Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In my last installment we returned to Lightspeed Magazine to look at a few recent stories; this week, I’d like to shift focus to another magazine I haven’t talked so much about: Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Their April issue contains two stories, “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew and “At the Edge of the Sea” by Raphael Ordoñez.
I feel like I keep running into stories by Sriduangkaew—I know I’ve covered at least a few in this column series! Seems like this is a good year for her work, too, because I have enjoyed the majority of those stories. A name I hadn’t encountered before, though, was Ordoñez, who according to good ol’ ISFDB is a fairly new writer (first professional publications in 2013). His work has appeared primarily in past issues of BCS.
Sriduangkaew’s “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” is a strong, well-constructed piece with an understated but nonetheless intense emotional core. I really liked this one: it’s got queer women, issues of motherhood and “artificial” motherhood, politics and political marriage, nontraditional romance or relationships—and all of it forms a natural, cohesive portrait of a world where these things are the norm. (The tendency toward creating a sense of normalcy in Sriduangkaew’s stories is something that I’m fond of, too.)
The construction of the world also deserves kudos. While often short fiction in secondary worlds has a tendency to feel underdeveloped, or conversely overburdened by too much development, this piece has exactly the right balance. I get a good, solid sense of the national politics that have led Erhensa and Ysoreen to the places where they are; I also get a good and solid sense of their individual natures, their needs, and the places where those things might meet.
I appreciated that this is a romance without, well, typical romance as well: the marriage is a negotiation, in the end, one that could quite well bring them each happiness and love in time. But this is not presented as a negative, or as somehow inadequate; it’s quite adequate for both of these women in their situations, at their ages and stations. And this isn’t to say that the story somehow lacks an affective dimension, because it has a strong one. There are plenty of scenes with a dense emotional weft, such as those that deal with Erhensa’s care for her golem daughter and her lost marriage, or her willingness to try to coerce Ysoreen but her reaction to the initial courting proposal, et cetera. Ysoreen, too, is a tangle of emotions: young, disciplined but raw emotionally, given to passion and also tactical precision.
The plot, tracking its course over their relationship and the restoration of Erhensa’s golem-daughter, is well paced in its slow-burn development. The world is convincing in its presentation of larger concepts like the longing for home Erhensa feels in an empire where her skin alone marks her out as other, as well as the intimate details of how people relate to one another personally. Good stuff, as a whole. I’d recommend it.
“At the Edge of the Sea” by Raphael Ordoñez,, in contrast, is not as strong—but it’s certainly making an attempt at creating an intriguing mythos, where the magic feels more like the inscrutable (and possibly eldritch) pull of nature as opposed to a scientific, human system. The reflection the narrator makes on his discovery of the magic by accident—just by dint of his pacing and solitary life on the island, being closer to those cycles and rhythms of the natural world—is particularly intriguing. It’s as if any person could discover, or has in the past discovered, the form of the sea goddess, if only they were to pay close enough attention. (So the little parable at the opening of the piece implies, too.)
The weakness of the story is partially, I suspect, in the shallow sketching of the political situation that would have led to a single man being exiled to a decently kept island and caretaken there. Also, his wife’s initial betrayal—for what purpose? We never get a particularly good sense of the world that exists outside the island, the world whose pressures are the entire reason for the story occurring in the first place. There’s also a missing sense of the protagonist’s own scientific or religious background in his culture: we get little hints, in his awareness of the sea creatures and human evolution, but I would have liked a more concrete sense of background. Across the board, really. Whereas Sriduangkaew’s story has just the right amount of detail, Ordoñez could use more, though deftly included so as not to overwhelm things.
I will also say that I’m left a bit disconcerted by the treatment of the wife, here. Her fickleness and her betrayals are presented as good enough reason to turn her into a sea creature against her will, but all the same, her total flatness as a character aside from “inconstant woman” itches at me as a reader. Perhaps more development of her as an individual would have made this story feel a bit more like a fair conflict between equals, rather than treading as close as it does to a potential variant on the “get revenge on the bitch” story.
But overall, while I’m not always the choice audience for the second-world, literary-adventure-fiction ethos of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, it’s undeniable that they publish plenty of solid, engaging work. It’s also nice to see up and coming writers as often as BCS features them; they regularly support and publish names that we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more from. I’m particularly enjoying watching Sriduangkaew’s work evolve, dealing at it often does with concerns and ideas that are near and dear to my interests.
So, overall, a good issue of a good magazine: go check it out.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.