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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
“Hymns of Sand and Stone” caught my eye this month because of its immediate prose, sophisticated use of a complex protagonist, and a tension that rises up between sentences like groundwater. It’s a story about colonialist power dynamics that doesn’t simplify, rooted deeply in how its characters are handled–which is why, this month, I’d like to discuss subtle handling of an unreliable protagonist–and going beyond the Protagonist Is a Bad Person story.
The Protagonist Is a Bad Person story is one of the (many!) useful shorthands that come out of Strange Horizons’s Stories We’ve Seen Too Often page: a post their earlier editorial team made to document persistent slushpile trends and concepts that are so prevalent they’re hard to impress with. It’s a story that can be loosely described as a morality play or parable, one that only exists to impress on the reader fear for the consequences if they act the same way. And while there’s a loose validity in describing “Hymns of Sand and Stone” as examining how its protagonist behaves poorly, and gets a comeuppance in being personally colonized by the local magic, what I’m interested in is how it walks right past that trap into a full-on examination of colonialist power dynamics–how its protagonist behaves harmfully as part of a system of violence–and ends up as a deeply affecting and tension-filled illustration of colonized societies that felt emotionally real.
Crafting a story this carefully balanced takes both insight and skill, and there are a few notable craft decisions that help “Hymns of Sand and Stone” pull off its concept. The most standout is the choice of a second-person POV.
Writing in second person tends to pull strong reactions from readers, and other writers, but considering the subject matter of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”—colonialism, brutality, resistance—and the gaps between what the protagonist can see and the reader’s knowledge, I think it’s an exquisitely appropriate choice of point of view. One of the main effects of second person is explicit complicity between the reader and the protagonist, and for the vast majority of SFF readers, complicity is the core emotional question in a story about colonialism.
The second strong craft choice is how “Hymns of Sand and Stone” builds its fantasy culture on a psychological realism that is exceptionally well-seeded through the piece–and one which has its own arc of progression to follow. A portrait of a character is one thing, but “Hymns of Sand and Stone” includes the excellent decision to make its portrait dynamic. The protagonist’s opening sentence—”You just want to help”—can be at first taken at face value, and then quickly slides from that into “can’t fault the goals, but don’t like the methods” and “we didn’t like it but,” until by the end of the piece, that insistence on benevolent help has morphed into contempt and snarling hate.
Effective fiction often has an arc of growth: something changes in the character between the first paragraph and the last. In “Hymns of Sand and Stone” the protagonist’s personality does not change, but it is revealed, in a way that creates that feeling of change and motion–and echoes up on the thematic level to deepen and complicate into a whole comment on colonialism and how those types of helpers build up and bolster its effects.
It’s an especially effective trajectory to take with a character in the between-place the protagonist occupies: an object of power and pity to Elly and the other servants, and a subject to her husband—one who knows everything about how to minimize his violence and escape his notice. I love the messiness of the power dynamic here: how realistic it is, how alone the protagonist is caught between those power positions, and how that still doesn’t excuse her part in the system that keeps the Sandsbloods subjugated. It’s a position that inspires complex emotional reaction–disgust, compassion, fascination, complicity, and then ultimately self-examination. It’s a position that’s well-calibrated to create effect in readers.
And that, I think, is the major triumph of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”–and what, I think, makes it jump far and away above the vengeful air of a comeuppance story: at no point does it tell readers how to feel about its protagonist. The narrative isn’t assuming an authority over the protagonist, punishing or rewarding her; “Hymns of Sand and Stone” is entirely, on the text level, descriptive. The subtext definitely has opinions on her choices and situation, especially when Elly and the other servants are onscreen, or being imagined, but the text level lets her speak, and that transforms a narrative that could have been coercive–”feel this way about this attitude; these are the rules to follow”–into something that’s descriptive and demonstrative, that gives readers a clear window into a very complex, very common attitude to let us grapple with it ourselves–in second person, in you, in a position of full complicity. “Hymns of Sand and Stone” lets complicated things be complicated, and therefore makes room for a complex reaction in readers: one that’s ultimately going to be more memorable than a platitude.
It’s a significantly accomplished and subtle piece of work, and I look forward to seeing it in print.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)