Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, Science Fiction

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.

For The Love Of An Enemy by Penelope Lee

Wouldn’t you know, although I’ve seen quite a few titles in the genre and snagged a fair number of those for my TBR pile, this is the first time I’ve actually read steampunk space opera. I am now intensely curious as to how railroad tracks work in space. I can’t quite envision it, and I keep wondering, but that’s just me being me, and it’s not what this excerpt is trying to do in any case. It has other priorities.

Beginnings are hard. We have to draw the reader in, provide just enough information to keep her reading, and still manage to keep the whole picture in mind—even for explorer-writers, who discover the territory as they go, there’s still the worldbuilding and the setting and the basic structure of the story to keep track of.

I like this one. There’s plenty of setting and background to establish where we are, what kind of universe this is, and who the characters are. Those characters carry enough interest to keep me reading, while the pacing moves along quickly and the story builds itself, element by element. The writing is deft and confident: this writer is in command of her prose.

A beginning like this, particularly when it’s followed by a scene set in the past, can go in several directions. It might be a framing device for the main story, which proceeds from the second scene and ends on the prison train. Or it might be the main story, and the second scene is a flashback, the beginning of an explanation as to how the protagonist ended up on the train. The whole story could be told through braided scenes, interweaving past and present, or it might settle in one timeline or the other and develop itself from there.

It does seem that the first scene is a frame; the second scene promises to be a story that the narrator tells within that frame. She calls it a love story, and the title backs it up. This could be straightforward, or it could be ironic. We don’t know yet: we don’t have enough proof of her reliability as a narrator.

There are a few intriguing twists. The idea that prisoners’ memories may have been removed, or that a prisoner might have had hers restored—voluntarily? Involuntarily, as a punishment?—promises to add to the complications of the story as it unfolds.

What I said above about narrative reliability comes into play here. If memories can be tampered with, can our protagonist be sure she’s remembering what really happened? Are her memories incomplete? Might they even be false?

All of that is still an open question, here in the first two scenes. The prose is strong, the imagery powerful and sometimes harrowing. It makes me, as a reader, want to keep going, to find out what happens. To get to know these characters better. To find out how this universe works. And, of course, how humans have managed to turn interstellar space into a steam-era railway.

–Judith Tarr

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