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 Citadel, CH1PT1 by Saidhbh Duncan
This is a good beginning. It establishes the setting, sketches enough of the world that the reader gets a sense of where she is, and introduces the two narrators. Their voices are distinct and they present two different views of the same situation. The result is a rounded picture of the central figure, Lutran, and a set of questions and ambiguities that kept this reader reading.
As I said, a good start. The imagery is vivid, though sometimes a bit distracting—the stuttering blood, for example—and the writing overall is strong.
Here’s what I get from a cold read without background:
We’re in what looks like an alternate France, perhaps preindustrial but data so far is lacking; someone might pull out a gun later, or we may see a higher-tech facet of the world. Magic works, and something called the Citadel has some sort of power over it. I am wondering as I read, how this relates to or is inspired by the Citadel from Game of Thrones. Intentional? Coincidental?
Religion is powerful force here. Poorly and hastily built street confessionals thrown up everywhere, staffed by “presters,” i.e. priest figures, indicate some sort of upsurge in religious power or religiosity. Or is this a form of governmental control? Spying? I want to read on, to see if my questions are answered.
Meanwhile it appears that people with evident high competence and skill levels, and presumed education, believe that priests speak directly to God, and interpret God’s will or intentions. What I get from that is that in the belief system of this world, God speaks through sanctioned intermediaries, not directly to layfolk.
Which is very Roman Catholic, and subtle and impressive in terms of below-the-surface worldbuilding. There’s another layer, too, in that the prester in his confessional is not actually in direct contact with the Deity; he’s no more or less aware of divine will or intentions than anyone else. And like anyone else, if he wants God to act, he has to pray, and then wait for evidence that the prayer has been heard. This may point to a deep conflict within the world of the novel, and perhaps the novel itself.
It’s a bleak world, with terrible weather and harsh penalties for infractions. There appear to be no women in the street, and none among the principal characters—which of course may change in later chapters. I would hope so, as a reader, since I like to see myself represented in the works I read. And as a Western medievalist I can confirm that the female half of the species was distinctly in evidence in every city and town.
The author’s note asks about Piers’ dialect. I’ve noticed a recent fashion for writing in nonstandard English, after a long period of writers avoiding it, and when it works, it really works. But it’s a challenge to pull off.
Here, as I came in cold, my first impression was that I was reading a Weird West novel, because this particular variety of dialect points that direction. “It does” is kind of Cockney, but “ain’t” and “you reckon” and many of the subsequent stylistic choices have an American feel. There are slippages, too, into a more sophisticated or more widely traveled imagery: the cobblestones are wading, like an hundred islands in a dirty sea, for example. (And is the “an” intentional, indicating a more archaic pronunciation of “hundred”?)
I’m not seeing France in Piers’ diction, despite the rest of the indicators, the slant of the names and places, the pervasiveness and general direction of the religion. He confuses me with his shifts and verbal signals; I don’t know where to place him or how to hear him. Even his name has resonances that aren’t quite clear. Is he Old French Piers, or Middle English Piers? He’s probably not American West despite the way he talks, and the setting feels as if it’s meant to be more European than North American.
I have ingrained “Do Not Dialect” conditioning from my writer-childhood, so that’s a set of assumptions I have to factor in. I would, as a reader, like to something that clarifies why an English or American lower-class-type person with a medieval nickname is traveling around alternate France.
I don’t think the dialect should disappear altogether, because the distinction between the two voices is one of the things that makes the opening work. We get a sense of who the narrators are through their words as well as their names, occupations, and actions. But I think Piers can speak more neutrally and still do the job he’s meant to do.
There’s a multifold challenge here, if I am reading it right and Piers is telling his half of the story in some form of French. Since he’s written in English, the English has to work as English but also convey the not-English-ness of the character—without slipping into stereotype or caricature. If he’s not French, then there’s the question of where all the French names come from and why they remained French when the dialect of the countryside shifted to English.
The simplest fix I might suggest is to tone down the dialect: neutral narration, with a few carefully chosen words and constructions that convey the non-English-neutrality of Piers’ viewpoint. Vocabulary, choice of words, the order in which those words are written, can do a lot with a little. So can keeping the dialect to a minimum in narration but letting it do its thing in dialogue.
In the end, the best rule I can point to is Whatever Works. For me, this chapter works well, questions of dialect aside; I would definitely want to read on.