Editors Choice June 2018, Short Story

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.

As Day Follows Night by Karen Kobylarz

The school of fantasy that contains “As Day Follows Night”—Sword and Sorceress, DAW Books, and rigorously systematized magic—isn’t normally my cup of tea as a reader. However, this month I found myself drawn to this piece’s stakes, clarity, and the way it renders messy relationships with compassion—without sacrificing its identity as an accessible piece of adventure fantasy.

“As Day Follows Night” takes care to immediately establish a universe that, while it has strict magical, hierarchical, and economic formalities, contains an ocean of nuance when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Idhon is a messy antagonist-mentor, looked down upon for his rumoured exploitation of the Initiates, but acting out of a backstory steeped in love, pain, and responsibility. Marha’s immediate impression of Kilha—someone she loves like a sister and yet has clearly spent enough time cleaning up after to react with “No, no, no. Kilha had given up her impetuous ways”—is juxtaposed with Kilha’s actual motives, which are satisfyingly complex. And Marha is asked to make a choice that has no clean resolution.

It’s nonetheless a cycle-breaking choice, and ends with a distinct note of hope. That resolution’s deeply satisfying, as are details like the gross-delightful weirdness of Sebhina as a cat, and how a magic force that privileges life over all else would deal with something like cancer.

There are some issues I’d suggest could be looked at to bring this piece up to fuller potential, though, and they mostly revolve around honing the story’s strong points to privilege internal consistency.

The first: the narrative’s treatment of Idhon. He’s initially described as strapping and stalking, a character full of barely leashed grabbiness and violence—which evaporates entirely once they start talking about the Crystal (although he’s incredibly handsy with Marha even after they’re cooperating, and he still blackmails her). There’s a point early on where, after “As Day Follows Night” establishes that Idhon isn’t an antagonist per se, Marha seems to just let these behaviours go—for example, Marha follows him alone into a room away from the rest of the Initiates without hesitation and doesn’t talk back when he threatens her—and those two things don’t add up. She has years of gossip, disapproval, and fear to draw upon, and its abrupt vanishing feels off to me.

I’d suggest looking for a little more consistency in his affect, or Marha’s reactions to him—or perhaps both. I’m not suggesting flattening Idhon, but looking through his reactions and emotional arc from an internal point of view to ensure they’re consistent, and establishing a consistent arc for how Marha thinks of him and reacts to his pressures on her.

I’d also suggest making sure the piece is putting enough trust in the readers. In Idhon and Marha’s first exchange, it’s clear from the dialogue how sarcastic Idhon is being; it may well be unnecessary to explicitly point it out instead of letting the tonality carry the impression. Likewise, in “Marha grimaced. His harsh tone turned the quivery sensation into a gut-punch,” I’d suggest cutting the first sentence and looking at the impact the second has, standing alone; in “Marha took another step back, her head shaking in denial,” it’s clear what a shake of the head means.

There’s more than economy of language in play here: Letting readers fill in those emotions means they’re mirroring, they’re using their empathy, they’re making a reach toward Marha, and it helps readers invest in the story and her to relate their own emotional content to hers.

I’d suggest that economy of language is a priority, though, mostly to tighten up the pacing in the middle acts of the piece. Once Marha fights off Sebhina and goes searching through the cave, I’m skimming somewhat until Kilha mentions their grandmother is ill; I’m skimming again once their grandmother tells them, in flashback, about the Crystal. It’s the second scene of exposition on the nature of the Crystal readers have, in a very short space, and I’d suggest that time backfilling is sometimes time spent not moving forward. While those are the main spaces I’d focus on, I’d suggest it’s plausible to get 1,000 words out of “As Day Follows Night” just by tightening, and that doing so would keep the pace lively.

I’d also look for a consistency in the invented terminology used: the sun is “the sun” sometimes, and “the day-star” others, for example—and a reason for each. Does anything in this story actually rely on knowing what the in-world name for creative power is? I’d suggest a read through the piece for when invented or metaphoric terminology is a major contributor to the plot or worldbuilding, and when it’s perhaps doing more to just fill space.

There are aspects of “As Day Follows Night” I’m going to withhold comment on: the way invented spellcraft-language operates in a universe that’s short story-sized, for example, or where winged cats and crystals and bad guys throwing lightning at good guys are as tropes in the wider conversation right now. They’re aspects of the piece that don’t connect with me as a reader, but I’m well aware that they’re also cornerstones of this particular subgenre. My slight dislike is going to be another reader’s absolute pleasure.

What I would recommend is finding someone with a keen eye who’s a fan of this flavour of fantasy to evaluate those elements; they’ll be much more effective at communicating whether they’re firing on all cylinders, and that dual feedback will prevent some aspects of “As Day Follows Night” from being more noticeably polished than others.

Overall, though, “As Day Follows Night” is cleanly written, engaging, and a piece that manages to work as light and accessible reading without being lightweight or unsatisfying.

Best of luck with it!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

 

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