Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

Songs Of Transience And Permanence by Hannah Hulbert

I gravitated toward this submission because it pinged two of my Favorites buttons: magic based on music, and the Anglo-Saxon era. I am not an expert in music, but I agree with the Author’s Note that the story should get a beta read from someone who is. I can even offer Recommended Reading in the form of a historical fantasy series by an author whose knowledge of music is deep and wide: T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas. There’s a novel coming in early 2019, but in the meantime the novellas are nice and short and might provide inspiration.

As for the story itself, there are some good things going on. Music has always been used to manipulate emotions; it’s a natural extension of this to create a magical system, and a set of magic users, who wield the power of music for political purposes. It’s a nice wrinkle to tell the story of a naive young musician who tries to foment revolution through a song–and discovers that he’s not only far from the first to do so, his attempt backfires. In a way he gets what he wanted, but it’s not at all what he expected.

That’s a nice twist. So is the setting, which isn’t a common one in fantasy these days. Anglo-Saxon culture was steeped in music and song. It’s believable that adepts might work powerful magic with it.

What I’d like to focus on here is one of the author’s questions, the one about names. Names have power. In fantasy, and especially in secondary-world fantasy, they’re an essential part of the worldbuilding.

Purely coincidentally, after I had chosen this submission for the music and the setting, one of my fellow writers on Twitter put up a thread about naming in fantasy: https://twitter.com/adribbleofink/status/1031969208576368640 . The thread is mostly about cultural appropriation, but it’s also about why names are important, and why it’s important to be fully conscious of what those names mean. Even with the best of intentions, if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we can run into trouble.

Let me be quick to add that I don’t see anything appropriative about the story I’m reading here. It respects the sources, and it wants to create a cultural ambience through the use of names and terms in Anglo-Saxon. The question is about whether those names are a distraction.

My direct answer is that some of them are. Those that use special characters are confusing to the modern eye, and if the reader doesn’t know how to pronounce them, they get in the way. For myself, I would normalize the cyning/king’s name to AElfraed, which is still more authentic than not, but less likely to throw the reader’s browser into paroxysms. Mine, for example, gave me ÆlfrÇ£d.

My less direct answer has to do with the names of the main characters. Regina is a Latin name, but we aren’t told why she’s called that. Is she descended from Roman Britons? Does she come from Italy or one of the Roman provinces across the Channel?

Even if she is, her name still needs some basis in the world and the story. It’s actually a title, and tends to be applied to the Virgin Mary as Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. It’s not uncommon in the modern world—it’s my mother’s name, in fact. But in the age of Alfred, it stands out.

The protagonist’s name presents a similar set of issues.The prose in general aims toward high fantasy, but Nicky’s name drops us down into a nickname with a modern flavor. It’s usually short for Nicholas, which is a form of the Greek name Nikolaos. As with Regina, it makes me ask if he comes from somewhere other than the land of the Angles and the Saxons. Or if he is a native Saxon, and he’s been given a saint’s name (as Regina has been given a title of the Virgin Mary), that points to a Christian presence. But we don’t see it in the story–and we should; it was a major influence on the whole culture, from top to bottom.

As a reader, I want to know why the author chose those particular names in a story that is so careful otherwise to describe the world and its people in Anglo-Saxon terms. Why not give these two characters Anglo-Saxon names? What is the reasoning behind the choice? How does the worldbuilding support it? What is its significance within the setting?

It’s perfectly possible to use those names in a story set in the age of Alfred, but as a reader, I want to understand why. The story is about these characters; they’re its focus. Their names should speak to the core of who and what they are–and tell us a great deal about the world in which they live.

–Judith Tarr

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