I have the pleasure of knowing Jon Mollison, Alexandru Constantin, and Sky Hernstrom. I got to know Sky Hernstrom as a friend before I knew he was an author, and had not read any of his work until he had released The Law of Wolves, and Mortu and Kyrus in the White City.
Alexandru over at Dacian has proposed a kind of book-club blog discussion, which Jon has picked up on. Alexander Hellene is also in on it. Alexandru's first choice was the story Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler hernstrom ("Sky"), originally published on its own, recently gathered together into a collection called The Eye of Sonnou with other stories Sky had published elsewhere. I'll try to link back to everyone I can in this discussion, and though I don't hang out a lot in social media, will use the tag #shortstorybookclub.
On to the story.
What to say about Sky's writing? Here's Alexandru's take:
Hernstrom’s writing is the fantasy version of an underground death metal LP that you can only pick up at an invite-only exclusive show held in some cave in the middle of dark wood. Every story in his new collection is unbeatable but Mortu and Kyrus, while not my top favorite, is not only a fantastic ass-kicker but a direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy.
I don't think it's possible to do the story or the rest of the stories in the collection more justice in such a short passage. Instead I'll pick up where it leaves off.
Many of Sky's stories are to greater and lesser degrees old-school fairy tales - by which I mean things are strange, not often explained, and horrible things happen to disobedient little children and not the nice Disney versions. The Law of Wolves is a stright fairy tale, and a dark one at that. A number of the fantasy and most of the science fiction pieces have a Jack Vance vibe of the weird. Sometimes horrible things happen - often in a "serving as a bad example" way - and the endings are not always happy, but there is a rejection of pointlessness and nihilism found throughout.
The feel in The White City also shifts from a Vance-style weird, which in and of itself would not have been out of place in an issue of Heavy Metal to that "underground death metal LP" that Alexandru describes. A genetically engineered warrior riding a motorcycle across the wasteland, slaying with axe and sword, a priest transformed into a monkey riding his shoulder. Post-apocalyptic badlands and futuristic white cities, high technology and barbarism. I could easily read this with "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" playing in the background.
It is also in the White City that we see him most explictly bring philosophy to the fore, in the discussions between the pint-sized and arrogant Kyrus and the stoic and practical Mortu. Most of the discussions at first have little bearing on the main dilemma - instead, they paint the nature of this fallen world, and the character of the warrior and the priest. From beginning to end, each major character, especially Mortu and Kyrus, have a distinctive voice that shines through. In many ways, the philosophical discussions and implications remind me of a shorthand Gene Wolfe in the Book of the New Sun - series, equally metal in its own way.
And the main dilemma is a doozy. The setup evokes The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, where the ongoing existence of an apparent utopia depends on the perpetual suffering of a single child. In this incarnation, the white city is relatively secure, has resources to spare, the denizens are immortal and "at peace", and all of this abundance is granted by feeding the soul of a child into the city over the years in a process of unbroken misery and suffering. Many acquiesce - either because of outright selfishness in the guise of pragmatism, or perhaps in some cases, genuinely believing that the good of the many outweighs the good of the occasional child.
Where LeGuin has those who cannot stomach the cost walk away, here it is not offered as an option. The one who spills the secret to Mortu and Kyrus is not afforded the chance to simply walk away as the denizens of the city cannot afford word to get out - already more realistic than LeGuin. The excuses made for condoning and taking advantage of this evil are timeless, and fully present in our modern world.
The answer our barbarian and monkey-priest come up with in dealing with this evil is not simply giving up and washing their hands of this evil, but to stand up to it, and burn it out, root and branch. Everything that happens was, in some ways, inevitable simply because of who each of the people were.