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.
Ambrosia Chap. 1 (Part 1) by Robert Wooldridge
Usually when I do crits, somewhere in there I point out that the rules of writing are not forged in iron but are more of a Pirates’ Code—but that in order to treat them like…guidelines, a writer has to know exactly how and why they work. That’s the only way to know when, and how, to bend or break them.
Mostly I go on to point out where it would have been a good idea to stick to the rules. This time I’m going to talk about where the rules got bent or downright snapped, and why the chapter works for me in spite of it. Sometimes in fact because it messes with The Way Things Are Supposed To Be.
This chapter is the start of what looks like a nice, fat, chewy epic fantasy, or maybe swords and sorcery. It has the street urchin of unknown parentage, the grungy port city, the nasty bully, and the setup for an adventure. And of course it has the witch whom it is a bad idea to approach—but our hero is hired to do just that.
This author knows his genre. The elements are familiar but they’re not off-the-rack standard. What makes them work is the voice in which the story is told. It’s wry, deft, confident. If I were running a line edit I might point to bits that could be tightened, a ramble here and there, but that’s not a major issue for me.
Oh, there is the name thing. That’s a personal quirk. Random Earth names thrown around secondary-world fantasy make me want to spit linguistics textbooks. Then I go into my epic rant about how Westeros has to be a lost Earth Colony—First Men, I mean, really? It’s like Darkover without the psi and with even nastier politics.
But I digress. The naming conventions here are very much in genre, no matter how much they may fry my language-geek circuits. (Joaquin. Gah.)(Porus?)(Really?)
I have an allergy to dialect, too, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a lovely case of I Meant To Do That. The way in which a person speaks is an indicator of where he comes from. Porus exploits this to pull scams on his employers, and today’s edition calls him on it. In the process of which, we learn a great deal about how this corner of the world works.
That’s what I like about the chapter. Rules say don’t frontload the exposition, but everything is there for a reason. The prose pulled me along as I read, and kept me interested even though I didn’t know Porus yet and was still finding my way around his city.
The author’s note expresses concern about pacing, but other than a bit of streamlining as mentioned above, I don’t think there’s a problem. The opening is somewhat leisurely but it keeps moving, and it’s clear there’s a purpose in it. It’s building a world and populating it with people who immediately start striking sparks off each other.
Oh, the rules say start off with a bang and preferably a magical one if it’s fantasy. The rules are for writers with less command of their craft. A writer who knows what he’s doing can keep us entertained with a passage of exposition that sets up our hero and the world he lives in, and then before we have time to get bored, swings us into some bully-on-victim action.
It works for me. I’ll definitely read on. I want to see if the witch is as well drawn as the characters as I’ve met so far—and I want to know where Poros and company go from there.
In short, it draws me in, keeps me interested, and leaves me wanting more. That’s as much as any first chapter needs to do.