight alongside him in future encounters. Then there are birds that form into one giant bone bird, animated bone-maps that try to hit people, giant fish jaws that leap out of the river, and living gargoyles too.

The characters are very comfortable with all of this weirdness and perhaps a bit more so than this reader. I found the setting vivid, interesting and impenetrable on my first reading. So much so that I had to make notes the second time to understand the basics of what happened in the story in order to write this review. I think there may well be a great deal of allegorical meaning under the surface, especially with the bones and the flesh symbolism that runs through the story. But for me “The Territorialist” sacrificed comprehension and engaging characters for the sake of its unusual setting.

“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker takes place in the city of Jiun-Shi, part of the Empire of Ru, a setting with the feel of ancient China except for two important differences. In “Throwing Stones” women are the dominant sex while men are second-class citizens, and goblins exist as shapechangers. The first person narrator of the story is a man disguised as a woman who works at the Silver Fish Teahouse. She/he realizes that one of the regulars of the Teahouse, a male scribe by the name of Tuo, is also not who he seems. Tuo is in fact a goblin in the guise of a man. The two have a relationship which develops into an affair, with the goblin granting the narrator the true appearance of a woman to help her achieve her goal of studying at the female-only Temple of Seeresses.

I enjoyed how this story used historical cultural references and legend to create a powerful and thought-provoking story about the nature of gender and deception. Unlike “The Territorialist” this story didn’t try to do too much, but instead allowed the characters and themes room enough to breath and cast their spell on the reader.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #47
July 15, 2010

“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee
“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

Reviewed by Maria Lin

“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee 's “The Territorialist” has one of the more intriguing hooks that I have come across: “Jeris was feeding the gargoyles when the bone-map rattled.” When it comes to ensnaring the reader with curiosity, this is pretty much steel netting, but once the story gets going, things start feeling a little tangled. The gist of it follows a captain of the guard named Jeris as he and his squad make their way to a territory called Circle Circle Six. The Territorialist there has gone rogue, which seems to be a common occurrence in this city, and it's up to Jeris to bring him back into line.

What follows is a surreal trek through a world heavy with ambiance but sometimes incoherent in its greater details. Toy soldiers fighting killer skullfish, skeletons holding together sinkholes, bridges that alter the reality of those who cross it, and other craziness is accepted as matter of fact by Jeris and his crew, but the reader is sometimes left in the dark about what exactly all of this is about. The very fact that the different territories are sections of a city is not mentioned until far into the story, and sometimes clarity in the area of who, what, when, where, and why is sacrificed for fancy wording. The resulting effect is dreamlike, with everything moving forward confidently, but not coherently. Some descriptions don't quite help the reader visualize the setting properly either. For example, if a light is shining without illuminating anything, what are you seeing?

If one is able to cope with the constant state of confusion the story keeps the reader in, the  flavor of the world Lee has created comes through strongly. She has built a unique one, where a mixture of bone and bullet permeate almost every detail. And it is apparently set in the same world as “Architectural Contents,” a story published in Issue 2 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, so if “The Territorialist” intrigues but doesn't explain, “Architectural Contents” might fill in some of the blanks. Or it might just confuse further.

“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

In the city of Jiun-Shi a goblin and a teahouse worker join forces to challenge a society that oppresses them with its rigid structure. Mishell Baker flips the gender norms in “Throwing Stones,” so that the men are second class citizens who are in danger of being executed for attempting to transcend their place, and the women “expect to matter” in a way that is best described with the term female privilege. The narrator is a man who disguises himself as a woman in an attempt to enter a female exclusive institution, the Temple. To do this, he enlists the help of the goblin Luo, who possesses the ability to change the appearance of himself and others.

You could call “Throwing Stones” a romance, as the whole of it centers upon the relationship between these two characters. Baker manages to make slimy, froglike creatures sensual, which is some feat. Both the narrator and Luo are reserved, calculating people, but for the narrator at least the strength of emotion pushes through and makes things more complicated. By the end of the story the narrator has entered training in the temple, but their conspiracy has yet to be revealed, and the relationship between himself and Luo remains uncertain.

Because “Throwing Stones” leaves the stone still poised to be thrown in the end, the reader is left to come to their own conclusion about what will happen when our protagonist starts making ripples in his society. Baker has written a neat story with a sympathetic narrator that is worth checking out.  She is also apparently working on a novel set in the same world, so if this story appeals you might have more to look forward to.