Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Audio File: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine and Far-Fetched Fables

Guest post by Sam McDonald.

Before we begin this edition of The Audio File, I'd like to say that I have some big news, but you're going to have to wait until the end of the post to find out. For now, let's meet the podcasts that we'll be looking at today: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine and Far-Fetched Fables.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies has been bringing excellent literary adventure fantasy for over seven years. Its editor-in-chief  and podcast host is Scott H. Andrews who, along with Tina Connolly, narrates most of the stories. Every now and again, however, the podcast will feature a special guest narrator. Besides the main show there's also The BCS Audio Vault podcast. It features past stories which are introduced by their authors, who give some background to the stories.

The second podcast we'll be looking at is Apex Magazine. It was founded in 2005, but it's podcast didn't start until 2014. It publishes science fiction, fantasy and horror. Apex was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Okay, not a terribly interesting history, but hey, it is what it is.

Our final stop for this issue will be with Far-Fetched Fables. It's part of the District of Wonders podcast family. They're the same people who create StarShipSofa and its sister podcasts. It's the youngest of the District of Wonders podcasts and is hosted by Nicola Seaton-Clark.

Well that about does it for the intros. So without further ado let's move on to the stories.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies 
The Last Gorgon by Rajan Khana
Narrated by Anonymous

This story is set in a mythological Greece that's in the middle of an industrial revolution. Steam powered machines bring new innovations and opportunities by the day, colonies are being established in foreign lands and overseeing it all are the children and descendants of the gods. The story follows an adventurous heroine named Naima. She's caught the fancy of a descendant of Poseidon named Clytos, and she'll do anything to get him to back off. She can't kill him with a sword, for it is forbidden to kill those with blood of the gods, so she'll have to get creative.

As a huge mythology enthusiast I fell in love with this story almost instantly. I really liked the idea of having an industrial revolution in the middle of a magical world, even if it wasn't given much focus. I also liked how the story explored the potential social ramifications that demigods and their descendants would have on society. I always figured it would lead to an incredibly ridged class system. The descriptions in this story are really vivid and I can easily imagine myself strolling down the streets of New Knossos.

As you may have noticed, the narrator of this story is anonymous. I contacted Beneath Ceaseless Skies for some clarification, but the narrator chooses to remain anonymous. Whoever she is, she did an excellent job with the narration of this story.

It's an alternate history take on the world of Greek Mythology, what more could you ask for?

Memories in Bronze, Feathers, and Blood by Aliette de Bodard
Narrated by Scott H. Andrews

This story is set in an Aztec Empire that successfully resisted European colonization and is on the cusp of an industrial revolution. The story is told from the perspective of a flock of steam-powered robot birds, who collectively form an artificial intelligence. They were made by a warrior-turned-inventor named Nezahual and are powered by hearts made of silver vials containing drops of Nezahual's blood. The flock watch as Nezahual comes to terms with his past and looks ahead towards the future.

This is probably the first Aztec steampunk story I've ever encountered. I really like the ways that the steampunk elements were adapted to Aztec culture, such as with the hearts of the birds. I really think this story did a great job of capturing the alien nature of a mechanical mind, especially a hive mind like the flock's. As usual, Aliette does a great job with the research into Aztec culture. Scott's narration of this story did seem a bit detached and a little stiff, but that actually worked out in this case. It is a story told from the perspective of a group of robots after all.

Hey, it's an Aztec steampunk story, do I need to say more?

The Use and the Need by M. Bennardo 
Narrated by Tina Connolly 

This story takes place in New York City during the days of the Temperance Movement. Tom Brown is the owner of a saloon, and he's had more than a few run-ins with the Women's Christian Temperance Movement. The movement’s latest attempt to run him out of business is to destroy is saloon with a steam powered robot. It isn't long, however, before things spiral out of control.

Okay, I did not enjoy this story at all. My main issue was just how smug and self-righteous the members of the WCTM were. For crying out loud, they nearly destroyed a man's livelihood, nearly murdering him in the process, and then they had the nerve to demand an apology from him! The worst part is, he obliges and turns his saloon into a lunch counter. The other issue is, due to the benefit of hindsight, I know just what a bad idea the Temperance and Prohibition movements were. If anything, they just made alcohol related issues worse and more profitable by forcing them underground. All things in moderation would have been a much better philosophy...and I'm going to stop before I get too political.

Bottom line, don't waste your time with this dud.

No Sweeter Art by Tony Pi
Narrated by John Meagher
2015 Aurora and Parsec Award Finalist 

This story is a sequel to "A Sweet Calling", which I review in the post about Clarkesworld, however, you don't have to have read that story to enjoy this one. Set in Ancient China, it follows Tangren Ao, the candyman with the ability to bring candy zodiac animals to life. He's going to need all the magic he can muster as the spirits of the Chinese Zodiac send him on another mission to combat evil-doers.

I'm going to do something different for this one. It goes without saying that I give this story I hearty recommendation. Now then, let me tell you a little something about The Parsecs. They are an annual award given out for exceptional speculative fiction podcasting. They come in many different categories, and the best way I can describe them are sort of like the podcasting equivalent of the Hugos or the Oscars. Also, parsecs are a unit of measurement for distances in space.

A good story an some info about a little know award, a two for one special.

Mr Morrow Becomes Acquainted with the Delicate Art of Squid Keeping by Geoffrey Maloney 
Narrated by T.D. Edge

This story is set in 19th Century Australia in a world where humanity fought a war against alien invaders known as Kraken. The Kraken resemble crosses between pigs and humans, but they kept a strange species of cuttlefish that don't match any known species from Earth. The story follows several well-to-do members of society as they attend a costume party, listen to a professor's theories about the Kraken, grow squids for heads, turns into cuttlefish and...okay, yeah, this story's kind of weird.

Admittedly, thought it does get a bit trippy, but overall I found this story enjoyable. I liked that this was a Victorian story that didn't immediately go for steampunk. It was also nice to see a somewhat Lovecraftian story that reveled in its strangeness and didn't necessarily become a cosmic horror story. I also enjoyed the way this story mimicked the style of writing common in the Victorian era. T.D. Edge did a really good job depicting the various characters in this story.

It's a little on the stranger side, but it's still very much worth your time.

The Good Deaths, Part II by Angela Ambroz
Narrated by Tina Connolly

This story is set in a world in which Buddhism is the dominate religion of the West. Also, in this world Buddhist beliefs are known for a fact to be real. The story follows Carrie Amelia Nation as she travels across the Wild West to do the work of the Buddha and seek redemption.

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this story but...well, I'm kind of disappointed. This story had a really interesting premise, but it failed to make the most of that premise. The United States still exists, the Civil War still happened, slavery was still a thing and Christianity still exists, albeit as a minority religion. I find it kind of hard to believe that everything would have gone exactly as it did in our world, especially in a world where the reality of Buddhist beliefs are a fact of daily life.

Now, this isn't to say that this story is necessarily bad, but if you're looking for a story that examines what a Buddhist dominated world would be like, then you'll probably be disappointed. For what it's worth, I thought Tina did a pretty decent job with the narration.

It's not exactly bad, but be aware of what you're getting into if you give it a listen.

Of Thinking and Being Beast by Michael J. DeLuca
Narrated by Michael J. DeLuca

The setting of this story is a bit unclear. It's either a world where the Ancient Greeks colonized the New World or else a fantasy world combining aspects of both Ancient Greece and the Wild West. Either way, it follows a satyr named Boreas who works for the Circus of King Minos' Masque. His boss, Nessus, has just purchased a mechanical combat bull and intends to test it again a minotaur Boreas has taken a liking to and Boreas must now find a way to escape.

Like I said, I don't know the exact setting of this story, but I quite enjoyed it. I like how centaurs, rather than humans, are the dominant species in this world. It's always annoyed me that humans tend to be the dominate species even in fantasy worlds where they don't have technological or magical advantages of other races, so this was a nice change of pace. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed the Greek Mythology connections this story had. There really ought to be more alternate history based around Greek Mythology because it just has such great potential.

Michael isn't just a good writer, he's also a really great narrator. It's another mythology based alternate history you won't want to miss out on.

Apex Magazine 
Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon 
Narrated by Wendy Bowlsby 
World Fantasy Award Nominee, Nebula and C├│yotl Award Winner

This story is set in the deserts of the Southwestern United States during the days of the Old West. Within the wilds of the desert are creatures known as Jackalope Wives, creatures that can change from jackalopes to beautiful women by taking off their skin. To keep them as wives their jackalope skins must be burned to keep them from changing. The story follows an old woman named Grandma Harken as she tries to help a Jackalope Wife who is stuck between forms.

In many ways this story can be described as a Wild West retelling of the Selkie legend. Selkie's are creatures from Irish and Scottish folklore who function one the same principles, though they turn into seals, and their skin doesn't need to be burned. It was nice how this story combined a classical folk tale with a bit of American folklore. I thought that Wendy did a good job with the narration. She really captured Grandma Harken's snarky and sarcastic personality.

Hey, just look at all of those awards, clearly it's a pretty good story.

Anthracite Weddings by John Zaharick
Narrated by Wendy Bowlsby

This story has a somewhat unclear setting. It appears to take place in 19th century Pennsylvania, but certain detail suggest otherwise. Most notably is the fact that religion appears to be based around the veneration of spirits known as the Burning Ones, who act in opposition to spirits known as the Blind Ones. The story follows a girl named Katherine who lives in a small mining town. She's found herself ostracized from everyone in town due to reasons you'll have to read about. She's also begun seeing some of the Burning Ones, and begins to wonder if they're really as bad as people claim them to be.

Like I said, the settings a little unclear her. There's frequent mention of the Commonwealth militia, and Pennsylvania is technically a commonwealth, but combined with the odd religious practices seems to suggest the story takes place in an alternate history of America. Regardless of its world, I enjoyed the way this story depicted life in a 19th century small town. The story had a certain quality to it that brought to mind the story you find over at The Moonlit Road. I do kind of wish the story had gone a bit more into the lore of the various spirits.

It had a few iffy elements, but overall it's a pretty good story.

A Sister's Weight in Stone by J.Y. Yang
Narrated by Lisa Shininger

This story is set in 19th century Singapore and Malaysia. It follows a girl named Little Phoenix who is on a quest to save her sister who has been taken hostage by sea dragons...or has she?

So, are the sea dragons real or all in Little Phoenix's head? Well you'll have to read or listen to find out. I will say, no matter what, the fact the Little Phoenix is willing to go to such length for her sister is rather touching. This story is primarily a historical fantasy story with minimal steampunk elements, so something to consider for those who may not care for steampunk. It was also nice to see a story set in Southeast Asia during the 19th century.

As for the narration, I thought that Lisa did a great job. All in all, I'm going to give this story a recommendation.

Far-Fetched Fables
Space Operetta by Adam Browne
Narrated by Mark Kilfoil

This story is set in the year 1453, but one in which physics and astronomy function as they are described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. The Holy Roman Empire faces invasion from the Ottoman Turks, and a prophecy foretells of an Ottoman victory accompanied by a shooting star. It's up to a group of daring German adventurers to ensure that the star doesn't come anywhere near Earth.

The writing for this story had an almost lyrical and poetic tone. I really like the way this story depicted modern concepts such as cosmic rays and photons, but in a way someone working with a Ptolemaic world view might describe them. It really felt like the way someone from the 15th century would write a space opera story, and I loved the combination of styles that resulted. Of course, a story with this sort of style needs the right kind of narrator to bring it all together and Mark more than delivers.

It's a space adventure most lyrical and one you won't want to miss out on.

Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo 
Narrated by Anthony Babington
Originally Published on Tor.com

This story is set in the Untied Kingdom during the 19th century. It follows a gentleman named Claude who is caring for a young lady named Desiree. She shows great skill when it comes to working with mechanical devices, but Claude wishes that she'd learn to be a proper lady. One day they are visited by a mysterious man who speaks of fairies and others worlds. Is he all that he seems?

As someone who has written about the Fair Folk, I appreciated how this story hearkened back to the older tales of fairies. Prior to their cutesy modern incarnation, fairies were considered to be mysterious forces of nature that could be benevolent or cruel at a whim. It was also nice how the story touched on the various restrictions and limitation placed on women by Victorian society. With regards to the narration, I thought the Anthony did a good job.

All things considered it's a pretty decent story that I'll give a recommendation.

And Such A Small Deer by Chris Roberson
Narrated by Anthony Babington 

This story takes place in 1850 where Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is on assignment to the island of Sumatra. He's come to investigate claims regarding sightings of rats the size of elephants. Could it possibly have something to do with an eccentric British medical student named Moreau?

As you might have guessed this story kind of has a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen thing going on. If like me you're a fan of those type of crossover stories then you will enjoy this one. Really, most people will probably enjoy this one. Once again Anthony has done a great job narrating the story.

It's another story that I give a hearty recommendation to.

Tengu Mountain by Gregory Frost
Narrated by Gregory Frost

This is story is set in Ancient Japan and follows a man named Ando as he travels to visit his aunt who lives high in the mountains. Along the way he's greeted by a monk who warns him of the tengu and their trickery. It isn't long before Ando begins to suspect that all is not as it seems.

Okay, it's kind of hard to review this one without spoiling some major plot twists but I'll try my best. I enjoyed the presence of the tengu, as I do with most mythological creatures. I can't tell you what the twist was, but I can say that I defiantly didn't see it coming and really thought it was a great touch to the story. Gregory isn't just a good writer, he's also an excellent narrator.

Can't tell you much, but I can tell you to give this story a listen.

Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks 
Narrated by Pete Nixon

This story follows a boy who is an outcast at school, but who manages to befriend a mysterious girl who calls herself Steam Girl. Everyday during their spare time Steam Girl tells him elaborate tales of her steampunk adventures across the kingdoms of Mars and jungles of Venus. As time goes on our protagonist begins to suspect that these might not just be mere stories.

Throughout this story there's a bit of an ongoing debate about whether Steam Girl is telling the truth or if she's just making things up as a way to cope with her rough life. I'd say the story presented equal evidence for both sides, though certain events towards the end suggest that Steam Girl was being truthful. If that is the case then this story was a brutal deconstruction of the Refugee From TV Land trope. It showed just what a culture shock a character from a fantastical world would have if they were to wind up in our much more mundane world.

At the same time, and if it wasn't all true, then the story could be read as a mediation and defense of escapism. It's certainly a story that will give you something to chew on. As for the narration I thought that Pete did a great job.

It a story that will keep you thinking for days, and one I happily recommend.

The Price of Glamour by Steve Berman
Narrated by Eric Luke

This story is set in London in 1844. It follows a boy named Tup Smatterpit who is spending his Christmas Eve helping one of the Fair Folk steal some glamour powder. You see, this powder allows the folk to live amongst human society unnoticed.

There really isn't much to say about this story, and if it's all the same to you guys, this list has kind of worn me out. I'm going to end this list here, but you should still give this story a listen. It's a nice little Christmas themed story.

Conclusion

And so we've reached the end of our list once again. I hope you enjoyed it, and I'd like to thank you all for your patience as I worked on this edition of The Audio File. While we're on the subject, I think I'll take another month off while I work out my next edition of The Audio File. Don't worry though, I plan to review something anime related to hold you guys over until then.

On a slightly more personal note my alternate history flash fiction story "Happy Dominion Day" has recently been published in Issue 6 of The Wolfian, edited by Jay Wolfe. It's available for 99 cents on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBooks and soon physical copies will be available. Get your copy today, it's got tons of great articles and stories, and you certainly won't regret it.

Well, that about does it for this edition of The Audio File. I will see you guys next time.

* * *

Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found blogging on Amazing Stories, making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

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