Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, Fantasy

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.

The Sharp-Edged Detritus Of Broken Words by Marion Engelke

Lately I’ve been happening across submissions that trend toward the all-the-details end of the draft spectrum. This is a thoroughly valid process, and can result in beautiful, rich and layered fiction. But in revision, the emphasis will be on pruning and paring away the extra words to uncover the structure of the story.

This time I’ve opted to look at a submission that falls on the other end of the range. It’s lean and honed and totally pared down. There’s nothing extra; everything that’s there is meant to be there.

“The Sharp-Edged Detritus of Broken Words” holds together with exquisite precision. I didn’t miss any information about the dragons within the context of the story. Everything worked for me; some aspects were implied rather than explicit, but the implication was clear. This is a good example of how to choose just the right details, and the reader pick up the rest.

My questions about the worldbuilding are fascination-questions, rather than “I’m missing this from the story” questions. I love the idea of dragons singing languages into and out of existence, and turning written words into edged weapons. It’s gorgeous. I wanted to know where the dragons come from, whether they show up everywhere in the same year, where they go in between, and why the period is so precise. And who figured out what they do, if everyone’s mind and world are so altered? What happens to the trove of salvaged books? Is it always one scholar who saves them? Does she pass on her knowledge? Is someone or something controlling the dragons? Is there a reason for what they do? And what about people in their houses? How do they protect themselves against the word-shrapnel? What is the process that alters everything about them? What does it look like, feel like?

So many questions, but that’s a sign of success. The worldbuilding is so tight and focused and pointed, but there’s so much underneath. I want to know more. I want to see more of this world, and understand it better. And at the same time, I’m content with what I see in this one story. It covers what it needs to cover.

One thing I would suggest, since this is so tightly written and so precisely constructed, is to really, really watch the way the words fit together. It’s always important to hunt down and kill infelicities of grammar and syntax in one’s writing, but they’re particularly important in a story as concise as this.

I noted that prepositions sometimes wander out of bounds, or idioms don’t quite parse. For example:

tips and tricks of what to plant when and where, of what to do

The more common idiom would probably be for rather than of.

a burgeoning fruit and vegetable patch behind the house was going a long way for keeping food

And here, toward would be the more standard usage than for.

Rosa passed under the row of iron spears of the portcullis into the city’s unnerving silence

This is what I call a prepositional pileup. It’s maybe trying a shade too hard to be concise. Opening it up and separating the phrases would make the meaning a little clearer and the flow a little smoother.

What in all that’s holy are you doing here?”

The usual phrase is “in the name of all that’s holy.” I kind of like the shortened form here, but it might catch a copy editor up short.

Everybody moved in a flowing, gliding gait

Here again, there’s a sort of logic to it, but the idiom is more usually “with a flowing gait.”

And finally, here’s a bit of story-blocking that made me stop to figure out the visual:

The voice sounded from her right. Rosa flinched and jumped to her feet. A woman stood in front of her

The voice is coming from the right but the woman is in front of her?

These are really quibbles. Structurally and conceptually the story is lovely. I want to see more—to know what happened when Rosa went home—but I’m satisfied with the amount of story that I’ve been given. It’s rounded; it’s complete. I have enough information to imagine what happens next. The important parts are all there. The rest is a lovely silence.

–Judith Tarr

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