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Beneath Ceaseless Skies

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Last year, in order to make nominations for awards, I relied on other people reading extensively and making recommendations. This yea, I thought maybe I should do some of the hard work. So I’ve just read the first six months of Beneath Ceaseless Skies which I picked because it gets less coverage than some of the other online magazines, I appreciate its specific remit and I’ve clicked with their stories before. Turns out that the three best stories published were from the usual suspects:

If you are looking for award fodder, these are the ones to read and I think the Lee is the best. But whilst it is obviously no bad thing that this generation of young, talent writers are regularly turning out high quality work, all three stories share a mythic, poetic tone that is quite a way from the magazines strapline of “Literary Adventure Fantasy” and could easily have appeared in other magazines such as Strange Horizons. As well as this type of story, what I also want from BCS is the best sort of epic fantasy novel condensed into short form. The beginning of the year saw a trio of strong core genre stories that nearly fit the bill and I’d particularly recommend the Austin:

I’d also love to see a really well-executed pulp appear in BCS. Sadly the two pulp pastiches present, ‘Sweetwater Notion And The Hallelujah Kid’ by KC Ball and ‘The Goddess Deception’ by Dean Wells, are almost fun but ultimately fall flat on their faces (Wells has another much worse story in another issue).

Reading the stories in one go also makes it easy to identify two editorial weaknesses. Firstly, a fondness for Americana. Partially this is just a matter of taste as I really don’t care for it but I do think the bar is set a bit lower for these stories just because they scratch an editorial itch. ‘Engine Song’ by Nathaniel Lee and ‘The Use And The Need’ by M. Bennardo are truly terrible (although Lee has a much better story in another issue). Secondly and more fundamentally, far too many of these stories are just too short. This isn’t necessarily a question of word count but rather that they are simply slices of larger stories. Time after time, stories either stop abruptly or reach the next, non-existent, chapter. Short fiction is hard and making a satisfactorily self-contained story is hardest of all.

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Written by Martin

18 October 2014 at 06:42

7 Responses

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  1. I discovered it only a few months ago, but Beneath Ceaseless Skies is hands down my favorite outlet for short fiction. “Women in Sandstone” is also on my best-of-the-year list, as is MacFarlane’s more recent “Written on the Hides of Foxes” (also more recently from BCS).

    I haven’t read the other stories yet. Thanks for the recommendation.

    cecilykane

    20 October 2014 at 01:59

  2. I read these stories and enjoyed most of them, with ‘The Year of the Silent Bird’ being my favourite. There does seem to be a gender bias – ie a preponderance of female characters, including that hallowed old trope, the female warrior, while positive male mcs were largely absent or undeveloped. I don’t really read much modern fantasy but I’m guessing this is intended as an antidote to stuff like ‘Prince of Thorns’ or ‘The Black Company’?? That said, I’m not sure if substituting one bias for another is necessarily a step forward.

    Aonghus Fallon

    21 October 2014 at 16:14

  3. Cecily: I’m looking forward to getting to ‘Written on the Hides of Foxes’.

    Aonghus: I doubt the authors themselves wrote them as an antidote to anything else so much as because it is what they were personally interested it. The fact that, for me, they do function as a much needed corrective to masculine fantasy is just a happy side effect.

    Not sure how gender bias comes into it. 4/6 of the stories I’ve picked are by women, only one off parity in a tiny sample. Looking at the bigger sample size of what BCS published in the first half of the year, it was actually 17/30 by men.

    Martin

    22 October 2014 at 13:18

  4. Well, I was talking about the gender of the mcs (and indeed most of the secondary characters). Aside from a cameo by a temple guardian in the third story, there are no men at all in the first three stories you nominated. I don’t have a problem with this per se, and I can understand the context. I just reckon that by defining yourself by what you don’t like about fantasy, you can end up producing something every bit as prescriptive/generic.

    Aonghus Fallon

    22 October 2014 at 13:54

  5. I don’t think fantasy is suffering from a dearth of dudes (she notes dryly) and I think the first three stories are the furthest thing from generic. I haven’t read “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” yet but Sriduangkaew is one of the most imaginative world-builders in SFF short fiction AFAIC; and I read Lee’s story last night and it is just gorgeous.

    Stories of that mythic poetic quality noted in the OP are exactly why I read BCS. So my hope is that they’ll publish as much of that as possible.

    Richard Parks’ “The Manor of Lost Time” was another favorite of mine from them this year. The story takes some pretty well-worn genre tropes and makes them feel fresh with an unconventional narrative point of view and characters that convey real mystery.

    cecilykane

    24 October 2014 at 03:10

  6. […] cecilykane on Beneath Ceaseless Skies […]

  7. […] came to a similar conclusion last (you’ll have seen some of the results of that earlier) and I hope other voters do adopt this approach. Anyway, here are my three favourite stories from […]


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