Monday, August 31, 2020

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #309 (2020)

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, ed. Scott H. Andrews. Issue #309 (July 2020). Online at

Reviewed by Sonia Sulaiman

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a fantasy adventure magazine published online by Firkin Press. They publish, as they put it “fantasy set in secondary-world or historical settings, written with a literary focus on the characters.” This tighter, more literary lens is what makes Beneath Ceaseless Skies distinct in the fantasy fiction market place. One of the pieces in this issue, ‘Nneamaka’s Ghost,’ is a reprint from an earlier edition of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. All three tales in issue #309 are fantastic both in theme and in execution. Running through them all is a thread of the otherworldly, be it in the form of helpful, loving ghasts, selfish ghosts, or spirit children.

Let’s take a closer look at each story and see how well they stand up:

On the surface, R.H. Cloake’s “Satin and Velvet” is a slice of life story, a look at the life of a magician’s apprentice. What is at play here are emotions wrought to a breaking point: resentment, love, self-loathing, righteous anger. The ambition that one would also expect in such a story is all there in each of its three main characters of the unnamed Master, of Samara the oldest aspirant, and Greta the narrator and primary protagonist of “Satin and Velvet.” In the case of the Master and Samara, ambition takes its toll on their lives in corrosive ways. The callousness and disregard of the first primes Greta for achieving what her predecessor could not: freedom. It is a freedom which comes through her righteous anger. After a week of passive aggression, the injustice of her situation prompts Greta to lash out:
At last I turn and begin to carry the tray back down the winding steps of the tower. Something is building in me as I walk, something dark and terrible. I reach the large window at the third landing and feel anger like a sudden gush of bile. I hurl the tray and all the food through the window, shattering the glass.
This is a real turning point for Greta who makes a decision Samara, although much admired and loved, could never have made. The twist comes on gently although there is a restatement that follows which isn’t necessary and throws the pacing off slightly. Satin and Velvet could be read as an allegory for domestic violence of a sort, of alcoholism, and dysfunctional relationships. Lastly, the style of the piece is quite simple which suits the youthful narrator. It is an almost transparent narration style.

Despite the title, “The Many Lives of an Abiku” by Tobi Ogundiran is about the life of an abiku. ‘Abiku’ is a Yoruba word for the spirit of a child who dies before puberty. Such spirits are believed to revisit the same mother, never intending to stay in the mortal world, indifferent to or even enjoying the suffering of the mother. Sola is an abiku who is bound to her body by a mystic on behalf of her human family.
I felt a leaden sense of despair steal over me. I couldn’t stop her, and she knew that. I looked at my parents, at my brother, frozen. I thought of my life with them. The camaraderie. I thought of the way Baba bounced me on his knees; the musky, faint coconut smell of him. I thought of Mama and how she sang to me when she braided my hair to keep my mind off the pain. It wasn’t all bliss and sweet memories, but they were my family and I loved them. I couldn’t—didn’t want to—lose them.
At heart, “The Many Lives of an Abiku” is a horror story about the shattering of familial bonds, of the unwillingness to accept change or compromise. The binding of Sola is a ritual on the one hand, and a natural, familial bond on the other—one which brings her into conflict with Rewa, another abiku. This story is also a pure adventure, keeping the reader hooked on every word. The ending is satisfying and poignant. The author has crafted a tale from traditional folklore that has taken on a life of its own, as it were.

Walter Dinjos’s “Nneamaka’s Ghost” is a ghost story with a humorous twist to it. A banished villager gets embroiled in the affairs of the dead prince and princess he was supposed to protect. The ghosts constantly remind him of the myths and stories and folklore about themselves, and about how to treat a ghost for good or ill.

The prose is slightly purple, just enough to play into the fairy tale quality of the man’s story. The narrator sounds more grandiose than he ought, because he clings to the idea that he has a heroic role to play in these events:
But where can I run when an expanse of savannah bush girdles me, when the nearest village, the one from which I was banished, lies seven miles to the south? With the way my legs tremble, I dread that trying to rise from my fall would reveal that my predicament has paralyzed me. My heart drums like the footfalls of a giant trying to escape a crashing cavern—but faster.
When all is said and done, our narrator has indeed become the central character in a folktale but not the one he was hoping for. A lighthearted spook story, there are many twists and turns in store for our much put upon narrator whose troubles never seem to end no matter what he does. His choices only lead him into more dire straits. The ending is satisfying while also giving one the feeling that, as his story had taken so many turns, there would be still more in store for him. Or maybe he will escape his doom; who knows? Maybe he will finally find happiness some day with the hairy-breasted women he was so loath to marry.

So there we have it: three stories of phantoms, short glimpses into fantastic other worlds. If you’re looking for a quick hit of the otherworldly, some ghost stories to read as the summer wanes, check out issue 309 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

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