Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Wind/Water/Salt Chapter 1 by Robyn Hamilton

This is my first experience of Bucklepunk, which I didn’t even realize was a thing, and I’m intrigued. Now I want to know all about it. What’s the tipping point from our own timeline? How does the concept of electricity develop so early? What about–?

So here we have the first chapter of a 45-chapter Bucklepunk novel. I’m caught up enough in it that I want to read on. I do agree with the author’s comment that switching viewpoints is a good thing, but it might get too rigid, and possibly confusing, if it happens with every chapter. A more flexible structure might work better: either a main story line as told by Abigail (or another central protagonist) with others chiming in as indicated, or a fairly freeform switching of narrators according to the needs of the story.

However that turns out, this first chapter manages to establish two strong characters. Abigail womans the viewpoint camera, of course, but Susannah has plenty to do and say. It’s a good start.

I have some questions about the draft, both larger issues and down to the sentence level. First, going back to the author’s note: I get a basic picture of the relationship between the two characters, and the overall emotional arc they transcribe in the chapter, but I think it needs more.

It’s an opening chapter, of course, with 44 more to go; it’s a snippet, therefore, and not an entire, fully developed construct. But it’s still possible to get a sense of who these people are and where they’re headed in relation to each other.

I’m rather taken with the absolute deadpan of Susannah’s reaction to the dead cat—it’s a very kid thing, to be utterly without sentimentality—but at the same time, there’s a bit of flatness in the emotional landscape overall. I keep looking for more resonance, more depth in how they feel about each other. It’s not that we need the prose to turn purple or the emotions to go over the top; it’s just that I’d like to get a clearer view of what’s happening below the surface of what they do and say. Abigail has a tendency to dismiss things that ought to really bother her: “at least they were out of town, so no one could see;” the devastation isn’t such a big deal after all, because Abigail doesn’t have a carriage, and anyway, nobody ever visits. It feels as if all of this is rationalization, and undercuts the extent of the damage as well as her reactions to it.

That bit of flatness extends through the chapter. As I said, Susannah’s deadpan about the cat—her fascination with the forms and consequences of its death—is convincing, but there’s another layer or two that might be worked in, about how they’ve lost the demon on whom at least some of their magic depends.

This is a crisis on many levels. I think we could see a few more of those levels, and Abigail could be more deeply perturbed than she is. She starts off by saying it’s “just a cat,” but in fact it’s a great deal more than that. Is she trying to keep Susannah from panicking, is she in denial herself, or…?

In this context, Susannah’s lack of emotion could be developed as a defense mechanism. She clearly loves animals and has named the squirrel. Did she name the cat? If not, why not? Was she afraid of it? Did she hate it because there was a demon in it? What underlies her actions as she fiddles with the corpse?

It doesn’t need to be much. A line would do it, if it’s the right line. Just enough to convey that there’s more to what she does and says than meets the eye.

Abigail as the viewpoint character allows more penetration into her thought processes, but she could go a little deeper, too. More complexity, more layers and levels of feeling (or lack thereof).

I was a bit puzzled as to why she’s as awkward as she is when she attempts to summon the demon to a new body. It seems that she doesn’t totally understand how the demon/familiar connection works, she’s not completely capable of sensing when the demon enters the body, and her command of the basics—including the wand—isn’t what one might expect of an experienced and capable witch.

Is Abigail meant to be this way? Is her lack of competence deliberate? Is she basically an amateur playing at spells and powers that she doesn’t truly understand, and is this a key plot point? Or are her failures more deep and disturbing, in that she’s actually a master but her skills are failing her? I think it could be clearer where she stands on these issues, even if the author would like to leave questions and mysteries for later chapters.

These are larger concepts that might be resolved as the story proceeds, but there are smaller aspects of technique and phrasing that show up right here in the draft. The author’s note asks whether the setting works. Overall I think it does. We get the storm, the devastation, the general layout of the property.

Sentence by sentence however, I think the chapter might work better if the elements of setting, the order of description and the specifics of detail were reorganized a bit. The fixation on the familiar almost makes sense, but as Abigail takes stock, she jumps around from place to place and from element to element. A smoother pan of the viewpoint-camera, and a better sense of priorities (from most to least awful, or vice versa depending on the effect desired), would make the overall picture more effective and affecting.

A good and up-front example of this happens at the very beginning. The organization of actions and ideas doesn’t quite flow. First we have a flashback to Abigail telling Susannah to stay in the shed—without further reference, and with no reprimand for disobedience. Then we have Susannah coming out of the shed, and we’re told that’s where they both spent the night. It might make more sense to spell that out in the opening, and also clarify where Abigail is, so we have the scene blocked right up front—and if it is crucial that Abigail forbade Susannah to come outside, then Abigail will address that at this point. Then the conversation can proceed, with Susannah continuing to be willful and Abigail investigating the dead cat.

In fact I wonder whether Susannah’s question about the smell should be the first line. It’s a Rule in some quarters not to begin a novel or chapter with a line of dialogue, but this line is sharp, pointed, and begs the reader to keep going to find out the answer. Susannah asks about the smell as she comes out of the shed where they spent the night, perhaps Abigail shoots her a Look for not doing as she’s told, but the lost familiar so preoccupies her that she doesn’t have room in her head for anything else right now (though later may be an entirely different proposition).

One last thing that might help the reader to understand the stakes and the difficulty here: what exactly does the familiar do, that makes its loss such a catastrophe? Is there one thing that Abigail absolutely needs, that only the familiar can provide? I like the idea that Abigail has provided cover by making familiars a fad, it’s clever and wicked and tells me a great deal about Abigail, but I’d like to understand what a familiar is. Then I’ll be that much clearer about what’s going on and why it matters.

Best of luck with this. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ll be interested to see how the story unfolds.

–Judith Tarr


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