Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 23, 2019
“The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne is a story steeped with beautiful social and narrative metaphors. At its most basic, “The Two-Bullet War” is a story about royal succession following the death of the queen. The main character, Mila, is the queen’s chosen Gun, a sort of Justiciar for the kingdom. Mila is also one of the “Mountain folk,” whom were once viewed as subhuman until the queen changed that view and opened their borders. When the queen dies, one of her sons, Karstan, decides to challenge his brother’s claim for the throne. Karstan is an isolationist and racist, while his brother, Alidar, wants to maintain the regime his mother built.
The twist here is that instead of fighting a full civil war, the two princes choose champions to fight for them with the loser dying along with the defeated champion. Karstan chooses Mila due to her skill and Alidar chooses Mila’s secret lover/husband.
The conflict setup is as complex as the social structure Osborne creates. From the first word, there’s barely a moment to breathe. There are a few times it feels like the story is about to spiral out of control as Osborne threads in yet another subplot, but she manages it skillfully, ending the story with a few sentences that somehow wrap up every plot thread introduced. In short, it’s a great story and well worth a read. Also, it’s Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ Audio Podcast story for this issue and the reader does the story justice.
“Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case is told through the point of view of Madam Gray, a blind actuary who uses magical ink to write insurance policies for soldiers going off to a losing war. Her employee, Magdalena, employs a different type of magic to predict the future of those looking for insurance; she’s a Taster and reads a person’s fate by drinking blood from their lips. When one of the king’s generals shows up at Madam Gray’s home, she’s faced with making a choice: maintain her honor and reputation or lie to the king and stop the war.
Case’s descriptions and world-building throughout are splendid. He somehow manages to weave a wonderfully complex vision for a character without sight in a way that lets us enjoy the story visually. It’s a challenge, but it’s one he’s managed wonderfully. Honestly, it’s probably as challenging as crafting an engaging tale about an insurance salesperson. Overall, a great story and worth your time.