Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

When Bereft Of One’s Counsellor (Part 1) by Richard Keelan

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” caught my eye this month with its casual melding of an Arab/Spanish setting and classic second-world fantasy—and the interesting intricacy of Noor, Salma, and Khalid’s political process as its focus, instead of battle and blood. It’s a more interesting perspective on how wars are won, it conveys that perspective—while firmly staying in the adventure fantasy genre—by using a variety of embedded worldbuilding assumptions. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we convey to readers by saying it explicitly, and what we convey by what our narratives endorse—and how to harness that to create more effective story work.

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” iterates the idea of adventure fantasy in a different—and yet tonally consistent—direction. Its Moorish Spain-flavoured world feels new and yet it’s got all the components of a Tolkienesque universe: castles, sieges, elves, dwarves, quests. Add some good splashes of sensory imagery—”softer than a pebble tumbling down a snowdrift” is quite evocative—and well-paced battle scenes, and immediate stakes in the opening paragraph, with “Anasalença was burning,” and it’s a story in a familiar genre vein, but with more.

What caught my attention is that “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” is classic second-world adventure fantasy with an ethic, and the ethic isn’t being communicated didactically, but woven into the very fabric of the piece. When we talk about what a story endorses, frequently what we’re talking about is which assumptions about the world are treated as a given by the story—not necessarily the characters, but the narrative voice. And “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” communicates most of its worldbuilding in an integrated fashion that takes full advantage of that effect.

Just a few (a pile!) of examples: Noor and their Orccen colleagues casually use sign language together—having idiom and dialect, which Noor can’t always understand because it’s a second language for them. Salma shows a Dwarven woman as a competent and trusted soldier, even though that’s not her main role; her main role is to propel Noor into the election. The fact that the Remnancy is democratic and not a hereditary monarchy—led by mayors and electors—and that means Noor, Salma, and Khalid must use different strategies to win their particular battle.

On the sentence level, lines like “his Dragonnen soldiers—men like us, loathe as we were to admit it—” and the description of the Elfren militia as Noor’s “friends and neighbours” are a direct refutation of the kind of black-and-white morality that’s one of the core tropes—and bluntly, one of the core failure points—of secondary-world fantasy.

All this sits against the backdrop of what we’re canonically used to in elves-and-dwarves fantasy—racial segregation and stereotyping with races as monocultures, strongly hierarchical government, Western European-derived and English-speaking worlds, and problems being solved by alternate applications of magic and genocide. But “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” refutes that not by replicating it or actively calling it out; it just exists differently, on different assumptions. The entire setup of “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” quietly believes in a world where morality isn’t a racial characteristic, and while it never says that outright, it doesn’t have to: every worldbuilding choice it makes conveys that message.

It also quietly believes in society—in interreliance, in collective action. That assumption is shown in Noor’s days of campaigning, their thinking ahead to Hasan’s credibility in case Noor loses the election, the idea that Elven fighting can do a job sometimes when Orccen can’t and vice versa; that Hasan can be good for one job, but not effective at another, and that doesn’t make him bad. People save Noor’s life with their own bodies. The highest office is Steward, which connotes responsibility, not power—and Noor and Hasan’s argument over it an argument about the proper fulfillment of responsibility. When Noor does go alone, they take Khalid’s arms with them.

All those assumptions tell me, as a reader, about the world “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” believes in. This is adventure fantasy with nuance—and it hasn’t sacrificed the adventure to get it, because the page space, the exposition, the time we spend with Noor, hasn’t had to be used to do that worldbuilding. The worldbuilding’s been done in the assumptions, freeing up page space for Noor, Salma, and Khalid to contest an election and rout a siege. Freeing up page space for, in short, the plot.

From a craft standpoint, having an ethic—and knowing what assumptions about the world our stories endorse—is good writing. It’s indicative that we, as authors, have thought about how our worlds work—and how the world we live in works, and it’s a crucial skill for writing works that are rooted in genre, but looking to grow. What’s more, using the same embedded assumptions that let a story show implicit bias to communicate important worldbuilding beliefs—to, in short, make choices instead of having accidents—is an incredibly powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It’s the kind of tool that lets one describe an entirely different vision of second-world Tolkienesque fantasy in the exact same space as a tense and rollicking story of breaking a siege, not compromising one for the other, and still do it in only about 8,000 words.

There are aspects of the piece that I think can use a little more attention. The magic system comes in late in the story: Noor doesn’t show a hint of having any magic until his foray to Santiago, at which point the entire story is dependent on it—and it makes the trip to Santiago’s camp a little too easy, and a little too anticlimactic. A little more telegraphing, early on, that it’s in Noor’s abilities would, I think, set that solution up better; alternately, a solution that’s more in keeping with the lower-magic, more physical resources Noor has already shown would also feel like a stronger fit.

Likewise, there are a few problems in plot logic. If Noor’s plan is to cripple Santiago by killing his counsellor, why go after Santiago first? The plan is going perfectly; there’s no reason to foul it up. And on a more pressing note: If Noor could rout Santiago single-handed, with the use of magic, then the entirety of Noor’s appeal to Hasan for more troops—and the entire election, and the entire plot of the story—has been for nothing. There is no reason to have not just done it this way the first time. That’s a major fault in plot logic, and it’s one that I think would bear some close examination.

On the prose level, there are also small places where scaffolding—bits of sentence that are a bit drafty—can be removed: “His scale-covered maw opened and spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears” conveys the same information as “His scale-covered maw spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears,” but it’s tighter and more streamlined.

But this piece feels well-integrated and interestingly ambitious, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

The Thaumechanical Man, Part 2, Chapter 12: Jail Break by Robert Rapplean

I had a lot of fun with this chapter. “Fun and adventury,” indeed. Although I came to it without having read what went before, thanks to the intro and the incorporation of key information into context, I had no trouble following the action or keeping the characters straight.

I particularly enjoyed the breaking of the “rule” about not throwing in characters who haven’t been there before and will probably never show up again—it’s a nice way to show the action from the outside, builds a bit of mystery and tension, and gives us a slice-of-life view of a random citizen. The intro’s reference to him—“It doesn’t matter who Jedia Shunk is”—has a lovely little side effect of capturing the tone of the chapter as a whole.

That tone is a good part of the fun: fast, casual, sharp and to the point, with a good dose of offhand wit. The characters are distinct and their gifts are as unusual as their personalities.

As I said, it’s fun. What I would suggest in revision is to pay really close attention to details of narrative, all the way down to the words and phrases. Wit calls for precision. In draft of course the priority is to get the words down on the page or screen, but to really make it work, you have to really make the words work. Every action and every description has to be clear, and the choice of words should be spot on.

For the most part the prose works, but it has a tendency to run over itself when the action is moving along quickly. There’s awkward phrasing—a hexagonal lantern-shaped street light, for example, or she had to peek from under the black cloth that she covered her face with when she went on surreptitious activities. These images need to be clearer, more concise, more focused on what they’re trying to mean. Tightening the phrasing will help, as will smoothing out the rough edges of the sentence structure.

Much the same applies to what’s going on here: Clempson removed a metal dome from the toolbox’s lid and pulled a paint pot and brush from the box. A black circle, about seven feet in diameter and four inches wide, took shape on the wall of the facility. It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether he’s painting the circle or whether it’s forming on its own. It might be clearer to say Clemson paints it–to make the action more active. Also, point of syntax: it’s looked in her direction.

Sometimes there’s a pronoun pileup, too: Exhibiting none of his earlier finesse, Morgs hammered left and right with blows that made his wrench ring and his hands hurt, giving him no opportunity to counter-attack. It’s not immediately clear which his belongs to which character, who’s hammering or who’s hurting or who can’t fight back. Paying closer to attention to who is who will help the reader keep the action straight, and make that action move more smoothly.

It’s important to keep track of the larger details as well—to be sure that what’s happening takes into account where all the characters are and what they see and hear. I kept wondering during the pre-break-in scenes, why the guards couldn’t hear the sounds Bat and Clempson are making to signal one another. On the one hand we are told that they’re trying not to make so much noise that they’re spotted, but wouldn’t all the scraping and clicking arouse suspicion? If not, why not? Do the guards have less acute senses than Bat and company?

I had the same question about the glowsticks Bat drops inside. What if someone sees them? Are they somehow only visible to our protagonists? What prevents them from betraying what’s going on?

Even with these quibbles and questions, I enjoyed the caper immensely. It’s a great start, and with some tweaking and tightening will be even more fun to read than it is in this draft.

—Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award Fantasy, June 2018

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 Amulet Chapter 1 by David Kernot

I was drawn to this submission by its lively energy and its carefully detailed Australian setting. Also, I like portal fantasies. There’s quite a bit of work to do with the prose, particularly the meanings and connotations of words and phrases, and readers of the ms. in its entirety will have specific and informed things to say about how this revision fits into the whole both structurally and thematically.

But that’s something other reviewers can do, and will do. I had thoughts in that direction myself—until I met Whitejay.

Disclosure: I write the twice-monthly SFF Equines column for Tor.com, and I’ve published an ebook from Book View Cafe, Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Also I have, at current count, seven horses on a farm in Arizona, and I’ve been a breeder and trainer for mumblemumble years.

So, when I meet a horse in a novel, I tend to fixate on it. I have expectations. Especially when the horse is given a name and the narrative implies that the characters (and by extension the author) care about it as an individual, I look for a more knowledgeable portrayal than if it’s just nameless transportation (though even there I have Thoughts).

My first thought here was, “A horse is not a motorcycle.” I had this thought even before we met Angus on his motorcycle and we learned that Ethan has deliberately chosen to ride a horse. Because Whitejay is treated exactly like a motorcycle or a bicycle. When Ethan is busy with plot-stuff, she’s stowed without moving, fidgeting, or interacting with her environment, and she shows no signs of needing to eat or drink.

It’s good that Ethan tells Elise to “keep an eye on the horses,” but she takes off, only pausing to tie Whitejay to a “small tree branch.” Ethan interacts with Whitejay, including a ferocious coughing fit, but Whitejay does not respond at all. Nor has she moved or shown signs of life.

What she would actually do is move around, especially if she can hear the booming voice, which might spook her or at the very least cause her to stand rigid, with ears pricked toward the sound—and here’s some proof for Ethan that there’s something there. Or if she doesn’t react, that’s a kind of proof, too.

In any case, whatever she does about the voice, while she’s tied she’ll try to graze or browse, maybe try to pull away when the other horse leaves (because herd animal sees herd member abandoning her), maybe paw impatiently if she can’t reach anything to eat. When Ethan pets her, she may push her nose into his hand, or she may nose his pockets for treats. She might stamp and switch her tail at flies. She’s a live animal with a mind of her own, and she will have her own ideas as to what should be happening.

Ethan’s fit of grief may get a reaction, too. She might move a little closer to him, and stand steady while he leans on her, supporting him with her greater weight and mass. She might curve her neck around him if she really relates to him, or she might shy away if she’s not into howling humans (though the relationship they have seems to be more or less reciprocal). His tears will wet her neck, and her smell will be sharper, in a way that’s pleasant to horse people though it may seem pungent to the rest of the world.

When the voice booms again, does Whitejay hear it? Or is she perfectly still? How does she participate in what’s happening to Ethan?

Hours later, when Ethan wakes up, Whitejay has been being a motorcycle all night. That means she hasn’t moved or reacted or been a living thing for all those hours.

If this is the actual case, then she’s been under a spell. Frozen, in stasis. Otherwise, once he falls off, she’s most probably run back home. The people there have seen her coming, realized she’s riderless, and gone to find Ethan.

If she has stayed with him (and horses who are bonded to their humans will do so), then she’s wandered at least somewhat in search of food and water. If she can’t find either, see above re. heading back home. Because horses need to eat pretty constantly, and they need water particularly in hot, dry conditions. Fifteen to twenty pounds of forage per day to maintain basic condition, and up to fifty gallons of water daily, though if it’s not too hot or dry, that amount goes down to five or ten gallons. Right now, with temperatures here running in the low 100s F during the day, my six who are turned out together are drinking down half of a 100-gallon tank and all of a 30-gallon barrel between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. That’s standing around, doing their thing.

Even without the mathematics of equine metabolism, when a human falls off a horse, the horse is likely to have a dangling rein, which she will probably step on and break. She may break the whole bridle, and it will either be on the ground or hanging from her in pieces. And if she’s been sweating, her saddle will itch, which means she may have rolled and tried to get it off—it will be dusty, dirty, and may be damaged when Ethan wakes up, and if he’s unlucky, she’s managed to break the girth and get rid of the whole rig. Probably not if she’s well trained and the saddle is well fitted and the girth is tight, but it is a possibility. Horses are geniuses at getting themselves into trouble. If they can, they will.

And then there’s what happens when Ethan gets on.

Horses do not talk like dogs. A whinny is a distress call. It’s ear-splittingly loud and it acts like a klaxon. ALERT ALERT HORSE ABANDONED WHERE IS HERD WHY AM I ALOOOOOONE! Also with stallions it can be the aria with which he greets his mares and challenges his rivals, and with mares it may be a call to the foal who has gone too far from her side. None of which applies to Whitejay.

When a horse greets a friend, she flutters her nostrils, a soft sound called a whicker or nicker. It’s the sound a mare makes to her newborn foal. It’s soft and gentle.

Or she won’t make a sound at all. She’ll turn her head to touch his knee, and that’s when he can tickle her whiskers. Though I don’t know why he would want to, because horse whiskers are sensory organs like those of a cat, and horses don’t generally respond well to having them messed with. He might more likely rub her neck or smooth her mane or, if she’s incredibly tolerant, tug oh so lightly on one of her ears. (Incredibly tolerant, be it noted. Horses can be tender about their ears.)

Once Ethan gets going, he would be really concerned to find water for the horse first of all, and feed soon after—supposing she hasn’t spent the night grazing. Dehydration in horses can be fatal, not just because of the usual effects in any animal, but because the equine digestive system is horribly easy to mess up. Everything goes only one way, there is no backup mechanism, and if there’s a blockage in the miles of intestine, that part can die and so can the horse. Colic is the number one killer of horses, and impaction colic is a frequent cause.

The motorcycle encounter shows Whitejay actually reacting, but if she’s that gentle and that well trained, I would propose that she doesn’t prance. All she does is stop, throw up her head, and look hard at the noisy thing. This I can tell you from experience is maddening to the asshole trying to make her blow up and ditch you.

After this episode, we discover that Ethan has a canteen of water. Which he has completely failed to share with the horse. Or even think of doing so. Bad Ethan. Bad horse person. Bad.

In reality, the canteen by now is empty, because he gave most of it to Whitejay, and he’s been taking tiny sips himself. As to how he gave it to her, most likely he used his hat as a bucket. Doesn’t have a hat? Give him one.

I am glad he reaches the trough right after this, but there are still many waterless hours. I also notice that she can hear the horn, and “prancing in place” seems to be her standard reaction to odd noises. Again, more likely she stops and focuses hard on it. Or she might shy away from it, and refuse to go forward when he tries to make her do so.

He won’t stroke her chest from the saddle to calm her. That involves leaning precariously out of the saddle and reaching down and around. Stroking neck possibly, speaking softly, relaxing his body and sitting as deep in the saddle as he can, doing his best to stay in the middle when she erupts.

Nor will her coat do what it does here. Horses unlike dogs or cats do not bristle when they’re alarmed. Their coats do fluff up when they’re cold, but their response to scary things is to prick their ears, tense their muscles, snort explosively (which is another form of alarm call) and, as you show here, to leap or bolt out of there. Then indeed he would go flying off, and Whitejay would head for home.

I appreciate the effort here to make the horse a character in the story, and to show Ethan’s relationship with her. With more knowledge and a better sense of how horses act and react, Whitejay will play much more believably, and may even offer some additional plot-stuff both in this chapter and in the rest of the story. She’s a very cool character, and Ethan’s connection with her has a lot of plot-potential.

–Judith Tarr

 

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)

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

One Thousand And One Daybreaks (Part 1 Of 2) by Lo Kwa

First of all, apologies for the technical screwup. When I nominated this section of the story, the system bounced me to part 2. I had to re-nominate, but there was no way to cancel the original nomination. So this first half is my Editor’s Choice for this month, and I apologize for any confusion.

I was drawn to this submission by the title—I’ve always been fascinated by the Thousand and One Nights—and drawn into it by the exquisite writing and the pure meta of a story about a world that is a storyteller’s story. The nonlinear structure works for me; the shifts of tense from present to past help to clarify the distinction between story-past and story-present, and it’s clear from the beginning that the story will shuttle in and out through various levels of story-time.

What makes it work is the sharp clarity of the protagonist’s motivation. She wants out, and she is doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Her ferocious concentration could almost be monotonous, as could her continuous series of failures. But just as I started to think that the circle needed to break, the excerpt ended with exactly that: the women and the two children.

A story of this quality needs to be absolutely on point, and for the most part it is. Before it goes out on submission (as I believe it should), I would recommend a thorough copyedit, and in revision, close attention to the finer details of grammar and diction.

A few examples caught my eye.

the larger, more expensive institution: It’s not completely clear what this refers to. Almost immediately we’re told about the academy, but I’m still wondering: larger than what? More expensive than what? A little clarification might help.

the wood is a little too intensely itself, assembled of a few lovingly-rendered details that do not leave room for the rest, both more and less what what she thought a wood should be: This is not a quibble (except for the proofreading note on the reduplicated what) but a little swoon. Such a lovely evocation of the worldbuilder’s dilemma: to provide enough details for the sense of a complete world, but neither so many that the narrative drowns in them, nor so few that the reader is left with gaps and confusion.

Niya’s hair has hung to her waist like a thick, glossy pane: I’m not sure that pane works in this context. I presume it refers to a windowpane, but the metaphor stretches a bit thin.

A double-double here: kneeling beside and opening the chest, and then a few lines down, her chest is tight with dread. Are we meant to see the large box as somehow connected to or symbolic of her torso? Or is this a word-echo, an artifact of the drafting process?

The grass is spackled with legend blossoms: I love the legend blossoms; they’re a beautiful piece of worldbuilding. I wonder about the word “spackled,” however. Is this meant to be speckled as in “spotted,” or is the image that of spackle laid over a sheet of drywall to fill in the gaps and the nail-holes?

eyes averted just enough to ensure that her reflection is centered: This feels a bit inside-out, as if averted wants to mean its opposite. Looking sidewise, avoiding direct gaze, but glimpsing just enough of the mirror to be sure that she’s where she wants to be. She’s looking at the mirror, but just enough; rather than away from it, which is what averted means.

There is no more time to waste on wishing that she could change the past. Here too I feel as if the sentence wants to mean the opposite of what it says. She wants to change the past. That’s what she’s been doing, over and over. I see how this might imply she’s no longer wasting time wishing, she’s going ahead and doing it, but the structure of the idiom points in another direction.

bittering the hollow carved out by failure: I’m not sure the verbing of the adjective bitter works here. I like that it’s concise, but still.

the pleasantly guarded air of a man who has always known that he is too intelligent to be understood: I’m not sure how pleasant such a man is likely to be, though he’s certainly likely to be guarded. Perhaps it’s that he’s deliberately amiable, even while he’s walled in on himself?

Having relived this exchange many times, it is obvious to Niya that: The irony of this dangling participle is that it appears in a context of “exactitude in language.” “It” has not relived this exchange, but Niya has. “It is obvious to Niya, who has relived this exchange many times….”

The whisper sounded like she had dragged: Few writers use the word like correctly any more, and this excerpt has multiple examples. Like is a preposition. It takes an object, either word or clause, as in, “The whisper sounded like a shout,” or, “The whisper sounded like a roar in the silence of the cavern.” Here, the correct form is, “The whisper sounded as if she had dragged…”

A voice cracks open. The words are familiar for all the wrong reasons. I’m not sure what’s happening here. What exactly is the voice doing? And whose is it? It seems to be one of the sisters’, but then it appears to be Niya’s, and it seems to be Niya who next speaks. There’s a bit of clarification missing, as to who is doing what. Is the voice saying the words quoted below it, or other words, or wordless sounds, or…?

He looks enough like a breathing illustration: I’m not sure how enough fits in here. Enough of what? Relative to what? Can the sentence do without it?

silken black tendrils twisting about the pale knife of her face as if underwater: This is a lovely image, but it skirts the edge of mixing metaphors, between the tendrils, the knife, and the water.

The sun slides down towards the tree-line like a cooling stain. I’m not sure what the image is aiming for. Stain of what? Why cooling? It’s almost as if it’s lava, but lava isn’t usually referred to as a stain. And stains aren’t usually mobile in this way, unless they’re spreading—but cooling doesn’t connect particularly closely with that particular concept.

grove again…assault again…bored again: This looks like a set of word-echoes, and perhaps unintentional?

All of these are just questions and quibbles. Some may be meant to be there, others may want correction or revision. Either way, the story itself is lovely, and structurally I believe it works. I would definitely read on. Will Niya finally escape? Or will she trapped forever in the storyteller’s hell? Or is there a third fate, which we’ll see in the next installment? I’ll be interested to find out.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Simulation – The Universe Within – Chapter 1 – Vance ‘Mac’ Davis by Mark Reeder

There’s a lot to like here. I can tell the author has put a great deal of thought into all the elements, from prose style to worldbuilding to characterization. The present tense doesn’t get in the way for me; it’s neutral, neither inappropriate nor intrusive. Nor am I perturbed by “non-typical” phrasing, though the intro led me to expect more of it than I found in the ms.

I do wonder somewhat about the cosmic rays. They come across to me as a placeholder: a general term for phenomena that might be described more specifically by an expert in the field. A layperson might use the generic term, but an expert would break it down into components, and talk about those components, as he tries to figure out what is happening and how and why. It’s one of those things that makes the difference to a reader between “author threw in concept to make story go” and “author knows a lot about concept and is dropping in a few key details that indicate the breadth and depth of his knowedge.” These details don’t need to be numerous. Two or three will do it, if they’re the right ones.

In terms of plot and characters, kudos for making a genuine effort to portray diverse characters, and what’s more, to tell the story through, and about, a disabled protagonist. Both of these are not easy to do.

The hard part when writing outside the white-male-cis-het-USian box is to know how to describe characters, both physically and in in terms of their linguistic and cultural context. The tendency to view white-male-cis-het-USian as default means that sometimes a writer tries a little too hard to make it clear that the character is not one or more of these things. So, here, we’re told frequently that both Davis and Singh are not white, that their skin is dark. On the one hand it’s good to address the tendency to view a character as default-white, but on the other, does the reader need to be reminded as often as she is here? Or to put it another way, would a white character’s skin color be referenced as often as these characters’?

I would suggest reviewing Singh’s portrayal in general and watching for racial and cultural stereotypes. He smiles a lot, and he’s quite ingratiating, which is a trope often applied to marginalized and colonialized characters. Add this to the fact we’re reminded so often that he’s Other, he’s non-default in his dress and skin tone, and the overall effect may actually undermine the attempt at diversity. Default is still white and USian, and that’s the perspective of the narrative, even though the viewpoint character is nominally non-white.

Female characters can trip up a writer as well. There’s a lovely lack of male gaze in the description of Caroline—she’s not sexualized, she’s described as she is, and while she’s not likable, that’s fine; neither is Davis. But the unnamed woman in the final scene leads with her breasts. Male gaze, like white gaze, is persistent, so much so that it creeps in even when a writer is trying deliberately not to do it. My question here is, does the woman really need to be sexualized? If so, why? Is the answer to what question essential to the development of the story? And can we get a sense of this in the narrative?

Finally, Davis is a disabled man, and his disability is a key element of the plot. I think it’s smart to portray him as a cranky bastard who became disabled as an adult and has spent much of his life trying to become non-disabled. So much of disability narrative is either inspiration porn or miraculous-cure fantasy. For actual disabled people, this is rage-inducing.

But, I think Davis just about gets away with it. The way he’s framed, the needs and emotions that drive him, make it work. I like the fact that the cure is anything but instant, and that when he finally does get it, he has to seriously work at it. That’s good.

There are stylistic and copyediting bits that I could quibble—length of paragraphs, choice of words and phrases, the location of a frown (no, it’s not the mouth, it’s the forehead and eyebrows)—but I think at this stage it may be more useful to focus on the underlying racial, cultural, and gender assumptions, and to work on fine-tuning those. The will to do it is clearly there; it’s just a matter of going deeper and paying closer attention to default assumptions.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award May 2018, Horror

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.

Some People Smell Roses by Anne Wrightwell

Many writers think the purpose of description is to help the reader imagine the events.  While that is certainly one purpose, description has many other purposes and potentials.  “Some People Smell Roses” uses descriptive details as emotional timebombs.   Two details in particular, a “noisy, blond toddler playing planes, zooming around” and a black leather jacket the protagonist’s boyfriend is wearing.  These help the reader imagine the events at the moment when they’re first introduced.  And though the reader doesn’t realize it, the timebombs have been planted.  When the protagonist, who knows the plane they are all about to board will crash, fails to stop the flight or save anyone beside herself, these details return with new power:  “Sometimes, I just dream about his black leather jacket lazily drifting down towards the sea.  Sometimes, I see the blond toddler with his arms outstretched flying through the air, laughing.”  That’s very nice.

Some other areas of the story could be strengthened.  A descriptive detail that is weak is the “horrible scent of death.”  This doesn’t fulfill that first purpose of description, allowing the reader to imagine the smell.  We are told that the smell is “horrible,” “disgusting,” “overwhelming.”  Those are all judgments, or telling, rather than sensory details, or showing.  Is it a meaty smell?  Does it smell like a mix of urine and chocolate?  The author’s job here is to provide vivid sensory details that lead the reader to conclude that the smell is horrible, rather than shortcutting the process and just saying it’s horrible.

Another area that could be strengthened is the plot.  Once the protagonist smells the smell and knows the plane is going to crash, she tries to warn her boyfriend, but he refuses to delay his trip along with her.  She considers warning others but fears she’ll be branded a hoaxer, a terrorist, or crazy.  So she does nothing.

I find it believable that she would fear warning others, but I think she has other options she’s not exploring.  And the story isn’t as engaging and suspenseful as it might be when the protagonist doesn’t actively struggle to achieve her goal.  In the current version, the smell is so bad it makes her vomit.  So she could, for example, get on the plane, where the smell would be even more concentrated, and vomit there.  The plane would then have to be delayed.  If she vomited on carpet and other hard-to-clean items, they’d probably have to take everyone off the plane and take it out of service for a few hours for cleaning.  Then she would have succeeded at saving everyone.  (The plane might crash later with new passengers on board, but at least she’d have tried.)  Maybe she tries this but the nice flight attendant cleverly catches the vomit in a sick bag so there is no mess and only the protagonist is taken off.

Maybe she attempts to execute this plan, but the smell is so bad on the jetway that she vomits there, and the flight attendants take her off, and the plane can still take off as scheduled.

Or the protagonist could look for a phone so she could call in a bomb threat to the plane (without incriminating herself by using her cell phone) to stop it from taking off, but either not find a phone or not reach the right person fast enough.

These could create a more engaging and suspenseful plot, but I’m not sure they fit your goal.  From the ending, the story seems to about missed opportunities and guilt.  If that is what it’s about, then I think you need to characterize the protagonist throughout as someone who misses opportunities.  Perhaps she’s slow to come up with ideas.  Maybe she’s fearful, or selfish, or had a crazy aunt who would warn people about death and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.  Maybe she’s terrified of dying, and that’s why she can smell death, and she fears that if she warns someone, she’ll die instead.  Maybe she just panics in a crisis and can’t think clearly.  I think she could be characterized more strongly, so we understand why her destiny is to have this power and not use it to save anyone.  You have great opportunities for characterization in the exposition about the two previous incidents where she smelled death.  Right now, those incidents are used mainly to establish her power.  But, like description, they could do more.  They could show some key component to her character that makes her the one person who could stop death but probably never will.

The final paragraph, in which the protagonist wonders if she was meant to save the passengers, and that’s the only reason she was given the ability to sense impending death, is interesting, but it doesn’t make sense to me unless she has now lost the power.  If she has lost the power–which she could confirm in a hospital–then that would imply it was tied to the airplane.  But if she still has the power, then she now knows enough to try using it to save people.  There’s no reason the airplane is her last chance to do good, so the ending doesn’t quite make sense.

I think the plot could use a little more of a twist still.  When I read this, I thought of the movie Final Destination, which involves someone who knows a plane is going to crash and tries to convince people not to get on board.  To distinguish this story more from that, I think you could take it one more step.  If the protagonist is someone who panics in a crisis and can’t think out all the possible courses of action until later, then the plot could unfold much as it does now, except at the end, she could think of all the possible actions she could have taken and didn’t think of in time.  That could be really haunting, even moreso if she has lost the power.  And it would be easy to relate to.  I think all of us have thought of some great thing to say or do in a situation 24 hours too late, and only wished we could go back and do it.  It’s just that for us, lives aren’t at stake.

Finally, I’ll just mention that the story is missing some required commas, which makes me stumble over sentences, and is wordy in some places.

The story kept me interested all the way through, and those descriptive details at the end carried a lot of power.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Remembrance Dear And Damn’d Oblivion by Antonia Overstreet

I noticed “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” this month for its apocalyptic setting, its play on memory, and its concept. However, “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” reads oddly detached for a story centering so much on action, peril, and regret, and the potential loss of a parent in a world empty enough that Padi is almost Mbani’s entire society—a point already noted in the author’s notes, where the goal is to cut to the emotional core of the piece. So, this month I’d like to suggest a more holistic approach to that problem and discuss tone and how we establish it: why how we convey information is just as important as what we say, and how to make those match.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” has all the markers of a story that’s highly emotional and highly action-oriented: an in media res opening—with a storm, no less!—a parent in peril, terrible choices to be made. However, the way it’s told—the diction, the use of grounding details, the pacing, the atmosphere—are almost entirely at odds with the story readers are informed they’re going to get, and the effect turns out to be jarring for me as a reader.

We’ll look at these craft elements one by one, and hopefully, by the end, have a recipe for bringing out the emotion in this piece.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” is a story explicitly centred around memory—losing it, sacrificing it, holding on to it—and that means readers’ attention is going to be called to the relative vibrancy of Mbani’s descriptors and memories. The piece pulls off a real contrast in the back half, when Mbani is remembering the people she loves, but that contrast itself highlights the small corners cut, the sentence-level shorthanding in the rest of the piece.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” really shines when it’s working with concrete details—the smell of storms, the sound of rain in the dust—but they’re frequently overshadowed by sketchier, more archetypical descriptors—a scream surrounded by appropriately timed thunder—or thoughts that are only halfway on the page. For example: “It’s pointless to cry any longer, drowned out by the rain.” Is the point of Mbani’s tears to be seen or heard (by whom?). Why? Does she mean “cry out to Padi” instead? This is a tiny imprecision, but it’s the kind that adds up slowly for readers to create a sense of cardboard sets instead of real worlds—and the kind that brings a story and its emotions into sharpness and focus when defined well.

I’d also look at hedge words: “I feel” comes up a great deal, as if Mbani is reporting her feelings to the reader from a distance—and that of course distances the emotion readers receive. I’d suggest looking at ways to communicate Mbani’s feelings that aren’t direct reportage: her body language, her reactions, what she notices or doesn’t, the tone of her voice. All those things are clues that readers can use to have a more direct pipeline to her emotional state.

I’d extend that to the narrative voice, and think about what forces or people in the story do rather than what readers are told they’re going to do. For example, lightning is a significant danger when you’re in a flash-flooding desert and you’re the tallest thing around; it’s a significant physical risk. And Mbani’s narration seems to acknowledge that, with: “I can try to drag him home, but will he make it that long? Will I?” But the story then undercuts this flag to readers (“look out, there’s risk from the weather”) by leaving Mbani and Padi out in the storm for the entire rest of the piece, with no ill effects. The shown message is undermining the told message, and generally readers will believe what we show them over what they’re told is true. I’d suggest thinking about how to bring those two things into alignment: how does what Mbani does support, not contradict, what she’s saying she does, feels, or thinks?

For another example where the narrative undermines the emotional content: “Grit and gravel bite into my bare skin, only aggravating the awkwardness of the pose.” The first half of this sentence sets readers up for a stimulus response: pain. What we get instead is aggravation and awkwardness, which then feels like an underreaction on Mbani or the story’s part—and one that’s distanced or underplayed physical sensation or emotion, in a story that’s supposed to be about pain. Again, the messages don’t match.

That sense of danger-but-not-danger extends into the pacing and structure. “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” feels quite long, even at 2,600 words, and I’d suggest that’s because of the structural loops in the back half of the story: Mbani repeatedly trying to experience and forget dear memories, and those memories repeatedly not being enough to heal Padi (and how does the exciser know what memory is sufficient to heal someone, anyway?). These actions aren’t moving the narrative forward; the failures aren’t creating new situations or new choices, and when put up against the fact that Mbani and the narrative are telling us this is an urgent situation, again, there’s a clash. Which message should readers believe? Bringing those messages into cooperation—pacing and plotting that support, and not undermine the idea that this is a high-risk situation—means there’s one unified message, and it’s clear to readers how Mbani feels, and how reading this is supposed to feel.

As it stands, the ways “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” undermines its own message in the delivery create a simultaneous distance and self-centredness; a situation that should be visceral, wrenching, painful, frightening, desperate which is rendered in a way that seems clinical, a philosophical problem being handled from far away. What wouldn’t you forget to save one you love, asked in a laboratory setting. “I could lose him at any moment,” the piece reminds us, but I’d suggest that a stronger draft of “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” wouldn’t need to tell anyone so. It would hang over the entire story, over Mbani’s every action, over how she chooses her actions like a stink.

Ultimately, I’d suggest looking at “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” through that lens: What it’s supposed to say, and how every element of craft either supports or negates that idea. Bring “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” into colour—real stakes, real choices, real pain, real loss, real indecision, and a real possibility that she might choose another path or the path she chooses might not work after all—and the emotion will come pouring through.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Requesting A Hero Chapter 2 by Cara Averna

This submission hits two of my sweet spots: my Classical education and my long-standing love for characters caught out of time. There’s great potential here, between the idea of a Classical hero getting his mojo back, and the potential for contrast and conflict with the modern world and the woman who represents it. And a bonus: restaurant wars, another of my favorite things.

Usually I focus on worldbuilding and larger plot issues when I’m reading a draft, but as I read this chapter, I kept coming back to issues of language and narrative voice. As important as it is for the plot and the worldbuilding to hold together, in this particular genre—urban fantasy, give or take—voice is really important. It’s the tone and style that makes the story work. The author needs a firm command of her craft, and a clear sense of how words work and how to fit them together.

It’s particularly challenging with two viewpoint characters who are so different in so many ways. Claire is a modern woman, with modern vocabulary and attitudes. Argos is her complete opposite: an ancient hero whose native language is Greek, and who is completely alien to Claire’s world and time. Their portions of the narrative should read very differently, right down to the choices of words and the way the sentences are constructed.

One thing I might suggest would be to eliminate contractions when Argos is telling the story. He speaks without them, but his narration is full of them. This one fairly simple fix will give the his narrative a more old-fashioned feel, but if it’s done well, it won’t seem stiff or stilted—just a little more dignified and stately than Claire’s easier modern style.

Word choice is important, too. Argos is unlikely to think he “wasn’t a fan of” something—that’s a contemporary term. Words like “jerked” and “grabbed” and “bossed around” are more modern as well, and the verbing of the noun in “access the collection of gold” fits oddly with some of the more archaic phrasing of the section: the reference to gold rather than money or cash, for example, and the mention of a “hearth to rest in.”

The latter points to another issue as well. Not long ago I came across a quotation attributed to Mark Twain, to the effect that a writer should undertake to choose the right word and not its second cousin. The right word is really important in a narrative of opposites like this one, and it’s crucial to make sure that a word means what it’s trying to mean in its context.

“Hearth” here reads if it’s a synonym for some kind of ancient dwelling, but its actual meaning is basically a fireplace. He’s looking for a fireplace to sleep in? Wouldn’t he burn? It is true that “hearth and home” can be taken to mean the house as a whole, but the hearth itself is the structure around which the home is built, the place where the fire burns—of which Hestia happens to have been the goddess. Is that what Argos is really thinking when he uses the word? If so, that might be made a little clearer.

Other words and phrases strike a little off true as well. “Smile dropping” is a rather unusual way of referring to the change of expression from smile to its opposite. Eyes can drop, but a smile is more likely to die or fade. Similarly, when Argos speaks of being well, Claire judges that to be “a loose word,” but the idiom isn’t quite on point. An analogy can be loose, or a connection, or even a reference, but not a word. And then there’s the scowl that “pulled at her lips”—a scowl is an expression of the eyebrows and forehead; when it’s the lips it’s more likely to be a sneer or a twist of anger or scorn. In recent years, the frown seems to have moved downward from the forehead to the mouth, but with so many other second-cousin constructions in the draft, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to the meaning of individual words—to be sure the word means what it wants to mean in a particular context. Argos refers to Claire several times as a “nymph,” but in his world, that word would have a specific meaning. A nymph is a minor divinity, a spirit of an element or a place: a sea nymph, a water nymph, a wood nymph. It’s clear he knows she’s mortal, and while the first time might be read as a sort of metaphor, he does it often enough that it seems as if the word is trying to be an archaic synonym for “girl” or “young woman.” But that, in Greek, would actually be “koure” or (as in the case of a friend of mine whose mother was a Greek scholar), “Kori.”

Another puzzlement for me was the reference to “the rheumatic tone of the Greek accent.” I’m not sure what “rheumatic” wants to mean; when it’s at home, it refers to arthritic inflammation or rheumatism. A rheum in the archaic sense is a stuffy cold, with mucus. So a Greek speaker sounds as if he hab a code id his node?

Watch out for word connections, too. Loose, hard things rattle; bones can rattle, or teeth, but muscles are denser and softer. Abilities however are not soft; muscles can be, and a body in general, but the more abstract concept calls for a different word. Weakened, maybe. Eroded. Diminished.

I’m not quite sure what kind of rush would cause a heart to pound—a rush of emotion? A rush of excitement or mirth or…? And when it does, it won’t pound against his chest; that implies it’s outside his ribcage. More likely it pounds inside his chest, or against his ribs (which are likewise inside).

A few other notes as I read:

Watch repetitions; when I’m editing my own work I highlight them, and then either cut or replace. Green eyes, for example. Staring. Pinning with a stare. The phrase “not to mention.” The storm brewing in several different iterations (but I do like the way her reference to it segues into his viewpoint, and his more metaphorical view of what the term means). Rain. Dock.

The grip on the wheel, multiplied—and would she really be grateful if, after she’s screwed up by ignoring his advice, he asserts his superiority over her and rubs it in for good measure? Sure enough, in the next sentence or two she’s angry with him, which feels more true to her personality and the situation.

I’ll be interested to see how this story evolves through the drafts. The idea is intriguing and the characters have potential. Once the words are under control, the narrative will read much more smoothly, and the contrast between the characters will be stronger and clearer.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Defending Omaha – Prologue and Chapter One by Bill Mc

I’m a sucker for old-fashioned military SF, so I was pleased to see this among last month’s submissions. There’s definitely room for it in the genre. Sometimes we want new and edgy, and sometimes we want some good, solid vintage.

I like the classic elements: the post-holocaust landscape, the Midwestern US city that goes down hundreds of levels, the military school on the surface, and the plucky female protagonist (shades of Podkayne and her sister-characters). There’s some cool worldbuilding, notably in the nanothread vest, and a nod to contemporary warfare in the drone force. It’s a good start; a nice taste of what’s to come in the rest of the novel.

I have questions about worldbuilding and about certain details. Some might be answered in later chapters. Others may want some rethinking, or a change of authorial or narrative angle. As always, it’s entirely up to the author whether and when to answer any editorial question. It’s yourstory. These are just things that occurred to me while I read and re-read the excerpt.

First, the epistolary beginning has a degree of charm, and lets us get a sense of the personalities of Serenity and her dad. I did wonder however, how the mail is being transported. Is it physical mail or e-mail? If it’s physical, how do the last couple of letters manage to reach their destinations? If it’s e-mail, that would imply some sort of internet in the city.

It appears there is the technology for that, since Serenity has a “comset embedded into the top of her left hand,” but I’m missing some indications that this technology has been built into the story. Serenity wakes up to an alarm in Chapter 1, but rather than checking the comset first thing to find out what’s going on, she goes out and rounds up the troops, even taking time to not-assess herself in the mirror (I see what you did there). She remembers to check the comset long after she would logically have done so.

Then there are the ancillary questions. If she has a comset, is that a common or ordinary thing? Does everyone have one? Or is it just the First Cadet?

The thing is, if the tech exists and is in regular use, it changes how people interact with each other. Since the advent of the smartphone, everyone is habitually checked in. Adults who aren’t are anomalies—and kids who aren’t are even more so.

It might make sense for the internet to have completely collapsed and for Omaha to have reverted to pre-internet modes of communication, but as long as mail is passing up and down the levels without apparent interruption, and as long as there’s the comset embedded in her hand, there’s an implication that the tech is still there. Particularly since nanotech is clearly very advanced, and drones are in extensive use, this reader wonders why information technology didn’t survive. How does the comset work, then? What’s its regulation use and why isn’t it the first thing she resorts to?

My other big question about this excerpt is the portrayal of Serenity. Female protagonists are not unheard of in classic science fiction—Heinlein was known to make a point of them–and having a female protagonist here is a nice link between the Golden Age and the modern era. But a number of things have changed in how we write and perceive them, and there’s a fine line to walk between the old-fashioned and the contemporary.

If advances in gender roles crashed along with most cities in the US, and society went back to the male dominance of Golden Age science fiction (or “medieval chivalry” as Serenity calls it), then Serenity’s position as First Cadet doesn’t quite parse. The military would be a male domain, and her rising to the top of the cadet rankings would be a notable anomaly. She would be dealing with a whole complex of sexism, misogyny, resentment, and outright harassment.

We get a taste of that in the “old man” cadet who patronizes her by making allusions to feminine frailty. She, being badass, kicks him in the nuts—and from that I deduce that Subbers are much more gender-egalitarian than Toppers. That’s a good bit of detail. (And it ain’t chivalry, believe me. It’s good old sexism.)

At the same time, I wonder how cadets are selected, because if Subbers never make it to the top and she’s exceptional for having done so, and Toppers are all about females-weaker-than-males, how does she make it into the intersection between these two cultural barriers? What factors have allowed her to overcome this double bias?

Subbers aren’t necessarily any more advanced about gender roles than Toppers, either. When her dad tries to reassure her about the obnoxious cadet with “He probably had no idea someone from down under could be so smart, wonderful, and pretty,” he’s begging to have his own nuts kicked through the back of his head. A truly gender-equal society would not base one-third of the value of a female-presenting member on the fact that she’s pretty. It’s just as patronizing as the things the cadet said to her. I can see her grinding her teeth as she reads his letter, and working very hard to remember, “It’s just Daddy. Daddy tries, but he has his moments, too. Do not make a note to kill Daddy.”

She’s going to have more than enough to deal with on the military front, but it’s small details like this that help develop a character and define her arc in the story. If she’s fighting ongoing devaluation of her talents because of her gender on top of wher she comes from, she has an extra level of stress to deal with, and additional complications within the various lines of the plot. It’s not just that she’s a Subber, it’s that she’s a female Subber. Everything is at least twice as hard.

As I said, this is a good start. I’ll be interested to see how it evolves with further thinking-through of the worldbuilding and the characterization.

–Judith Tarr