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

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018

Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies” by E. Catherine Tobler

The Scrimshander” by Damien Krsteski

Reviewed by Geoff Houghton

First in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255 is “Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies” by E. Catherine Tobler. This story is set in a world that parallels rural parts of the USA in the early part of the twentieth century, except for one fantastical element. This is introduced early in the text when we learn that the protagonist was once a young consumptive girl (Louise) who was doomed by illness and circumstance to die in the flower of her youth. Louise discovers what appears to be a discarded sealskin with magical properties and becomes one of the Selkies of the title. Years later, Louise, now known as the Grand Duchess Maria Romanov—although neither a grand duchess nor a Romanov—is a successful and rather special sideshow act in a travelling show.

She looks back at all the good that she has done in helping other women like her earlier self. She assists them to leave their various dooms behind and to enter the sea and to undergo a conversion to Selkie-form. Yet she cannot entirely come to terms with how she herself became a Selkie. She now knows that she took the empty skin of a Selkie who was on land, and that that Selkie can never return to the water unless it is returned.

The whole of this work is written in complex but well-constructed prose and the action cycles between past and present in intricate ellipses. Yet in the end, this is a morality tale. The central question posed in this fascinating piece is whether a serious wrong can ever become acceptable if sufficient good derives from it? When Maria eventually returns to the place where she first found the sealskin she finds that she must confront that question and find her own answer.

The second offering is “The Scrimshander” by Damien Krsteski. This is a depressingly gritty story set in a dying, plague-ridden city on a world that appears to be also approaching its end. The author manages to draw a powerful word-picture that captures the hopeless despair of the teeming masses and the efforts of the ruling elite to maintain a failing status-quo. The point of view character is an artist who survives in a hand-to-mouth existence by illustrating the propaganda-filled newspaper used to tell the people only what their rulers wish them to know. Family tragedy and his experiences in that failing city eventually drive him to a futile and hopeless revolt, but even the artist’s final rebellious action is sad and depressing.

If you are looking for an uplifting story with hope and fulfilment then this story may not be for you. The grim horror is painted well but the reader never really catches up with the author’s purpose in exposing the reader to it all.

Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.