Editor’s Choice Review December 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 SWAN SONG OF OLIVER ROSEN, CHAPTERS 1 & 2 REV by Sarah Elizabeth

Word for word and scene for scene, this is a strong opening, with vivid and well-realized characters and a story that kept me reading all the way to the killer line at the end. It’s good, and I would unquestionably read on. I want to know more.

What caught my eye as I scanned submissions for the Editor’s Choice was the author’s comment about genre and the rules thereof. Urban Fantasy seems to be a catch-all for fantasy set in the present day, with magic of course, and an urban setting. This piece, says the author, breaks the rules.

First one being, it would seem, that the setting is rural—mostly, a cornfield, and a country road. There’s magic hinted at, between the color of Oliver’s eyes and the fact that he can apparently confer immortality on others. There’s a mystery to be solved, and danger to face, as crusty old Haru agrees—reluctantly—to become Oliver’s protector.

This all works just fine, in fact more than fine. It’s internally consistent, the voice is clear and distinctive, the pacing is brisk and the characters believable. But it doesn’t read to me as Urban Fantasy.

It is contemporary, more or less. There’s a “Supernatural” vibe about it, in the setting, in the way the characters talk and think. Both things and people are well-worn; there’s no shiny newness to dazzle the eye.

This isn’t, so far, about supernatural creatures walking the streets of present-day cities (and there’s the whole debate about “urban” being more germane than “contemporary”; any city in any period on any world might qualify). It harks back to an older subgenre, halfway between Magical Realism and William Faulkner. There’s even a hint of good old-fashioned country-boy science fiction in the mode of Theodore Sturgeon and Clifford Simak.

It’s not breaking the rules of these subgenres. It fits them quite well. And that I think might be worth considering in pitching to an agent.

Genre is a tricky thing. As soon as we label a work, we set up expectations in the reader. She comes to the work for specific reasons, looking for specific things. If she doesn’t get them, she may feel betrayed. This isn’t the story she’s looking for.

I can understand the desire to label a present-day story with magic Urban Fantasy. It’s big right now. Lots of bestsellers.

But a story like this, which follows a different set of rules, might be more appealing to an agent if it’s labeled something like “Supernatural and Neil Gaiman got together and had a baby,” rather than “UF but not really.” There’s a lot to love here, if the reader isn’t trying to fit this delightfully rhomboidal story into a neat round hole.

–Judith Tarr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *