Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #206 by Scott H. Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The stories in issue #206 are about long, painful journeys, but one leads home and the other does not.
“The Patchwork Procedure” by Claude Lalumière is a science fiction element in an alternate history story that also features airships, steam-powered technologies, geopolitics, told primarily in exposition. One reason why all the exposition works so well in this story is because of the story’s structure: it’s separated into titled parts like chapters, or better yet, like headings for sections in a memoir. The diction is fascinating; it’s formal yet conversational, like a memoir or a letter to a trusted friend, circa the 19th Century (though the story is set, I think, in this alternate history’s 20th Century.) The exposition also works because it is just absolutely fascinating! Nearly every detail is a surprise and helps constructs a vivid and strange alternate history in which colonization of the New World did not play out exactly like it did in our world.
While the story mostly uses exposition, there is also some scenic action. The scenic action tends to lead to surprising turns in the plot. Coupled with the protagonist’s unexpected choices during key moments, this story kept me guessing. The protagonist is a captivating character, described as much by his personal history as by his choices in these key scenes. When the story ends, it does so on the cusp of one of his choices, which is at once frustrating, exciting, and though-provoking. What is the best way forward? I want to know, and I cannot help thinking about what my own choice would be.
There is a great deal of tension in “What Pada-Sara Means to the Elephant” by Jeremy Sim and I was delighted by how the writer used this tension to lead the reader emotionally into unexpected plot developments and character choices. For the amount of tension, there is also a great deal of character complexity that lends the story a sense of recording a pivotal moment in history, albeit history in a magical fantasy world. I am also impressed by how the magic itself is low-key, in some ways limited and minor, but also integral to how this society is constructed and how its classes are delineated, and how these divisions are upheld and undermined.
I really loved these stories, their wonderfully complex characters, and the clever ways the writers allowed the plots to unfold in often surprising directions.
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