Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, 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.

When Dragons Wake, Chapter 37 by Cynthia Cloughly

It’s always interesting when coming cold to a later chapter, to see how much I can pick up from what’s there. And also, I freely confess, to figure out what I can say for an Editor’s Choice, that won’t run into the problem of, “It’s been spelled out in detail in the previous chapters.”

I’m particularly grateful for the concise, pitch-style summary that begins the submission. It tells me in general but clear terms what the book is about and what the author wants it to do. Well done.

So here we have a fair-sized cast of characters, an identifiably epic-fantasy-style setting, and a series of revelations and reversals. Viewpoint character Nikko presents as the reluctant hero with what appear to be gradually unfolding powers and destiny, in a world in which women are seen as inferior to men. She reveals a gift of necromancy—working a spell that no one expects to succeed—that proves immediately and poignantly useful. It’s a nice, chewy chapter that moves briskly forward, and establishes the characters for the cold reader and no doubt adds further layers for the reader who has come in at the beginning. The only thing I was expecting that I didn’t get was dragons. Phooey. But if the title is meant to be a guide, those do have a role or roles to play in the rest of the novel.

In terms of worldbuilding, the patriarchal culture and the hero who doesn’t want to be are classic tropes (and the hyphenated names—is this random or do the hyphens have a purpose as abbreviations or honorifics?), but the way in which Nikko reveals her powers here is a bit off the beaten path. It seems that apprentice mages practicing magic is a thing, and some people may disapprove, but others will aid and abet, and quite cheerfully in the case of the person who killed the rabbit. What no one expects is for the spell to work.

As a cold reader, I wonder if this is common. Do mages always fail? Is it unusual when a spell does work? Is magic unreliable, and if so, how does this affect the position of mages in this world? Are they like psychics in ours, with powers that not everyone believes in, but enough people do that they can find acceptance even in police departments and universities?

These are questions that are most probably answered in the rest of the novel. What’s here is a narrow slice of a big and complex pie. But one thing I do notice, and I wonder if it’s developed in further chapters.

What about necromancy? Evidently it’s not universally approved of, from what Nikko tells us about how long it took her to get permission to use the tower. She experiences the rabbit’s death, which shakes her considerably—so there’s a price for what she does. But for the rabbit, once it’s reanimated, that seems to be it. It hops off to continue its life as it did before.

This is the lead-in and setup for the big set-piece of the chapter, the mother who has died in childbirth and the child whose soul Nikko encounters in her trance and is compelled to restore to its body. The rabbit’s resurrection is a much simpler process; she controls it, more or less. But by the next round, the magic controls her. She can only do what it commands her to do.

Now I wonder if, in subsequent chapters, there will be consequences for the resurrected as well as for the mage. The question of fosterage is settled, and there’s an indication that the child’s relationship to her father and her grandparents will be complicated. But has her return from the dead changed her? Will she be a normal child, or has her strange beginning altered her personality, given her powers, made her something other than human? Nikko worries that she’s been born into the end of the world, but is she in some way involved in that ending—either to hasten it or to prevent it?

I’ll be interested to see if those questions are answered, or if the novel raises new ones that I haven’t thought of. Whatever happens, I’m sure this child means something, either in herself or as a symbol of what Nikko can do. Or maybe both.

–Judith Tarr

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