April 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

This month OWW welcomes our new Fantasy Resident Editor, Amal El-Mohtar.

Amal El-Mohtar is an author, editor, and critic, a Locus Award winner for short fiction, a Nebula nominee, and a three time Rhysling Award winner. She edits Goblin Fruit, a quarterly journal of fantastical poetry, and is a contributor to NPR Books and the LA Times, and a member of Down and Safe: A Blake’s 7 podcast. We’re thrilled to have Amal join us at OWW.

“Nobody Walks” by Blaine Theriot

This is a smoothly written piece that is well-paced, well-structured and very readable; where I see the need for improvements is mostly at the level of voice, character and world-building.

I’ll start by answering the author’s immediate concerns:

Am I being over / under descriptive? The level of description is fine, but its use and direction could benefit from further scrutiny.

Does the dialogue flow? It does! Congratulations!

Do you care about the MC? That depends on if the main character is Leolen or Takari. I despised Leolen and really didn’t want to see him as any kind of hero, not even anti-, but thought he could make an interesting antagonist to a disillusioned or conflicted Takari.

Now to unpack that.

On the level of world-building, I’m always a bit annoyed to see obvious real-world analogues to fantasy ethnicities and cultures done to no purpose; in “Nobody Walks,” I winced at the evocation of Japan in the names (Takari, Mujakina – so far as I can tell these are words that approximate meanings in Japanese but aren’t actually names at all, any more than someone would be named “Extortion” or “Without Guile” in English) as well as in the “slanted eyes” remark that Leolan makes. Immediately I ask: what is the purpose of this analogue? What are you trying to achieve? Why are you trying to associate Dacian with Japanese in your reader’s eyes? Are you deliberately setting out to make Leolan reflect some dire racial politics for reasons of setting?

These are complicated questions with many potentially valid answers, and it’s entirely possible that there are indeed answers that will be developed in further chapters, but the material presented in this one gives me pause. I like that Leolen is set up first to be generously saving the day but then is revealed to be a ruthless butcher – but the text as written makes me uncertain about whether I’m supposed to see him as a villain or a successfully dangerous protagonist. I’m left with two potential readings:

  •  That Takari is meant to be the protagonist, eventually, one who’ll be shocked and disillusioned by the massacre of legitimately angry farmers;
  • That Leolen is meant to be the protagonist and that we as readers are meant to read his brutality as efficient, single-minded loyalty to his troupe, Empire or command.

If it’s the first scenario, we need a lot more of Takari’s voice and thoughts, and indeed I’d argue the scene would be far stronger, more nuanced and complex from his point of view; imagine experiencing the fear, the relief, then the horror from his perspective, instead of from Leolan’s coolly removed and entirely self-assured one. You’d have a good opportunity to really build up both characters in layers; as it is, your introduction of Leolan seems to promise some glimpse of the inside of his head, given his memory, but then you abandon it in order to have the ending be more surprising.

If it’s the second scenario, I urge you to question the whole project from the ground up, even if the world-building isn’t what interests you, because your answers will and should inform every character decision going forward.

Again, it comes down to what you are trying to accomplish. Where representations of imperialism and its attendant wars are concerned, I confess I take a lot of persuading if you’re trying to argue anything but Imperialism Is Bad (and trust me – all fiction is arguing something, consciously or not, whether it’s fast-paced adventure fiction or slow lyrical fantasy, whether it’s high-minded allegory or grimdark realism). There are many variations on this! Imperialism Is Bad, But People Try to Do Good; Imperialism is Bad, But [Some Alternative] Is Worse; Imperialism is Bad, Let’s Tear It Down. But to begin from the premise that Imperialism Is Kind of Okay Because Our Protagonist is Good at Being Bad is a shaky foundation for a story.

If you want to keep evocations of Japan in the story, I’d  recommend doing a lot of reading and thinking about why, and I’d also recommend these resources:

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: http://www.writingtheother.com/

G. O’Neill’s Japanese Names: https://t.co/sxaO75FRv1

If this seems like overkill for a fantasy story, just bear in mind how dislocating it would be for a reader fluent in Japanese to encounter these names and representations in a story, how jarring; it’s certainly often happened to me with Arabic, where I can see the shape of a language I speak twisted out of true because it looks pretty or scary to someone who doesn’t actually expect anyone who understands it to also read in English.

A few more technical observations: I think you could very usefully cut the opening paragraph out of this story. It muddles the perspective by beginning with dialogue, as if someone present is speaking it, only to pull away from that, indicate the speaker is actually remembered speech, and introduce Leolan in a very different light immediately afterwards: first we see Leolan as a boy, then as someone who stumbles, after which he is suddenly someone who is coolly in command at all times. The way it’s presented just seems like a contradiction, not like Leolan himself contains contradictions.

A little later,  there’s this passage:

 The headman was yelling right back in Dacian but it wasn’t hard to pick up the gist. I’ll stick you bastard, I’ll kill you fucker or something to that effect. The two men bellowing in different languages might have been funny under different circumstances.

This seems to imply that Leolan can’t really understand Dacian, but shortly thereafter he’s offering to speak it with fluency. I’d suggest making it clear either way.

To recap: this is a genuinely engaging piece that demonstrates strong command of pace and dialogue, knows how to raise and lower tension very effectively, and was enjoyable to read. I think there’s a lot to work with in terms of asking the right questions of your project and world-building, but also that those questions and their answers will be in service of richer characters and settings.

–Amal El-Mohtar


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