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

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #180, August 20, 2015

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #180 August 20, 2015

Fire Rises” by Alec Austin

Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer

Reviewed by Joshua Berlow

Fire Rises” by Alec Austin made my head hurt. This story is trying to impart too much complex information in too short a space. This is why fantasy novels are sometimes massively thick tomes—when you’re building a new universe, you’ve got a lot of information to convey. I expect a short story to be sparse and uncomplicated compared to a novel. It doesn’t have the space to explicate a complicated imaginary universe with an entirely made-up history, politics, alien races, physics and/or magic, geography, and everything else.

Only a few paragraphs in, and my head was spinning. An “Orlori squad” was killed by an “An-Astrae.” Each member of the squad is named, even though their names are never mentioned again in the entire story. When we begin reading a story, we’re trying to figure out what information is pertinent for us to remember, and to throw these names at the reader right off the bat sows confusion. Why do we need to know that their names are Melqart, Elissa, Hiram, and Zinn? The answer is we don’t. We also find out that the fifth member of the squad, Yzebel, has a special relationship with the protagonist of the story, and at least this has some ramification later.

The story doesn’t get any simpler, it just unfortunately gets more tangled, complicated and confusing. There’s artificial satellites that have something to do with the protagonist’s powers, and these satellites were outlawed (or something) by some Regime somewhere but the protagonist is able to use them anyway (or something). Don’t expect me to explain all this, as I was never sure myself. There’s something called the Rent Veil which, when mastered, allows the villain to “unmake” opponents. The protagonist can shoot fire, hence “Fire Rises.” This all leads to a nasty climactic battle over the Impossible Moon. The Impossible Moon is more like a dirigible than a moon, and has something do with the satellites. The climactic battle itself was cartoonish and comic-book.

There’s enough alternate universe going on here to fill a novel. I wonder regarding such stories if the writer has excerpted the piece from a longer work in which the politics and magic of the alternate universe is explained in greater detail; with this universe I also wonder if it would be worth it. Alec Austin gets an “A” for effort, but the resulting story is just too busy for my taste.

Fortunately Beneath Ceaseless Skies #180 is redeemed by the second story, “Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer. It’s not hard to understand what’s going on here, as it is Planet of the Apes but with elephants. Humans are enslaved to intelligent, bloodthirsty elephants.

I liked this story. It was easy to empathize with the main character, a human who eventually goes by the name of Ghost. We’re not overwhelmed with the details of the elephant kingdom’s politics, history, religion, and whatever else. Instead, we’re given pertinent, interesting details regarding the life of these slaves and we get into gladiatorial action quickly. Ghost is selected to be Rothai, human slaves that fight atop their master elephant in battle. The elephants amuse themselves and determine hierarchy in these deadly tusk-to-tusk battles on Blood Meadow.

Even though it’s better to be a Rothai than a mere house slave, they’re both still slaves to the elephants and are limited to a short life span. Their only chance for long-term survival is escape, and this Ghost manages to do against long odds. He becomes a leader of those who would rebel against their elephant overlords. This is handled in a straightforward and entertaining fashion, if not very surprisingly. This story was a relief from the first story, for at least I had no trouble understanding what was going on, and I could empathize with the underdog human slaves. I wondered if it was a good idea to paint elephants as bloodthirsty villains, as elephant poaching has been in the news and this story doesn’t help their cause. However the story alternatively could be seen as an indictment of any species enslaving another. This story has cinematic potential as well, if somehow intelligent elephants and their battles could be portrayed effectively on film. Altogether a rousing and engaging story that redeems Beneath Ceaseless Skies #180.


Joshua Berlow wants to be your friend on Facebook.