Editor’s Choice Review June 2017, 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.

Hymns Of Sand And Stone by Joanne Albertsen

“Hymns of Sand and Stone” caught my eye this month because of its immediate prose, sophisticated use of a complex protagonist, and a tension that rises up between sentences like groundwater. It’s a story about colonialist power dynamics that doesn’t simplify, rooted deeply in how its characters are handled–which is why, this month, I’d like to discuss subtle handling of an unreliable protagonist–and going beyond the Protagonist Is a Bad Person story.

The Protagonist Is a Bad Person story is one of the (many!) useful shorthands that come out of Strange Horizons’s Stories We’ve Seen Too Often page: a post their earlier editorial team made to document persistent slushpile trends and concepts that are so prevalent they’re hard to impress with. It’s a story that can be loosely described as a morality play or parable, one that only exists to impress on the reader fear for the consequences if they act the same way. And while there’s a loose validity in describing “Hymns of Sand and Stone” as examining how its protagonist behaves poorly, and gets a comeuppance in being personally colonized by the local magic, what I’m interested in is how it walks right past that trap into a full-on examination of colonialist power dynamics–how its protagonist behaves harmfully as part of a system of violence–and ends up as a deeply affecting and tension-filled illustration of colonized societies that felt emotionally real.

Crafting a story this carefully balanced takes both insight and skill, and there are a few notable craft decisions that help “Hymns of Sand and Stone” pull off its concept. The most standout is the choice of a second-person POV.

Writing in second person tends to pull strong reactions from readers, and other writers, but considering the subject matter of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”—colonialism, brutality, resistance—and the gaps between what the protagonist can see and the reader’s knowledge, I think it’s an exquisitely appropriate choice of point of view. One of the main effects of second person is explicit complicity between the reader and the protagonist, and for the vast majority of SFF readers, complicity is the core emotional question in a story about colonialism.

The second strong craft choice is how “Hymns of Sand and Stone” builds its fantasy culture on a psychological realism that is exceptionally well-seeded through the piece–and one which has its own arc of progression to follow. A portrait of a character is one thing, but “Hymns of Sand and Stone” includes the excellent decision to make its portrait dynamic. The protagonist’s opening sentence—”You just want to help”—can be at first taken at face value, and then quickly slides from that into “can’t fault the goals, but don’t like the methods” and “we didn’t like it but,” until by the end of the piece, that insistence on benevolent help has morphed into contempt and snarling hate.

Effective fiction often has an arc of growth: something changes in the character between the first paragraph and the last. In “Hymns of Sand and Stone” the protagonist’s personality does not change, but it is revealed, in a way that creates that feeling of change and motion–and echoes up on the thematic level to deepen and complicate into a whole comment on colonialism and how those types of helpers build up and bolster its effects.

It’s an especially effective trajectory to take with a character in the between-place the protagonist occupies: an object of power and pity to Elly and the other servants, and a subject to her husband—one who knows everything about how to minimize his violence and escape his notice. I love the messiness of the power dynamic here: how realistic it is, how alone the protagonist is caught between those power positions, and how that still doesn’t excuse her part in the system that keeps the Sandsbloods subjugated. It’s a position that inspires complex emotional reaction–disgust, compassion, fascination, complicity, and then ultimately self-examination. It’s a position that’s well-calibrated to create effect in readers.

And that, I think, is the major triumph of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”–and what, I think, makes it jump far and away above the vengeful air of a comeuppance story: at no point does it tell readers how to feel about its protagonist. The narrative isn’t assuming an authority over the protagonist, punishing or rewarding her; “Hymns of Sand and Stone” is entirely, on the text level, descriptive. The subtext definitely has opinions on her choices and situation, especially when Elly and the other servants are onscreen, or being imagined, but the text level lets her speak, and that transforms a narrative that could have been coercive–”feel this way about this attitude; these are the rules to follow”–into something that’s descriptive and demonstrative, that gives readers a clear window into a very complex, very common attitude to let us grapple with it ourselves–in second person, in you, in a position of full complicity. “Hymns of Sand and Stone” lets complicated things be complicated, and therefore makes room for a complex reaction in readers: one that’s ultimately going to be more memorable than a platitude.

It’s a significantly accomplished and subtle piece of work, and I look forward to seeing it in print.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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.

Sowing The Seeds by Fredrick Hudgin

I’m somewhat late to the plate thanks to the dog’s broken leg and subsequent surgery (he will recover), with apologies, but here I am at last. I chose this piece because of the author’s note. I could see the enthusiasm and the air of sheer fun, and I went into the story expecting a light adventure.

I did get that, so that part of the mission for me was accomplished. As I read with my crit-hat on, I found myself falling into worldbuilding mode, as I do when I’m helping my writing students develop their worlds and characters.

Usually I start asking questions. The author doesn’t have to answer all or even most of them—just the ones that help the most with the underpinnings of the story. Some will get a firm, “No! That’s not where I’m going at all!” Others will give rise to their own questions, and maybe the world will expand and the story follow suit. And still others may get the classic editorial “Oh crap yes, you’re right, I have to fix that.”

With that in mind, here are some questions to ponder while the revision proceeds.

In your introductory note you say, “And why not make the claim jumpers Mer people! I don’t see many Mer people in Sci Fi. And make the captain female!” All of which is fun stuff, but my question is, is it new or radical to have [a] a female captain or [b] a female mer-person? Aren’t merfolk more commonly seen as female, i.e. mermaids?

Is there anything else you can do to make this species and this captain different? Do they have to be binary? Is there a reason why male would be default and female unusual enough to be worth noting? Or why species need to come in two genders? Not one? Or three? Or however many? Or no gender at all?

Quite far along in the story, you reveal that Captain Phillium is an octopus. It might help to know this at the start—the reader can get a clearer picture of him. I happen to love octopuses, and there are things about them that might add some depth and extra flavor to your portrayal of this character.

One of the things about the species is that it is highly intelligent but also extremely short-lived. As soon as an octopus mates, if it’s male, it’s either eaten or it dies soon after mating. If it’s female, it may eat its mate, and it will die shortly after its eggs hatch.

This means that a retro human-style marriage with a wife at home is kind of unlikely. Unless he’s out in space having a last hurrah before he dies, and she’s home incubating the eggs, starving slowly and expecting to die soon. Or they’ve married in order to reproduce, but the actual act will happen after this voyage—and he’s fully expecting to go home, have sex, and become his wife’s dinner. He may be plotting all sorts of ways to make the babies but still escape alive (but he’ll die within months anyway because once that part of his life is done, so is he).

Or, is marriage for this species something different? What would it be? A business contract? A political alliance? Why would octopuses need marriage?

Bear in mind too that female octopuses are often much larger than the males. Would it make more sense for the captain to be female, since males are so much smaller and more vulnerable? Or have males gone into space as part of a culture-wide campaign to avoid being eaten by the females back home? Have the females accepted this? Or are they the big corporate bosses? (I have more questions about those below.)

Much the same would apply to your arachnids. Big, dominant females who eat their husbands. Is your whole spacefaring culture about males having what fun and freedom they can before their inevitable death? You do have various mammalian types, but in subordinate roles; the primary roles are generally held by octopoids and arachnids—for whom gender and reproduction are very different than they are for other species.

Now think about what this does to your story about claim jumpers led by a female captain. If merpeople relate to one another more or less as humans do, though perhaps with a tendency toward matriarchy (does their leader need to be a king? Why not a queen?), consider how deep the differences are with a species for which the war between the sexes is real, inevitable, and deadly.

For the mer captain, maybe this is just business. For Captain Phillium, a female adversary must, according to everything he knows, be out to kill and eat him. How will that affect the intensity of their reactions to each other? Will he see a deadly threat when all she intends is a bit of petty larceny?

Meanwhile, what about the species Phillium is ordered to elevate? Why primates? Why not octopoids or arachnids? Wouldn’t he gravitate more toward his own kind? Are there solid business reasons for corporate to prefer primates over other species?

Or is there another motive here? Phillium is about to raise up a species that is near-immortal by octopoid standards, and for which reproduction is not a death sentence. And, what’s more, the male tends to be larger than the female. Is this a strike back at the tyranny of octopoid biology? A campaign of subversion against the females? A long-running political game played by his superiors, which Phillium might begin to see as he carries out his orders?

After all, the process of seeding planets is a really, really long game. Octopoids individually are extremely short-lived. Who is really in charge? What species began the whole process? Is it still extant? Would Phillium be aware of it? If so, how would he feel about it? If not, would that ignorance be intentional on the part of the big bosses? Do they have ulterior motives that might come into play here, with two different species moving in to raise up two different sets of not yet sentient life forms?

What if both applications were accepted? Is there a reason why that’s not allowed? As it is, one species is aquatic and the other is not. If multiple species can get along on starships, why not on planets? Wouldn’t corporate see this as a way to double up on their investment?

These are just some of the questions I found myself asking as I read. What you do with them is entirely up to you. It really is a fun universe, with some very interesting characters and cultures. There’s lots of scope for further stories, too.

–Judith Tarr

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The best stories can come from imagining yourself in another place, another situation.

Pictures this: You go to bed in your own house and wake up in a colony ship, millions of miles out in space. You wander levels of this huge space for days, and while there is plenty of food and water, you can’t find another person anywhere.

Now ask yourself, as the author, how this happened, why it happened, and what can you do?

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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.

The Hole In The Flame by J.L. Roberts

I am in love with the title of this story. It’s unique, it’s evocative, it’s directly relevant to the plot and the protagonist. It caught my eye right away and drew me in.

I really like a number of things about the story. The depiction of the fire as a happy sentient, and Cassie’s ability to see and share it. The concept of ghost/memories/apparitions as a form of time travel, and fire as the power source. The images of both the fire and the time past, which are vivid and evocative.

I do have some questions and confusions about the draft. Some will be resolved with a line edit and polish, breaking up paragraphs for greater clarity, and so on. Others may need expansion or clarification, or possibly rethinking.

Do I feel anything for Cassie? I see that she’s confident, that she has a plan, that she’s not afraid of the fire and in fact she’s pleased and excited about it. What I’m not getting is why.

It’s evident that fire for her is a friendly force, and that it’s a kind of time travel. Does she pass through into the past every time she’s called to a fire? Or has she been aiming for this result and achieving it by degrees, and finally she’s succeeded? I’d add the option of her not knowing what will happen if she follows Bobby’s apparition, but the impression I get is that she wants it and that’s why she’s here.

This leads me to a fundamental question. Why does she want to go back in time? What is she trying to accomplish? What does she expect will happen when she gets there? Is it death she’s aiming for? Or is she trying to change the past? How does Bobby’s voice enter into this, and what is the distinction between the voice she hears in the outside world and the one she’s hearing inside the fire? Is this some sort of revenge for past sins, evil force trying to devour her, old love wanting her back, past trying to get her to alter it and possibly bring Bobby (or Sam) back to life, or…?

You don’t have to spell out every single thing; you can be mysterious and allusive. Part of the appeal of the subgenre this story seems to fit into (on which more below) is that it doesn’t explain everything. It leaves some things to the reader’s imagination. It revolves around ambiguity. But it’s important to be just clear enough that the reader is sure the obscure bits are meant to be so.

I wondered as I read, how Cassie could get away with “accidentally” cutting off communications every time. Wouldn’t she be called on it? Would her fellow firefighters and her superiors detect a pattern? Has Edgar started to catch on, and that’s what the body language is about when he finds the communications device she’s dropped? When he comes back and tries to carry her out, is this something he’s done before, or that he’s been expecting to have to do? What are the undercurrents here?

It seems clear that he sees the apparition of Bobby. Is this a first? Has it happened before? Should Cassie be more worried about it than she is? Or is she so sure she’s leaving forever that it doesn’t matter?

I am a bear of little brain, and I did not quite get who Bobby is, or whether Sam is also Bobby, because Bobby disappears near the end and the hole in the flame becomes Sam. Are they both supposed to be there? Is Bobby the guide and Sam the one he’s leading her to? What would he do that? What does he want from her?

The line edit I mentioned above will help answer my questions, along a thorough proofread. In the draft, words tumble over each other, phrases and sentences repeat verbatim, and the effect is rather like the fire itself: exuberant, over the top, and headlong as it tumbles through the telling of the story. There’s great energy in it, at the expense of clarity; but that’s what revision is for. I’d definitely be in favor of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm, but layering in a clearer sense of who and what and why.

I had one further thought as I read and reread the story. It’s labeled Urban Fantasy, and this led me to reflect on genre markers, tropes and signals that tell a reader what to expect within the confines of the genre.

When I think of UF, I think of an urban setting, of course, and the supernatural or the fantastic underpinning a more or less contemporary setting. The popular trope of the kickass female hunter of supernatural beings, or the noir detective investigating odd or inexplicable crimes, isn’t all there is to it, but it’s an indicator of the voice and “feel” of urban fantasy.

The force of nature personified, its gleeful destructiveness, the appearance of ghosts or revenants from the past, the protagonist who is compelled to follow them even if it means her death—those all say horror or dark fantasy to me. If this were UF I’d look for Cassie to have some way of controlling or being controlled by supernatural beings—the fire, in this case. She’d either fight it or ally with it, for reasons that would become apparent in the course of the story.

Does it make a difference what label an author or publisher puts on a story? It does, I think: quite a lot in terms of marketing the final draft, but also in regard to what the reader expects.

Readers tend to like their labels; they know what they’re getting, they know how to react as the story unfolds, and they also know what kind of payoff they can reasonably expect to get. If the story presents a couple, for example, and the reader is told it’s a romance, she looks for the story to focus fairly tightly on an emotional arc (down as well as up) culminating in a happy ending. If it’s a space opera, on the other hand, the couple may or may not get together romantically, and their relationship won’t be the first priority; the heart of the story will be the adventure in space.

If the label isn’t quite right, the story can be very good or even brilliant but still draw reader criticism and editorial rejections. It’s like the cooking shows in which the judges will say, “You called this a semifreddo but it’s a very tasty, old-fashioned American ice cream. You promised us a particular thing, and you didn’t provide it. That’s why we had to chop you.”

Here, we have a pretty satisfyingly atmospheric dark fantasy with ghosts and a side of time travel. Our protagonist has a thing for fire, she can see her past in it, and she ends up giving herself to it. Relabeling the story may more clearly reflect what the story is about, and give it a better chance of reaching the audience that will most appreciate it.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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.

Moongirl by Sharon Cullars

Set in San Diego, 2202, “Moongirl” shows us an interesting and unique future, in which monsters, visible only to those on a particular drug, eat humans.  Selene struggles to decide what to do with this knowledge.  The story has some nice emotion to it, since those previously on the drug, including Selene’s friend, Anne, and Anne’s mother, have killed themselves because of what they’ve seen.  The most intense and disturbing moment, for me, occurs when Selene sees her drawing of a girl on a swing grow animated, and then the girl is eaten by a monster.  That’s really haunting, and it’s something I’ve never seen before.

The main area of the story that I think can be improved is focus.  The story right now includes more than a short story can hold.  The focus needs to be narrowed to the elements necessary to create a powerful impact at the story’s end.  Other elements need to be cut.  I’ll discuss this in more detail below.

I think there is way too much plot here for a short story.  Since the vast majority of the plot has occurred before the present action, that means the story is filled with exposition (background information), most of it in the form of flashbacks.  Roughly three out of eight pages, almost half the story, is exposition.  If you find that much of your story is exposition, that usually means you’ve started the story in the wrong place.  Generally, the reader wants to be swept up in the present action of the story, with minimal amounts of exposition that provide a few key pieces of information about what happened earlier.  The story would be stronger if it was re-plotted to focus on present action with only a little exposition.

Right now, the present story has quite a weak plot.  Basically, Selene takes the drug, sees the monster, thinks back over all that happened, and decides to fight the monsters by giving others the drug, so they too can see.  The causal chain is weak, because there’s no particular reason why Selene makes the decision on this night, at this moment.  And she’s passive throughout, mainly watching and thinking, not struggling to achieve a goal.

My advice is to restructure the story to move the more emotionally powerful material into the present action.  The story could begin with Selene saying the line currently on p. 7:  “What is it you see, Anne?”  She and Anne could be on the rooftop, with Anne standing too close to the edge.  Selene tries to convince her to step away from the edge.  This scene could combine some of the dialogue from p. 7 with some of the dialogue from p. 9 (“I see things, Moon.  They’re here with us but no on sees them,” etc.).  Anne tells her to take the duffel.  Anne says her mother couldn’t handle it, and she can’t handle it, but maybe Selene can.  Selene senses Anne is about to jump and runs forward and grabs her, but Anne slips through her fingers and falls.  This would be a very powerful opening scene, and you could slow it down and describe their interactions some more and show Selene’s emotions.  The current version seems rushed and tells emotions with emotional labels (confused, frightened, desperately, hoping, etc.) more than shows them.

I think the details about Anne’s mother and how she died aren’t important to the story.  It’s enough to know that she took the drug and killed herself.  That’s all we need.  The focus should be on Anne, who is closest to Selene and who Selene tried and failed to save.  Since the story has too much plot, some needs to be cut away, and I would suggest most of Anne’s mother’s story could be cut.

This could be followed by the scene with Selene in the warehouse taking the drug for the first time and seeing the girl on the swing be eaten.  In that same scene, she could flee the warehouse after the girl is eaten and see more monsters on the streets, eating.  She could rush up to Liam and ask him what’s happening, but he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  She runs off, horrified, seeing people being killed, and it’s so awful she can’t stand living in the world.  She understands now why Anne and her mother killed themselves and she prepares to throw herself in front of a bus.  But she realizes that Anne trusted her and wanted her to change things, to end this.  She can’t just kill herself and let this go on.  She runs to Liam and tells him he has to take the drug.  He fights her at first, but finally she convinces him to do it, for her.  He’ll be the first of her army.  And she’ll stop them.

Compressing the time line, putting all the important events into the present of the story, and allowing Selene to struggle–first to save Anne, then to deal with her horror and despair, then to create the first soldier in her army–will strengthen the plot and make Selene a stronger protagonist.

In addition to the plot, there is also more setting here than the story requires.  The technology and futuristic setting seems irrelevant to the story.  Invisible, people-eating monsters can exist in any time.  I suggest simply setting the story in the present day.  It will be much more disturbing to think that monsters live among us and eat us than to think that in some imaginary future they will do so.

The alternate dimension also seems unnecessary.  That doesn’t add to Selene’s struggle or decision.

Simplifying the setting will also allow the point of view to be simplified.  Right now, it’s mainly omniscient, moving at times into Selene’s head.  The omniscient point of view keeps me distant from Selene for most of the story and prevents me from getting very emotionally involved.  I think the story would work much better in a close third-person limited omniscient POV, limited to Selene’s head.  The omniscient viewpoint allows for explanation of the technology, but if the technology is cut, then the POV can simply stay in Selene’s head and allow us to experience events with her.

Narrowing the focus should allow the strong core elements of the story to be further developed.

I really enjoy the disturbing premise and the emotional connection between Selene and Anne.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[ April 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: William Delman
Submission: “I am a quine, I cannot change” by Richard Keelan
Submitted by: Richard Keelan

Reviewer: Mary Woods
Submission: The Circle-Route (2nd submission) by Jamie D. Munro
Submitted by: Jamie D. Munro

Writing Challenge/Prompt

A grownup game of fill in the blanks is this month’s challenge.

The first sentence of any story sets the tone, establishes the setting, and is meant to pull readers into what’s going on. Choices you make as a writer do all these things, and more. Fill in the blanks of this first sentence, then writer a story that builds from the choices you make:

The (blank) arrived when most of the (blank) were (blank).

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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 Restaurant At The End Of The War by Clint Spivey

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” grabbed my attention this month for its thoughtful take on a post-MilSF future—the scattered directions people, supplies, and refugees go after peace is declared—and the way it’s genuinely advancing the conversation that most stories in that subgenre lay out. This month, I’d like to talk about the balance between innovative and classic story elements, and how we take a subgenre conversation down a slightly different road while staying firmly in the subgenre where we started.

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” establishes its innovative bona fides quickly with a low-flying perspective on the standard MilSF intergalactic war. It’s entirely plausible, without needing to explain, how a human and Mewlani would build a bond working in military kitchens—and refreshing for me as a reader to see work that acknowledges and centres those cooks and support workers, and gets that war takes infrastructure: infrastructure that’s still there, and winding down, after hostilities are over, just like a war’s vets, translators, and refugees. There’s a great resonance between a restaurant built on military surplus and how every character in “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is moving from a military life to a civilian one.

I feel it’s also rare to see MilSF portray the sheer, unblinking structural obstacles that racism puts up at every turn. The ways Stain authorities and The Ledge work to prevent Wallroy and Blistren’s business from succeeding feels far more realistic than broken bottles and random slurs, and Stain’s casual corruption presents a real threat, largely because it’s clear nobody’s swooping in to save Sluice, and that the barriers are not about to end.

All this comes back to the sheer quality of the worldbuilding nested unobtrusively in “The Restaurant at the End of the War,” and it adds up to an overall excellent sense of atmosphere. There is a whole universe of backstory implied in how Sustain has turned to Stain, the dirtiness of a neighbourhood where streets were once named Prosperity and Empire, ships are named for non-Western rulers, the krone as the currency of record, and the fact that Wallroy absolutely butchers his Mewlani pronunciation, but tries anyway. Wallroy works wonderfully as a POV character who’s observant but not hyping his observations, or trying to be overclever: his casual ability to differentiate poverty from danger makes his background feel realistic, and the details he relates—the beard just long enough to flout army regs is my favourite example—are legitimately great tells, ones which encapsulate whole relationships with authority and safety in single details.

And yet, for all those notable and newer details, “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is unmistakably a MilSF story. There’s little explanation of the war between humans and Mewlani, which allows readers to fill the standard intergalactic war tropeset in those gaps. Wallroy, even as an army cook, still wraps his world in the structure and regulations of the military: he differentiates less between military and civilian personalities than different kinds of military personalities. I know what kind of story this is, in what conversation: while it’s innovating in certain respects, it’s keeping one foot firmly in topics that as a reader, I’m familiar with, and understand—and letting me see the direction it wants to take MilSF in and appreciate that innovation for what it is.

It’s that balance that keeps—on the other end—elements like the archetypical nature of Meat and Hook from feeling stale: what might come off as overdone in another piece just feels like another weight for the standard trope side of the balance here, and is peculiarly grounding instead.

There are a few skipped beats I’d like to note: The moment where Wallroy and Blistren realize their containers of slange have been impounded—and the potential setup from The Ledge—is so quick as to be almost missable, making me need to back up half a scene later to establish that conflict in my head.

I’d also look again at the ending of the piece. The revelation that the Mewlani group are the red-headed soldier’s translators is a touch on the nose: It’s a very close analogue to the U.S. and Iraq, perhaps too close, and is the one place where the narrative strays into direct allegory.

The author asked for comment on whether “The Restaurant at the End of the War” oversimplifies the complex issue of refugee crises in the wake of war, which is a difficult question to tackle: There are as many ways to tell a refugee story as there are refugees, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is an irresponsible take. Stain is set up as a morally messy economy, one Wallroy and Blistren are quite clearly buying right into: theirs is a business run on giving former enemies a little taste of home, but only workable because this tourist town is on the route for prisoner repatriation. Wallroy and Blistren are doing a kindness no one else will, but they’re not doing it for free; they’re making sure toys are ready for impulse buying by families who have nothing, and there’s a cold realism to that kind of profiteering, and that kind of deeply mixed action.

If anything, I’d say “The Restaurant at the End of the War” wraps up a little too tidily: The forces of corruption and racism are held off at least for the meantime by plain force, good guys are identified, and everything will, for the meantime, Be All Right. It’s a very military ending, fully in line with the values of armies—evil is defeated by force and hearts-and-minds propaganda—but I’m not sure it fits the story that precedes it.

I think the main strength behind that ending working out is the plain fact that “The Restaurant at the End of the War” isn’t actively selling a solution. It’s presenting a situation, and the relative lack of agenda might let the piece get away with a little wishful thinking. However, I’d suggest that ending is worth the examination given to the worldbuilding on Stain, Wallroy’s past, and the other details of this universe. It’s not bad as it is; it has the potential to be something special.

Overall, this is a thoughtful piece that reads lightly, and punches seriously above its weight, and I look forward to seeing it find a home.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, 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.

Beckoning Of The Gate by Benjamin Ryan

The first question I have here is, this is a short story, yes? Or at least a shorter work, below novel length. I’m curious to know what the intended length is, because that will help determine a particular direction of revision.

When I started reading, I got the sense of epic right away: word choice, sentence structure, and overall voice and pacing speak to the genre of epic fantasy. We used to call it high fantasy, in part because it was written in the high style. It’s grand, it’s serious, it evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

That’s the prologue. The first chapter drops down a couple of levels of style with its title, which seems perhaps ironic, and its setting, evidently a more modern (if not contemporary) era and an academic setting. The purpose, it seems, is to convey exposition in the form of a lesson in a classroom. And then we shift to Santha, who may perhaps be the, or a, protagonist; through her we get a view of the world beyond the classroom, which has a sort of general fantasy, perhaps at most nineteenth-century, feel—definitely not the age of motorized vehicles and modernist architecture.

In an epic fantasy novel, the pacing might work. It’s leisurely, it takes time to explore and explain. The prologue sets up a situation full of danger and jeopardy, whereas the first chapter is mainly about introducing key characters and establishing the framework of the world. At this speed, we have quite a way to go through plots and reversals to a conclusion.

I might, as others apparently have noted, want to see less exposition at the beginning; when a story is frontloaded like this, it can be hard for a reader these days to keep reading. Readers are all in such a hurry. They’ve lost the habit of settling in for a nice, long, relaxing excursion through the byways of a world.

If this is a shorter work, even a novella, the prose will need pruning. The frequent repetitions, the recursions, the classroom discussion going over and over the same essential information, may keep some of their scope and expanse, but most of it will have to serve the needs of the form. And in shorter fiction, every word has to count. There’s not much room to maneuver.

I see the potential here. The prologue presents an intriguing situation, between the hunter and the prey. The first chapter hints at interesting character interactions and possible conflicts, as well as questions to be answered about the situation in the prologue. I’m curious to know how the prologue will resonate through the story proper, and I want to see what Santha is up to and why she’s talking and acting in these particular ways. And will the students and their teacher have a role to play later? If so, what?

The fact I’m asking questions is a good thing. The goal of keeping the reader reading is well within reach. With quicker pacing and meticulous pruning of the words, there will be plenty of space for developing plot and characters, even within the constraints of the shorter form.

One thing I would recommend is paying close attention to the meanings of words and phrases. The epic style can be lay on the sweep and the scope, but the stylist has to take care that the words don’t fly off the rails. It’s a balancing act between high grandeur and the reader blinking and going, “What?”

Elaborate and intricate prose can demand quite a bit of the reader—it’s not mean to be skimmed; it has to be read word for word. It also has to be clear and cogent, and every word must mean exactly what the author intends it to mean. It’s important to have a strong command of the language, so that when words and phrases take on unusual configurations, it’s evident to the reader that the author meant to do that.

The prose here, in short, needs work. Paring and pruning for concision, but also rethinking and recasting for clarity. I pulled a few phrases from the prologue to illustrate.

tightly-bundled hush: Not sure how a hush can be bundled. “Bundled” tends to mean rolled up tight, tied up in a bundle, or possibly in modern use, included in a package of some sort (usually virtual—book bundle, software bundle). What other word would work here, and come closer to the intended meaning?

tall pines and sentinels overshadowing a small troop of cottages, and later, pines and sentinels: What do you mean by “sentinels”? A sentinel is a watchman, one who stands guard. The pines might serve as sentinels in some way, but the phrasing seems to indicate that there’s a second variety of tree. What would that be?

wisps of warm air exerted from recent and vigorous exercise: You can say the air exerted itself, but air can’t be exerted from or by anything. The word that might work here is “exuded,” as in exuded by, but that’s not quite right, either; the connotation is more of sweating or producing moisture rather than vapor. “Wisps” contributes to the confusion, because it usually refers to a visible phenomenon, like a wisp of fog. Perhaps “emitted”?

The heaping up of words here adds to the length of the story without adding clarity. What’s needed is a phrase referring to panting from vigorous exercise.

bound headlong at the fleeing figure in hopes of ambush and forcing panic: I had to unpack this one to find the sense. The correct form of the verb is “bounded.” “Headlong” isn’t necessary; the sense of strong forward movement is included in the verb. The second half of the phrase is actually a bit too compressed. He hopes to ambush the fugitive, and he’s trying to make her panic. I’d open that up to make it clearer.

There are a number of odd uses of prepositions. Compelled him on is almost there, but “compelled him onward” would be just a bit more apt. Closed the ground to his quarry would perhaps more accurately be “closed in on his quarry,” and cold buried itself into her palm (as with her face pressed “into” a tree trunk earlier) is just a hair off true. “Into” has an almost thrusting movement to it in this context, with a sense of being forcibly inserted within, and especially with regard to the face and the tree, is a bit too strong. In both cases, “in” would be the way to go.

And finally, her face shot upwards is a striking image, but what it conveys is that her face flew off her skull and shot into the sky. I believe the meaning is milder—she looked up sharply, or her head was flung back, or…? The phrase tries to be vivid, but results in confusion as to what exactly it means.

It’s very important when writing the epic style, to be firmly in control, even while giving the impression of verbal exuberance. It’s very much a case of a little going a long way, and being extremely careful of what exactly that little is—words, phrases, coinages and alterations of the usual ways of framing ideas. It’s a virtuoso performance, and when done well, it can be exhilarating to read–while also being clear about what is happening and where it’s all going.

–Judith Tarr