Editor’s Choice Award September 2020, 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.

Una Chapter 1 by Noelle C. Campbell

Although I can see where the writer’s craft is still finding its way here, stumbling a bit with words and meanings and general clarity, I quite like this chapter. It has a strong and appealing energy, and the characters and the world have a lot of potential. It needs work from the word and line level on up, but it has good bones.

My first question is why use Celtic words and names if they don’t have any relevance to the world of the story. Names are important. They have power. There is a tendency in fantasy to throw random names from Earth languages into secondary worlds, but if you have the chance to not do that, I think you should take it.

Either use the names in their proper context and let them resonate through the levels of your world, or have some fun. Make up your own. Give them a logic that fits each character and culture. Show us how the different cultures vary in their naming traditions, in the rhythm and sound of their languages.

There are some truly lovely bits of description, which I hope will come clearer as the novel moves through its drafts toward the final polish. I get a feel for the setting and the landscape, especially in Mael’s scenes, and there’s a nice glimpse of the Una’s dual heritage.

I might suggest rethinking her reflections on race. The word carries painful connotations right now. Maybe lean more toward a national or cultural identity? I’d be careful too of color racism—that’s a really loaded concept at this point in history. The two peoples might look different, and Una is clearly a mix of both, but I would walk softly when choosing words to describe her situation.

My favorite part of the chapter is definitely the unicorn. I have a personal affinity for white horselike animals with unusual intelligence—there are six of them in my barn. Mael’s mission to capture the unicorn and recapitulate his family’s ancient triumph in order to save the current generation is great story-stuff, and his sojourn in the unicorn’s mind takes it to the next level. But because of those six white horses, I have to make a few comments about Mael’s ride, both on his own horse and on the unicorn.

First of all, a horse’s flanks are way back, right in front of its hindlegs. In order to dig heels into them, a rider has to be sitting on top of its loin, a couple of feet behind where the saddle usually sits. If he is kicking the horse that hard (which if he’s any kind of rider he really shouldn’t, but all the movie cowboys do), he’s kicking it midway along the sides.

There’s another reason not to kick the flanks, too: the horse is extremely sensitive in that area. He’ll kick back, and his rider will go flying. Better to sit farther forward, where the horse is less reactive but still able and, if ridden right, willing to respond to the rider’s leg. The simplest solution here is to have him urge the horse forward with his legs, and if he gets anxious or desperate or the horse gets sticky, he may deliver a sharp kick.

He’s also not pulling the horse around when he’s pole-bending through trees. That knocks the horse off balance and can knock him down. Better to either neckrein (though that’s American Western and would bump a horse-knowledgeable person out of your fantasy) or shift his weight as the horse changes direction. Think about skateboarding or slalom skiing—using the weight and balance to manage the turns.

Similarly, when he’s on the unicorn without a bridle, pulling on its mane won’t do anything. The pull thing only works if the animal has reins a neck rope for the rider to pull on, so that he can force the unicorn’s head around or get his attention firmly enough to stop him. His best option in the circumstances is to try to shift the unicorn’s balance by sitting back fairly sharply, or maybe hope it will respond to his voice. Otherwise he’s going wherever the unicorn is going, and there’s nothing he can do about it, short of throwing himself off.

In fact when he jumps onto the unicorn in the first place, he really is reckless, because not only could the unicorn duck out from under or buck him off, it could turn around and gore him with its horn. He’s taking a literal leap of faith. It’s clear to a horse person that the unicorn lets him do it, which indicates that the unicorn has its own agenda–as the unicorn him/her/themself proves when he wakes up in their mind. I’ll look forward to finding out what that is.

This is a great start, and a pretty good draft. I think, with time and practice, it will polish up nicely.

–Judith Tarr


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