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


Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Just Open The Door by David Eisman

One of the advantages of writing within a genre is that the author and readers share knowledge of a huge pool of works and their common elements.  This allows the author to introduce rich subtext into a story.  If I put the word “vampire” into my story, readers will think of Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight, and others.  Readers will think of the rules that often govern vampires, the various ways vampires have been destroyed, and why one may or may not want to destroy a vampire.  The author, then, can minimize exposition (background information, explanations), because the reader already knows a lot.  The author can focus on how her vampires are different, and on showing us this particular vampire story.  This can be invaluable in a short story, when every word is precious, and it can add layers of meaning, emotion, and resonance to a story.

“Just Open the Door” takes advantage of this pool of knowledge horror readers share.  By the end of the third sentence, I feel I’m in a familiar situation, often near the climax of a horror story/movie/novel, in which the protagonist, Richie, is fleeing the evil and has come to a dead end.  Because the situation is familiar, I don’t think I’ve missed anything critical to my understanding of the story.  My recognition of this situation also creates immediate suspense and urgency and allows the author to move the story ahead with a minimum of exposition.  I’m immersed in the situation and worried about what’s on the other side of the door.  The exposition is limited to how Richie’s mother was killed, which becomes key to understanding this situation.

But the story does more than use this familiar situation as a short cut.  The author very cleverly uses our recognition of the situation, our assumption that we know what has happened and what’s on the other side of the door, to twist all these expectations on their heads.  What at first sounds like a monster on the other side of the door comes to sound like Richie’s mother.  Normally, in such a story, the monster would be pretending to be Richie’s mother, and there would be no suspense in the deception because we wouldn’t be fooled.  But now, because we’ve come into this situation late, because we don’t really know what happened before, whether Richie is hallucinating that a monster killed his mother due to some mental illness or whether a monster that really did kill his mother stands on the other side of the door, the situation creates a lot of suspense.  Maybe there is a monster on the other side of the door.  Or maybe it’s Richie’s mother.

This all works very nicely.  For me, though, the ending, in which Richie decides to open the door, hoping it’s his mother, doesn’t quite work.  Right now, whether Richie decides to open the door or not seems up to the author.  I don’t feel a strong reason why Richie resolves his internal conflict by deciding to open the door.  He’s been fleeing up until this point.  Why would he change?  Just hearing his mother’s voice doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason.  He has previously heard very scary voices that clearly were not his mother.  Why would he believe this voice?  He asks his mother what he should do, abdicating his power at the climax, which isn’t satisfying to the reader.

The downside of inserting us into a familiar situation is that the story depends on its twist to succeed.  And the ending is part of this twist.

There are several possible ways to make Richie’s decision feel both surprising and inevitable, which are the qualities you want to have in a climax.  For example, there might be some piece of evidence that the voice claims proves that Richie is hallucinating.  We might recognize that the evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that; it could also prove the monster is real.  But Richie might believe the evidence proves he’s hallucinating and open the door for that reason.  Another possibility would be to have Richie reason things out, now that he has a moment to think.  If it is his mother on the other side of the door, then he should open the door.  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, then he lives in a world in which monsters can appear at any moment and kill loved ones, and he is so unfit to deal with this world that all he could do was run and let the monster kill his mother.  In such a world, he can’t survive.  So he might as well open the door.  That way, both possibilities lead to the same decision, so his decision isn’t random.  It’s the only possibility.

As I was writing that, I thought of another possibility.  He’s holding a shard of glass in his hand.  Maybe his thoughts run like this:  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, he doesn’t want to go out there and be killed by it.  If it’s his mother on the other side of the door, then he’s so mentally unstable he could kill her, thinking she’s the monster, and he doesn’t want to do that.  So he decides to kill himself.

Anyway, those are several possible ways to make his decision at the end feel both surprising and inevitable, and to feel like he’s really making that decision, not leaving it to his mother or to the author.

Other areas I think could be improved are the style and description.  Some unclear or awkward sentences and some unclear details confused and distracted me at times.  For example, I’m kind of confused about what sort of structure he’s inside.  He’s in a warehouse; I would think he’s either in a room with solid walls and a solid door, or he’s in a crate.  But he seems to be in neither, with this rusted sheet metal.  I don’t know what sort of shelf might be in this structure.  At first I picture a piece of wood maybe 3′ x 1′ x 1″ that rests on some brackets fastened to the wall.  But then why is it so heavy?  And how is he moving it?  It’s unclear how this will stop anyone from entering, and I don’t know why he’d get so many splinters that he would bleed.

The glass on the floor seems to appear suddenly.  I think it should be crunching under his feet while he’s looking for something to barricade the door.  And the amount of light in the room seems to change depending on what’s being described.

I have a hard time imagining this voice:  “it’s tongue slithers through every vowel and its jaw pops on every consonant.”

Emotions are told rather than shown at times, which distances us from Richie.  For example, near the end of the story, “The rage and confusion boil inside of me.”  These emotional labels (rage and confusion) are telling us Richie’s emotions.  If they are shown instead, we’ll feel them more strongly.

The description that “Tears stream down my face like a waterfall” feels exaggerated.  I don’t believe the human body has the capability to cry that much, so I’m thrown out of the story here.  Similarly, the image that Richie holds his head in his hands and rocks “it back and forth” doesn’t seem like a natural action.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the story and trying to figure out what was on the other side of the door.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Editor’s Choice Review April 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.

The Kaiju Man by J. L. Roberts

“The Kaiju Man” caught my eye this month with the utter surprise of how it blooms: a cleanly observed setup that just flowers into a transcendent, dreamlike, emotionally impactful piece of magical realism; an ending that’s utterly surprising, and yet completely organic—and yet not without room to improve. This month, I’d like to talk about how detail work can work both with and against us as writers, and the question of making a story its best self.

One of the major strengths of “The Kaiju Man” is a sense of observation that’s lyrical, fine-grained, and yet completely transparent and accessible. The paragraph with our protagonist driving out of Raleigh is beautifully textural—it describes not just landscape, but temperature, opinions (“the moisture and the heat haze combining to keep dirt on the ground where it belongs”) and change (“soon-to-come luxury housing developments starting in the mid-$200,000s”) in a very short space. None of these sentences are elaborate or baroque, but each sentence here is doing double duty: “the late morning light streaking out of the sky, pointing to this tree, that stretch of hillside” is gorgeous as a static image, and that sentence works even better because it makes the light kinetic—imbues motion into the narrative. I feel the effects of that work without actively noticing them, or being thrown out of the piece.

That’s a skill that needs to be balanced, however. As the kaiju approaches and the narrative fragments into more sensory impressions, though, the prose becomes much more visible, and I’m not sure it’s entirely a positive. I’d suggest pruning that section back somewhat: each of those details is beautifully rendered, but they stack up into something a little too overwhelming for me as a reader—something that blocks me from getting through to more story. Taking two or three sense impressions out of each part of that scene makes the other ones sharper and more meaningful, and the path a bit clearer for readers. That goes, likewise, for the scene with Hannah: the image of her framed against Layton’s iris is incredible, but it’s getting lost for me in the general denseness of metaphor that surrounds it.

Imagery isn’t just presentation, in a story: it’s the setting around it—in the jeweler’s sense. Imagery’s an art of contrasts. Setting something much more plain around an image, a moment, you want to spotlight makes it stand that much clearer, and can increase the impact immeasurably.

The density of detail has a structural effect, too: the pacing of “The Kaiju Man” stalls somewhat near the middle, around Layton taking out the boat and the protagonist’s observation of the fish. A bit of pruning as the story starts to slow will keep the pace of reading measured, and make sure that pacing isn’t telling readers details are important (spend more time on this!) when they aren’t just yet.

The worldbuilding and characterization are well-sketched in details here, too. It’s quite refreshing to see a male character whose career slump isn’t a source of bitterness, but a choice he himself made. It’s clear how much the protagonist loves Hannah—how much taking her perspective changed his own attitude to life—and that love makes his push to change her name to an English one (although, I’m noting Hana is a Japanese name too!) a much more interestingly complex one. Everything in this piece is grounded in a certain kindness, and that does something silent and earthshaking to how it’s read.

That hinting system works with the world too: the coral that’s not there anymore, the poverty around Layton’s brightly-painted house, the time since Fukushima all combine to create a sense of a certain kind of worn-down near-future. Considering how few details are given, the picture I’ve got of this version of the world is surprisingly complete, and that’s skilled work.

There is one silence in the worldbuilding that feels more like an omission: what degree of racism goes down in this area. Layton’s obviously changed his name, and there was obviously pressure for the protagonist and Melissa to change Hannah’s name; there are rumours about Layton in town, but the normally polite protagonist brings them up as if this isn’t going to hurt him (“do you know what they call you in town?” is not a neutral question). Layton lives in an emotional and social ecology as much as he inhabits a geographic one; I’d suggest thinking about what that looks like, and letting it inflect this interaction a little more.

There are also some version control issues here—two different Japanese names for Hannah, which switch midstream, for example; two stories about why they changed her name; the protagonist taking notes either with his phone or in a notebook—and a recurring tense bobble between present and past, but those are issues easily sorted out.

The major question in “The Kaiju Man”, though, is the protagonist’s transformation and their swim up the coast. There’s a nearly dreamlike feel to the scenes after he goes into the water, and while they stretch a bit long for me, the payoff is magnificent. To answer the question posed in the author’s comments, the ending here is gorgeous—I can feel the structure, the bump in the narrative of how quiet and emotionally affecting it is, and it works on me—but I couldn’t tell you what has just happened, or why, and that lack of intellectual closure puts a dent in my emotional satisfaction. There is a clue in Layton having lost his family, in how he and Hannah both have changed names, how Hannah has been sent away from home (to boarding school) again, but I’m scrambling for those clues. I feel the faint echo of those connections, but couldn’t say for sure that they’re intentional. I can’t tell if this is a familial connection or just the bond of shared experience: being more and different inside than you are outside, in a stranger’s country.

I’ve noticed the existing critiques on this piece have identified the same issue and suggested solutions that change what kind of story this is. I’d gently differ with them. There’s an urge sometimes, when there isn’t enough information about what story this is, to try to make it into a story more recognizable to that particular reader, and it’s not necessarily the most productive urge. This story is quite thoroughly itself, and it’s very good at being itself; structurally—that as an ending—this is powerfully affecting as it is. Even in a somewhat messy draft, “The Kaiju Man” moves me. The question, I think, is making it communicate itself more clearly: bringing information that’s currently in the subtext of “The Kaiju Man” up a little higher, nearer the level of the text. How might we get more clues without breaking that narrative dream?

I’d suggest that that’s a productive goal for the next draft of “The Kaiju Man”: locating the story you’d like to tell with it, finding the clues that are already there to point readers along the way, and thinking about how they can be clarified, or a few more puzzle pieces dropped into the cracks of the narrative so that the trail is clearer. This might be a two- to three-draft process, and will probably involve some tinkering, but getting it down without disrupting the gorgeous, almost reverent atmosphere of that last scene is, I think, well worth it. Please don’t make “The Kaiju Man” anything different than what it is: just show us a little more light.

Thank you very much for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Audit 1771: The Church Of The Thinking Hedonist CHAPTER 2 by Claudia Casser

When someone says, “If you’re uncomfortable with diverse viewpoints, you won’t want to read this,” I’m all over it. I read for pleasure and for relaxation, but I also read to stretch my mental muscles, and the way our genre has changed in the new millennium has really worked for me. It’s not always comfortable, but it is exhilarating.

This submission is right in my wheelhouse. One thing I try hard to do as a writer and reader is to constantly examine my assumptions. We all have them, and so many of them are so embedded in our world view that they’re invisible to us. When a work of fact or fiction calls them out and asks us to to take a good, hard look at them, we may be tempted to run veryveryfast in the opposite direction.

And that’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah in this chapter. She’s being tested, and so, as readers, are we.

It’s very easy when writing idea-based stories to slide over into preaching. It’s also very hard to write such stories with a light touch. Putting the two together is a serious high-wire act.

For me, it works. It stays on this side of my personal line for both idea-fiction and humor. I can see how it’s structured to set up Sarah and Therese as foils, and how Sarah has been set up by her adopted sect to confront her early conditioning and expand her ethical landscape. There’s a lot going on under the surface—and that takes skill.

To answer the author’s questions, I was not confused, but I did go back as instructed and check out the opening chapter. I had questions about the Flock, but just when I was about to make a note, Koo appeared and those questions were answered. Koo is a great character; I particularly like that the character is nonbinary, or rather hyperbinary.

My other question, about how and why the planet happens to be named Brunch, is not critical; I just happen, personally, to notice names, and I’m not sure this one works for me, again personally. I suppose it’s a play in Sunday brunch? It’s maybe a little too far in the direction of gonzo, in a story that otherwise balances its various elements with a deft touch. It seems to undercut the seriousness of the ethical underpinnings, while not quite managing to be on point for the humorous overlay.

But that’s a personal and idiosyncratic reaction. As a Very Serious Editor-Critter, I appreciate the brisk plotting and the distinctive voice. I might, if the writing were less skillful, wonder if setting an Amish woman turned agnostic in the middle of a cult of hedonists might be a bit over the top—but this variety of humor works because it is over the top. It’s making a point, and that point needs extreme examples.

Humor is hard. Props to this author for pulling it off—while also pulling off a potentially disastrous juxtaposition of ethical and moral systems.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Unnamed Sequel – Madness And A Little Beast by A Sands

Nonlinear writers fascinate me. I’m totally the opposite—I must write scenes in sequence or I cannot live—but it’s really interesting to watch a narrative grow out of clusters of discrete scenes. It’s tough to workshop an unfinished ms. written nonlinearly because only the author really knows how everything fits together. Once it’s finished and the whole structure is visible, it’s much easier to see what’s working and what needs work.

What I like about this submission is that it spells out up front how the ms. is being written, who the characters are, and what’s going on in the author’s head. That makes it a lot easier to get down in there and see what’s going on. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how the Queen and her family are not human. What are they, exactly? How does what they are relate to being human, and why is it important that they learn human body language?

Even without that information, I was appropriately amused by Queen Aldrua’s Very Conscious Awareness of what she’s saying with her various body parts and positions—and her overall, wonderfully terrible attitude. That attitude makes the chapter for me.

The technical term for it of course is “voice.” The choice of words, the way the characters act an interact, the overall feel and sense of the story. The voice here captures Aldrua’s state of mind in a beautifully unambiguous way. She is at the end of her tether, she is bound and determined to find her daughter or else, and everyone around her has completely exhausted her patience.

That voice kept me reading. The one thing I might do in revision would be to pare and prune especially the dialogue, tone it down a bit and tighten the focus. There’s a lot of repetition, much of which can go away.

But that’s for the revision stage. A draft gets itself written in any way that works. Repeating the same information over and over serves to a degree as a mnemonic—it’s like oral poetry: Achilles is fast on his feet, and that’s how we remind ourselves of who he is. It also gets the information in wherever it fits. Then, when the whole thing is put together, most of the reiterations can go away, but a few will stay where they make the most difference.

As for rules and the breaking thereof, I’m a great proponent of the Pirates’ Code. No matter how sternly your freshman composition teacher may have insisted that There Are Rules Of Writing And You Must Not Break Them, the truth is that all of them are simply guidelines.

There are some that a writer is advised to follow if she wants to be published. Manuscript formatting. Submission guidelines (which are really rules—it’s not a good idea to ignore those). Different genres have different expectations, which can get a writer in trouble if she pushes the envelope too hard.

But for the most part, a rule exists because if a writer breaks it without knowing what the rule is for, the writer’s work probably won’t hold together as well as it might otherwise. I remember when “head-hopping” was a cardinal sin, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shifting viewpoints within a scene. It only becomes a problem if the reader (and worse, the writer) can’t keep track.

The reader’s experience is what it’s all about. If she’s cruising along with one character, and then abruptly someone else is telling the story, it’s like a train going off the rails. She gets thrown out of her car, and if it happens often enough, she might just not stay around for the rest of the story.

But. If the writer knows what she’s doing, she can shift back and forth as much as she wants or the story needs her to, and the reader will travel along with her. That takes a degree of skill, and gaining that skill means knowing how to maintain a viewpoint as well as how to change it without leaving the reader hanging.

Or to put it more succinctly, If you know what you’re doing, you can do whatever you want to. Even repeat the same information over and over—because each time you do it, it reveals new layer of itself, or adds another degree of emphasis—or go way, way, way over the top with dialogue and banter, or mix up the timelines, or turn the narrative inside out. Whatever makes the story work.

Insofar as there are any secret handshakes for success in writing, this has to be one of them. A writer who is just learning how to do it will find it useful to learn the basic rules of her format and genre, learn why they are rules, and practice following them until she has them down. Then she can start messing around with them. Messing around is what makes a story interesting–but it has to be done with knowledge and skill, or it’s just a mess.

If there’s any rule I personally would promote, it’s that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Linear, nonlinear, outlining, pantsing, writing lengthy, detailed exploratory drafts or sketching the bare bones of a narrative—they’re all good. They all get there in the end.

And that’s the best part about this writing gig. Doesn’t matter how you get there, just as long as you do.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

They Didn’t Tell You by N. Howl

This story, told in second person, engages horror fans by comparing the familiar scenarios we encounter in fiction with the actual version encountered by this protagonist. I felt a joy of recognition with every reference to a familiar horror scenario. Contrasting these familiar elements with those the protagonist faces also makes the story feel more real, convincing, and intense.

Since the protagonist is defined mainly by the sensations experienced rather than particular character traits, the second person allows readers to put themselves in the place of the protagonist, adding to the impact of the story. The repetition of the words in the title helps to tie the story together.

My main suggestions involve strengthening these key elements through which the story works. First, the references to familiar horror scenarios. For me, references to playing “Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew,” entering “the house at the end of the lane,” investigating where teenagers died, imagining the killer as a “stylish vampire, ” “brilliant doctor,” or “vagrant covered in the grime and sweat of a year,” work very well. Other references don’t work as well. The idea of teens slashing “their bodies in a mass suicide” doesn’t sound like any horror story or movie I know. And I don’t understand what is meant by “a simple mystery by a simple cult.” If it’s suicide, then it’s not a mystery. The motive may be a mystery, but it’s not clear that’s what the protagonist is looking for. If he’s looking for a motive, why take fingerprints? If he’s looking for a killer, when did he figure out it wasn’t a suicide? The old diaries definitely seem like a familiar horror element, but finger prints are not usually a big element. I would expect things like a Ouija board, a mirror through which strange things appear, or the remnants of an insane asylum in the basement. I guess part of the issue is that some of the story is referring to familiar mystery story elements, and part refers to familiar horror story elements. For me, the horror story elements seemed dominant, so the mystery elements don’t seem to fit. I think the story needs to choose one or the other.

I like the idea that the protagonist has ignored “reality in favor of a pattern,” but what reality is being ignored and what pattern is being imposed on the situation? I think the pattern would be something that “they” had told the protagonist–for example, that the killer is in the house; that’s a very familiar horror scenario, so having the killer actually be in the house reinforces the cliché rather than contrasting with it. This could work if the protagonist expected the killer to be in the house, but the killer had actually left and only when walking by and seeing the protagonist’s light in the house did he decide to return to get some more victims. The protagonist might have let his guard down after searching through the house and not finding the killer, and that’s when he’s vulnerable to the killer.

The protagonist imagines “giving some long important speech about right and wrong,” yet this doesn’t feel like a familiar horror scenario. In my mind, if the protagonist gets a corner of the duct tape off, there are only two possibilities: scream your lungs out for help or find a phone and call 911 (and then the killer either cuts the cord or gets on the extension and says you’re goofing around).

The familiar horror scenario seems to disappear at the climax, when the protagonist tries for freedom. What always happens when the protagonist tries for freedom? I would expect that the protagonist would succeed. That seems missing from the story.

The second key element is what really happens to the protagonist, which contrasts with the familiar horror scenario. For me, finding nothing but random puddles of blood in the search of the house isn’t a strong contrast with what is expected. Finding some mundane items would be more of a contrast, such as posters of rappers wearing bling, colorful backpacks, expensive Nikes, cell phones, toaster ovens, and so on (I guess I’m imagining a frat house). The contrast of gentle versus forceful chloroform doesn’t seem worth talking about. I think the idea that the chloroform takes a long time to work, during which you’re squealing and snorting, is a more interesting contrast, along with the killer finally giving up and using the shovel.

The talk about “forced sleep” takes me out of the story and seems to be jumping back in time. This reduces the intensity of the situation and doesn’t create a strong contrast with what’s expected, so I would suggest cutting this paragraph.

I really like your contrast of the expected killer with the actual one, who seems like he “could have been your friend’s dad or uncle.” I think the story is at its best when you show the mundane nature of evil. The next paragraph undercuts this by talking about the killers eyes burning; that sounds like something I’d read in a horror story. His eyes should just look normal, to continue the description from the previous paragraph.

For me, the plot goes off track when the killer starts talking. The killer sounds crazy, or sounds like he’s being directed by some greater evil, or like he’s been twisted by bullying, all of which are familiar scenarios from horror stories. To continue the contrast with the familiar, the killer should say something else, maybe something like, “I just don’t like people.”

The feeling that the story has gone off track continues as the killer draws on the protagonist’s back with his knife and opens a door revealing some cosmic horror. While this isn’t a standard horror scenario, it feels fictional, not a strong contrast with the fictional. So for me, it doesn’t work as a contrast, providing the same joy the rest of the story provides, and it doesn’t work as horror, because I’m not reading the story that way and am not afraid. So my suggestion would be to make this more mundane. For example, maybe the killer is preparing to torture the protagonist, as expected, but then the door slams and the protagonist realizes help is coming, and the killer says, “Crap,” and kills the protagonist, because he has no time for more.

The final key element is the description, those sensory details that help put us into the body of the protagonist. I think some of those could be strengthened. For example, in para. 2, if the protagonist is trying to get a sense of where he is, I think he’s just woken up. In that case, his head would have been hanging down, and the burlap bag would not have been chafing his nose.

When the protagonist sees the killer, the killer has “a gut like a rock under a baggy T-shirt.” If the T-shirt is baggy, how is he seeing the rock? A rock is ragged; it doesn’t give me an image that looks like a gut.

The description of “the map of liquid fire” is nice, but before that, when “You feel the knife’s tip plunge in,” I can’t feel that. The filtering phrase “You feel” weakens the sentence and distances me from the protagonist. Filtering (establishing the means of perception) is really only necessary at the beginning of a story when the author needs to establish the point of view. Once that is set, filtering is rarely needed. When filtering is eliminated, the sentence can have a stronger verb. For example, “The knife’s tip plunges in.” The second part of the sentence “but it doesn’t penetrate fully,” is unclear. Doesn’t penetrate what? I’m sure it penetrates the skin, and the word plunge suggests it goes in some distance. Obviously it doesn’t go through the entire body, but I don’t think that needs to be said. Instead you could describe the sensation. I really want to feel whatever particular type of pain this causes.

I hope that gives you a sense of some areas where I think this can be strengthened. I was immediately pulled into the story and enjoyed reading it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos,editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Entwined by Marion Engelke

“Entwined” caught my eye this month by presenting a science fiction a few friends and I have been wanting for ages: far-future stories where motherhood—parenting, caregiving—matters. And it kept me with clean prose and an immediate set of conflicts: a parent torn between her two families, inevitably leaving one of them behind. That said, those conflicts aren’t always fully developed and realized in “Entwined”. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding from the implications and centering your worldbuilding around a point of view.

Especially when writing genres that have such strong tropesets, it can be easy to get caught up in which experiences count as a valid story: space battles, colonizing and decolonizing, exploration. However, the work of doing science fiction—and science fiction is a thing we do—is asking, and then answering, what if? It’s the art of implication: if so, then this, and then that would mean. And that extends to seeing how the universes we’d set up would impact our day-to-day, human activities: relationships, parenting, grief.

“Entwined” does this very well: taking the long-haul spaceflight future that we’ve seen in so many iterations and melding in the practicalities of living, loving, and parenting over distance in a way that isn’t just the stereotypical astronaut sobbing over their baby and then moving right on to the vast frontier (I’m looking at you, Interstellar). Elizaveta’s double grief is not always believable—I’m not sure how she wouldn’t have thought of her daughters for two whole years?—but it’s an interesting, nuanced problem. What does that trope of exploring alien cultures and being years away from home do to your relationships, really?

“Entwined” backs up that question with clear prose and some interesting work with imagery: Elizaveta and her milky Assam from a bottle, like a baby suckling milk; her acclimatization back to spaceflight paralleling her acclimatization back to a whole emotional life.

The characterization isn’t always quite even: Sawyer, most notably, at first vacillates a bit between treating Elizaveta’s second family quite seriously, like a friend of the (first) family; like a boss concerned only with job performance; and sometimes with teasing flippancy that feels at odds with both—and then she’s excited and amused over Xia and Sajid’s engagement, without any thought, somehow, of how this news is going to land on an Elizaveta facing the consequences of leaving a whole other life. Her reactions make her feel not quite complete as a character: I’d love to see more thought given to how Sawyer processes this information, her opinion on it, and how that informs her other actions throughout the piece.

The world is built out in small interesting ways—although I’d love, as a reader, to see those better embedded in Elizaveta’s point of view. Details like the explanation of Earth-Kea trade are mostly relevant to readers insofar as they affects Elizaveta’s trajectory through the story, and I’d suggest thinking about ways to introduce this information that send it through that lens, just like the long hair and the squeeze-bottle tea, built for zero gravity—illustrations of the gap between Elizaveta’s lives in space and planetside, and her alienation from that space/Caterin/etc. life. Tech is only so much as how people use it, and understanding how a science-fictional piece of tech or worldbuilding is relevant to the characters—and presenting it through that relevance—grounds readers in the world and builds a more unified experience.

Through that lens, I’m a little skeptical of the Entwined implant—it’s a narrative device, I know, and it’s the kind of narrative device that people would go for heedless of the consequences. However, creating an implant that lets you share emotions, but requires you to pull back every time you see a negative one—to only be there for your partner for the easy bits, and disappear on the hard or unattractive ones—is not a neutral statement. That says a lot about what people value in a relationship, about the strength of their relationships in the first place and their idea about how relationships work, and, therefore, how their relationships are going to go.

Other reviewers have mentioned that Ysoki’s motives don’t entirely seem to be examined in “Entwined”, but I’d argue that there’s not much ambiguity about whether the implant itself is exactly a good thing. And as a reader, I’d love to see a little more thought on that introduced, subtly.

The other place where I think “Entwined” could take on some polish is where Elizaveta fails to examine her own assumptions and motives. As the author’s notes guessed, the ending does feel abrupt, and somewhat out of place, and that issue ties into, I think, Elizaveta’s relationship with self-awareness.

Elizaveta and Caterin are in a deeply painful place, individually and together. This relationship was probably already in trouble, given Elizaveta’s inability to understand why her actions are hurting Caterin, and instead of talking—or modifying those actions to stop hurting Caterin so much—just disengages more and more. The comment about being the sensible adult Caterin always wants her to be leads me to believe this is clearly not her first piece of impulsivity, her first irresponsibility, the first time she’s left Caterin holding the bag. There are hints Elizaveta’s not exactly an emotionally mature person (besides, well, going adventuring while her partner single-parents impromptu for two years and ignoring Caterin’s explicit boundary of not wanting to see her—that’s stalking, you know) and this fight’s gone down between them before. And yet, even though that seems more core to the piece than the gaps between Keari and Earth cultures, Elizaveta ascribes the problems in her relationship to distance or Caterin’s conservatism—to a simple binary choice of engaging or not engaging—and never quite seems to look at herself.

I would personally love to see an ending that didn’t reduce repairing the conflict between them—or even beginning to repair it—to one person relenting and letting the other back through the metaphorical gate, to engagement versus disengagement. I would love to see an ending that treats a complex issue complexly, versus falling back on the put-upon spouse, the one who’s eaten all the pain through all this, eating yet more pain and letting the spouse who dealt that pain back in. I’d like to see a real grapple with this concept, one that treats it deeply. There are implications aplenty in “Entwined”; I’d love to see a version of this piece where they’re brought to life.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck.

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