Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, Short Story

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 Bereft Of One’s Counsellor (Part 1) by Richard Keelan

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” caught my eye this month with its casual melding of an Arab/Spanish setting and classic second-world fantasy—and the interesting intricacy of Noor, Salma, and Khalid’s political process as its focus, instead of battle and blood. It’s a more interesting perspective on how wars are won, it conveys that perspective—while firmly staying in the adventure fantasy genre—by using a variety of embedded worldbuilding assumptions. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we convey to readers by saying it explicitly, and what we convey by what our narratives endorse—and how to harness that to create more effective story work.

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” iterates the idea of adventure fantasy in a different—and yet tonally consistent—direction. Its Moorish Spain-flavoured world feels new and yet it’s got all the components of a Tolkienesque universe: castles, sieges, elves, dwarves, quests. Add some good splashes of sensory imagery—”softer than a pebble tumbling down a snowdrift” is quite evocative—and well-paced battle scenes, and immediate stakes in the opening paragraph, with “Anasalença was burning,” and it’s a story in a familiar genre vein, but with more.

What caught my attention is that “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” is classic second-world adventure fantasy with an ethic, and the ethic isn’t being communicated didactically, but woven into the very fabric of the piece. When we talk about what a story endorses, frequently what we’re talking about is which assumptions about the world are treated as a given by the story—not necessarily the characters, but the narrative voice. And “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” communicates most of its worldbuilding in an integrated fashion that takes full advantage of that effect.

Just a few (a pile!) of examples: Noor and their Orccen colleagues casually use sign language together—having idiom and dialect, which Noor can’t always understand because it’s a second language for them. Salma shows a Dwarven woman as a competent and trusted soldier, even though that’s not her main role; her main role is to propel Noor into the election. The fact that the Remnancy is democratic and not a hereditary monarchy—led by mayors and electors—and that means Noor, Salma, and Khalid must use different strategies to win their particular battle.

On the sentence level, lines like “his Dragonnen soldiers—men like us, loathe as we were to admit it—” and the description of the Elfren militia as Noor’s “friends and neighbours” are a direct refutation of the kind of black-and-white morality that’s one of the core tropes—and bluntly, one of the core failure points—of secondary-world fantasy.

All this sits against the backdrop of what we’re canonically used to in elves-and-dwarves fantasy—racial segregation and stereotyping with races as monocultures, strongly hierarchical government, Western European-derived and English-speaking worlds, and problems being solved by alternate applications of magic and genocide. But “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” refutes that not by replicating it or actively calling it out; it just exists differently, on different assumptions. The entire setup of “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” quietly believes in a world where morality isn’t a racial characteristic, and while it never says that outright, it doesn’t have to: every worldbuilding choice it makes conveys that message.

It also quietly believes in society—in interreliance, in collective action. That assumption is shown in Noor’s days of campaigning, their thinking ahead to Hasan’s credibility in case Noor loses the election, the idea that Elven fighting can do a job sometimes when Orccen can’t and vice versa; that Hasan can be good for one job, but not effective at another, and that doesn’t make him bad. People save Noor’s life with their own bodies. The highest office is Steward, which connotes responsibility, not power—and Noor and Hasan’s argument over it an argument about the proper fulfillment of responsibility. When Noor does go alone, they take Khalid’s arms with them.

All those assumptions tell me, as a reader, about the world “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” believes in. This is adventure fantasy with nuance—and it hasn’t sacrificed the adventure to get it, because the page space, the exposition, the time we spend with Noor, hasn’t had to be used to do that worldbuilding. The worldbuilding’s been done in the assumptions, freeing up page space for Noor, Salma, and Khalid to contest an election and rout a siege. Freeing up page space for, in short, the plot.

From a craft standpoint, having an ethic—and knowing what assumptions about the world our stories endorse—is good writing. It’s indicative that we, as authors, have thought about how our worlds work—and how the world we live in works, and it’s a crucial skill for writing works that are rooted in genre, but looking to grow. What’s more, using the same embedded assumptions that let a story show implicit bias to communicate important worldbuilding beliefs—to, in short, make choices instead of having accidents—is an incredibly powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It’s the kind of tool that lets one describe an entirely different vision of second-world Tolkienesque fantasy in the exact same space as a tense and rollicking story of breaking a siege, not compromising one for the other, and still do it in only about 8,000 words.

There are aspects of the piece that I think can use a little more attention. The magic system comes in late in the story: Noor doesn’t show a hint of having any magic until his foray to Santiago, at which point the entire story is dependent on it—and it makes the trip to Santiago’s camp a little too easy, and a little too anticlimactic. A little more telegraphing, early on, that it’s in Noor’s abilities would, I think, set that solution up better; alternately, a solution that’s more in keeping with the lower-magic, more physical resources Noor has already shown would also feel like a stronger fit.

Likewise, there are a few problems in plot logic. If Noor’s plan is to cripple Santiago by killing his counsellor, why go after Santiago first? The plan is going perfectly; there’s no reason to foul it up. And on a more pressing note: If Noor could rout Santiago single-handed, with the use of magic, then the entirety of Noor’s appeal to Hasan for more troops—and the entire election, and the entire plot of the story—has been for nothing. There is no reason to have not just done it this way the first time. That’s a major fault in plot logic, and it’s one that I think would bear some close examination.

On the prose level, there are also small places where scaffolding—bits of sentence that are a bit drafty—can be removed: “His scale-covered maw opened and spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears” conveys the same information as “His scale-covered maw spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears,” but it’s tighter and more streamlined.

But this piece feels well-integrated and interestingly ambitious, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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