Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

Inflexible (Part 1 of 2) by James Victor

“Inflexible” caught my attention this month with its meditative narrative voice; its deeply-considered, half-familiar, half-odd, vivid worldbuilding; and the way it handles funny and horrible and mournful events together, and draws them all to a satisfying conclusion. And it achieves that effect using small cues—facts, established understandings, and details—that all start in the very first scene. So this month, I’d like to talk about developing small things into larger ones to create a sense of unity in our work.

“Inflexible” is set in a richly developed world: one that feels like one of the less-utilized corners of Renaissance Europe. There are just enough standard tropes present here—vampires, executioners—to solidly establish place and genre, but the way they’re handled feels fresh, vivid, and alive. There’s a sense, reading this piece, that there’s been first-principles thought given to how those tropes might really work—and that focus on logistics and social dynamics creates a concretness in the setting that makes it feel real and relevant.

The second element in play in “Inflexible” is the narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is an excellent observer, balancing his relative silence and lack of general agency by offering up a steady flow of details: Ganoes’s anxious tapping fingers, the little clue of how Harrad rebuffs Ganoes’s intimacy by placing his sword on his knee.

Those little details add to the feeling of immersion and credibility in “Inflexible”, but they also each serve as tiny seeds for larger issues that will show up in the story—and that’s where this piece really starts to work well for me: foreshadowing.

The first scene of “Inflexible” is rife with details or comments that each grow into larger—pivotal—narrative concerns later on. Ganoes’s anxiety is a great clue, in hindsight, that he was anxiously up to something unusual—personal—with this commission, and that turns out to be the motive that brings Harrad down. The rules prohibiting Harrad from resting his greatsword in any comfortable way discreetly prefigures the story’s entire conflict, where there is no way Harrad’s duties let him carry his office without getting seriously hurt. The narrator’s uncertainty about whether to act or hang back is a establishes him as a character who can’t yet parse the swirling social context around him well enough to exercise good judgment, and it’s a tiny microcosm of his absolutely fatal error in letting the almoner have his guest.

What foreshadowing does in a piece of fiction is prime the reader’s expectations: it’s a little piece of information about a character or a situation that’s offered in order to make the later reveal feel more inevitable, more satisfying, more right, and all of those little hints are deployed very effectively. When the larger, more serious incidents establish major plot points, none of them feel abrupt, unreasonable, or out of nowhere. Nothing that happens feels out of line with these characters’ personalities and tendencies, because as a reader, the story’s already alerted me that these are things those characters would do. An emotional arc is being resolved, not opened, and so every turn in “Inflexible”—set up as they are—feels incredibly satisfying.

That smooth machining of plot elements makes every development emerge smoothly from the last, and the inevitable tragic ending feel right, because it’s couched in all kinds of hindsight. In retrospect, as a reader, I can see exactly which traps, miscues, and inevitabilities made this fall together.

The other element that makes “Inflexible” work for me is the tone. I feel like it’s not exceptionally common to read a story with this kind of material that takes the perspective and tone this one does. While the execution itself is incredibly grisly, it’s described with a quiet, sad, almost bitter compassion that takes the sting out of what’s being depicted; I never felt as if “Inflexible” was aiming to shock, or to hurt.

Overall, this is a very strong piece that doesn’t twig a great many suggestions for me. I would consider, if word count is a factor, trimming the conversation about women in prison, the guard, and sexual assault considerably; it’s one of the few elements in this piece that doesn’t pay off in any way later, and what it gains in character development—who the guard thinks the narrator is, and establishing for readers how that’s untrue—might not be enough to merit the space it’s taking up.

To answer the questions in the author notes: Yes, I think it very much works, and best of luck finding this piece a home!

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

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