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 Leah Bobet, Amal El-Mohtar, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
From its opening paragraphs, “Behold A Pale Rider” presents us with an engaging if not entirely successful attempt to crossbreed fantasy, light science fiction and very light horror tropes, telling the tale of how two witches and a former soldier try to punish the anthropomorphic representation of Death for failing to prevent humanity from unleashing a nanobot-driven zombie apocalypse.
The result is something that reads a bit like Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, full of startling and creatively grotesque imagery yet replete with slightly twee humour that rubs up uncomfortably against the genuine dramatic weight the author sometimes appears to be trying to evoke, creating a thematic dissonance which never really goes away.
On the one hand, we have Persa quoting songs from Mary Poppins while offering Death a cup of tea and calling him “dear,” while on the other, we have those moments where we get a glimpse behind Persa’s eccentric but genteel mask, like so:
Fifty fucking years. The sudden sob almost choked her. No, not now, that the end was almost near.
Starting with humour and going to pathos is a tricky thing for any writer to pull off, but building to it slowly always works better than pulling a sudden hairpin reversal, and this apparent inability to decide on an emotional tone lends the proceedings a satirical air, which in turn makes the story difficult for a reader to commit their entire emotional attention to.
It’s at least as jarring as the occasional slip from first person limited POV into universal third person POV, which happens here—
Di shoved the small parcel into Persa’s face and drew back her hand the second Persa got hold of the parcel. She unfolded the many layers of brown paper to reach the sugary goodness inside, then fixed her eyes on Death.
“One cube of sugar, dear? More?”
One, came the reply, after what seemed like a moment of hesitation. Had he suspected? No. How could he?
He was Death, after all. What—or who—could possibly harm Death?
One way to try and fix this issue would be to go back and rephrase things to make it clear that this is Persa observing Death and speculating about what he might be thinking, rather than us suddenly being able to peep inside Death’s head over Persa’s shoulder. Changing “Had he suspected?” to “Did he suspect?” would also help to both clarify what’s going on and make it more immediate/active. Similarly, I’d probably rewrite the very first part so that Di isn’t shoving the parcel of sugar into Persa’s face but rather her hand, surreptitiously, in such a way as to not alert Death to the fact that Di doesn’t want to touch it any longer than she has to, which means it’s probably a threat.
In terms of simple mechanical fixes, meanwhile, there’s a fair amount of similar repetition, passivity and overstuffing throughout that need to be smoothed away, while many paragraphs could be further clarified by breaking them up into separate sentence clusters that might then reveal places where the action and/or description could be elaborated upon. But there are also much larger issues which need to be clarified, especially in terms of the science fiction dystopia meets Biblical apocalypse back-story—the timeline gets a bit over-complicated, especially when juggling a universal “Panacea code” which hacked human beings’ system to cure all diseases with the development of an anti-Panacea code nanobot virus which killed people and then caused them to rise from the dead.
Here, for example, Death implies the nanobots were the result of a Singularity, ie that they arose “naturally” after machines developed artificial intelligence…
The Singularity had been estimated for after the Apocalypse, by the survivors, not before. The development of the nanobots was …unexpected. A twist of his thin lips, as if his tea had changed to vinegar. It came as no surprise that mankind managed to mess up their greatest achievement.
…but immediately afterwards, Di and Jackson go on to argue that the nanobot virus was released by human hackers, which would seem to cut the artificial intelligence part of the equation out. So the answer might be to basically pick one cause and stick to it.
However, I’d also like to point out that many of these instances only became clear to me on a second reading, because I was too caught up in the ghoulishly whimsical plot and very distinctive voice to entirely register them on my first trip around the narrative block, especially in sections such as these:
Death sprang to his feet, and rose with a burst of darkness over Persa’s couch, his snarl stretched wide over a fleshless, angular face. His human clothes ripped apart, his hoodie now great black wings, his denim writhing wrappings and swirling shroud. A maelstrom of shadows spiraled behind him, its center the gates of Hades and Purgatory and Hel and Sheol and countless realms of torture and despair. Skeletal hands reached out—out of the shadows, out of Persa’s couch and walls and ceiling and floor, tearing apart her house, her furniture, and reality itself.
Persa stood and composed herself. “Now, dear. That’s just rude.”
In conclusion, this is an entertaining and inventive story with a lot of merit, one which I think could be easily made submittable by careful editing and overall clarification of content.