First of all, apologies for the technical screwup. When I nominated this section of the story, the system bounced me to part 2. I had to re-nominate, but there was no way to cancel the original nomination. So this first half is my Editor’s Choice for this month, and I apologize for any confusion.
I was drawn to this submission by the title—I’ve always been fascinated by the Thousand and One Nights—and drawn into it by the exquisite writing and the pure meta of a story about a world that is a storyteller’s story. The nonlinear structure works for me; the shifts of tense from present to past help to clarify the distinction between story-past and story-present, and it’s clear from the beginning that the story will shuttle in and out through various levels of story-time.
What makes it work is the sharp clarity of the protagonist’s motivation. She wants out, and she is doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Her ferocious concentration could almost be monotonous, as could her continuous series of failures. But just as I started to think that the circle needed to break, the excerpt ended with exactly that: the women and the two children.
A story of this quality needs to be absolutely on point, and for the most part it is. Before it goes out on submission (as I believe it should), I would recommend a thorough copyedit, and in revision, close attention to the finer details of grammar and diction.
A few examples caught my eye.
the larger, more expensive institution: It’s not completely clear what this refers to. Almost immediately we’re told about the academy, but I’m still wondering: larger than what? More expensive than what? A little clarification might help.
the wood is a little too intensely itself, assembled of a few lovingly-rendered details that do not leave room for the rest, both more and less what what she thought a wood should be: This is not a quibble (except for the proofreading note on the reduplicated what) but a little swoon. Such a lovely evocation of the worldbuilder’s dilemma: to provide enough details for the sense of a complete world, but neither so many that the narrative drowns in them, nor so few that the reader is left with gaps and confusion.
Niya’s hair has hung to her waist like a thick, glossy pane: I’m not sure that pane works in this context. I presume it refers to a windowpane, but the metaphor stretches a bit thin.
A double-double here: kneeling beside and opening the chest, and then a few lines down, her chest is tight with dread. Are we meant to see the large box as somehow connected to or symbolic of her torso? Or is this a word-echo, an artifact of the drafting process?
The grass is spackled with legend blossoms: I love the legend blossoms; they’re a beautiful piece of worldbuilding. I wonder about the word “spackled,” however. Is this meant to be speckled as in “spotted,” or is the image that of spackle laid over a sheet of drywall to fill in the gaps and the nail-holes?
eyes averted just enough to ensure that her reflection is centered: This feels a bit inside-out, as if averted wants to mean its opposite. Looking sidewise, avoiding direct gaze, but glimpsing just enough of the mirror to be sure that she’s where she wants to be. She’s looking at the mirror, but just enough; rather than away from it, which is what averted means.
There is no more time to waste on wishing that she could change the past. Here too I feel as if the sentence wants to mean the opposite of what it says. She wants to change the past. That’s what she’s been doing, over and over. I see how this might imply she’s no longer wasting time wishing, she’s going ahead and doing it, but the structure of the idiom points in another direction.
bittering the hollow carved out by failure: I’m not sure the verbing of the adjective bitter works here. I like that it’s concise, but still.
the pleasantly guarded air of a man who has always known that he is too intelligent to be understood: I’m not sure how pleasant such a man is likely to be, though he’s certainly likely to be guarded. Perhaps it’s that he’s deliberately amiable, even while he’s walled in on himself?
Having relived this exchange many times, it is obvious to Niya that: The irony of this dangling participle is that it appears in a context of “exactitude in language.” “It” has not relived this exchange, but Niya has. “It is obvious to Niya, who has relived this exchange many times….”
The whisper sounded like she had dragged: Few writers use the word like correctly any more, and this excerpt has multiple examples. Like is a preposition. It takes an object, either word or clause, as in, “The whisper sounded like a shout,” or, “The whisper sounded like a roar in the silence of the cavern.” Here, the correct form is, “The whisper sounded as if she had dragged…”
A voice cracks open. The words are familiar for all the wrong reasons. I’m not sure what’s happening here. What exactly is the voice doing? And whose is it? It seems to be one of the sisters’, but then it appears to be Niya’s, and it seems to be Niya who next speaks. There’s a bit of clarification missing, as to who is doing what. Is the voice saying the words quoted below it, or other words, or wordless sounds, or…?
He looks enough like a breathing illustration: I’m not sure how enough fits in here. Enough of what? Relative to what? Can the sentence do without it?
silken black tendrils twisting about the pale knife of her face as if underwater: This is a lovely image, but it skirts the edge of mixing metaphors, between the tendrils, the knife, and the water.
The sun slides down towards the tree-line like a cooling stain. I’m not sure what the image is aiming for. Stain of what? Why cooling? It’s almost as if it’s lava, but lava isn’t usually referred to as a stain. And stains aren’t usually mobile in this way, unless they’re spreading—but cooling doesn’t connect particularly closely with that particular concept.
grove again…assault again…bored again: This looks like a set of word-echoes, and perhaps unintentional?
All of these are just questions and quibbles. Some may be meant to be there, others may want correction or revision. Either way, the story itself is lovely, and structurally I believe it works. I would definitely read on. Will Niya finally escape? Or will she trapped forever in the storyteller’s hell? Or is there a third fate, which we’ll see in the next installment? I’ll be interested to find out.