May 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“The Aqueduct” by Robert Wooldridge

“The Aqueduct” intrigued me this month with its deft characterization, its quietly skillful voice work, and its structural ambition: a story shaped explicitly like its central symbol, passing the flow of the narrative from arch to arch, layering on perspectives and assumptions—and pulling out wider and wider as it goes.  The vision of aqueduct arches as black cats is gorgeous—unexpected and yet completely logical—and the idea of structuring a story where each character is a cat in the arch is truly interesting.

So this month, I’d like to talk about unity of narrative, and how to achieve it: whether it’s deriving a story from the same set of details, a single uniting symbol, or—as “The Aqueduct” does—both.

The first major strength of “The Aqueduct” is the attention being paid to the small details of the sentence-level work, and how those small details almost entirely build the world, characterization, and differing worldviews that the piece depends on to spin its kaleidoscope.  Most of the effects in “The Aqueduct” are grounded in the tiniest things: Morton’s short, simple syntax demonstrate his learning disabililty, his sophisticated metaphor and thought show without explaining that he’s much more perceptive than he’s considered, and the slow revelation that what looks like an act of violence is a trigger for comfort, a memory of praise and validation, primes readers early to look for the unexpected instead of the standard tropes throughout the story.  Cadr’s approved words—blood, salt, hard, bruises, ache, iron—compose an entire worldview.  Brennus’s view of everyone in networked relation to each other, of a village made of systems, dependent on the image of a queen with soft hands and a king who looks young and able, tells a quiet story about how fragile the kingdom is, built on its Roman ruins.

More notably, this technique applies visibly when looking at what each character sees when they look at the aqueduct—magic versus a symbol of Roman expulsion and Celtic resurgence versus a system so ordered it’s foreign in the chaos of Brennus’s kingdom; an aspiration.

Deriving the whole of a story from a single aspect of craft—sentence-level prose, in this case—is painstaking, but it’s an incredibly effective way to ensure that the end result feels united and cohesive.  There’s a great deal of consistency between the worldbuilding, characterization, thematics, and prose when they’re all being established by—or derived from—the same core craft element.  “The Aqueduct” feels unified and cohesive because of this attention: not like a collection of craft tools fitted together, but one organic organism, with each aspect of craft reinforcing the rest and underlining the overall significance of everything that happens here.

The second unifying aspect of “The Aqueduct” is right in the title, pointed out for readers to catch.  The aqueduct itself is set up as the central symbol for the story: a literalized metaphor for everything from the difference between the Roman and post-Roman Celtic societies, the structure of the story, the plot itself—the crumbling of Brennus’s kingdom—and the theme of the piece—”…if one crumbled, all fell because they leaned one upon the next. Like a village.”

The key to how and why the aqueduct works so beautifully as a central symbol is right in the above paragraph: It is a metaphor that works for almost every aspect of the story.  When each element of craft is like that one unifying symbol, each element is like every other.  The effect is a resonance, an almost hall-of-mirrors feeling, that makes a simple story feel cohesive, well-patterned, and full of depth.

If there’s a place for improvement in “The Aqueduct”, it’s length and pacing: the story mires in the middle, in Brennus’s section, when he collects his coterie.  After two relatively brief sections, Brennus’s is already longer, disrupting the already set-and-reinforced reader expectation, and even though it reflects Brennus’s social-oriented worldview, the pile of names starts to grow meaningless to me as a reader.

My suggestion would be a trim and streamline of the description of Brennus’s kingdom, to maintain the lean, plot-driven tone of “The Aqueduct” through its final act.  The implication tools that have sustained the worldbuilding throughout the piece to this point work well; I think they can stand here, too, without the additional reinforcement.  As well, I’d reconsider the efficacy of the goat thief/court proceedings paragraphs—while they reinforce the thematics, I’m wondering at this point what’s happening to Morton, Cadr, and the aqueduct, and it felt to me too much like an obstacle in the path of what the story has told me is interesting here.

I’d also suggest bearing in mind what the readers already know from previous point-of-view sections.  While it’s plot-logical for Cadr to explain his reasoning to Brennan, the readers are already aware of his worldview—we’ve seen it in his section—and the repetition brings a drag to the story right near the end, just when the pace and tension should be picking up steam ahead of the riot and the appearance of the dragon-bowed ship.

There are a lot of thoughts woven in here about individualism versus collective effort, perspective, confirmation bias, violence versus social cohesion, what constitutes strength after all.  However, I think their lines could be slightly cleaner and clearer, more sharply delineated.  “The Aqueduct” rewards close reading very well; if the ties between each craft element and the aqueduct symbol were a bit more on the surface—just a touch—it would likely do better with readers who value the more plot-oriented, accessible layers of a story.

Overall, “The Aqueduct” is a fascinating little experiment of a piece, one that’s densely woven and well-made.

Best of luck with it!

–Leah Bobet
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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